Talent/Project Manager: Spencer Toyama and Jon Lewis
Days to Go: 16
The spiel: While I was waiting for at the Kickstarter panel at NYCC someone was giving out preview copies of their book. Someone ambitiously finding their audience and getting their book in the hands of people that appreciate self published work, that man was Spencer Toyama. We struck up a conversation about his Kickstarter project and how far he came to get more press about his work. After reading the 30 page preview to Home of the Brave: Struggle & Triumph in a Broken Americaon the six-hour plane ride back to Arizona, as soon as I stepped off the plane it became a personal mission to see this project succeed.
“Wonderful Work” – David Mack artist/writer of Kabuki and Daredevil
“Home of the Brave looks to be a well-made project by two promising creators…” – Aaron Colter, Comics Alliance
“To support this project is a no brainer.” – Brett Schenker, Graphic Policy
“Superbly phenomenal new and original….Please spread the word. Rob a bank to contribute, if need be.” – Richard Caldwell, The Lottery Party
The duo is trying to raise 12k to print the 132 page hardcover graphic novel. They have a plethora of rewards such as digital downloads, exclusive Kickstarter variant covers, signatures from the creators and original ink sketches from Lewis. They have made the first 30 pages of the book available for download here.
Here’s the unplugged, no-holds-barred interview with two of Hawaii’s brightest the DIY comic industry has to offer.
Who were you before you started making comic books?
Jon Lewis: Before I started to make comics I was on a road to define myself as a working designer in a struggling ecosystem. To say that I am winding down the formative years of my design career would be accurate; however as a visual storyteller, I embrace the fact that I still have much to learn. As a self motivated creative, I’ve always looked at a project of collaboration as an opportunity for mutual growth. And I think that approach to growth is what best defines my transition from who I was when I started, to who I am now. I’ve evolved into a creature that is more inspired by the marriage and harmony of gathered ideas, than the homogenized vision driven by a higher order. It’s always been my goal to break down the walls of communication on projects as a designer; working on a comic book has been the most liberating experience in that regard.
Spencer Toyoma: I was a human that enjoyed comic books, graphic novels, anything Joss Whedon, capoeira, and long walks on the beach. I suppose I am still that person, but spend a heck of a lot of time promoting our book on Kickstarter.
Honestly, this project has actually been a huge awakening for me. Through Home of the Brave, I’ve been fortunate to be involved with courageous people on the front lines of human trafficking. Non-profits like The Somaly Mam Foundation (please read The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam), the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, and Daughters Rising are all organizations that have truly opened my eyes to what’s going on in the world and locally. Few people realize how pervasive the issue is, and I for one was rather ignorant about the sex-trafficking that happens in my home state of Hawaii.
When we met at NYCC you mentioned that you were once a music producer, how did you transition to comics? No one warned you how (little) comics pay?
ST: Music isn’t exactly the booming industry that it used to be. I’m pretty sure Jenna Maroney’s summer smash hit “Balls!” only paid her $90 in royalties (please appreciate my fantastic ’30 Rock’ reference). As with most other creators, I’m in love with the medium, but also the history and form of graphic story telling. Siegel and Shuster created Superman in the 1930’s in the middle of the great depression as a sort of allegory to the Jewish immigration, but it was also a form of social commentary with Superman taking on slum lords and greedy businessmen, going on to take on the KKK and racial oppression in the 1940’s and 50’s which may have changed an entire generation’s view on racism and social hierarchy. Comics books and graphic novels can be deeply impacting to those who read it, and I desperately want to contribute to this powerful medium.
What about this project makes it so personal to you?
JL: Making a book with one of my best friends is a huge personal endeavor, and the fact that Home of the Brave holds some actual weight in reality is a really strong motivator. But beyond the obvious humanitarian points, the project is a one of a kind exploration of what I’ve been calling ‘non historical fiction’. I see the our story as something as unique and tangible as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘MAUS’ or any other Great Novel that defined a time and place for its country and people. I’ve always felt that, during difficult times, there’s an instinctual call for storytellers to capture the discourse that bubbles beneath society’s difficult issues.
That call isn’t always answered as poetically as it could be. But that challenge is something that I feel we are approaching with a deep personal responsibility.
ST: I used to work with an anti-bullying program for high school students, and would often work with teenagers that were sexually and physically abused. Coming from a suburban, middle-class background and supportive parents, the experience was jarring to me, and it was a sort of into-the-rabbit-hole experience. I began reading a lot more about human exploitation with books like ‘Disposable People’ by Kevin Bales and ‘A People’s History of the United States’ by Howard Zinn, and thought some of the accounts of slaves and subjugated people were fascinating. I was surprised that I haven’t heard about these stories before, and thought it’d make a great comic book or graphic novel. At the same time, human trafficking and exploitation is still a pervasive issue, and I saw an opportunity to create a pop-culture platform that could bring attention to these issues.
How did you two come together and start this project?
ST: Jon was working with a roommate of mine at the time, shooting at my house for a film competition. I keep all of my comic books and graphic novels in the living room, because they won’t fit in my bedroom. Jon stopped in front of my giant bookshelf of graphic literature and asked who it all belonged to, and that’s how we met. We spoke about our favorite comics and creators, and I pitched him a very rough idea of Home of the Brave. At the time I was intending to illustrate the project myself, but a few days later Jon messaged me a picture of Aria and I knew I had to get him on the project. We’ve been working on this project ever since.
I know it’s challenging for a lot of artists to draw children in difficult situations. Jon, was that a problem for you and how do you get in that mind set?
JL: When the script for the book was completed and I started layouts, there we’re a few scenes that I absolutely could not wait to get on paper. And then there were some scenes that I had absolutely no idea how I was going to get on paper. There’s a 5 page sequence that was exceptionally trying, and to make production even more difficult, a great deal of that sequence was boiled down to two words in the script. It was difficult to capture the proper emotion and tone without crossing any lines. On second thought – lines were definitely crossed, or tip-toed over, discretely.
In hindsight, I’ve realized that creating this world, placing myself into this reality, and acting for these characters comes more natural to me than most people would assume. Its a challenging, dark, inspiring process.
Please tell me because I have to know, is there a comic book scene in Hawaii? My research in brought me to Pineapple Man, tell me there is more out there.
ST: The comic scene in Hawaii is very much it’s own, and I’m honestly not as active as a lot of others in Hawaii. Comic Jam Hawaii (You can find them on Facebook, but they are not an open group) has regular events where artists can come together to practice illustration and graphic storytelling. Sam Campos, the creator of Pineapple Man is a very active member of the group, and they’re a really welcoming group of individuals that will create illustrations to raise money for charities.
Hawaii has only a few comic book shops, some more diverse than others. My favorite shop is Gecko Books in Kaimuki, because they heavily specialize in comics over games and collectibles Each shop seems to have their own niche here. Other Realms specializes in games and collectibles, and Jelly’s carries comics but concentrates heavily on used books.
Did you and Lewis pitch this project to publishers before taking it to Kickstarter?
ST: Nope. I may get a lot of flack for this, but I see the literary and visual arts moving into a more democratized direction, much in the same way the music industry did in the early 2000’s. Publishers are great for marketing books and tapping into existing distribution systems, but in today’s market where digital distribution is beginning to carry more and more weight, brick and mortar distribution channels aren’t as necessary for small creators like Jon and I, which means the up front costs that necessitated publishers is less necessary. We want to get our books into as many hands as possible, but that can grow organically without relying on what has been considered fundamental to the publishing industry for centuries. Marketing can be handled through web and social media channels (and is way harder than you’d think), while the printing costs for books can be validated and funded through crowd funding.
This is also why platforms like Kickstarter are such game changers, in that the platform mitigates the risk for independent publishers by validating the product and the market before a large amount of investment is necessary.
What do you think the future of Kickstarter will in store for independent comic book creators?
ST: I think Kickstarter is a huge game changer for independent creators, as it democratizes some rather large barriers to entry: funding, market viability, and marketing. In the future, I see the majority of creators using crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter, with more sophistication as the crowd funding space becomes more populated. Creators will eventually learn to market better, control their costs, and hopefully craft more creativity. More and more creators, even established artists like Ben Templesmith are turning to crowd funding because it gives creators more control over their work in every facet. It’s allowing creators to be entrepreneurs, and I couldn’t be more excited for the future of independent creators.
What attention has this project brought outside of the comic book industry?
ST: Outside of comics, this project has lead both Jon and I to be more involved with those trying to free sex trafficking survivors. Jon and I have been speaking with the Somaly Mam foundation in regards to collaborative projects to benefit human trafficking survivors outside of our Kickstarter project. I am afraid I cannot divulge too many details, but needless to say we are excited to be a part of this community of heroes, and eager to use our abilities to help those in need.
Why should people support your project out of the current 109 comics on Kickstarter?
JL: Funding a project on Kickstarter, in my opinion, is less of a competitive decision and more of a reflex. If a project piques someones interest, I find it natural that they would fund it, mostly because the platform is so democratized that the competition factor almost falls away. But if there was some contest as to why someone should fund our project, I would ask that person “What story do you want to read more? The one about a genius teenage girl trying to stay alive in a decaying America that’s classified as a third world country on the brink of collapse? Or the one about vampires versus zombies on a female space prison where everything blows up and Michael Bay gets the movie deal?”
Not that I have anything against zombies, or female werewolf space prisons … or Michael Bay, but Home of the Brave is a story I’ve never heard before, and I think its worth telling.
ST: I’ve always viewed Kickstarter as a community and I believe Home of the Brave to be one of many worthy projects available on Kickstarter. As to why one would choose our project; we created a great story that we truly believe in. We are hoping to bring awareness to issues such as human trafficking, but ultimately our goal is to tell a creative and innovative story that’s relevant to our culture and times, much in the same way that Siegel and Shuster have done with early Superman stories when he fought slumlords at the height of the Great Depression.