A Bard, a Wizard, and a Fighter Walk into a Bar – An Interview with BRIAN SCHIRMER & ELENA GOGOU

Nothing makes a Lil' Squatch like Jimmy Gaspero more excited than a new Vault Comic, especially one as excellent as Quests Aside! Jimmy poured a few pints, got out all his old spell books, and dialed up an episode of his favorite comedy The Golden Girls to chat with Brian Schirmer and Elena Gogou.

 

COMIC BOOK YETI: Brian and Elena, thank you so much for joining me in the Yeti Cave to talk about your new series with Vault Comics: Quests Aside! How are you both doing?


BRIAN SCHIRMER: Excellent! Supremely excited for readers to finally get a chance to check out our new series.

Quests Aside, Vault Comics, issue #1, cover, Schirmer/Gogou/Nalty/AndWorld Design/Daniel

CBY: I read issue #1 and loved it, but rather than hear from me, can you tell CBY readers what Quests Aside is all about?


BS: A retired adventurer runs the most popular tavern in the land and squares off with the King, who wants to shut it down. The pitstop of nearly every fantasy story, the tavern takes center stage here, along with its colorful cast of staff and patrons. Quests Aside is owned and operated by Barrow, a one-time legendary adventurer, who actually got out of the game, went into business, and now caters to the next generation of heroes and heroines seeking fame and fortune of their own. Hilarity ensues.


CBY: Quests Aside is billed as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia meets Dungeons and Dragons, which sets a pretty high expectation in terms of humor. I think you both nailed it, for what it’s worth. Other than It’s Always Sunny, what are both of your comedic influences, whether that’s a tv show/movie, family member, or comic (standup or floppy)?


BS: Cheers is certainly in its DNA. I think we’ll get into this later, but the comics wit of Matt Fraction, Mark Russell, Steve Lieber, Matt Rosenberg, and Tyler Boss all factored in when I was writing. And there are more nods to TV, film, and games than I can remember. Ray, our skeletal resident chef, is a tribute to Ray Harryhausen and the skeletons in both Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.

Quests Aside, Vault Comics, issue #1, p. 1, Schirmer/Gogou/Nalty/AndWorld Design/Daniel

ELENA GOGOU: I’m not sure I could pinpoint one specific thing. My go-to when it comes to humor is exaggerated facial expressions and body language. I grew up watching anime and some very weird Cartoon Network shows so that could be it. Ro Stein and Ted Brandt do this really well in Crowded. And another newer show that perfectly embodies what I’m trying to describe is Our Flag Means Death. Just give me adventure and funny faces and I’m happy.


CBY: Oh, I loved Our Flag Means Death! Brian, I am familiar with some of your past work, like the excellent Fairlady, but, Elena, this is your first series in US comics! That’s awesome. How did the two of you connect for this series and what do you think are the other’s strengths as a collaborator that (at least as far as I can tell from issue #1) make this comic work so well?


BS: I was introduced to Elena’s artwork during one of Twitter’s #PortfolioDays early last year. This was right when Adrian and I were casting about for an artist for the series, and she immediately rocketed to the top of my list. Elena’s prior work was filled with a variety of body types, facial expressions, wit, humor, AND dynamic action. That’s the kind of artist any writer dreams of working with, and she brought all of that and more to Quests Aside. Just so there’s no confusion, dear readers, Elena is very much the co-creator of this book, and I couldn’t be happier.

Quests Aside, Vault Comics, issue #1, p. 2, Schirmer/Gogou/Nalty/AndWorld Design/Daniel

EG: Yes! When I received Adrian’s email asking me if I was interested in working on Quests Aside, I wasn’t familiar with Brian’s previous work. Then I read the story summary and the character descriptions and I was immediately on board. I don’t know if there’s a name for it but there’s that genre of fantasy/comedy that’s full of anachronisms and things that shouldn’t fit in a fantasy setting and yet you make them fit and it’s hilarious. It sells me every time and Brian does it so well. Fantasy, adventure and humor are some of my favorite things. Most of all though, this is a story about its characters. Brian handles them and their arcs with humor, but also thoughtfulness and care. It’s not hard to fall in love with them and that makes the comic an absolute pleasure to work on.


CBY: I can’t think of too many comics that, like a television show, have a cold open. I thought that was brilliant. How did that develop, was the idea from the start for the comic to begin that way?


BS: I’m fairly certain that was in there from the beginning. I liked the idea of a cold open in that it would not only establish the world and our principal setting, but also the tone. We introduce our three dude-bro novice adventurers on page one. Like so many high fantasy characters, they’re narcissistic, sexist opportunists, and they could easily be the protagonists in another story, one that tracks their “hero’s journey” as they seek fortune and glory. Instead -- spoiler! -- they’re accidentally squashed by a passing giant after only a couple pages. These are so not the characters that interest us in our book, and we wanted to make that clear immediately.

Quests Aside, Vault Comics, issue #1, p. 3, Schirmer/Gogou/Nalty/AndWorld Design/Daniel

CBY: Another thing I’m a big fan of are Easter eggs, little nods to other things. One of my favorite TV shows LOST did this so well and I would scour every episode for things. In issue #1 I noticed creatures named “Zub” and “Spurrier” and I’m pretty sure I saw Jenner and Oanu from Fairlady. Do you both enjoy doing this or is one of you more of the driving force and is this going to be something to look forward to in future issues?


BS: I think it’s something we both enjoy. I know that I’ll put stuff into the dialogue that’s just me winking at discerning readers, and I absolutely encourage Elena to lean into similar tendencies on the visual side.


EG: I admit we’re a bit low on Easter Eggs in the art department. I’m definitely fixing that in future issues.


CBY: Elena, what’s your comics origin story as an artist? Did you grow up reading comics or, if not, when did you decide to make your own comics? I read you have a degree in Mechanical Engineering and Aeronautics, which you “never used,” so that seems a departure from comic book artist, what’s that all about?

Quests Aside, Vault Comics, issue #1, p. 4, Schirmer/Gogou/Nalty/AndWorld Design/Daniel

EG: I do have an interesting origin story, don’t I? I actually ended up studying Mechanical Engineering sort of by chance. In Greece, University is free and if your grades are any good in high school you’re pretty much expected to go. Now, if your grades are really good you HAVE to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, or else you will bring terrible shame to your family. I’m joking... or am I? So that’s how I ended up in engineering. I am grateful I had the chance to experience higher education without any terrible financial consequences, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy learning about physics, materials science, problem solving and all that. But behind the scenes I was secretly planning my career jump to comics the entire time.


Growing up I didn’t get many comics. What I used to do is make my own comics, based on movies I watched or things my friends and I were up to. Then, in high school, I discovered web-comics and what a life-changing moment that was. It’s probably what got me enough confidence to start self-publishing at conventions in 2015. I was still in Uni at the time and I might have skipped a few tests we were supposed to take for extra grades so I could attend a con or two. I’ve been going strong in self-publishing ever since, I made a web-comic, crowdfunded two books, did some work for a Greek comics magazine and a few anthologies, had my first graphic novel published in Greece and, now, here I am, ready to make even more comics for you all!

Quests Aside, Vault Comics, issue #1, p. 5, Schirmer/Gogou/Nalty/AndWorld Design/Daniel

CBY: That's awesome! A few other things I thought were unique and worked well were Vail and Jodan breaking the 4th Wall, both the simple fact they were doing it, but also the look of it in the panel. The Bard face-off was fantastic! I especially liked the composition of the panels for that. Can you tell me about some of those choices and what type of magic the two of you possess that it all worked so well?


EG: Vail and Jodan breaking the fourth wall is also one of my favorite gags and it was entirely Brian’s idea. Brian sets the structure of the page up for me in the script and sometimes I will attempt to spice things up in the visuals. Action sequences, like the Bard battle for example, are prime territory for fun panel compositions and I love fun panel compositions, so I tried something and I was super excited when the feedback was positive. You can definitely expect more sequences like that from us in the future.


I think our magic is just good old teamwork and communication. Whether I’m following Brian’s lead or expanding on the script with my own ideas, I’m always open to any feedback and I’m happy to tweak things when something isn’t working. And let’s not forget that we have this awesome team of people working alongside us. We all bring something more to the book.


CBY: Your other talented collaborators are colorist Rebecca Nalty, designer Tim Daniel, and it’s lettered by AndWorld Design. Everyone is great and I wanted to ask again, are you wizards? The lettering in particular, especially the SFX, are WILD, just some of the most outrageous stuff, I loved it. Can you tell me how everyone came together for this series? Were there any completed pages or panels that you got back that still managed to surprise either of you? Did either of you have a favorite SFX?

Quests Aside, Vault Comics, issue #1, p. 6, Schirmer/Gogou/Nalty/AndWorld Design/Daniel

BS: Vault tends to “match-make”. So, my written pitch is what they picked up, and then I worked together with them to assemble our dream team. I already detailed how I stumbled upon Elena’s work. Tim Daniel came with the company, and we -- like all other Vault creators -- are so lucky for that. If I remember correctly, I think Adrian supplied me with a list of potential colorists, and Rebecca was on that list. She was my first choice, and again I’m so, so pleased she agreed to join us. Deron Bennett’s AndWorld Design was the last piece of the puzzle. Once again, Adrian brought us a list. Once again, I got my number one choice. Come what may, this book landed a murderers’ row of talent!


I love so much of the lettering. AndWorld really outdid themselves. While I think my favorite bit of sound effects occurs during an Issue Two bar brawl -- chair! -- I truly delight in the customized wingdings they put together to stand in for swear words. We wanted something more unique than the comics’ standard of @#$% and the like, and I think it was editor Adrian who floated the notion of using “fantasy symbols” like a sword, a shield, a fireball, etc.


I still marvel at many of the pages Elena drew, particularly the ones where I got out of the way. There’s definitely the bard battle in Issue One, but some other amazing pieces in future issues, including a training montage, and an all-out fight between our tavern staff and a band of mercenaries. Elena ran with those pages, taking them even farther than I knew she could.


EG: That’s another first for me. Getting to choose colorists, letterers and cover artists? Way too much power. But everyone is amazing. Rebecca’s colors and AndWorld’s lettering just elevate every page they touch and Tim’s killing it, especially on the cover designs. I love reading the completed issues because it’s a whole new experience of the story.


This might not be the funniest, but I love looking at it: Suzie the giant stepping on the bro adventurers. The colors are lovely and the giant “Giant!” sound effect is just so funny to me.


CBY: How has it been working with Vault Comics and why were they the right publisher for this story?

Cover by Michael Dialynas

BS: Working with Vault has been a dream. The fact that they exclusively publish fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, made them a good choice for a publisher. When Barbaric took off in the early days of our discussions, it became clear that Vault was hands-down the best choice for us. Also, at some publishers, if you’re not a huge name, you don’t get a lot of support or promotion. That is very much not the case at Vault. I’ve never once felt that we were considered second-rate or unworthy of their attention. Quite the contrary. For me, the bar has very much been raised in terms of my expectations from other publishers.


EG: I only started working with US publishers in 2021 but working with Vault has been wonderful. Being a fairly new artist I was a bit worried I might be treated differently than other people, and that hasn’t been the case at all. Everyone is lovely to work with and eager to help us make a really great book.


CBY: Are there any comic creators working today whose work inspires/influences you?


BS: Absolutely! And doubtless more than I’ll be able to remember as I write this. Matt Fraction and Mark Russell are two writers whose work continue to inspire and influence me, but perhaps never more so than in writing Quests Aside. Matt and Steve Lieber’s Jimmy Olsen was an annotated, Post-It Note-peppered bible while I was writing. And Steve is always my go-to guy for humorous character beats, as well as background gags. As you can imagine, I’m likewise loving his One-Star Squadron with Mark. Who else? Matt Rosenberg. I dig his writing overall, but his dry wit is underappreciated. Ram V blows my mind on the regular. Otto Schmidt astounds. Kieron Gillen is always an instant buy.


EG: Oof. Honestly, too many to mention. I do, however, want to shout out my fellow Greeks who are out there killing it. Both my friends and peers but also, more established artists, like Michael Dialynas, Dani, Ilias Kyriazis and George Kambadais. These are the people I looked up to when I was getting into comics and they are the ones I look to for inspiration when I’m feeling stuck now. Greece is a tiny country with a tiny comics community and it’s just really cool to see people being successful at what you dream of doing.


CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?


EG: That’s a difficult one. I haven’t read much of what people would consider “classics”. But I will include three books/series that inspired me to make comics: W.I.T.C.H., The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal, and probably an assortment of different X-Men comics.


BS: Oh, wow. Ask me this on three different days and you’ll get three different answers. Today, without thinking too much about it, let’s say… Sheriff of Babylon, Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, the combined House of X/Powers of X.


CBY: Any other projects CBY readers should check out?


BS: As is oh so common… nothing I can talk about at this time.


EG: Same. Nothing to talk about yet, but stay tuned!


CBY: Where can you be found online?


BS: I’m @BrianSchirmer on Twitter, @brian_schirmer on Instagram.


EG: I’m @ElenGog on Twitter and @elenagarts on Instagram.


CBY: Thank you both so much and I cannot wait to read more Quests Aside!


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