The vivid, striking, lush artwork of Amy Reeder first came to my attention in Madame Xanadu, a vastly underappreciated Vertigo series she drew with writer Matt Wagner. For all that the book made sweeping, bold approaches to setting and place, the heart of every issue was how closely Reeder holds onto the central character. She never for a moment leaves the character isolated in the magical worlds that the book created – she sticks tight to the myriad expressions and pauses of her lead.
Which is why when she joined up with writer and editor Brandon Montclare for a one-shot comic called ‘Halloween Eve’, it was so exciting. That was then my introduction to Montclare the writer, having read several of the comics he worked on as editor – and what an introduction that was. Halloween Eve is the story of a woman in a costume shop, refusing to put on a costume herself and making fun of all the people who do. Quickly trapping her in a confusing vision of hallucinogenic strangeness, Montclare and Reeder seamlessly managed to not only deliver a gorgeously-realised piece of comics art – but to wrap the character in a tight, smart parable about identity and growing up.
They followed that story with the announcement of a new series, called ‘Rocket Girl’. This was a story of time travel, crime-fighting, and all kinds of unexpected and involving twists and turns – but once again, the series never lost that immediate focus on the Rocket Girl herself, Dayoung Johansson. With the first trade of Rocket Girl now out in stores, Brandon and Amy were both kind enough to answer a few questions on how the book came about, their collaborative process, and life working on a creator owned series – where every issue might prove to be the last.
Steve: Rocket Girl is, at heart, the very simplest concept – it’s all in the title. “Here is a girl, and she has a rocket.” When did you first conceive of the character? And whose idea was it?
Brandon: The title came first. And by accident. After the success of Halloween Eve we were thinking about a longer follow-up. As close as we collaborate, our division of labor is often rather traditional. So I was pitching Amy all kinds of ideas—Rocket Girl wasn’t one of them! It was a fake title I made up on the spot as I was trying to analogize something or other. Amy liked the sound of it so much, that soon after I had to come up with a story to support it. That’s not the way you want to build a proper story, but it worked. I think starting with the title—and a simple one at that—was a big influence on the directness of the story. Which in turn influenced DaYoung’s personal directness.
Amy: You might have seen this in the trade—that’s exactly how it happened. I mean, seriously, how come there wasn’t already a Rocket Girl? Best name ever. I immediately had an image in my head. And it was pretty amazing how Brandon whipped up the perfect story to match it.
Steve: The 2013 seen here is the 2013 that everybody in the 1980s thought would happen – jetpacks and flying cars and robots and stuff. Where did that decision come from? Why make 2013 the future utopia and then send her back in time to the 80s?
Brandon: I think everyone appreciates the crazy expectations of old sci-fi. So it seemed like a cool thing to make part of the story. Rocket Girl suggests there’s a specific reason why these predictions didn’t come true. A lot of making the current year the “past” in the POV of the title character is just me being clever. More important than 2013 is 1986, where the majority of pages are spent. I was intrigued by doing an 80s period piece—it’s in all of our lifetimes or near enough, but quite distinct. It’s a truly different world that doesn’t exist anymore.
Amy: I like to call this the “Brandon Twist”—I’ve noticed a trend in his writing to flip something on its head like this. You know, this whole, “It’s about this but this is actually THIS.” I don’t think I’m making any sense. But trust me, it’s a thing!!
Steve: How do you work as collaborators? Do you bounce a story between each other, looking for common interests and ideas, and then link those together into a story?
Amy: We do very much communicate on what we want to find something we both like. And really, sometimes we don’t communicate it, but we’ve been friends for so long…I know what he’ll totally love and he writes things I would love, too. For instance, I’ve always had an obsession with past predictions of the future and what it says about humanity, and Brandon just up and wrote a whole story about it.
Brandon: I think comics are best served when every other creator prioritizes the penciler (as it happens, Amy doesn’t just pencil—she inks, colors, and letters Rocket Girl). That’s not lip service. The craft of comics is mostly choosing images and thinking about how you sequence them. There isn’t even proportionate space for dialogue. So as writer, I am chiefly trying to set up Amy so she can do her best stuff. That carries through everything—initial development, plot, breaking down the pages.
Beyond that foundation, we work traditionally. I write a full script (mostly). Amy does all the layouts (mostly). Those parenthetical qualifiers are down to the secret strength of our collaboration, which is simply closeness. She reads the script and offers input. I’m looking at her layouts or finishes or colors or letters or cover design, and likewise I might come up with something clever. We’re both completely committed to Rocket Girl and we are both types that really care about always doing our very best work. So discussions about creative direction arise because we’re eyeballing everything we do separately. This applies equally to the business side of things, or all the other decisions that are part of the process of getting ideas out of our heads and into the hands of readers.
Steve: Amy, your art attracts all kinds of well-justified acclaim, and one thing that’s always striking is how much you experiment with breaking panel borders, spreading out action, and depicting sequence. Is this something that’s in the script, or is this you interpreting things?
Amy: As big-headed as this sounds, I guess I’d say it’s me! Brandon tries to facilitate this by giving the story some space and giving me a lot of exciting story elements to work with. Without that, my own quality would go down, bigtime. But yeah, I’m always trying something new because I have a superstition that once something is repeated, it’s sort of lost its “soul.” Never the same pose, never the same layout, that’s what I say.
That said, I try not to get TOO crazy with the layouts. My goal is simply to get people lost in the story, to feel the whole thing, not just see it. Attempting that is a huge rush and it’s why I draw comics, to manipulate people’s feelings. But just, not in a mean way.
Brandon: Amy is one of the most innovative storytellers working in the comics medium. And you can only be one of the best innovators if you’re also one of the best basic storytellers. Plus her stuff has a nice finish! Despite all the acclaim, she’s in a way actually underrated because there are so few people as good as her and I don’t know that she always gets the credit she deserves. I’ve been fortunate to work as an editor with many legendary artists.
In my observations, the only other artist to enjoy an equal amount of openly verbalized envy among pros is Frank Quitely. And you can ask Frank Quitely how fond he is of Amy’s stuff. Or Bill Sienkiewicz. She’s a titan. She’s so clearly a Top Ten artist… or maybe this is all just my opinion. But sticking to my guns: I definitely want to give that calibre of artist as much room as possible. In addition to that, I maybe try to provide cool visual opportunities or inspirations—but I’m smart enough to leave it to her.
Steve: How did the design for her outfit come together? Do you want things to look practical and ‘real’, or are you more interested in creating an unusual and distinct aesthetic for her? Do you think heroes need to have a sense of practicality about them?
Amy: Oh, I think that’s a bit of a yes and no for me. On the one hand, I’m very intent on fully “realizing” objects and that includes clothes and texture. So it hangs on her in a believable way, and it’s designed to work in a 3D realm. I know how the rocket pack comes on and off and I think having her completely covered from head to toe is believable. But her helmet and pads are so bulky…I don’t think she can actually raise her arms without them getting in the way of the helmet, but I can get away with drawing it in a way to make it seem like it works.
So I would say I lean on the side of practicality—enough that people can picture it existing—but not so much that it holds me back from getting to do some exaggeration.
Steve: There are all kinds of background details at play, especially in some of the 2013 pages. What level of worldbuilding do you both do before starting on the comic itself? Do you plan out society, trends, architecture, and so on?
Brandon: There’s actually very little world-building done outside of the script. There’s no Dungeon Master’s Guide. That’s not a tool I find helpful, and Amy is the same way as I don’t think she has much sketchbook stuff that’s dedicated to background. We had conversations about the New York Teen Police Department or Quintum Mechanics then and now. But nothing was ever too fleshed out except on the page. I write a fair amount of art direction/non-dialogue in the script. It’s been enough for Rocket Girl; moreover, overthinking these things can turn counterproductive.
It’s a slippery slope to have a secret rulebook because it might make you accidentally skip presenting to the audience something important. Rocket Girl is a character piece at its core. The world is just something the move through (or bounce off). I’m proud of the economy, because I think everything that’s been demonstrated about the alternate 2013 has been done through story action and not exposition dumps.
Amy: Brandon’s right in that I mostly don’t do a lot of drawing off the page to create the future scenes, but there’s a bit of worldbuilding that goes on in my head. I spend so much time on this that it’s inevitable that I start making up things outside of the direct story. I have air traffic laws. There are vents on most of the flying cars and around buildings that cancel out any wind. There’s lots of parking up high on buildings that makes for more interesting architecture. The rockets in the rocket packs are individually moveable and react to the position of the body.
Now that I think of it, one of these days I should really write out all this stuff I’ve come up with!
Steve: Something which stands out to me about your stories is that you always use the fantasy as a metaphor for something else – not everybody does that anymore. In Halloween Eve the story was about a girl in a costume shop who couldn’t manage her own identity, for example. Was this something you had in mind while creating Rocket Girl – that there was a subtextual meaning behind the sci fi and time travel and crime fighting?
Brandon: Yes. It’s hard to expand beyond that simple answer because it’s the foundation of my creative approach. I don’t know if it’s an uncommon approach but I do know that I’m all in. And that commitment manifests in me trying to do something that’s re-readable. The best comics or movies or music, in my opinion, gets more enjoyable with each re-experiencing.
I worked under Bob Schreck editing All Star Superman. I think I’ve read that book maybe more than any human being on earth. The script drafts, the art as it came in, creating a balloon guide, multiple lettering drafts, four proof stages. It kept getting better. I still pull it off my shelf every 6-12 months, and it keeps getting better. That’s what I aspire to—and I have a layered approach where I hope things work on discrete multiple levels.
I think you can read Halloween Eve as a straight fantasy adventure (albeit with a feminine climax). You can read it as a take on A Christmas Carol or Wizard of Oz. In general it’s a story about growing up. Or at its core it’s an essay about the nuances of identity.
Amy: It’s pretty cool to witness what Brandon does with these scripts! And I can identify with his description of reading All Star Superman, because my process requires me to read and re-read his scripts and ruminate on them while I’m working on them. And I’m constantly realizing something tricky he did that I didn’t notice before. I feel like I’ve learned a lot through working with him!
Steve: The first trade, which is out now, collects together the first five issues. At the end, there’s a firm ending, but not something definitive – it feels like a pause rather than culmination. Was that the intention? Did you want things to wrap up at issue #5, but also leave space to pick things up again for the second arc?
Brandon: The practical history is that we originally planned for a very hard ending to #5. It was very tight getting there, story-wise. But we prepared for it because the market is so unpredictable. With the success of the launch, we felt that we should push #5 all the way to #10. This would give more breathing room and allow for an unrushed build-up. It importantly gives us a chance to flesh out important characters. It happens to allows for more action (which we thoroughly took advantage of in #4). So while I hope #5 ends with some finality, it is more of a midway point to the big bang that will conclude the second arc. If we ever do #11, it will be a very different book.
Amy: I really can’t wait for everyone to dive into this second arc. Think of it as a 2-episode TV miniseries… it’s just too big for one arc, and too important to squeeze into a small time frame. It’s what we’ve been leading toward this whole time, and it’s really amazing.
Steve: Also, do you do the trade dress yourselves? Because it’s FANTASTIC
Amy: Thank you!! Yes, I did do it myself! It’s been a fun, creative new outlet, designing these books. I designed the logo as well. Luckily for me, I have a technical mind along with my artistic side, because doing this sort of thing does involve some calculating. But it is amazingly rewarding to be this involved in my own book.
Steve: If I’m right, issue #6 is planned for this September, heading into a new storyline. What can readers expect to see from the issue? What’s coming next for her?
Brandon: More of everything you like! There are still some paradoxes to be addressed (I hesitate to say “resolved” due to respect of time travel laws). What happened to 2013 is the big issue that unfolds over the next five issues. In #6 we’ll go back to DaYoung’s rookie year in the NYTPD and be introduced to her disgraced ex-partner Tasha Tallchief. That’s a flashback within a flashback (which aren’t supposed to do) while cleverly or ironically being of course set in the future (which either compounds or annihilates the former parenthetical).
Amy: I’m actually really excited about issue 6 because I’ve been dying to put Rocket Girl in plainclothes, trying to fit into the world. She’s been wearing the same clothes this whole time! We’ll see how long she lasts without that jetpack. The new arc continues to be FULL of fun…we don’t waste a single page. You’ll see her relationships with others build…we are going to get you hooked on these people because it makes the ending to the arc that much more sublime.
Steve: How long-term are your plans with the book?
Brandon: We’re focusing on the next arc which will have an air of finality at #10. We can end there and be very pleased with the story. But if there is fan support we’ll do more as long as it’s creatively interesting—and for the record I’ve only become more and more jazzed about this story as it’s progressed.
Steve: You wrote on The Beat recently about sales at Image, and how 1000 sales can mean the difference between an ongoing series and a story being cut down to a miniseries. Is there a certain level at which the series can stay afloat? Do you mark out a line, and if the series drops below that line then you know it has to start wrapping up?
Brandon: I was pleased that my comment got some mileage—mostly because I’m at from the Neal Adams school of thought that believes broadcasting information is the most important and progressive thing we can do in the current creator-owned market. That being said: monthly sales are practically-speaking the most important factor, but not a dispositive one. If we had a Walking Dead-level cable series and zero monthly sales, Amy & I could do Rocket Girl for the rest of our lives. We do mark out a line, but it’s in pencil. It can be moved or erased. There’s no reason to give up that flexibility.
I do believe that a quality book can and should support the creative team. Rocket Girl is a labor of love—but it supports itself and satisfies its creators. Necessary income is up to the individual—whether you’re happy in Mom’s basement or instead need to take over a Hell’s Kitchen loft like a certain ex-Daredevil artist. Unfortunately great quality books don’t always find or keep their audience. I personally believe that you have to be prepared to move on.
Steve: How are these sales calculated? Are they being drawn from pre-order numbers?
Brandon: It’s a combination of data and projection, and it gets both more complicated and more accurate the longer a property is out in the world. But as I mentioned, Direct Market single issue sales are the most important number. It’s also a dependable number. Comic shops don’t get to return unsold copies (as opposed to standard returnability in bookstores, and what remains of the newsstands) in exchange for a bigger discount. Pre-orders, order adjustments before FOC, and re-orders are almost formulaic at this point—although Rocket Girl happens to do much better on reorder and sell-through than the average comic. So pre-orders are where you need to push because it’s so hard to break out of the cycle.
At this point, I can use real dollars because there is enough surplus on the balance sheet. We have the cash flow to cover current daily production. We can weather for at least a few issues a precipitous decline in sales or thunderous rise in costs. Fan support through five issues has secured that, for which we’re grateful. The short version is Amy and I are locked in to making at least as much on Rocket Girl as we would at Marvel or DC at least through issue 10. Given that we’re bimonthly, there’s plenty of time to determine the future.
We’ll see how sales are at #9 and #10. And by that time, we’ll have a sense of how well the collected edition is doing. We’ll monitor how well merchandise sells and sales at conventions. Ancillary rights are still almost completely untapped—obviously there’s a lot of potential there. There is a reality in creator-owned that you have to take charge of some elements of the business. But with that, you come to realize that a healthy business plan actually helps the creative process rather than distract from it.
Steve: Do you think, now readers and creators are connected online, that being more open like this about the realities of comic-making becomes useful? That there can only be a benefit in letting readers know exactly what they can do to best help a comic continue?
Brandon: My motivation for sharing is usually for other creators or people who want to break into comics. That being said, I’ve discovered straight-up fans appreciate knowing this information as well. It should have been more obvious to me after the Kickstarter, where regular people loved being a part of each and every step in the process. It should have made sense even before that, because I gobbled this kind of stuff up when I was just a fan, before working professionally in publishing. But for some reason, that took some time to sink in.
It’s certainly not required of fans—all they have to is get entertainment value out of the comics for which they pay. But comics fans are often very sophisticated and dedicated to the health of the medium. I think if they know where their dollars go, that can shape some of their buying habits. And this is perfectly legitimate because they (and I, as an equal fan) have an interest in comics flourishing.
Amy: The Internet can certainly have its drawbacks even with regards to the industry, but yeah—I think it all balances out to very positive, especially in instances like this. Brandon said it—comics readers like to know this sort of thing. I think consumers in general care a lot more about their buying habits these days, but there’s a long history of fan interaction with creators that is at the core of comics fandom. They know us; they see our faces, and we interact with them. Comics are personal, both in how they’re created and how they’re consumed.
Steve: What else are you currently working on? I hear that Halloween Eve will possibly be coming back this year?
Amy: No major plans for me; since I’m doing the art, colors and letters, I pretty much have my work cut out for me for this year! But I prefer focusing on one thing at a time.
Brandon: Rocket Girl is the focus right now. We’d love to do more Halloween Eve, but there hasn’t been enough time in our schedules to make that happen. But keep your eyes peeled as the holiday gets closer. We going to try to do some small things this year, maybe with another artist as Amy takes a more writerly role.
Many thanks to both Brandon and Amy for being so generous with their time – especially with SDCC looming! You can find Brandon at his website here, and over on Twitter here. Likewise, Amy’s website is right here, with her Twitter page here. The first trade of Rocket Girl – which I have to assume you’ve already put on your wishlist – is out right now through Image Comics, with issue #6 kicking off the series once more in September.