Fresh from C2E2, Comic Book Yeti contributor Alex Breen corresponded on the convention floor with Joe Sieracki and Kelly Williams, writer and artist of A Letter to Jo and The Life and Death of the Brave Captain Suave, to discuss the evolution of their collaborative process, along with their advice for aspiring comic book writers and artists.
COMIC BOOK YETI: I am here with Joe Sieracki, writer of Captain Suave and Ghosts of Science Past and A Letter To Jo. And artist Kelly Williams. So both of you, thank you so much for joining me today. As far as my first question, this goes for both of you, can you give us a little bit of your personal comic book origin stories? What got you into creating comics?
JOE SIERACKI: Okay. So for me, I had always been a comic book fan growing up as a kid. More so into it probably before I hit high school. Probably the X-Men cartoon or the Batman cartoon is what drew me to comics in the first place. And then from there, I really got into Marvel, Spider-Man, stuff like that. Didn't read continuous runs or anything like that. Just grabbed whatever I could, whenever I was able to go to the comic book store. Sometimes I would see them at the grocery store, stuff like that. And then, after high school, I didn't really read a whole lot of comics until I took a class in college.
It was a poli-sci course. And in that class, the instructor incorporated Transmetropolitan as part of the curriculum, and I was like, "Whoa." I'd never seen a comic like that before. I didn't know about Vertigo at all. So that kind of brought me back to comics, and then I started getting into Sandman and all the Alan Moore stuff. And from there, I guess I just started thinking about maybe I'd want to give this a try, but I didn't really have any good ideas or anything. I didn't really know what I could write about that was unique. And then I was reading Persepolis, and that's an incredible book if you're not familiar... Have you ever read that one?
CBY: It's on my list.
JS: Okay. Well, I highly recommend it, but it started getting me thinking about my own family's story. And then I remembered a letter that my grandfather had written my grandmother after World War II and I dug that out, reread that, and started thinking about maybe crafting a story around that. And soon after that, hooked up with Kelly, and from there it's just been one thing after another. With Ghosts of Science Past, I had, very much like my poli-sci teacher, been thinking about if there was a science comic, or a science graphic novel that I could integrate into my classroom.
I'm also a high school science teacher. But after years of looking for some, I'd never been able to find anything that just quite fit the class. So I thought, "Why not give it a shot? Why not write my own?" And I wrote a pitch for it, hooked up with Jesse Lonergan, ended up getting it picked up at Humanoids, and then Kelly and I have this Scout Comics mini-series coming out called The Life and Death of the Brave Captain Suave. I think I was reading the Michael Chabon book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay when I started getting in the mindset of golden age comics and this idea of retrofitting it to a Don Quixote-type character to modernize it for our story, so that's kind of how I just kind of got my start on writing comics. Kelly?
"...Don't try to write a story that you think is going to be the next big Marvel superhero or DC superhero or a movie or whatever. Write something that you absolutely need to write.."
KELLY WILLIAMS: So I guess for me, I saw the Fantastic Four movie that came out in the nineties... And I don't know, it ignited something in me, and I knew that's what I wanted... I wanted to make comic books. So I've been doing it ever since.
JS: That was a far more concise answer than mine.
CBY: Technically, Joe, you sort of gave me answers to two of my future questions.
JS: Well, good. See, I saved us time, Kelly.
CBY: Yeah. So as far as Ghosts of Science Past goes, since that's the odd project out of the three comics you gave me, two of them are with Kelly, so that's especially why I wanted to bring Kelly into this, but with this project, I think you accomplished your mission of making probably the best educational comic I've ever read. Not that I've read a ton, but I thought you and Jesse absolutely knocked it out of the park.
JS: Appreciate that.
CBY: So I mean, when you were breaking down that story, and it's both trying to tell a story, but it's also trying to educate, how did you balance those two things out?
JS: So I've been teaching for a while now, over a decade of teaching. So when you've been teaching that long, you kind of start to anticipate questions the kids have. And the way that I structured the book is, I tried to pick scientists that were experts in their fields of topics that I know are particularly troublesome for my students. And in doing so, using the framework of Christmas Carol, I kind of just started playing conversations between myself and my own students and the kind of questions I know pop up for them, and try to address it in a way that is hopefully fun. And that was the idea. Textbooks can only do so much. A comic, a kid sees a comic, it's a graphical representation that's going to help him understand it a lot better, but also it's fun. And we try to infuse a lot of humor into it as well. And a lot of that credit, of course, goes to Jesse too, because I don't know if you've ever... Do you follow Jesse on Twitter or anything?
CBY: I do.
JS: Okay. He doesn't think he's funny, but he's funny, right?
CBY: Jesse's also just insanely talented.
CBY: Some of the stuff he does on a page... I reviewed Faster for Comic Book Yeti. Have you read that comic? I was like, "Oh my God." The things that guy tried to pull off on a comic page are insane to me.
JS: And in his drawings... I remember in an early on conversation, I was like, "You're funny, you just drew... You just posted today a panda being operated by an alligator," or something crazy like that. He's like, "That's not funny." I'm like, "Yes, it is funny." And I think he was able to really infuse that humor into the visuals to, again... bring more levity and fun to the learning aspects.
CBY: Agreed. And so can you describe... Because for someone with that level of visuals on a page, what is your collaborative process like with him?
JS: Yeah, so I wrote full script, and there was a first draft script that I submitted to Humanoids. And then it went through the editing process, which by the way, also involved Mark Waid. So imagine seeing Mark Waid's notes on your script. Yeah. Pretty intimidating. But went through all that, went through the editing process, and then finally had a final draft to give to Jesse. But at that point it's not like it's done and he just drew exactly as the script said, there was still a lot of collaboration and conversation that went into that. And his breakdowns... And I've mentioned this once in a podcast before, I'll mention it again here. His breakdowns are very much his, right? You've read his other comics. You've read Hedra, right?
CBY: That one I haven't gotten to yet.
JS: Oh, you've got to! So there's pages on Hedra where there's a 16-panel grid. Okay?
CBY: I believe it. Yeah.
JS: And there's pages in Ghosts of Science Past where it gets up to maybe, I don't know, maybe 12 panels or something like that. I'll tell you right now, I never wrote a script page with 12 panels. Okay?
CBY: I never imagined you would. But at the same time if you ever did it for someone, Jesse's one of the only people who could probably pull that off.
JS: Yeah, you're probably right. But I can't imagine what Kelly would do if I handed him a script and said, "12 panels on this page."
KW: It depends.
JS: That's fair. But the point is, Jesse would then start doing the breakdowns, and then incorporate his style of storytelling into the script. So it was a full script, but there's also a lot of his own interpretations of that.
CBY: That makes sense. So I guess speaking of interpretation, once again, that gives me a pretty good segue into A Letter To Jo. So you made that clear in the beginning, your intro, and your afterward, that you were going off the letter, which you included in the comic, which I thought was incredible.
And the comic itself is amazing, too, for the record.
JS: Thanks. I'm very proud of it.
CBY: And the thing I was especially intrigued by was when you were very upfront that I'm going off of these things in the letter, but I had to draw a lot out from it. Obviously, since there was some stuff that you were just going to have to add as you went. So, what was your process extrapolating from those letters? And also, was that an awkward thing telling that story, as personal as that was for you?
JS: Well, from the get go, I thought it would be pivotal to the story to be as honest as possible. So I tried to keep that in mind throughout the entirety of the process. And you're right, the letter itself, while it's extremely compelling, the original letter, it also lacks a lot of aspects that I think are important to really personalize the story. For example, he didn't talk about any other soldiers, which is at first glance, maybe kind of odd, but I don't think that was an accident. I think it was intentional. I think it was hard for him to talk about that.
And so it was necessary for the overall story to build this sort of narrative around the letter. And I also did a lot of research going into it, besides getting down certain details like the way people talk back then, what were the names of the guns and stuff like that. I also read a lot of World War II graphic memoirs so I could get a better sense of what those interpersonal relationships were like. What was the experience like for those individuals at that ground level? And then of course, Kelly and his art is what really brings it to life.
CBY: Which was literally my next question. You are reading my mind. So Kelly, A Letter to Jo was positively breathtaking, especially the wartime sequences were... The word I was looking for was harrowing for it, and how intense that could be. So what was your process in developing, I guess, the imagery for that World War II setting?
KW: Well, I want to be funny about it, but I guess I'll be real. Yeah, so I guess when we first started talking about it, I wasn't doing a lot of that kind of thing. I was still pretty deep in doing horror stuff, but I really liked the idea and the concept of it. So I was like, "Sure, let's do that." And I think I suggested doing the watercolor thing at first because at that point I was stupid and didn't realize how much work it would be to watercolor a whole graphic novel. (Laughs)
It took a little while, but yeah, I pulled out a lot of old war comics and stuff, a lot of Joe Kubert stuff, and even old Nam issues just to get in that head space. But the thing about the book is that it jumps back and forth between here and there. So we wanted it to feel that way, to look like they're two different things, conveying two different emotions a lot of the time. So I largely focused on that and I think a lot of that got done in the color more than anything.
I looked at a lot of horrible pictures that I probably never would've looked at. In fact, I got asked a question for a thing a while back about what's the worst reference picture you've had to look at because it was a horror panel that we were on. And I was like, "Well it wasn't actually a horror comic (laughs) And I looked at some gruesome stuff. And the funny thing is that I didn't even draw any of the gruesome stuff. When I think back on it, I'm like, I don't even know why I was looking at that stuff. (Laughs)
When it gets into the darker areas, there's definitely moments where it has all of the same emotional ticks and stuff that you get from doing a horror book. Because when you're doing horror, it can be difficult to do a horror comic and effectively scare or give that sense of dread and stuff, and it's absolutely true for that kind of thing too. I think that's also very true for the flip side of it. And when you're getting Jo's side of it and she's going through everything she's going through, that gets very dark too for a little bit, and they're both equally horrible, but in different ways.
CBY: Yeah, so just because you mentioned it, I am kind of curious, how many extra days did that tack onto your normal schedule for watercolors?
KW: Oh, a couple of years.
JS: You normally watercolor, don't you?
KW: I do, but that was the longest thing I had watercolored.
CBY: Oh, okay. It's the scale of it that did it for you. Okay, I've got you.
KW: And it's one of those things that when you're able to sit down and work, I could probably tear through a couple of pages a day on a good day. And then there's also, I would go through and ink 10 pages at a time and then go back and do the watercolor, which is sort of ass-backwards because normally you would lay down the watercolor and then come in and ink and everything. So that's what I did. And it's really cool and everything, but yeah, it's a lot of work.
CBY: Thank you for sharing that with me. Now, this is for both of you, but obviously, you guys are at least two collaborations in with A Letter to Jo and Captain Suave. What is your collaborative process like together and has it evolved from project to project?
JS: So yeah, I say it's definitely evolved. I think it's become a lot more efficient from when we first started. I feel a lot more comfortable with Kelly than when we first began. We've developed a friendship since then and we text on a regular basis, we play games on the PS5.
KW: I'm a little weird at first too. (Laughs)
JS: But the thing is, we'll just chat about things all the time. So the collaborative process, I just think it's gotten a lot easier, a lot faster, a lot more efficient, and just better all around.
KW: Yeah, I guess I'm just echoing the same thing really. Way more efficient, and also though, I think one big aspect that's different from A Letter to Jo to Captain Suave is we don't have a middleman in this. Joe pretty much handled editing himself for the most part. And our editor at Scout does a once over as we're finishing up and everything, but everything's always pretty much direct line from me and Joe. And on A letter to Jo, we had an editor that we were working with, so it was kind of bouncing into that as well.
JS: And I'll also add to it, with Captain Suave, from the very first issue script and concept, I always had your exact art in mind and I didn't have that with the first run at the script with A Letter to Jo, because I didn't know you were going to draw it yet. So I was thinking in the visuals of the way that I know that he draws now because of that familiarity. So I think that also helps to streamline everything.
CBY: Yeah, that's excellent. You'd probably say comics are best done when it's written specifically for a collaborator anyway.
KW: I think so.
JS: Or the artist is the writer.
CBY: Yeah, you're still writing it for yourself there. Either way it works. So since we're talking about Captain Suave, I guess Joe for this one, can you give us the premise for the story?
JS: So the basic premise of The Life and Death of the Brave Captain Suave is it's a modernization of Don Quixote. Whereas Don Quixote thought himself a knight errant, our hero is a homeless man living in Cleveland, Ohio who thinks himself a golden age superhero. And what's really cool and I think unique about this book is it incorporates something that I've never seen in another comic. You have reality depicted in the pencil and ink and watercolors that Kelly traditionally works in, but fantasy when our hero believes that this Captain Suave is being depicted in pencil and ink but digitally colored, which changes the dynamic, but flows well on the page in a way that, I'll be perfectly honest, I wasn't sure was going to work going into it, but I think worked out really great.
And I'd also like to mention our letterer on both A Letter to Jo and Captain Suave, Taylor Esposito, because he's also incorporating a completely different lettering style from the reality versus the fantasy and all of it I think captures this atmosphere and visual storytelling that we were going for.
KW: Yeah, I guess for more on the thing about the difference between reality, which I had kind of forgotten that that wasn't the plan from the start. I think I suggested we try to do it because I just like making things complicated I guess. But I kind of felt the same way after I did the first couple pages. I was like, "I don't know, maybe." But I think we've tooled around, fiddled with it a little bit, and I think it really works now.
CBY: For what it's worth, me being a partially biased party, but hey, I think the contrast of styles looks fantastic. And this wasn't on my questions, but yes, Taylor absolutely killed it on both comics, just incredible work. So, shout out to Taylor for sure.
So, Kelly, this question is directed towards you for this one, but it's just what stood out to me, especially in Captain Suave, was just the environments were particularly, just so freaking detailed. And I'm sure environments can be really tricky for an artist to get down at points. So what was that like for you just making... It feels like a really lived-in type of place, and I mean that as the best compliment, of course.
KW: I'm glad it feels that way because I don't feel like it feels that way. Like a lot of artists, I feel like I struggle with environments and background stuff and everything. And when we started on this, I really wanted to make sure to focus more of my attention on that stuff. I feel like it starts real strong, but it kind of simplifies a little bit as we move in, but I think it still has the same feeling and everything.
JS: Can I expand on it? So are you trying to say once you've established the location, then you can kind of close in on what's going on?
KW: Sure, sure. It's still really good, it's just that sometimes it takes a minute to figure out the smartest way to do something versus the prettiest way to do something. So you can get the same exact feeling but not kill yourself the whole time.
CBY: I ideally would like you not to be in agony every time you're doing these pages. (Laughs)
JS: And we've ping-ponged back and forth a lot of reference photographs and like "am I looking at the right thing? Is this what we should have here?" Because obviously living in Cleveland, I'm far more familiar with the area.
KW: There were many times that if I would've just said, "This is probably right," I'd have been absolutely wrong.
JS: So, there are places where there are specific locations, even a specific bridge or a specific... What type of houses are in these neighborhoods, stuff like that, that I know you've used reference photographs and stuff for.
KW: That stuff gets a little stressful, I guess just because I obviously am aware that he likes this place and so it's kind of a weird…
JS: I'm wearing a Cleveland shirt here, man, come on. (Laughs)
KW: Oh well. (Laughs)
In that respect, there's some elements that are almost as stressful at times as A Letter to Jo and wanting to do justice to a story about his grandparents, something that's close to him and means something to him. And I feel like that sometimes with the whole Cleveland thing too. So that and I just stress myself out about things all the time for fun.
CBY: It's kind of the creative curse, isn't it? We always put way too high of expectations on ourselves?
KW: Yes. (Laughs)
CBY: (Laughs) Yeah, that was more rhetorical on my side. Because, present company included, yes, I'm guilty of that too. So Joe, specifically for this one, can you give us a tease of where this story will be going past issue one?
JS: Yeah, so the series should run 10 issues and we're going to release them in two arcs. The first arc, which is five issues, is totally done and drawn, lettered, everything in the can ready to go. So basically in the next issue, we'll get to know our heroes a little bit more, we'll build on the fantasy versus the reality, we'll go on a little bit of an adventure, we'll see more of what the two main characters, Captain Suave and his sidekick are about. In issue three, you're going to get Captain Suave's origin, And then in issue four, we'll flip it over to his sidekick Stanley, also known as Champ, and we'll get his backstory and learn more about him.
KW: They're both real uplifting.
JS: (Laughs) There's some emotional moments in both of those. And then in issue five, this whole arc is going to come to a head in... How I say, a comedic and harrowing fashion.
CBY: So, If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring creator, so I guess in your case, aspiring writers, Kelly, your case, aspiring artists, what would be the one piece of advice you would give them?
JS: So my piece of advice, I don't think I could just give one. I think I have to give two pieces of advice.
One would be write something, and you don't have to wait for a publisher or a company to hire you to do so. Write something that you feel you absolutely need to write. Don't try to write a story that you think is going to be the next big Marvel superhero or DC superhero or a movie or whatever. Write something that you absolutely need to write. When I started writing A Letter to Jo, I had no idea if it would ever be published, but I felt like it was a story that I wanted to expand upon and I wanted to tell and I knew then it would be worthwhile to me either way. And then the second part of that is you've got to find an artist and honestly you've got to save up some money because people don't work for free. And no matter how great you think your idea is, nobody's going to draw it for free. So save up some money, find somebody who believes in your project as much as you, put together some pitch pages, and see where it goes.
KW: I feel like I've got... I don't know, don't listen to me, but listen to me. One of the biggest things that I constantly tell people that are wanting to draw comics and stuff is if you want to make comics, you need to make comics. If you're worried about getting hired or published, they're going to want to see comics. And you're not going to get hired to draw comics if you're showing a bunch of pinups and covers and stuff. Not generally anyways. And so yeah, you really need to love comics if you're going to draw comics because that's your life now. You don't do anything else and don't let people take advantage of you. It's super easy to get in your own head and be like, "I'm not good enough, I don't deserve enough or I don't deserve this." If you're getting it, then yeah, you probably do, you probably earned it. So learn to accept those things and be proud of yourself when you should be proud of yourself.
CBY: Excellent, and are there any future projects that either of you can tease for us?
JS: I have some pitches I'm working on, but nothing concrete yet.
KW: I do have a couple things I should plug. Actually in previews right now, Yard Gang Halloween Special I did with Steve Niles and Monica Richards, and it's an all ages story, They're animals on an adventure basically. And that comes out in September and the Razor Blades hardcover collection comes out soon.
CBY: I got a pre-order on that one for what that's worth.
KW: Nice. I have something in that I did with Vita and yeah, I guess I can't talk about the other stuff.
JS: I will add though, I don't know when this is going to go out, Captain Suave issue one will be in stores on August 17th and because of Scout's release schedule, they like to put the first issue out for two months, try to get as many people on board before issue two comes out. Issue two should be in stores in November and then all subsequent issues after that will be on a monthly basis. So, issue three a month after issue two and so on and so forth until issue five ends the arc.
CBY: Okay, excellent. So this is my last question, but where can people support your works outside of the convention?
JS: You can find me at josephsieracki.com, where you will see samples of all my work as well as links to where they can buy books from the publisher websites. And yeah, that's where you can find me.
KW: I'm very hard to support outside of conventions. I have an art dealer, I'm with Cadence, you can get original art and stuff and usually if I'm taking commissions, I'm doing it through them. Other than that, you can order my books from wherever you can order my books from.
CBY: Excellent. Okay, Joe and Kelly, thank you so much for your time.
JS & KW: Thank you.