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EMBRACING DIGITAL COMICS: AN INTERVIEW WITH TREVOR MUELLER

Another entry from the rounds at Emerald City Comic Con, Comic Book Yeti contributor Alex Breen corresponded on the convention floor with Trevor Mueller, writer of Nexus Point and Re-Possessed to discuss his approach to writing comic scripts, the differences in writing for Webtoon vs. print comics and common misconceptions about Webtoon comics.


Read Nexus Point on Webtoon HERE.


Read Re-Possessed on Webtoon HERE.

 

COMIC BOOK YETI: Ok, I'm joined here today by Trevor Mueller. Trevor, thank you for joining me today. Fun fact, I meant to interview you like the last, not two years ago's C2E2, I just didn't get a chance to.



TREVOR MUELLER: That's all right. You and I are both Chicago local, very easy to meet up at that particular show. I'll be there again this year.



CBY: So, my first question is, what was your first introduction to comics?



TM: Oh, goodness. I'm going to age myself. My mother would take me grocery shopping, and instead of walking around with a kid while she's trying to shop and have us grab stuff off the shelves, she'd leave us at the spinner racks where they had single issue comics. And if I was well-behaved, she would buy me an issue or two. And so I started to collect the Archie Comics, Teenage Ninja Turtle books, Sonic the Hedgehog, Zen the Intergalactic Ninja, some of these kid-friendly, accessible books that still had continuity to them. And that's when I started to go to comic book shops and be like, "I would like to pick up an issue of X-Men please."


But X-Men was always referencing three or six issues previous or adjacent series that were going on. It was very difficult to kind of get into comics as an early reader. Enter the early '90s when Image launched, and suddenly, I was in my prime because that meant that I could go out and actually get all of the series from issue one, see what I liked, and then stick with the series that resonated with me, and discontinue the series that just weren't clicking all the buttons, and all the series were clicking all the buttons. (Laughs) So I own all the Image books that launched, and I've just been into comics ever since.


And even as a young child drawing on lined pieces of paper, I would make up my own comic book stories, which evolved into doing it in sketchbooks in middle and high school, webcomics into high school and college, and then eventually starting to print my own series with self-publishing as I got into adulthood. So the journey for comics has been one that has spanned the ages, and one that's been a lifelong passion and love.



CBY: So basically from a very early age, you got the bug to make comics?



TM: It was the storytelling and the accessibility. I loved movies and cartoons, but the accessibility of being able to make movies and cartoons, especially as a young child, was not what it is today. So comics were something that was very easy to replicate with any kind of art style that I wanted, and with the increased technology through Photoshop and stuff like that, you can do mixed media storytelling. It just became very easy and accessible and fun to experiment with as I was undergoing that comic journey. And that journey of experimentation has never ended for me. That's why I don't write one particular genre and why I work with artists from around the world.


I always open up my relationships with my artists to ask, "What do you want to draw?" Because I can write anything. But at the end of the day, if it's something that they want to draw, then they're going to be that much more enthusiastic about it themselves, and they're going to feed ideas into it. I always see it as a creative partnership where whatever they are adding into the mix just enhances what we're trying to do together, and improves the final product that we put out into the world.



CBY: Are there a set number of creators or stories that you would say had the most profound impact on you?



TM: There are a handful that stand out. I'm a huge Neil Gaiman fan. Anything that that man writes, I will eat up. And I like his narrative style and the way he mirrors the words and the art in there. Simultaneously, he tends to be very, very wordy. And other creators, like early Frank Miller from the '80s and '90s, Sin City, Dark Knight Returns, etc. He did such a good job of streamlining the words to draw impact out of the image. And so that very much resonates with me as well. Mark Waid, Justin Jordan, Robert Kirkman, Brian K Vaughn, and Jonathan Hickman are all influences of mine. They write very different kinds of books, and have different styles of storytelling, and that I pull from, and I think that also leads to the versatility that I have and the stories that I like to tell. 


Simultaneously, I love Katie Cook and Raina Telgemeier, and a lot of those creators too. Some of the cute or heartwarming stuff that they do through biographical or autobiographical storytelling, the fantasy stories that they tell really catch my eye and resonate with me too. I don't know that I've found a creator that I don't enjoy, but those types of creators are ones that have had a lot of impact and influence on me as a writer and a storyteller across the board.

"...comic scripts are very flexible, unlike film where it's very rigid. You have to follow a strict format for film. So in comics, I can flex to whatever they want."

CBY: Okay. Now, you mentioned previously that you're experimental so this question might be a bit of a can of worms, but how would you describe your script writing process, as it is today?


TM: Sure. I'll use the word “versatile.” I work with artists from around the world. I'm working with somebody in China on my Webtoon. I'm working with someone in Barcelona, somebody in Italy, somebody in Thailand, Canada, all over the place. And different artists have different styles that they like to work in, and different ways that they like to receive direction from the writer. And comic scripts are very flexible, unlike film where it's very rigid. You have to follow a strict format for film. So in comics, I can flex to whatever they want. Some of the artists that I work with like more direction, they like me to give suggestions on the layouts, and I'll do that, or I'll thumbnail it so that they don't have to spend a lot of time in their process doing it, because that part for them is very draining. Other creators get very insulted if you try to give them that level of direction, and they're like, "You tell me what to draw, and I will put it on the page. And together, we will tell the best story possible."


So I can flex depending on what they like to do. I will say that with Webtoon as an example, there's a lot less concern over format and layout because of the vertical scroll nature of the storytelling. So I don't have to worry, "Is this a horizontal panel that's going to go across the top of the page? Is this a large splash panel that's going to take up an entire page?" Instead, it's just kind of a cascading series of panels, and the artist can decide, is this a bigger panel, smaller panel? And I can give suggestions about, is this a more impactful moment or not? So the collaborative nature of comics and webtoons is something that's really captivated me early on, and that continues today.


And one of the things that I love about that collaborative nature is, every time I get an email back from them with layouts or pencils, it's like Christmas because I don't know what I'm going to get. And I'm always impressed by what I receive. So it's like every email is your birthday. It's a wonderful feeling and experience, and I get giddy about it. I still get goosebumps about it. I've been doing this for almost 20 years and I get goosebumps every single time when I get that back.


Long answer to a short question, it's collaborative.



CBY: You could say it's a reward for going through all that labor of scripting as you get that lovely little treat at the end.



TM: It tickles the lizard part of the brain that likes rewards. And you're like, "Oh, this is fun. This is collaborative. I love it."



CBY: So speaking of webtoons, I definitely have a fair share of questions about them. And I've heard you talk about it a little bit since I've been hanging out at your booth, but can you give us the elevator pitch for your two Webtoon series, Re-Possessed and Nexus Point?



TM: Sure. Nexus Point is a cyberpunk action story in a world where hackers are fighting bounty hunters. The story is about a young hacker named Gemi. And Gemi has, of course, discovered a file she was never meant to see, and suddenly, her world is turned upside down. She's being chased by crooked cops, rogue hackers, bloodthirsty bounty hunters, and a mysterious paramilitary organization that seems to want her dead. And the only person that can keep her alive is the former detective-turned bounty hunter named Jack Travis, whose own mysterious past is tied into this file that she has downloaded. At the heart of Nexus Point, it's a story about found family, with a pseudo father-daughter relationship, wrapped in the format of a political thriller.


And when Webtoon approached me to pitch it, they were like, "Give us something that is unlike anything else that we've had on our platform."


And I noticed there weren't a lot of political thrillers or father-daughter relationships on the platform. The relationship in Nexus Point is between a pseudo-parent and child, and they mentor each other throughout the journey. So that really caught their eye, and it's something that I think readers have really gravitated towards because it is a breath of fresh air on a platform where there's a lot of romance. We have a relationship, it's just not a romantic relationship. So that's the first series.


The second series, I'll tell you the pitch before I tell you the title: It's a story about college kids that work at a pawn shop that sells demonically possessed items. They've accidentally sold some of them and so they have to go and get those items back before they start killing people. It is called Re-Possessed. And it's a love letter to 1970s-era horror films, embracing the fact that they are silly by today's standards. We lean heavily into the wackiness and the goofiness. There's a man-eating toilet in the first episode to give you a flavor of what kind of humor we're going for in the series. But it's ultimately a story about learning responsibility.

Troy Richardson, the main character, has just been cut off financially from his parents because he's gotten bad grades. And suddenly he has to get a job and fast, and he's desperate to find work. Enter his best friend, Mari, who works at this creepy little pawn shop, and they need somebody to help mop the floors, and sweep, and maybe help with sales, and lifting things that are heavy.


On his first day, Troy's given three rules: One, greet customers when they come in the door. Two, never sell anything from behind this rope that says, "Off limits." And three, you need to varnish this altar that's in the back of the store every 30 minutes. And on the first day, he breaks all three rules. And it, of course, causes chaos and hilarity, and now he's got to clean up the mess that he has made. And that's what Re-Possessed is really about. And again, themes of found family in there and kind of that workplace family that you create when you spend so much time with these people that you are working with in a 9-to-5 job.



CBY: So I'm going to start with Nexus Point for a question because one of the things that first stood out to me when I was reading through Webtoon, and I'm going to approach this from that perspective of someone who hasn't consumed a lot of webtoons. I'm more of a paper person, but I appreciate that format. And I believe either the first or second episode, Nexus Point had music in there, which I thought was really fascinating to have that element that does not exist in a paper comic. So can you go into the decision behind putting music into some of your Webtoon episodes? Is that something where you knew someone who makes the music, is that something Webtoon helps with, just in general, that thought process?



TM: Sure. So let me start off by saying one of the things I love about Webtoon and webcomics in general that makes them unique from print comics is that you can include multimedia experiences like music or animation within the story that you are telling. So a lot of the artists will have certain panels that are actually animated gifs. We don't do that in Nexus Point, but you can do that with webcomics. The story as to why we have music in Nexus Point actually comes back to Emerald City Comic Con several years ago. And I was hanging out with a friend of mine. Forgive me, I'm going to name-drop: Johnny Yong Bosch.


So Johnny Yong Bosch, if you're not familiar, is one of the original Power Rangers actors. He does a lot of voice work for anime and video games, Devil May Cry, Bleach, Akira, Trigun, etc. And Johnny and I went out to dinner, we were talking about projects we were working on at the time I was working on Nexus Point. And the more I told him about it, the more excited he got.


And he was like, "Is there something I can do for this? Can I do voice work for this?


I'm like, "I don't know if we can do voice in the story. But I think you can incorporate music."


He's like, "Dude, I have a band! And I can make music for your webtoon!"

And so he made this six and a half minute epic song that builds, and builds, and builds. And it lasts just about the length of the first episode, which is great. So you get a good flavor for the entire song that he wrote. And then on top of that, he helped write, edit, and did the voice work and the music for the trailer that we made to help promote the series when it was coming out. So on YouTube, you can look it up, Nexus Point trailer, Johnny Young Bosch is doing the narration and the music for that particular trailer, and he did the music for our series.



CBY: That's incredible.



TM: Yeah.



CBY: So, I imagine it's going to vary per series on this, but as far as overall story mapping, how do you pace out a longer arc of Webtoon? Do you treat it like a television series, so to speak, in terms of episodes? They literally call them episodes, but-



TM: They do. So it varies. Like with Nexus Point, I try to have an action beat every 5 to 10 episodes. And the idea is that maybe every 10 to 16 episodes, we can collect into print. So I try to have a little bit of an arc there within it. But the entire season was designed like a political thriller movie. So there's a lot of upfront mystery and questions. And then as the series progresses, you start to fill in the blanks and get more answers to the intrigue. 


With Re-Possessed, I changed it a little bit and tried to have a completed story arc every 5 to 6 episodes. If that was a TV show, 5 or 6 episodes would be an hour long episode of television. So we try to introduce a monster, have some kind of character arc, and then wrap up that particular monster within 5 to 6 episodes. And that format seems to have worked really well on Webtoon, because when you launch a series, you typically launch with 3 to 5 episodes for free and then another 3 episodes up on Fast Pass that people can pay to read the rest of it. And so when we launched on Re-Possessed, we did 3 for free and 3 on Fast Pass. So anyone who fast passed all 3 would get a conclusion to that first arc.


And if they didn't want to read anymore, they'd at least get a flavor for what the series was going to be. And if they wanted to read more, then they had to wait another week to fast pass the next episode. So that was how we kind of formatted that. And if I would do it again, I would probably keep to a similar format for Re-Possessed because that does give a sense of closure for readers that like to binge, or that like to binge up front, and then wait for episodes to come out before they binge their next round of episodes.



CBY: Okay. And then per episode, is the length usually the same or is that something that you vary with?



TM: We vary a little bit, and our first episodes tend to be a little bit longer, even though that's not necessarily contractual for Webtoon. Different contracts for Webtoon will have different contract minimums for episode lengths. On average, I'd say they're somewhere from 45 to 60 panels per episode. And again, that's really up to the artist of the series. We tend to pace ours around 45 to 50-ish panels per episode, which on a 5 panel per page average would translate to 8 to 10 pages of printed content every week.



CBY: And then when it comes to repackaging it into print, is that a conversation you're having with the artists for how those pages look like, or do they normally have that more mapped out in their head?



TM: Not for my two series right now. And if I did it again, I would probably change that a little bit. But the reason that we haven't thought about print for these two webtoons is we pitched it to Webtoon as a vertical scroll-style story. And certain panel types that translate well to print do not translate well to the vertical scroll. A horizontal panel does not translate to Webtoon because either it's very tiny on your screen and doesn't have the impact of a horizontal panel on the printed page, or you have to turn it on its side so it becomes sideways, and that's just not a good reading experience for people on their phones, which is where they're typically reading their webtoons.


So, right now, we've tried to create the best handheld storytelling experience that we can for the vertical scroll. And when it comes to translating that to print down the road, I recognize that we will likely have to reformat some of these panels to become horizontal or to become full page splashes so that they're not as narrow, but they can have that same kind of impact that we wanted to have, just now translated to the printed page.



CBY: That makes sense. It seems like something if you're not conscious of, you could easily cause yourself nothing but headaches.



TM: It is. And a lot of the Webtoon creators that I talk to, even if they are planning to transfer their Webtoon into a printed page, they still recognize that there are certain panels that are going to need to be tweaked in order to have the same kind of impact that they want, or just because the way that you do it in print is very different in a vertical scroll.


Vertical scroll is all about trying to get people to thumb to the next panel. It's about trying to get them from the top of the screen to the bottom of the screen, all the way to the end of the episode. And that's very different from a storytelling perspective than it is on the printed page where you're trying to end each odd numbered page on a question or a cliffhanger to get people to turn the page. And then you'll have scenes that last certain numbers of pages because in a 20-page issue of something, you don't want an eight-page scene - that's half the book! You've got to truncate things, you've got to keep things going in clips so the story can keep moving forward. And you have a little bit more flexibility and time to let scenes linger in that vertical scroll.



CBY: Thank you. For Re-Possessed, with an artist Yishan Li though, where did you end up finding her, and what type of collaborative process do you have for that type of story specifically, like the more zany horror nature of it?



TM: I'm a person that likes to let my artists play. So I'll answer the zany question first. I'll sit there and I'll say, "It's a monstrous toilet. Have fun with it.” “Hey, we've got a killer clock. It needs to be at least as tall as the characters to be intimidating, have fun.” “We've got a character in there named Paul who's a possessed 14-inch Nutcracker. Make him look funny," because he has a murderous bloodthirsty intent, but he's also a wooden toy. We had a spirit dog in there called Mutt. And Mutt was originally intended to be a collection of possessed objects that form into a dog-like thing. And she was really struggling with the designs for that and making it cute and accessible when really it's just a collection of junk. And so we did have to change that design to be a spirit dog.


To answer your first question about how I found her, I met Yishan online, was following her work, she was doing a bunch of Kickstarter campaigns and the artwork that she was putting out was just gorgeous. And she had done some work for Top Cow and Dark Horse that I was familiar with, and I really liked her style, and we became fast friends. And in talking to her about projects I wanted to work on, and what her rates would be, she was not affordable for the types of budgets that I had at the time to work on things. So we just kept in contact for two years, and kept talking about things she liked to draw, things I wanted to write, and at the time, I was really pursuing Webtoon and trying to get something on there. I wanted to experiment with the vertical format and Yishan was also kind of interested in trying to work in the vertical scroll format as well.


So when Webtoon greenlit Re-Possessed, I reached out to her. And she was like, "I'm in. Let's do that."


So that's how we got started. And we've just become fast friends ever since, love working together, and she likes to keep me on my toes. I'm a fast writer. I can knock out an episode of Webtoon inside 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how I'm flowing that day. And so I'll knock out 5, 6 episodes in a week to get ahead of her. And that way, she's got a buffer, and then I can skip to one script a week for that series.


And if I turn in 5 episodes that week, she'll turn around 5 episodes of layouts the same week.


I'm like (jokingly), "Stop it! You're going too fast! You're keeping me on my toes!"


But that's just her process. That's how she works. And she's phenomenal. She's an amazing collaborative partner. She's fast, she's easy to work with, and she comes up with amazing ideas, which is this trifecta of the type of people I like to work for and with. So Yishan has just been a joy to work with. I was very excited when we got greenlit for our second season, because that means I got to continue to work with her. And I know that even after Re-Possessed ends, her and I will find another project.

 


CBY: So another thing I'm kind of curious about really into Webtoon, what are some common misconceptions people have towards that platform?



TM: Well, I think that readers who start off in print don't necessarily have the same appreciation for Webtoon as people who start off reading webtoons, who then try to translate the other way to print books. There's a sense among some people who start off in print that there's less credibility or less notoriety attached to Webtoon. That it's super easy to work on whereas working in print is hard, and that’s just not true. A lot of the creators that are on Webtoon have massive social media followings. Some do, some don't. They work their butts off trying to create 45 to 60 panels a week, which, again, is 8 to 10 pages of print content every week. So they're trying to make two or three issues worth of content in the same month that it takes an artist to draw 20 to 22 pages. So Webtoon artists come up with ingenious “shortcuts” - which is disingenuous to say - but they'll find any kind of trick that they can to make sure that they can maintain that schedule.


So sometimes they'll reuse backgrounds, they'll use 3D rendered backgrounds, they'll sometimes reuse art assets, or they'll use vector drawings that they can kind of move around. Anything that allows them to maintain that pace. And really what it is, there's a lot of ingenuity that goes behind the scenes of making those webtoons so that they can keep that pace up at a sustainable level and maintain the quality of art that they are doing on a regular basis because you also don't see what you do on the print side, especially the big two where creative teams are cycling out all the time.


The other piece that I'll mention too on the notoriety and credibility front is, in terms of readership - the direct market doesn’t hold a candle to Webtoon readership. Nexus Point is not the most popular series on the platform in terms of subscribers and readers, but we have 34,000 subscribers on our series. We're being read by over 8,000 unique views a week, which translates to higher circulation numbers than you're seeing from a lot of the smaller publishers that are out there. There is a thirst for this content among this audience, and they want more of it. And I think that the ability for them to transfer that over to print can be a lot easier. But the distribution methods that we have, the places that you can pick up those books, and the type of content that is out there is not easily accessible for these audiences and not the type of content that they gravitate towards.


So when a lot of people sit there and they look at circulation numbers for print and how issue one has 10,000 copies or 20,000 copies, and issue two has 3,000 copies, and there's this massive drop off, finding that readership and getting that readership from Webtoon to come over to print, I think, is a way that can help with some of that drop off, to help with some of those readership pieces, and to help get new creators, new types of stories out there, and more representation when it comes to the types of characters you read, and the types of creators that get to tell those stories.



CBY: And where can people find you on social media?



TM: TrevorAMueller is my Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, website, and my newsletter. Find me, follow me, friend me!



CBY: Trevor, thank you so much for your time.



TM: Thank you.






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