Troy Brownfield has been in and around comics a lot longer than you might guess. He wrote some short webcomics for his Shotgun Reviews website back in 2000, and later became an editor for Fangoria Comics and a columnist for Newsarama. More recently, he’s been doing some writing for more mainstream comics publishers like DC. But it’s in part because of that, that he’s gotten back into webcomics. In 2012, he launched Sparkshooter, a webcomic about a band in the Indianapolis area. That’s proved successful enough that last year, he added a second comic called Solo Acoustic, following the band’s manager as he works with a solo musician.
FreakSugar: Sparkshooter pretty obviously comes from your own interest in music, and I’ve seen that you organized more than few music festivals in your day. Do you play as well, or does all this just come from a deep appreciation of music?
Troy Brownfield: I did play a little, but like Jack, I discovered that my main talent in that arena was probably putting shows together and booking, etc. When you’re involved with bands, there’s a tremendous amount of work for what is frequently very little reward from a financial perspective. BUT! It’s enormous fun. If you’re doing it for the right reasons, you can have a great time regardless of the level of success. And over time, you naturally accumulate stories and adventures doing that kind of thing. With me, having done stuff with bands all the way back to high school, it made for this kind of group history, like stories that you’d tell or refer to that were kind of totemistic to your friends in a way. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I should just draw on this cloud of experiences with some exaggeration and reinvention and turn it into a new thing. There are some things that might seem vaguely familiar in a kind of cultural unconscious sense (crazy drummer, girl-joins-band-and-shakes-things-up, creative partners are tested, etc.), but in a lot of cases I’m playing to those archetypes while working in some things that actually happened. With a twist, of course.
FS: What are some of the specific influences that go into Sparkshooter, both from comics and music?
TB: In a comics sense, I guess you could say that Alex Robinson’s “Box Office Poison” or Terry Moore’s “Strangers in Paradise” influenced me a bit. They’re stories that are fundamentally about regular people (Moore’s thriller elements aside) and the ways that they relate to each other. Those books made me feel like I could do this kind of story in the comic format. Also, in a weird sort of way, I guess you could say “Peanuts” (though that’s a little more on display in Sparkshooter’s companion strip, Solo Acoustic, in which you have a perennially depressed protagonist and his more philosophical buddy).
I probably got a bigger boost of influence on the narrative side from film. I’ve always enjoyed movies about bands, and the best ones nail an essential truth: Bands are very like a real relationship between two people because they only possible outcomes are that you stay together forever, you split up, or someone dies. Whether the band is a success or not is often beside the point; it’s the doing of the thing that’s important. For the record, my favorite films in this genre are “The Commitments”, “That Thing You Do!”, “This is Spinal Tap”, “Cotton Candy”, and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”. I blogged about this on the Sparkshooter site once: http://sparkshooter.com/five-films-for-hopeful-musicians/
In terms of music, in my head, the band sounds like Curve (to YouTube and Spotify you go!). As far as any band stories that have an influence, I’d say you can’t write about the internal dynamics of a band without studying a little Fleetwood Mac. They’re kind of the ur-image of a band that is a mess of entanglements but makes immortal music because of it. Chuck Klosterman wrote in “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” that “My feelings about politics and literature and mathematics and the rest of life’s minutiae can only be described through a labyrinthine of six-sided questions, but everything that actually matters can be explained by Lindsey f***ing Buckingham and Stevie f***ing Nicks in four f***ing minutes.” So there we go.
FS: Your comics work goes back over a decade now when you include the work you did at Shotgun Reviews. You’ve written now for Zenescope, Dynamite and even DC. So what did you want to do with Sparkshooter that you couldn’t do at a more traditional comics publisher?
TB: In a way, it’s a peculiar kind of story. It doesn’t have that big jazzy high concept hook that a lot of things shoot for. It’s a comedy about a bunch of people in a band. And maintaining the control of how that story was told was very important to me. It’s possible that now I could work that out more easily than I did then if there were an interested publisher, but I’m glad we did it this way.
FS: You’ve also worked as an editor on books as well as a band manager. Even though you’re primarily seen as the writer of Sparkshooter, I suspect there’s some level of management/editing that’s comparable to your previous jobs. How do you go about balancing the writing and the management of the comic, particularly when it’s one that’s more personal for you?
TB: The main management thing is just making sure that the trains sort of run on time. That’s included making sure that there’s enough script for the artist to have a comfortable lead time, and enough art done so that we can post long stretches without a break. I’ve also handled the press side of things. I’m very lucky to have worked with awesome collaborators; that helps.
FS: Speaking of management, you recently ran into an issue where Sarah Vaughn, Sparkshooter’s original artist, could no longer continue working on it. Somewhat ironically reflecting (albiet loosely) what happened to Jack in the story. How did she come to you with the issue, and what was your thinking regarding finding a replacement?
TB: Let me say first that the Jack thing was one of those cosmic accidents. Jack breaking his hand and then realizing that Lowell was a better bassist and shifting to management was in the plot for a long time. I wanted there to be a real tangible reason that Jack wouldn’t rejoin the band as a player (the break), but also demonstrate his maturity and acumen by showing that he was the first guy to do the hard thing to put the band first. The fact that Sarah developed her issue is basically the universe screwing with us. Just kidding. Mostly.
BUT! Sarah told me right away when she started having trouble. We’ve known each other a long time (since she was 19, in fact). I started teaching at her college when she was a sophomore, and I got to see her artistic and writing talent on a daily basis for years. I knew that I’d love to do project with her down the road, and we settled on this one. The first time that it really affected the ongoing posting was in October 2012. And frankly, I was ready to take long breaks over and over so that Sarah could do it. But as time went on, it became more clear that the toll on her was going to be too much. I don’t think either of us really wanted to address it, but we talked about it repeatedly and decided that we’d bring in another artist.
In case anyone is wondering, that had no effect on the relationship I have with Sarah. She was one of my favorite students, and she’s grown to be a favorite person of mine in general. She was crucial to getting this project going, and she’s definitely proven herself as the co-writer of Image’s “Alex + Ada” (with Jonathan Luna). She’s going places.
FS: Enkaru’s work debuted earlier this year. While there are some similarities to Sarah’s work, there’s definitely a different style to things now. How have your readers reacted to the change?
TB: Everyone loves Enkaru. Sarah thinks that she’s great; Sarah in particular thinks of Enkaru as the kind of artist that will take Sparkshooter to another level, and that’s wonderfully kind of her to say.
For my part, I think she’s awesome. Enkaru, despite living in another country with a different culture (Spain), has managed to nail so many minor details and ideas from my scripts that it’s amazing. She just gets it. She gets all of it. Her people have a real life in them; there’s a lot of energy and “motion” in her drawing. Her sense of layout and space is great, too. She does a knock-out job, and she can really sell a punchline with small bits. Look at the eyes panel-to-panel on page 68. It’s subtle, but the way that she drew Sondra and Michael’s eyes change from panel to panel says so much about the characters in that moment. She deserves a ton of credit. I love her work.
FS: You’re wrapping up chapter three now, and it looks like Sondra is fitting in with the guys pretty well. I’m sure you know, though, that the group dynamics in a band can be tricky, so what do you have planned for the gang?
TB: Chapter 3 wraps up pretty soon with Sondra solidly in the band and Sean having a realization about that. Chapter 4 starts off with a flashback to the teen years of Jack, Sean and Elihu to establish a couple of things that come into play later; the rest of Chapter 4 is a “band going out night”, the group’s first night out with Sondra that retrenches some other conflicts that we’ll see develop. Chapter 5 and 6 move into the first show for the new unit. Some of that is based in part on a real thing. When I managed Samsell, a friend of the band, Roy (who appeared as himself on one page in Chapter 1) was booking a regular feature at Radio Radio in Indianapolis called Mod Night. On occasions that a band couldn’t make it from out-of-town, etc., Samsell would be one of Roy’s first calls to fill in. I thought it would be funny if the band’s first actual show with Sondra turned out to be one of these “pop-up” gigs, since they’re more primed for craziness. I see the first 6 as “volume 1”, and I have a pretty good road map in mind going forward into other volumes.
FS: Thanks, Troy! We’re looking forward to it!