It’s been a long road for Matt Maxwell as he’s attempted to bring his graphic novel Strangeways: Murder Moon to the world. What started as a self-publishing endeavor found a home at Speakeasy … and if you’re familiar with their history, you can probably guess what happened next.
Matt first showed me some pages from Strangeways a little more than a year ago at WonderCon, and I knew then it was something I wanted to read. The book is finally out, having hit stores a couple of weeks ago, and Matt agreed to a Q&A on the new book, its history and what comes next for him.
JK Parkin: On your long journey to getting Strangeways: Murder Moon published, you made a stop at Speakeasy, who closed up shop, what, two years ago now? For those who may not be familiar with the situation, can you give us a rundown, from your perspective, on what happened with Speakeasy?
Matt Maxwell: Okay, as quick as I can make the rundown:
Originally, thanks to guys like Larry Young and James Sime, I’d gotten the idea to do Strangeways as an original graphic novel. I’d skip monthly publication altogether. The market conditions weren’t good for it (and they still aren’t really, but there seem to be a lot of houses giving it a try; more so now than then.) And when it came down to it, I wasn’t wild about serial publication for graphic novels. So I got a script, rewrote it after the first artist took a look at it, and started getting pages together.
Speakeasy Comics, at one time, offered a fairly standard deal which allowed creator-owned comics to come out much in the way that Image operated, where the team brings a book, pays a set fee which covers placement with Diamond and some marketing costs, and once those costs are made back after publication, the team gets to keep the profits. Assuming you made more than the costs of your listing with Speakeasy.
This looked at the time like a good deal, and I’d had an entré into Speakeasy which got me a break on their fees. Speakeasy approached me, as one of their guys had seen a version of Strangeways with different art, and had been intrigued. After he saw I was serious about finishing the book (the original artist bailed, leaving me with a handful of pages completed and his page rate up in smoke), he made the offer to give it a home there. Since Image had passed previous to this, I took Speakeasy up on their offer.
The first issue of Strangeways was completed, but somehow always managed to run into a snag at print time. I’d been continually assured that things were fine and there was nothing to worry about. This was after one of the books, Atomika, had left, and Frank Espinosa’s Rocketo was in the process of leaving Speakeasy. Those didn’t bother me as much as the repeated calls of “going to press next week” did.
Originally scheduled for a shipping date of around Halloween 2005 (check out the Newsarama interviews that are still archived somewhere), I found myself around that Christmas with no book and increasing signs that Speakeasy was not a healthy company. I called up Adam Fortier, then the head of Speakeasy Comics, and told him about my concerns with the book and the company and that I ultimately had to do what was best for myself and the work and pulled the book before it had been printed.
By that time, all four issues of the first arc (what would become Murder Moon) had been solicited and two had been prepped for the printer. But it just wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t interested in having half the story come out from Speakeasy (likely making me little or no money in the bargain) and having to finish the story by way of self-publishing single issues or finding another publisher. I suppose I could have put out the OGN then, but then I figured that there would be a lot of (rightfully) upset people that they had to buy material they already had purchased in order to get the whole story. And like I said, I’m not a huge fan of serial publication: readers want to get the story at once.
JK: Did you look for a new publisher before deciding to self-publish?
Matt: I took the book over to Image again, as there was a different artist attached this time, but they passed on it. I’d met Scott Allie at Dark Horse during a show in Seattle, and he liked the material, though not Luis’ art. So I had a (third) artist draw the first ten pages again to make a proper submission to Dark Horse. They passed, in time. I checked out a few other houses, but either I or they didn’t fit, so I went back to my original plan of putting out Strangeways as a series of OGNs.
And life proceeded to intervene for awhile before I could get back to getting the book on track. But I finally got things moving again towards the middle of last year.
JK: And how did you feel when the book finally hit stands?
Matt: Truth be told, I didn’t believe it was actually happening until it happened. Weird to say, I know. But there had been so many close calls and pitfalls that I pretty much didn’t let myself get jazzed about the book until I knew that it wasn’t going to be stopped. That and I’m a natural half-empty kind of guy, which is not the kind of attitude that you want to have as a self-publisher. There’s plenty of traps along the way; you don’t need to set any yourself.
I guess the biggest feeling I had was relief, once I saw it in a local shop.
JK: So what did you do the day it came out … any celebrating? Or just the realization that the work was just beginning?
Matt: I went out to sushi. Actually, that was the day after. The day of, I was watching my son, who was out on Spring Break, his sister and two cousins at the house. I know, real exciting, huh? I live the rock’n’roll dream.
Oh yeah, there was a realization that a lot more work lay ahead of me. Not the least of which was to finish the second book and to keep selling the first one. Like I said, it wasn’t necessarily crossing a finish line, but more like passing a mile marker on a long run. You can get a sense of accomplishment out of that, but if you stop then, you’re done.
JK: What’s the reaction been like so far?
Matt: Depends who you ask. Most of the reviewers I’ve found seem to get what the book was all about. There’s been some that left me scratching my head, but then there’s been some valid critique that I’ll be keeping at the back of my mind as I keep writing. I’ve gotten very positive reactions from readers, those who I’ve been in contact with, that is. A few have written via email, and that’s great to hear.
I was lucky enough to get some good response from writers whose work I enjoy greatly, like Jeff Parker and David Wellington who wrote the immensely entertaining Monster series. That means a lot, ’cause when you’re working in a vacuum, it’s easy to see the worst in the work and sometimes you wonder what the hell you’re doing. Like I said, “half-empty” isn’t a useful outlook in this field. So getting positive feedback is a big deal for me.
Equally as important are the reactions of shop owners who’ve ordered multiple copies and watched them move out the door. Hopefully that’ll continue as I keep getting the word out.
JK: We’ve linked to the preview pages you’ve been sharing over at your blog, but for those who missed them, what’s Strangeways about?
Matt: The short pitch for Murder Moon has been “Cowboys and Werewolves,” which is catchy and seems to hook a lot of readers. Of course, werewolves are only the beginning. But really, Strangeways is about Seth Collins and his travels through the haunted frontier West of the US in the years after the Civil War. Sure, there’s monsters and mayhem, but I try to keep characters at the center of all the stories: the good guys and the bad guys, and those in between.
I’d say Murder Moon is as much about the ties of family as it is about werewolves. Well, that and giving readers a good time.
JK: What does the title refer to, exactly – “Strangeways“?
Matt: The original title for the series was going to be Badlands, when I came up with it years and years ago. But that also turned out to be the title of a pretty darn good story by Steven Grant, so I abandoned it. I really wanted to have an emphasis on the region as much as the characters in it, so I was looking for a phrase that felt right, one that felt suitable to the time period and conveyed a sense of what the book was about. I ultimately settled for “Strangeways” as kind of a transmogrification of “weird” and “place”, but I can’t tell you exactly where it came from. I’d known vaguely of the prison in Manchester that shares the same name, and couldn’t rule out me hearing it first there and just having it bubble around in my subconscious until the time was right.
JK: So why a horror western?
Matt: I should also point out that when I was a big reader of The Sandman, I was awful fond of Neil Gaiman’s term “soft places” where the magical and mundane are allowed to collide, and that probably played a role in there somewhere.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite monster movies was Valley of the Gwangi, which featured cowboys trying to rope dinosaurs. And then there’s that Robert E. Howard cowboys/vampires story that made an impression on me.
Ultimately, though, I figured that the frontier must have been a very scary place for a lot of people. American folklore was always interesting to me as well, and in some ways, the West is kind of the ultimate American myth. So I just took tall tales and ran with them, sticking to the shadowy and chilling side of things. At least for now.
JK: What are some of your favorite horror stories – and conversely, westerns?
Matt: I’d been a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft for some time, but I doubt very much of that shows now. Lovecraft wasn’t worried about giving his characters a life beyond their plots, and his brand of horror is much more cosmic and expansive, when it isn’t just a simple loathing of The Other. Most of my interest in horror comes from film, really and artists like Cronenberg, Carpenter and Romero come to mind.
As for westerns, I’m a fan of the classics, John Ford, for instance. But I also really enjoy some of the “modern” (using the term loosely) takes such as The Wild Bunch, which is outstanding. Really what I like about most Westerns, aside from the setting, is the sense of the single figure being their own moral compass. There’s a lot in common between Westerns and “Noir” (as vague and nebulous as that term has become), but that’s often overlooked these days.
And I’d be remiss without mentioning Blueberry as an exceptional Western series. Same with The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2 for you Aussie/overseas readers). That’s as western as it gets.
I still need to see No Country for Old Men…
JK: “…the sense of the single figure being their own moral compass.” So tell us a little about your main character. Does he fit this description?
Matt: Seth Collins thinks he follows that description, that’s for sure. Now whether or not he actually does, or did, or is doing so to make up for something else, that’s an exercise best left up to the reader.
Collins is in the situation that he’s in for a reason; he’s where he is for a reason. Suffice it to say that Collins’ back story will get filled in over time, but that’s not the whole thing is it? I could talk endlessly about who he was in the time before Strangeways begins, but what’s really important is how that past shapes Collins’ actions as the story unfolds.
But yes, in many ways, I think there’s a lot that ties Collins in with the kind of traditional lone rider sorts of western stories, though he’s not exactly a Leone styled anti-hero, but he ain’t Tom Mix, neither.
JK: As a self-publisher, you’re not only on the hook for creating the book, but also getting it printed, working with Diamond, marketing the book, etc. How did you research that side of the business?
Matt: Research? You’re talking like I carefully planned this all out…
Well, I did, but the first thing you have to learn, once you’ve stopped doing your research, is that you have to be willing to chuck it all and roll with things as they happen. Of course, some people would argue that that sort of reactive activity is just a result of poor planning.
Not much has gone according to my plan, other than the book actually coming out. So if the idea was Step A, and the book being published was Z, well then I ran A-Z flawlessly. Except that I ended up back at A a couple of times, and I found interesting ways to make things happen in the wrong sequence.
As for the actual research, I did a lot of reading on various comics discussion boards and online fora. I’d say in particular the Isotope Lounge, back when it was on Delphi and still extant, was of particular importance. I came into online discussions just as the Warren Ellis Forum was shutting down, so there weren’t that many places to go for talk beyond “Could Thor beat Superman?” But back then, Larry Young dispensed some good information, and I picked up a copy of his True Facts on that basis. I also read over Brian Hibbs’ Tilting at Windmills and learned what I could there. Robert Scott at Comikaze in San Diego (where I shopped before I moved to the wilds of NorCal) helped a lot as well, though he and I didn’t always see 100 percent eye-to-eye on things. You can learn a lot from folks you don’t always agree with. Blind zealotry doesn’t help.
But beyond that, I talked to retailers whenever I could. Now, having set out to do Strangeways as a series of OGNs, I was already going against the grain, according to a lot of folks. So, much of the advice that I got on the Direct Market retail side of things was given from the standpoint of stores primarily selling periodicals written in a set of genres and at an audience I wasn’t necessarily aiming at. I took a lot of grains of salt and did the best I could to understand the DM perspective, even if that wasn’t the entirety of where my efforts were going.
Really, though, it’s an ongoing process.
JK: What lessons have you learned over the last couple of years in regards to that side of the business?
Matt: “Not enough” some would say, since I went ahead and ran with an off-genre project in an as yet nonstandard presentation. Actually it was pointed out that Murder Moon is off-size, being a true 7×10 format and not the “almost” 7×10 format of regular trades. Like I said, “probably not enough.”
Probably the biggest lesson was that actually writing the book is the easiest part of the project. Well, actually, the idea was the easiest. Writing wasn’t much harder than that, but without actually doing the writing, the idea is pretty useless. But after that, it’s dealing with the artists. Which really wasn’t that hard once I connected with Estudio Haus, the studio where Luis worked out of. They knew what they were doing and the basics of comics storytelling, so I didn’t have to break them in or anything. They understood that the whole point of the art was to actually make the events of the story come alive, not just to make pretty pictures.
But everything after that is a lot of work, a lot of determination. Strangeways went way past a “I want to do a comic project,” and that was years before the book actually came out. If you don’t learn how to deal with frustration and betrayed expectations, you’re not going to stick around. I’m not saying that I’m a poster-boy for a positive mental outlook, but I did get the project done.
The business nuts and bolts are just that. I was lucky in that I had a friend who could get me an introduction at Diamond. I was also lucky to have friends and artists who did some great art for the book. And really, if the book wasn’t any good, then all the connections in the world aren’t going to get it through Diamond’s channels.
Oh, and I learned that InDesign LIES about margin layouts. That or I just couldn’t set up the pages right…
JK: Now that it’s out, what’s next for you – more Strangeways, or something different?
Matt: Right now, more Strangeways. The second book is tentatively titled The Thirsty, and it’s plotted, mostly scripted, with art on one chapter done. Gervasio and Jok, who did the “Lone” backup feature for Murder Moon have signed on to do the main story in the next volume. Luis is interested in doing the backup feature for The Thirsty, but hasn’t been able to commit just yet. I’d love it if the next book was done in a year, but I’m not running it through the solicitation channels until the bulk of the art is done.
I’m looking into publishing it as a web serial first, the whole of the work, not just the first chapter. That decision hasn’t been made just yet, and nothing would go up online until I was sure we could stick to a schedule.
A lot of my time now is spent working on the publishing side of things, though. Things like securing bookstore distribution with Baker and Taylor and listing the Strangeways on Amazon (which I just did this morning; hopefully that runs through in short order.)
I haven’t had a lot of time for other writing projects, but there’s always a few things simmering on the back burner. Unfortunately, when it comes to my own work, I’m not the fastest writer out there. I have to get it plotted and actually figure out what the, y’know, story is going to cover. Once that’s done, I can usually work pretty quickly. But it takes time to put all the pieces into place, and distraction-free time is in short supply for me.
More from Matt on the web: