“It’s inspired by my experiences as a film-fan and the cumulative effect of years of watching them” Owen Michael Johnson talks Reel Love: The Collected Edition on Unbound

Reel Love Collected EditionThe new hardcover version of Owen Michael Johnson’s wonderful Reel Love: The Complete Collection really resonated with our inner movie geek, so we caught up with Owen’ ahead of the books release to find out more about what inspired his love of the cinema and how he found the emotional truth of his story!

Can you tell us a bit about the background for Reel Love. It feels very personal, is it based on your own experiences?

Owen MIchael Johnson: In terms of the background of the book, I’ve grown accustomed to calling it a semi-autobiographical comic because, while it’s characters are based on my own life and relationship experiences, many of the specific scenarios and events have received everything from minor alterations to wholesale invention, depending on my needs to make it a universal (and more importantly satisfying) story.

For example, the independent cinema of the story is based on the Alhambra cinema in Penrith, The Lake District (this is the cinema I grew up visiting), but I chased a career in comics instead of film. I don’t think it’s necessary to completely dissect all fabrications but to say that the book is as emotionally truthful as I could make it, if not entirely an accurate reflection of exact events.

When were the original chapters released? Was there quite a big gap between each volume

OMJ: The first chapter was lettered and published by Dogooder Comics (run by Colin Bell of Dungeon Fun fame) in 2014, with the second chapter published by my own comics label/laboratory Changeling Studios a year later in 2015. Before completing it, I seemed to get side-tracked writing Beast Wagon, a 6 issue horror mini-series about revolutionary zoo animals along with artist John Pearson. Unbound approached me in 2017 about completing Reel Love (always conceived as three acts) and releasing it as a hardcover. Unbound are the world’s first crowdfunding publisher, and together we worked for funding for a year and I completed the final chapter between January and May 2018.

You can see how your work improves from chapter to chapter. Was there ever a temptation to revisit it?.
OMJ: You’re quite right to note that the artwork improves and develops with each chapter. The desire to ‘George Lucas’ the early chapters was strong, and I did in fact re-draw four pages of chapter two while creating the final act. But in the end I decided that way lay madness. It was a book I very much came into myself making, and stands as a testament to that growth it would be dishonest to the person who I was was at the time to edit and generally fuck with. I was very lucky (or perhaps it was always meant to be that way) that the ‘scrappy to less scrappy’ art confidence gained mirrors the age and growth of the character over the course of the story. At least – that’s what I tell myself ahahah

What movies have most inspired you for Reel Love? 

OMJ: The creation of Reel Love is inspired – in part – by my experiences as a film-fan and the cumulative effect of years of watching them, rather than individual films, although of course there are touch-stones. Cinema Paradiso is a big one and the British film Son of Rambow particularly.

And what’s the film the boy goes to see with his father?

OMJ: The film that the character sees early on is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. Inspired by an incident in which I was so terrified of Mortianna the witch (as played by Geraldine McEwan) that I made a scene until my dad pulled me out. 

Can you tell is a bit more about how you came to use Unbound

OMJ: Unbound is the world’s first crowdfunding publisher. They host projects in much the same way as Kickstarter, with the main difference being that unlike Kickstarter the funding period is open-ended. Once a creator has raised the agreed fees required to publish the book, Unbound distributes that book in book-stores as would a traditional publisher. This is a major pro – as any small press or independent creator knows, the distribution of a book is the hardest element to master on your own. Regardless of that, there’s a huge amount of work involved for the creator in any crowdfunded project. I was funding Reel Love for an entire year. It’s exhausting but worth it in the long-run.

Could you clarify a bit of the timeline – you use Star Wars as a reference point for your bond with your brother but also Zelda on the N64 – how does that work?! Was it the Special Editions or is that just a dramatic device? 

OMJ: A bit of both. The pedantic answer is that I was born in 1987, so VHS home entertainment was my entry point to Star Wars (and all manner of other pre-80s cinema). But popping a tape in the VCR wasn’t as dramatic when you’re making a book celebrating the power of visiting a movie theatre so, as with other elements, I massaged it to fit. The experience I’m referring to in the book is the Special Edition releases but it’s relatable if you are older and remember Star Wars in 1977.

Similarly, The Fellowship of the Ring gets a nod in the same chapter and that is miles away release-wise. Simply, I didn’t care. I felt it was easy to become a slave to the film referencing and that it always had to be at the service of my story. I wanted to use the fantasy ‘daydream’ elements to enhance and illustrate the character’s emotions, and to connect with the reader, even if that meant sacrificing accuracy (pretty much my modus operandi as an author).

Each of the three chapters of the book is modelled around a kind of era when you feel the influence of the films of that time. The first chapter is ‘blockbuster’ centric – primarily Star Wars, Indiana Jones and child-led Amblin films like E.T. (indeed any early Spielberg or the children-led cinema of the 80s which is currently enjoying a nostalgia resurgence thanks to Stranger Things). The second chapter reflects monster movies and video nasties, or more broadly cult cinema. So they function as tonal fits, as much as anything. I probably cheated, in this regard. But I can live with it.

And finally what can we look forward to from you next?

OMJ: I’ll be touring Reel Love firstly, Cumbria date is the most recent after the London launch in Orbital Comics. I have a big pile of projects at outline stage, and find it difficult to commit to the ‘next thing’. Full-length graphic novels are a high-workload venture for long-term reward so I’ll build a back-catalogue of shorter works either available online or as short small press run, while writing my next full size thing, which I think will be intended for a Young Adult audience. I’m interested in playing with genre a bit more, with fantasy and adventure appealing currently.

As previously mentioned, the Legend of Zelda franchise has been a big influence but I’d like to absorb those influences and spit them out as an original fantasy rather than name-check them in the same way that Reel Love did. If I can mesh that with an adventure in the Terry & the Pirates classic American newspaper strip mould, that’s the idea. But I may change my mind next week and alight on something else entirely.

You can purchase Reel Love: The Collected Edition from Amazon for £14.99 and find out more about Owen’s work by following him on twitter @Owen_Johnson