by Bryan Hill
Greg Pak and I actually overlapped at NYU. I first knew him as a filmmaker, from his feature ROBOT STORIES, and then as a comic writer when I jumped into his work with PLANET HULK for Marvel. He’s one of the smartest and nicest fellas working in the business of storytelling and when I saw his new fantasy/western series, KINGSWAY WEST I wanted to chat with him about it.
I also wanted to see if I could get him to reveal his perspective on how to break into the business of comics, and he gave us so much more than just that. One of the best parts of being a comic creator is that you can talk other comic creators and on The Beat, I intend to continue abusing that privilege, hopefully to your benefit, dear reader.
Bryan Hill: Greg, this is your first creator owned project at a major company and it’s clearly a full universe you’ve created for readers. Before we get into the details of KINGSWAY WEST, tell me what made you want to create it? Where did the spark come from?
Greg Pak: I grew up as a biracial Korean American kid in the suburbs of Dallas and had a kind of classic outdoor American childhood with camping and the Boy Scouts and whatnot, so I always loved Westerns and other stories about outdoor adventure. And then at a certain point, I learned about the actual history of Chinese in the Old West and my head popped off. I’ve probably been thinking about writing some kind of story about a Chinese gunslinger in the Old West for three decades. I’ve been actively working on it for twenty three years or so — first in screenplay form when I was in film school, then through a few short comic stories for various anthologies after I got into the comics business. The story’s grown and changed over the years, with the biggest transformation coming just in the last couple of years when I started working with my amazing editors at Dark Horse and brought the fantastical, magical elements to the book and set the whole story in an alternate history America. It’s been a total blast and I can’t wait for folks to read it.
BH: Yeah, that’s how stories grow, isn’t it? You learn about something that doesn’t have a platform in a narrative and you start to get a little obsessed about it. I remember reading about Chinese people during the Old West and never seeing any of that represented in fiction. It’s like nostalgia for a particular, cultural perspective prevents people from engaging the actual history with imagination.
Speaking of imagination, KINGSWAY WEST is full of ideas and detailed world building. How did you, and how will you continue to layer high fantasy into the Old West setting?
GP: When I first brought the project to Dark Horse, it was a straight historical Western with a Chinese gunslinger searching for his wife. My editor Jim Gibbons loved it, but he challenged me to see if there was another hook that could take it to the next level. I mulled it over for a few days and eventually found myself thinking about the fantasy stories I always loved as a kid and how well they could mesh with an outdoor adventure like a Western.
And then I realized how much those fantasy elements could help bring out the theme and tone of the story. For example, a bit part of the story revolves around different groups vying for space and power on the frontier. And the fantasy elements give me a whole new way of exploring that. To be specific, imagine if the California Gold Rush was actually a RED gold rush, and red gold is the source of magic in the world. So our heroes are caught up in a conflict between empires over this monumentally powerful natural resource.
And then I’m having a blast coming up with specifically American expressions of the fantasy elements in this world. So we’ve got jackalopes and Bigfoot like creatures called Bearfeet. And dragons, natch. Because dragons, duh.
BH: There aren’t enough dragons in fiction. Peak dragon is impossible. What really struck me — because I’m a hopeless romantic — is the framework of both a redemption story and a love story. You open the book with narration that speaks to how war makes men “monsters” and your hero KINGSWAY seems a man who’s fighting for love, to make himself more than the violence he’s caused. I LOVE stories about redemption and love’s ability to help us find it. Your work has always centered on character as much as plot. It always has a soul that you can feel in the pages. When you were creating KINGSWAY what compelled you about him?
GP: Man, I love that it’s all working for you! Yeah, I think violence and the search for redemption are kind of built into Westerns, or the kinds of Westerns I tend to love, anyway. Kingsway is a veteran of the Red Gold War — he did horrible things to defend the Golden Mountain Empire in Northern California, and then he suffered terrible things and was declared an outlaw by the Queen of Golden City. So he’s been betrayed by his own community, labeled a monster and an outsider. As our story begins, he thinks he’s found a new life with his wife out in the Wild, far from civilization, where he can try to become human again. But of course trouble comes for him and everything falls apart. Now the question he has to face throughout the story is if he’s going to just fight to reclaim his quiet life with his wife, or is he going to step back into the wider world, pick up his gun, and to try once again to help the people in the wider community who desperately need him. My goal is to make that choice as high stakes and difficult as possible — it’s not necessarily so clear which direction really represents redemption and which direction represents damnation.
I couldn’t tell you exactly how all these themes came together from the beginning. When I first started working on this story a couple of decades ago, I just found myself with an image of a Chinese man in the Old West. I saw him in my mind’s eye and I felt him in my heart — tall, lean, quiet, incredibly skilled… but filled with a deep, romantic yearning. That’s how he walked into my brain from the start. The rest of it has been built bit by bit over the months and years.
BH: It’s interesting that you talk about having an image before a fleshed out story, because your writing is very visual, in general. Perhaps it’s your filmmaker roots, but I can always count on a “Greg Pak Joint” to have strong images and great visual pacing. Speaking of imagery, I’m really impressed by Mirko Colak’s work and the colors by Wil Quintana. What brought you all together for the project and what was the development process like?
GP: Aren’t Mirko and Wil amazing? I worked with Mirko on RED SKULL INCARNATE for Marvel a few years back, and I loved his clean line and attention to detail. I always thought he’d be amazing for a Western — he has such a great sense of atmosphere and grit draws real world people and clothes so well. When I told him about KINGSWAY WEST, he immediately got excited — he loves outdoor stories. So it was all right up his alley. The funny thing was that when we first started working together, I was thinking of a pretty historically accurate story. But then the story developed and all of these magical elements came in, which was something I actually hadn’t seen Mirko do a lot of before. But he was thrilled about the turn in the story and just blew me away with his landscapes and monsters and funky magical machines. He’s just killing it.
And then Wil’s bringing so much texture and atmosphere to the world! I worked with Wil on ACTION COMICS over at DC, and I loved everything he did on that book. So I was thrilled when he agreed to come on board KINGSWAY WEST. He’s doing this spectacular thing of making everything feel gritty and real and grounded and then cutting loose in just the right ways for the magical elements. All that realistic, grounded work makes the magic sing and feel utterly real. I love it.
BH: You’re all balancing the fantasy and the Old West elements very, very well. I haven’t seen anything do that so effectively since Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER novels, but I genuinely find the exploration of the role that Chinese people played in formative American history more interesting. KINGSWAY WEST is more my speed because it breaks the traditional, cultural forms. You’re such an inspiration for a lot of creators (me included) and you’re always paying it forward with the way you engage online, even your recent (highly successful) Kickstarter campaign…about how to do Kickstarter well! LOL. You’re the only person I know who crowd sources to HELP other people crowd source well.
Some reading this might be non-traditional creators, looking to break into an industry that can seem so closed and opaque. What insight can you offer them about how to begin a career as a storyteller in comics?
GP: Thanks so much for the kind words! Seriously, that all really means a lot to me.
So… advice for folks starting out in comics… Here are a few thoughts:
1. Take every opportunity you find to work on storytelling. After I graduated from film school, I did all kinds of odd jobs to pay rent. But I did my best to find gigs that had something to do with storytelling. I shot wedding videos. I made instructional videos. I taught improv comedy. I designed web pages. All of those different jobs taught me something that was useful to me later in my writing and filmmaking. This also extends to jumping on opportunities in adjacent fields. I became a comics writer because my agent got me a meeting with Marvel to talk about comics. And it all worked out and it’s been fantastic. If you’re a storyteller, you can work in any number of forms. Try out whatever you have the chance to do.
2. Apply for all the grants and jobs and funding you can. But never stop working on your own. When I graduated from film school, I had a bunch of screenplays I needed millions of dollars to shoot, and I was hustling all the time to try to get them produced. But in the meantime,I made a ton of short films for just a few hundred dollars each. Finding a way to always keep working and producing and learning is key, even if you have no resources at all.
3. Work on small projects and actually finish them. Yes, everyone has an epic they’re determined to make some day. (My Chinese gunslinger movie was mine.) But in the short term, we have to get better; we have to learn. And the best way I found to do that was to churn out a bunch of small projects that I could actually complete and get out into the world and learn from. So I made a ton of short films over the years — a bunch of which went to film festivals and won awards and help me lay the groundwork for future stuff. But most importantly, making and finishing short projects like that taught me so many things I’d never have learned if I’d just worked for years on bigger projects that never were completed.
4. Focus on the projects you’re the most passionate about. If you’re producing something independently, if you’re not deeply passionate about the project, there’s an excellent chance you’ll never finish it. Independent work is HARD. We only make it through if we care enough to make the sacrifices necessary to produce. So grab onto the stories you HAVE to tell. The other advantage of that is that the project you’re the most passionate about is very likely the project that’s the most personal and that is different from all the other projects out there.
5. Learn the business and build your audience every step of the way. We’re all artists, here. But if we want to survive and actually get our work produced and out into the world, we have to develop an understanding of how the business works and we have to build and nurture our audiences so that there will be folks to buy what we make. We have to make great work. But that alone isn’t enough — we have to learn along the way how to run our businesses and market our products. This is particularly important for non-traditional creators or folks telling stories with non-traditional casts. We know the audience is out there for those kinds of stories, but the companies we work for or distributors we talk to may not always know how to reach those audiences. It’s up to us to build those audiences ourselves, step by step, over the course of our careers.
6. Understand that this is a process that will take years. It took me ten years of making short films before I shot my feature film ROBOT STORIES. And it’s good that it took that long — I had SO MUCH to learn, and still do.
7. Cast your bread upon the water. This isn’t a zero sum game. Making friends with fellow creators, helping each other out, plugging each other’s work, and sharing information is the way for us all to thrive.
8. Get used to rejection and take constructive criticism to heart, but believe in your stories and keep working to make them as good as they can be. This can be hard. Sometimes people just won’t get your stories or your work. Sometimes that’s because the stories just aren’t that good. And let’s be honest — most of our work, particularly when we’re starting out, really isn’t that good. So we have to learn to shut up and listen to criticism, and if it gnaws at our gut, we have to be honest enough to think it through and use it to make our work better. And eventually, we have to learn how to listen to that voice inside we all have that tells us when our work needs more work, and then we have to give it that extra work. But all that being said, we also have to protect ourselves a bit, to learn how to identify when a critic just doesn’t get it. Because sometimes some people just aren’t ready or equipped to hear the stories we have to tell. Or they’re thinking with business brains that tell them those stories won’t sell in the market. Our job in those cases is to believe in our stories and keep working on them to make them as good as they can be and then find the right partners or find a way to produce and distribute them ourselves.
9. Think about building a career with both creator-owned and work-for-hire projects. Some folks really just want to write the superheroes they grew up loving. Some folks want to create their own creator-owned series. A lot of the creators whose careers I most admire do both. Work for hire provides stability and can help you build an audience and learn a ton — and yes, it can be an absolute blast writing those classic characters. Creator-owned work provides glorious creative freedom and the potential for big, long term financial rewards — but more often than not, it’s much harder to make rent with just creator-owned profits. So a combo can be smart.
Holy cow, I just wrote an essay there, didn’t I?
BH: Well, I strongly suggest everyone copy and paste that for current and future reference. That was a gift. Thanks, man.
So let’s wrap this up by handing you the floor. To readers who have followed your work and new readers, why should they order KINGSWAY WEST and add it to their pull list?
GP: The big question!
If you’re looking for adventure, we’ve got big action, mind bending fantasy, and wild alternative history.
If you’re looking for emotion, we’ve got romance and a huge journey of heroism, horror, and redemption.
If you care about diversity in storytelling, our hero’s a Chinese gunslinger searching for his Mexican wife, pursued by an African American soldier. This is a world that explores the glory of American diversity and the tragedy of American racism with a Chinese American Golden City in Northern California, a República de los Californios in the Southwest, Native American city-states in the Midwest, and the United States of New York back East. Don’t sleep on this one, friends!
And dragons. We mentioned the dragons, right?
BH: Indeed. We mentioned the dragons.
You can pre order KINGSWAY WEST here:
Bryan Hill writes comics like POSTAL and the upcoming ROMULUS. He is also the story editor of Top Cow Productions. Find him on twitter @bryanedwardhill