A year or two ago I spoke to the creative team of The Only Living Boy about their project, a successful Kickstarter which led to a print comic coming out in two volumes subsequently. And now one half of that creative team – artist Steve Ellis, who works on the comic along with writer David Gallaher – comes to The Beat to talk about the newest move for their story. We don’t forget a project here at The Beat!
Launching today, The Only Living Boy will be published as a webcomic, with instalments coming out online for anyone to read. As the story progresses online, print editions of each issue will come out once enough story has been collected together. Considering Ellis is a veteran of digital comics by now – he’s worked at Zuda, had a successful Kickstarter campaign, and has just announced a comics-related film through Amazon Studios – I wanted to find out more about the story of The Only Living Boy, and what was behind the decision to put the comic online. Read on!
Steve Morris: What is the general premise of The Only Living Boy? How did the project come about?
Steve Ellis: It’s about a runaway who finds himself in a patchwork fantasy world, filled with all manner of crazy alien- and other-types of creatures. He has to find his way and learn to survive in a place that resembles his own fractured identity. How do you like THEM apples? I wanted a project that has the life and adventure of the stories that made me excited about reading as a young person, but also a project that provides the depth of storytelling that engages me as an adult.
SM: You’ve worked with writer David Gallaher for a long time now. Did he come to you with the concept of the series, or was this a story you came up with and worked on together?
Steve: David came to me with an idea of riffing off an old Simon & Garfunkel song! But he left it there, and I pushed it to go further. The initial concept was very different and involved zombies. But aren’t there too many zombies? It was too nihilistic at the beginning, and we wanted something more adventurous and fun. So we worked on developing it into a wider, more expansive story.
SM: How does the collaborative process between you work? How do you go back and forth about ideas, characters, or designs?
Steve: On my end, it involves a lot of talking on the phone and jumping up and down. We get really excited about our ideas. Usually David will come with loose story framework that we’ll brainstorm. I usually waste a lot of his time changing things, haha. But he has a strong influence on my drawings too, so it’s very collaborative.
SM: When you set about designing the world of this series, what kind of influences or inspirations were you keeping in mind?
Steve: Oh wow. John Carter of Mars, Thundarr the Barbarian, Saturday morning adventure cartoons from when I was a kid–I hate to admit it, but I can’t do anything that’s not influenced by Star Wars on some level. Honestly, in a weird way, certain anime series and animated films had a big influence on it, like Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds.
SM: When you take on a new project, to what extent do you consider various different line styles, sequencing ideas, inking and so on; to fit the tone of the series?
Steve: That’s a huge thing for me; for some people who follow my work, it might actually be confusing. I try to consider each project I work on to be a wholly different idea. Some projects I do with pencil and no ink and a painted color style, some I do with very rough inks (like High Moon). Only Living Boy has a cleaner color and ink style to emphasize the sense of adventure, where the mise en scéne of High Moon is dark, gritty horror.
Basically, each project is its own individual. Only Living Boy is obviously about youthful energy, and the design style is meant to resemble the clean, open aesthetic of animated films rather than traditional comic books.
SM: Does the fact that this is deliberately a young adult story have any effect on your approach to the art of the series? With a younger audience reading, do you change things up at all?
Steve: A lot of young adult books explore more “mature” themes and concepts. The Harry Potter series is an easy example, but both my eleven-year-old son and I enjoy that series on different levels, despite some of the more violent or frightening aspects. Only Living Boy won’t shy away from stronger themes as the character grows; young adults live in the same world as the rest of us, and face the same problems and fears. Erik’s answers might just be a bit more fantastic.
SM: How did you plan out the central design of your main character, Erik? What do you think motivates and drives him, what’s his personality?
Steve: What’s nice about Erik is that he’s kind of a cipher: he comes off as a fairly average kid, but there’s something darker underneath his skin. He’s running away from something at the start of the story, but he doesn’t remember what. Whatever it is, he’s haunted by it. So his design is going to grow and change as he grows and changes and assimilates his complex, shifting environment. He’s a classic hero in the midst of change! His design is very simple and becomes more complex, like a warrior collecting scars.
SM: The greater world itself is a mix of fighting pits, jungle – inhospitable domains. When building a world, how much world do you actually, well, build? Do you map things out, to give a sense of perspective, or plan aspects which never actually show up in the comic itself?
Steve: Ha! Actually, there’s a lot of backstory to all of my projects visually and narratively. For example, we have been developing an upcoming race to be revealed soon: the Myrmidonians. A great tragedy in their past has made them what they are. We don’t know the tragedy as an audience, but it permeates their personalities and society.
Their culture, hierarchy, and even architecture is very protectivist in nature to reflect their tragic history and their response–but it isn’t necessarily directly relevant to the story at hand. You get hints of it through their attitudes towards Erik and other creatures in the world of Chimerica, but, yeah, a lot of the work we do to develop these cultures goes unseen! David and I are both history buffs, and we put in a lot of forethought to give these things richness.
SM: You’re not a stranger to digital comics, having worked at Zuda and on several other digital projects. What was behind the decision to bring The Only Living Boy to webseries?
Steve: Underneath it all, we make art so it can be seen. Kickstarters are great, but you still have a limited audience! Maybe it’s naive of me, but I want to give this story to the world and feel the web is the best way to do that. Anyone can read it for free and easily pass it along to somebody else. How that works out for us, we have yet to see.
In a way, I think of being an artist as being a storyteller after the manner of an ancient tribe, and I want my tribe to be as big as possible. Sharing stories builds community, and having a webpresence for the book allows us to reach a broader, more diverse readership.
SM: How will the story now progress? Once the webcomic catches up to the print books, will you continue on, or release print first?
Steve: Right now, the plan is to release the story online and have print follow. But depending on how our relationship with different publishers and other media goes, the plan could change.
SM: What are your thoughts in general on the rise of webcomics and digital? You’ve seen this rise almost from the ground floor yourself – how do you think digital has changed comics?
Steve: I think it’s created a whole new audience for comics that’s very large, international, and transcendent of the traditional, direct marketplace idea of what a “sellable book” is. There are a lot of projects that wouldn’t get traction in a tradition direct market but that get traction beautifully on the web. From a creative standpoint, not being restricted by page count enables us to tell different types of stories. Print isn’t an obstruction to the creative processes.
I also think it’s an excellent way to develop an audience for print. While I generally consider digital media as a completely unique and enjoy the new types of comics found there, print still has a certain amount of prestige. The print object becomes a prestige format for the devoted fan, but you can only get devoted fans from having a large readership. If you have an immediate print price point, you’re already alienating an audience that doesn’t have the money to pay for anything outside of what they usually read.
If I knew I could read Superman online for free, I would probably read more Superman. If I read Superman online for free and loved it? I would probably buy a good-looking prestige collection. You see how they work together?
SM: What else do you have coming up? Where can people find you online?
Steve: We’ve got new things coming for High Moon, and I’m currently waiting on a reprint of The Silencers, which is a book I created with author Fred Van Lente. But if someone was hunting for updates, I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr as hypersteve!
But for something more direct, I’ll be doing an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, March 28, so people should definitely come say hello! You can see stuff from David Gallaher and I at Bottled Lightning, on The Only Living Boy site, and my personal stuff at http://steveellisart.com.
I also blog at http://hyperactiveart.blogspot.com, and I put a lot of sketches and instructional stuff there.