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    Monkeybrain Weekly: A Talk with Zack Smith and Rich Ellis about “The Stars Below” [Interview]

    By | November 28th, 2012
    Posted in Interviews | % Comments

    The first week we ran our column Monkeybrain Weekly, I ran a review of a little title from writer Zack Smith and artist Rich Ellis about a splendid little comic called “The Stars Below.”

    I thought it was one of the more unexpected and delightful reads I’ve come across in 2012, and well worth the meager fee of $0.99 to pick it up. It’s even earned rave reviews from people like Mark Waid and Gabriel Hardman, and deservedly so. What’s it all about? Well, here that is:

    In the tradition of such tales as “Stuart Little” and “The Cricket in Times Square,” a young pigeon is literally swept into the Hayden Planetarium and is awed by his first-ever view of the stars. But when he finds you can’t see the stars from the streets of New York, he sets off on a dangerous quest to reach the city’s highest point — and realizes his dream in a way he never expected.

    Today for Monkeybrain Weekly, I talk to Smith and Ellis about this title, how it came together, what it’s like working with Monkeybrain, and much more. Thanks to Smith and Ellis for chatting, and please, pick this title up. It’s just $0.99 at ComiXology and it’s worth every penny and then some.

    Zack Smith

    This is your first work officially as a comic writer I believe. What was your process of breaking in like, and how did your other writing gigs — like working for Newsarama and Pop Candy — help with that?

    Zack Smith: They helped on two levels — one, I had contacts to help me find an artist for the story when I started out, and two, they helped me gain a lot of perspective on writing and visual storytelling. The friends I made along the way have also proved invaluable in getting this retweeted and posted around the Internet!

    It also helped that Chris Roberson, the great writer and great guy behind Monkeybrain, wound up doing Memorial with Rich Ellis after he’d started work on this story. He was one of the first to take a look at and really support this story.

    When Monkeybrain was announced, I leapt at the chance to have the book come out in the company of titles like Aesop’s Ark and Bandette — great books with distinct looks and a broad appeal across different ages. Like so much of the story’s success, I owe this one to Rich!

    Other than that, what helped get the book published was little more than the fact that it was a finished product by the time we brought it to Monkeybrain. It goes back to Image and great self-publishers like Jeff Smith and the many pros of the 1980s and before, but I can’t stress this enough — if you have a full story with a beginning, middle and end, a finished work, that is the best way to show you can do a comic book.

    What were the origins of this story? How long have you been cooking it up?

    ZS: The first spark for the story came about a decade ago, actually! I wrote an essay about this that I don’t think made it into the electronic version.

    The short version is I went on a college trip to NYC in 2002, which had been delayed from fall 2001 for obvious reasons. I was already phobic of the big city, thanks to that wonderful condition known as social anxiety, and this didn’t help.

    But when we went to the top of the Empire State Building at night…the wind was blowing so hard that I felt like I was going to be tossed head-over-heels into the night sky, and I kept envisioning what a jet airplane would look like up close flying toward me. And then I looked down, and saw the lights of the city, and I felt comforted.

    That’s when the title came to me.

    As it also happened, my college group was staying right next to the Hayden Planetarium, and there were pigeons everywhere! Things clicked, though I don’t think I had the idea of the pigeon actually entering the planetarium until I wrote the script.

    Continued below

    I wrote it down and thought it could be some sort of key moment in a bigger children’s novel or GN. About five years later, I was on a kick of just writing everything up, and decided there was no point in fitting some massive story around a simple idea, and just wrote it up as a script.

    The script was a quick write — the decision to have no dialogue came early on, because it seemed like an easier way to keep the story moving, and I couldn’t think of a way for pigeons to talk that didn’t sound silly. It also made the story feel slightly more plausible, just a little.

    I held on to the script for a while, because the story was so visual that I felt it needed an artist who could capture the big visual moments, and also make New York City a character in and of itself. At the Small Press Expo (SPX), I talked with Steve Lieber about it, and while he was busy, he set me up with Rich, who’d just joined Studio Periscope. Steve was effusive in his praise for Rich, and that was all the guarantee I needed.

    Rich was assisting Steve and working on other material, so the story took a while to be finished — but as the pages rolled in, there was no questioning the choice to bring him on board. He brought action, character and absolutely stunning beauty to the book, and it would not work without him.

    From a writing standpoint, what does a wordless script entail? How difficult is it for you to control a story without any actual script?

    ZS: It’s actually less difficult than it might seem. I’d just read David Mamet’s book On Directing Film, which I’d picked up at a library sale. Brian Michael Bendis had sworn by this book for years, and my thoughts were always the same — “Mamet? He’s all about dialogue! What does he know about visual storytelling?”

    I ate me some crow that day. Better that than pigeon, I suppose.

    Mamet has a whole section in the book where he talks with some students about telling a story solely through “uninflected images.” I still don’t know what “uninflected” means. But what he did with the students was this — how do you tell a story solely through images? How do you make it so that each new image gives the viewer information that advances the plot and/or reveals character?

    That was an eye-opener. Scripts I’d written in the past were lousy with dialogue — and it was a pain to try to come up with the next panel after writing the description, followed by all those wordy-words.

    Comics are a visual medium! A lot of classic comics were written “Marvel-Style,” with the writer giving the artist a plot, the artist drawing up pages, and then dialogue being added.

    As a writer, you can accomplish something similar but tighter if you just think about what you want to happen in the story, write down all the “beats” of the tale, then break those beats down into visual moments. Now, that doesn’t cover all the dialogue exchanges and such, but it does make for a script where the story is always moving, there’s always something for the reader to look at, and you’ve limited the amount of talking heads.

    I say this as someone who has had exactly one story published. Clearly, I’m an expert!

    How exciting has the response been to this little story? It seems like every day I see a prominent creator touting its awesomeness.

    ZS: You flatter me! Again, I have to give a lot of credit to Rich Ellis and his gorgeous artwork. I had a great number of contacts from cons and doing interviews, but they were under no obligation to read this story, and I thank them profusely. This is a little book, and I’m not exaggerating when I say every reader counts.

    It is overwhelming when creators I respect as writers, artists and people say they love our little pigeon story, and it means just as much when I hear from a parent that they or their kids love it. All I ask is keep spreading the word!

    Continued below

    For you as a creator, what appeals to you about working with Monkeybrain?

    ZS: Monkeybrain is doing for digital comics what Image did for print — providing a base for creators of diverse stories and styles to tell the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them.

    Not to get all business-y, but they offer a quality product with a low price point and an appeal to diverse audiences. The fact that they’re digitally-based means their books have a longer “shelf life” than just something that appears in shops and vanishes into back-issue bins after a month. You can pick up a first issue, and if you like it, get the rest of the series right away!

    And more importantly for Rich and me, it means that if you want to do a one-shot story — you can. A book like this just wouldn’t have a chance in comic shops, but on Monkeybrain, it’s really gotten the opportunity to find an audience by word of mouth.

    Again, most profound thanks to Chris Roberson, Alison Baker and the Monkeybrain team — and to all the readers who’ve supported this story!

    Rich Ellis

    How did you get onboard with this project, and what sold you on the idea?

    Rich Ellis: I was originally introduced to Zack and Stars via my studio-mate Steve Lieber. What ultimately sold me on the project was reading the script. Stars was a charming simple story that had a lot of appeal from my first read. It wasn’t a hard sell.

    As an artist, what are the advantages and disadvantages to working off a wordless script? Are there any difficulties added to your part because there is even more weight on the art from a storytelling standpoint?

    RE: Pantomime stories by their nature demand clear visual storytelling to effectively communicate the story. That being said clear and expressive visual storytelling is always what I strive for in my work. Excluding dialogue definitely puts more focus on the art, but I don’t think I approached it differently. If anything I would think that it was a bigger risk or difficult choice for Zack. Cause he gave me a great script that he had to trust me not to bungle up.

    The main character is…well, it’s a pigeon. Did you research at all to figure out exactly how pigeons carry themselves, and just general look and demeanor of them?

    RE: I absolutely did. When I took on Stars, I knew that the biggest challenge for making the story work was going to be getting a pigeon to emote and be engaging to the reader. ” Pidge” needed to be able to express some relatively complicated emotions and, when I think of animals with emotional ranges, pigeons aren’t very high on that list. in my experience most real pigeons have an emotional range that extends from,” Hey, can I eat that?” to “Derp!”. So, I found a bunch of good photo-ref and did my best to find a balance between how a real pigeon looks and acts, and a facial structure and body-language people can more easily identify with.

    The Stars Below, and the revelation as to what that means, was a really powerful moment. Walk me through the development of that scene and the look of it?

    RE: I think the weight of that scene is the ultimate reason for the story being Pantomime. When you’re reading a pantomime story I think you as a reader have to be slightly more invested in the reading. So, ideally by that point in the story the audience are really invested in Pidge’s quest and have the realization about the stars below at the same time. I think the end benefits from a sort of visual poetry. The depiction of Pidge flying through the stars is an inherently romantic idea that I think would have lost some potency if it were written out.

    How exciting has the response been to this little story? It seems like every day I see a prominent creator touting it’s awesomeness.

    RE: I have been blown away at the reception Stars has received. I was really happy with our story and my work, but i didn’t at all anticipate it getting as much high profile buzz.

    Continued below

    For you as a creator, what appeals to you about working with Monkeybrain?

    RE: In a word, Everything. First and foremost what appeals to me about Monkeybrain is that I am working with Chris Roberson and Allison Baker two wonderful people that genuinely have creators rights in mind. Being a digital release gives Monkeybrain unusual freedom to publish little stories about pigeons in New York without having to work out whether a one shot stand alone story will make the money back on a print run. Monkeybrain and other Digital publishers simply makes it easy for talented creators to tell the stories they want to tell and get them into readers hands with the fewest steps in between. That is something I think everyone benefits from.

    //TAGS | Monkeybrain Weekly

    David Harper

    David Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).


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