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.
OH: Switching gears to you personally, I'm glad I was able to read Valen the Outcast before you had a chance to burn it.
OH: I know you went into it on your blog, but can you talk a bit about that incident? Was it a way to kick up some dust and get people talking a little bit?
MAN: It wasn't even my idea to do that. For people who aren't sure what's been going on, I have a new book, Valen the Outcast, and part of the promotion of that was for the publisher to have variant covers. One of the covers, you could only get if your retailer ordered 200 or more copies of that one issue. In order to make that particular variant truly special, Boom! wanted to make the copies of that variant that were already ordered by retailers the only ones in existence. In order to do that, they had to destroy all the other comics. I think [Boom! Studios co-founder and CEO Ross Richie] had mentioned a couple of weeks beforehand that he was going to burn them. So they contacted me literally the hour before they did it and said "hey, we're going to destroy these books, why don't you come on over?" And I ended up being the one on camera burning them. It's a thirty second clip of what went on for however long it took to do that. It's my book so I feel a little weird doing it, and the optics of burning books, it's obviously not a good one. That being said, I think that people can see the difference – whether or not they agree with it as a marketing ploy or not, that's a separate issue – but as far as the optics go, I'm sure people can see the difference between zealots and extremists trying to eradicate the knowledge or existence of something so that it doesn't pollute their ideology, is completely different from maximizing the rarity of this special cover of a book. Some people are going to be upset just to be upset, and there are some people who were genuinely disturbed by it, and I can understand that. I can appreciate that. I just hope they can look at it for what it truly was, and not as an act of hate or anything like that. I mean, it was my book, for crying out loud, and yeah, I felt weird doing it, but it's not like we were destroying all of them. It was just that particular cover.
The reason it was done, a lot of people were asking "why not print just twenty-five copies and let it go at that?" Well you can't do that. Printers have a minimum print run, and I think the lowest number of books you can print with that particular cover is 500. So you have these retailers that have this special cover, and you have the other 475 sitting in the warehouse and it's taking up space. Not only that, but it sort of undercuts the value for the retailer. The retailer's taking a chance when they say "ok, we'll buy 200 of this issue to get the special variant cover." We don't want to cut their feet out from under them by saying a year from now "well, we've got this extra 475 copies sitting around, lets take them to a convention and sell them." It undercuts the investment they made to get that variant cover in the first place. So what we did to make sure that didn't happen was to destroy the leftovers. Obviously, in hindsight, it probably would have been better had we found a more creative way of destroying them. Some people had mentioned lawnmowers or chainsaws, or encasing them in ice and dropping them off the building. There are obviously a lot of things we could have done, but if we were really looking to make it a big marketing thing, we probably would have done something like that, but it was the rarity that was supposed to get people talking, as opposed to how we disposed of the extra copies. I was actually surprised at how many people were upset by it and bothered by it. Obviously, that's my fault simply because I should have been aware...you know, we should have known better. We should have done something differently. I can understand people going "you should have done something different" and people getting genuinely angry.
But there are a lot of readers out there who just don't like variant covers. They just have a visceral hatred of variant covers. I'm not particularly sure why that is, but they do. Like I mentioned in my blog post, the idea is that they feel that publishers are trying to get them to buy the same thing twice, which I disagree with because you don't have to buy more than one copy. A lot of people say it's reminiscent of the 1990's and the craziness that went on then. I can see the correlation, but we're not trying to bring back that. When you have an independent publisher with me writing the book, we have to do everything we can to get people interested and to get people to take a chance on it, so we thought by making this particular variant cover as rare as possible, it would interest retailers who would pass that interest onto their readers and their customers. That's what the goal was. It wasn't living out any morbid fantasy. That wasn't it at all. It's interesting, though because people are obviously not talking about it in the way that I would like, but they are talking about it. I read a comment somewhere where someone said "well, why don't you write a better book?" The thing is, it's a good book! It's a really good book and we're really proud of it. But writing good books doesn't always matter. I've written a lot of good books, a lot of books that I'm really proud of. But again, we're a small independent publisher competing with massive companies like DC and Marvel, and especially in this economic climate where you have retailers that are afraid to put anything on the shelves that isn't going to sell because they can't afford to not make money, so they're taking a big chance. All these things are stacked against us, so we're trying to do whatever we can to get people interested. We firmly believe that if you buy the book, you're going to want to continue reading the series. We believe in it. We put a lot of work into that book and we're very proud of it. We didn't destroy those extra copies because we think it sucks. Not at all. It's just what we're doing to basically show our support for those retailers who supported us by making those copies as rare as possible, and hopefully to get the word out to as many readers as possible to give the book a chance.
OH: And it was only the one variant that was destroyed, right? The Joe Jusko variant?
MAN: Yeah, just the Joe Jusko one. There are other variants, but the extras of the other variants were not destroyed.
OH: To get back into the book itself, how long has this idea been gestating?
MAN: It originated with Ross. Ross had the idea of an "undead Conan." I think he's been sitting on that idea for a couple of years. Several months ago, actually the spring of this year, I think Ross and I were sitting down and having this conversation and he was like "yeah, I've got this idea of an undead Conan," and me being me, I started pitching all these ideas to him. He said "why don't you write it, and we'll make it happen." That's kind of how it came about. We spent a lot of time trying to perfect it and made it as good as it can be. The first issue, I probably wrote six different drafts because every time a draft would go in, I would have my editor and the editor in chief and Ross basically all giving me notes like "this works, this doesn't work as well, can we fix this up," you know, to perfect the pacing and everything. So it took several drafts to get it where we wanted it...to pace it correctly, to get across the information that we wanted, and to lay in the mysteries that we wanted. It's an ongoing series with a huge mythology and we didn't want to do the death-knell for a lot of fantasy fiction which is just to do that huge info dump at the beginning. It's like reading an encyclopedia. No one wants to read that, and I certainly don't want to write that. So even though we're building that large mythology, we're divulging that information as it's needed. That way, the reader doesn't feel lost, and they know exactly what's going on, who the players are, and as the story unfolds, the world gets bigger and bigger. So it's been in the works for several months and it took a lot of painstaking effort to hammer it out and make it as perfect as we possibly could.
OH: You've said that you're a big fan of sword and sorcery fantasy stories, and you recently worked on an adaptation of Robert E. Howard's The Hawks of Outremer. Did that in any way prepare you for fantasy writing? Did you need preparation for it?
MAN: When I did the adaptation of Hawks of Outremer, that really whet my appetite for the chance to write that kind of violence and choreograph those kinds of fight scenes. There's something that's so much fun about writing a story about a big guy with a big sword killing things. It sounds kind of mindless, but it's a lot of fun. I've been reading fantasy my whole life. In fact, it was Fred Saberhagen's book Swords, which I read when I was eleven years old, that made me want to be a writer. Fantasy has always had a special place in my heart. When I was in college, I wrote this god awful fantasy novel that was just horrible! [laughs] I was just learning how to write and how to tell a story, and there were a lot of things I didn't know, but it was something I'd always wanted to do. Now, with Valen, it gives me the opportunity to scratch all those itches that I wasn't able to before. It almost feels like coming full circle. All the years that I've spent writing all these different titles in different genres has basically prepared me...I've been learning all the techniques and skills needed to tell this story. Being a fan of the genre helps a lot too, but I'm just excited about thinking about all the different directions I can take this story, and all the things I have in store for all the characters. I just have so much fun with the story, which I hope comes through when the readers read it. That's the nice thing about working on a story and genre that you really enjoy. You can tell when a writer enjoys the story, and when they're just pumping it out. I think as a reader, it's more fun to read a story that is written by someone who actually loves the story they're telling. Hopefully, everything I've done up to this point has prepared me to write this story, and it comes through as you read it.
OH: I've noticed that, in the first issue anyway, there's a lot in common with other works you've written. It focuses on a character who's in a way victimized by the world he lives in and is on his journey due to circumstances out of his control.
MAN: One of the things I'm proudest of is that I'm developing my voice as a writer, so when you read it, you can say "that sounds like Michael Alan Nelson." The tropes and characters that I'm writing do have similarities. I'm not going to say it's a conscious thing, but it's something that happens as I write. A friend of mine, who's an amazing writer, John Rogers, who is one of the best storytellers on the planet, he read Dingo and a lot of my other stuff, and he said "Mike, you always punish you protagonists for doing the right thing." I'd never noticed that before. John is the kind of guy who can look at that and he's smart enough to make that assessment. It's nothing that I had set out to do consciously, it just happened. I think when I'm writing my characters, there's a part of me that's coming forward. There's something that I'm always searching for, something I want to read. I don't know who said it, but somebody basically said "write what you want to read." That's what I try to do. I think that's why you find these common themes and common tropes among these characters. It's not really a conscious effort to make them sit within those specific dynamics, it's just something that just comes out as I write them. I try to make each character unique, either through dialogue or through personality, but again, there are those similarities among the main characters of my different series.' I don't know why, but that's the way it works.
OH: How did you approach what kind of character Valen would be? He's undead, but not a zombie or anything like that.
MAN: When Ross told me the idea of the "Undead Conan," we liked the concept, and if you look at the solicitations, and it says "Undead Conan in the world of Game of Thrones," which is fine, because those are things that readers are familiar with, so what we're saying is hey, if you like these stories, this should interest you." That being said, we're trying to make him as original as possible. So when it came to Valen, we said "ok, he's a big guy with a big sword." But, and even though we mention Conan in the solicits, but he's not like Conan in that...Conan is a character of base needs. At the risk of sounding offensive, he likes to fight, fuck and feast. That's what he does. With Valen, he used to be a king, so he has that ability to fight well. But as a king, he's good at diplomacy, he understands law, he understands literature. He's a well rounded character, but he's also wounded. His soul is gone, his country is destroyed. So how does a man of his mental and physical abilities deal with that? So that's the fun. We're approaching him as a big guy who's a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, but he's also a thinker. The fun for me is seeing him think his way through a problem, and how to use things to his advantage. Of course, being a big guy with his physical skills really helps, but that's not all he's about. Approaching him as a character is fun because it's always about trying to find those clever ways that he can get through a situation that doesn't always mean hacking his way through it. In issue two, I don't want to give anything away, but there are only three ways to kill an "Abomination," which is what Valen is: beheading, piercing his heart, or setting him on fire. You may think "well, that's pretty easy to avoid." Well, in some situations yes, but in others, not so much, so he has a very fun and clever way of solving one of those problems. That's what it's about to me, finding those fun, clever ways of problem solving. I love that kind of stuff; I love being able to think "how does he think his way through problems?" The problem is, he's a smarter character than I am as a person, so I can't always think of the most clever way of getting out of a situation [laughs]. That's the fun of writing the character, though.
OH: Reading issue one, it didn't feel all that derivative.
MAN: Anytime you have a story like this, there are going to be certain things where people will be like "oh, I've seen this before." Ok, yeah, you have seen this before, but how can we take that idea and turn it on its head and make it interesting? We're trying not to be derivative. We understand that that's very difficult when it comes to a fantasy story. It's very easy to seem derivative, but we're trying to come up with our own unique spins on tropes that may seem familiar.
OH: How much of the world-building came along in the creative process, and how much did you already know would definitely be a part of it when you took on the gig?
MAN: We knew right off that bat that undead – obviously what comes to mind are zombies or vampires, but they're really neither. It's really difficult in our industry because zombies are so prolific that you're working against hundreds of other stories and ideas and concepts. You have to figure out the rules of your universe. We know what the rules we're using to define what can and can't happen with these characters, and we know what the world looks like. We're a fantasy world, so we're able to manipulate the natural world. Anytime you're world-building, you have to establish your rules, and you want to make sure that the rules you come up with work and are consistent. When we started, we know "he's dead, and he's soulless." Well, if he's dead, why do we care if he gets into a fight? Well, he still has to be destroyed. So that's where we came up with the idea that if he's beheaded, his heart is pierced, or he's burned, then he's truly destroyed. Without those rules, there are no stakes, so we have to make sure that there are consequences to what he does. We also have ideas for how the world works. I know how the series is going to end, so it's a matter of getting there, and in order to get there, I have to develop the world more and show the reader more. There are also certain things I don't know yet, but I have these vague ideas that hopefully I will fill in as I go along. There are also things that come up in the writing process that I don't know yet.
OH: Being that you have a specific end point in mind, do you have a number of issues you see the story running?
MAN: It would be great to have this run fifty or sixty issues, if not more. That's what I have in mind right now, but like I said, things happen in the writing process, so as I write the series, it could end up being something completely different. I love writing these characters, I love writing this world, so the longer I get to do it, the happier I would be.
OH: Last time we talked, you were nearing the end of your run on 28 Days Later, and we talked about what it would be like letting that series go. How much do you reflect on the 28 Days Later experience?
MAN: Writing 28 Days Later was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was absolutely fantastic. It's one of those things where – I said that I know where Valen is going – I knew where 28 Days Later was going. I knew how I wanted to end that series. Having the chance to do that and work towards that moment is really rare. A lot of times in comics, you'll write a series, but sales won't be good enough to maintain it, so it has to end early and you don't get a chance to tell the story you want. I've made that mistake before, where I start to write a series and I started to lay this groundwork for this long, ongoing, expansive story, and all of a sudden you get the news: "Oh, sorry, you gotta close it." Then you have to figure out a way to end it all in a couple of issues. With 28 Days Later, it was nice to have the freedom to tell the story I set out to tell. It doesn't happen too often, so having an opportunity to do that with those characters in that universe was really a rare treat for me. That's why I'm hoping to get to do that again with Valen. It was such a positive experince with 28 Days Later that I would love to have the opportunity to do that again.
OH: Anything else you'd like to tell the world?
MAN: Valen is an ongoing story that we hope readers really stick to. Give it a chance. Even if you're not a fan of fantasy but you just like good stories, give it a shot. When people hear the word "fantasy," they think elves and dwarves and that kind of thing. That's not what this kind of fantasy is. That's why we liken it more to Game of Thrones, it's more – grounded is the wrong word, as there are necromancers and magic and that kind of thing – it's not like Lord of the Rings, it's more like Game of Thrones in that good and evil are not so clearly defined. It's a world of shades of grey. If you like that kind of storytelling, give it a shot. If you like good art, Matteo's art is just so beautiful! It looks so good, so give it a shot.
OH: I didn't even ask about your artist. How did Matteo Scalera get involved with the book? What's it like working with him?
MAN: He's been fantastic. The editors are the ones who find the artists. Thankfully, they don't leave that task to me, because I wouldn't even know how to begin to do it, but they go out and find the best artist for each individual project. The greatest joy for me as a writer is when the art comes back and I get to see how they take my measly little script and make it into something awesome. In issue two, there are some scenes where you're agog at how fantastic it is. It's really something else. Even though I've never talked to him, I'm always hounding my editor, like "did you get any pages from Matteo? Let me see, let me see!" Also, the colors by Archie van Buren...when you have Matteo's art which is fantastic and then Archie comes in with these colors, everything is just coming together so perfectly. I couldn't be happier. I'm so ecstatic. As cheesy as this sounds, I literally do a little dance every time I get a chance to see this art for the first time because I'm really happy with what these guys are doing. They're really taking this story and making it better than I could on my own, so hats off to them.
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch