Comic creators have been flocking to Kickstarter in droves over the last few months, with tons of amazing projects, and it’s always a nerve-wracking process for all involved — creator and backer alike. But every so often a project comes along that’s such a slam dunk, with such high quality product, that everyone in the comics community needs to sit up and take notice. The print edition being offered for perennial web comic Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether is the epitome of this type of offering. I sat down with writer Greg Rucka (Punisher, Wonder Woman, Detective Comics, Lazarus), artist Rick Burchett (Batman Adventures, Batman/Huntress: Cry for Blood, She-Hulk, Action Comics), and web editor Eric Newsom to chat about the project now available for pledging, how the web comic evolved, and what backers can look forward to!
Greg Rucka: Not as much as we are! (laughs)
MSG: Meeting your initial goal in 8 hours, and accumulating 1000 backers within nearly the first 24, is such a huge accomplishment. Your work on Lady Sabre itself is certainly something to be proud of to begin with, but it’s clear you should be exceptionally proud of this result as well!
GR: We’re a little blown away.
Rick Burchett: Yeah, I think pride is a way off yet. First we’ve got to gather our senses about us.
MSG: So, to start off, what was the initial inspiration behind Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, both as a character and as a web comic in itself?
RB: Well, Greg and I had decided to do this together, kind of on the spot. We were on the phone one day, and Greg had planned to do a web comic with another artist who had been offered a contract from one of the big companies. Greg was telling me the story, and I said, “Why don’t we do it?” Within about twenty minutes, we had the basic idea nailed down. As to the notion of steampunk, it was pretty easy.
When you first decide to do something like a web comic — making a leap of faith on a new delivery medium — taking that first step and deciding to do it is the big thing. Then you look at what’s available to you and you see that the piece of paper is very, very big and very, very blank. There are no restrictions and you can do whatever you want. So we just put together a list of the types of things we wanted to see in the strip — the mood of the strip and individual details of it. When you added it all up, it became steampunk.
And then of course Greg writes great women, so I obviously knew going into this that the main character was going to be a woman, even though I don’t draw women very well.
RB: And this literally happened within the space of twenty minutes. It was that simple. Then as we went on, we just fleshed everything out.
GR: We went from zero to Lady Sabre in — Rick says 20 minutes, I remember it as less than that. It was very fast. I know I had this idea for a lady pirate and a flying Gallagher, and that was about it.
The other thing is, Rick, Eric and I share a lot of the same genre passions, as many do in our comics community. And it just fit. I had seen this classic steampunk vision with its modified Victorian era feel, and it was Rick and Eric that swung in and said, “You know, that’s also cowboys!” And it just sort of stacked and stacked from there.
We wanted to do something that was fun for us and fun for people to read. I’m going to use this word very advisedly, but I wanted it to be ‘effortless’ — which is not to say that we don’t work very hard on the comic. But I didn’t want to engage in some of the uphill battles that I’d been fighting in print. And that was a huge draw for both Rick and myself, to be able to set our own template and parameters and be able to work it out.
MSG: That’s really interesting, because so much of what you hear in the transition from print to digital is what you can’t do, or have to do differently, but what I’m hearing from you is there were distinct advantages that the medium can offer you. Can you talk about how making that jump changes the way you’re writing or drawing?
GR: I think one of the reasons that we hear — when people talk about the transition and difficulties with it — is that you are removing certain tools from the toolbox. For those of us who are not pioneers on the web by any stretch of the imagination — if anything, we’re Johnnys-come-lately — those are tools we’re used to having access to. Transitioning into a medium where those tools are not accessible is a legitimate challenge. It’s clearly not insurmountable, but I think that there are obvious benefits. I understand when people talk about the transition being a difficult one, but you get those trade-offs in any medium you’re going to work in, in any style.
Eric Newsom: I don’t do any of the writing or any of the art. I’m the person who puts it up on the web. In my day job, I’m a doctoral candidate studying New Media. One of the things that has been interesting for me to observe is that the way we tell the story depends on print. In print, you have your 22 page serial that comes out with a big chunk of story each time. At most, I don’t think we’ve had more than three strips run in a single day. We’ve had these sort of smaller chunks of story, like a daily strip.
We also have it set up in blog format for people to comment on it — and they are commenting not on the story as a whole, but on the story beats. That was interesting early on because the way the story has been told has been able to shift with comments and criticisms. Greg would probably say we had some issues with pacing at the start and those didn’t become apparent until people started talking to us about it.
Another thing is, we can turn a lot of the marketing over to the readers. People are doing well at spreading the news by word of mouth digitally. Looking at where the money is coming in for the Kickstarter, a majority of it is coming in through Twitter, and a lot of that is our readership. I’ve been monitoring Lady Sabre keywords, and I recognize the names we see in the comments section every week. Those are the people who have been beating the drum for us.
MSG: The site itself is an experience as well.
GR: That’s all Eric’s design. We wanted the website to be a portal to the world, so that once you were there everything would be consistent. With the exception of the dispatches — but even calling the blog posts ‘dispatches’ was very deliberate.
EN: We wanted as much of the site to be diegetic as possible, even in how we approached doing the character write-ups and information about the story world. Instead of setting up a profile page you would click and it would give you stats for each character, Greg and Rick took the opportunity to further develop the narrative. So instead of us doing a straightforward bio, the Edwin Windsheer character will give you background on who the characters are in a form that comes from the story world and is not external to it. We do our best to keep all those elements as coming from the world and not have limitations imposed upon them by the website.
GR: It was a learning issue. When I write for print, I write full script, so “Page one, panel one, this is what everyone is saying or doing.” I think the initial strip I did, I just broke it down into like 38 panels. It wasn’t until we were through that strip that I realized it was a horrible thing to do to Rick. What it does is imposes all pacing onto him. If I’m stacking panel on top of panel on top of panel, then he has to decide where we’re breaking.
I write in terms of days and screens now. If we are doing a chapter, I would break it down — this is the day, this is the screen. There’s always going to be one screen. In some cases for storytelling, we’re going to need more than one screen, but if I ask for more than one screen, I’m asking for more work from Rick. It’s an ongoing concern. Unlike in a print comic, it’s not like you finish it and it’s done. Sure, for this post, but there’s always going to be another post. So, I’ve had to become more cognizant of what I was asking Rick to do.
Or to put it another way, it would be sadistic of me to ask Rick to do three screens today and three screens for Thursday — the equivalent of six pages that you have to do this week. And screens are not less labor intensive than a page. They’re formatted differently — we’re in landscape format rather than portrait — but that doesn’t mean he can do them faster than if we were doing them for print. And one can argue it’s even slower.
RB: The thing about the way we pace and present the story is the screens have to stand by themselves. Yes, they are part of a bigger story, but as a piece of sequential art they have to stand on their own, because that’s all the reader has to look at on a given day. And they tend to analyze them to death, which is one of the big surprises of this whole process to me — how much people look these things over. It’s gratifying in that they care this much, that they spend so much time looking over two or three illustrations that we post at a time. So, you have to design them as A) a sequential storytelling device and B) as a piece of artwork that can stand alone, which is different from print comics. That’s a new element.
The other new element, something totally nuts and bolts, is that I had to learn how to color and letter on the computer to do this project. We didn’t have the money to hire someone to have it done and didn’t feel comfortable asking someone to do it on spec. That was a whole new thing for me to learn and it adds time to the overall process. And time has been the big enemy since day one. We started with a two month headstart. I had two months of strips ready when we launched and they evaporated immediately, because we immediately needed a promotional poster… a t-shirt design… character designs…
GR: The beginning of any project is especially labor intensive on the artist. I’m seeing it on Lazarus with Michael Lark. When you go in and create a world, it’s really easy for me to sit down and say:
Lady Sabre stands on the quarterdeck of the Pegasus.
Well, that’s a great sentence, but now Rick has to figure out what the quarterdeck looks like. What does the Pegasus look like? What does the Pegasus look like in long shot? What kind of ship is it? How many guns does it have? How many crew? What are the sails doing? So, in my early scripts, I was trying to be very specific about sails and sail positioning, and I’m sure I was driving Rick mad with those.
It’s easy to say this person is there, but how are they going to look? It isn’t necessarily that much easier if I go super heavy on detail in the script. Sometimes it can help to provide a guide, but you never ever want to not trust a collaborator.
Time is not kind to us. Last week was a lost week to us on the site in many ways in that we’re not posting new content of the story. We’re just saying, “WE’RE DOING A KICKSTARTER! COME AND HELP US!” Next week, we’re going to be back in Chapter 9. The door just slammed behind Master Farrow. Let’s find out what’s lurking in the darkness.
MSG: That’s a great lead-in to the big question: Why Kickstarter? Why not go to an indie publisher?
GR: There were for me two really crucial things. First, web comics are very community driven. We live and die on the basis of having a readership that will visit us twice a week or once a month, or once every three months. But whatever it is, they’ll come to us and participate. Part of what we’ve all enjoyed and what’s mattered to us is working with that community, so when we began discussing the trade, it was very organic for us to say that this would be a community project. The community should be able to be involved, and if at all possible, it would be a great way to grow that community. So that was one.
And then, for me speaking personally, I’ve been writing comics for fifteen years now. I’ve remained deliberately ignorant of what goes on beyond a certain point in the production of the book. The printing distribution aspects of the profession are ones I know very little about. This was an extraordinary opportunity for me to learn just how the sausage is made. In so doing, hopefully it will make me a better writer — understanding what is required once you have your story and art, and everything has been edited, and you have your pages — how you go from that to something you get to hold in your hand. I knew it was through a printer, but I didn’t really know what that really entailed. Part of the reason that it took so very long to launch the Kickstarter is that there was a huge education that I personally had to undergo and that we collectively had to understand what the paper stocks were, what the bindings were, how the covers work, how the end papers work. All of this — how the book was going to be put together, what the differences are in various types of production, what the options are. I know more now than I did six months ago!
EN: We do want people to know — and I think it comes across in our description of the project — that we didn’t just put this thing together over a weekend. It’s been a job to work on figuring it out. We met with a number of printers. As Greg says, we’ve had to educate ourselves on that entire process. Rick has a little more background in it than we do.
GR: We’d get off the phone with a printer and immediately ask Rick, “But what does that mean?” (laughs)
EN: We even did that yesterday in talking about different coatings on covers. But we spent a lot of time figuring out first about printing the book, designing and laying out the book. We’d have these weekly calls and deliberate about that. But then also we’d talk about setting up the Kickstarter campaign — putting up pricing tiers and making sure when we’d make offers we’d be able to fulfill them. We spent quite a long time. It’s not something we just turned around.
GR: We went through contortions. What are reasonable levels? How much do we want to ask? That was crucial too, because we wanted to do a book that we would be proud of, but we also wanted to present it at a price point that would be reasonable. I really do feel that we succeeded in that. If you go into your local comic shop and pick up a 192-page hardcover from Marvel or DC, you’re going to be out at least $30. And that’s what we’re offering. We’re offering a 192-pages of the best hardcover we can offer for the money. And it needed to be worthy and respectful of the people we would come to and ask to fund us.
RB: And also, there may have been an unspoken thing going on, in seriously wondering how much of this we could do ourselves, just the three of us? Can we successfully publish a book of this size, with everything we want to do with it, just the three of us? It’s something we never talked about, but it was something I thought about. You just wonder how far you can go. It was kind of a test. We’ve taken this idea, that started on the phone in March a couple of years ago, and we’ve developed a nice-sized regular audience. Can we take that to the next level and fully offer it to an even larger audience?
And I think that’s part of testing the overall concept of comics on the web. People have talked about comics on the web for years and years, and the sticking point has always been how you make money doing it. Part of the charge to ourselves was to figure out that out. Is it just a valiant effort that’s going to go down in flames or is it something that we‘re going to push and see how far we can take it? I think that was something that was inherent in all of our decisions.
GR: There are a couple. We’ve already unlocked the paper dolls. We’ve already unlocked the ephemera book, which is going to be a tiny little pocket book written by Edwin Windsheer with drawings and so on, sort of their view of the world. And the next level unlocked was the Annotated Process of Lady Sabre. When you go on the website, all of the scripts are printed beneath the frame, but we couldn’t have included all the scripts in the trade because of size constraints. It would have been prohibitively expensive and taken us to about 300 pages of book. So, what we’re doing is a book of scripts for the first five chapters with annotations and commentary, and we’ll also include a bunch of Rick’s unseen process stuff. There will be sketches and designs, wireframes and graphs for the site. People will be able to see how we did what we did. The wonderful thing about each of the stretches is that everyone is going to get paper dolls, everyone is going to get the pocket book. It’s going to happen.
Beyond that, we said very clearly in our goals what we wanted to do with the money. Once we hit those stretches, and we haven’t had a chance to discuss this yet, what I’d like to talk about is offering some more bells and whistles. Yes, maybe there is a way to get a Lady Sabre mug as an add-on perhaps. Also, what we want to do is make the book as good a book as it can be. And we also want to bank some of this money for the next trade. The success of this is wonderful, but I would like for us on volume two to be able to set a lower funding goal because we have done enough here to cover our costs. I was thinking this morning, even if we were able to cover volume two from this fundraiser alone, I think I’d still be inclined to do a Kickstarter (at a much lower funding level) because this has served as a wonderful way to let people order the book. Doing that rather than solely releasing it through the website I think might be prudent.
And then there are some other things. In all honesty, I would really, really like to be able to get Rick some better electronics with which to work. I think it would make his life easier.
RB: Oh no, we wouldn’t want to do that. (laughs)
MSG: Rick, are you drawing with paper and pencil and then going to web, or are you drawing directly digitally?
RB: No, I’m doing it the old way. Old habits are hard to break, so I pencil and ink everything on a sheet of paper, scan it in, and then color and letter it on computer. I had made feeble attempts to learn inking on the computer — and they say that it’s the same — but it’s not the same. You have the tools at your disposal that enable you, but from a strictly visceral standpoint, it’s different with a stylus on the screen than it is with a pen or brush on a sheet of paper. It just feels different. I question my own reluctance to embrace that technology completely. I really don’t know why I haven’t, but I think part of the reason is I just don’t have time to sit down and learn to do that and also produce the strip on a regular basis. But also, I’m an old guy, and been doing this for a long time. The fact that I learned to color and letter on the computer is more of a modern miracle for the 21st century and people don’t realize it. People who know me are in awe that I learned to do that. But I am intrigued by the notion and I can see where it can be a huge aide to speed up the process. Eventually, yeah, we’ll get there.
GR: We are a little over halfway through our first book. We’ll be coming to the end of the first book by the end of 2013, beginning of 2014. The nefarious forces are soon going to be revealed and Sabre’s true agenda behind this map and the purported mission for her monarch are also going to become clear. Right now, the premise is there’s a storm coming that’s going to change the face of their world and this map predicts how the world will change. But her Ladyship has an altogether more personal agenda in pursuing this. That’s going to become more clear in the next couple of chapters.
We’ve finished our great big attempt at a great naval battle (in disguise), which was interesting exercise. We didn’t want to do sort of Pirates of the Caribbean, let’s-shoot-lots-of-cannons-at-each-other-and-the-battle-is-over. We wanted to try to predict what the pseudo aero-nautical warfare would be like. Now we’re revealing a little more about our bad guys, and after that, Chapter 10 is one I’m quite looking forward to, and will be a little quieter. We’re going to go back to Sabre and see the aftermath of that battle. Rick has done some beautiful screens. When she is in public, Sabre is very much in a performance mode, but there have been little glimpses of what she’s like when she does not think she is being observed. There is a price to the performance and she has a mask. A little bit of what is below the mask is coming up. And then yes, some violence. So that’s what’s on the way!
MSG: Any last words for the Comicosity audience or final thoughts on why readers should pledge the Lady Sabre Kickstarter?
GR: We have been so remarkably fortunate these first few days. We’re really proud of this book and what it’s going to be. We’re proud of the work that we’ve done on the web. We’re proud of the comics and that people have supported us, and continue to support us. That more people have been discovering us — this is a good thing.
RB: I just really want to thank all the readers for embracing the visual look of this thing, because I am old school. I am a fascist when it comes to comic storytelling. I think there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and I’ve spent pretty much my whole career learning how to do that. And it seems that in certain sectors of the industry now that’s not as prevalent or valued as it once was. But readers have really taken to that kind of old school type of storytelling and embraced it. I’ve been greatly gratified by that. They’ve allowed me to do this the way I want to do it and the way I think it should be done. I just appreciate the fact that it wasn’t dismissed out of hand because it didn’t look like other stuff out there. All I can promise is that I’m going to keep trying to get better with this and tell stories as clearly and dramatically as I can. And hopefully learn to be a better artist.
EN: A couple weeks ago, we were doubtful we would even make our goal, and for it to go through in that first day, we feel really fortunate. We definitely put the hard work in but also appreciate everything our readers have done to spread word and support the campaign.
GR: So, if everything goes well, we hope to have books in hand by November and be sending them out before the end of that month. Provided there are no production delays, people will have them in hand by Christmas. We’ll be keeping backers updated throughout the process.
MSG: That’s an excellent thing to share too, because a lot of Kickstarter projects are not ready for print, so that’s a big incentive for people to participate.
GR: Yeah, that’s another factor that was important to us, to be able to present to our backers that we have everything that we need here. The book is laid out. It doesn’t need to drawn. Once we got the funding to make the book, we’re making the book. Here, I wouldn’t say we’re fortunate. This is the result of us not having asked for anything for two years!
MSG: Ha ha! That’s true! Thanks again for taking the time, guys! Can’t wait to see how the campaign wraps up.
The Kickstarter for Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether is running through Wednesday, June 5, and has levels for participation that begin at $10 for digital only and $30 for hardcover book (plus extras!). Check out the following video from writer Greg Rucka and then go go go to the Kickstarter page! If you want to check out the material that is being collected (and more!), please visit www.ineffableaether.com of course!