FreakSugar’s own Steve Ekstrom has made a name for himself doing reporting over at Newsarama, and has been working on a variety of comics projects since he started there, beginning with “Breakfast” from the Sequential Suicide: Slop anthology in 2008. Today, he and artist Dionysios are launching their new webcomic, Cannibal Island. We talked with Steve about the comic and how he got to writing it.
FreakSugar: Let’s start with a bit of your personal background. You’ve had a career that’s been in and around comics for several years now; when and where did your interest in comics begin?
Steve Ekstrom: I’ve loved comic books my entire life. From dirty Southern convenience store spinner racks to finding them in exotic foreign shops living overseas as a military brat to cultivating a private collection of around 16,000; they’re just in my blood. I don’t think I’ve NOT had a comic book in my possession since maybe 1979. Man, I’m getting old…
FS: Your professional writing in the comics industry wasn’t actually writing comics themselves, right? You started doing pieces for Shotgun Reviews and soon started doing work for Newsarama. Was that a deliberate way to work your way into the industry, or just some opportunities that you happened on?
SE: I had been trying to teach myself how to script for comics for a few years by the time I started harnessing the power of the internet to network and learn about “breaking in” to the comic book industry. I had graduated with a degree in English focusing in Creative Writing in 2001 but I lived in the rural southeast; there’s nothing there in way of a “creative” job market. So I kind of just drifted for a few years, scripting little dream projects and learning aspects of writing for comics by buying books by master storytellers like Will Eisner and Peter David.
I actually started out on MySpace writing reviews under the guise of a masked Lucha libre wrestler known as “The Masked Comic Dork”. I started networking with Shotgun Reviews front man, Troy Brownfield, and he asked me if I would be interested in writing reviews for Best Shots as Steve Ekstrom.
I honestly had no idea how big of an honor that was at the end of December 2006 when he and I had started talking. I got on the phone with a buddy of mine from college, Adam Tracey. At the time, Adam was the Managing Editor of Toyfare Magazine for Wizard. He kind of gave me the rundown of the journalistic side of the comic book industry and I knew I had to try to get my name out there when he told me how important Newsarama was to the industry at the time.
So I was handed this wonderful opportunity to be a voice for the consumer who had a background in literature and creative writing who could talk “technical” about something he had loved his entire life. It was very empowering. I wrote reviews for a couple of months and I wanted to start going to conventions to start creating more of a physical presence for myself with my new identity in the industry via Newsarama. I let Newsarama editor Matt Brady know that I was going to be in Orlando attending MegaCon and I offered to do some free work for the site outside of my book reviewing duties. He happily took me up on my offer for free articles for the site.
My first interview was with Mike Carey when he was taking over “Adjectiveless” X-Men. It was so awesome to talk to someone I admired and he gave me a lot of great career advice that day. I knew then that I really wanted to combine my passion for comic books with my training as a writer to make something of myself.
FS: You started getting into writing comics in 2008, I believe. You’ve done some science fiction, horror, romance, and your latest comic (which we’ll get to in a bit!) is historical fiction. Are you still just exploring genres in general, or do you feel that you’re working more thematically throughout all your work?
SE: Honestly, I desire to write. Period. I fear no genre. My favorite pieces of fiction outside of comics range from a short love story written by Kurt Vonnegut to R.A. Salvatore D&D novels that I read religiously every year. I’m all over the place. Genres just give you an interesting canvas to work with as a creator.
I actually want to do more genre work. I have a really awesome Western concept I’m slowly cooking as well as a Post-Modern look at the internet dating and dysfunctional romance through the eyes of a sociopathic grifter who falls in love with a homicidal maniac who kills men for pleasure. They wind up together atop a pile of bodies with a suitcase full of weapons-grade Plutonium. It’s a little sexy-sexy with a flourish of John Woo style gun fighting.
I also want to work with superheroes. I think most comic book writers ultimately want to take the Bat-Mobile for a spin or secretly want to murder an X-Man. Superheroes are inherently a part of the lifeblood of the medium.
In terms of working thematically, I suppose that all writers have a notion of wanting to embed something within the framework of their creations. I want to say that everything I create has some kind of theme or larger message in it somewhere, somehow. Whether I execute that competently lies solely with the audience.
FS: Your latest comic is called Cannibal Island, and I believe, launches today. Can you provide a short summary of the story?
SE: It’s a historical fiction piece based on the “Nazino affair” that occurred in the Soviet Union during the course of 1933. Stalin and friends had developed something called the “grandiose plan” to utilize undesirables, prisoners, political activists as well as affluent rural land-owners and farmers (“Kulaks”) who had had their properties seized by the Soviets to be sent to special settlement camps. These camps were meant to utilize the forced man-power to develop the more rural areas of the country to the east.
Some of these labor camps were filled with criminals, a lot of which were under the age of 18 due to the impoverished conditions of the country and one of the worst agricultural blights of the century. Starvation was running rampant in the Soviet Union.
One of the areas near Tomsk was set to receive a group of approximately 4000 laborers; so, when the local officials learned that the majority of these laborers were criminals, they panicked. They weren’t equipped to deal with the criminal element. So, these officials had the special camp set up on an island, Nazino, which is approximately 2 miles long and roughly half a mile wide. Because the Soviets were so tight with supplies for these camps and because the majority of the laborers being sent to Tomsk were criminals, the only thing the camp had in the way of supplies was a huge 20 ton pile of flour…sitting out in the open on the shore of the island. By the time the deportees started arriving, people were already dying from exposure and hunger. Criminals were forming small gangs. Cannibalism, which was already a problem in a lot of the rural areas during that decade, was rampant. If you were on Nazino, you were going to have a bad time.
Ironically, during the course of 1933, the first American Ambassador to the USSR, began interacting with the Soviet government. William Bullitt was a huge supporter of the Bolsheviks and of both Lenin and Stalin. Strangely, by the end of his tenure, however, he had somehow soured on the USSR and became one of the loudest voices to speak out about Communism in the U.S. until his death in the ’50’s.
This is where I step in and fill-in the blanks with a story about WHY Bullitt soured when he learned about the “Nazino affair”. Essentially, I’m kind of pulling a reverse of the FX show The Americans. Two Americans who are travelling with Bullitt’s delegation, Sergeant Major Walter Rohr, the head of Bullitt’s security detail, and Reed Walton, one of a several translators on the trip, scheme with Bullitt to infiltrate the forced labor system…it just so happens that they have the misfortune of being taken to Nazino at the worst possible time.
This is Rohr and Walton’s tragic story on “Cannibal Island”.
FS: I have to admit that I’d never heard of this “Nazino affair” before now. Where did you come across the story, and what about it really prompted you to explore that some more in your own work?
SE: This is a little embarrassing but, like most folks who get click happy about stuff on the internet, I found out about Nazino on accident. You see, the world-at-large didn’t know about the “Nazino affair” until a French historian named Nicolas Werth unearthed the event in some files he found after the fall of the Soviet Union in the late ’80’s through the early ’90’s. Stalin had had the whole thing buried and covered up.
I think I was kind of looking for something unique at the time when I learned about Werth’s findings. I was reading a lot of The Walking Dead but, to me, cannibalism is a LOT scarier than zombies…because cannibalism is fucking real. People are eating people. Soylent green, man; it’s made of people!
All humor aside, the tragic nature of the story also resonated with me in that this disaster was a total clusterfuck from start to finish. And I found it really odd that Bullitt’s demeanor about the Soviets had violently changed during the period; I felt like there had to be some sort of correlation. There just had to be. I had already started working on a Noir story set in a Nazi prison camp…but I quickly mashed that idea into the portents of the research I had done regarding Werth’s information on Nazino and, lo and behold, the framework for Cannibal Island was born.
FS: I think with the exception of your Zuda Comics submission, all your previous work was designed for print, wasn’t it? Why do Cannibal Island as a webcomic?
SE: Why not? I think we’ve reached a critical point in the industry where the ability to tell a story successfully in an electronic format must be taken advantage of by upcoming creators of comics. In the past, strips and 4:3 ratio projects kind of stood out as “internet comics” but, now, webcomics are being published in standard 11×17 print format all the time. If you’re a young creator and you can’t afford printing costs, this is your ticket to creative freedom.
The way I see it, Dionysios and I can publish a finite project like Cannibal Island in 22 to 24 page issues. I’ve mapped out the story to be approximately the length of a 6-issue mini-series. We can then enhance the comics as we progress; maybe making a ComiXology version with gray tones or springing for color for the interiors for a printed version through Kickstarter. It’s all interchangeable at this point. The versatility of the simple act of making comics has coincided with the wide-open access of making comics for the web. Lots of people have been successfully publishing standard comic projects electronically like this for a while now. Check out Troy Brownfield’s Sparkshooter or David Gallaher and Steve Ellis’ project, The Only Living Boy; you’ll see what I’m talking about.
FS: Since this is more of a long-form dramatic story, what sort of challenges are you running into writing for the web? There’s got to be a substantial impact on how you pace the story, isn’t there?
SE: I wrestled with this early on in the development of the story. I worried that it would start too slowly but then I realized that I was telling a story that already has an unhappy ending. Sort of.
That’s not to say that I haven’t devised ways to keep a reader interested. I am attempting to exposit information in a manner that is minimal but informative. I’m not going to get into the back story regarding the facts and figures of the greater Soviet Union. Cannibal Island is very much an iceberg of a story; it’s what is lying in wait under the surface that’s going to keep people reading.
People went to see James Cameron’s Titanic…and they all knew the boat was going to sink. To me, Cannibal Island is going to be about the impending dread that we all know that shit is going to get bad as soon as that island shows up on a panel. Immediately. Bad. There’s the island. Everyone has started looking like giant rotisserie chicken legs. I’ll tell you this…at no point in the story will things ever “get better” again–that’s for sure.
I am actually digging the shorter scenes in the initial chapter that lead up to Rohr and Reed heading to the island. I think Warren Ellis said that a single comic book page should never had more than 500 words on it. I don’t think I ever get close to that number. There’s just a lot of information that I needed to front load into the story to establish some sense of order before we tear every aspect of human order to shreds on the island.
FS: Speaking of pacing, let’s talk about your artist here, Dionysios. How are you breaking down the storytelling duties? Are you providing him with full scripts, or something more “Marvel style,” or something else entirely?
SE: Well, first and foremost, I work from a scenic outline. I mean, basic “Creative Writing 101” type of stuff. I map out the entire story from start to finish in an outlined format so that at no point do I not have complete control of the story.
If you ever hear a writer say, “Sometimes, the story just writes itself.” I want you to punch them square in the face. In fact, if you do and you can get them to verify that you did in fact punch them in the face for saying something so stupid, I will give you ten bucks. Seriously. All good stories have orchestrators. There’s no such thing as a well told whim.
I write in full-script. It’s really the only way to fly. Dionysios and I are both kind of “old school” in terms of how we want to create comics. He firmly believes the writer should write the story and I honor and respect that it’s his job to draw what I write…so a full script is how we meet in the middle. We have an awesome working rapport and we both have similar designs on what we want out of a career in the comic book industry.
FS: So how did you and Dionysios get together in the first place?
SE: We have the weirdest “origin story” that I think a creative team could possibly have. We were kind of set up on a “blind date”.
I was milling around the toy section of the Target in Gainesville, Florida, looking at action figures and wishing I were 10 years old again when I struck up a conversation with another adult toy collector. This guy, who I can’t even recall his name at this point, told me about his friend who was an artist who had gone to school to make comics. He gave me Dionysios’ number so I called him and we talked.
We met a couple times over the past couple of years but our schedules really weren’t conducive for making a go at a full-length project…so we sort of drifted apart.
A few months back, I had befriended another local artist who works in the industry, Larry Watts, and we talked about “getting all the comic book kids together”. Dionysios was the first person who popped in my head. I had seen his portfolio and I just knew, in my heart, that he needed to meet Larry so that maybe he could become inspired to try again.
It worked. Larry looked at his portfolio while we had beers on my patio and I think Dino got the encouragement he needed to get motivated. I had already been putting together Cannibal Island with Larry in mind but Larry’s a star on the rise with some tasty projects lining up right now. Larry said, “Man, you should work on this book with Steve.”
And that’s how we found each other. He and I are so much alike in terms of goals and the wont to create solid comics that people will want to enjoy. He’s like an artistic soul mate, no doubt.
FS: As a work based on historical people and places, how close are you adhering to what’s actually been documented? Obviously, there’s some holes in the known history that you get to fill in, but where do you find that balance between history and straight fiction?
SE: Because there is so little data about the Nazino affair beyond Werth’s findings, I have a lot of creative space to work within. There is also a short documentary out there by a guy named Cedric Condom whose grandfather did not survive being taken to the island. He uses Werth’s research to flesh out his narrative but he essentially just travels out to the island and that’s about it. It’s less than an hour long.
That said, I do NOT want to take a huge steaming crap on the tragedy and suffering of this unfortunate event. Far from it. The atrocities on Nazino deserve our greater attention so that we can see the detrimental effects of widespread poverty in rural areas around the world. We live in a culture where cheap, mass-produced food is at our finger tips…and yet, all over the world, there is still starvation the likes of the Nazino affair.
It’s too compelling to not want to talk about and try to create a thought-provoking tale that could prove to be socially relevant.
FS: You earlier alluded to releasing this in some kind of print format eventually. But do you have any business plans before getting to that point? That is, are you trying to build in some type of income stream before the books are printed, or is that just something you’re not going to worry about until later?
SE: Yes, I’ve actually taken the time to try to plan Cannibal Island’s “mass consumption” (haha) out in stages. First and foremost, Dionysios and I have to get the damn thing out there. If we don’t get the thing out, there’s no sense in having a plan. As we finish a chapter/ issue, we are going to try to have the pages gray-toned so that they can be recollected and set-up on ComiXology Submit for additional exposure.
After that, I feel like the next big step would be to print a collected version of the story in color. I’ll be very honest; I would never approach a Kickstarter for any project unless the entire book was completed. I think everyone fears investing in an intangible project. If we create a decent fan-base for Cannibal Island, I think we’d easily have a successful fundraiser for printing costs.
Again, first things first, let’s get this story published first.
FS: It sounds like a really fascinating story, and the first pages look great! What’s your update schedule, and what are some of the early beats readers can look forward to?
SE: For the launch of Cannibal Island, we’re going to lead with four pages that introduce several of the key players on the government side of the story. Two days later, as an extra incentive to check us out, we’re going to drop an additional three pages that further the back story that leads up to the events of the Nazino affair.
Because we’re working with fictionalized linear history, I want to build the tension of the story. The actual island itself isn’t going to be seen for a while because a LOT of bad shit happened to these people prior to their arrival to Tomsk and later Nazino.
The first chapter/issue is more of a suspense thriller in terms of story. The ominous patrols taking hordes of people from the streets; the Ambassador and his delegation being completely clueless to what is happening; the masterminds of the “grandiose plan” pushing humans around like cattle or commodities.
Over the course of the next six to eight weeks, we’re going to intrigue readers and then we’re going to frighten them as we slowly drag them to the island to show them something truly horrifying that really happened.