Paul Duffield’s been working with The Phoenix for a while now, as a writer, artist, and primarily as a designer. Over the years he’s had several different comics appear in the weekly all-ages anthology, ranging from space dramas through to haunted house stories – and now he’s set up a Kickstarter to take those stories and print them into a new collection.
‘Small Tales and Fairy Fails’ will collect four comics originally published in The Phoenix, and has already been funded on Kickstarter. But, with plenty more time left on the project, I reached out to Paul and he kindly agreed to do an interview on how the project came together, how things have been going so far, and his plans for comics going forward. Hurrah!
How did you first start making comics for The Phoenix?
Originally, I was approached by The Phoenix‘s predecessor, The DFC, a very long time ago and asked to pitch! At the time my workload prevented me from taking it any further than an idea. When The Phoenix launched, I was a lot freer, so I pitched again with new material, and it went from there!
There’s all kinds of different stories which’ll be included in this collection – space stories, knights in armour, even a horror story. When working on stories for The Phoenix, do you actively try to switches genres a lot, and try new types of story?
One of the things that The Phoenix team were really looking for at the beginning of its life were stand-alone, 4-page shorts, which I love doing! I used it as an opportunity to experiment, and indulge in some of my favourite genres, whilst also providing the comic with a range of material that wouldn’t get repetitive.
Where do you like to start with a new story? Do you come at them with a character first, or a concept? Do you tend to start with an image in mind, or with a story to script? Or! Does it tend to vary?
For short stories, I usually start with a concept. For example, Starborn started with an idea that I’d like to turn into a longer story at some point, which is that an accidental pregnancy occurs during a deep-space mission, and the baby is brought to term as the first human born in space. The short was an offshoot of the idea.
On the other hand, sometimes inspiration comes from completely unexpected places! The Heart Tree began life as a story that was told collaboratively during a round of a storytelling card game that I play with my friends called Once Upon a Time. I took some of the core ideas from the original telling, and worked them into a sort of fable about rulership. In general when putting these ideas onto paper, I don’t bother with a script, I just fold an A4 piece of paper in half and go straight to thumbnails!
Is it difficult to contain a story, once you have it, into a relatively short space? Do you like that challenge of economy?
Four of the stories are 4-pagers, and one of them is a 12-pager. Actually, I find that short stories come quite easily to me in a more-or-less fully formed state. Most of the writing I’ve done in comics has been this kind of thing (short stories, 20 pages or less). Perhaps the reason for this is that I studied animation at university, and one of the disciplines that was really pushed there was creating shorts of 3-mins or less (perfect for advertising or personal projects), so I spent a lot of time watching and pondering the creation of little self-contained narratives with a satisfying ending.
The lettering, in particular, often dominates the way you tell stories. At what stage in the artistic do you start planning out how you’ll lay out the lettering? Does it come out fairly on in your process?
The lettering and design of the page is integrated from the get-go, since I work straight into thumbnails. I personally see comics less as a series of panels that tell a story, and more as a series of pages that tell a story. The individual nature of the panel is subservient to the page and the page-turn, and the page-as-a-whole, and so I use lettering to bridge panels and reinforce the flow of reading. I think about this kind of theory a lot, and I’ve written a blog entry that touches on the subject a little! https://www.paulduffield.co.uk/firelight-isle/making-ribbons
You write and draw all the stories here, aside from Scaredy Cat, which was written by Morag Lewis. How did Morag come to be involved in that story?
Morag is a fantastic writer whose work I’ve always respected and read as fast as I can get my hands on it! Although she’s relatively unsung, she’s actually one of the most prolific writer-artists in UK comics in terms of original output (I count 6 of her original graphic novels on my shelf by her at a quick glance, and they’re all at least 200 pages long). I’ve wanted to work on something with her for a long time, and thought her writing sensibilities would be perfect for The Phoenix, so I asked if she wanted to collaborate on something.
The story was her idea – she developed the script for it, and we both developed the thumbnails together and tweaked the story as a result of that process.
Are there any stories here which you’d like to continue on at some point? Have you got any sequels in mind, maybe?
I mentioned earlier that I’d like to continue with the core concept from Starborn, although probably starting again and without the same characters. However, at one point I had a whole universe planned out that continued straight on from Starborn, in which a league of Starborn (the first of each race to be born in space) explored the galaxy. It was an expansive story and the editors at The Phoenix were interested, but I just ended up with no time to work on it!
As a designer, I’m going to expect you have some pretty specific plans for the printing of the collection. How carefully do you go about the process of actually designing and putting out the physical book?
Very carefully! I love book design, and I’ve been heavily involved in the creation and design of all the Phoenix Presents collections so far. I’ve used everything I’ve picked up working on those to make sure it’s a smooth read and a well-balanced book, and I’ve also passed it by the editors at DFB and The Phoenix for feedback. I’m focussing on everything I can, from the end-papers to the order of the stories, the pagination to the proofreading! The book has already been through a number of versions, and I’m still tweaking it.
You’ve come to Kickstarter for this collection – how’ve you found the process so far? A lot of people say that having a Kickstarter can be a lot like having a second job…
It’s absolutely like having a second job whilst it’s running! You can see a clear correlation between the number of people who pledge and the amount of time you’ve put into promotion, to the point where I can point at my progress graph and go “wow, the funding went up by 30% that day, that was the day I did the press release and spammed twitter all day long” and “wow, the funding only went up by 3% that day, that was on the weekend when I didn’t look at the project at all”. In general though, I’ve found it to be very smooth, and the mechanics behind it have improved a massive amount since I last did any time-limited crowd funding!
You’re also on Patreon at the moment, for ‘The Firelight Isle’. How has crowdfunding changed the way you’ve been able to make comics? Has it given you more freedom in your work – or, actually, does it ever feel like it constricts you a little?
Most definitely more freedom! The Firelight Isle wouldn’t exist without crowd funding, and I certainly couldn’t afford to print this book without it. Whilst crowd funding can be a time-drain, when it’s handled properly and carefully thought through it enables rather than restricts. The most consuming aspect of a Kickstarter is promoting it whilst it’s running, which is fair enough considering how effective it can be at raising funds. There’s a big difference between that and Patreon though, which exists less to distribute products and grant rewards, and more as a sustained form of support for an ongoing venture. Micro-philanthropy if you like!
We spoke recently and you said you were going through a new proof of the story so far, hopefully ready to continue on with the series shortly. How is the series doing, as we speak? What’s current progress?
It’s doing very well! I’m past the point where I’m tearing big chunks of the story up and rearranging or rewriting them, and moved to more considered tweaking and refining. I’m really pleased with how the rewrite has improved the story, and I’m itching to get back to drawing it. I’ve got a meeting with the editor soon about the rewrites, and although I know he won’t let me rest until it’s just so, I have a feeling that we’re getting there soon! This is one of those cases where every day spent is both totally necessary and also a frustrating delay, but I’d rather make it the best story it can be than the quickest webcomic that it can be!
What else are you working on at the moment? Where can people find you online?
Well, other than working 3 days a week as a designer at The Phoenix to make my bread-and-butter, this Kickstarter and The Firelight Isle are mostly it. That being said, I very occasionally take on freelance projects, and I’ve been doing a bit of work here and there for someone who’s creating a really interesting sci-fi LCG (Living Card Game) that has just moved into Beta. I’ve also got the fragments of a new story that I want to work on after The Firelight Isle floating around in my head and on a couple of notebook pages, but that’s years away!
I’ve also been completely overhauling my website over the last few months, and you can visit the newly recreated page, read my blog, buy stuff from my store and read many of my comics here: https://www.paulduffield.co.uk
You can also back the kickstarter here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/paulduffield/small-tales-and-fairy-fails
And if you’d like to support my ongoing efforts to produce my webcomic, The Firelight Isle, you can catch me on Patreon too! https://www.patreon.com/paulduffield