“If someone gave me a reasonable budget for coding and art, I could make the most shit-hot, next-level digital comic you have ever seen!” Alex de Campi on being a digital comics trailblazer and the return of Valentine on Thrillbent
When it comes to the evolution of digital comics, Alex de Campi’s Valentine may not be a name that is instantly associated with the rise of ComiXology and Guided View, but it is every bit as important and influential as any Infinite title. Along with artist Christine Larsen, de Campi paved the way for what we currently regard as Guided View digital comics, influencing an entire generation of digital comics creators along the way, including Thrillbent supremo Mark Waid! However due to publishing problems and being ahead of the digital curve, Valentine has never found a settled home to be appreciated by the world, until now that is. Valentine is set to return to our screens via Waid’s Thrillbent website, and finally see the story of two soldiers lost in the wilderness of Russia reach it’s epic conclusion. So to find out more about this pioneering series, we contacted de Campi to discuss ‘looping snow’, ‘shit-hot digital comics’ and her status as a Guided View trailblazer.
Your series Valentine has debuted on Thrillbent after existing in a number of different formats (as a webcomic, on ComiXology and also as a collected edition from Image Comics) how did the story end up in so many formats?
AdC: Valentine launched in late 2009 on ComiXology, in the same format it exists now on Thrillbent: single, landscape-format panels, optimised for a mobile phone screen. It was an idea I’d had as far back as 2005, when I approached various publishers with it and was basically met with responses ranging from utter disinterest all the way to stark incomprehension. So Christine Larsen and I decided to just… do it ourselves. It was phenomenally successful as a monthly free comic; we had something like half a million downloads. But back then, even more than now, reviewers wouldn’t review webcomics — we couldn’t even get people to check out ComiXology! It had to be on *paper*. Nearly all the original “digital-first” comics really were bodge jobs meant to capitalise on ComiXology‘s Guided View but also exist essentially in a traditional “page” format. Valentine was wholly different from that – it was just panels, and the storytelling was a continual journey into those panels. There was no page.
But everyone told me in order to be reviewed and be considered legitimate, Valentine had to be on paper. So I took Valentine, a comic NEVER intended to be printed, and cut it up and refashioned it into a digest-format graphic novel. That took forever. Image published it. Did this harm the storytelling or change the comic in any way? Eh, not really. I’d say it reduced the storytelling efficiency/level of surprise from about 100% to 90%. Was it worthwhile to print it? Not really.
Valentine in it’s original form was one of the first digital titles I saw use sequentially appearing panels and landscape orientation to make it more than just a page turner, what inspired you to create Valentine in that way?
AdC: I just wanted to make something fun and pulpy and suspenseful that people could read in short doses on their phones during in-between times. Like, waiting for the subway. On a break from work. That sort of thing. I suppose my experiences directing music videos and commercials, and drawing my own storyboards, predisposed me towards the landscape format. And if I was going to do this sort of thing, I figured I’d go whole hog… and make it completely divorced from print.
The Thrillbent deal is going to finally allow you to finish the series, why has it not been completed before?
AdC: Money, pure and simple. I paid Christine for her (extensive) time on the art, but since the comic was free, I wasn’t getting anything in return. I had thought, somewhat naively, that some publisher would step in and start funding Valentine and its brave new digital-first, multi-language, innovative angle. Or even that DC or Marvel might ask Christine or I to use our experience on digital-first comics on one of those titles. Nope. Nooooope. Nopity nope nope. But we soldiered on through 10 episodes (out of a projected 24) of Valentine. Each episode was about 75 panels, so pretty hefty.
Then at a certain point I lost my job and was unable to fund more Valentine. Nobody — including ComiXology, who funded Box 13 instead – was willing to keep funding Valentine or help us out. Kickstarter didn’t really exist then, either. So we put the series on hiatus. That made me very sad.
Did you have much input on the formatting or was that down to artist Christine Larsen? What did she bring to those early issues and is she returning to help finish the story?
AdC: Valentine is 50% Christine. There is no Valentine without her. She brought a lot of the early innovation on panels in panels, and took my vague handwavey descriptions and made them something really sweeping and epic.
What inspired you to set the story in the Napoleonic wars? Is that an area of history that appealed to you or is it based on a true story?
AdC: I’m a colossal military history nerd. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812 is one of the great tragedies of the modern era, and in a visual sense was an extremely striking place to set our opening scene: the snow, the blood, the confusion, the death… but if you think Valentine is historical fantasy, you are wrong. Basically, whatever you think Valentine is, it is so twisty and surprising, you will be wrong.
Valentine is one of the unsung pioneers of digital comics, what do you think of the way digital comics have evolved in the last few years and how has it helped or hindered creators like yourself?
AdC: Well, people are getting paid for it now, which is nice. And ironically, Mark Waid, who credits Valentine as one of the comics that got him interested in digital comics/showed him some things he could do, is the reason (via Thrillbent) that we can finish Valentine. So we’ve been lapped, essentially, by folks who had much greater pre-existing fanbases than us two girls did, but thankfully those folks are slowing down and giving us a hand so we can finally finish our story. We’ve seen the sophistication of digital comics really grow – I think a lot of Tim Gibson’s Moth City, a comic greatly inspired by Valentine, which in turn has inspired *us* to push things further visually with the new episodes of Valentine.
Do you consider yourself a trailblazer of digital comics and who do you see as the great influencers on your work?
AdC: Yeah, I am a trailblazer of visual comics. It’s not like I wander around with my chest all puffed out like I’m Miss Thing, and bow down, etc, but when I think about it, yeah. Christine and I were among the first and the most influential.
In terms of influences on my work… well, there really aren’t any digital ones, because there weren’t really any when we started. I’d say it’s mostly a combination of mangaka like Takehiko Inoue and Naoki Urasawa, with filmmakers. So much of the storytelling in Valentine — the camera moves that digital allows you to do — are Cinematography 101.
Are you at all tempted to go back in and update things for this new version?
AdC: We lost all the art for Episodes 1-4 in a hard drive crash… otherwise, yes, the snow would probably now be a moving, looped gif… there is SO much tweaking/improving/cool stuff we could do (an ambient soundtrack, like games have; some looped movement — candles, snowflakes, wind in trees; being able to see underlying pencils/inks; selecting your language on the fly).
But it all costs money. If someone gave me a reasonable budget for coding and art, I could make the most shit-hot, next-level digital comic you have ever seen. But so far, no luck with that. I am re-lettering the book, as my original lettering and ballooning was kinda clunky. New font, new hand-drawn balloons… much more elegant now.
How did you get involved with Mark Waid and Thrillbent and what appealed to you about bringing Valentine to a new audience through their site? What do they bring to the table and what would you most like to get out of this partnership?
AdC: I’ve known Waid for a bit. He’s good people. Shouty like me, and very passionate about Good Comics. I watched him start Thrillbent and was really happy to see it doing so well and getting so much attention… I trust him, and that’s very important. He and his partners in the site bring a lot: not only funding us, but marketing the title, and having a huge viewerbase already… to get a whole new group of readers to Valentine. The marketing is too much for me, along with the writing, organising the art, and the lettering. I suck at marketing books! Some creators love the custom websites, the constantly-updated tumblr, the incessant social media presence… not me. I have books to write.
Can you tell us what else you’ve been working on and any more plans to create new digital comics with Thrillbent, perhaps making use of features like ComiXology’s Guided View Native for your next book?
AdC: I have about 50 Thrillbent-length chunks of Valentine to re-letter and new episodes to write, so I probably won’t be launching any other digital series soon. But you never know… I’ve been itching to do something in a 3-panel/weekly format since buying one of IDW’s Archie Goodwin/Al Williamson Corrigan omnibuses (omnibii?).
Valentine was the first Guided View Native book on ComiXology, by the way. It’s now not on Comixology at all any more, since the move to Thrillbent, but eventually Thrillbent will release old Valentine episodes to ComiXology. So it will be back… but not for free. I would have loved to keep it on ComiXology, but they have no real interest in being a publisher, just a distributor… and I really needed help funding the book. So yeah, I guess what I’m saying is I don’t think I’ll be launching any new Guided View Native book on ComiXology. It’s a shame, as I love the platform, and I love the ComiXology team (they’re awesome people), but financially… I just can’t.