MATT CHATS: Chris Sebela on Comics, Cross-Pollination and Portland

MATT CHATS: Chris Sebela on Comics, Cross-Pollination and Portland

Chris Sebela is everywhere. I first became aware of him thanks to the Everest crime thriller High Crimes from Monkey Brain, and since then he has worked with an array of publishers from Marvel to DC to Image to Dark Horse and, recently, with Oni Press and Boom! Studios for his latest creator-owned series. I talked to Chris about having so many different bosses, his series We(l)come Back and Heartthrob and what’s next for him.

Welcome Back cover

Art by Jonathan Brandon Sawyer.

Is balancing work between multiple publishers more of a source of joy or an extra complication?

It’s fun. Every publisher has their own way of doing things, their own structure and accessibility. Some are like close personal friends and some are just like making a transaction with a bank teller. It keeps things interesting for me. I like the variety. The only real complication is that all the scheduling and everything else lies in my hands. It’s not like they’re trading emails to make sure that this block of time is free for a script that one editor needs. So I have to be good about noting all this stuff down and be reasonable about when I can deliver a script where I’m not leaving them hanging and I’m not making the work suffer because I have to hit a deadline.

What did you and the rest of the creative team of We(l)come Back do to make the transition from Jonathan Brandon Sawyer to Claire Roe as smooth as possible?

I’d already worked ahead, so Claire had a full script ready to go when she came on board. She also did a lot of homework, studying our first two issues to get the world and the characters of Mali, Tessa, Lorena and Showtime down pat. So it didn’t really feel like too much work. The transition was pretty smooth for all of us. Once I saw Claire’s pages start coming in, any jitters I might have had were completely erased and she just got better and better as she went.

WelcomeBack-003-Cover-6907e

Art by Jonathan Brandon Sawyer.

What was the most difficult thing about writing We(l)come Back?

Not falling down rabbit holes. With a story like that one, it was set up so that each Sequel had a series of past lives. Especially Mali and Tessa, where with each one they grow closer and closer, until they finally figure out what they mean to each other. I could’ve written entire issues about each past life. Or getting lost in writing the quiet moments. The action scenes I always had in mind as I wrote, but it was the scenes of people sitting in cars or coffeeshops or standing around together and nothing big and flashy is happening that drew me in the most. Especially when Mali and Tessa ran off together, I got caught up in their relationship too, so I could’ve written a whole arc of them figuring each other out and watching bad movies together.

Why end We(l)come Back at Issue 8?

The sales weren’t there. It wasn’t a grand plan on my end. We weren’t even supposed to have more than 4 issues. It’s only because our numbers were really good for that first arc that Boom! gave us another arc, which I’m still grateful for. I thought the story was going to end the way issue 4 ends. Just one big moment and a lot of questions. So getting to actually dig into what all that stuff meant was a huge reward for me. But books have attrition and our numbers went down and it’s a sad reality of things. I could’ve written this book for another dozen issues or two. 

mckelvie

Art by Jamie McKelvie.

Both Heartthrob and Welcome Back are about life past death. Coincidence, or does it say something about your muses?

There is a prevalence of death in my books and I’m not exactly sure why. Even my first book, High Crimes, starts with a dead body. Other than the whole “I’m a human being and aware of my mortality and secretly terrified of it” thing, I think it is a coincidence. I only just kinda realized this thematic thing pretty recently. I don’t sit around contemplating death in my free time and being an existential goth bummer, for what it’s worth. I think what it is is that death and mortality appeal to me as a story point. It’s the one true universal experience we all share that no one has any clue what happens after it happens. So that makes it a pretty big door that you can shove a lot of different ideas through.

What made Robert Wilson IV the right artist for Heartthrob?

Heartthrob is a romance book. It’s about relationships, both with others and with yourself. So emotion and reaction is a huge part of relating all that. Robert is great at that, at being able to render a feeling with facial expressions and body language, which is not the easiest thing in the world to do. Beyond that, he’s a great storyteller who can handle big action and small moments equally well. I didn’t want this to just be a crime book, I wanted it to be about the characters, especially our main character Callie. With Robert, I know that every little twist of the knife or adrenaline joy is going to come through perfectly.

Heartthrob 2

Art by Robert Wilson IV.

How do you keep exposition interesting for Robert to draw or readers to look at?

It’s mostly a matter of keeping it interesting to me. If I’m getting bored writing it or I’m starting to wonder when things are going to change up, that’s a pretty good indicator that I should make some changes. I try to write the kind of books I’d want to read, and I don’t want to read walls of text and talking heads, I want things to keep moving, even if they slow down a little to fill in the blank spots. Hopefully I do my job before I turn the script over to Robert. And he’s so good, if I have screwed up, he’ll definitely let me know or he’ll just fix my big mistakes on his own. We trust each other in this venture, so I’m never worried about what’s going to happen when Robert starts laying out a new issue, I know it’s going to be a lot of things I never expected that only improve the story I wrote. 

How much do you think about the era Heartthrob is set in when scripting?

A lot. I chose the era initially because I wanted to have a crime element that could exist in a time where crooks didn’t have to worry about cell phones or closed circuit cameras or all the things that have come to pass that make it harder and harder for outlaws to go on sprees. So the 70s was initially because of that, and because I love the era and all the musical and filmic and societal changes that came along with it. So I try to keep very aware of what’s right for that time period and what’s not. My Google history goes pretty deep doing research to make sure all the moments we hit feel right, even if the readers have no familiarity with the time period. It should, I think, feel like an era, even if you have no personal evidence to back it up or refute it.

Heartthrob 3

Art by Robert Wilson IV.

How long do you want the series to go?

I have it planned out for about 15 issues, 3 arcs total. I’m a big fan of stories that have endings and that don’t drag their heels getting there. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover in Heartthrob, and keeping things tightly paced like that allows us to hit everything we want to without skimping and without padding things out. I don’t know of any story that can go on forever, even though sometimes I might want it to. With Heartthrob, there’s all sorts of very specific and nerdy reasons why it’s going for this long and once we get to the end, it should all make sense and feel right.

croc

Do you have a desire to work more at the Big Two or are you content with what you’re doing now?

I definitely do. I was a student in the pilot program of DC’s Writer Development Group this past winter, which was pretty exciting to be invited to. That lead to me currently working on a two-issue Killer Croc story for Suicide Squad: Most Wanted. I want to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, but with the help of the program and Scott Snyder teaching it, I’ve found a way to keep doing that within the larger universes that I grew up reading. Throwing Killer Croc into a madhouse situation and digging deeper into what makes him tick has been a lot of fun and I want to do more stuff like that.

I’ll never stop doing creator-owned books. There’s dozens of stories I want to tell where I build my own worlds and my own characters and dip my feet into subjects that I get obsessed with. That’s why I got into comics. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t really geeked about playing in the sandbox with characters that I’ve spent my life reading about. I’m hopeful about what comes next, especially the idea that if people read my stuff at DC or Marvel, it might lead them back to reading the books that got me that shot in the first place. 

You’ve talked on Twitter about how you moved away from Portland. Was it harder to make that choice knowing what a hub the city is for the comics industry?

I haven’t moved yet. I guess I’ve been a bit vague about it, after talking a lot about leaving Portland earlier this year. Right now I’m scouting things out, but it’s pretttty likely I’ll be leaving Portland sooner than later. It’s hard in a lot of regards and the whole thing of it being a comics hotspot is also tied up in the fact that a lot of my close friends in Portland also work in comics. There’s something really nice about being in a town where you’re able to go to a place like Helioscope Studio and hang out with a lot of amazing creators. Or going to get dim sum with your writer friend and talking shop in a really casual way. Or the fact that people who were my heroes now somehow let me come to their house and hang out with them. Plus there’s something to be said for being able to pop in on your publisher, whether it be Dark Horse or Oni, they’re both about equidistant from my house. 

It’s been a magical utopia, especially as someone who got here and had zero comics credits under my belt and now if/when I leave, it’ll be with this whole new skillset of flatting and lettering and writing and how to put a book together and a tiny little library of books I’ve written. I feel like my time in Portland was a huge gift and I’m deeply sad about having to go. Right now it feels like all the things that made it amazing are vanishing and it’s become a place where artists are more and more hard pressed to find a place to live that they can afford that also affords them time to go out and live the lives they bust their necks working to pay for. It’s super weird. But the nice thing is I can go anywhere and do my job, and there are lots of comics communities out there that I’d gladly call home.

Profile

Find Chris on Twitter @xtop or his website, and check out all of his comics but especially Heartthrob. It’s really really great.

MATT CHATS is a weekly interview series that goes live every Tuesday, conducted between Matt O’Keefe and a creator and/or player in the comic book industry, diving deep into industry, process and creative topics.

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