From Webcomic to Crowdfunding THAT DISTANT FIRE – An Interview with J.R. HUGHTO & CURT MERLO
Newest Comic Book Yeti contributor Alejandro Gomez chats with J.R. Hughto and Curt Merlo about THAT DISTANT FIRE and crowdfunding the Sci-Fi graphic novel for their webcomic on Crowdfundr until July 27th. This is a wonderful interview about TDF, their collaboration, influences, and Crowdfundr campaign.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Tell us about the collaboration that sparked this project. How was the idea approached to start as a webcomic?
J.R. HUGHTO: Curt and I met at Wondercon in 2019 and we had a great conversation. A couple weeks later (and some cyber stalking, frankly) I reached out to see if he’d be interested in hearing about That Distant Fire, which at that time was a film script. We got along really naturally right from our first meeting, but would we collaborate well? Turns out: yup! We began slowly, starting with Paul and Vera and what their city might look like. From there we started building out the color palette and the page architecture. A few pages in, we realized that although the story and character arcs were solid, we needed to cut the script down to make the pacing work, and to really focus on the most important elements. We didn’t really think about how to share our work publicly in the early days of making it - that came later with really thinking about how to connect with potential readers.
CURT MERLO: From my perspective J.R. approached me and we hit it off immediately. I think you have to have a great relationship if you are going to embark on a years-long journey together and it just clicked for us. I was impressed that JR had already put in the work and had a fully polished script when he approached me. Most of the time people want me to take the first step in bringing their idea to life but I could tell JR was much more serious than that. The decision to make it a webcomic was more about trying to build our following and honestly was mostly an experiment. We are still waiting to see if this method is the best but so far it is working for us.
CBY: Curt, what was your idea to bring your signature style to That Distant Fire compared to your past projects?
CM: That Distant Fire was immediately different from my other book projects because this one started as a film script. The way the script read was very cinematic and that informed my initial approach to the style. I wanted the book to reflect that cinematic quality and feel. I was trying to be more realistic and used a lot of film references. I also deliberately kept the panels in long widescreen-like rows. I never used any tall panels that break the grid rows that you often see in comics. It was pretty restrictive to adhere to this rule for 150ish pages but I think it adds to that cinematic widescreen vibe. I am a rule follower if nothing else.
CBY: J.R., the story is very humanizing, what was your approach to the story and characters?
JRH: My process is very research-focused because I want the worlds I create to feel lived in, organic, and open-ended. More than anything, characters need to make choices that drive the plot, not the other way around. I need to know who they are: where they’re from, what traumas they’ve experienced, who they’ve loved and hated – all the backstory that might not even make it to a page. If I’ve done that work, I’m confident that the reader will feel it, too.
CBY: Could you share some of the influences that helped contribute to TDF?
JRH: Big influences for me were Studs Terkel’s Working, Jack London’s The Iron Heel, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. The two biggest influences (both agitprop films) sparked the idea of TDF to begin with: Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One examines the American labor struggle through the story of I.W.W. organizer Frank Little’s attempt to unionize the miners of Butte, MT, and Little’s subsequent murder. Inextinguishable Fire by Harun Farocki is about how the state and corporate partners created an environment where scientists at Dow Chemical invented napalm without understanding why they were making it. Both films are about the consequences of allowing capitalism to divide and control us.
CM: As I said before I was purposely influenced by films and in specific I looked at a lot of compositions from Roger Deakin’s work. Comic-wise I love the design and story pacing of The Interview from Manuel Fior. Other books I frequently had open while working were Idle Days by Simon Lecrec, This One Summer by Julian Tamaki. Also Manga had a huge impact on the later chapters of the book. I was reading a lot of Tsutomu Nihei’s work like Blame!. That book specifically had a big impact on how I approached scale and space in the second half of That Distant Fire. There are so many more influences but these are the first to come to mind.
CBY: A question from those learning about crowdfunding: How was the learning curve from publishing TDF from a webcomic to full-blown crowdfunding?
JRH: Huge learning curve! With twice weekly publishing of pages, we can experiment with what works to engage with readers. With the crowdfunding we’re very lucky to have Michel Vrana (of Black Eye Books) running the show along with input and advice from Crowdfundr and Jazzlyn Stone (comics marketer). Thinking about how to engage the audience daily instead of bi-weekly is a big difference.
CBY: What were some of the drawbacks between webcomics and crowdfunding?
JRH: Uncertainty! The days leading up to the Crowfundr launch I was terrified it was going to be a dud or take the entire month to hit our goal which would have left me stressed out the entire time. As for webcomics, honestly the only drawback is that I personally prefer reading a physical book. I read tons of webcomics and the fact that they can exist because of web-only or web-first models is amazing! I back as many crowdfunding campaigns as I can because even if I’ve read the whole thing digitally I still want to read it again (and again) physically. I love books! But I love stories even more, so web publishing remains a tiny miracle.
CM: There haven’t been that many drawbacks for us so far doing it this way. The only thing I would change for future projects would be to rely less on Instagram and use more direct digital media publishing platforms like newsletters or Patreon. From the time we started publishing our book online we have seen a huge drop off in Instagram engagement because of some changes to the algorithm. It has been an eye opener to realize we don’t own our followers on Instagram and that they control how much our followers see of our work. We would rather not give that much power to a third party that doesn’t have our interests in mind.
CBY: Were you able to build an audience with crowdfunding compared to publishing online?
JRH: To me, web publishing fed crowdfunding. Our approach was to complete enough pages in advance that we could start publishing two every week without running out of pages before we finished the book. When we thought we had enough, we hit post on our website and on Instagram! The idea was to naturally gather readers who liked what we were doing in hopes that a year after posting that first page, we would have enough readers to make a print run of the book possible. Somehow, both our math and our strategy worked. Even still, the response to our Crowdfundr — fully backed in 5 hours! — obviously blew us away. Curt and I are new to this, but thankfully we have an amazing team in Crowdfundr, Jazzlyn Stone, and our incredible publisher Michel Vrana of Black Eye Books.
CBY: The panels are beautifully bold, helping the sequential art tell the story without too much dialogue, could you tell us about the decisions made to make this story?
JRH: Lynd Ward’s wordless Wild Pilgrimage was a huge influence.
In the book, Ward used images in black ink to show what is actually happening in the story, and red ink to illustrate the inner moments — dreams, fantasies, raw emotion. This use of color along with Curt’s introducing me to Darwyn Cooke’s Parker was when the visual style of TDF really clicked into place for me. Curt and I constantly went back and forth to find the right balance of words and images. There were some pages, like Vera’s flashback when she tells the story of her cat, that I rewrote three or four times. But maybe my favorite moment of surprise collaboration is when Paul & Vera are dropped off at home by the police and Curt uses red only outside their home’s windows — I thought it was brilliant and totally unexpected! But when I asked him how the hell he’d thought of it he texted me a screenshot of the script — from his perspective, that’s what I’d written.
CM: Because I am such a visual person I am always trying to find ways to show the story rather than explain it in dialog. Luckily, J.R. is similar minded and tells his stories using strong visuals that don’t need a lot of exposition. The bold panels you are referring to could also be coming from my use of spot blacks. I tried to use spot blacks (silhouettes) as much as I could partly because I think it adds a beautiful depth to the composition but also because Alex Toth was probably the biggest influence on my style while making this book and he is the master of spot blacks. Having a limited color pallet could also add to this.
CBY: TDF is a very poignant story about fighting the good fight against oppression from corporate greed, how did the collaboration help weave the tale between visual and written?
JRH: I think we work hard to live our ideals — that there are no hierarchies between us, and as an extension of that, no hierarchy between word and image. If the best thing to do is to rewrite for the image, let’s do it! If the words need to lead a page, so be it. But ultimately we work hard to make the best decisions for our book regardless. And when one of us is struggling with something, the other jumps in to help.
CBY: What can the audience expect to receive for the printed pages regarding exclusive content?
JRH: So far we’ve already unlocked our first stretch goal: 8 pages of behind-the-scenes sketches from Curt on the visual design process of creating the characters and world’s look, as well as my thoughts on inspirations and how the written and visual elements locked together. We’ve got a third stretch goal on the horizon that’s an incredible print from Curt that won’t appear in the book. Super fans can also buy original art from the book as add-ons to the book itself. And some of the pages have been slightly expanded or altered to better fit the way we envisioned TDF as a book as opposed to a digital story. We’re really confident that the book layout (including the PDF version) is the definitive experience versus the Instagram or website experience.
CBY: Are there plans to collaborate together again on a future project?
JRH: First we party. Then we recover. Later, either short comics about giant fighting robots or crazy sci-fi Formula 1? But we have some ideas for longer form things, too. And we have the beginnings of an idea for a sequel to TDF, too, but whatever Curt will have me for: I’m in.
CM: Of course we will. It’s maybe a little early to say this but J.R. might be the Lee to my Kirby. I trust him fully. The biggest threat to our future collaborations is not other writers but it is myself since I enjoy some writing myself and love tinkering on personal projects. That being said I can't do what J..R does and I therefore can't wait to see what we do next. I think we want to do more hard sci-fi stuff as J.R. mentioned above but we just don't know what yet. We still have a lot of celebrating to do before we figure that out.
CBY: Thank you for your time, please tell everyone the best way to find That Distant Fire and your other works online.
Our Crowdfundr: blk.ai/fire
Our website: thatdistantfire.com
More Curt: Curtmerlo.com
Our Publisher: blackeye.ca