“It’s a balancing act between using the technology to serve the story but not using it too much” Atomic Robo writer Brian Clevinger discusses digital comics and Two Fisted Tales

brian_hugeOriginally released at ECCC and then via ComiXology the brilliant Atomic Robo: Two Fisted Tales was the first foray into the world of full blown digital comics from the Atomic Robo team of Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener. When we reviewed it we described it as “the almost perfect digital comics experience” so it would be churlish of us not to want to find out more! So we contacted writer and co-creator Brian Clevinger between deadlines to find out the secrets of Atomic Robo and just how he came up with this two fisted digital delight.

Two Fisted Tales was your first foray into the world of enhanced digital comics, what made you decide to embrace this new approach? 

Atomic Robo Two Fisted TalesBC: Yup! We toyed with the idea in a general sense for a while, but we never had an excuse to pursue it. We keep our noses pretty close to the grindstone just getting the regular issues of Atomic Robo out there.

But the good folks at ComiXology came to us with the wild idea of making a comic specifically for digital devices. We’re quite fond of those guys, so it turned out they gave us the excuse we were looking for all along.

How did you find the process? Was it much different to producing a standard print book? Or was there more planning and thought for the transitions etc.? Did you get any advice from people who’ve done it before or check out other titles for inspiration or did you just get on and do it?

BC: Scott met with the ComiXology guys at their NYC offices a couple times to get an idea of what the technology could allow us to do. From there we kind of winged it.

Scott did all the heavy lifting on this one. It could be said that’s the case for every issue, since it takes a lot longer to draw a page than to write one.

But in this case Scott figured out the story and all the non-traditional transitions himself. I had some deadlines coming down on me for the next volume of Real Science Adventures and we only had a limited window to work on the ComiXology story. And then we figured, well, we’re new to this format, so the fewer cooks we have poking at the recipe the easier it’ll be.

So, Scott basically plotted and drew this thing over the course of a month or so with minimal input from my end. And then I went over all the art and wrote a script to it.

There’s always a slight element of that to our usual comics work. I don’t concern myself too much with imagery on the page when I’m writing, I tend to think more in terms of beats. That gives Scott a tremendous amount of leeway. He can deviate wildly from what I had in mind but still arrive in the same place. And those changes, big or small, inform the final shape of a given page’s script. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a facial expression I didn’t expect, and it’ll change the whole tenor of what the dialog there should be. We’ve accidentally invented the personalities of every recurring character this way.

So, there’s always this element of discovery when I get pages from Scott. This project just had that facet of our collaboration blown up to about 1,000%. It was quite a lot of fun.

How do you think the book worked out in all? What are you proud of and what do you think worked well? And what would you like to chance for future issues?

BC: Y’know, going into it we felt like we hadn’t done enough. I’m not sure what that even meant, though. We couldn’t articulate it to ourselves or each other. Maybe it was just the typical creator’s lament. We’re excited about every single issue of Atomic Robo until we’re done and then we get all nervous and anxious about it. Maybe we were just feeling this project’s version of that.

And looking at it from the distance of a few months, I’m not sure what more we could or should have done. Y’know, you quite rapidly reach a point in comics like this where the reader is tired of all the goddamn tapping. It’s a balancing act between using the technology to serve the story but not using it too much.

There were a couple transitions I think we could have done a little smoother or more naturally, but I could say that about any issue we’ve ever done. We’re proud of the comic we created for ComiXology and we’re excited about doing it again with a little wisdom under our belts.

But only a little.

You did a great job of retaining the personality of the book while making it feel special. Did you know you wanted to turn the story of Tyrantula into a digital comic, or did the digital side of things just develop alongside the initial ideas? 

BC: Tyrantula is one of several characters in Robo’s 21st century whom we’ve been talking about for a while. I think the original plan was to sort of hit the ground running with them, let the reader infer things from the story about where these people come from and what they want.

Then this project came down the pipeline and we figured, hey, this is a chance to drop one of those guys into a story and get a feel for fan reaction without it getting in the way of the “regular” series.

Atomic Robo has a very definite tone, how do you keep it right? Do you ever think an idea is too daft, or too dull? Or do you just rely on your instincts for the character?

BC: It must be instinct. Robo’s personality is largely based on my grandfather, so it’s a very familiar voice.

For everyone else there’s a balance between talent, ego, competence, incompetence, arrogance, and — wherever it’d get a laugh without detracting from the momentum – comeuppance.

For historical persons I’ll read anything I can that came from them. Speeches, stories, letters, etc. We’re lucky in this case as we’re mostly dealing with folks from the 19th and 20th centuries, so there’s usually ample material to draw from. I don’t seek a straight emulation. Because that’s hard. Also distracting to read. Instead, I try to capture an element of their spin on language. You get a hint of their diction without it derailing a conversation.

You released it as a bonus for attendees of ECCC and then released it on ComiXology, was that always the plan or was that a result to the positive you got from the convention? Whats the reaction to the book been like? Largely positive I hope?

BC: Yeah, it was always the plan to release this comic to the world at large. Releasing it initially at ECCC for attendees to download for free was a very last minute arrangement. But it worked out great and got us a ton of new readers who were excited about finding out more about Atomic Robo.

Are you guys fans of digital comics in general? Are you iPad users for example? And what do you make of it as a means for consuming comics? 

BC: Scott has one but I don’t. If I got one, I’d buy comics until I went bankrupt. So, I don’t have one.

But yeah, we’re both big on digital distribution. The price tends to be closer to what disposable media should cost. And they’re a lot easier to store. Plus, for the vast majority of people, comics they can download are the only real choice they have. I think something many of us forget is that comic shops exist in an extreme minority of towns.

As small publishers how important do you think the digital revolution is for comics? I presume it’s a big deal as it helps you keep to your mantra of ‘no delays’ as you are in complete control of the process?

BC: Not really. You can’t release anything digitally until it’s first been released through Diamond. There are exceptions, but those basically boil down to “things that don’t go through Diamond.

Anything that makes it easier for more people to read comics is good for the industry.

I mean, we already had digital distribution. In the form of piracy. ComiXology and other services aren’t piracy killers. Piracy is here to stay. But no one steals comics to stick it to The Man. They steal comics because they can’t get them any other way and/or they cost too much.

Give them a legit way to get the comics they want, lower to the prices on those comics, and suddenly piracy loses a lot of its usefulness. Sure, someone’s always going to want stuff for free, but guess what, you weren’t going to get that person to buy anything anyway. They’re a lost cause. Move one. Grab the casual pirate who can be converted into a loyal customer.

There seem to be an increasing variety of self financing models appearing for digital comics, from  Kickstarter and IndieGoGo to the new Panel Syndicate idea of pay what you like? Would you ever consider going down that route, or do you prefer the safety net of a big company like ComiXology or Diamond?

BC: Hey, whatever gets the work done. I’ve got a couple projects that’d be a good fit for those funding models.

Finally, you seem to be embracing lots of exciting new avenues for your characters from comics to iOS games to animated shorts, where will we see Atomic Robo  and co. go next?

BC: We’ve got the tabletop roleplaying game that’ll come out in mid-2013 as well.

Beyond that, we don’t know. The comic is always going to be our priority. Whatever else comes from that is a nice bonus.

 You can download Two Fisted Tales and all the other Atomic Robo titles via the ComiXology iPad Appp. For more information and the latest Atomic Robo news visit www.atomic-robo.com  or follow Brian on Twitter or @atomrobo