We recently sat down with Grant Stoye, the talented writer and creator of Sidequest to talk about two successful Kickstarter campaigns, how to take in criticism and the joys of finding a crack creative team.
CHRISTA HARADER: First off, thanks for your time. How’re you doing?
GRANT STOYE: Good! It’s the pandemic – it’s either get along or nothing.
CH: Are you getting pounded by snow?
GS: Yeah, we got dumped on a couple days ago. And then it rained, because of course it’s gonna do that, and then today we got six inches.
CH: Gross. Did you have to shovel?
GS: No [laughs.] The nice thing about having a wife who does assistant dean and community director work at school is that we’ve gotten faculty housing this time, and the time before, and maintenance does it for us. It really makes me reflect on how lucky we are at this point in our lives.
How’re you? Where’s that zine? [laughs]
CH: Working on it! It’s amazing how much time things take when you’re doing them for no money.
GS: That's I think the one thing I've learned during this pandemic. All the creative stuff costs money. And if you want to do something for free, okay, well, it's going to take even longer.
One time a couple years ago, my wife got a discount on the Adobe Creative Suite thing. I was like, “Oh, this is so great, I’m gonna learn how to letter.” I bought the craft books, I tried lettering, and I’m not good at all [laughs.] It made me reconsider a lot of ways about how I would like my work to be presented.
CH: Hey, at least you tried it. Some people go in thinking it’s easy. I think letterers, colorists and writers should make the same amount of money.
GS: Oh my gosh, yes. That's why whenever I see Toben [Racicot’s] work, and others, it's just like, why aren't you being paid a lot of money to do this?
CH: And there are all these young, super talented folks who’re out here doing this and I’m a burnt-out husk [laughs.]
GS: You described my views on collaborating with anybody – it’s like, you're smarter than me and younger than me. So I’m going to listen to you a lot more than you should listen to me [laughs.]
Can you imagine knowing what you know now and having the drive you had when you were younger? I was almost about to say kids have it easy nowadays, but then I was thinking about crippling debt.
CH: Yeah, that started with our generation.
GS: Why do our conversations keep taking these dark turns?
CH: I don’t know, are either of us optimists?
GS: That’s a valid point [laughs.]
CH: I wouldn’t say we’re cynical, though.
CH: Yes, exactly. OK, let’s get into it! On the heels of a successful Kickstarter campaign, let’s chat about Sidequest and the story concept a bit. What inspired you to make this book?
GS: Because I'm a middle-aged guy. And I'd rather play D&D than work at a bank [laughs.]
CH: Are Derek’s customer service experiences in issue #2 inspired by real life?
GS: Every single one of them happened to me and writing them down was cathartic. The one that made me the most pissed off was the guy who said, “I’ve been a member here for 25 years.” And I was like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know you, I’ve only been working here for so long.” And he honestly said, “Whose fault is that?”
When it happened – I didn’t mean to, but I laughed in his face, and that made it so much worse.
CH: With some people it’s like a predator, right? If you break expression, if you show weakness, then they’re going to go off.
GS: I poked the bear, I poked the bear! But yeah, I love Dungeons & Dragons (D&D,) and I love DMing. I didn’t start playing until about 2015. And I've always wanted to, but none of my friend groups ever has been interested enough to try it. I finally found a group and I tried it and thought, “This is collaborative storytelling. How is this not fun for people?”
Rat Queens and Skullkickers were prominent at the time, and I think fantasy as a genre should be explored more in comics. Isola is doing great things, Die is doing great things. There’s just so much to tell. The D&D IP comics are great, too, because Jim Zub is a wizard at that stuff. It's just such a fun genre. I don't think it's fully blossomed yet.
CH: Why do you think that is?
GS: I honestly feel like there's been a stigma up until Stranger Things that fantasy is for metalhead burnouts who want it airbrushed on their vans – and those people are great, I want to wear my denim jacket to their concerts, too. Or cheesy romance novelists, or nerds. Out of all comic book genres, it’s weird that this one is the most picked-on, and it wasn’t until some of these books showed that they could gain a foothold in a popular market again that things changed.
CH: I’ve noticed the same thing, and I’ve always trended more toward sci-fi. Maybe, hopefully, we’re starting to come out of the cyberpunk phase. Good pulp needs a balance of fantasy and sci-fi.
GS: It sucks because everyone in their mid to late thirties or forties, they’re doing Akira-style sci-fi with giant machine cities and complete despair.
CH: That’s a quote [laughs.] But yeah, it gets old, right? Where can you go with that?
GS: With fantasy, there’s so much you can do. Like in Dryad, they’re weaving a little bit of techno-futurism and sci-fi into the story but it’s rooted in fantasy.
CH: The fusion is interesting – it doesn’t all have to be computers and robots and androids. You can do whatever you want.
GS: And if you talk to any dungeoneering groups, they've likely done something that incorporates sci-fi elements at some point or another. It's fun.
CH: DMing seems is a huge job. You come up with a story, but it’s dynamic and you have to support everyone’s journey.
GS: That’s why I think a lot of DMs should try writing a book or writing comics, because you have to build your lore bible that you can touch back on, you have to have your maps to be able to cross the realm and stuff like that. It’s so much fun world-building with that stuff and expanding on it.
My favorite thing about D&D is the collaborative storytelling. It’s so much fun to see other people play in that sandbox, and see what they can do with it. It’s cool when someone comes up with something wild, like, “Can my character do this?” And I’m so busy saying, “Yeah, let’s try it!”
CH: It's kind of like improv, right? You always want to say yes, in whatever way you can.
GS: DMs who think they're playing against the players, or that the players are lucky enough to be playing their game? That’s not fun. Why bother?
CH: Are you playing in any virtual groups right now? Or are you just trying to live? [laughs]
GS: Just trying to live! I had a group and we played for a couple years but with the pandemic and with the move, we just kind of stopped because life is ridiculous. One thing that’s fun to do, if you have a group and they’re traveling a long distance, you just go, “So what are you guys talking about?” and watch everyone pause.
CH: I like that.
GS: It’s such a jerk move, and I love it so much [laughs.] But you just have to get the right group of people together. Sometimes people don’t want to play a certain role and that’s ok, but it’s nice to try new stuff if you’re going to play an RPG.
CH: TTRPGs and games have always been viewed as escapist entertainment, and in Sidequest they’re quite literally that. How are you bridging the real and the imaginary, and how much of this is personal?
GS: I feel like the best RPG players are the people that can empathize with their characters. Because you may not know what it's like to have a flaming arrow shot in your chest, but you know what it's like to really stub your toe in the dark. Fantasy, and fiction in general, can be a way to translate your real life.
RPGs are an escape, like video games. Why are you playing? To get away from your crappy life for a little bit [laughs.] That's something everyone can relate to. A lot of stuff in the book ended up being pretty personal, and a lot of the frustration that Derek feels is what I’ve felt. Sometimes I’ve kind of wanted to get away from my family for a bit to play games. Who hasn’t been there?
CH: Did you forget the pretzels, Grant?
GS: I have forgotten the snacks so many times! When I was coming up with Derek’s character, I realized I kind of like this guy. Like no, you can’t substitute with another snack. You were assigned the pretzels.
I just started getting honest. Like look, he’s an asshole, but he has a good heart. He can be self-serving, but he wants to do the right thing. And he's gonna do the right thing as best he can. Everyone has the potential to be an asshole, you know?
I feel like the best RPG players are the people that can empathize with their characters. Because you may not know what it's like to have a flaming arrow shot in your chest, but you know what it's like to really stub your toe in the dark. Fantasy, and fiction in general, can be a way to translate your real life.
CH: I do, and some of us more than others [laughs.] Let’s talk a little bit about the rest of the creative team. How did you find Alaire [Racicot,] Martina [Bonanni] and Toben [Racicot] when you had the story down?
GS: When I first wanted to make short comics, I was on Reddit because my day job was writing high school sports. And during the summer there are no high school sports, and you have to switch over layouts, which is super boring, so I found a community called Comic Book Collabs. I found Alaire first and we did a comic together, and she introduced me to her then-fiancé Toben, who helped me letter some stuff. And I found Martina using the same thread.
I keep tabs on all my collaborators and when I enjoy an experience, I always want to work with them again if I can. So when I finally got the chutzpah to try and actually make a series, I went back and tried to think about who I had fun working with and who’d be a good fit for this idea. In between, I commissioned Alaire to do a D&D piece for me and it was fabulous. So I asked her if she wanted to do a D&D-style book and she said yes, and then I asked Toben and mentioned Alaire was already doing it [laughs,] and Martina also said yes.
When it came to recruiting Stephanie [Cooke,] I heard her on a comic podcast and she was so smart, so I sent her a shot-in-the-dark email and she was interested. And then I knew Brenda Snell from working in radio and she worked right next door and she said yes to doing covers. So basically, it's incredibly lucky that everyone said yes [laughs.] It’s not supposed to be that easy! And they’ve all given this project 110%, and they make whatever I do look so much better.
CH: It's nice to be a writer, isn't it?
GS: It's nice to be a writer who has talked to the right people. Like everyone asks, how do you find people that want to work with you and the answer is simple: you have to ask a lot of people and make a lot of things with a lot of people, and that’s how you find the people you want to keep working with. It's wild to see even from issue #1, which was great, to issue #2 just how much tighter everything’s gotten. It’s super cool.
CH: Yeah, you had a really strong start and then everything’s just that much more polished now. It’s great.
GS: We’re really excited to have a Kickstarter for issue #3 because I asked Martina if she wanted to do a pin-up, and she’s finished it already [laughs.] It’s so good! And overall, Alaire’s knocked it out of the park with her character designs. She knows how to include detail and what to pop in their appearances, but she never clutters the page. Everything has a purpose, everything is functional.
One of the things I believe about character design is that I want it to be something a kid can draw. I got into comics because I thought Wolverine’s costume was cool – and I could draw it! Design simplicity is such an important thing to me.
CH: Grachen’s details are really cool.
GS: He’s based off the first character I ever played in D&D. When I was playing him, I didn’t know anything about building strengths within a class. He started out as a wizard, but I found this really cool Warhammer and I decided I wanted him to only fight with that.
CH: So you switched from a spell-caster to a two-handed warrior? [laughs]
GS: I named the hammer Dongcrusher because I thought it was so funny. As with most things in my life, I do things in comics that I think are funny. I don’t know if anyone else does, but I hope they do! Having played that version of Grachen, I thought we should probably try it again.
CH: I know you’re joking a bit, but you all have put a lot of hard work into Sidequest. Blending comedy and heartfelt storytelling can be difficult. Derek escaping this world into one where he continues to get his ass kicked is pretty good.
GS: He does not have to go upstairs like a baby. It's all about karmic stuff.
CH: I was poring over that panel Alaire did with the customer who asks “Are you still open?” and it’s 5:27, and those details matter so much.
GS: That’s another thing I love about Alaire’s work. Her attention to detail is so good. Some of the stuff she does, I don’t even realize it until it’s done. In the first issue – she hates drawing horses – she said “I will only want to draw a horse if it has a stupid hat on.” So if you look carefully, it has the beanie with the flag on.
And in this issue we had to kill it [laughs,] and you could see the hat flying through the air. We actually named that horse, but I can’t remember what it was right now.
CH: So is this a miniseries? Anything in store for Sidequest in the future?
GS: We mostly have to get through the first arc and see how it’s received. We’d love to keep making it, and of course we’ve got ideas, but it’s all in how people react to it. And the reaction has been good, more than I could’ve hoped. It’s both flattering and validating to see the traction it’s gotten over the past two months. The gratitude I feel from the team for believing in my stupid story, and from my wife for putting up with all of my crap, like trying to put this together when I could be doing something else? It feels really good to have their belief in me validated.
I’m glad it’s happening now when I’m 39 instead of ten years ago, you know?
Get ready to eat shit. And I want that to come across in the nicest way possible, because no one is going to be awesome right off the bat. If you can’t eat some shit about your stuff, you’re going to get burned out. You have to work on your craft, and I think finding a really good editor is so important.
CH: Why’s that?
GS: I think having to learn to write on deadlines, to work with editors and an audience, writing high school sports and working in radio, stuff like that – it’s kind of toughened me up. A lot of people can really take criticism to heart and it’s just not a reflection on you, it’s the work. I’m a better writer now that I’ve been through a bunch of shit than when I was younger and more opportunistic.
I think us mid-to-late-thirties people get that. You need experience. You need someone to hate your stuff first.
CH: You’ll be writing wine label copy or blogging about something, and it’ll make you a better writer.
GS: Any time you take in money for writing, you’re a professional writer, and no one is an awesome writer right off the bat. I’ve written for small magazines, I did a couple months as a copywriter for a small online marketing consultant. I have a shitty book on Amazon for young adults and I like talking about that stuff and keeping it available so people who like Sidequest can see the evolution of my writing [laughs.]
When I was coming out of college, I got an editor's card at a college writing fair. And I thought I was the hottest shit, and the editor left the company and I never heard from them again.
CH: I pitched my grad school manuscript to a publisher I admired, and they wanted to see more. Turns out, the first chapter was the best part of the book [laughs.] What advice do you have for younger writers?
GS: Get ready to eat shit. And I want that to come across in the nicest way possible, because no one is going to be awesome right off the bat. If you can’t eat some shit about your stuff, you’re going to get burned out. You have to work on your craft, and I think finding a really good editor is so important.
Even if it’s just a look through something to see what they like and what they don’t like. Everyone’s going to have something to add, and writing is a much more collaborative process than people tend to believe.
CH: It’s especially hilarious in comics because it’s such a collaborative medium. And we have this archetype of the lone writer hunched over the keyboard, but someone has to draw it.
GS: Oh my gosh, yeah. Also, if you're an aspiring comic writer, find someone that you want to collaborate with. You don't want someone that's just gonna do what you say and not challenge your ideas at all. I love working with Alaire for that reason. We just finished up final edits on issue #3 and I sent it over to her and asked if there’s anything there she doesn’t like and she spotted a couple seven-panel pages that just didn’t need those seven panels. It was a really good point. I want to break everything down, but I don’t always need that extra panel of a hand on someone’s shoulder.
And one more thing: you don’t need as many words as you think you need. Comics are a visual medium. If there’s not an artist, you’re just writing short stories. There’s that writers vs. artists argument and it just doesn’t serve anything.
CH: And an artist can draw a silent comic. You need just enough so your audience can follow, and flavor for some stories.
GS: Part of me wants to just write down every lesson I've learned about writing comics from actually doing it. I have six or seven craft books and a lot of them just don’t have those little nuggets that make things so easy, like focusing on page turns.
Think about the layout of a book – on your odd-numbered pages you want something dope to happen so people want to turn the page. And having good cliffhangers, you want people to want the next issue. Something cool has to happen. And learning pacing, which is something I’m still trying to do, especially when you move into an action sequence from talking. You want a couple panels on the page so your artist can go to town, and the audience can go through them quickly. If you want more of a slow burn, you sometimes want to add more panels.
This is all stuff I’ve learned through repetition. To get there, you have to fuck it up [laughs.]
CH: What have you been reading and watching? Does your media consumption mirror your work? Or are you just trying to raise your kids right now?
GS: Mostly trying to raise my children. I’ve been watching a lot of Transformers with my son. It’s not bad, but you can tell the age groups they’re directed towards. He’s six, and he doesn't want to watch the Michael Bay movies, which makes me extremely happy.
I just finished Doom Patrol. And I didn't know the second season was only nine episodes, and it made me so upset. Brendan Fraser is especially good as Robot Man.
CH: Anything else that you’d like to plug?
GS: The Yule anthology will go live on Kickstarter on the first Tuesday of April. We’re still working on when we’ll release Sidequest #3 on Kickstarter, but definitely this year. I’m really excited for it.
CH: All right, we did it friend!
GS: We did it!
CH: Thanks so much for taking the time, Grant.
GS: You bet, and thank you!