Mission Arizona, the graphic novel from indie publisher Mirror Comics, recently came out on ComiXology. I already had a paper copy and loved this take on the weird western (like the dark weird westerns Buried Eyes by Lavie Tidhar or A Feast for Dust by Gemma Files), but I knew less about making comics or the changes in the comic book industry with e-comics sites like ComiXology, so I decided to chat with Mirror. Dominic Bercier is the president and publisher (and artist of Mission Arizona), while Kristopher Waddell is the editor-in-chief and co-publisher (and the writer of Mission Arizona). Both live in Ottawa, Canada.
Mission Arizona is a dark weird western about an old west town that has an unpleasant crossing with the supernatural world. Its outlaw hero is destined, by fate and birth, to face this supernatural evil.
Derek: Where does Mission Arizona come from? It’s got a bit of a spaghetti western feel, overlaid with the destiny of facing off against a terrible evil, but begins with a travelling showman sequence. How did these different flavors make it into the mix?
Kris: My interest in writing in this genre came from my childhood experiences watching old Roy Rogers and Gene Autry westerns with my Dad. Horror has always interested me because I’m fascinated by the abject, and our culture’s obsession with fearing the other. It probably doesn’t help that I watched Nightmare on Elm Street, Jaws and Alien at a very young age.
In Mission, I really wanted to explore loss and redemption. Padre Martin Risk loses his wife and child, Samuel Risk loses his home and his family, while the town of Mission loses its soul. I wanted to write about the struggle and the consequences of dealing with loss, and the protagonist’s fight for redemption.
Padre Risk isn’t a victim, he willfully made a deal with the devil named Boone. Samuel Risk, his son, is truly the victim and although he is one of the good guys, because of his father’s actions, there is a taint in his heart, a black mark on his soul. Samuel uses this other part of himself to confront Boone. He has to step into the darkness to defeat darkness.
Professor Boone first came to mind from reading a newspaper article from the 1880s about a traveling illusionist who was popular for being buried alive. I held on to that paper for years, and eventually added the flamboyance of a vaudevillian, mixed with the terror of Stoker’s Dracula.
The art is angular and communicates a fitting grittiness in the story that is quite different in visual tone than Ghost King, another graphic novel by Dominic at Mirror Comics. How did you alter your style for this story?
Dom: My style changes to fit the story. When I was young I had one style circa Marvel and Image in the 1990s. When I went to art school everything changed. Each story tells me something different. I just try to respond appropriately. For Mission Arizona, I changed a little from book to book even, which I should not have, but I couldn’t help it. It was more powerful than me.
A bit of J. Scott Campbell and Chris Bachalo at first, then some Jim Lee and maybe Mike Mignola in the middle there… and finally a bit of Travis Charest and Leinil Yu influences at the end. It may not look like their style, but that’s who I was channeling. I was consciously trying to make it more mainstream, and to improve from issue to issue.
I think I failed beautifully. It’s not your typical ink everywhere horror comic. The color treatment… from black and white with grey tones to start the gritty tale, then the added reds with all of the blood in issue two, to full color in the double sized finale is not something you see often in comics.
What I realize is that being different is a blessing and a curse in this industry, but it’s my long term strategy all the same. Experimenting with style started at OCAD and I can’t seem to turn it off.
So, Mission Arizona came out as three issues in 2012 and 2013, and then as a graphic novel in 2013, and is now going to be available on ComiXology. Has the reception been what you’d hoped and why did you make a deal with ComiXology?
Kris: Mission has been one of our most successful books, thanks to the genre I think. There is a niche market for westerns, weird westerns, and horror comics. Dominic’s unique take on the material further adds to the strangeness of the tale, and I think that’s what interested ComiXology in carrying the book.
Kris: ComiXology is the largest electronic download site for comic books in the world. It’s in our best interest as an indie comic company to offer the digital option to readers. Dominic and I prefer the old paper version as well, but it never hurts to have your book available in a format that you can carry with you on your tablet.
Dom: What makes this platform so successful is its Guided View technology, which is a fancy way of saying that it cuts your page down by panels if you want, so you can even read it on your phone, as well as computers.
How did you get started? A few years ago, you just saw the comic book market and decided “We’re going to found a comic book publisher.” Was it that simple? Were you guys really smart or kind of crazy? Is technology changing the economics and marketing of comics to favor the rugged individualist as it seems to be doing in e-books for writers of science fiction and fantasy?
Dom: I like that… really smart or kind of crazy. I’m a dreamer, which, I think, makes me a bit of both.
It came down not to opportunity but to a lack of options. I had been making my own comics for at least 10 years and needed a publisher. I would be that publisher, the way people say ‘be the change.’ Allan Isfan (VP Marketing/Web) gave me the business framework and artistic freedom, while Kris brought in a ‘mirroring’ mastery of the written word.
And that’s what Mirror is all about, creators working together to reflect what is best in themselves and in each other. To get published I had to self-publish. To build the brand I had to bring others onboard. We became an indie publisher pretty quickly.
If the model is familiar, it’s because thousands of creators saw what Image did in the ’90s and tried to do the same with today’s technology. And on tech and economics, it’s never been cheaper to print or digitally distribute. So, it has become the new Wild West out there. In that sense Mission Arizona is almost a metaphor for comics themselves.
So is it that rough out there for aspiring creators? I’m a fiction writer, but I’ve also always wanted to write comics. Are you about to dash my dreams?
Dom: Sadly yes. Yes and No. A million guys and gals want to work with Dark Horse, Image and IDW. I mean it. Millions. So you do your own thing.
And if your books find their audience, then maybe one day you have a shot. But you have to be serious about competing against guys who’ve been working in the industry for 30 years. They get top pick. Not you.
Not many rookies realize this. They have a distorted sense of reality because they’ve been drawing their whole lives. That’s a starting point, and not a crowning achievement. The contracts and accolades come much later. They think their first comic book efforts deserve a spot at these top publishers. They have no idea how much better seasoned pros are.
Now that we’re a publisher and not just a studio, it’s reverse… we become friends with pros, and we often get snubbed by talented newcomers. They try to get published with bigger publishers, just like I tried, get turned down or don’t hear anything back, and then they come back to us with their ‘tales’ between their legs and say ‘hey remember me?’ We see this all of the time and it’s a bit frustrating.
Unlike in the ’90s, youth is no longer a virtue. Talent does not equal craft. And comics are an art and a science. Talent alone only gets you halfway there. With the emergence of new printing and digital distribution, the competition has never been more fierce. Our strategy is to produce only projects that we think are completely original. We’ve seen every cliché. That being said, if you’ve got something totally original, pitch to us if you like. But if it’s not your passion, don’t do it.
I think Harlan Elison said something similar about being a writer. “If someone can convince you not to be a writer, they ought to.”
Dom: Exactly. It’s a grueling job with a thankless intern feel for years before you become an overnight success. If you don’t love everything about it from proper layouts to the smell of ink stained hands to the feel of gouache to the mastery of Photoshop then… just … do that other thing instead.
But if you’re like me and comics is all you ever think about, then make comics. Lots of comics. Better comics every time. Your opportunity lies with one of the thousands of young publishers like us right now. That’s how/where you start. Or you start your own company. That’s completely valid. Then you slave away at that for 10 or 20 years while keeping a part time job.
Mirror saved me. It got my work out there, and now people are discovering my comics and graphic novels, which is a vindication for all of those rejections in the past. It has been nothing but a blessing. The countless hours I put into it are paying off. We’re growing. The future is bright. I don’t know the future of the industry, but I can tell you that I’ll be there. I’ll take my little corner of the comics universe.
I’ve already seen dramatic improvement in my clout since I started Mirror. Once you’re published, or even better, are a publisher that’s been around for a few years, people take notice. You’re still there 4 years later and people start to go ‘how did they do that?’ … it’s pretty grand.
So you guys at Mirror Comics have put out half a dozen stories. What’s next?
Dom: We’ve worked on a dozen stories in all, but carry a little over half in our current catalog. We’re trying to work with Diamond, who can get our books into every shop in North America. They are consummate pros. Friendly. And helpful. They have expressed interest in one of our books.
We’ll try to put another book on ComiXology. They’ve been great too. We’re developing a book with Tom Green, Ottawa’s own master of the absurd. Shuster Hall of Famer Stanley Berneche is working on an epic finale to the Captain Canada series he developed in the ’70s. And finally we’ll be releasing the Bring Me to Life adaptation by Music in Boxes [Brazil] that features the lyrics from the Evanescence song.
And that’s just a taste. We’re working our butts off on about a dozen projects right now slated to come out in the next couple of years. You can track our progress at http://www.mirrorcomics.comand @mirrorcomics on twitter.
Thanks Dom and Kris. This has been a great interview. And to readers, if you liked the interview, maybe you’ll want to see the book. It’s on sale at ComiXology for the price of a tall latte!