The writer of Valen the Outcast stops by The Outhouse to talk about the new fantasy series!
In the grand comics scheme of things, Michael Alan Nelson may be flying under the radar, but at Boom! Studios, he's a giant. Nelson has been one of the most prolific writers at the publisher, and along with Mark Waid, has been one of the most important figures in its short history. His work includes 28 Days Later, the limited series Hexed, and Dingo, which was an adaptation of his own novel. His newest ongoing series is called Valen the Outcast, a sword-and-sorcery fantasy story that follows the titular king in his quest to gain back his soul, stolen from him on the battlefield by an evil necromancer. Nelson took a seat in The Outhouse after the release of Valen's first issue to talk about the new series, as well as some issues facing the comics industry today, as well as his recent experience with book-burning.
The Outhouse (OH): How was your 2011?
Michael Alan Nelson (MAN): It's been an interesting year. A lot of things have been going on. There were a few months where I really didn't have that many projects going on, and then all of a sudden all these projects started falling into my lap. I'm just excited about where I'm at right now and the projects I'm working on. The year started of kind of slow and then ramped up, which I was really happy with. It's been a busy year. I'm hoping 2012 will be just as busy. Better busy than not busy.
OH: Is there a lot on your plate already for 2012?
MAN: Yes and no. It's one of those things where I have projects in my mind that I want to do, but not necessarily lined up yet. It's one of those things where the potential exists for a lot of these projects, it's just making them happen and hoping the stars align in the right place. We haven't officially announced it yet, but we're supposed to be doing Hexed as an ongoing soon, but we're trying to decide on the artist and a couple of other things need to fall in line for that to happen. I really have my fingers crossed. I'm really excited about that. If all goes well then 2012 will be the year when I get to reintroduce that, so I'm very excited about that. I'm really excited about it and proud of it, so I'm hoping I get the chance to do more.
OH: You've been working in comics for seven years now. Has the process of getting projects going changed or gotten easier for you?
MAN: I like to think I've grown as a writer since I've started. There are certain aspects that have gotten easier just because I've gotten used to the process and become a better storyteller as the years have gone by. There are still things that are difficult. There are still days where I'm staring at a blank screen and I want to pound my head against the keyboard because the words just aren't coming. There are always things that are difficult about the job. Just like anything, the more you do it, the easier it becomes because you develop those routines, those skills that may not have been fully developed when you started your writing career. I hope to improve. I think that's something all writers strive to do. So that's where I am now, but I think I've come a long way since I've started. I've been writing my entire life, but being a professional the last several years has really helped me improve my writing. That's something that I hope to continue to do in the years to come. That's the nice thing about my job: every time you do something, it becomes a learning experience. Each project has its own unique challenges, and learning to adapt to those challenges helps make you a better writer and a better storyteller.
OH: There's been a lot of talk about how the comic book industry is affected by the economy. Everyone at Boom! probably knows you and knows what you can do by now, but have you noticed any difficulty in getting projects lined up from that end, where the publisher can't publish something they otherwise would?
MAN: Oh yeah. People used to say that comics are recession-proof, but it turns out they're not. I tend to think of it as more "recession-resistant." Comic book companies are definitely suffering, and publishers are struggling to try to make ends meet. The entire planet is having economic struggles right now, so when it comes to comics, people don't have the disposable income that they used to have. There are some people who were able to go to their local shop on Wednesday and drop anywhere from $50 to $100 every single week. Well, now they can't do that, because if it's a choice between buying comics or paying your electric bill, the electric bill is going to win, of course. The industry is struggling with everyone, and for someone like me, I'm not a household name. I have a lot of books out there, but I'm kind of competing against Marvel and DC, so I'm trying to write the best books I can and get my voice heard, but it's even more difficult now when someone walks into a comic shop with a very limited spending budget. So how do I get them to part with their limited funds on something that I've written as opposed to these monoliths like DC and Marvel? From my perspective, it has become even more of a struggle to be seen and heard.
Obviously, the first thing is writing the best stories I can, but even that can only carry me so far. It doesn't matter how good the story is, unless people are picking it up, it's going to wither and die on the vine. With the current economic climate, there are writers even more prolific and more talented than I am who are struggling as well. A couple of weeks ago, Brian Wood posted something on the internet, and he was discussing Dark Horse's day-and-date release and pricing schedule, and the way it was done apparently had some retailers upset, so Brian Wood addressed that from his perspective. To hear that a guy like him is having difficulty, what does that say for a guy like me? Obviously, everyone's struggling, and we're all trying to support one another and help each other. We just have to live close to the bone right now and do the best that we can and hope that we can inspire readers and get them to pick up the books. Hopefully, the quality of books that we put out are worth the money the reader's paying for them. That's the big thing. One of the things that's been stressed to me the most over the last year or so is making every single issue the best that it possibly can be and put the most in there that you can. If a consumer is dropping four dollars for an issue of a comic, you want to make sure that it's worth the four dollars that they've spent. You don't want to take advantage of that. You want to give them as much as you can for their money. If you do that, they'll want to come back and buy more, but also four dollars is a cup of coffee and a muffin at Starbucks or whatever. You're asking people to give you that money for your book, you don't want them to regret the decision of doing that. So it is difficult for every one. We'll get through it. Everyone's going through a lean time right now, but if everybody pulls together and works hard, we'll get through it.
OH: Looking at the industry, are they on the right track in addressing their problems?
MAN: I'm not well-versed on the business side of things. There are things the companies do where I say "Oh, that's brilliant!" and it doesn't work, and other things where I say "that's a horrible idea" and of course it works wonderfully. I'm not good at gauging that sort of thing. Obviously, there a huge thing right now with the idea of digital comics versus print comics, and how does one affect the other. Retailers are worried because if there's an increase in the sales of digital comics, that proportion will decrease in the sales of printed comics, and if so, that's going to put even more strain on retailers. In the past few years, a lot of retailers have been going out of business and you hate to see that because they're supporting us. As far as what can be done, I don't know. I really don't have those solutions. Hopefully there are smarter people than myself out there trying to figure it out. I also think we're still in a state of flux right now. Digital media are really starting to gain popularity in the last couple of years. I think the advent of the iPad really started that moving forward. Digital comics and ebooks had been around for quite a while, they just never really caught on until the advent of the iPad. The problem is that the introductory iPad is $500, and in this current economic climate, not everybody can shell that out. I don't think digital is really going to overtake print until iPad and similar devices become more ubiquitous. Once that happens, then I think you'll start to see that change going from digital to print. I hope not. I hope it grows along with print. I hope that a rising tide will raise both boats. Whether or not it will, I have no idea. As far as what publishers and retailers and comic book creators can do, I don't know. I'm as lost in the wilderness as anyone else right now.
OH: I attended Marvel's Digital Comics panel at New York Comic-Con, and SVP Sales David Gabriel kept talking about how Marvel had no plans to do away with print comics because a) they're not equipped to go digital only, but also b) because they just don't want to.
MAN: It's interesting because with somebody as big as Marvel, they've got the right to do whatever they want, but what they're going to do is go where the money is. That's any company. Again, I'm completely speaking out of turn. I don't know any retailers personally, so don't think that I'm speaking for retailers, because I'm not. I don't have that position of authority or knowledge, but when you have large companies like Marvel or DC making such a push for digital that if that's where the money comes from...They say "print is never going to go away," and I don't think it is going to go away, the problem is, will there be enough print sales to keep these retailers in business? That's where the difficulty comes in. Yeah, there could always be demand for print comics, but unless there's a big enough demand to warrant having these retailers...it's not cheap to run a store. You're paying rent, and electric bills, and you're trying to figure out the best way to advertise...there's a lot of stuuf that goes into it. Unless the money's there to keep the business afloat, it's all going to die and the only way to get comics is by ordering them online. I think it's going to be Marvel and DC that really lead the pack here. Wherever they go, everybody else will follow. They're what, seventy percent of the market? They're the two big elephants in the room and whenever they make a move, everyone else is going to feel it. It's nice that they say they want to keep print comics going, I'm sure they absolutely believe that and want that. People that have been in the industry for so long, they love print comics and they don't want that to go away because there's something nostalgic about actually having a physical copy of that comic book. Part of that nostalgia goes away when you go straight to the digital comic. That being said, you want to reach new markets and new readers, and nostalgia isn't going to do that. Digital is the best way to go about that. So it's trying to figure out a model that will satisfy both print and digital. Hopefully they'll figure out a way.