Fresh from Heroes Con, Comic Book Yeti contributor Alex Breen corresponded on the convention floor with Sebastian Girner, writer of The Devil's Red Bride, Shirtless Bear-Fighter, and Editor-in-Chief of TKO Studios, to discuss his approach to writing monthly comics, how he balances his writing projects with his editorial duties at TKO Studios along with a showcase of TKO Studios' latest comics and some recommendations from their back catalog.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Sebastian, thank you very much for joining me with Comic Book Yeti.
SEBASTIAN GIRNER: Yeah, absolutely.
CBY: And full disclosure for readers, I reviewed The Devil's Red Bride last year for Comic Book Yeti, and I absolutely adored it.
SG: I remembered. Thank you very much.
CBY: So, jumping straight into it, what were some of your inspirations behind The Devil’s Red Bride?
SG: Obviously, I'm a big fan of samurai fiction. It's funny because with samurai films, they have the kind of dignified, great classics – the Kurosawas – and then they have something called Chambara, it's like the Lone Wolf and Cub films, which are a little more lowbrow, a little more low-budget and they're the ones that popularized the iconic samurai blood spray effect. So, I wanted to lean into that side of things with Red Bride.
I notoriously talk about the manga Berserk a lot and I didn't want to try to do Berserk because that would be a fool's errand, but I kind of embrace that level of darkness and scale and try to explore a samurai horror comic, because I think another thing that interested me, especially watching and considering a lot of samurai films that are...with samurai fiction, you get a lot about the honor and the glory, and I wanted to show the darker side of that.
Dying for honor isn't a great thing. It shouldn't bring a weepy tear to our eye. So that's where I set out as just a kind of dark fantasy samurai horror, which seems a weird kind of circle to draw a story around, but then I went to see an exhibit in New York at the time that was all about samurai armor. That's where I saw this red lacquer armor with this mask and I think that's kind of where everything clicked because you could disguise yourself, of course, and it already looks so demonic. I thought that there was something very theatrical and interesting about that that someone could use to hide their identity even in a place as public as a battlefield.
"...The monthly rhythm forces you to focus only on the best parts of your story because there's stuff that absolutely had to stay on the cutting room floor."
CBY: One of the things that stood out to me in particular about Red Bride (I guess I'll just start saying that for short) is how strong it was from chapter to chapter. Sometimes books will be a great read as a trade, but sometimes in monthlies, it can be a little tough. And I think that you and your team were able to thread that needle remarkably well. So, can you share some of your approaches to crafting a compelling single issue?
SG: Yeah. So, I pitched it to Vault, Adrian Wassel and I had the first issue pretty much written. First issues come really fast for me because I kind of always know where I want to end, what's the cliffhanger? In monthly comics, you want to end on something that if you have a chance to get someone back 30 days later and all the hoops that they have to jump through to even get the issue, it really has to be strong, especially in a creator-owned field where you can't expect people to come back for Batman, Superman or Wolverine, anyway. So that first issue, I wanted to set everything up, set up the characters, set up the dilemma, set up the past and the present that the story takes place in.
I'd never written anything like that, and I think I just wanted to really challenge myself. I know the beginning and I know the ending of the book. Everything in the middle, I will have milestones and I will allow myself to have to make up a little bit of it as I write because it’ll force me to bring the most important pieces to bear. So, in the second issue, it was like, you know what? A lot of second issues of creator-owned books end up being very chatty because the creators rightfully pack the first issue with a lot of action, a lot of exposition, get the in-media res, get the ball rolling, and then the second issue usually brings up the rear and does a lot of the characterization. And I was like, “I’m going to try not do that. I’m going to have the second issue be a big bloody sword fight that flashes back to another bloody sword fight.” Basically, I just wanted to out-gore myself, but have it mean something, have it try to speak to a world as violent as the one as the samurais in the real world, without demons.
That's where a monthly comic writing rhythm... I have to get writing for John [Bivens]. And then John [Bivens] has to start, and I have three or four weeks to write the next script, but I have to write it in maybe a week or two. So, I think that the monthly rhythm forces you to focus only on the best parts of your story because there's stuff that absolutely had to stay on the cutting room floor, no pun intended, but I think the story is stronger for it. And of course, having Adrian as my editor was also an incredible help for a story, I think that could have quickly descended into just gory chaos.
CBY: So as a storytelling style, would you say you subscribe more to like... I'm not sure if you've heard Matt Fraction talk about this before, but storytelling as a roadmap or a gardener versus an architect?
SG: I only know how I write and as an editor, I know how other writers write. And I do actually think that almost every writer I work with writes differently. Some writers will have the whole thing and they'll just start on page one. That's how I write. I start on page one and I don't write the last page first.
I've done that now where I trust myself more to kind of be able to piece it all together, but usually, I'll start at the front. And just if I want to get to the part that I want to write, I have to write the part that I don't want to write and I'll have to figure something out.
CBY: Kind of like an “eat your veggies” sort of thing?
SG: Yeah, exactly. I'm not trying to be flowery or have a lot of prose in it. I just want to break my head against this wall until it starts looking like a statue. So, I don't know... every story I've written, I'll write it a little bit differently. Scales and Scoundrels is much more lighthearted and I'll kind of allow myself more flourishes. And then there’s something like Devil's Red Bride where I was working with Vault and the page limit that we had is 22 to 24 pages, you need to make more conservative choices about what you're putting on the page. There’s also knowing that it's an action comic and it's historic enough that we need to do reference and I need to give John [Bivens] a lot of room to showcase this world both as historically accurate as possible, but also our dark fantasy version of it.
Having these restrictions on your script: page count, panel count, scene layout. That solves a couple of story problems for you because you just don't have enough room to really do everything you want. You have to boil it down to what you really want it to be.
CBY: Hmm. Something you mentioned there, I'm not sure if you're able to expand on, but I'm curious... You said 22 to 24 pages at Vault. Is 24 pages the issue one page count and then it's 22 pages going forward or do you have a little bit of freedom to be like, "Hey, can we bump this up to 24 pages for this issue?”
SG: I mean, you can always ask… and usually a publisher will say no. (Laughs) No, with Red Bride, the average issue is 24 pages. And I think in the last issue, I made a case like, "I need two more pages." But they wouldn't be full art because at that point, of course, you're always thinking about the schedule. Especially on the last issue, usually, the artist is burning the candle at both ends, but I think there, because it was kind of just a conceptual double-page splash, it's kind of the ending soliloquy of The Sword as we close.
I try not to shotgun blast captions across the page, but I was under the assumption and I kind of suspected that we wouldn't necessarily get to do another one. So I wanted to make sure that this reads like an ending to this story if we never get to do a sequel and I'm very grateful that they said yes and those pages are in the book.
CBY: Excellent. In regards to artwork, because I definitely wanted to touch upon this, John Bivens was an excellent dance partner as a collaborator. Did you always have him in mind for the story? Did Vault choose him? Or was it more of a search where you had to go through a few options?
SG: No, I wrote that for him. John and I had worked together. As a freelance editor, I edited Justin Jordan's and Kyle Strahm's Spread where John came in as an artist for a number of issues. I really liked his style, especially his action. He's very monster gore prone. It just spoke to me. And then I believe it was John who just reached out to me after we finished spread and I think he had just read Shirtless Bear-Fighter number one. And he was like, "Hey, this was great. I like working with you and if you ever want to develop something, keep me in mind." And it was funny because as a writer, I was like, "Oh, no artist has ever asked me to develop anything with them. What an honor!"
But then a year or two later, I reached out to him and I was like, "Hey, I have this thing in mind. It's kind of weird and it's very specific. It's samurai grindhouse fantasy." And he was like, "Yeah. That sounds awesome." And then we put together a pitch and he drew some pitch pages, and we sent those around, and Vault bought it. But yeah, it was always going to be John. And he nailed it of course.
CBY: Yeah. This works both ways. Sometimes a creative team finds their footing together as the book goes. I would make the argument you guys find your footing from panel one to page one of issue one. I think that first page is just a banger to be honest with you. So, obviously you worked with him on Spread. I suppose you must have had a real sense of what he enjoyed and there must have just been a good working relationship going into that comic, right?
SG: I think so. Everyone was a pro. Justin Jordan has written dozens of comics and his scripts are super tight. And John came in and I believe he'd been doing a lot of storyboard work at the time, and he just understands how to tell a story.
I felt confident going into it with John because he's just a consummate professional. And also, I know he doesn't mind drawing really outlandish violence and monsters and grime. And not try to sugarcoat it where it looks cool, but just kind of be like, if you stab people with sharp pieces of metal, they scream and bleed and then they're dead. And then if you add demons to it, it gets even worse.
Obviously, I wanted to make sure there's a lot of action and that the action can tell the story, that we don't talk and then we stop talking so we can have action and then the story can progress, but that you learn about the characters through the fights, through the sword fights. Because that was always what I loved so much about, especially, samurai films, but also Kung Fu films, kind of just general Eastern action-adventure cinema, is that the fighting itself is a debate, is philosophical... between the good guy and the bad guy or a good philosophy and a bad one. That there are ideas and concepts being thrown along with punches and blades and stuff.
CBY: Were both of you having a lot of discussions about the story and scripting it in Marvel Style, or was it a full-script kind of collaboration?
SG: The story came very much from me. I was just kind of a Japanophile. I studied Japanese, I lived there. I've always kind of wanted to write a samurai story. But then you're always up against the masters.
Demon Slayer had not come out yet at this time. I'm not saying that I did it first, but just when something that big and that popular is out, you might ask yourself like, "Do I need to throw my hat in this ring?" At the time, I really felt something dark fantasy, something that demystified the samurai epic while also leaning into what their life may have been like during this incredibly violent period of Japanese history, that was just something that I really wanted to nail.
And I did send John something like, "Here's what's happening in this issue." to explain it to him since it has to make sense to someone who's not a huge Japan nerd or knows all the social intricacies of the 500-year-old court system or stuff like that. He was along for every step of the way. And then when it came to setting scenes... Like, the 3rd issue takes place in this haunted Buddhist monastery and I explained to him what the setting was and what the themes were, he came back and he was like, "Oh, it should be this ancient spider nest and then it can have a big spider demon in it." So he just started coming at my whole palaver from an artist's perspective where the big question is "That all sounds great. How am I going to draw that, so it looks cool?"
CBY: Yeah. So it's like the perfect version of a "yes and."
"We are working on a number of new titles, all of which are a medley of genres that we know people really like mixed with genres they may not know they like yet. We're doing more horror. We're doing a really great take on a slasher horror mythology, which I'm very excited for."
SG: Exactly. It's like that. I'm telling him I would like to serve this delicious juice. And he's like, "How about a glass that looks like this glass?" And you're like, "That's a great glass to put it in." That's a terrible analogy. (Laughs) But yeah.
CBY: (Laughs). I know that sometimes with scripts, they get looser as the collaboration goes. I'm imagining, based off what you're talking about, you used a lot of reference with your scripts?
SG: Yes. Almost everything I write is creator-owned at this point or at least not depending on preexisting characters. So I want to make sure that the scripts convey everything to the artist that they need to. So they might have some footnotes. They might go on a little bit longer because even when I'm setting something up in issue one, and issue ones are a lot of setup, I want to make it clear to them like, "Hey, this is going to pay off in such and such a way later," just so they have an understanding of, why am I asking you to do all this work in this first issue. It's because I do try to set up things so that they can naturally not have to get set up again and again, every single time so that when you read the whole thing in one go, you can tell, "That's what I need."
So I think my scripts get a little bit shorter as they go along because by the end it's like everything's been set up. I can just tell you who they are. I don't have to describe their body language or their posture anymore. At that point, the artist is in full control.
CBY: Yeah. They've lived with the characters just as much as you at that point.
SG: Yeah. But I think that again, when you know you kind of only have five issues to tell a story that for some reason or another is very dear to you and won't let you go, and especially again in this one where we're kind of stepping into another people's history and beyond even that almost a darker version of their history, you want to make sure that you dot your I’s, cross your T’s so that people will give you the leeway to go a little bit further than that. John was incredibly generous with how much he allowed my scripts to kind of weigh him down, and then turn around and make it where those pages breathe beautiful life.
CBY: I said this in a previous interview with someone else, but I think comics are a wonderful secret sauce where it's like everything comes together just right. And when it hits, it hits.
SG: Yeah. It's the best thing when you are going through a script to do lettering and you can just strike balloons and captions. You're like, "I don't need any of this." What was 10 balloons is now 2 or 3 just because you don't need it. Ideally, the artwork does all the work for you.
CBY: Agreed. So my last Red Bride-related question. You mentioned a Red Bride sequel earlier, is that still an open possibility? If not, will we possibly see maybe you and Bivens work again down the road?
SG: So we've never officially breached the topic with Vault. Red Bride launched during COVID, which is an awesome time to launch comics. I have the sequel more or less written. Not the full script, but I know the whole thing. I believe I have a full outline somewhere. I have ideas for... It was supposed to be a trilogy. As long as I'm fantasizing, Ketsuko's story takes place across the entirety of the Edo Era so all the way up until the forceful opening of Japan in the mid-19th century by Admiral Perry sailing into Edo Bay on the Black Ships.
I would love to work with John again. I don't know if he's here at Heroes Con, but I would love to see him again. I would love to work with him again. I honestly just kind of want to make a Red Bride sequel happen. I think it would be awesome. I'm more excited for it than I was for the first one, which is always a problem because now I need to make it happen. But never say never. Vault is a wonderful publisher. I'm surprised that they were open to Red Bride in the first place. I don't know why, but I always develop concepts that I'm like, "No one's ever going to publish this." And then they were super welcoming and wonderful. But every comic is a new challenge. So we'll see. I'll keep working at it. And I'm hoping that John would be ready to follow me down the path of vengeance once again.
CBY: Absolutely. And speaking as a fan of course, I would love to see that happen. Worst case scenario, if something doesn't happen, I hope you guys continue on to other stories because I think you guys have an energy together that really translate into some killer comics.
SG: Thanks, man. I would love to have more time. I'm developing three things right now when I have time to do it. But I would love to work on something new with John. And maybe it's just a question of me, this time I'll reach out and be like, "Hey, if you ever want to develop anything, keep me in mind."
CBY: Absolutely. So part of what you mentioned leads into my next question anyway. You are editor in chief over at TKO Studios and so I am very curious because I imagine that's a time-consuming job, how do you balance both roles?
SG: It used to be very structured until I became a father last year.
SG: Thank you. And now it's complete chaos. No, I'm very lucky to be able to do both, be an editor and help guide TKO and all the books there. But usually, what I'll try to do is just, I get up very early, both before I had a kid and now even earlier. And once everyone is kind of taken care of and my wife is at work and my son is at daycare, I'll get an hour to do some writing, two hours tops. And that's it. That's all I can do. That'll be two pages, three if I'm very lucky. And I don't know if those are any good. But it's something. So over the course of a week, that's a script if it's 22, 24 pages.
And that's not terrible. And I'm not saying I can do it all the time. But that one hour a day is sacrosanct to me. I will do that if I feel good, if I feel bad. I can't write any other time. I have a hard time just being like, "Oh, I have an hour before bed." Like, no, it's got to be in the morning. It's got to be right before I do other work, because then by the time it's 9:00 or 10:00 on the east coast, west coast starts getting up and I'll start getting emails and the day just kind of runs off with you.
So I've been extremely aggressive about keeping that time for myself because I know it's so easy for me to just slip into being an editor. And that would be a wonderful job. I love being an editor and I love working with writers and artists, but I just want to have my ability to tell these stories for myself. And I also think that it helps my job as an editor because I have an outlet for those ideas. I don't have an incentive to try and lay these weird ass cuckoo's eggs into someone else's nest.
CBY: Yeah, you're not doing the... remember the Jon Peters thing from Wild Wild West, how he kept on trying to get a mechanical spider into various movies?
SG: Exactly. He was like, "I just need to get it in there." And he's like, "Sure. We'll put it in the Western movie. Why not?" Yeah. I just suddenly have demonic samurais popping up in and like, "This was supposed to be a period piece!" Yeah, no, it's a lot of work. But I like working and I love comics. And right now, I was like, "I had a kid. Why not try to get three comics up and off the ground?" And by God, we'll see if it happens. But they're coming together.
CBY: I respect the hustle of that. I guess to put a fine point on TKO, what's it like seeing a comic go from the pitch stage to a completed comic?
SG: Red Bride, we worked on it for... I think it was a pretty long wind up time, maybe 8-10 months before we sent issue one to print. But then you very quickly have that issue one in your hands. And now you're like, "Ooh, the clock's ticking. Now I got to get issue two ready. And issue three has to be drawn. Issue four has to be scripted." With TKO, we wait until everything's done and then we publish it. So binge release model, basically. The time between when you're reading the pitch and the story starts to take an idea, even in your own head, until you're actually holding the book in your hand, that can be anywhere between 16 to 18 months. Over COVID even longer.
There are two books, two titles recently released Black Mass Rising and Forgotten Blade. And I believe that we started working on those right at the end of 2019. So those are two years of work. Especially those two years may as well have been 12. So it feels very strange. It's like these books have always been out. It was an incredible amount of work to get them out over COVID. I genuinely love... the only thing I want to do when I put out a comic is make another comic. It's an incredible kind of rush. It also kind of is an addicting feeling where you're like, "Okay. Got to get more. Got to get more."
You have to slow yourself down. Take some stock, take a walk, read something that isn't a comic and then come back to it. But I do find comics, making them, it's an incredibly long meditation on a part of your life. Red Bride is a strange comic where I'm working through feelings about a certain part of my life and Scales is the same. And the things that I'm developing now are clearly already being influenced by the one year that I've spent being a dad. So I think I'm just kind of working towards a conceivable future where I look back on my life and get an inkling of who I was at the time when I made these books that by then hopefully will be numerous like sand on the shore. But it's the best feeling. I genuinely recommend everyone to try to make a comic. Make a comic once in your life. It's the best thing in the world.
CBY: I couldn't agree more. So what are some of TKOs latest releases you'd like to make sure people are aware of?
"Almost everything I write is creator-owned at this point or at least not depending on preexisting characters. So I want to make sure that the scripts convey everything to the artist that they need to. So they might have some footnotes. They might go on a little bit longer because even when I'm setting something up in issue one, and issue ones are a lot of setup, I want to make it clear to them like, "Hey, this is going to pay off in such and such a way later," just so they have an understanding of, why am I asking you to do all this work in this first issue. It's because I do try to set up things so that they can naturally not have to get set up again and again, every single time so that when you read the whole thing in one go, you can tell, "That's what I need.""
SG: Absolutely. So just a couple of weeks ago, TKO released two new graphic novel miniseries: Black Mass Rising written by Theo Prasidis and beautiful, gorgeously, fully lushly painted digital art by Jodie Muir with letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. That is a kind of doomed Gothic romance. It is a potential or conceivable alternate ending to Bram Stoker's Dracula, where it takes place a year after Dracula's death and a hundred-year reign of darkness has ended. We open in a small village in Transylvania where life has bloomed back. There's a new spring. People are no longer living under the shadow of the Impaler. And then strange things start to happen leading this mysterious stranger, a healer who's walking the lands kind of trying to heal the wounds that Dracula has hewn and this young girl has to team up and kind of rediscover if Dracula's evil is indeed dead and buried.
And the second book is The Forgotten Blade, which is written by Tze Chun, who's our very own publisher and also the author of 7 Deadly Sins and The Fearsome Doctor Fang. He's teaming up with the artist Tony Fejzula for another gorgeously fully painted sci-fi epic, but in the traditional sense of the word, something that spans millennia and touches upon philosophy, religion, fairy tales, government and politics. And it is a book that I am uniformly just amazingly, amazingly proud of. Tony did, I think, the work of not just his career, but everyone's career and I would liken it to... And again, I'm obviously trying to plug it and sell it. But I do think it fits up there with Dune where it's not just a great story. It's a great world. It really does touch upon every facet of the human experience. And it is a kind of sci-fi fantasy that I don't know how else to describe. It doesn't fall into any specific niche. So those are the two books that are new out right now. I would highly recommend everyone pick them up.
CBY: Excellent. Do you have one older book you can plug? It can be one of your other books that you've worked on of course for them, but an older TKO book that people should go back and track down?
SG: Everyone should go back and track down Sara by Garth Ennis and Steve Epting and Sentient by Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Walta. Those are two of our kind of perennial favorites. And a caveat, all of our books are wonderful. Anyone looking for a really interesting take on a kind of crime noir should pick up Goodnight Paradise by Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli, which is about a homeless detective in Venice Beach trying to solve the murder of a vagrant child because he's the only one who cares enough to actually want to solve the murder. If you're looking for a really wonderful kind of Sam Peckinpah-ish Western, 7 Deadly Sins by again Tze Chun and artist Artyom Trakhanov. One of his finest works to my mind.
If you're looking for a very... I don't even know how to describe it. It's a really dark queer Gothic romance. It's a book called Graveneye by Sloane Leong and Anna Bowles. It's narrated by a house. The house narrates very distantly the goings on of its inhabitants, which are the house's owner, Isla, who is this very aloof, otherworldly beauty with a dark secret and her very mousey housekeeper who is slowly but surely being attracted and roped into the secret. It's a story about how these two women kind of encircle each other, but you're never really sure who's predator, who's prey. That came out last year.
Please also read Djeliya by Juni Ba. It's one of our all-ages adventures, inspired by West African mythology. Juni is an incredible, incredible cartoonist, artist, writer, everything. It's a book that kind of defies explanation. It both marries West African mythology with apocalypse cyberpunk and a little bit of Mad Max in there. It's about the prince of a destroyed kingdom, who along with his titular Djeliya, they're kind of Royal storytellers and orators whose job it is to galvanize the king. They try to find a wizard who literally blew up the world and take his power away. I do a disservice to it. It's a singular piece of work. You can tell how many books TKO has and how excited I am about all of them because I could give you a whole spiel, but I think that's probably plenty. Please go to our website, TKOpresents.com or ask in your comic book shop, in your bookstore, Amazon, or anywhere you can get your fine books.
CBY: Absolutely. And that really has been an absolute stacked lineup that you mentioned. One thing I'm curious about, I doubt you can reveal any new books that are upcoming, but do you have any genres maybe you could tease for us about some upcoming TKO projects?
SG: We are working on a number of new titles, all of which are a medley of genres that we know people really like mixed with genres they may not know they like yet. We're doing more horror. We're doing a really great take on a slasher horror mythology, which I'm very excited for.
CBY: That's a big thumbs up from me.
SG: Big thumbs up from me as well. We have something that's a true story, but it's so strange that we need to underline the word true in the word, "This is a true story," that I, myself, did not know anything about this. And then when I read the pitch, I was like, "This is fantastic." I'm very excited for that. Beyond that, I can't say.
CBY: Absolutely. That was more than I could have hoped for. Thank you very much. Last thing I want to ask is, where can people find you on social media? You mentioned TKOstudios.com for the publisher.
SG: Yes. You can find TKO at TKO studios, TKO presents on Twitter and IG, and Facebook as well if we're all still using that. Nobody knows anymore. You can follow my ramblings on Twitter at @SGirner. The avatar is a goat with a knife in its mouth. And the most important book I forgot to talk about is the fact that here at Heroes con, we are revealing... or it has been revealed, but anyway we're all here to talk about Shirtless Bear-Fighter 2. My friend, Jody LeHeup, my old Marvel co-editor, old roommate, best man at my wedding, all the good stuff, he and I and Neil Vendrell and Mike Spicer have once again teamed up to continue the war on bear.
This book is bananas. Pre-order now. Please, if you do go to your shop and are like, "I want Shirtless Bear-Fighter 2," it's not a trick, the shop person will know what you're talking about. They will hopefully high-five you and everyone will rip off their shirts and flex. That book is coming out on August 1st.
CBY: Sebastian, thank you so much for your time.
SG: Thank you so much.