I never actually expect anybody to take part in International Darkstar Day. But last year a number of people were kind enough to join in, and one of them was Dave Windett. And as I started following up on his work, I came across his series with writer John Gatehouse: The Kaci Bell Mysteries.
A long-form webcomic which has just come to print, The Kaci Bell Mysteries follow the eponymous heroine as she wanders around, fights monsters, encounters mysteries and goes sleuthing. It’s a thoroughly charming storyline, which is why I was delighted when Dave agreed to talk about the series for The Beat. We talked about how the series came about, what prompted them to put it online, and what readers can expect going forward.
Steve: What’s the basic premise of The Kaci Bell Mysteries?
Dave: In the small town of Bluewater Cove, California, teens are gaining strange super powers and going on a violent crime spree. Enter: Our Heroine! 16 years old high school student Kaci Bell, new arrival to the area, just can’t resist solving mysteries!
With best friend Robyn, Kaci enters a dark world of science gone mad. And since Kaci’s detective skills don’t exactly match those of Dick Tracy, there’s a good chance she won’t survive the experience!
Steve: The story is told in a newspaper-strip format, three panels at a time, which certainly forces the story to move along quickly. Why choose this format for your story?
Dave: Both John and and I are huge fans of newspaper adventure strip series such as the aforementioned DT, Modesty Blaise, Secret Agent X-9, Johnny Hazard, et al. Sadly, in today’s shrinking strip market, the chances of selling a new adventure series to a newspaper is exactly – zero. So we thought, sod it, we’ll create and publish the series ourselves.
Steve: What do you think is the key to a strong mystery story? How did you first sit down and map out the characters, mysteries, reveals and twists?
Dave: Characters. Without interesting characters, it doesn’t matter how cool the mystery is, you will fail to keep the readers’ interest. As to Kaci’s first mystery, we knew we wanted to combine together the detective and super hero genres. Once we created Kaci and Robyn and the “mad science” plot, all the other characters and twists simply fell into place. (Believe us, this does NOT happen very often!)
Steve: The main character – Kaci Bell herself – is an interesting lead. She never seems to listen to advice or instructions, and always goes off on her own lead. How soon into planning the series did she come to life? Was there a moment in the story where she did or said something and suddenly everything about her clicked into place for you?
Dave: The major inspiration for Kaci – and we gladly acknowledge this fact! – is the Veronica Mars TV series. We’re both proud Marshmallows (fans of Veronica Mars) and when the series was cancelled we decided to create our own kick-ass teen ‘tec in the proud mould of Veronica. (And, to a lesser extent, Nancy Drew.)
However, our series has the added twist of also being inspired by the genius that is Scooby-Doo as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The mad super hero and mystery stories that Marvel, DC and Charlton comics in the ‘60’s and 70’s have also been an influence.
Naturally, fate being what it is, just as we finish Kaci’s first adventure and publish the book we get word that Veronica Mars is returning! (Yaay!) And yes, we did both donate to the Kickstarter project to get the film made! Go, Veronica!
As to the character of Kaci, she came to life the moment John started creating her first adventure. We wanted someone who was the opposite of Veronica in many ways, just as gung-ho to solve mysteries but definitely more klutzy and out of her depth.
But the series isn’t just about Kaci solving the mystery. It is also about her growing friendship with BFF Robyn Prentiss and of the other townsfolk, all whom we’ll be developing further in the next adventure.
Steve: There’s a silver age tone, I feel, with the attitude Kaci takes towards all these supernatural things going on, and little elements like your use of editorial narrative. What were your comic inspirations whilst making the series?
Dave: That’s interesting. We never actually considered the story being tonally “Silver Age”, or any other “Age” for that matter. It is what it is. As Robyn remarks at the start of the story, Bluewater Cove is a place where “weird stuff” happens. A lot! Although a newbie, Kaci appears to have quickly taken the town’s blasé approach to the weirdness as “just another day at the office”.
Steve: How did you meet as a creative team? What was it about the other person which made you keen on the prospect of working together on a project?
Dave: You’re not gonna believe this, but with a partnership going back 25 years or so, we still haven’t met! Everything is done by phone or e-mail (and in the Old Days, by snail mail.) We don’t skype, and John has a real hatred of Facebook and Twitter (and most technology for that matter), so apart from e-mailing each other a couple of photos, that’s it!
Back “in the day” when fanzines existed, John advertised in a UK fanzine called “Speakeasy” for an artist to work on a series with him, I replied, and he’s been stuck with me ever since! But our paths had probably crossed professionally before that. We’ve both worked on numerous comic strip series based on Licensed Properties and I may have actually drawn some of John’s stories without even realising it!
Unlike the apparent “love-ins” that other creative teams appear to have (and that make you want to throw up when reading interviews) we argue and insult each other all the time! But we also (pass the sick bag) appreciate each other’s talents – heck, after 25 years, we’ve lasted longer than many married couples!
Steve: The story was completed – written and drawn – before you started to serialise it. What was behind that decision? Was the intention so that readers knew they wouldn’t be let down by a webcomic which starts and then suddenly stops, never to be concluded?
Dave: Actually, we didn’t start Kaci as a webcomic; that wasn’t even in our minds. We just wanted to create our own adventure strip. Appearing on the webcomic site SmackJeeves was simply a way of promoting the series and the book collection. We’re both professional creators, so we could only work on the serial in our free time. Which is why it took two years to complete!
[The Kaci Bell Mysteries book collection is available from Lulu through this link]
That said, we would never have released the strip online until it was completed. There are too many webcomics that start off with good intentions and then disappear half-finished. That must be very frustrating for fans.
Steve: Did that put extra pressure on you both? There was no opportunity to sneak in and make a fix to the story or go on a tangent, I would imagine?
Dave: The only pressure was the pressure we gave ourselves. We wanted to finish the serial and paying work kept getting in the way of completion. (Not that we’re complaining, companies – if you keep paying us, we’ll keep working for ya!)
Steve: Do you think this forward planning makes for a stronger comics, ultimately?
Dave: All creators work differently. But taking our time on the serial allowed us to tweak the story and art where necessary without deadlines looming, so for us, it works.
Steve: How has the reaction been from fans? Have you noted a fanbase start to build as you’ve moved forward?
Dave: Cliché time, I’m afraid. (That sick bag not full already?!) While we won’t claim to have hundreds of fans on SmackJeeves (unlike some webcomics – *Humph!*), the fans we do have apparently really like the series. (Thanks, guys! We love ya!)
And book sales have been across the board, age-wise. We’re not kidding when we say that it really does cover 6 year old girls to 56 year old men, and every age in-between! (Yep, we are surprised by that!) We originally created the series for teens and Young Adults, but the 6 year olds seem to like the strong female leads.
One thing that does surprise us is that, so far, not one person has realised that Our Heroine has the same initials and even the same surname(!) as the brilliant actress who plays Veronica Mars!
Steve: Comic websites don’t tend to feature coverage of upcoming and new webcomics – we’re all a bit more focused on success stories like Hark A Vagrant or Dinosaur Comics. Is it difficult to get noticed?
Dave: Pfft! Oh, yeah! As I say, we didn’t create the strip as a webcomic. We knew that we would be publishing the collection under our own imprint Little Lemming Books. But even with an actual hard copy book to sell, we can’t afford advertising so we have to rely on word-of-mouth.
It’s a slow process. The good thing is that the book is always going to be out there, and if we keep plugging away then hopefully sales will gradually increase.
Steve: Do you read webcomics yourselves? Are there any you would recommend?
Dave: ‘Fess up time! Until we thought to promote The Kaci Bell Mysteries on a webcomic website, John really took no notice of them. I was more aware of them, and followed strips such as Girls With Slingshots, Go Get A Roomie and Hinges.
I drew the Comic Book Mafia for The Webcomic Factory and I am a fan of most of their strips along with Christian Beranek and Kelci Crawfords’ Validation.
There are a LOT of webcomics out there! A mind-blowing amount! And, pleasantly surprising, there are a lot of really QUALITY webcomics. I know John has become a fan of a good number that he follows on SmackJeeves.
Steve: What will you be up to once this first story for Kaci Bell finishes? Where can we find you online?
Dave: We are about to start the second The Kaci Bell Mysteries serial, which hopefully, now that we know what we’re doing, won’t take so long to complete!
This aside, I’m finishing a series of kids’ books for an iPad publisher and John has just wrapped up writing an animated TV series, but we both available for new projects at any time.
We’re currently working on the final two books of a creator-owned 4-book series for Penguin Books USA. Monster Hunters Unlimited is a humour/factual book for 7-12 year olds, the first two titles of which are published later this year. (Order your copy – TODAY! Yes, cheap plug!)
Lazarus Lemming, a comic strip serial that we produced for the British anthology The DFC has been collected and is available on Comixology.
Trick Or Treat, a kids’ e-book for 7-11 year olds that we created a few years ago, is available as a Kindle book from Amazon.