Thee Comic Column #37: Interview: Ryan Black & The Kickstarter for his “Tension” Comic

image courtesy of kickstarter

Ryan Black (AKA Ryan Gunwitch Black in music circles) is a man of many trades. I was first introduced to him via his Killbilly band Ghostwitch Family Band. Now the man has an indie comic book in the works titled Tension and the minute I saw the video for it on Kickstarter – which you can watch and contribute to until the end of the month of May HERE  – I knew I wanted to interview him. As my readers will have no doubt surmised I LOVE comics, but I also LOVE indie stuff. It was with great thrill that a little over a year ago I watched Brendon Seifert and Lukas Ketner’s comic Witchdoctor go from some awesome-looking posts on Warren Ellis’ forum Whitechapel to full on comic success, and that’s what I am both hoping and expecting to happen with Black’s Tension; it looks that damn good. Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Black via email. Here’s that session in its entirety:

SCB: First – great kickstarter video. You come off very professional and I think that’s a part of the emerging crowd-sourcing paradigm that a lot of folks just aren’t getting. Could you talk a little about how you prepared for the Kickstarter? Did it just flow from “I’d like to do that,” to shooting a video and editing it together, or did you do some research?

Ryan Black: I started thinking about my Kickstarter campaign a year before the launch.  I was just going to use an online print-on-demand company like Comixpress or Kablam to print my books but I had heard so many horror stories from other local creators about fulfillment and the ridiculous amount of months those companies took to get people their books.  As I continued working on Tension I realized I needed higher quality printing anyway because I wanted this to be as legit a project as possible.  Thus, the initial KS goal went from a few hundred-dollars to a couple thousand.

I read a great book called “The Kickstarter Handbook…” by Don Steinberg and it was powerful resource for much of what I needed to know about running a successful KS campaign.  There were so many things I simply wasn’t aware of.  At first, I was mistakenly ambivalent toward making a video.  That quickly changed as I continued reading.  I researched everything.  The costs of my backer rewards, cross-referencing different manufacturers, considering shipping costs to get the stuff to me, shipping costs to fulfill the rewards…There is a lot to think about and none of it is an exact science because unless you only have one pledge level (suicide) there is no way of knowing how many rewards you’re going to need to fulfill.

I studied quite a few successful KS campaigns but focused more on dissecting the ones that failed.  Many of the reasons for the failures were glaringly obvious:  No video, unclear plan, terrible ideas, length of campaign (anything over 30 days is a bad idea), unrealistic expectations.  Of course there are unseen factors that you just can’t glean from looking at someone’s campaign.  Did they have a fan base before they launched?  Did they communicate clearly and often with those people ahead of time and throughout the campaign?  Probably not.   I was talking about Tension publicly for about six months before I even put my campaign together because I knew I had a small fan base who is used to me doing one thing and it’s a little left field to switch gears like this.

As far as the video goes, I think I look and sound really fucking awkward.  It’s almost painful for me to watch but I guess that awkwardness is kind of endearing.  In real life I speak much more quickly and just say whatever comes to mind without much of a filter.  I knew I couldn’t do that in my KS video so there was a little bit of a handicap.  The big thing, though, was showcasing the art.  I saw a lot of KS videos for comics that failed because the creators didn’t show enough of the art.

SCB: You do a very good job of establishing that Tension is a comic – a product if you will – that existed before the kickstarter. The original impetus, as you say in the video, was to entertain your friends. Could you talk a little about what it’s like to have created something that has exceeded your initial expectations and, it looks like, really taken on a life of its own?

Ryan Black:  It’s more than a little surprising.  But that’s how my projects tend to happen.  I start something on a small scale and do it very quietly until a few people show interest in whatever the thing is that I’m working on.  That little bit of encouragement is usually enough inspiration for me to just run with it.  Both Ghostwitch and the Ghostwitch Family Band started that way.  With Ghostwitch I had another band that was my main focus but I had a lot of ideas that just didn’t fit there and I wanted to see if I could still write good, simple songs on an acoustic guitar.  At the time we were writing everything on computers and the songs and shows were these big complicated over-indulgences.  I recorded one song and made a Myspace page for it around 2006 0r 2007 and a bunch of people dug it.  Same thing happened with Tension.  I was posting some art and character sketches for the book on Instagram and people liked what I was doing.  Once I get obsessed with something it pretty much takes over my life.  So, my OCD has some advantages, I guess.

SCB: While there’s the obvious superhero element – powers and awesome looking tech/costumes – your description of the inciting incident for the first arc leads me to believe this book has potentially a massive scope. In the video you talk about the idea that WitchHammer (main character) is sent to hunt down a friend after an explosion in Prague she may or may not be involved with. This suggests a scope far beyond just a mere capes-n-fists brand of story. Am I right in thinking your ideas for this book incorporate motifs from espionage/political thriller genres? If not, what other genres or motifs would you say feed into this book?

Ryan Black:  My girlfriend and I, despite the fact that we don’t have television or internet, watch a lot of movies on our computer.  While some of them are chick-flick gems like The Devil Wears Prada and Uptown Girls, we have a tendency toward smart action flicks.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shooter, The Daniel Graig Bond movies, the Bourne series…Things seem to have seeped in somewhere that I never considered influences.  There is a definite spy thing going on in Tension and espionage just seems a natural fit for a superhero book.  What is James Bond but a superhero?  His costume just happens to be a tuxedo and he doesn’t have super-powers.  As far as the scope of the book, there are definitely some real-world issues and events being worked out there but I think that’s what good entertainment does.  So, you’re absolutely right in your assessment.  However, I think some other things found their way in there too.  There’s a whole sub-plot between two of the female characters, which will probably branch out into its own book at some point that was influenced by things like the HBO series Girls.  I like to create a big, wide world and then put a macro lens on the very mundane, tiny aspects of characters’ everyday lives.  There is a lot here that people can relate to.

SCB: As writer and artist you have the advantage of a kind of synthesis of idea that is just not available when those roles are filled by separate people, no matter how in sync they are. However, anyone involved in creative endeavors knows that the seed of an idea is not always what comes out for the rest of the world to hear/see. That’s the artistic process in a nutshell, no matter if its writing, painting, music or whatever: translating the raw idea germinating inside the cosmic slop of the artist’s head into a real-world translation for others to experience. How close are you in the translation of what you see in your head to what is coming out on the page? Also, could you subsequently talk about the process of achieving this translation, how your ideas go from a creative spark to something you can see on the page?

Ryan Black: Wow.  That’s a big one.  Well, first off, I wish I could make my comic art look more like Greg Capullo’s Batman books.  But that’s not how I draw.  So, I’ve accepted that this is my style and this is what my hand does.  With that being said I get ninety-nine per cent of what I see in my head out onto the page.  I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon and I’ve never tried to emulate anyone else.  Sure, I’ve studied other artists and in high school I practiced some of their styles by copying pieces of their work.  But I’ve never tried to look like anyone else so it’s pretty easy for me to imagine something and execute it accurately.  That’s not to say there aren’t certain objects or scenes that give me trouble.  It just means that I have to work a little bit harder to draw something but eventually I’m satisfied.  I’m used to it, though, because I really have to work harder at everything I do than the other people who are doing it well.  Nothing really comes easily for me.

The story comes in spurts, usually while I’m doing something else like taking a shower or walking the five blocks from my car to my office.  When it’s time to sit down and “write” I already know what I’m going to do and it’s really just about piecing it all together in a cohesive manner that is well-plotted and paced the way I want it.

I don’t really write proper comicbook scripts.  I set up the page and the panels and the action as I’m writing the dialog and everything else is happening at once.  I do these little thumbnail-type pages and sometimes I get my head so far up my ass when I’m doing them that panels can come out as fully rendered pieces and wind up in the final version.  Sometimes that initial drawing just has more immediacy and a more natural feel. So, all in all, because of the fact that I’m comfortable with my own style, I’m hitting the nail right on the head in terms of what I want this to be.

SCB: The character design is just fantastic. WitchHammer looks amazing as a noir-ish tech powerhouse, and there’s some other very realistic superhero designs shown in the video. But then there’s some stuff that looks straight up horror-influenced. The tentacle-faced man is AWESOME and particularly spiked my interest. Talk a little about your literary influences for this book, and by literary I mean comics, films, books. Whatever. Other narratives that inspired or influenced you?

Ryan Black: Thanks.  I’ve really tried to walk a fine line between the real-world and the fantastic.  For example: there’s a character in Tension who’s a fire-starter.  But she’s not impervious to fire, even her own, and doesn’t do anything too ridiculous like breathe fire.  That’s one of my big issues with Warren Ellis’ Extremis arc for Marvel’s Iron Man book.  The bad guys breathe fire like a dragon.  I can suspend disbelief enough to buy the fact that they can somehow generate flame and even control it but I think it would still burn your ass.  Not to mention your throat.  WitchHammer can hurl himself through the sky like a rag doll but he can’t actually fly.  He’s not going to be hovering three feet off the ground Superman style any time soon.

There is definitely a pervasive horror aspect to Tension as well as many of my other projects but unlike my earlier stuff this is more of a cerebral, Body Horror thing.  More Cronenberg than Carpenter.  Jessica Jane ( aka MachineBird) is put through some pretty heavy psychic/psychological torture and the Body Horror plays a big part in that.  The fact that we are all trapped in these meat suits and experience most of our world through our bodies makes that type of horror so disconcerting.  Just imagine your mandible splitting down the middle and your face coming apart as some weird tentacle sprouts like a cluster of super-cancer cells from the back of your throat.  Imagine what that would feel like and how terrified you’d be at watching that in a mirror.  Way creepier than a fat guy in a mask chasing you around with a machete.

I’ve always enjoyed imagery that is a little bizarre and horrific.  Lovecraft created a nice world for us all to play in with Cthulu and the Old Ones.  Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan wrote some amazingly descriptive depictions of the vampire transformations in The Strain.

Aside from the horror stuff, some other things that influenced Tension would definitely include the early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles books by Eastman and Laird and the people who worked with them on those books.  Simon Bisley and Eric Talbot, mostly.  Everything Biz does is pretty amazing.  He recently did a re-imagining of Paradise Lost for Glenn Danzig’s Verotik imprint.  He basically drew his whacked-out versions of Gustave Dore’s original Paradise Lost illustrations, which are something I’ve always loved anyway.  A few more recent influences are James Stokoe, Raphael Granpa and Sean Patrick Murphy.

SCB: As the Kickstarter paradigm is currently in the process of becoming more and more instrumental in projects from indie level on up to Hollywood, was there any one in particular that really made you say, “Hey, they’re doing it right. Maybe I can do this too?”

Ryan Black: Not necessarily.  A friend of mine, who is also a local musician, suggested I try Kickstarter to fund an album I did a few years ago and it just seemed like an impossible fantasy to me then.  I took one look at the site and went back to looking at tits and kittens on Tumblr because I imagined it was just a big hipster popularity contest and that no one would give me money through a website to create something.  Well, fortunately for Tension, I was wrong.

SCB: Music: In the video you talk about music a little. I know you’re a musician – you did the music for the video and it’s pretty awesome. Any music that you’d count as an influence on Tension?

Ryan Black: Well, my girlfriend and I listen to a lot of Jack White and Die Antwoord.  When Die Antwoord’s latest album was released I was still searching for a word to aptly describe the book, which would eventually become its name.  I knew I wanted a one-word title and didn’t want to name it after the team in the book or the main character because I wanted the scope to be a little wider than that.  After listening to Tension by Die Antwoord about six-hundred times one weekend it hit me; “Tension” is a word I’ve always liked phonetically and it has so many different connotations that it was perfect.  So, in a sense, the comicbook Tension is influenced by some music.  The main character Eric Evans (WitchHammer) is an old-school metalhead and that will be more and more apparent as the book progresses.  He’s in his mid-thirties and started riding motocross in Junior High, which for him, was the early nineties when bands like Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Danzig and Suicidal Tendencies were still underground and pretty punk rock.  His being in the world of outsider/fringe sports like motocross, surfing and skating influenced what he listened to and even the haircut he rocks as an adult.

The soundtrack to the comic will be instrumental and mostly electronic with some metal and industrial touches.  The sound is a mix of futuristic, tech-based elements reflecting the tech aspects of the story and crusty, deconstructed organic sounds like violin, acoustic guitar and voice.  I like the sound of things falling apart like it was telegraphed from 1892 and then sent over to a computer via fax machine.

SCB: Is Ghostwitch Family Band still alive? If so, how’s that going? If not, are you doing anything musically we can check out, and where can we check it out?

Ryan Black: The Ghostwitch Family Band is dead.  And I’m pretty sure Ghostwitch is dead too.  I’m just not that guy anymore and singing those songs just doesn’t make sense to me now.  I’m happier than I’ve been in a long, long time and I wrote those songs in a constant state of misery and rage.  I’m working on some electronic stuff outside of the Tension soundtrack as well as a project more along the lines of old Cure and Placebo with some shoe-gaze thrown in for good measure.  Unavoidably, it will still sound like me because no matter what I do I can’t escape myself.  That’s probably my biggest downfall.  The most immediate non-Tension project right now is the re-mixing and re-mastering of an album I did on an indie label with my old band Room To Breathe.  I wrote this huge 14-track opus and put together a band to record it, got the whole thing recorded and mixed before the band imploded and they tried to mutiny.  They didn’t like the songs they were being paid to play so they attempted to undermine the whole deal and pretty much got the shit end of the stick for it.  That will be out sometime later this year.  Probably around Christmas 2013.

SCB: Anything else you’d like to say about Tension? Anything at all.

Ryan Black: My plan for Tension is to sell out on my own terms.  I want to turn Tension and Dang! Publishing into an underground indie media monster that will allow me to quit working for someone else and create full-time without living like a hobo.  Along with Tension I would like to get a few gigs coloring books for the Big Two.  I think my drawing style would piss a lot of fans off but the way I color comics would complement the work of people like Capullo, Nathan Fox, Art Adams and Matteo Scalera well.  And I really enjoy doing it.

I’ve always wanted to create a comic and right now just feels like the right time for me.  All of the pieces have finally converged in a way that something like Tension can happen and be successful in a way none of my other projects have before.


Okay, pretty damn awesome, eh? So if you dig what you hear/see head over to the kickstarter for Ryan Black’s Tension and help make this a reality!!! You can also follow the Tension Comic on Twitter.

Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

3 Responses to Thee Comic Column #37: Interview: Ryan Black & The Kickstarter for his “Tension” Comic
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  2. […] not have the kind of market penetration that Image can provide. Of course, I’ve outlined and i...
  3. [...] of May this year Ryan Black ran a Kickstarter campaign to bring his debut comic Tension to life. I inter...

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