“We needed to know if we could actually put together a comic and make it work.” Ross Joseph Gardner co-creator of Half-Life comic A Place In The West talks digital publishing

APITW_coverWith so many video games being turned into comic books you’d think Valve’s classic first-person shooter Half-Life would be ripe for conversion? Well thanks to writers Ross Joseph Gardner and Michael Pelletier a Half-Life comic has become a reality as a self-published web series. Developing their story in the expanded universe of the hit video game Gardner and Pelletier have created a high quality unofficial tie-in that will keep fans of the Half-Life universe more than happy as they wait for the next instalment of the game. We spoke to co-creator Gardner to find out more.

We wanted to go somewhere the games hadn’t gone before, and that meant creating a whole new cast of characters for the story

We wanted to go somewhere the games hadn’t gone before, and that meant creating a whole new cast of characters for the story

Tell us a bit about A Place In The West? Who are the main people involved and how did you all get together and decide to produce APW? What are your respective backgrounds in comics?

Ross Joseph Gardner: A Place in the West is a comic that started roughly a year and a half ago with myself (Ross Joseph Gardner) and Michael Pelletier. We’d been wanting to create comics for a long, long time, and in it late 2013 the opportunity presented itself – and we took it! We’re both writers – or aspiring writers, anyway. We met about ten years ago, both honing our writing skills by working on game modifications, and from there we embraced writing itself more and more.

I’m currently a post-graduate student with a background in European literature and philosophy, and Michael is a web developer. We recruited Heath Heil, our artist, in May, and he’s currently just wrapping up his BA program in Utah. For the lettering we went with Rachel Deering, an experienced and prolific creator of comics with a special interest in the horror genre. So far, the collaborative experience has been a great one – we’re very pleased with how the team worked out.

It’s based on the Half Life video game, so how does it fit into that world? Does it use regular characters or does it introduce new ones? Where does it fit into the overall continuity of the games? Would you like to introduce new characters or is that not the plan?

RJG: The story is set somewhere between the two main games (Half-Life and Half-Life 2), and it takes place far, far away from their respective settings. In terms of the world it owes more of a debt to the second instalment than the first, which opened up a lot of different avenues for us to explore.

The comic features not a single character from the games. That was a decision we made before we even started putting the story together. A Place in the West had to be its own thing. And not to just keep it from interfering with continuity, but in the interest of something new altogether. The world of Half-Life is large and full of mystery. We wanted to go somewhere the games hadn’t gone before, and that meant creating a whole new cast of characters for the story. And that’s not just exclusive to the first chapter either – besides the games’ aesthetic elements, everything else is an original creation. You won’t be seeing Gordon Freeman or the G-Man turning up at any point, nor will it infringe on ongoing storylines.

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We needed to know if we could actually put together a comic and make it work. Can we tell a story and do it well?

What made you choose the Half-Life universe for your comic? 

RJG: Both Mike and myself have always been deeply invested in the Half-Life universe. There’s something quite unique about it. On the surface it could be read as a generic, post-apocalyptic alien invasion story, but its qualities lie in the depth and humanity of its characters, and some of the ways in which its universe defies conventional science-fiction tropes. In terms of narrative, it’s just a cut above almost every game on the market – even ten years on. We saw a lot of potential there, and seeing as Valve hadn’t touched the series in a few years, we saw an opportunity to carve out something new. We could just dive in and create our own little pocket, as it were.

What are your hopes for the series – to get it picked up by a major publisher or just to keep Half-Life fans happy? 

RJG: Primarily that people read it and, with any luck, enjoy it! Seeing as the IP is owned by Valve there’s no chance of it being picked up by a major publisher, so we were never under that illusion. We’re all striving toward our respective creative careers, and this was a foot in the door for us – a way of getting noticed. It’s a test, too, especially for Mike and I. We needed to know if we could actually put together a comic and make it work. Can we tell a story and do it well? That was the question at the forefront of our minds as we embarked on the project. And whatever came of it, we owe a lot to Heath and Rachel too, both of whom were far more familiar with comic-book creation than ourselves!

Have you had any feedback from the Half-Life creators (good or bad!) Or their lawyers!
RJG: As far as Valve (the creators of Half-Life) go, I had a very kind email from Marc Laidlaw, the lead writer over there, at the start of the project, wishing us luck. He was also kind enough to inform us that legally we’re in the clear!

Is it aimed primarily at Half-Life fans and so is packed full of insider references? Or do you think non fans will get something out of the series as well?

RJG: Actually, no. There are a couple of references here and there, but none of which aren’t qualified on our ‘About’ page, which contains a brief overview of the Half-Life universe. We wanted to stay clear of wink-wink, nudge-nudge jokes – you know, we didn’t want Kempinski to stumble on a crowbar or something and make a quip about it. It needed to be as open to people who haven’t played Half-Life as possible. At the same time, we also didn’t want to spout several pages worth of exposition and alienate fans by just retelling what they already know. I think there’s a delicate balance at play to make it accessible to both parties. Did we accomplish that with this chapter? I’m not convinced, but that’ll change as the story starts to take shape.

It is absolutely our hope that non-fans will get something out of the series. The first chapter is the most overtly Half-Life, and then we move into new territory altogether, whilst still remaining contingent on that world. As I said, the main goal was to tell a compelling story. If it only appealed to Half-Life fans, I’m not sure that would work so well.

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The ability for a writer or artist or publisher to share comics immediately with a wide audience is marvellous.

How has digital publishing helped you when it comes to releasing A Place In The West?

RJG: I think it’s a really interesting way of approaching distribution, particularly in this medium. I’m all about digital publishing of anything.

The ability for a writer or artist or publisher to share comics immediately with a wide audience is marvellous. You know, you have writers like Hugh Howey who didn’t become popular until he went to Amazon’s Kindle service to self-publish the first part of “Wool”, and you have even large companies like DC and Marvel putting their comics up for immediate download. I think when even the big guys are paying attention, it’s hard to argue that you’re not onto something.

With A Place in the West, the idea of releasing strictly digitally gave us additional questions to consider. I think the largest one was “Should we have the comic laid out in horizontal orientation to take advantage of monitor space?” For the moment we decided to stick with the more standard approach, but I think that’s something that we’ll be seeing more of from other comics as well, and I think there are some interesting things to explore there.

What’s next for the APW team? More Half Life stories or do you have original books to work on as well? Is this the start of a publishing company or just a labour or love for you all?

RJG: We’re currently putting together funds for our second issue. We’ve got five more to do, and then we will have wrapped up A Place in the West. Once that’s over I don’t imagine we will return to the world of Half-Life. We’ve all got original books we want to work on. In fact, Mike and I spent a few years formulating a pretty large, original comic book, but it was just too ambitious and too expensive for us to commit to. So that’s on the back burner for the time being.

We’ve learnt a lot from working on this first chapter, and we are very excited about what’s to come in the remaining five chapters. I don’t imagine it being the start of a publishing company, but a career in comics, as writers and artists? I sure hope so! At the moment though, our main focus is the second chapter, which we hope to release in the coming months.

To find out more about A Place In The West and to read chapter one then visit their website aplaceinthewest.net

Author: Alex Thomas

Alex Thomas is the Editor and founder of PIpedream Comics. He grew up reading comics in the 90s, so even though he loves all things indie and small press, he is easily distracted by a hologram cover.