Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
I started reading Seamus Heffernan's Freedom about two minutes after I first heard about it. It had shown up unsolicited at the comic store where I work in a brown envelope, along with a pleasant note on the stationary of a company called Potato Comics, requesting that we order more of them if we saw fit. I was immediately sucked in. Freedom is a wonderful comic, a triumph of story and art working in combination to deliver a unique, compelling story set squarely in the genre commonly referred to as historical fiction. After finishing its 64 pages, I had to know more about what was to come, and who this person was. Seamus was willing to tear himself away from his new daughter--only one month old when we spoke--to talk to me about the making of Freedom, how he got into comics, and what he hopes to accomplish.
Could you give me a short history of Freedom?
The idea for the story initially came while I was in art school. For a project dealing with heroes, I'd decided to make a fake, mock-historical painting about the Boston Tea Party and I tried to do it very much in the Enlightenment tradition, very grandiose, very much in the style of a Napoleonic era painter. Like George Washington crossing the river, something like that. What happened was that, after I'd done the painting...I'd changed the history. Basically, Sam Adams was rowing out to do a suicide bombing on the tea company's ship, instead of dressing up as Indians and throwing the tea overboard. When I presented the painting to the class, the whole class was confused as to why I'd done what they saw as a boring, straight historical painting. Pretty much no one got that I'd completely changed the history of it. I was really surprised by that, and it got me thinking: how much could I push that? Changing history, so that you're discussing contemporary problems, but in a subtle enough way that the reader thinks they're experiencing something quite real. Particularly in terms of the American Revolution, in the beginnings of American history. I'm American. I grew up in New England. One of those things that I've always thought was important in creating any kind of art or discussing any kind of contemporary problems is to look at the roots of it, how things began. By messing with that kind of history, I'm trying to see if I can get at a deeper truth about where we are today. The American Revolution seemed like a pretty obvious place to start. And it's also a fascinating time period that doesn't get a lot of play in mainstream media. Probably because all of the badass heroes wore tights, you know? Nobody was really "cool" back then. Every gun took 30 seconds to load. Not a lot of tense action there.
Anyway, I began researching, and I spent a loooong time on this first issue. I wrote out a baseline for how I think the whole thing is going to go, the longer story. Tons and tons of research for three years, all while I was slowly drawing and writing, while working on other jobs and stuff like that. This last year, I was able to take a sabbatical and just crank out the book. I sent it out for a Xeric grant, and they liked it enough to give me twice the amount of funding I'd actually requested, which was really sweet. That allowed me to make a bigger piece. I got it printed at Deschamps Printing
, a local printer here in Massachusetts, and I debuted it at SPX
last year. For being a pretty unknown artist and having a really new project, one that's historical, I thought it sold pretty well. So far, so good.
It's being distributed by Diamond pretty soon, correct?
Yeah, it should be. Actually, if it's not arriving in stores this week, it should be arriving the week after. I'm just getting it distributed right now...I had a whole lot of stuff going on. I got married right before SPX--the book was being printed, basically, while I was getting married. Then I moved right after marriage, so all the work of getting the book distributed had to be pushed back. Now it's finally coming out, and I'm really excited to see it in stores.
How long do you think Freedom will end up being?
The way that I have it planned now is that there's three major books, and each book would be six to seven chapters, and each chapter would be about the size of Freedom #1. So 60 to 70 pages each, in the large format. Mini-graphic novels I guess, although I just prefer to call them floppies. It's gonna be pretty long. Six issues per book, three books. It's going to be a long, long story. But that's okay! Those are my favorite stories, the ones that end up being the long trajectory of a bunch of characters, watching them change, seeing characters you love die. Shit happens that you don't expect. I feel like you can't get that richness of character in a singular graphic novel, even if it's like 500 pages. You need time to see things develop, to see the characters breathe and develop. I'm making it my central life's work, but I'll do other things on the side.
What art school did you go to?
I went to the Pacific Northwest College of Art
in Portland, Oregon. It's a cool art school, and I had a pretty great time there. Portland's a really great comic town. Surprisingly, when I was at school, comics was kind of...I didn't have much guidance in the way of comics. But I met Ryan Alexander Tanner
and Alex Cahill
there, both dudes who are hardcore comics guys, and we banded together. We like to say that we got comics "happening" at that school, with the help of one of our teachers, Daniel Duford
. He's a fine artist, but also a man severely dedicated to comics. He's been making his own comic, a long American epic, called The Naked Boy, which is pretty fascinating stuff.
Pacific is more of a conceptual art school, a contemporary art school, so I didn't get quite the amount of hardcore illustrative training that I would have liked. But I met some good people and had a good time. I also studied abroad, in Greece for two semesters. There, I studied classical painting and art history, stuff like that. That was a blast. I feel like I got a lot of good technical training in Greece and a lot of great conceptual training in Portland.
Did you start the research on Freedom while you were still in school?
I did, I think it was during my last year there. The idea simmered for a while after I'd done that painting, which was the initial spark. I started playing around with the idea of the "Liberty Eagle", or the "tarred and feathered man". It was a figure I was playing with in paintings, in random sketchbook doodles, sort of like the way you see Chris Ware's little robot guy show up in random places. Eventually, when I came back from Europe and all the inspiration from traveling abroad kind of petered out, I really got back into it. I think the idea had properly fermented by that time. I graduated in 2007. I'd already done a lot of the thinking and started the research. I made the mistake of starting to draw too soon. I was just so anxious to get it out. I'm much more of an artist than I am a writer--writing is kind of a necessary chore for me, whereas drawing is just so much fun. So initially, I made the mistake of trying to draw the first issue while I was researching and writing the larger story. Just to get it out, because I wanted to so bad. And then I ended up having to redraw the entire first chunk of the book!
The research continues to this day. There's so many characters I want to introduce--some historical, some completely fictional, so I've got to figure out who these people really were. One of the things I'm really trying to keep alive is the idea that the history has changed, all the people are the same people. The world is the same place. It's really important to me to make the world seem real, even as all these mystical things are happening, even as the history changes. So it becomes important that a pub looks the way a pub would have looked, that the world is grounded. It goes the same for the characters.
One of the things that really made the first issue jump out was how developed all of the characters are. I started off cynically assuming that the story is going to be just about Adam, that he's going to be the only developed character surrounded by a bunch of props, and then it rapidly became clear how wrong I was--there's so much depth to all of these people. Noah, the nice British captain, those shitheels who try to murder them...they're all just as deep and involving as Adam. It's surprising to hear you refer to writing as a necessary chore, because all of these characters are so vibrant and unique.
Well, thanks. That's probably why it took me so long to write it. It's true that a lot of non-main characters can just seem like props. That's just not how books that move me work. I've been devouring George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books lately, all the Game of Thrones stuff. The fact that there's like ten million people, and they're all real people...I do feel like that makes the world way more realistic. That kind of depth motivates a lot of my own research. There's actually been a few historical characters already, in the first issue. I'm keeping it pretty subtle, just to tease it out. Like in the barfight scene, that short, stocky guy that causes all the trouble? That's Paul Revere. And the nice British captain is actually Nathanial Hale, who in actual history was hung as a spy by the British. He had infiltrated British lines during the Siege of New York, and they caught him and hung him as a spy. He's the guy who is attributed that famous phrase, "My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country." It's kind of dubious whether he said that or not. But that's the kind of thing that I grab onto, that idea of "what might have happened." Maybe he didn't get caught. Maybe he infiltrated and worked his way up in the British Army. He made his way up to the rank of Captain, all while feeding information to the Americans.
That's kind of a spoiler, actually--you can't actually tell that now. That becomes more clear as the story goes along.
How much of the larger story is already prepared?
I have the whole story plotted out. It still needs work, a lot of editing. I think it's a little too long, there needs to be a little finagling. So it's all laid out, but only the first chapters are scripted. I'm currently drawing the second chapter now. There's going to be three books, with a lot of wiggle room. As you're writing these characters, they kind of tell you what to do a little bit...you have to be flexible with that. I don't want to say "it's done", but it's all laid out in my mind.
Just to be clear, the length is going to be three books, and each book will consist of six issues?
That's my thought so far. It could change, be a little bit less or a little bit more, but that's the length I feel is necessary to tell the whole story. I think these first two issues are the major introductory chapters for the two leading characters, but after that, you'll see the pace take off and be more integrated.
Potato Comics is just you, right?
Yeah, that's just me.
Are you interested in taking on any help? Or is your plan to continue with self-publishing and self-distributing?
Oh, I would love help. I'm a horrible businessman. I'm the typical artist who can't figure out how to set aside enough money to pay my self-employment taxes. Luckily, I have a beautiful wife who helps. She's the one who sent out comics to stores to get them interested, she's been really huge in helping me promote all this stuff. Mainly because I have to do work that makes money also. If I could figure out some way...maybe it's Kickstarter, maybe it's getting the book to stores and getting some steam behind it, to get the money to print another issue. It's not easy in the changing market to figure out how I'll be able to keep self-publishing. Especially when I'm just struggling to keep my family fed as a freelance artist.
So yeah. If I get a call from a publisher tomorrow that said "hey, let's work this out", I would definitely consider it. But I'm not quite jumping on that boat, not quite yet. I want to see how this goes first. I think the trick might be that...any larger mainstream industry, I'm sure there would be some kinds of logistical problems. The size of the book, the fact that it's black and white...all of these are artistic choices that I definitely feel strongly about, and I would be really hesitant to change. I can see that potentially causing some problems. I've talked to some store owners, and a few have asked why it has to be that size. It's a pain in the ass, I know.
I'll admit that I had some misgivings about the size at first, but when I got to page 24, that sequence where he throws the apple...that sold me, all the way. That moment alone demands the size.
I've gone to great lengths to make the book seem like an artifact of the time while still trying not to completely alienate the reader. The art and the writing has to be contemporary enough to get through. If you try to read Enlightenment era writing, Revolutionary War era stuff...it's horrible. The research for this is so hard. It's all overwrought, flowery stuff, sentences that go on for two pages. They'll use fifty words to say what you can say in a five word sentence. If I'd completely stuck to that cadence--and I'm not saying I'd even be capable--it would have driven everyone to the hills. But I did want the book to be as much of an artifact as possible. I'd initially planned to print it as a broadsheet and have the art actually be 1:1 from the way I drew it, so every page would have been 11x17, and it would be folded up into quarters, like those Wednesday Comics from DC, or Diamond from Floating World. Something like that. I had a lot of really grandiose ideas, like finding something to stand in as the vellum of those days.
But then the question became whether I actually wanted to sell any of them, and so I had to scale back. I went to the Boston Library, which was an incredible resource, and I went through their rare book room. They had all of these printed manuscripts from that time. I went through a lot of those pamphlets and newspapers, and I found that a lot of them were actually in that size and format that the book ended up being printed as. So there was a way to make it work, to print it at the size of what a pamphlet would have been, back in that time period. That's one of the reasons I chose that size, on top of the fact that the art is pretty dense. I wanted all that line work to come forward. That's how that choice was made.
Were you in the last crop of people they gave Xeric grants to?
Second to last, actually. I think there's one more grant cycle, and it's happening right now. So I got in right under the wire.
That's great. And they gave you twice the funding, right?
Yeah, I asked for $5,000 and they actually said "how about twice that?" So I got to print it big like I wanted to, I got to use nicer paper stock. Now I just have to figure out how to get that money for the second issue! It's not a cheap book to produce.
Sure, that's obvious just from looking at it. And it's got a pretty low price point as well. Seven dollars for something this size and length seems pretty unusual.
It is, and it's kind of an introductory price point as well. Make it cheaper, so that people will take a chance, with the hope that they like it and want to read more and are willing to pay a little more for the next issue. Seven's a great number too.
How did you end up being able to take a sabbatical? Was that because of the Xeric?
No. I was working as a freelance artist and graphic designer in Portland, Oregon. I had a really good job, and saved up a bunch of money. Then, me and my girlfriend at the time--now my wife--made the decision to move back to Massachusetts, where I'm from, where I grew up. We both had projects we wanted to work on, so we saved up a bunch of money, moved in with my mom--which is funny, because that's sort of the thing you do when you're 35 and a complete deadbeat who doesn't
have a girlfriend--and we looked at it as an artists' retreat. So that's what we did. We moved across country, paid our bills, and didn't have to pay rent. I had to do a little bit of work here and there, and Liz (my wife) ended up very graciously taking on work to keep us afloat but I was basically able to work on that book for eight hours a day, if not more. In fact, my wife had to drag me away from the drawing table sometimes, when I'd be on hour nine. "Alright, days over!"
I was having so much fun. There's nothing like being able to work fulltime on a comic book and still feel like you're surviving. It's so good. Up until then, it was just every spare moment that I got, I would work on it. For me, it was really hard to get the flow that allows for good work. I feel like the best pages of that book are from the barfight scene until the last page. To me, those drawings are some of the tightest, the gestures work the best, the page compositions feel like they're the richest and...that's from then, when I had all the time in the world to just work. Sabbaticals work. If you can do it, if you can save up the money to just cram out a project. Now that's all over with. I'm back to being a fulltime freelancer, and my wife and I just had our first baby.
How old is she?
Just over a month right now. She just
showed up. She's a wonderful delight that has absolutely sucked away all of my time. She's also, paradoxically, got me even more inspired to make art. To work on my comic book, to make art for her, to doodle...I don't have any time, but it's all dedicated to making stuff. I play with her, and when she sleeps, I draw. I've started keeping my pages close to the bed, so that when she wakes up screaming at 3 in the morning, I can throw out a couple of lines.
Let's talk about influences a little bit. Did you know when you went to art school that this is what you wanted to be doing?
I knew before I went in. I've always been drawing, I've always been inspired by comics and video games. I'm a child of the 80's and 90's. I grew up with Nintendo, Calvin & Hobbes and the Far Side. My comics love came from newspaper strips, particularly Calvin & Hobbes. I probably owe Bill Watterson more than anyone else for starting me on becoming an artist. When I was a kid, I tried to be
Calvin. You look at my sketchbooks from when I was a kid, everyone in there is a Calvin knockoff. It's almost sad. But that was it, that was what taught me that pictures and words could tell a story. And of course, as you get older, those things age so well, they get even more beautiful.
I feel like I'm a little bit of an anomaly in the comics world, because I'm actually not as well versed in comics as I'd like to be. When I was back in Portland with my buddies, we would have these drawing nights and they'd talk about who was the editor for some specific Justice League run back in 1989, and...I can't. I don't even know who was drawing comics back then. If I know at all, it's because I discovered them recently and went back. I just never read any mainstream comics back then. Well, except for the Image boom. I got suckered into all that bullshit, I read all of those books. That actually introduced me to a huge inspiration though, Sam Kieth. Sam Kieth was the next big artist who got me was an adolescent. When I saw The Maxx, it was like a switch got flipped. There were all these stupid super-hero comics and even at that age I was starting to realize how mindless it all was--fun, very very fun, but not very deep. And then there was this Maxx character, who was so weird and going in and out of different dimensions. He was a super-hero and a homeless guy, he didn't seem to have any concrete superpowers...it struck a much more emotional core with me at that age. On top of that, I think Sam Kieth was drawing the best he ever did, on that early run of The Maxx. That Bernie Wrightson influence was right there, there was that old EC style that Sam Kieth imitated a little bit. As far as that, those were some big ones. I was into Todd McFarlane and, in a sense, Rob Liefeld. There was all that childish mythology wrapped up in Image comics. It was really exciting. But after that all crumbled I got more into Vertigo books and all that. I was never really into all the super-hero stuff? Just the more abstract mainstream stuff, that was what fell into my lap. I mean, there was stuff like Frank Miller. He was a huge influence for a while, I drew everything in stark black and white for a bit. But I feel like my predilection is always going to be drawing. Crumb, Moebius, Bernie Wrightson. I love line art like that, creating forms like that, all the crosshatching, all of that. I'm also drawn to stark linework like Mazzuchelli---it's the all familiar names. City of Glass is a huge influence, Batman Year One. Not so much the drawing style, but the storytelling. After I discovered who Moebius was, after seeing all his work...I really glommed onto that. That kind of style. Bernie Wrightson just--there was something about the way you could mash all those lines together. That was really huge.
I think my tendency is to noodle at drawings. I'm a woefully slow artist, where my pages are more like paintings in that I just build them up over time. All of the blacks are built up from one tiny little nib.
Yeah, I just needed that to build up texture.
Wow. I can see it now. I was actually curious about the little white lines, I wouldn't have guessed that's where they come from. Jesus.
It's a pain in the ass. Half of me really really hates myself for that decision, because now that I've done it, I have to keep doing it to stay consistent. Some of the pages it's helped, because filling in those blacks is a way to convey motion and to create form in complete darkness, which is always there in real life. That often gets lost in comics. It also has that old printer-y feel. That's why I do that, even though it kind of drives me nuts.
I cheated on a couple of panels. When I was getting down to the wire, when my hand started to cramp. It does speak to my obsessive nature of drawing things, shadows and forms and things. Blacks. I think that's why I probably respond to all the old school crosshatchers so much. I could probably talk forever about influences. There's such a rich history out there, and I like to get lost in it.
Do you work digitally at all, or is this all pen and paper?
For this book, yeah, it's all as traditional as possible. I do quite a bit of touch up in Photoshop of course. I'm a pretty sloppy artist. Lines go out of the borders, that kind of stuff. I trim it all back on the computer. It's astounding to me to think about times before Photoshop. Inkers that actually managed to work without being able to trim things back or move things around digitally...that's mindblowing to think about.
I try to do as much as I can on paper. It just feels better, you know? Using that nib, putting it to paper, dipping it in the ink...it's so visceral. Especially now, where everything looks so digital, and ALL of the commercial work I do is pretty much digital at this point. It's kind of a sanctuary to work on my comic book, at this point. Dipping ink and paper. You know.
Do you have any interest in releasing any of Freedom digitally?
I'm thinking about it more and more. It seems like the thing you kind of need to do, now. It's not really well formatted for digital release, I don't think.
Well, there's a lot of the presentation in the physical object that won't translate.
Yeah, for sure. Conceivably, if I designed a special website just for it, something that would present it in the proper way, with the old school printed text, all of that. But you only have so much room on a screen and I hate--as much as I love looking at art on a computer--I hate reading comics on a computer. Even on an iPad, even though that's better. Zooming in and out on a page, for me, just destroys so much of the magic of comics. To look at the whole page, to look at the whole spread--there's layers of composition that happen on the spread, on each page, and on each panel...zooming on each panel, the comiXology reader or anything that guides me through the page? Drives me nuts. Now, if I was going to do a psychedelic sci-fi comic, something like that? I could totally see it working. But this comic is about the old world. It's about, in part, what happened in a preindustrial society that falls apart. It almost feels antithetical to release it digitally.
I say all this and yet, if I go to my computer and look at the numbers and I see I can sell a lot of books that way, then it's going to be kind of hard to say no.
Tucker Stone's writing can be found in print from time to time. He currently blogs about comics at The Factual Opinion and Savage Critics.
This Ship Is Totally Sinking is © Tucker Stone, 2010