AUTUMN OF INDIE: Interview with John Lees

What a year it has been for John Lees!

He has released 3 of the 6 issues of his debut comic The Standard, which has received incredible critical acclaim. After being nominated for a SICBA (Scottish Independent Comic Book Awards) last year, he was nominated again this year and won Best Writer. He is a key member of GLoW (Glasgow League of Writers), where he was a part of their first anthology and is also a part of the second. He is also a part of The Oxymoron graphic novel that soared to success through Kickstarter.

GS: Hi John! You have had incredible success with your debut book The Standard, a critical hit that you won a SICBA for, winning Best Writer. Where did the idea come from?

JL: The story of The Standard began back in late 2008, when an artist friend of mine approached me about making a comic with him.  The original plan had been to do a crime-noir detective story, but in the midst of thinking about that I came up with something completely different, about an elderly superhero from a more innocent age coming out of retirement in today’s grim-and-gritty world.  And while the original collaboration with my friend didn’t materialize, this idea for a superhero, who by this point was called The Standard, stuck around with me.  I’ve always loved superheroes, and so I think this is my love letter of sorts to the genre, my attempt to put everything I love about superheroes into a story of my own.

GS: What first inspired you to write comics?

JL: It was a bit of a “Eureka!” revelation for me.  I’ve always loved comics, and I’ve always loved writing, but never really put the two together in my mind.  I had studied screenwriting as part of my Film & Television Studies course at University, and after graduating I’d had ideas of pursuing that further, but didn’t have a concrete plan in mind.  But in shifting mediums to comics, my mind became full of possibilities.  It seems, especially when you’re starting out, that writing for film or TV is as much about what you CAN’T do as anything else, but with comics there’s no budget, no restrictions save for what you and your creative team are capable of putting onto paper.  I read a brilliant series of columns by editor Steven Forbes called Bolts & Nuts (currently available for reading on www.comixtribe.com) that took this lofty dream of making comics, and set it out as a tangible goal to strive towards, not just in terms of the technical aspects of formatting a comic script, but the practical issues of getting your script made into a comic, published, etc.  So, Steven Forbes is someone I definitely have to mention when talking about what inspired me to write comics.

GS: What type of storytelling do you like?

JL: It might seem like a facetious answer, but “good storytelling”.  I can enjoy stories in a diverse range of genres and styles, so long as they’re executed well.  To narrow it down more, I’d say that ultimately I’m someone who prefers heart over head.  Stories of admirable technical invention that are emotionally cold don’t resonate with me so much as stories that, at their core, are about characters.

GS: The Standard is planned to have a diamond release next year in America. Can you tell us more about how this came about?

JL: It’s come about through my relationship with ComixTribe.  Steven Forbes is the editor of The Standard, and so when he paired up with Tyler James to form ComixTribe, Tyler offered me a spot on the upstart publisher’s launch line of titles.  I was at the ComixTribe booth at New York Comic Con last year, and that was a great experience.  In the year since, I’ve seen the company make leaps and bounds.  Tyler piloted a micro-distribution scheme across a network of retailers in the US that proved to be such a big success that it put us on Diamond’s radar, and so just recently ComixTribe had its first worldwide release with Scam #1 through Diamond.  The Red Ten debuts through Diamond in December, then it’s The Standard in January.  I’m very excited (and nervous!) about that, as of course while The Standard has done very well on its more small-scale release around Glasgow and in digital markets, it’s when you’re in Diamond and available to comic shops all around the world that it really feels real.

GS: How does the comixtribe experience work?

JL: ComixTribe are still an upstart publisher, and so they’re not actively seeking new titles to publish at the moment.  But what they’ve done that I think is very smart is focus on establishing their brand.  With titles like Scam and The Red Ten, the unifying factor is quality, and so hopefully ComixTribe are starting to mark themselves out as a publisher of quality titles.  I think what also sets ComixTribe apart is that they’re not just a comics publisher, they’re an online resource.  Go to www.comixtribe.com and you’ll find columns about improving your writing, improving your art, and the practicalities of life as a comics professional, as well as reviews of creator-owned comics by yours truly.  And so in everything ComixTribe does, there’s just a real passion for comics that I think is infectious.

GS: Can you tell us how you went by getting issue 1 of The Standard made?

JL: I’m not sure how long you want this answer to be!  It was a long, sometimes agonizing process, but a real learning curve too.  The Standard #1 was the first comic script I had ever written, and so getting the script hammered out was just the beginning.  The next step, before art or anything, was editing.  Steven Forbes – who I’ve mentioned a couple of times already in this interview – first helped me plot out a rough overview of the story as a whole, shaping it into a 6-part miniseries.  Then the script for the first issue went through a few drafts to refine it and iron out the various rookie mistakes.

Next up was hiring an artist.  I went to Digital Webbing for that, and put up an ad that got me about 100 responses.  I replied to them all, mostly to simply pass on their art.  But I picked out a shortlist of possible contenders, and from there narrowed it down to my top choice.  That started off great.  I got a really cool sample page from this artist, and he had just started sending in character designs when he suddenly became very hard to get a hold of.  I’d go weeks with no reply, followed by an apology and a promise to get right back into the swing of things, followed by more weeks of nothing.  Eventually, after several months had passed with not a page of art received, I dropped them from the project, and turned to my second choice on the shortlist.  This guy provided a sample page that was even better than the first guy’s, and so I hired him as the replacement artist.  I promptly got in character designs, and he’d just started working on thumbnails when he informed me that the project he was working on, that he’d been expecting to be finishing up on, had suddenly got a lot bigger, so he gave me the option of either waiting several months for him or moving on, no hard feelings.  I took the latter option, but by this point I was feeling pretty disenfranchised with the whole process, and concerned that I’d never find an artist.  But Steven Forbes came through trumps, putting me in touch with an artist called Jonathan Rector whose website he’d found via a link on Digital Webbing.  I looked at his pages, and I was just floored.  As good as the previous artists had been, Jonathan’s art was on a whole other level.  And I instantly knew he had to be the artist for The Standard.  Steven put the two of us in touch, Jon seemed to be really into the script, and so he agreed to come onboard the project.  And the rest is history! 

When Jon’s pages started coming in, it was just amazing.  There’s nothing quite like getting an email in your inbox, and opening it up to see an idea from your head that you’d written down brought to life with stunning art.  I can’t imagine anyone else drawing this book now, and it’s unbelievable that it was almost somebody else drawing it.  Everything worked out for the best on that front!  Once all the pencils and inks were done, we brought onboard Kel Nuttall as the letterer, and put together a black-and-white edition of The Standard #1, which I shopped around to a few people at San Diego Comic Con 2010.  The colour came later, after we linked up with ComixTribe and Tyler James emphasized its importance.  That led to Ray Dillon doing the colouring for the first issue, though we’ve subsequently had Gulliver Vianei replace him for issue #2, and currently have the talented Mike Gagnon in the role.

With a completely drawn, coloured and lettered comic, I initially had the book published via print-in-demand at Ka-Blam, which made up the product I originally distributed to stores in Glasgow.  But then my association with ComixTribe hooked me up with ICG Publishing, who published a more polished product that I’ve been selling at conventions.  And in January 2013, 4 years after starting work on issue #1, it’ll be getting a Diamond release, with a new cover and some additional backmatter.  4 years later and I’m still going about getting The Standard #1 made!

GS: You and Jonathan Rector have produced some stunning work on The Standard. What is it like working with him and how is it working with a man who lives in Canada when you live in Scotland?

JL: Jonathan Rector is great.  I’ve said before that he’s my secret weapon on this book, as his stunning artwork is what brings eyes to the comic.  I see people’s eyes light up when I tell them I made the comic, but then I think they’re usually disappointed when I tell them I didn’t draw it!  It was important to me that I made a book that could be happily sat on the shelf next to a Marvel or DC book and not look out-of-place, and thanks to Jon I succeeded in that goal.  And he’s getting better all the time!  It also helps that he’s an absolutely great guy, with seemingly boundless enthusiasm.

As for what it’s like working with someone who lives in Canada while I’m stuck in sunny Scotland, it’s an interesting experience.  We live in an incredible age, where communicating with a creative team located on the other side of the world can be done instantaneously.  The internet has really opened the network of collaboration for creators all over the globe.  It’s funny that we’ve been working together so closely all this time, and become friends in the process, but after all this time we’ve never actually met.  I’ll be meeting him for the first time at New York Comic Con, which I’m greatly looking forward to!

GS: We are half way through The Standard and we can see that things are starting to tease out where it could go. Will we see a Standard 2 at any point? Or a spin-off with one of the support characters?

JL: I don’t really want to give anything away, but I will say that I do feel there is scope to tell further stories set in this world, in one form or another.

GS: To any aspiring creator out there, what would you say is the best piece of advice?

JL: The best possible advice I can give is to create!  If you want to write comics, go out there and get your own comic made!  It doesn’t matter if you don’t quite know what you’re doing yet, there’s no better way to learn than by doing it.  Scripts are one thing, but they’ll never be a match for having a completed, printed comic with your name on it.  Sell that comic at local marts, see if your local store will stock it, just do what you can to get it out there.  Then you’re not an aspiring creator.  You’re a creator.

GS: Where you would like to be in 10 years time?

JL: It would be easy to say something like “writing Batman” here.  But I think more importantly, in 10 years time I want to still be writing comics.  I want it to be my career, how I make my living, and I want to be making a healthy living from doing that.  And I’d like to still have the same passion for the medium that I do now, and still be telling stories that excite me and keep me awake at night, my mind buzzing with characters and plot beats.  Though if that happens to involve writing Batman, I wouldn’t object!

You can check out John at his blog where he reviews various books, The Standard at his own website and Comixtribe here.

GS Reporter: Luke Halsall

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