The webcomics blog about webcomics

Because comics are not just for kids?

This week, I speak with David Berner, the guiding voice behind Broken Voice Comics.

Next week, Ambush Journalism!

Fleen: Why comics?
David Berner: I like comics! Seriously, I’ve always wanted to tell stories. For as long as I can remember I’ve harboured a not-so-secret desire to write the next Great English Novel with important themes and troubled characters, but I’ve also clung on to the belief that the best stories are also fun to read. I think a lot of writers (especially in indy comics and literary fiction) lose sight of that. They get so caught up in their big themes, they lose the sense of fun you can get in mainstream fiction. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were eye-openers for me. They showed me that comics could be an ideal medium for exploring complex ideas and psychological depth while still telling a slam-bang action-oriented story that was also brim-full of good old-fashioned fun. That’s where Shades came from and, by the time Id finished the script for Shades, the comic bug had bitten me hard!
Fleen: Tell us about Broken Voice Comics. Do you consider it a collective, an imprint, a brand, a publishing house… ?

DAJB: Am I allowed to say none of the above?! There are two sides to BVC. First and foremost, it’s the trade name under which I write my own comics. In that sense, I suppose, it is a brand. I try to work in a different genre every time I start a new project so, whilst there may appear to be few similarities between, say, Shades (super hero genre) and The Spires (high fantasy), the BVC label lets potential readers know they’re both written by me and that they can therefore expect a certain type of approach that approach being (hopefully!) an original take on the subject at hand. I wouldn’t have wanted to write Shades, for example, if I thought it would be just another clone (or even another parody!) of the super hero comics published by Marvel and DC. Similarly with The Spires I love Tolkien but I wouldn’t have wanted to write a fantasy tale about elves and wizards on a quest to find a magical artefact that would save the world. I can really enjoy reading the comics that do tell those stories but they’re not what I want to write and not, therefore, what I’d want readers to associate with BVC.

The second side to BVC is the showcase we offer to guest titles. I don’t think of this as a collective because I’m not actively seeking new titles to join the line-up and because the purpose behind it is not the rationale of safety in numbers. I’m certainly not trying to compete with the established collectives. They’re already doing a great job (Shades, for example, runs at Graphic Smash as well as BVC). Offering guest spots is just my way of offering what limited help I can to creators who are, perhaps, where I was two years ago – people with a good story to tell, willing to strive for professional standards in both their story-telling and their artwork, but who have no idea of how to get their comic onto the web.

Fleen: What do you consider the most important milestone for BVC in the coming year?

DAJB: Well, the first milestone next year will be the launch of a new 4-part mini-series called Hunted, hopefully in January (another change of genre, this one – my take on the world of vampires!) That may not sound like a milestone but I wrote the script for Parts 1 3 back in 2004/2005 and I’ve only recently found an artist who I think is right for it, so it certainly feels like a milestone to me!

The most important milestone, though, will be making some of our titles available in print for the first time. If all goes according to plan, we expect to make the first issue of The Spires available during the first quarter, closely followed by Volume 1 of Shades. The Shades release should include all of Chapters 1 8, so it will have a lot more content than will have been released on the web at that stage. Although we’ve only just started serializing Chapter 4 at the BVC website, behind the scenes, were about half-way through Chapter 7, so were currently on target for that.

Fleen: How are you going to be getting things printed? Are you self-publishing? Are you offering material through something like Lulu? Or do you have a agreement with a publisher?

DAJB: Self-publishing will definitely be the first port of call and Lulu or ComiXpress would be our preferred way of taking that forward. ComiXpress have been very helpful whenever I’ve asked them to explain stuff in terms a technophobe like me can understand, so they’re front-runners! We will be submitting to established publishers too but no, there’s no agreement in place at the moment. With a story as long as “Shades”, for example, I can’t see any publisher wanting to touch it until it’s pretty near complete!

Fleen: You’re primarily a writer – do you have aspirations to create a comic entirely on your own, from script to sketch to line to ink?

DAJB: I have thought about it, especially when I’ve had trouble finding the right artist for a particular story. I wasn’t bad at art when I was at school and I did make (generally well-received!) comics that I would pass around the class but, by the time I decided I wanted to create real comics, I was quite aware that there were a lot of people out there who are so much better than me with a pencil! We all have different strengths and writing (more than drawing) happens to mine. I think many comics (especially web comics and indy comics but Id even include some of the professionally produced titles) suffer because theyre created by writers who cant really draw very well or by artists who dont understand how to structure a story properly. I fully understand why some creators choose to do it all themselves (there’s a small question of control and having to compromise and, not least, it can be a nightmare trying to get the right team together!) but I put a lot of time and effort into writing, revising and re-writing my scripts and so, when readers see them on the web, I want the artwork to look as polished as possible, too. A poster in one forum once criticised my comics for being pseudo-professional. That’s a particular indy sensibility that I’ve never really understood. Why should it be wrong to make the best comic you can?

As far as I’m concerned, the artists working on my stories (Harsho Mohan Chattoraj on “Shades”; Fabrizio Pacitti and Bill Key on “The Spires”; and Kyri Kyprianou on “Hunted”) are producing work which is so superior to anything I could have done myself, that everyone wins, especially the readers.

Fleen: Have you had difficulty finding good artists to work with you?

DAJB: Finding an artist is always difficult. It’s not just a question of finding a “good” artist – there are a lot of talented guys out there – but because I tend to hop from one genre to another, it’s also a question of finding someone whose style fits the story in question and – ideally – who shares your enthusiasm for it. With “Shades”, I hooked up with Harsho very quickly. He answered an ad I placed in the Komikwerks forum and, within a couple of months, he was working on the first few pages. “The Spires” took longer – six months maybe or even a year – but I eventually saw some of Fabrizio’s work at artWanted and approached him direct. With “Hunted”, it’s taken me two years to find Kyri – Staying patient and resisting the temptation to go with the wrong artist can be very frustrating!

Fleen: Have you had any difficulties in the collaboration process?

DAJB: Not serious. Any difficulties usually crop up at the outset while you’re still trying to establish the right “look” for the comic. Once we’ve got something both the artist and I are happy with, it’s pretty straightforward. I’ve had additional technical difficulties with Harsho because he’s based in Calcutta and I’m asking him to draw places and things in the real-world UK. That’s meant I’ve had to go out photographing things in the streets (I even had an overzealous official threaten to take my camera away at a railway station at around the time of the London bombings!) and I’ve bought some toy taxis and cars to help him with the appropriate camera angles!

Fleen: In fact, how collaborative is it? Do you finish a script, and then consider the art, or do you work with your artists to co-develop the story?

DAJB: I tend to finish the story and script first. This is because I’m never comfortable pitching an idea for a story. I’m usually pretty confident that readers will like the finished article but I worry that a pitch won’t convey what I have in my head. With “Hunted”, for example, I felt obliged to apologise to Kyri for the fact it featured vampires, before I could even begin to explain exactly how I was (hopefully!)going to make it different from every other vampire story out there! It’s a weakness of mine and it means that, by the time I approach an artist, the story and script are already complete – to the extent that all dialogue is written and all panels, page breaks, camera angles and focal lengths are all specified!

When I write, I have a very clear mental image of what the finished page should look like. Then, when the artist gets hold of it, I invite him to let me know if he feels anything needs changing. Some are happier to work strictly according to my descriptions, while others like to suggest different ways of doing things. Despite the fact that we start off with such a detailed script, personally, I prefer it if the artist does bring his own ideas to the artwork. If there’s a disagreement, then who has the final word depends on whether the artist is being paid or whether he’s a true 50/50 collaborator!

Fleen: What do you consider to be the hallmarks of a professional comic creator?

DAJB: It depends what you mean by professional. I’ve never wanted to have a day-job writing monthly soap-operas for DC or Marvel but, for the guys who do that, I guess the important criteria should be consistent quality (which most of them manage at least most of the time) and timeliness (which, it seems, an increasing number of them don’t!)

Professionalism for an indy creator is slightly different. Your only obligations are to yourself and to your readers. You should still aim to produce the best work you can but timeliness is slightly more flexible. If you can’t manage a monthly release schedule, then you just dont commit to one. That said, if you do advertise that a book or an installment will be available on a certain day each month or each week, then I feel you have a certain responsibility to keep to that. If, from time to time, you’re going to miss an instalment, then you should explain to your readers why. It’s not a contractual obligation, obviously, but it’s a courtesy and that’s an important part of professionalism too.

Fleen: Do you ever feel a creative tension between the strictly paperbook oriented format that you employ for your comics, and the Infinite Canvas potential of web publishing?

DAJB: Not yet. I think the comics that are being created with techniques like Infinite Canvas are exciting in terms of where the technology might take us in the future but, so far, I haven’t seen any that couldn’t work just as well (or, in some cases, better) in a traditional format. It’s like the early days of CGI in movies the technology is more interesting than the finished product. Sooner or later there will be a comic that makes use of that technology and tells an excellent story in a way that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. But I don’t think were there yet.

I believe the big advantage that the web has over traditional print media is interactivity and Id like to see more web comics experimenting with that. The trouble is as the many failed video games bearing the interactive movie label proved good story-telling is usually a pretty linear activity and, frustrating as it may be, interactivity can often interfere with the audiences enjoyment rather than enhance it.

Fleen: Who do you consider to be the most important figure in comics in the last ten years?

DAJB: Well, there are those who would argue (correctly, I’m sure!) that their best work wasn’t written within the last ten years, but for me I would still have to say Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Their influence has been enormous on both mainstream and indy comics. Their work over the last 10 years may not have been their best but, as a writer, Id still place it head and shoulders above that of anyone who’s followed in their footsteps. And, from a personal perspective, without DKR and Watchmen I cant imagine I would ever have returned to the comics fold, either as a reader or as a writer.

Fleen: So you stopped doing comics at some point, and then came back?

DAJB: No, sorry – I stopped being a comics reader! Tim Burton’s Batman movie led me to DKR; that led me to Watchmen; and from there I’ve taken great delight in working my way back through a couple of decades of evolution, discovering Sandman, Marvels, Maus, Sin City, No Man’s Land etc.

Fleen: Given the thousands and thousands of self-published comics currently in existence, both on paper and on the web – how would you try and organize them to make it easier for people to find the kinds of comics they’re looking for?

DAJB: Aye, there’s the rub! I don’t think it’s a matter of organisation. Sites like do a pretty good job of categorising comics already. Conceptually it goes against the whole idea of the democratic nature of the web, but web comics are in dire need of an independent and reliable rating mechanism. I don’t mean age-restricted ratings for mature (or even immature!) content but as a guide to quality.

Obviously opinions on any particular comic will vary to some extent but they shouldn’t differ as much as they do. If you asked twenty movie critics to review a movie and give it marks out of 10, their individual scores might vary by a few points either way, but they would tend to cluster around a particular number. They’re independent, they understand the medium and they know what they’re looking for. The same is broadly true of reviews of video games, novels, theatre productions or rock albums.

On the other hand, if you tried to get twenty reviews of a web comic, you’d get everything from teh awesome to meh to something unprintable. This means that, at present, there is no way for new readers to know whether a new web comic is actually good (assuming they can even be made aware of its existence!) when measured against objective criteria. The various top lists no longer serve any practical purpose in this respect. The top 20 or 50 no longer represent the 20 or 50 best comics out there. They’re a mix of comics which have been around so long that they have acquired a legion of fans who will vote for them, no matter how tired and cliche-ridden they may have become; comics which have beautiful artwork and therefore attract votes from the wide-eyed oohing and aahing crowd, irrespective of the quality of the writing; and comics which feature either copious amounts of fan service or blue hedgehogs. (Oh, and one or two excellent ones, of course!)

The battle web comics have had to face so far is to convince people that they are not all poorly produced comics which are only on the web because they are too weak to make it into print. They are beginning to win that battle but the next challenge is to face up to the fact that sadly that is true of many of them and to make it easier for people to identify the others!

Fleen: What defines quality in a comic, then? What makes a particular comic “strong enough” to make it to print?

DAJB: Well – and this is not my view by the way! – I think for the mainstream print comic community, any artwork which is below the quality of, say, a Jim Lee would certainly be regarded as inferior. Any artwork which is in some way “stylised”, rather than peopled by characters with Herculean physiques would also be looked down upon. That’s obviously a very wrong and blinkered view. I’m not defending it, just recognising that it exists.

But my point was slightly different. What I’m arguing the medium needs is a reviewing system which takes into account all the factors that make up a good comic. For story-driven comics, for example, I’d expect critics to look at the strength of the artwork, the structure of the story, the depth of character, the structure of the plot, the realism of the dialogue etc – the same kind of criteria they would use to review, say, a movie. Too often webcomics are lacking in at least one and sometimes more of these but – because they’ve been around for years – they remain the most well-known and the most vigorously championed, which means that anyone unfamiliar with webcomics will assume the standard of everything else on the web is even worse. We have to get away from the idea that a comic with artwork that looks pretty is “awesome” when in fact the story is only one step above the kind of thing we were reading in kindergarten.

The same is true of gagstrips. The best gagstrips on the web are very funny and address issues which could never be addressed in a syndicated newspaper strip. If you look at those which are most often cited as successful, however, many of them have been around for years and have become just as stale as their print counterparts. We smile weakly because we’ve become familiar with the characters but they no longer make us laugh out loud. They no longer surprise us. How many gagstrips do you look at on a regular basis? Dozens, I imagine. And yet how many really make you laugh the way they did when they started? How many are even competently drawn? An external (non-webcomicking) reviewer would look at most of those strips and conclude if that’s the best the web has to offer, he might as well stick with Fred Bassett. An honest review of those strips would call them on their artwork or the fact that the humour is no better than a 1970s sitcom. Without that kind of honesty about the inferior strips, any praise of the strips which are really funny is pretty meaningless.

Wow – I’ve rambled again! In a nutshell, all I’m trying to say is, webcomics have come a long way since they started but before they can take the next big step towards general credibility and wider acceptance, the community needs to become more self-critical.

Fleen: Can you contrast the value of a peer review of a comic work versus maintaining your own creative vision?

DAJB: I work through my stories in note form in great detail before writing the script and that script then goes through several re-writes and revisions and so, by the time it reaches the reader, I’m usually pretty happy with it. For that reason, I do try very hard to stick to my original concept for a story.

That said, writers do tend to work in a vacuum and so peer reviews or, indeed, any feedback is valuable and should never be dismissed out of hand. If someone tells me they don’t like something in one of my stories, I try very hard not to give a knee-jerk, defensive response. I’ll question myself quite rigorously about what they’ve said but if, after that, I’m still satisfied that my original judgment call was correct, Ill stick stubbornly to my guns. One small example: a couple of guys I know said they thought US readers would have problems with the amount of nudity in the first few pages of The Spires. Obviously Id already given that issue a lot of thought when I was writing the script but I did go back and question whether it really was justified and whether the reason Id included it was valid. I came to the conclusion that given what I was trying to say about the character and her life (and the fact that her lifestyle was relevant to the story as a whole) it was. So, whether you consider it fan service or a legitimate part of my “creative vision”, the nudity is still there!

Fleen: How many regular readers from the U.S. do you have? Is your fan base fairly UK centric – do you have a strong following in Germany? Tell us about your demographics.

DAJB:Hey – it’s comics, so there’s a pretty significant US bias! My regular readership is still low (BVC only started in March this year) but, assuming my stats are to be believed, more than 50% of my readers are in the US and just over 25% are from the UK. The rest are scattered worldwide, mostly across other English language territories and Europe. Intrigued as to why you should ask about Germany, though (it’s about 1%) – any particular reason?

Fleen: Where do you stand on Internet memes: Batgirl, pirates, cheese ninjas, that kind of thing?

DAJB: Are they memes now? I hadn’t noticed! I know nothing about cheese ninjas but I must like pirates because I wrote a short pirate story a few years back. Unfortunately the artist was about half way through when “real life” got in the way and he never finished it. To rub salt into the wound, it was called “Dead Man’s Chest” and – while it’s been lying fallow – The Pirates of the Caribbean have snuck up on me and stolen my title! Damn pirates!

I have mixed feelings about Batgirl. I grew up with the Adam West TV series, so (the Barbara Gordon) Batgirl will always be a part of the Bat-universe for me. She’s certainly one of the more successful characters in the new animated series, too. That said, the comic book Batman has far too many sidekicks and I thought DC did a great job of removing her from field duty and reinventing her as Oracle. Oracle is such a strong character and it makes so much sense for Batman to have that kind of support backing him up. Cassandra Cain didn’t work for me. By then the character was already superfluous and I’m glad she’s gone. It’s the same with the new Batwoman. If Batman needed a strong female foil at all, DC should have made more of Huntress. The mutual admiration/resentment between the two of them was such a great dynamic. What can Batwoman add to that apart from a bit of cheap publicity generated by her affair with Renee Montoya? Whether it’s the writers or the editors, I get the impression DC really doesn’t have a clear idea of what the Batman franchise is all about just now.

Fleen: Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Lapsong Souchong, or Chai?

DAJB: Okay – this is probably as close as you can get to heresy for a Brit, but I hate tea! I’m strictly a coffee man and strictly instant at that! I hate that luke-warm muddy taste you get with filter coffee; never understood espresso, either – not only is it bitter-tasting liquid caffeine but it’s served in thimbles, too! If I’m paying for a cup of coffee, I expect a full cup! Most of the others I can’t even pronounce. Except cappucino. If there’s no instant, I’ll drink a cappucino!

[…] Fleen, that webcomic blog about webcomics, has a great interview with David Berner, the guy behind the guys at Broken Voice comics, and the writer of the Graphic Smash series, Shades. […]

I’d just like to say that, as a true Brit, you need to re-assess your opinions. There’s nothing wrong with a good old cup of tea!

I thought you made a great point about rating the quality of web comics. It is near impossible at the moment to stumble on a good quality web comic/strip. That has to change, or the web could end up putting off your potential new comic fans (and even many of the existing die hard fans of printed comics). I was put off for a long time myself, until met David.

When we decided that we might collaborate on Hunted, I decided to check out what else he had done. I had a look at SHADES, and that made me rethink my opinions on web comics. Here was something that had quality in every department you SHOULD expect to find in a comic, but you rarely find in a web comic.


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