Comic Creator Interview
with Gabriel Dunston
Name: Gabriel Dunston
City: Raleigh, NC
Comics: Funny Thing Happened Today (Vol 1 & 2), Off-Panel Hero, Purgatory Pub, & There’s a Monster in the Bathroom
Websites: FunnyThingComic.com Firelightsmedia.com
QRD – How old were you when you first got into comics & did you always stick with them or did you come back to them?
Gabriel – I was about 6 years old or so. I am the youngest of 5 children. When I was 6 it was the height of comic book popularity & my older brothers were WAY into it. Todd McFarlane & Jim Lee were the gods of our household. Rob Liefeld made my brother Danny’s favorite characters. Naturally my cooler older brothers were into comics so I wanted to be too. Growing up I liked comics, but I was never as way into them as I was later as a teenager.
QRD – What was the first comic book you ever bought?
Gabriel – It was a Spider-Man/Ghost Rider crossover. I think it was a reprint from the 70s. I asked my mom to buy it for me because the cover was so cool. It was a beautiful oil painting of the two characters. I wanted it because I thought it would make my older brothers jealous. They weren’t, but they were excited for me because I finally had a comic of my own. I had to get one of them to read it to me because I was too young to read at the time.
QRD – How old were you when you put out your first comic?
Gabriel – 16. I made a short comic that was about 8 pages. It was a goodbye note to my Grandfather who had just died. It was the first comic I started & finished.
QRD – What decade do you think produced the best comics?
Gabriel – This one. Here & now. All the best stuff that has ever come out in comics is coming out now. There have been masterpieces in the past of course, but the breadth & depth of comics now has never been seen before. Now if we could just get people to notice & pay for them.
QRD – Why comics instead of just writing or drawing?
Gabriel – Writing is awesome & drawing is awesome. Comics are awesome squared.
Also, I know I’m being kind of a douche saying this, but writers are sissies. Artists who cannot write are equally sissies. Comic makers are hardcore.
QRD – Do you see mini-comics & indie comics as paths to mainstream comics or as their own unique media?
Gabriel – They can be the path to mainstream success & often are. I don’t begrudge anyone who takes that route. As for me, I absolutely think they are their own media. They exist in a way that nothing else does & they have such importance for so many reasons.
Right now, the “Mainstream” comics are so named almost ironically. “Indie” comics are getting real press from places like the New York Times & having gallery art shows. Galleries have been coming to comic artists to give the galleries legitimacy & not the other way around. I don’t see art shows of the latest issue of Spider-Man, or major news sources giving coverage to “mainstream” comics. Mainstream comic MOVIES, sure, but not the comics. Also, the indie & self-publishing movements in comics are huge. Most comic readers will give as much weight to a well produced self-published book as to a superhero book if not more. There isn’t a whole lot of that democratic & DIY spirit in other media. I heard some one say once: “In books, self-publishing is what you do when you are a loser. In comics, self-publishing is how you prove your manhood.”
QRD – How many copies of your comic do you print in your first run?
Gabriel – For mini comics I print 50. For my graphic novels & children’s books I go through a print on demand service so far. I have 30 of each printed & shipped to me at a time. I have had some success & I am gaining momentum, but I’m still new to this thing & I am still small potatoes. My printing absolutely reflects that. When I know that I can sell 1,000 or 2,000 books in a reasonable period of time, I’ll start printing in those numbers from an offset printer.
QRD – How much do you think comics should cost?
Gabriel – For a comic book, the mass produced item, cheap. Cheap cheap cheap. Cheap as hell. Part of what is supposed to make comics so great & so democratic is that they should be cheap enough for EVERYONE to have as many as they want. Part of the charm of the 24 page floppy comic is that it’s supposed to be so cheap that it is disposable. The money should come from selling the trade paperbacks or the “graphic novels”. But even then... CHEAP. I think that the mainstream superhero book should sell for $3.00 or less. I also think that the production value should be brought down a tad to accommodate this. They don’t have to be on glossy archival stock. Color prints up nice & sharp on dull white newsprint. My own mini comics go for $4.00 & that sucks. It kind of hurts me that I have to charge what I think in my heart is a bit of a ridiculous rate. I used to sell them for $2 & then for $3, but I can’t make enough money to keep them coming below $4. I think the big boys at Marvel & DC can print in enough volume at low production levels to hit the $3 goal. For my graphic novels, I believe in the magic number $10. For ANY black & white graphic novel in the 100 page area, $10 is just fine. For higher page count, definitely more money. For color, more money, but I try to keep my stuff in the $10 range. It’s enough to make it worth it & cheap enough for the audience. As a reader, if I see a comic for more than $10, I have to really think about it.
Some black & whites charge in the $20 range, but boast their high production quality. I don’t care how thick the paper is, or if the cover is embossed, or if you sprung for the hardcover. I care if the comic is easily legible & I care if I can afford it. Every time I see an indie book with a hardcover, I think to myself: “Great, why not just put a sign on it that says ‘too expensive for you’.” For comic original art, the individual pages, I think those should be expensive as hell. I wish artists could charge out the ass for those. I paint on occasion & a comic page takes so much more work than a single painting. I get sick when I think how much paintings sell for compared to comic pages. That being said, comic pages don’t really sell all that well. Not all of them look good on a wall all on their own. The only pages I have ever bought myself have been bought at an admittedly deep DEEP discount. I have tried selling my originals for what I think they are worth & I have sold only one. I don’t want to devalue myself or my work, but most of my money comes from the books anyway. Right now I think I’ll treat the original page sales as just gravy & sell them for wicked-ass cheap. If ever anyone wanted to commission me or any other cartoonist for personal comics, I would be happy to, as would most every other cartoonist, but I would charge out the ass. It is a lot of work to make even a bad comic & custom comics on demand should not be cheap.
QRD – How many books do you produce a year & how many would you like to?
Gabriel – So far I have made at least one graphic novel & one shorter comic work per year. This past year it was a graphic novel & a children’s book. The year before, it was a graphic novel & 3 mini comics. I would like to make at least two things per year. Any thing at all as long as they are worth $10 a piece. If I can only make one graphic novel in a year, I will still call that a victory. If I make less than that, I know that I will slip into a terrible depression & feel all kinds of worthless.
QRD – Do you think stories should be serialized or delivered as complete works?
Gabriel – It makes no difference to me as long as the story gets finished & in a timely enough manner. I prefer complete works. I stopped buying floppy comics a while ago because all I want is the trade. That being said, I do understand the appeal of a good serialized book. The savoring of each little chapter & the anticipation of the next one. Reading a graphic novel is convenient, but reading a serialization that you are really into can be an event.
QRD – How are comic strips different than comic books & which medium do you prefer?
Gabriel – Comic strips are a series of gags delivered as a series of gags. Or long stories delivered in short choppy sentences. Comic books are full on stories. They can contain a series of gags, but their purpose is larger. Not necessarily better, but larger. Also, comic strips are more disposable. That’s not a value judgment; they are just easier to miss. If you miss an issue, or a full book of a comic book, you have missed out. If you miss a strip, it’s no big deal. Comic strips you can pretty much jump in & jump out when & where you want. Comic books require more investment. I prefer comic books generally. They require more investment, but they have bigger payoffs. & the reading experience is nicer & smoother. I am not pulled out of the story unless it is a crappy story or told in a bad way. In comic strips I am pulled out every 3-5 panels. Short & choppy sentences. Not smooth at all. That being said, I think some of the best contributions to comics that have ever been made have come from those short & choppy newspaper strips. I think that the full range & depth of what Bill Watterson gave us with Calvin & Hobbes has not yet been realized despite the ongoing popularity.
QRD – How long is it from when you start a comic until it’s printed?
Gabriel – Typically about a year. But that’s because it takes about a year to finish the writing & drawing. After it’s done being written & drawn & lettered & such there’s only a month or so before the printed book is in my hands. In terms of production time, each comic page takes about 8-10 hours of work from blank page to finished & lettered.
QRD – What do you do better with your comics now than when you first started?
Gabriel – Absolutely everything. My draftsmanship is better, my storytelling is better, my lettering is better, & my inking is better. When I first started, I was terrible. Now I am passable. ;-)
QRD – At what point in the artistic process do you work digitally?
Gabriel – Lettering. I do as much by hand as I possibly can because I think it is faster that way. I bought & practiced with gray markers so that I could do the grays by hand as well so that I wouldn’t need the computer for that. When it comes to letters though, I have terrible handwriting. I open up Adobe Illustrator & I get to work there. The result is MUCH nicer. I do admit, though, lettering a lot of pages at one time this way is hellishly tedious. Adding the computer too early is a mistake that I see so many amateurs make when they want to save time, but really it is a time-sink. The exception is if someone is working all digital. All digital is MUCH faster than my pen & paper.
QRD – What do you think of digital comics & webcomics?
Gabriel – I’m for ‘em. High-fives & thumbs up. Comics are comics. I don’t care how you make ‘em, just make ‘em.
QRD – Do you prefer working in color or black & white?
Gabriel – BLACK & WHITE!!! I’m color-blind, so adding color to anything I do is INFURIATING. I am always so afraid that I am getting it wrong. & I am always having my color-sighted wife telling me that, yes indeed, I have gotten it wrong. When I get a coloring wrong, it looks lovely to me, but like mud to everyone else. If I get it right, it looks “great” to everyone else, but like mud to me. If it is in black & white, we all see the same thing. Also, maybe I am biased, but I just like black & white. Black & white movies, black & white photography, black & white line work, etc. I always just like them better.
QRD – How many different people should work on a comic & what should their jobs be?
Gabriel – As many as it takes. Whatever jobs they agree on. Having an assembly line style of comic making seems less organic & perhaps less romantic than a single writer/artist toiling away in crushing solitude, but it has its merits. In the assembly line, the heart of what is happening is collaboration. As long as the workers in that assembly understand that, beautiful things can, & do, happen. That being said, I can tell when it’s only one or two people making a comic & I really prefer those comics the best. The assembly line can work, & it often does, but it often leads to too many cooks in the kitchen. Any time I read a comic that is written & drawn by one person I have such respect for that person. Even if the comic is crap. Respect.
QRD – How do you find collaborators?
Gabriel – Being that I am an artist, they find me. Seriously, if you can run the art aspect of a comic, just throw a rock into a crowd of people & you will hit a writer desperate to work with you. You don’t even have to be good at the art aspect; you just have to be willing to do the work. If you want to find GOOD collaborators, people who are worth working with, well that takes a little more doing. Put your stuff out there. Get some of your material made. If you are a writer, write something that you publish or that GETS published. If you are an artist, have a body of work to show. Then it’s just a matter of showing it. Conventions, websites, message boards, & so on. Tons & tons of people are out there looking for you & they are dying to work with you. Most of them are writers though. & most of them are terrible.
QRD – How tight do you think a script should be as far as telling the artist what to draw?
Gabriel – That should be up to the writer & artist. How specific is the writer’s vision? How much does the artist want to be lead? There is no right or wrong. As long as both are in it together & they both approach the work as a collaboration. It will not be the final vision exactly as you pictured it because it will be something that you two made together.
For me personally, if ever I work with a writer, I like them to write it out like a movie script. I choose the page count & the panel numbers. If they have a specific shot they want, by all means I want it written in, but I like to have a lot of leeway.
QRD – What comic book person would you be most flattered to be compared to?
Gabriel – I don’t know. I never really thought of it before. I guess Jeff Smith or Doug TenNapel. Those are black & white guys who believe in their stories & do it all on their own. I also think they are strong draftsmen. Being compared to anyone who is good or successful or both would be delightful. Really I would be just fine if I was a one of a kind. No comparisons. If I could just stand out. That would be nice. I really hope I can earn that.
QRD – What do your friends & family think of your comics?
Gabriel – I think they think it’s a neat trick. It’s a fun thing I do. They know I have aspirations of doing this for a living & doing it forever & they have high hopes for me, but really I think they are all waiting for me to give up & treat it like a hobby. As for the comics themselves... They think they are cute. Most of them right now are journal comic jokes & rhyming children’s poems. That’s fine with me. That material IS cute. I am working on something else right now that is a bigger deviation from that though. We’ll see what they think of it then.
QRD – What do you think of superheroes?
Gabriel – I loved them. They were great. They have given our era mythic characters that teach us important lessons about ourselves, but now they are played out & mistreated. The slave-like adherence to continuity has killed them. Because of the continuity that the big two publishers still hold to, those heroes have nothing left to tell us. & because in the 90s they all became so “realistic”, they aren’t fun anymore. The key to saving them is to publicly acknowledge that there is nothing left to do & get rid of continuity. Instead we can have mini-series after mini-series of self-contained stories that are all variations on the themes of the heroes we know & love. & if we don’t like what a mini-series does to our heroes & heroines, we don’t have to get all upset. It’s not like it’s canon after all. We can just wait on the next mini-series. I have 4 trades of the first Spider-Man comics & I will always read & cherish them. I will also always read & cherish the Kirby era heroes. Despite all of the cheesiness & all the outdated dialogue & references, they will always be fun & awesome.
QRD – Marvel or DC?
Gabriel – Marvel. A million times Marvel. Batman is great, but that is where DC stops being cool. The Marvel universe will always be far more compelling, & Spider-Man will always be my favorite hero.
QRD – What comic characters other than your own would you like to work with?
Gabriel – It was a childhood dream of mine to write & draw for Spider-Man. I don’t think I’ll ever get the chance, but I’m okay with that. If I ever had the opportunity to do so, I would do it more out of a sense of responsibility to my younger self than to my burning desire now. I wouldn’t mind drawing Archie, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mega-Man, or The Tick; but truth be told I am not burning with desire to draw anyone else’s characters. I wouldn’t mind the paycheck at all, but I have so many of my own characters to create.
QRD – Ideally would you self-publish?
Gabriel – I do self-publish. I wouldn’t mind going through a publisher & I think I may try sometime, but right now if I want to keep up my one-book-per-year pace I think I need to keep self-publishing for a while. Self-publishing I can turn my material into a printed book in about a month. Through a publisher, it would take more time than that.
QRD – What conventions do you try to attend & why?
Gabriel – HeroesCon - Because I live in NC & it’s one of the biggest shows around.
Baltimore - One of the biggest I can drive to.
SPX - I’m an indie guy, & that con is tailor made for my kind.
NCComicon - It’s a fledgling con, but it’s growing quickly & it is located in my backyard practically. It is also my highest earner every year so far.
I try to go to other cons within driving distance to test the waters. When I go to a con, I am there to make money. If I don’t make enough, I don’t go back. Simple as that.
QRD – What do you do to promote your books?
Gabriel – I keep a webcomic of most of my material, I keep an art blog, I try to build a following on Facebook & Twitter, I keep & add to a contact list, & I go to conventions. I should work harder on promotion, but it is difficult to find the time to make a book & promote it almost at the same time.
QRD – Do you think your comics are well suited to comic shops or would sell better elsewhere?
Gabriel – I’m not entirely sure. So far I think my sales are best hand-to-hand at cons & on my website.
QRD – What other medium would you like to see some of your comics made into (television, film, games, action figures, etc.)?
Gabriel – None of them. Don’t get me wrong, if a studio approaches me & cuts me a check to option ANYTHING, I’ll take the money & smile & tell them they can do whatever the hell they want. However, if I want a comic, I’ll make a comic. If I want a movie, TV series, game, or toy I’ll make it myself. In fact, I plan to. After my next graphic novel I intend to make a card game.
QRD – Do you consider yourself a comic collector or a comic reader or both?
Gabriel – I’d say reader. I don’t usually feel compelled to own full sets of floppies. If there is a graphic novel series I like, I will get all of them. I have all the Transmetropolitans for instance, but I have them because I want to read them. I do bag & board every floppy I get including free comics from free comic day. This isn’t to keep them in mint condition or anything like that. This is to make sure that they are protected & last & stay arranged so it’s easier to go back to them to reread or use them as references. Also, I want them to last so that my kids can read them.
QRD – What do you see as the most viable mediums for comics distribution 10 years from now?
Gabriel – Honestly I don’t know. My knee-jerk reaction is to say that people will be fine with digital downloads almost exclusively. They are a sight cheaper & take up less room. What will limit people’s ability to read comics will be their time & not their money.
If I am going to REALLY speculate. I’d say that my generation will take it digital or physical. I think we are split down the middle in terms of that preference. The generation behind me will be all about digital copies & think the expensive print copies are for chumps & old people. The generation behind that will be all about the print copies because they are into retro stuff. Kind of like how hipsters are all about vinyl records now. I’m sure they’ll make claims how print comics are higher quality too.
QRD – What would you like to see more people doing with comics?
Gabriel – Buying them & reading them. So many people are making them now, which is lovely, but not nearly enough people are buying or reading them. The more buyer/readers there are, the more viable the business. The more viable the business, the more comics get made. Instead of a vicious cycle, it would be a glorious cycle.
QRD – Anything else?
Gabriel – I am super flattered that anyone cares about my opinion enough to send me this interview. Thanks so much!