In Focus is a semi-regular column on FreakSugar that features rising star indie comic book creators. Today’s interview features Canadian writer Mark Bertolini as he discusses his creative process as well as breaking into the industry and his upcoming projects.
FreakSugar: To start off, what’s your background in comics? What sorts of stuff has inspired you as a reader?
Mark Bertolini: I’ve been reading comics since I could read. In fact, I’m pretty sure I learned to read because of comics. There were always random comics around the house when I was little, I don’t know where they came from as neither of my parents was much of a fan.
I got into comics because of the original Marvel GI Joe comic. I was a huge Joe fan, I watched the cartoon every day, I owned almost all the figures and bases, I was nuts for GI Joe, and I remember seeing GI Joe comic books on the spinner rack at the grocery store. I’m sure I pestered my mom into buying them for me until I started to earn an allowance, at which point I discovered a local comic book store, and went and bought them myself. But GI Joe popped my comic book cherry, and from there I got into all kinds of stuff, the Jim Lee-era X-Men, McFarlane on Spider-Man, Liefeld on X-Force, that was really when I started to collect. And then the Image boom hit in the early 90s, and I fell head over heels in love with comics and never looked back. These guys were creating their own heroes! I so badly wanted to do that as well.
FS: What drives you to want to create them?
MB: Creating comics was always something I wanted to do, but originally I wanted to draw comics. I was always very artistic as a kid, and for a long time I thought I was going to be an illustrator. That was until I got serious, sat down at the drawing board, and realized I lacked both the patience and the technical skill to draw a page. Spend 8 hours on one page? I couldn’t do it. But I always loved creating stories for myself to illustrate, so I started to focus more on that aspect. This was early on in the internet age, so there wasn’t a lot of options for me to find comic book scripts, so my style is kind of a bastard/hybrid/mess, but it works for me and seems to work for the artists.
FS: What was your first published project? What were the biggest hurdles to putting your first project together for publication?
MB: My first published project and my first signed publishing deal are actually two different books. I was creating a graphic novel called Long Gone for a long time, and I pitched it to Markosia, and the publisher really dug it. So I got ready to start putting this book together and the artist dropped out because I wasn’t going to pay him $100 per page. So back to the drawing board, I took some time to find a new artist, the incomparable Ted Pogorzelski, but the book was really delayed.
In the meantime, I had started to develop an anti-superhero story called Breakneck. I had partnered up with a dynamic artist named James Boulton, and we put together this superhero book that didn’t look like anything else on the shelves. We actually finished the whole first issue and I had no idea what to do with it. It was right around this time that I started to hear about this up-and-coming publisher called 215 Ink. I pitched Breakneck to them, and that was that! I pitched the book around September and it was in the following January’s Previews magazine. It was a pretty quick process in comparison to Long Gone.
FS: When you’re creating, what’s the most important aspect of your process?
MB: That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I know the answer. For me, writing comic scripts is all about the gut feeling. I tend not to over-think what I’m doing, and just let it almost be a stream of consciousness thing. I mean, I have a guideline for the story in place, I know where I want to go, but the process of getting there can go many, many ways.
FS: What are some elements of storytelling that you feel are crucial to your process?
MB: I do tend to follow similar themes in my work a lot of the time. I tend to feature old men as my protagonists more often than not. Long Gone, Old Ghost, which can both be found on Comixology as well as my upcoming short story, Broken Colossus, all feature old men in the lead role. I find it interesting to have that type of character in my stories, because generally, they’re all rigidly set in their ways, and pushing against that with the story always interested me, the idea of not bending for anything, being a tough old guy, that was always something I wanted to write.
FS: “Breaking in” is hard! In your experience, what frustrates you about the process? In your mind, is there a real path to getting into the industry?
MB: Breaking in is pretty tough, no doubt. I’ve been writing comics for about ten years, and getting published since 2011, but it’s still no easier now than it was to start. I think a lot of breaking in is consistency, a little talent, a little luck, and not being an asshole.
In the past five years, I figured a couple of times I was all set – when Breakneck #1 came out in 2011, I thought I was golden, that my ticket was written to comic book stardom. That didn’t happen. When my miniseries Scum of the Earth came out from Action Lab, I thought the offers would start rolling in. That didn’t happen either. When I got a short story in an IDW anthology, I figured I was made. Guess what? Didn’t happen. But I never stopped producing work, making contacts, and developing relationships with other creators. I kept going, pushing ahead, moving from project to project, strength to strength.
Developing the relationships and the contacts is incredibly important. I have great publishing homes at both 215 Ink and Markosia. I’ve been told I can publish stuff there for as long as I want. That’s an amazing thing to know, that when I create something, I can get readers’ eyes on it.
So, after all that rambling, no, I don’t think there’s a definitive path to getting into the comics industry. It comes easily to some. I see fellow creators who can get to a lot of conventions and who have made a lot of friends in the industry getting work more easily than I do. I live in Canada, so there’s not as much opportunity to get to as many cons, so the opportunity to build those relationships is more difficult for me.
FS: What are you working on currently?
MB: So much stuff I have a hard time keeping it straight! Right now, the biggest thing is Sleep Inertia Pilot, a graphic novel I’m working on with Valentin Ramon, who did the art on the IDW books D4VE and Hot Damn. He and I have been friends for a while, and we’ve been trying to get a project together off the ground for a long time.
I also recently signed a 5-issue miniseries deal with Darby Pop Publishing, but, right now, I can’t say much about it, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to get moving for a while, and the timing and the artist were all right. Pretty excited about that!
This year was my year to land a bunch of short stories. I had shorts in the wrestling anthology, Kayfabe, a couple of shorts in the re-launched Caliber Presents anthology, a short in the Twisted Pulp anthology which just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, and another, different pulp short for Terminal coming together very nicely.
I also have a pulp anthology called The Hand of Glory that’s pretty much finished – it’s 13 stories, all written by me and illustrated by 13 different artists. It’s a pretty cool book, if I do say so myself, and the plan is to Kickstart it in the New Year.
Plus a ton of pitches – at this moment, my current round of pitches is for 6 different projects, from a Conan-inspired piece to a story I’ve been describing as Fight Club meets the X-Men.
FS: Let’s talk about Sleep Inertia Pilot first. What can you tell us about the project?
MB: Sleep Inertia Pilot’s full title is Sleep Inertia Pilot Slicing Through the Foam of the Days Like a Radial Saw on a Stone Heart. It is a unique and absolutely beautiful sci-fi graphic novel conceived, written, and illustrated by Valentin Ramon. I was lucky enough to be able to lend a hand co-writing it with him, and getting to see the creation of the amazing piece of art firsthand.
It’s the story of a dystopian future…
FS: What other kind is there?
MB: Exactly. (laughs)
So there’s this government what controls all and people are content to waste their lives drifting from day to day. The main character is an elderly woman…
FS: There’s that elderly theme again! (laughs)
MB: (laughs) She approaches the end of her days, decides to have her death mean something in a world where nothing means anything anymore.
With the recent election results, this book feels more relevant now than ever before. It’s a beautiful story of love, loss, and hope, plunged into the middle of a cyberpunk/sci-fi world not too far removed from our own.
FS: That’s not the only Kickstarter you’re involved with. What can you tell us about the story you’re providing for Terminal?
MB: Ah, Terminal – such a great concept, and something I’m pretty psyched to be part of. I’m writing a story called “Broken Colossus” for the Terminal anthology. It’s the story of a long-retired pulp adventurer, an old man just trying to make it through his days, only to be dragged back into the lifestyle he thought he left behind. But being an old man now, is he capable of dealing with it?
I’m creating Broken Colossus with my friend, the phenomenal artist, Jerome Eyquem. Jerome and I are kindred spirits when it comes to creating comics – we previously worked on the 6-issue miniseries Knowledge (also available on Comixology!), and we’ve been working on a panel-per-week web comic called Conscious Stream for the past year or so. I love working with Jerome, because I always get back so much more than I’m expecting. If I could draw, I’d want to be able to draw like Jerome.
Terminal is going to hit Kickstarter in the New Year, and I can’t wait to see how that goes, and to see all of the other stories. It’s going to be a beautiful thing.
FS: Crowd-sourcing comics can be a bittersweet experience; it’s literally a pass/fail sort of endeavor. Is there a surefire strategy to harness the comic book marketplace through sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo?
MB: God, if there is, I’d love for someone to tell me. I don’t think anything is a sure bet these days. I think you can build up a lot of good will and have a group of people who want to contribute to what you’re working on, but at the end of the day, you have to have everything planned out just so. I’m finding out right now with the SIP Kickstarter that it’s not easy, you have to hustle every day, share the link, talk to like-minded people, share OTHER campaigns, and basically work your ass off. You end up staring at the damn Kickstarter page waiting for it to tick over with more pledges.
I’ve been involved in Kickstarter campaigns before, but this is the first time I’ve spearheaded one, and it’s making me realize the actual unlimited potential for crowd-funding, but it’s also making me realize the amount of work needed to get things going. You really have to harness your various social media outlets and basically spam the hell out of everyone. It’s the only way.
Oh, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
FS: Let’s change gears: what’s important to you in terms of collaborating with artists? In your mind, what makes for a solid collaboration?
MB: I love collaborating with artists. It’s far and away the best part of creating comics. I’m an idea-guy; I have a dozen ideas a day for new stories and characters. I also have no filter on those ideas, so every time an idea comes to me, my first thought is, “Oh yeah, that would make an awesome comics, let me go do that”. It’s by collaborating with artists that I get reined in a bit, that I can refine the idea and make sure it works. I love when an artist has input on the story – in fact, I encourage it. I always feel like my initial idea is the beginning of the story, not the end. I welcome new ideas and second sets of eyes.
I’ve collaborated with many artists on many stories, and there are a few guys I work with over and over because I know they’re going to elevate my story to something incredible. The previously mentioned Jerome Eyquem is one of them – he can take a simple story of mine and translate it into something amazing, something I never would have thought of myself. We have a great symbiosis that way. Sometimes, I wonder which of us is Eddie Brock and which is the Venom symbiote… (laughs)
The other guy who I will always make comics with is Carl Yonder. He and I first collaborated on a 4-issue sci-fi series called Ghost Lines, and we’ve produced tons of pages of comics ever since. We’re currently hard at work on a rural noir series called Broken Hill that is one part Justified, one part True Detective. I love writing for Carl, because he always comes through with something different than I’d pictured in my head, he can take it to another level, and he’s just as determined to make great comics as I am.
The best collaborations are the ones that excite both me and the artist. If I can get an artist excited about the work, then I know they’re going to give me their A-game, and that will translate onto the page. The artist is always the first fan I want to impress, and if I can do that, then I know I have a shot with readers.
FS: If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice about making comics, what would it be?
MB: Get out to more conventions, no matter what. I’m the father of four boys, I have a mortgage and car payments and all the rest just like everyone else, so hitting a lot of conventions just isn’t doable. But when I was younger, I could have spent more time at cons, tabling, talking comics, making contacts, engaging readers.
Actually, that’s another thing I’d tell myself – be more engaging with passers-by at conventions. Making comics is a strange beast – for the most part, it’s a very solitary thing. I write my scripts by myself, I communicate with my teams almost exclusively through email, and then when I have a completed comic book in my hand, I have to go out and do whatever I can to stop people as they walk past my convention table. It goes from a very solitary thing to having to be a very outgoing thing, and that is always a challenge for me. I’d tell my younger self to get over it, hustle and shill the books as hard as possible, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, because no one else is going to do it.
FS: Fanboy geek-out question: What’s your dream gig? Who would you want the artist to be on the project?
MB: I have two, actually. Maybe three. Yeah, definitely three.
First, over at Marvel, I’d love to do a Nomad series. Nomad is a great character, like a low-budget Captain America with defined mental issues. Who wouldn’t want to read about that guy? I know that Ed Brubaker killed him off early in his Captain America run, but I think I have a way to bring him back and fold him into the Marvel Universe. As for an artist, if I couldn’t pick any of my friends, I would want Declan Shalvey – his Moon Knight work, and now his Injection work, really feels grounded enough for a street-level character like Nomad.
At DC, there’s no question – it’s The Question. I have loved this character for years, ever since the Dennis O’Neill/Denys Cowan run in the late ’80s. The Question is the kind of character you can write any kind of story about, crime, superhero, horror, it all fits. And again, if I couldn’t work with any of my buddies on this, I would love to work with Alex Maleev. I loved his Daredevil run, it’s one of my favorite runs in all of comics, and I think his stuff would work beautifully for the dark and grimy kinds of stories I’d want to tell.
The third one is Hellboy. I’d love to work on a Hellboy story, it seems like it would be a ton of fun. The Hellboy world is so open and vast that you could really do anything. I’d love to work with a guy like Michael Walsh on a Hellboy story.
FS: Finishing up, what advice would you have for would-be creators or hobbyists who want to try their hand at making comics?
MB: Don’t be an asshole. I can’t stress that strongly enough. You can be beyond talented, the second coming of Jack Kirby, but if you’re a dick, no one is going to want to work with you, and your work will never get seen. Also, hit your deadlines. Prove to people why you deserve to work in comics, because there are tons of artists and writers out there creating stuff right now, and stealing that dream job of yours.
Mostly, just do the work. You don’t need permission. You don’t need anything special to start making comics. paper and a pencil. You don’t need a fancy script-writing program. You just need an idea, and a desire to make it come to life.
Make contacts. Do small stuff. Do short work. Build up your portfolio. Be consistent. Be accommodating. Be a part of the community – make no mistake, there is a community, and when you’re active in it, when people see your name, when they see you helping and adding to the conversation and being genuine, they’ll remember you when opportunities arise. Don’t burn bridges, no matter what, because you never know who will be in a position to help you out down the road.
But mostly – make comics because you can’t live without making comics.