“It’s possible to give away your project for free and still turn a profit” Artist Paul Duffield talks about the legacy of weekly web comic Freakangels

This month the brilliant Freak Angels by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield published it’s final episode online. A brilliant steam punk story of Whitechapel based telepaths known as Freakangels who are born with special powers at the same time and swear and shag their way around a post flood London. Although not the first online web comic, it was one of the best in terms of great artwork and fantastic story telling. It’s brilliantly detailed, Manga inspired artwork was created by the super talented Paul Duffield (aka Spoonbard) and I dropped him a line to ask him about the legacy of Freakangels and just how difficult it was to produce his super detailed artwork on a weekly basis.

How did the initial idea for Freakangels come about? Did you approach Warren Ellis or did he approach you? Whose idea was it to produce it as a weekly web series?
When Warren was still running the old forum, The Engine, I was looking for work, so I joined the forums and posted some of it up! This is where I got incredibly lucky, since right at that time Warren was looking for an artist to work on Freakangels, and had a sort of euro-manga hybrid style in mind, which happened to match my work. Jacen Burrows, an artist at Avatar Press, noticed my work and passed it onto Avatar press who were working with Warren on Freakangels, and it went from there. Right place at the right time in short! It was Warren’s idea to do the comic as a webcomic, and I came to the project after it had been quite fully conceived, mostly planned out and at least partially written.

How successful do you feel the approach of publishing on the web first then collecting into a trade approach was and did it affect how you worked on the art? For example did you have to be more disciplined in producing artwork and did you have to make any particular changes to how you worked?
It has definitely been successful. It’s still a somewhat unknown quantity for Avatar Press, since it’s still too early to say conclusively how sales on the later volumes will go, but based on the fact that the first few have sold well, it seems promising. The main difference when it comes to production is the way that I have to approach the layouts. They all have to be very simple so that the comic is easy to read on screen as well as in print. other than that, since the final destination of Freakangels is still print, it’s very similar process in terms of the work itself. Obviously the weekly deadline is a lot tougher to deal with than a monthly deadline, since it gives much less room to manoeuvre when it comes to scheduling difficulties like making up time after an extra detailed page.

How do you produce artwork? Is it entirely with a PC and a graphics tablet or do you still use pencil and pens? Which programs do you use and recommend?
This can depend on the page, but if I detail the most complex work-flow that should give an idea of what it can be like: Firstly, I do my rough on computer. If the scene is in a recurring location, or contains a recurring vehicle I might mock up the location on 3D Studio Max, and render out a template with some roughly posed figures to act as a base for the rough. I’ll then use a wacom tablet and photoshop to finish the rough off. I then print the rough out as very faint magenta lines, and use a pencil to carefully go over them and produce my neat linework.
The finished lines are then scanned in, and then it’s over to Photoshop and a process which involves cel shading and photographic or painted textures that are skewed, warped and blended into place over surfaces in the image, as if they were textures in a 3D scene. I don’t necessarily recommend this or any other method of production, as it’s taken me years to develop and refine it, which means that it’s suited to my working habits and my style. I think everyone needs to find their own best workflow, and that may end up differing wildly from mine. The programs I use are versatile and well produced, but again they’re only useful if they suit your style and working method.

Are you an iPad or iPhone user and what do you think of them as a tool for reading and/or creating comics? Would you have liked to see Freakangels launch as an app if the technology had been around when you started for example?
I’m an iPhone user, although hoping to migrate to another smartphone after my contract’s up, since I’ve discovered that I hate iTunes with a passion! I’ve read the odd episode of Freakangels along with a few other webcomics on the iPhone, but only if there’s no other option to hand, as it’s a pretty clumsy way of doing it. I can’t speak personally for the iPad or other tablet devices, but I hear (and imagine) that they’re very good for web comics. In terms of Freakangels as an app, there wasn’t ever an intention of doing that, since firstly the digital copy is intended to be free, and secondly, the pages are too large for smartphones & the web browser works just fine on tablets.

What was your favourite storyline to work on and what are you most proud of in relation to the series?
If you’re talking about story threads within Freakangels, my favourite section is around the time when Luke re-appears in volume 5, they all get their upgrades, and the colour pallet goes crazy. The 5th volume as a whole is probably the most satisfyingly diverse in terms of events and imagery, and I feel like the artwork that Kate (the colourist after volume 3) and I produced ended up reflecting that.

Who was your favourite character to draw and who did you find the most interesting?
I always enjoyed drawing Luke, Arkady and Alice most, because they’re the most expressive, and there were rarely any moments when I had to struggle with how they might look whilst communicating. In terms of writing, I always enjoyed Connor, since he was one of the more level-headed Freakangels, but also ended up playing an interesting role in the story.

Looking back on your work, what do you think the legacy of Freakangels will be? Both to yourself as an artist and to the world of comics? Do you feel like a trailblazer for digital web comics for example?
I’m not sure in terms of content – It’s certainly not mainstream, but there are still a lot of comfortable and familiar elements in there for readers of American comics, and there have been plenty of other long-form, serious webcomics before – I’ve been reading them since I was 16!
It is however (as far as I know) a first in professional digital publishing because it was given away for free! Because of that it sits alongside other free webcomics that don’t necessarily have the automatic readership that Warren brings to the table, or the ratio of quality vs. quantity I was able to put into the artwork because it was a paid, full-time job!
I think that if it has a legacy in publishing, that will be it – the proof that it’s possible for a publisher to give a fully financed project away their project for free and still turn a profit if it’s done right. For the fans, the legacy will be the world and the characters, but unfortunately having worked on the comic, I’m too close to it “read” it and experience that or comment on it properly! For me, it feels like an incredible achievement to have completed a 6 volume graphic novel in this manner! I’ve had to both learn and exercise a lot of professional discipline in order to get it done, and I’m extremely lucky to have had the exposure that Warren brought to the project, so in many ways it’s given me confidence to continue.

Finally what’s next for you? What are you working on and are there any creators out there you would like to work with in the future?
I’ve got a few short projects coming up, including a one-shot for Avatar that deals with the origin of Happy Kitty, a character from Christos Gage’s Absolution, which should be a lot of fun. In terms of long term projects, I’m developing a piece that I’m writing myself, as both art and writing have always been passions of mine. I’m hoping that in the future I can establish myself as an artist/writer, and bring the same clarity of vision and unity of product that other artist/writers (like Craig Thompson or Charles Burns) bring to their work. Look out for more on that soon!

Oh, and one final thing which I ask everyone I interview, what was the first comic you ever bought or had bought for you?
Comic bought for me – probably The Beano, bought by my dad when I was very little! Comic I bought for myself – Well, I ended up buying The Beano with my pocket money, and borrowed a lot of comics from friends, but the first comic I bought for myself with my own money was probably Clover by Clamp – still one of the most beautifully and unusually designed and laid out comics I’ve ever read!

You can read Freakangels from the very beginning at www.freakangels.com or pick up volume 5 from Avatar Press for the latest adventures of KK, Connor and co. Alternatively you can follow Paul on Twitter at @spoonbard

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.