Interview: Don MacDonald on Machiavelli, the Challenges of Historical Comics, and his Kickstarter Campaign
Don MacDonald is a Boston based artist. In 2010, MacDonald began publishing pages of Machiavelli, a comic biography of the famous Renaissance philosopher, on his website, www.donmacdonald.com. MacDonald is now running a Kickstarter to publish a print from of the now completed comic. As of Wednesday morning, the Kickstarter needed only $823 to reach its goal. I spoke with MacDonald over email on why he created a comic about Machiavelli, the challenges of writing about a controversial historical figure and his Kickstarter campaign.
Christian Hoffer: Let's start with the obvious question: why make a comic biography about Machiavelli?
Don MacDonald: I studied abroad in Italy in college, then went back afterward to study painting. I've always been interested in Renaissance art and history. I read de Grazia's Machiavelli in Hell around this time and found that Machiavelli had an interesting life story as well, something I could work with in a setting that I wanted to use. So there was a narrative hook, and a conceptual one as well: Machiavelli was not the villain that he's made out to be, so I could tell a story that tried to upend those preconceived notions.
Hoffer: Machiavelli's is one of the founders of modern political science and arguably one of the founders of modernity itself, but many equate him with the political ruthlessness that he discusses in his various works. Do you feel that Machiavelli has been unfairly depicted in other entertainment media?
MacDonald: Oh certainly. It's one of the reasons that he appealed to me. It's useful to me to have conventional wisdom as an antagonist. It makes the story more interesting and hopefully allows people to see something from an angle they hadn't before. Ideally, it makes my interpretation of Machiavelli stand out from the more conventional diabolical schemers typical of portrayals of Machiavelli.
Hoffer: Do you feel that the reputation of a historical figure such as Machiavelli can be rehabilitated?
MacDonald: In academic settings, it already has been for the most part, but not in the popular culture. I think it certainly could, if the right work broke through into the popular consciousness.
Hoffer: What lessons do you think readers can learn from Machiavelli's life? Do you feel that Machiavelli's real world experiences should resonate more than the theories he wrote about?
MacDonald: I don't want to get too into what lessons we can learn from his life for fear of being overly didactic. But the fact that Machiavelli's banishment, his greatest misfortune, turned out to be a great stroke of luck for world literature is something I'm certainly aware of. It's extremely unlikely he would have written the Prince and the Discourses had he been able to continue his diplomatic work.
I don't think that Machiavelli's real life experiences resonate more than his writing, but I felt that Machiavelli's philosophy has been extensively covered by many others with far greater insight than I. I didn't feel there was much I could add to that discussion. But his biography is not extensively known, and I felt I could explore some new angles and perhaps give a fresh perspective to his work by showing the circumstances that created it.
Hoffer: When reading through the book, I noticed that you quoted several primary sources from Machiavelli and his contemporaries. What sort of research did you complete while making Machiavelli?
MacDonald: I read biographies, particularly Ridolfi's, and also read as much of Machiavelli's letters as I could. I visited Florence again for photo reference, and went out to Machiavelli's villa in Sant'Andrea in Percussina.
Hoffer: The Florentine Republic and its history is a critical part of Machiavelli's life and story. How familiar do you think readers are with Florence's history, and how did you balance explaining the context of Machiavelli's actions with the period and setting in which he lived?
MacDonald: I'm guessing that most people are not very familiar with the specifics, but aware of the Italian Renaissance in a more general sense. Most people have heard of the Medici, Machiavelli, or Cesare Borgia, but probably don't know much about their circumstances or the political situation at the time. And to be fair, the political situation of the time was total chaos in Italy. Italy as a political entity didn't even exist, and the rulers of the various city states and republics were constantly changing. Now to be clear without dumbing down the history was a challenge, and it's always a work in progress. I never want to underestimate my readers. I was always very conscious of not over-simplifying, but I need to balance that with a certain amount of explanation. You want to show the complexity, but you want to be clear. It's a difficult balancing act.
Hoffer: You originally released Machiavelli as a online webcomic. What was your process for creating Machiavelli? Did you script the entire comic out beforehand? How many pages a week did you usually complete?
MacDonald: I originally drew it with the intent of print publication. I had a publishing offer at one point, but during the financial crash, things dried up. So I started publishing what I had already drawn on the web. When I started out, I had a nice buffer of about six months work of pages...but I work pretty slowly, so I ended up publishing the end of the book not long after I drew the pages. I can draw, ink and paint about four pages in two weeks. For Machiavelli, I worked on the pages four at at time, so I could batch process: pencils one day, inks another, paints, and scanning, and so forth. That's what seemed to work best for me, and it's probably what I'll continue doing in the future.
Hoffer: What sort of response has Machiavelli received from readers?
MacDonald: My readers are wonderful. Machiavelli (and probably my comics style in general) tends not to have a huge crossover with webcomics or mainstream comics fandom, but seems to appeal to folks who are into art and/or history. Probably not surprising. The trouble is, most of these people haven't really thought about comics as something they might enjoy, so it can be tough to reach them. But when I do, it is so gratifying.
Hoffer: Have you received any requests to use your Machiavelli in an academic setting? Do you think that comic biographies are a potential source of untapped scholarship or academic material?
MacDonald: I have had requests to use images in lecture materials, which I'm happy to accommodate. I haven't actually seen the lectures, though, but I'd like to.
As for comic biographies being academic sources, I'm not sure. I suppose it is possible, of course, that someone could illustrate their original research similar to the way Joe Sacco does comic journalism. So I guess a qualified yes. My work is more in the vein of Wolf Hall or I, Claudius: I strive for accuracy and draw on research and primary sources, but if it is biography it takes a lot of fictional liberties. Or it's fiction that doesn't take many historical liberties. But I'm happy if I've made someone see history in a different way or if I've brought a subject to life in a way that reminds readers that Machiavelli (and later Marlowe) are people who lived lives outside the pages of their books. If I can make historical figures 'pop' that's great, that's what I want, but I'm always very conscious that I have to be honest. It's easy enough to spice things up with some manufactured drama, but I don't think that's being fair or truthful to Machiavelli.
Hoffer: You currently have a Kickstarter campaign underway to fund a print version of Machiavelli. What are your goals for a print version of Machiavelli?
MacDonald: I want to make as nice a paperback edition as I can afford. I see it as a kind of limited edition for the readers who were here at the beginning, and I want to make it something that both I can be proud of and that readers can feel like it is something they want to keep. I will certainly print more than I need to make sure that people who for whatever reason missed the Kickstarter can order one, or perhaps buy it at a convention. But another major goal is closure: I haven't been able to really devote myself to my next book because Machiavelli is still out there, unfinished.
Hoffer: One of the challenges I think a creator would face from releasing a comic one page at a time is that they can't go back and fix or revise pages they're unhappy with. Did you experience any setbacks while completing Machiavelli, and is there any changes that you've made for the print version of the book?
MacDonald: I've made a few, and will probably make a few more as I get into actually laying out the book in inDesign. The prologue and much of Chapter One was completely redone when I posted to the web, and those were the pages that bothered me most. But who knows, as I go through and can see it all as a whole, there may be certain pages I want to rework. I don't plan to do any major overhauling, though, like adding a chapter or changing the plot. But a new page or two may appear. I wouldn't be at all surprised.
Hoffer: Did you ever consider taking Machiavelli to a traditional publisher? What are the benefits and challenges to running a Kickstarter campaign as opposed to pursuing a more traditional publishing avenue?
MacDonald: I did, but again, Machiavelli is fairly unlike other comics I can think of. The problem I ran into again and again is that people would tell me they had no idea how they would sell it. Perhaps if he fought vampires…I don't know. So part of running the Kickstarter is to prove that there is an audience for this kind of work. It may help me sell my next book, or, perhaps I'll do the next book through Kickstarter again. It is an anxiety filled experience, to be sure, but I have complete creative control and a wonderful connection with readers. On the other hand, I don't have the marketing muscle and editorial feedback that a publisher would provide.
Hoffer: After Machiavelli's Kickstarter campaign is completed, what do you plan on doing next? Do you have any other comic projects in the pipeline?
MacDonald: After this Kickstarter is done (successfully, I hope) the next steps are putting together the book in inDesign, incorporating notes and such. I may go back and rescan all the pages in one fell swoop, so I have high-quality masters that are consistent. Then it will be shopping for a print vendor and working on the web site redesign. At that point, getting backers their books and artwork. Then, I can return my full attention to Marlowe, my next book, about the Elizabethan playwright and spy. I've done much of the initial research, but plotting still needs to be done as does consolidation of my notes, character sketches, etc. If we meet my goal for Kickstarter, my stretch goals will be Marlowe-themed, as any funds collected beyond the Machiavelli goal will go toward the next book.
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About the Author - Christian Hoffer
Christian Hoffer is the exasperated Abbott to the Outhouse's Costello. When he's not yelling at the Newsroom for upsetting readers or complaining to his wife about why the Internet is stupid, he sits in his dingy business office trying to find new ways to make the site earn money. Hoffer is also the only person in history stupid enough to moderate two comic book forums at once.
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