Green Monk is an uncharacteristically quiet story for mainstream comics. Most series from the largest comic book publishers focus on fast-moving action, but cartoonist Brandon Dayton feels comfortable sitting in the quiet moments of his story. Green Monk went on a remarkable trajectory from little-known minicomic to YALSA award-winner to an expanded version recently published by Image Comics. Dayton spoke to me about that trajectory and his growth as an artist over those eight years.
Where did the concept of Green Monk come from?
The formation of an idea can be tricky to excavate. The original idea goes back over 15 years, but to be honest, I think there was some of it where I was trying to do my own version of Star Wars (monk with a magic sword?) with some Miyazaki mixed in. I think the original concept was kind of a pastiche of The Searchers too. Over time it evolved.
One of the biggest influences was seeing Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. I loved the setting of Medieval Russia. It was this time of chaos and uncertainty before Russian Unification. Very much a wild, wild West setting except in this case it was wild, wild East. Perfect for a wandering samurai type of story.
What appeals to you about monk culture?
The idea that there is a space carved out where you can explore life from a non-materialistic place. That could mean contemplative practice, but historically it could also mean art, science, scholarship, and service. Monasteries of some sort or another were once part of every culture and were as ubiquitous as Walmarts. Having a thriving contemporary version of this is really something we are missing as a modern secular society. Our art could greatly benefit from having a place of refuge like this, where it didn’t need to be informed by transactional necessities.
A monastery is also interesting from a storytelling point of view because it is a place of extremes. People live their values in the most literal sense possible and to the most dramatic degree. It’s a place of very crystalline and unambiguous integrity. It makes for very high tension when it comes to the question of right and wrong and how that is expressed through choices.
What was the reception to the original minicomic like prior to its inclusion on the 2011 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens?
It was quietly but positively received. The reason for its inclusion on the list was due to a few passionate fans who also ended up being on the YALSA selection committee.
Green Monk is the only self-published book on that year’s list. Was it a big surprise to hear the news of its inclusion?
Absolutely. It was the best thing I could imagine happening for the book. I was confident in the book when I released it, but art is a communal act, and there is an essential part of making art is sharing it. It was gratifying to see how it was received and the things readers appreciated about it. I felt like I was taking a risk and trying to do something a bit out of left field and it was great to see that it connected.
How did you grow as an artist in the years between completing the minicomic and beginning work on Blood of the Martyrs?
Massively! I released the mini just as I started working in games. Games were the refining fire for my artistic abilities. I grew so much being in the trenches of making games. EA Games is really where I learned perspective and technical drawing. Working at Disney Interactive, I reached an entirely new level. There was a very strong art culture there, and I felt like I was constantly hustling to keep up. The type of work I did there also involved doing lots of concepts of placing characters in spatial settings, which was an excellent exercise for comics. I left gaming totally fearless to take on any drafting challenge that came my way.
After years of working for large video game studios, what was it like to transition back to creating something independently?
Very bumpy. Working for yourself is challenging in all the ways you might expect, and it took me a good year or two to really figure out the magic formula for me. It can be very lonely, and hard to stay on task, particularly when it is a big speculative project like I was doing. There were many lessons I learned about how to make it work along the way. But the upside is the artistic freedom, and the ability to create something that is as pure a piece of art as you can muster.
I feel very fortunate that I was able to take that time to focus on Green Monk. I have to give all the credit to my wife. She was the one that offered to go back to work to help make it happen. My original plan was just to draw down our savings, which… wouldn’t have worked as well.
If you want a more granular account, you can check out my YouTube channel. I did a weekly video for most of the time I was working on Blood of the Martyrs.
Did you find it beneficial to share it in parts as a webcomic rather than waiting until you’d written and drawn enough material for a collected edition?
That’s hard to say. My initial idea was to try to release content regularly enough to get a Patreon audience, and I just wasn’t regular enough to make that work. On the flip side, I did have a running start on establishing an audience before publication. Not sure how much that helped in sales at the end of the day, but it was good to get that feedback as I went along. Having readers respond to things was super encouraging. I wasn’t just floating in the ether with this massive daydream that was disconnected from reality.
In the future, I would much rather try and get my work in print in some form. A think a monthly title could accomplish all the same things but actually get in front of more people, do a better job of keeping me on schedule, and at least cover some of the production costs.
Has it been gratifying to see Green Monk exposed to a wider audience since its publication as a graphic novel?
Absolutely. Just like with the mini, it’s great to have your point of view affirmed by others. The additional benefit of getting Blood of the Martyrs out there is seeing more responses from my art peers. It’s super rewarding to see reactions from artists that I’ve admired for years.
I was honestly never a great fit for concept art and games and just had a sense that there was a limit to my ambitions in that arena. I’m not the best artist out there, I’m not the best writer, but I happen to be good enough at both that I can do something unique when I use them together. Comics is a place where I can stand out in that sense. To see my work appreciated at that level is deeply gratifying.
Are you creating new chapters of Green Monk full-time, or are you working on other projects as well?
I pitched a continuation of Green Monk, but haven’t seen any interest from Image. I think that’s actually okay, as I’ve spent almost ten years now nibbling at the concept, and I think my pitch reflected the fatigue I was feeling. I’m moving on to other projects which you can see snippets of if you follow my Instagram, but we’ve also got a baby on the way, so it’s my turn at the wheel at paying the bills. I’ll likely be working in games again and working on other concepts here and there until I get the opportunity to focus more on comics again.
I would have to feel very strongly about it to return to Green Monk. That’s not where I feel driven right now. That’s a bit of a bummer since Blood of the Martyrs is basically a set-up for more adventures. I could tell a million stories now with that premise. Finding a resolution would be interesting, and I have a pretty clear idea of what that would look like, but I also don’t mind the ambiguity of the current ending. If I were to do it, it would be like how Ursula
LeGuin returned to Earthsea after the first book. She did it with honesty and integrity and without pandering to an audience. Green Monk has always been deeply personal, and it would be a compromise to return to it in any other way. Maybe a project to take up again in 20 years.
Follow Brandon through his website, on Twitter @brandondayton, and on Instagram @mbdayton. You can read Blood of the Martyrs as a webcomic here and buy the original minicomic and more from his online store.
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with creators or players in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at [email protected].