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Strength in Numbers: An Interview with Four Star Studios

Chicago is known as an originator of great architecture, signature foods, numerous styles of music, and a handful of sports teams.  How often, however, is Chicago associated with innovation in comics?  Or comics at all?  While the Wikitravel and Wikipedia articles on Chicago mention nothing of the city’s comics scene, I can attest to its vibrancy.  In the last two months Chicago has seen the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo, the Columbia College Zine Fest, the Bam! Comic Book Art Show at Royal Flesh Tattoo gallery, and more events hosted at comic shops around the city.  Most recently has been the launch of Double Feature, a comic app for the iPad,  produced by local comic collective Four Star Studios.

 

Four Star is a studio in Ravenswood made up of Mike Norton, Tim Seeley, Josh Emmons, and Sean K Dove. All four artists are industry professionals, working in a variety of styles with one common goal: to spread comics readership to a greater swath of the population through more accessible stories and even more elbow grease. Double Feature is their newest project. Through their iPad ap, users can download 99 cent comics with special features like a commentary view, pencils view, or unlettered view, which allow a rare look at the comics  creation process. Four Star is working both in and out of house for Double Feature, producing comics in different genres every month.    I stopped by their Ravenswood space to learn about their reasons for undergoing this project, and to discuss the state of the comics industry in general.

Table of Contents for "The Answer" as seen on the iPad. Art by Mike Norton and Mark Englert.

Miles Johnson: Why did you decided to start Four Star Studios?

Tim Seeley: I had worked at Devil’s Due publishing, which was a local Chicago comic publisher.  I had been working for them for a while, and I decided to become a freelancer. I still remained working at their studio, and finally when they shuttered it I was terrified to be the guy that sits at home and draws.  All of us met regularly for a draw night in Chicago.  Mike does like working by himself at home, but I think he saw the fear in my eyes that I would become a crazed lunatic if I worked by myself, so he agreed to go in with me.  And Josh who had just spent weeks at home after treatment for cancer really wanted to go and not sit in front of the TV.  So he was in for it too, and Sean came along with the group.

[The idea was] not necessarily that we were going to start off right away with a project that we all were going to do together, just guys in a room hanging out doing different things.  But the intent was that eventually we would do something together.

Miles Johnson: Could you explain why you chose the name Four Star Studios?

TS: With Four Star I wanted it to be professional, because with guys like us you do wind up being called Burly Ork Studio or something like that.  One of things that we had all talked about was being from somewhere. Working in Chicago and that being influential on what we do and how we know each other, we wanted to reflect that in the name.  That’s how Four Star from the flag came to be.

Josh Emmons: And we’ve all worked other places, and I think we all appreciate the work ethic of Chicago, that Chicago style of  getting things done.

MJ: I wanted to ask you guys about Deeds Not Words. Why did you feel the need for a motto?

JE: There are lot of other writers and artists in the community that talk a lot, and one of the things that we were talking about why we would well work together was that we’d rather get something on the page then try to pitch something.

TS: Anybody that works in entertainment [knows that] there’s tons of people with ideas. Everyone has an idea, and the longer you work in entertainment the more you realize that ideas aren’t worth anything. You have to be out there talking about the things you made, and not the things that you have an idea for and someone should give you money to make.

JE: I’ve always been surprised by the act of thinking of something and mapping it all out and having it done, versus the physical act of translating that into something that’s real. There’s some other energy that you have to put into something that makes you more tired when you’re done with it than just drawing lines on a page or just typing on a keyboard would.  That’s the hard part.

Mike Norton in the Four Star Studio

MJ: I’ve noticed this work ethic among comic artists. My boyfriend, a cartoonist, used to have this sign over his drawing board that said, “draw motherfucker!” Do you think this mentality exists because comics are so labor intensive?

TS: When you’re doing comics, or certainly it’s true among comedians or writers, you’re doing it because you can’t do anything else. I’ve certainly met tons of comic book people where it becomes more about your ego or more about trying to get something that you think you deserve. In the end, though, it’s all about working and making things and getting better and suffering.  Sometimes you have to remind yourself that you love this, and that you need to go suffer, and that it’s going to suck for a while.

JE: I think that’s true, like Tim mentioned, of a lot of different careers, but I think it’s particularly highlighted in comics because it’s a short form medium. It’s a monthly or there’s some kind of periodical. Everybody who is practicing to be in comics does one thing, then everyone that has been in the industry for a little while does a lot less than that because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to meet their deadlines. So, a certain amount of the “push it, get it done, move on” mindset comes from trying to get an issue out every month.

MJ: What do you think of the opportunities for comic artists in Chicago?

TS: It used to be that you had to live in New York because the big publishers were there, but things have changed over time. Now you can live anywhere. It changed once Fed Ex became prevalent, and even more once FTPS and digital stuff [came about]. You can make comics for you and for the Internet anywhere, and it’s now gotten to be that way even working for Marvel or DC.  But I think living in Chicago is an advantage. Actually, I think living in any of the hub cities is an advantage.

MJ: You would consider Chicago to be a hub city?

JE: Absolutely.

TS:  Chicago, New York City, to a degree Kansas City, and there are other places where for whatever reasons there’s a concentration of artists and there’s a network. I think all of us wouldn’t know each other if it wasn’t for working in Chicago. It’s actually a very tight network as far as the guys working. I don’t think there’s anybody who works  [in Chicago] in comics that we don’t know pretty well, except for maybe one or two people.

TS: So anytime that you get a network of people in the same physical space it’s very important. It’s a way to pass on work, and pass on word about editors and publishers.

Sean K Dove: I think the other thing that makes Chicago really strong for comics is that we have this really strong indie community, like Lucy Knisely, Jeremy Tinder, and all those guys all came out at the same time. That community is huge.

TS: One of the great things about Chicago is that there’s not a huge separation between mainstream and indie, which I think can happen.  Here it doesn’t seem to really matter. I think everybody knows each other and could work together on stuff. Jeffery Brown, who is a huge indie comics guy, was my neighbor and I used to bump into him all the time.  We don’t come from necessarily the same artistic background, but we get along great and I’ve worked on stuff with Jeff, and he’s recommended me for gigs.  So I think for aspiring creators the reality is that you can work in your small town, but you would do better not to.  You would do better to move to a bigger city.

Commentary view of "Joe Cracken" as viewed on the iPad. Art by Tim Seeley.

MJ: You recently launched Double Feature for download on the IPad.  I wanted to know what your motivations were for starting this project.

JE: I think that motivation wise it was probably a little different for each of us.  For me I wanted things to suck less.

MJ: You wanted digital things to suck less? Or everything?

JE: Digital things, certainly. I felt pretty strongly that the new comics that were coming out were heading in the wrong direction, be that digital or print.  In print they were handcuffed by the necessity of recouping the investment spent on ink and paper.  So, lots of safe bets were being made, and not a lot of risks were being taken.  In any industry that’s just a bad sign.

In digital I saw a lot of established players paying lip service to a new technology, but at the same time doing everything in their power to hold off to protect their current profit model.  The print people were charging the same 3 dollars for a digital comic that they were for a print one, so that people would still pay the three dollars for the print version.

MJ: But there’s no printing cost for the Internet.

JE: No, and while I don’t think that digital is as cheap as a lot of people think (it’s not free) there’s no credible argument that can be made that it’s as expensive as print.  Nobody was seeing that on the back end; the cut in price was not being passed along.

TS: Which causes an accessibility problem.  We always talk about how comics are too expensive, and they’re not making them more accessible.

JE: They’re not touching their back catalogs.  Like, when music finally went digital on iTunes, albums that had been out of press for years were available.  The back catalog of comics, we haven’t seen any of that in digital yet.  Finally, when they were coming out in digital, nothing new was coming out of that.  They were just taking the image that they would have put on paper and putting it on a screen instead.  They weren’t adding any sort of feature or any sort of interactivity.  They weren’t taking advantage of the platform that was now available.  So for me it was all about putting forth an example of how it can be better, how I think it should be.

TS: We saw that in comics there are a lot of torrent sights where people are downloading comics for free, but no one is giving them an option of something better. The comic market has shrunk, and I don’t think it’s because there aren’t good books or people aren’t interested. I think it’s because they go into a comic store, and they don’t know what to read. Everything has evolved into some kind of crossover that’s appeasing the bottom lines of fandom, the hard core guys that’ll never leave you. Those guys are demanding books that the average person that might be interested in comics has no interest in reading at all.  I love comics and it breaks my heart that they’re not more people enjoying them, and certainly that there aren’t more kids enjoying them. The way that they’re doing digital is not making it accessible.

MJ: So with Double Feature you are working under a different genre every month for the first four months.  Have you decided on all of the genres already?

B Clay Moore and Ryan Browne, "The Monster Men." 2011

TS: The first four are set.  It’s action, horror, fantasy, sci-fi.

JE: They’re all genres that were available when we grew up, and that really aren’t anymore.

TS: Comics used to encompass a lot of genres.  Horror comics were huge, and comedy comics were very big at one time, but over the years they’ve been whittled down to basically super hero comics. So, the genre became synonymous with the medium, and that’s not accurate at all.  No other medium is so synonymous with one genre. When you think film you don’t think one kind of film, when you think music you don’t think one thing. We want to introduce to people that there are other genres available in this medium. I think it’s important that we start with the ones that are easiest and most digestible.

MJ: So, no romance?

TS: No, we’d love to, that’s in the plan. The idea is to do one of each of the books over four months. Then in the 5th month hopefully get four books out, all one of each or maybe just two, we’ll see how it goes.  Eventually we would like this to be our job, for this to be our only job.  We would love to do mystery one and a romance and a humor one, certainly.

JE: The whole purpose of them is serve as a flag for people that may not be comic readers to say “oh, this is sci fi, I like sci-fi, maybe I’ll like a sci-fi comic.”

TS: Like you go to the app store, and you type in things that you like, and we would love for people to go, “oh I love science fiction, why wouldn’t I try this out 99 cents?”…I don’t like that you don’t have that option.  Hopefully we can do something about that.

MJ: How has the response been so far for Double Feature?

Mike Norton: Critically, I don’t think we could have gotten a better response.  We’ve had everywhere from, “this is what digital comics should be,” to, “for 99 cents you can’t beat it.”

JE: We received very high reception in the comic world and comic press.  I think it would be nice to have more coverage outside of comics.  I would like to shoot for a more generalized audience.  We haven’t had a convention yet since it launched, so I think the next con we have will give us a better idea of how the readership has accepted or not accepted Double Feature.

Comics are often misrepresented or misunderstood by mainstream America.  What do you think comics need in order to become less of a niche medium?

Sean K Dove in the Four Star Studio

MN: All ages. That really ties into the mainstreaming of it. Once you tap into how you can appeal to all ages, you can appeal to all audiences.

TS: I agree.  The problem has been simply that as comics got more accepted, at the same time there was a diminishing of where you could find them, which is part of the shrinking of the print market.  It just got harder to find them and the distribution changed. The problem became the distribution. It just cost so much to get print stuff out, [and there developed a] reliance on the comic store as the main distribution model for comics.

JE: I think that anybody that is not in a metropolitan area has markedly less access to comics.  At the same time I really feel like the content is what has been killing it.

MN: It’s a combination.

TS: Content comes from distribution.  The problem became that it was harder to distribute them to places, and we relied too much on the comic store.  The people who went to the comic stores are the ones they [comic companies] started catering to at the expense of the rest of the world. What needs to happen is just accessibility for everyone. Though it’s not there yet with Internet, this is the closest we can possibly ever come to the hugest distribution of comics ever, which was the 1960’s America drug store.  That was the best comics ever did, that was millions of copies every month.  Now there are entire tracts of my home state of Wisconsin where there is not a comic book store for three hours. That’s totally shitty. There are people that would definitely read them if they knew where to get them.

MN: But there’s people in the vicinity that can access our comic.

TS: This is the hope.  When I taught a class in my hometown I had all these kids that were interested in comics, and they knew who Deadpool was for goodness sakes, and who the new Supergirl was. So I said, “tomorrow bring in some comics,” and they said, “we don’t know where to get them.” There was nowhere in my town to get a comic book. That’s a problem that the industry of the 90’s caused for itself.

MN: I’ve done lots of different kinds of comic books and the only interface I get with the public is when I go to conventions. I’ve done mainstream crossovers for both companies, and I’ve done younger readers comics. The most busy I’ve ever been is when I do these younger readers comics. The whole family can come in and they all want to talk to me, they all want to hang out. That does tell you that there’s is something to making things accessible.

JE: I make an adult comic on the side, so I don’t think you should have to say that comics have to be all one thing. The problem is that all we have is one thing right now.  I don’t want it to be entirely all ages, I’d just like it to be some all ages.  All audiences stuff is hugely important and we don’t have it.  How many people of our generation are having kids? Everybody.  Are those people going to get Young Justice for their kid and then JLA for themselves, and then go to separate rooms to read them?  They want something that they can share.

MJ: What projects are in the works right now?  What’s next?

Inks view from "The Answer" as viewed on the iPad. Art by Mike Norton.

TS: Horror Double Feature will be our next one which will launch in May, and then we’ll roll into sci-fi or fantasy, one of the two.

JE: Horror is going to be Monsterology written by B Clay More and drawn by Ryan Browne, and the story there is essentially the study of giant kaiju monsters as a scientific discipline with a slight military crossover. And there’s Kid Cthulu which Sean is doing.

SKD: It’s like Lovecraft if Dr. Strange and Spiderman were in it.

TS: That’s the second one and then we got some good stuff.  We’re stocked up for a good number of months. We’re committed to Double Feature which will continue to be big focus for Four Star Studios.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.  For more information about Four Star Studios, visit http://fourstarstudios.com/

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