It might be all well and good for Harry Potter and his inherited money and fancy scholarship-based schooling in a Scottish castle, but stories about young magic-users rarely seems to ever look beyond that. We always seem to end up reading about Chosen Ones, rather than stories which look beyond prophecies and epic fates. For every Boy Who Lived, there are many more sorcerers who go to state magic schools and colleges, who don’t have the benefit of privilege on their side.
Step in Jules Rivera, who found great success last year with her Kickstarter for volume one of her wizard-school series Misfortune High. On the back of the success of that campaign, Rivera has now launched a Kickstarter to help fund volume 2 of her series, which focuses on a smug white kid called Biscuit, whose snobbish behaviour gets him kicked out of the top magic academy and sent to a state-run magic school instead.
To find out more about the project, I spoke to her about the idea of the series – which she writes, draws and colours herself – and what we can expect from volume 2. Read on!
Steve: Misfortune is a fun, manic series – it’s also a story with a very distinct message. What was your goal when making the first volume? What made you want to tell this particular story?
Jules: Misfortune High came about from the simple question of “Why do they never show the poor magic schools in series like Harry Potter? And by extension, why are there never any people of color with prominent roles in these things?” My goal in the first book was to set up the world and complete the traditional sort of “Act One” of the story: the main character is faces a conflict, and then is called into action. In Biscuit’s case, he loses his idyllic existence in Phoenix Academy, narrowly escapes the thugs of Misfortune High, and then decides to fight his way back to his old life in the most desperate, stupidest way imaginable.
I wanted to tell this particular story because no one else seemed to be doing it. That’s not to say Harry Potter parodies don’t exist but Misfortune High is much more than a parody. It’s a challenge. It’s a type of magic story that takes the reader somewhere they don’t expect to find magic or whimsy: the ghetto.
Steve: You write, draw, colour, letter and design the series, and I know you’ve said that you try to go for a different art direction in each story you create. What was your initial plan for the direction of Misfortune High – and was that the direction you ultimately went in?
Jules: At the time I began developing Misfortune High, I was in full swing production on my other graphic novel series, Valkyrie Squadron. To set it apart from Valkyrie, I wanted to give it a more organic rendered look, using watercolors or some other natural media. However, after several conversations with other artists on their sources of inspiration, the form sensibilities changed dramatically from VS too.
As I kept developing these characters, the forms became far more exaggerated, and the line work far more loose. I ultimately went for a scribbly, marker-sketched style where everybody has these crazy, cartoonishly shaped bodies. I think that looseness emphasizes the fun and wackiness of the story.
Steve: What were your influences for the series? What art were you inspired by, what sense of design?
Jules: My artistic influences were the works of Jamie Hewlett. His work on all the Gorillaz artwork inspired me to start playing with the more cartoonish bodies of the characters. Also, I got inspired by artists who put out really sketchy expressive linework, such as Jeff Stokely of Six Gun Gorilla. (No, there is not a gorilla theme to the inspiration; that’s just a coincidence).
I also drew inspiration from Juanjo Guarnido’s watercolor rendering style from Blacksad (fun fact: the American version of the hardcover of Blacksad: A Silent Hell includes 40 pages of Guarnido’s watercolor process at the end, which gave me some valuable insights into natural media rendering).
Steve: At what point did you decide on the colouring style for the series? The colours often dictate the tone of a series, and Misfortune High has this light, sort of sketchy tone to it, like it’s been done by hand – is that the case, or do you colour digitally?
Jules: The marker rendering style idea came from a representative of the publisher to which I had initially pitched Misfortune High. One of their people saw my concept art rendered in markers, and asked me if I was going to color the whole comic like that. I hadn’t even thought of doing it that way at the time, but I loved the idea.
It took some art tests to hammer down the style and the logistics, but I eventually developed the process to include both digital colors and marker sketching on vellum sheets. The digital flatting saves my poor markers from dying every time I have to render a page, and the vellum captures that sketched marker look in a way that digital brushes simply can’t replicate.
Steve: Once you decided that you would write and draw the book, did that bring extra pressure for you, or an extra sense of freedom? You can play to your own creative strengths on both sides, but you don’t have that collaborative aspect with a second voice?
Jules: I can’t say I ever really feel pressure from being my own art team because I’ve been doing it for over ten years. I started doing my own webcomics in 2003, writing and drawing everything myself. Misfortune High is my third series, so this wasn’t pressure so much as time to make the donuts. There was another writer who had been my sounding board at the beginning of development, but he got pretty busy with his own works so I took over handling the project solo.
There are many advantages to having the artist and writer on a project living in the same head. There are fewer miscommunications, and the team can’t really break up (How does one break up with oneself? That’s pretty existential). The down side is the panic attack I have every time I have to begin writing again. I spend far more time on art duties than scripting so I’m constantly out of practice. However, I’ve had some great creator friends along the way who have been willing to hear me out, and talk me off a ledge from time to time which has helped keep things on track.
Steve: What do you find the hardest part of the creative process, personally?
Jules: Fighting the white bull. Any time I begin a new blank script page or a blank comic page is always rough. I try to use outlines to help fill up my scripts quicker, blocking out what I want each scene to do for the story, but that’s not a foolproof solution. Sometimes, scripts don’t want to come together. Sometimes I have to know when to walk away from a script until I have some better ideas. It’s the same with art. Sometimes I’ll try blocking out the artwork of a page to try out different ideas and they’ll all be terrible. Fighting that initial hump is really the hardest part.
Steve: How did the story come together? Was there a point where you felt everything clicked into place?
Jules: Oh, yes. Misfortune High was really only a concept until a year and change ago. “Over-privileged teen gets sent to a magic school in the ghetto and has to learn to get along with people unlike himself” is not a story. It’s a concept.
Everything came into focus when I started introducing conflict elements like the dragon and the shapeshifter antagonist, Johnny Cuervo to the story. Giving Biscuit a mission, even if it’s a dangerous, ill-advised one, helped everything snap into focus.
Steve: The main cast are made up of four: Biscuit, Sonia, Star and Warren. Which characters were easiest to develop and put together? Did you develop Biscuit first, or the characters he goes on to meet at the school?
Jules: Actually, there’s five if you count Johnny. I’m not sure what the rules are in counting antiheroes in main casts, but he’s a guy who’s definitely not going away.
Anyway, Biscuit and Warren came first because they’re sort of natural converses to one another. Biscuit is the sheltered, ignorant, rich kid and Warren is the voice of reason from the wrong side of the tracks. Biscuit comes up with cockamamie schemes and Warren is the straight man who has to pull him back from the edge.
Star and Sonia were a little harder to figure out, but after some development I hammered down their personality traits. Star became the saintly savior who shows a compassion to Biscuit even most readers can’t muster (and one that doesn’t make sense for pragmatic, self-preserving Warren). Sonia started as a bubbly, goofy comic relief, but became much more complicated and interesting after I made her the go-between between the main cast and antihero.
Steve: Biscuit, despite being the possible lead of the book, is a remarkably smug git at times. Was it difficult to build a book around a lead character who can be so unlikeable? Does that make it harder to pull the rest of the cast into his orbit? Or did that constant sense of class conflict fire up your writing?
Jules: It’s times like this I wish this interview was live: hearing Biscuit be described as a “remarkably smug git” in a proper British accent would be the highlight of my life.
Ha, that aside, yes, it’s actually very hard to build a book around a lead who’s a complete tool. As the writer, I have to sympathize with every character and understand their motives, otherwise I’m writing a silly stereotype. Biscuit’s audience appeal is pure schadenfreude. Everybody laughs every time they hear about the rich kid getting his, but in terms of story, that only goes so far.
After some research (and some eye-scarring views of Lena Dunham’s GIRLS and Tiny Furniture), I figured Biscuit out. Even then, I had to do some work figuring out how to get all the cast on his side, which happens in Book 2.
Steve: In Britain, we have a really distinct class system, and it informs everything that people do and has for decades and decades. Is it similar for America? Do you also have this sense of ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’?
Jules: Oh, hell yes it’s similar. If you want to get stupidly rich, like the guys shown in Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream, it’s near impossible to achieve in America without marrying some obnoxious crotch fruit from a rich family. However, I still believe America is a place of social mobility, where people from humble beginnings and the right resources can change their destinies.
My mother put herself through college taking advantage of opportunities within the New York hospital system to become a degreed medical professional of 30+ years. My husband and brother-in-law were brought here from Russia as children to take advantage of the opportunities America offers, later going on become a software developer and user experience designer respectively.
I went to college on the state of Florida’s dime to become an engineer. I’ve obviously quit engineering now, but the savings I built during my time in the salt mines gave me the freedom to work on Misfortune High and other big art projects.
America is kind of a lousy place to come from nothing to build vast wealth, but you can still chase your dreams. Maybe you can even be comfortable. The key is to get information on the right kinds of programs and apprenticeships that can help people build their skill sets.
And, hey, if you’re a savvy enough software developer, you can always build the next hot app to sell to Google or Facebook.
Steve: Were there moments where you felt you were being too harsh on Biscuit, or too kind on the pupils of Misfortune High?
Jules: In book 1, all the fireballs and fisticuffs are in good fun, but things start to get intense for Biscuit in book 2. I feel a little bit bad for putting Biscuit through the wringers the way I do, but some things are necessary for the plot line.
Steve: All this, and I’ve barely mentioned the magic yet! This is a magic school, indeed. What made you decide to add that element of fantasy to the series?
Jules: The high concept was “ghetto magic school.” You can’t have a ghetto magic school without the magic. Besides, it’s a fun way to turn stories about the ‘hood on their ear and have fun with them. Stories about bad neighborhoods are always so severe and dour. It’s easy for general audiences to forget that people in the ghetto have a sense of humor too. I guess Friday and its sequels weren’t enough to convince people.
Key and Peele did something pretty similar with their Vince Clortho High skit, which is hilarious. If I ever got the chance to work with those guys on something like that, it would be awesome.
Steve: Do you have a clear idea in your head of the rules of magic for this world?
Jules: I think it’s more accurate to say I’ve got a clear idea in my head of what I don’t want the rules of magic to be in this world. Harry Potter sort of left me scratching my head as to why the muggle world and the wizard world must stay completely separate. I suppose it’s to sell kids on the idea magic could exist in our world, but the mechanism breaks down in a lot of places when you stop and think about it.
I wanted magic to be a pretty casual thing in Misfortune High. It’s everywhere, anyone has access to it, and if you’re really good with it, then great. You can’t really hide dragons from an entire population with cameras in their cell phones anyway.
Steve: The first volume of Misfortune High was successfully funded by Kickstarter, and volume two is live now! How has your experience of the site been?
Jules: My experience with Kickstarter has been really great! You are correct that Misfortune High Book 2 will go to Kickstarter at the beginning of March, once I finish the video and running some numbers. I admit my success had more to do with the counselling I’ve received from my other Kickstarter comic buddies such as Tyler James of ComixTribe. He helped give me a lot of pointers and moral support that contributed to the success of the project. In fact, he posts a series of articles on how anyone can achieve Kickstarter success, which I highly recommend.
The Kickstarter site itself too helps out with taking the guess work out of page formatting, communicating with backers, and sending out surveys. It made the whole thing very streamlined, which is a Godsend considering how much work a Kickstarter project is unto itself.
Steve: How much of a full-time job is it once a book is funded on Kickstarter? That’s a side nobody really looks at, but I have to imagine that getting funded means you then have a mountain of mail, commissions, signings and so on to do.
Jules: I got a bit lucky this time around in not having too many commissions to tackle. I tried to get those out of the way first before any stock arrived. Once I got the books in, my house turned into a fulfilment warehouse, and I spent the better part of three days signing, packing, gluing, taping, and sealing whatever was necessary to ship stuff out. I don’t know how I did it, but I got 75% of my shipments ready in that three-day weekend. I should be dead.
Steve: What are you long-term plans for Misfortune High? Do you have a set ending in place for the series?
Jules: Misfortune High is currently planned as a five-book series, with book 1 available for sale now and book 2 going to Kickstarter this month. That would leave three books left to produce. However, depending on how well the series does, I could end up doing more OGNs. Moreover, I’m situated in Hollywood near a huge animation community, so who knows where this thing could end up? I’m keeping my options open, but we can count on at least five books for sure.
Steve: Do you have anything else coming up this year? Where can people find you online?
Jules: Other than con appearances (I’ll be at SDCC), and the continued production of my webcomic, Valkyrie Squadron, the one thing I can announce is my involvement in the pitch for MindSweepers. Developed by TV animation writer Patrick Rieger, it’s the story of teenagers who dive into the minds of their fellow students to fight the monsters within each other’s heads.
The pitch is available to read on Amazon, and if it gets picked up, I’m presently slated to be a driving talent in the art design of the show. It’s great fun, and the more people comment on the series, the more attention it’ll get. Look out for more news on that in the future.
To find more information on me online, I can be found at my website here, although my Twitter account usually has more updated information. Misfortune High can be followed at the website or on the Tumblr production blog.
Thank you very much to Jules for her time! This is usually the point where I link to all her work – but she’s already done that! So instead here’s a reminder that Misfortune High Vol 2 is currently running on Kickstarter RIGHT NOW!