PROMISING PROSPECTS: An interview with the creative team behind the new Kickstarter launch PROSPECTS
Writer: Maxwell Majernik
Artist: Jean Franco Publisher: Band Of Bards
COMIC BOOK YETI: Hi, this is Byron O'Neal for Comic Book Yeti sitting down with Max Majernik and Chris and Tim from Band Of Bards to talk about their soon-to-be-released Kickstarter project, Prospects. Thanks for joining me today guys, and thanks to everybody that's listening in.
Max, I guess I'll start with you. For the folks out there listening who may not be familiar with what Prospects is, why don't you break it down for them.
MAX MAJERNIK: Yeah, no problem. Prospects is a comic about a town that has been run by two mad scientists for the past 150 years to 200 years. They've been fighting for so long, that this town has essentially treated it like an honor to be picked as a part of their armies. A lot of the story revolves around the stress of being picked and not being picked by these two mad scientists. We have two main characters. We have Colin who's 30 years old. He's never been picked by the scientists. He's never been taken by them so he's seen as yesterday's news. Then, we have the other one, Andrew. He is 18 years old, a five-star player, and everyone thinks that he's the one who's going to tip the scales for the army of one of these two scientists. We have someone on the outside looking in and someone on the inside looking out. That's the breakdown of the main story.
CBY: I caught up with the first two issues this past week. It's got this simultaneously dark yet hilarious feel to it, like as if Springfield from The Simpsons was tossed into a horror movie with these two warring mad scientists, half Shawn Of the Dead, half Terminator. It holds up a mirror to so many elements of our modern American culture. Was the intent to embrace the satire and laugh at the absurdity of it all or is there more subtle messaging in the design?
MM: Thank you for the kind words. That was a fantastic write-up of it, I really appreciate it. I definitely wanted to shine a light on just a few key themes. This is the best part about sci-fi and comedies, you're able to put these themes in and make them a little bit easier to digest so they're not as in your face. With Colin, it's really relatable. Did we miss that opportunity? Has the world passed you by? I think it's something that everyone can relate to where you feel like the window has closed. I also really wanted to talk about, with the two scientists, how no one's really met them. They never actually make appearances in the town so it's more propaganda. It really reflects to me these new hyper parasocial relationships that pop up because of social media in the past few years and how much more intense it's gotten with the vitriol and tribal looks that we approach pop culture or any part of culture with. With the town, no one's ever met them but they have this fierce loyalty to them. I just really want to shine a light on how absurd it can be when you put it against the lens of how some people interact with social media.
CBY: Prospects is rife with pop culture references. What were some of your influences and how did those play out in the book?
MM: I love Edgar Wright. He's one of my favorite filmmakers. I wanted to try and capture what he's able to do where he creates a very realistic, very grounded, central story, but wraps it in this absurd layer. You mentioned Shaun Of The Dead, that's the perfect example where someone is trying to find themselves, where they fit into the world and their relationships with their family and friends, but there's a zombie apocalypse wrapped around it. That's definitely one of the main influences that I had when creating this. I wanted to have an excuse to put in Evil Dead style hyper-violence and sci-fi that looks like Robocop because that's the stuff that I grew up on. You brought up The Simpsons, that's another good example. I've watched them my entire life so I wanted to find an artist that could capture that nostalgic feeling of watching cartoons growing up. So yeah, I wanted to fit in as much pop culture as I could and there's a lot of that Edgar Wright twist that he does with his style.
CBY: You touched on the artwork there. Jean Franco is the artist on your book. His artwork really complements your narrative style well. Finding that right fit is really crucial. How did your relationship come about? Where did you find each other?
MM: "You never think you're going to become that, and then you blink and you're the at the same dive bar that your dad was at for the last 30 years. It just sneaks up on you quick and that was something that I really wanted to tackle with this. It's challenging because you don't realize how much your surroundings can affect you, how much your surroundings can, without you even realizing it, dictate your path forward."
MM: Originally, I was very open because this is the first major project I've worked on. I didn't really have a very large pool of artists so I posted on r/ComicBookCollabs on Reddit. I was a really big part of that community when it was first starting. I just made a post, put up the script, and got a few bites. When I looked at his art, it was great, because the first thing he put up was a really beautiful piece with a ton of detail and then right underneath that was an exploding head. Just seeing those first two pictures that he drew, I knew that he was the right fit. I really wanted it to feel nostalgic. I wanted it to feel like a warm blanket, really inviting. When you look at his art, you really want to engage with it. You see the dark parts of this story. You see the dark parts of this town with the hyper-violence, with the aggression, and I think he can perfectly balance both of those. He has such great creativity. I tried to give him as much of a blank slate as I could. I said I wanted the robot side to feel kind of like 1950s sci-fi, and I wanted the zombies to feel like Return of the Living Dead. Everything else is up to you at this point, and he just took it and ran with it. It's just been a great working relationship. He's always throwing out great ideas. I'll send him a page back that I feel is just a "get me over" page and he'll load up the background with so many details, so many little world-building lore elements that make every panel really shine.
CBY: I don't want to give away too much from the first issue here, but this is something I have to ask. Colin and the Brown Russian, you tried this, didn't you?
MM: I did, I did. I tried it and that's where it ended. I was thinking of what are the two things you would put next to each other that just instantly make your stomach kind of queasy. I thought well those have to be it, but then I ended up Googling it and it's a really popular drink in a few other parts of the world.
(Note: a Brown Russian is a mixed drink with vodka and chocolate milk)
CBY: I don't think I'm gonna ever go there. It sounds pretty rough.
CBY: Let me get Chris and Tim in here a little bit. How did you guys find Max, and how did that relationship kick off with Band Of Bards?
CHRIS BENAMATI OF BAND OF BARDS: I think we got lucky. Max found us. It was the same situation as Final Gamble. We got a submission that we just got entirely lucky to get.
CBY: So through the portal on your website?
CB: Yeah. I'm really terrible at remembering what order things came in, but Max was one of our first submissions. Tim sent me a text, and I remember the text. He's like, dude, you have to check out this comic that we got in submissions with all these exploding heads.
CBY: Let's jump into a little about Band Of Bards. I read on the website that the original intent of the company was to interview military veterans to preserve their oral histories and publish their unique stories in the comics medium. Prospects and your first launch, Final Gamble, don't exactly fit that mold so how did that transformation happen?
TIM STOLINSKI OF BAND OF BARDS: During the pandemic, Chris and I talked about how we wanted to take our original concept, which fomented in 2016, and make it something that wasn't so niche but also still had the original ethos to it. The heart of what drove me crazy about how the military are portrayed in popular media is its representation by a couple of stereotypical stories. This is terrible representation and it actually does cause social harm. If you pay attention to the comics landscape, you can see that same issue playing out in so many different ways. So why not just take the little soapbox that I have and expand it, bring along a lot more people who desperately want better representation to stories that they can identify with.
CB: Hell yeah, I couldn't have said it better.
CBY: You guys have a really strong commitment to inclusion and diversity as part of your mission statement. On your website, your own words, "a couple of straight, white CIS guys," and I find that's something I grapple with myself on how to best be that supportive ally. Lay out a vision for me and where you'd like to see this go with inclusion and diversity.
TS: Long term, it's going to involve bringing in more people. Short term, we make sure that we're very intentional with who we're working with, not just in terms of content creators and the stories, but also anybody that we're reaching out to in a contracted way. We've worked with Melissa Meszaros with Don't Hide Public Relations to help us out. With some of the other early stuff that we had to contract out or just hire people to help us with, we made sure we went to women-owned businesses to make sure we're just not bringing in the same group of folks that almost look like we're looking in a mirror. People do that, either intentionally or unintentionally, but we have to be very self-aware of every little thing we're doing as a publisher so that we're putting actions to our words. Hopefully, over time, we've put enough action to our words that people understand that we are very sincere with this mission statement and we're not just trying to throw that out there to sound like we're something really great that we really aren't.
CB: If I can add to that really quickly, one of the things early on that we recognized is that if we were going to do this, and do this right, we had quite a large hill to climb in front of us. We're a couple of guys that grew up in a small town in western New York that, for all intents and purposes, had a lot of very bad stereotypes. We all grew up with stereotypes, right? Our area was predominantly white and predominantly not that kind to a lot of different people. As we grew up, one of my goals was to shed that part of me. I felt like we needed to really focus on the bigger picture, which is comics as a whole is short on representation and equality. I looked at this when I was talking to Tim as my way of expanding my vocabulary and ability to speak... I'm going to shut up. I'm sorry, I lost my train of thought. This is how I do interviews. I get really nervous because people are listening to me. I'm trying to make a point. I sound like an idiot.
CBY: No, it's okay. I think we all, not everybody obviously but I can speak for myself, I grew up in a racist household so I certainly get where you're coming from.
CB: Yeah, that's the point I was trying to make, and I appreciate that.
TS: Yeah, sometimes it's hard to say that about our households. Racism in the northeast, and especially in western New York, it's that quiet racism, right? People think that because they don't support lynching that that makes them not racist. They don't realize that there are so many other racist behaviors that they've been indoctrinated with over their upbringing and pay no mind to it. So it's kind of wild growing up around that, especially if you do get a chance to travel around the country or to other countries. It's very strange to look back on how we grew up. We could recognize things that were bad but not recognizing that wasn't how it was like everywhere else in the country. It's a strange bubble so that's the cool thing about comics, why we love them, and just the power of storytelling is that it gives you the ability to break through those bubbles. The suburb I live in right now is like 97% white, that is a huge bubble that people intentionally, or not, self-imposed on themselves. So, how do you make sure that kids growing up in that kind of community get to see how the other half lives? Stories. So if you can bring a great story that shows someone the way someone else lived or how they grew up, it can overcome some of those bubbles that we're trapped in and were raised in. Tying that into Prospects, I think Chris and I dug it because of all the Rust Belt tones behind it, right? You've got these areas that were economically depressed and were taken advantage of by fast-talking businessmen or crooked politicians, this massive brain drain and everybody is left with such a screwed up expectation and view of what success means as you grow up. That's something that we latched onto with Prospects, you can show how some people grow up in these really odd little towns that because of how the economics of the history played out, you have an absolute warped sense of reality.
"I love Edgar Wright. He's one of my favorite filmmakers. I wanted to try and capture what he's able to do where he creates a very realistic, very grounded, central story, but wraps it in this absurd layer. You mentioned Shaun Of The Dead, that's the perfect example where someone is trying to find themselves, where they fit into the world and their relationships with their family and friends, but there's a zombie apocalypse wrapped around it."
MM: Off what Chris was saying, I was raised in Pittsburg so that was one of our biggest connections. Rust Belt, small towns, I thought Tim said it very eloquently right there where they have such a specific mindset. You never think you're going to become that, and then you blink and you're at the same dive bar that your dad was at for the last 30 years. It just sneaks up on you quick and that was something that I really wanted to tackle with this. It's challenging because you don't realize how much your surroundings can affect you, how much your surroundings can, without you even realizing it, dictate your path forward. So that was a huge part for us, knowing that we all had such similar backgrounds. We all lived in the same types of towns and met the same type of people.
TS: I felt that so hard. I brought great shame to my family recently by discontinuing the membership to the local Polish Club in Dunkirk. My family was working class. I grew up on the lower end of that middle-class spectrum, borderline in poverty. Our inheritance was to have a lifetime membership to this Polish Club. That was the top of the chain, you get your membership there for 25 years and you get the key to the club. You don't have to get buzzed in with the card and keep paying membership dues. That's the warped sense of reality of one's success in these communities.
CM: That shit's so wild. Max and Tim both hit the nail on the head there. We all have so much in common with this story. I think the realization for me that really drove it home is that there's so much work to do on every single level, and one of the great things that Prospects does is bringing those issues to the forefront, while also making it funny and enjoyable.
CBY: We've talked about diversity here. Are there other specific types of projects you're looking for with Band Of Bards? Are you seeking them out or waiting for them to come in through submissions?
TS: We have ten titles lined up for 2022, and they definitely run the gauntlet of diversity, whether it's in the story and or with the creative teams. We've got a few that will be sending some deal memos out to here in the next week or so and we'll be happily announcing during the Prospects Kickstarter, similar to how we did during the middle of that Final Gamble campaign. We announced several titles like Targets, Fell Witch, and Sentience. There is a balance there, right, because we are very intentional to make sure we're not turning people's identities into commodities to trade on, that would be completely antithetical to what we're doing. It's more about building that community and putting actions out there instead of words and showing that we're building a community. The fanbase around us, the people who like to work with us, the people who talk us up are very different from Chris and I. Through that, I think that has encouraged other creators to come to us and trust us to actually be the people that we say we are. They've come to us with such fantastic stories. Submissions are still open. We need to review several, but we are looking at this point towards booking stories into 2023. There's been a great response from the community, sending stories into us, creative teams coming to us, reaching out to us. We're just letting that flow organically rather than trying to feel rushed or pressured and trying to just constantly beat that same drum over and over. I think we're better off just at this point, continuing as we have been, and letting our actions speak for themselves.
CBY: Is the long-term plan then to continue Kickstarter rollouts, or do you have a different model in mind?
TS: There's a balance there too, right? Kickstarters themselves, they're not just for funding. They're essentially like a sales and marketing campaign in their own right so you've got some titles that won't necessarily need the Kickstarter so much for funding, but we still like the idea of using Kickstarter as a sales and marketing campaign to get the word out there and to build some fan base around it. Long term, you don't want to continue using crowdfunding but there's a place for it. There is certainly a time where you do need to be able to move away from crowdfunding for your necessities and to use it as you pick and choose because there's some benefits to it, but you don't necessarily need to use it.
CB: I think with Kickstarter, and crowdfunding, there's definitely always going to be a place for that. Amongst the indie creators and the indie publishers like us, I think it's a really cool way to get the word out on a lot of things. We want it to be financially sound and independent of that, not to need that as a crutch, right? Because the last thing you want to do is to formulate or get into a kind of space where you're relying on that type of thing too much. We have an opportunity to really spread our wings, so to speak, and fly and move away from that. There's a couple of gatekeeping things that have come up that have been in the way that we're trying to find workarounds for, money being the number one thing obviously. Pitches for distribution and different ways to get books on shelves out there for people, so we're trying to really explore creative opportunities. Accomplishing those things, especially with such a weird landscape that the whole industry is in right now with Diamond kind of hemorrhaging and losing different publishers, Penguin Random House not returning your emails, it's very interesting out there.
CBY: You guys eclipsed your funding goal with Final Gamble. You scored the "Kickstarter Staff Pick" and "Projects We Love" designations, which is certainly a nice start. These crowdfunding projects are always a bit of a nail-biter. How are you feeling about it at the moment with Prospects about to kick off?
MM: I'll jump in real quick. I gotta tell you, Kickstarters are so stressful, so knowing that I have two other people to share and disperse that stress with helps me out personally. They are tough, you end up getting into that obsessive cycle of looking at it. You're hoping that everything's hitting. Are your press releases getting picked up? It's stressful. It is really rewarding because you are hitting an audienc