STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: AN INTERVIEW WITH THE CREATIVE TEAM OF ITHAQA
Comic Book Yeti contributor Alex Breen recently corresponded with writer, Michael Watson, artist, Theresa Chiechi, and letterer, Lucas Gattoni, about the Kickstarter comic, Ithaqa, to discuss their approach to creating a horror comic, along with the genesis behind the online stage play version of Ithaqa.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Michael, Theresa, Lucas, thank you for joining me today. Starting with the horror genre, what is it about horror stories that you enjoy the most, both as a fan and a creator?
MICHAEL WATSON: As a fan, it’s hard for me to articulate why I love it so much. Obviously, there’s the thrill of raw adrenaline that comes with a good horror film, but I think it’s also just something that really lights up my imagination. I want ghosts, spirits, other worlds, and souls to be real, so I seek those kinds of stories out. While I watch a lot of horror, I don’t watch a lot of serial killer content, haha, I already know those are real. As a creator, I think it’s my way of processing the horrors of the real world that we live in. I am equal parts in love with and afraid of the world we live in, and so I want to tell stories that reflect my terror, but that also depict characters banding together and finding ways to persist in spite of the horror and trauma they face. I’m (probably) never going to write a horror story where none of the characters are left standing because I’m not interested in telling stories that foster a sense of total hopelessness.
CBY: Michael, what was your scripting process like for Ithaqa? Was this research-heavy or did you let your imagination run wild?
MW: I both researched AND let my imagination run wild, haha. I’ve spent a lot of time combing through photographs of Ithaca in the 1920s, reading local histories, and talking to museum curators. I find that absorbing as many real world details as possible helps me ground the story. This makes it all the more unsettling when weird things begin to happen. I want the reader to wonder in the back of their minds if something like this could actually be going on. I also read a whole book on multiverse theory so I could build a ruleset for the types of magic that happen in Ithaqa. It was important to me that by opening the multiverse can of worms, I didn’t tell a story that was internally incoherent or accidentally meaningless.
"...I am equal parts in love with and afraid of the world we live in, and so I want to tell stories that reflect my terror."
CBY: During the series’ production, were there any adjustments the group needed to make to better work together as a team, or did you find yourselves clicking together right away?
MW: Every time someone new has come on we’ve clicked right away. Theresa (the artist) and I immediately bonded over our shared love of anime, horror, the tarot, and folklore in general. I write my scripts fairly specifically, panel by panel, and with as many visual references as I can find, she tells me she likes this, haha. Even though none of us have ever all been in the same room together, everything works seamlessly. Everyone is professional, and everyone is comfortable enough to tell each other if one aspect of the comic isn’t working. That probably happens most when Lisa (my editor) and I are going through a new version of a script, haha.
CBY: Theresa, what were some of your visual inspirations behind the art style for Ithaqa?
THERESA CHIECHI: I look to other cartoonists such as Alex Toth, Mike Mignola, and Becky Cloonan for inspiration for my art style; they all use black ink in such a skillful way to create beautiful compositions and draw the eye through the page. I think my love for anime peeks through in my style as well. In terms of creating the 1920s environment, I rely heavily on photo references I find through google and what Michael provides me.
CBY: Theresa, issue 4 was quite the trip, visually. I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it yet, but can you tell us about your approach to your pages in that specific issue?
TC: I was a little nervous about drawing some of the more abstract scenes in Issue 4 as my art style tends to be pretty straightforward. I made sure I had as many visual references as possible to give me ideas on how to render certain scenes and visuals. Michael brought up Devilman Crybaby as visual inspiration. I also found this awesome, psychedelic-looking comic from the 70s called “Agar-Agar” that helped a lot with inspiration on what direction I wanted to take the art style in. But even after all of the research, when it came to actually drawing the scenes, a lot of it came down to trying new effects and seeing what worked.
CBY: Michael, what brought about the idea of an Ithaqa stage play? Were there any differences in your approach to scripting Itahqa as a stage play vs. a comic?
MW: Desperation is what brought me to the idea of the Ithaqa Online ‘stage’ play, haha. I had my first ever book tour lined up for the comic, and it was going to coincide with my Kickstarter campaign in March of 2019 - then COVID happened. Basically with only 2-3 weeks notice, I realized that all my events were going to be canceled, and I had built the success of my Kickstarter around those events. Meanwhile, my brilliant editor, Lisa, is herself an actor, director, and playwright, and was undergoing a similar existential crisis as all theater began to shut down indefinitely. In our collective panic, we came up with the idea of turning Ithaqa into an online zoom play and then intercutting our actor’s performance with art from the comic.
SO many differences, hard to know where to start, but the biggest had to be my decision to turn the panel descriptions into a narrator/character (played by Masa Gibson). I tend to write my scripts in a fairly conversational manner, often musing to myself mid-sentence, or asking questions of Lisa or Theresa, or just into the void - and that conversational tone gave the panel descriptions enough of a personality for Masa to turn what could have been a boring necessity, into one of the more entertaining aspects of the production.
All 5 nights of our performance can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYuQC8Yjgmo&ab_channel=IthaqaComic, please give our show a watch!
CBY: Lucas, is there a specific genre you enjoy lettering in the most? The horror genre seems like it'd be especially enjoyable for letterers vs. a slice of life comic, for example.
LUCAS GATTONI: Oh for sure horror is up there on my favorite genres to letter! It usually requires a lot of expressive beats that need to be in tune with the art, and at the same time let the reader know how screeching a scream is, or where this squeaky sound is coming from. So that means there’s a lot of room for a letterer to shine! Also, I’m a horror buff myself so it was helps when one is invested with the story. As for lettering simpler genres, I call them my palate cleanser and I end up enjoying them a lot too!
CBY: Theresa, Lucas, can you walk us through some of the things you look for when reading a new script? Are there any red flags you look out for?
LG: In my case, I usually browse quickly for a script looking out for the amount of different lettering elements the future style will have. Some scripts only call for balloons, while some other have multiple captions (for locations, omniscient narrator, off-panel speakers), multiple other balloons (such as demons, monsters, aliens). That’s the first sign of how much previous design work a book will have. Then I also comb the script for SFXs, either if there’s too many (SFXs take time!) or none at all – a red flag on this case is if the writer has not written the specific SFX they need. As a letterer, I can come up with a couple of SFXs on the go, but writing several onomatopeias per page is time consuming and should be handled by the writer.
Also, SFXs that don’t have a clear origin can be tricky to design, so I always ask for clarification on those. Aside from that, I look for other technical red flags, like if there’s too many typos (if the script was not spellchecked, that means extra lettering revisions) or if the panels on a certain page of the script do not match the actual page configuration (which is quite common, but can be easily avoided if the writer edits the script after they get the artwork to correctly match any licenses the artist might’ve taken – it’s what we call a “lettering pass” of the script). I could go on for pages, but these are the ones that come to mind first.
TC: I make sure everything makes sense for the reader, that story clues are visually planted, that the amount of panels per page makes sense for the flow of the story. Translating a story into a comic script is not always easy; scene setups or transitions that work in movies might not work in comic form. A common occurrence when I’m looking at scripts is that writers sometimes forget that one action takes place per panel. Sometimes I’ll get panel descriptions with multiple actions listed in one panel and I have to ask, or determine, which is the most important action to focus on.
CBY: From your experiences working in comics, what are some of the qualities that make for a healthy collaboration?
MW: The ability to give and receive constructive criticism is everything. It can be very uncomfortable to be told or to tell someone else that something is not working, but it is absolutely vital. Personally, I’m so glad that our team is as large as it is, because it means each script has to pass a quality check between four people before we send it out into the world.
LG: Trusting your fellow collaborators is essential in my opinion; letting each of the team members make their own decisions on details, but at the same time being able to speak their minds and thus boost everyone’s work. Positive reinforcement and avoiding micro-managing are essential in my book too.
TC: I've been fortunate and have had the opportunity to collaborate with a lot of wonderful, talented writers. Communication is key; making sure we’re all on the same page about expectations for the project is really important. It’s my job to bring the writer's vision to life. The more that the writer describes what they’re envisioning and the more reference photos they provide, the easier it is for me to accomplish this.
CBY: Michael, now that Ithaqa is on its third Kickstarter as a series, what are some lessons you’ve learned about running a Kickstarter?
MW: Never stop collecting emails, give the comic away practically for FREE if you have to, to collect those emails, haha. I’d also say Kickstart at the lowest possible amount you can get away with, you really want to hit your goal within the first 12 hours of launch if you’re hoping to be boosted enough to reach people who don’t already know you.
My biggest mistake from our most recent ‘successful’ Kickstarter is that I felt that I had to go bigger than last time. We barely made our goal of $13,000, and didn’t bring in as many new readers as I would have hoped. I had to spend a very miserable 3 weeks getting scrappy as hell, doing live events, paying for every type of advertising possible, begging friends on social media, etc, and if I had decided to only fund 1 issue at a time I could have raised the money in the first 24 hours, and then we’d have been off to the races algorithm-wise.
CBY: Michael, what has your experience been like building the audience for Ithaqa? Do you have any marketing tips you can share with fellow creators?
MW: Whenever a new social media platform is launched, get in on it ASAP, you always want to be in on the ground floor, the longer you wait, the harder it will be for you in the future to break through. If Youtube decides they want to make SHORTS in order to compete with Tiktok, make some content because Youtube will be boosting those shorts to make you feel like you’re not wasting your time.
In more physical terms, ground yourself in the community where you are writing/creating. Get to know your local librarian, your local bookstore owner/workers. Get your work on the ‘local author’ shelf and ask to table at fairs or block parties. Organizing small local events has been really rewarding for me this year. I've been on comic panels at a local convention, I did signings in front of our local comic store, and I taught a ‘how to write comics’ mini-course at our public college.
One thing that it took me awhile to realize, is that local institutions have a budget and they need to fill space for events. The local librarian’s job is to ensure that there’s something happening every week of the summer, and while you may THINK you’re not qualified to teach comics, you are, and the fact is you’re doing them a favor. You’re one less slot they have to book.
CBY: Michael, how many issues will the story run? When and where can people pick up a copy of your comic?
MW: This first major story arc will comprise 13 issues, there are plenty more stories I want to tell in the Ithaqa universe, but this current arc witll have a satisfactory end by the 13th issue. We’re in local bookstores and comic shops in Hoboken, NJ, and Ithaca, NY. People can also buy physical or digital copies of the comic online at https://www.ithaqacomic.com/buy-the-comic. If anyone wants to ask their local comic shop to stock us, have them shoot an email to IthaqaComic@gmail.com, we’d love to get into more locations, and we do signings and events if I can reasonably drive there!
CBY: What are some of your favorite horror stories, in any medium, that’d you recommend readers to check out?
MW: It Follows is one of my favorite horror movies of ALL time. The recent adaptions of IT were fantastic as well. Reading-wise I am a HUGE Stephen King junkie, and if you want to read the most existentially terrifying sci-fi novel ever written, check out The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. That trilogy really messed me up, haha. In terms of video games, I would say my holy horror trinity is Bloodborne, Resident Evil 7, and Until Dawn.
LG: Oh my, I’ve always had problems picking favorites… The Walking Dead pops up immediately as it was one of the first horror comic books I really devoured, especially the first maybe 40-50 numbers, where any character could get the chop any time. Currently, my fave is the monthly anthology The Silver Coin by Michael Walsh and a multitude of writers; each issue is more enthralling than the previous one. Movies I have lots of faves, The Blair Witch Project was the scariest movie I’ve ever watched in a cinema. The original IT miniseries with Tim Curry’s Pennywise kept me insomniac for a couple of months during my childhood. Not sure if it counts but The Sixth Sense still gives me the shivers. The Orphanage, REC, The Others, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby… see I can go for hours. One of my favorite ones lately was Host – really simple but effective horror.
TC: I could be here all day recommending horror content; it’s all I consume! I really enjoyed Men, which came out this year, though it is not for the faint of heart. Some of my all-time favorite horror movies are Scream, It Follows, Hereditary, The Craft, and The Conjuring series.
CBY: Where can we find you on social media?
MW: @ithaqaComic across the board, including on Facebook, and I’m @MichaelDWatson1 on Twitter.
LG: @LetteringBear on Twitter @Lettering.Bear on Instagram
TC: Instagram & tik tok: @la.fumettista
CBY: Michael, Theresa, Lucas. Thank you so much for your time.