Mark O. Stack recently spoke with Comic Book Yeti about his Young Offenders project, as well his Weekend Warrior comics. We also discussed what makes his projects unique to the superhero genre.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Mark, hello! Thanks so much for dropping by the virtual Yeti Cave. Would you mind introducing yourself to our readers?
MARK O. STACK: Hello! I am a comics writer and self-publisher. Micro-publisher? Whatever you want to call it, I’m currently writing an unannounced graphic novel and continuing to publish work through a combination of Kickstarter funding and pre-order systems available through storefronts like Gumroad.
My current publishing project is the imprint Weekend Warrior Comics which launched in 2019 with a magazine release featuring work from myself & my frequent collaborator Anne Marcano as well as creators like Ned Barnett, Francesca Lyn, and Colt Hoskins. WWC is the label under which I publish various superhero work that I plan to collect together in the future.
Since then, I’ve released short digital comics like Herakles with Colt Hoskins, the graphic novella The Scent of May Rain with Rae Epstein & Kaylee Rowena, and the ongoing print comic Young Offenders! with Mike Becker. I currently have another graphic novella in development for later this year, as well.
CBY: Let's kick things off by getting the big, obvious question out of the way first: Why do an independent superhero story when you could make a comic about anything else? What's your fresh take on such a well-trod genre?
MOS: This might sound super mercenary, but I enjoy working in a genre and specific storytelling mode that a large audience is already familiar with. A lot of people have a broad understanding of what a superhero story is, whether that’s based on actual publishing or just how outside media portrays the concepts, so it’s a cool starting point for a story the same way that a fantasy quest can be. People know what a superhero is, so I can hand them a story that will either conform to or challenge their notions of the genre. Either result feels like a victory.
In terms of the themes I’m really interested in as a writer at this point in my life, I like to explore personal transformation, questions of responsibility to others and the world at large, and the myth of rugged individualism in America. The superhero genre of comics has been playing in these sandboxes for almost 100 years and has developed a really exciting grammar around them that’s rooted in strong visual iconography. As someone who got into comics because of the power of visual storytelling, I’m excited to play with what’s there.
And, honestly, we’re telling stories that couldn’t be told at these publishers. They can set out to tell a mature story about the characters and then end up pulping issues because someone drew a penis and another person higher up the chain decided that’s not appropriate for the brand. There are plenty of things you can only really do when no one’s paying attention that you just can’t get away with when working in a corporate structure that requires multiple people to sign-off on the choices you want to make with a character in a larger publishing plan. My characters are rooted in specific time periods with stories that have explicit beginnings, middles, and ends in addition to having consistent themes that don’t strain over hundreds of issues of creative team changes. There is an arc to the material I’m releasing with a specific set of themes that are being developed along the way. If you read every Weekend Warrior Comics release, you’d be able to describe what it’s all about. It would more or less be a single story, or more accurately a heroic cycle like the Saga of the Volsungs. You can’t do that with the Marvel or DC universes without some serious revisionism.
"You can’t allow a company that sells phone service or partners with military contractors to define heroism for everyone."
CBY: You have a comic book magazine called Weekend Warrior. Can you talk a little bit about that project? Explain the philosophy behind it for those that have not seen your letter to the editor in issue 1.
MOS: I opened Weekend Warrior Comics #1, the magazine issue that launched this whole publishing endeavor, with a letter to the reader asking our readers to think about what it feels like to love something that is never going to love you back. I know plenty of people who love the X-Men or the Bat-family and who have spent years hoping to see themselves reflected, if not necessarily validated, in the material. Sometimes that happens. Other times, you end up feeling let down by how they portray people like you or, most painfully, how they don’t even consider those people at all. And then we essentially asked our readers to wonder, “What if it could love you back? What would that look like?”
I don’t think it’s sensible to cede ownership of the superhero genre to large corporations. I’m just riffing here, but in what world would making a Superman NFT [be] consistent with the values of that character and his creators? I don’t think anyone has done that yet, but it’s a possibility because of that corporate structure. The more we can do to erase the idea that the superhero, one of the most consistently recognizable figures in American storytelling at this point, is tied to Marvel or DC Comics, the better. You can’t allow a company that sells phone service or partners with military contractors to define heroism for everyone.
But that’s not to discount the work of the people at those publishers who are making sincere efforts. Progress gets made regularly with the publishing of these long-running characters/universes, but all that makes it a longer, slower process than what I can do on my own with a few collaborators. I think my portrayal of the military and servicemen in Herakles would have to fight a real uphill battle to appear in a Captain America ongoing the same way that the explicitly queer romance at the heart of The Scent of May Rain hasn’t made it into Wonder Woman yet. It’ll be great when that happens, and the creators and editors who will have fought for it will deserve their credit but that’s a clear expression of the limits of corporate ownership of a genre just in terms of the stories that can be told.
CBY: In your philosophy, you talk a lot about how the superhero genre has informed us. What are some superheroes that have informed you?
MOS: Miracleman, the revamp that started in Warrior written by Alan Moore and drawn by quite a few talented artists, feels like cheating as an answer, but that book really sticks with me in the way it portrays the human experience of alienation and loneliness. The comic is almost 40 years old at this point, but I still don’t want to spoil it by diving too deep into that response since it’s not really available to readers without forcing them to look at some offensive recoloring in the Marvel reprints.
And Madman by Mike and Laura Allred is one of my favorite comics. The naive but sweet nature of the lead Frank Einstein as he explores the world with a continually curious mind instantly captivated me. An issue dedicated to Frank’s journey to ask an alien being if it believes in god is pound-for-pound more impactful than anything else I’ve read. There’s a lot of Madman in my work that’s already been and about to be published.
CBY: Your current project, Young Offenders Issues 2 and 3, is currently on Kickstarter [as of the time of this interview]. What three words would you use to describe it to readers to get them excited about it?
MOS: "It’s gorgeous, dude."
CBY: I’m a firm believer in strong characters. Is it challenging to create multifaceted characters in the superhero genre?
MOS: About as challenging as it is in any genre, honestly. A complex character, like a real person, is a being built out of contradictory information and impulses. The only challenge is figuring out how those seemingly contradictory elements actually fit together logically.
CBY: How did you blend several creators and their styles or views into one cohesive comic?
MOS: I often have to remind myself when writing something complicated that I’m the one making myself do this. Since Young Offenders! is a comic about a bunch of mixed-up super-teens in the mode of Young Justice or Young Avengers, I wanted to emulate that approach to team building by creating a cast of characters pulled from other comics I had either created or been planning for some time. Demon Boy comes from a story Edgar Vega and I were developing, The Lark is a character I co-created in a short comic with Cait Zellers, and so on. The only core cast members entirely original to Young Offenders! are Bruja and Whiz Kid. So, after the characters’ co-creators cleared their use with me, the challenge became making these characters who I hadn’t initially planned to share a page together actually look like they were meant to.
From a writing point, that mostly meant making sure the characters had a shared base of knowledge about their world similar to how, even if you’re not a basketball fan, you could hold a short conversation with someone about Michael Jordan in the ‘90s.
Honestly, the hardest part was Mike’s job in terms of making the characters fit together visually. Demon Boy looks pretty different in the conception of him that Edgar Vega and I put together (there’s a more overt Go Nagai’s Devilman and painting/sculpture depictions of Satan influence in Edgar’s Demon Boy), but early on Mike and I came to an understanding that ultimately characters might have to change visually from their origins in order to fit on the same page together. For a team superhero comic, it made sense for Mike to draw more on American superhero influences like Mike Mignola and Kirby while also homaging a manga influence in the costuming.
Every character was a negotiation of trying to figure out where the overlap was between them having a strong personal style that indicated they could support their own story and them looking like they belonged on the same team as four other wildly different characters.
CBY: As a mythology fanatic, I love that you incorporated some here. Talk a little bit about why you chose Mayan mythology and the significance of Xibalba.
MOS: Soy Chicano y Jack Kirby es el rey.
It’s not hard to be a fan of Jack Kirby. If you’re doing something fitting in the overlap of mythology and superheroes, you’re walking in his giant footsteps. For anyone who has looked at Jack Kirby’s illustration and painting work, you can see that his designs and his colors strongly recall Mesoamerican artwork even when he’s drawing something from Norse mythology. When Mike Becker and I were talking about the antagonists for Young Offenders! and how to portray them, I sent him some specific Kirby illustrations along with a message about how cool I thought it would be to open up a conversation with his work by borrowing his unique aesthetic and placing it in service of directly portraying Mesoamerican myth. Mike is as much a student of the game as anyone I have ever worked with, and he really hit the ground running once we had that direction established.
CBY: Can we expect an issue 4 of Young Offenders?
MOS: I think it’s fair to say that, should our campaign have successfully funded (EDITOR'S NOTE: It did.), you can expect a follow-up. I’m not sure if that will take the form of an issue #4 or potentially a graphic novel follow-up. Self-publishing through Kickstarter has a lot of variables at every step of the way, so if that’s a path we decide to continue on then it’s going to require some additional research into what that market will allow. Ultimately, we want to make something on our own terms while also making sure the people who are generous enough to support us feel like they’re getting something of significant value.
CBY: After having successfully produced issue #1 on Kickstarter, what have you learned that has made this time easier?
MOS: With this being my fifth Kickstarter, I’ve found that I’m actually really good at budgeting and fulfillment. I’ve managed to fulfill all of my Kickstarters in incredible time while bringing them in either at or under budget. However, those are skills for completing your Kickstarter, not running one. In terms of that, I think it’s safe to say that I thought I had more figured out than I did at the launch of this latest one. Getting attention for your campaign is hard, both through media outlets and through Kickstarter/social media algorithms. If anyone has any tips on those points, I’m all ears.
CBY: At the end of issue #1, we get a glimpse into the creative process here. What more can you tell us about working with artist Mike Becker?
MOS: At the risk of embarrassing Mike by complimenting him too much, the guy is incredibly creative in a way that you just can’t teach. You can tell him what you were thinking of doing, and he’ll respond with five ideas about how to do that and where to go next. You combine that creativity with a really robust but flexible cartooning style, and you’ve got a guy who has endless amounts of track in front of him as a creator. Once we wrap this first arc of Young Offenders! and take a break to work on other projects, I’m very excited to see what he does with some of the book concepts he’s shown me this past year.
CBY: Your Weekend Warrior has smaller chapters, while Young Offenders is a larger work. Can you talk a little bit about the choice in formats and how different formats might affect a story? Are there things in one that you couldn’t do in the other?
MOS: I’ve released the various Weekend Warrior Comics titles in a host of formats from web serials to print graphic novellas. I think form should follow function, so these stories were conceived with these formats in mind. Young Offenders! is the one title in our catalog that most reflects a “standard” superhero comic, so we wanted to release it in the serial issue format with an ongoing story, single-issue arcs, and cliffhanger endings. The Scent of May Rain is the story of a single woman’s 100-year journey to self-realization, so I wanted it to be in a more intimate format which ended up being a 6 x 9 perfect-bound graphic novella that invited the reader to think of it as something outside of the serial superhero formula even as it played with concepts that originated from them. I don’t think that story as written and drawn works if it’s broken up into serialized parts because it would demand shorter, contained arcs to make the serialization work.
CBY: Why not release Young Offenders as part of your Weekend Warrior?
MOS: It wouldn’t have made sense because I didn’t want to keep publishing issues of the Weekend Warrior Comics magazine after I realized that the comic book magazine format is unsustainable for self-publishing if you want people to actually be compensated for their work. Magazines require a lot of diverse content from a diverse set of creators. Those people all need to get paid. That’s all well and good if you have the financial backing to make that work, but you’ll find an uphill battle awaits you in terms of reaching an audience and actually getting books in the mail to them. Never mind if you want to have more than a quarterly release schedule.
If you see a comics magazine being self-published, you can almost be guaranteed that the contributors either aren’t making a fair wage or the publisher is pouring a lot of money into it. And self-published and crowd-funded books have high costs to be produced for a relatively small number of consumers. To reach and sell to a wider audience, you need higher production numbers to lower your printing costs per unit. But you can’t afford to raise those production numbers if your reach can’t extend that far. Your crowdfunding campaign with no professional marketing push would be incredibly lucky to reach 500 backers. You would honestly need the support of a sizable following and reputation like Iron Circus has to make this viable past the first two issues, and even then there’s a reason you see this strata of publishers doing one-off anthologies with constantly refreshing audiences due to new themes and contributors with their own built-in audiences rather than a continuing magazine format.
CBY: Thanks for your time. Any parting words for us? Where can we find you? Any other projects you’d like to mention? Would you rather have to say whatever is on your mind or never be able to speak again?
I have a few projects coming down the pipeline that I’m very excited about, and absolutely no one will be able to shut me up once the timing is right to announce them.
And, as my Twitter account can attest to, it already appears that I seldom conceive a thought without immediately passing it through either my lips or my keyboard!