WPR Interview – David Server & Jackson Lanzing of Freakshow

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Freakshow #1 debuted last month from Ape Entertainment. Written by David Server and Jackson Lanzing with art by Joe Suitor, the first print has already sold out. It has also been announced that a film adaptation in the works by Thor screenwriter, Mark Protosevich. I was able to speak with David and Jackson recently by phone. They are both in the film industry but have a love affair with comic books on the side. The interview was quite revealing into the specifics of putting a book together and getting it sold. Comic writers and artists should read their words and take note.

Along with Freakshow, David and Jackson also write the Penguins of Madagascar comic book for Ape. Now before you go scoffing at a book for younger readers, know that these guys believe in what they do. As Mr. Lanzing said to me, “Those who are working in kid’s comics right now are the people who are influencing the minds that will be reading comics in twenty years. Without that medium, you are not going to see a growth in this industry.”

WPR: How did each of you get your start in the artistic or writing world?

David: I actually started in this field because I moved from Boston to Los Angeles for USC film school. I’d been reading comic books since I was a kid. I didn’t really know how it was going to figure into the rest of my life creatively. Frankly, it was only after investigating places to go to school that I first thought of film school as even an option. In doing that and guiding my life towards Los Angeles and towards entertainment, it provided a great opportunity to bring comic books into the equation as I got more into filmmaking and creative writing. I was introduced to a lot of my best friends in the industry. That is actually is how I met Jackson.

Jackson: I had wanted to be a writer. There didn’t seem to be anything else that really fit. I did a lot of acting when I was a kid. I decided pretty early on that I didn’t want to be an actor. You hear all the horror stories about it. It wasn’t really my interest. Writing was the best of both worlds. I got to use those muscles that put you into the head of a character, but do it without having to stand in front of a bunch of people and worry about form or any number of things you have to worry about when you act. I had been writing scripts since I was thirteen, when I wrote my first feature. You write all that crap when you’re young so you can get it out. By the time I’d gotten out of High School I’d written a couple of features, some plays that had been performed around Boston. Pretty late into high school I had gotten back  into comic books (I say “back” because I was into them as a kid). Then they killed Superman and The Clone Saga happened and I was done. I totally ditched the medium. I came back to it because of Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison and a lot of the more interesting work that was coming out in my absence. I went back and started my hand at writing comics that way. I had written a spec-comic that I gave to David in our first meeting.

WPR: So, did you guys meet at school?

David: Actually, it’s funny, we of all things both grew up in Boston but didn’t know each other. It was only a while after we met that we even realized that we’d spent all that time kind of living parallel lives. Like Jack had mentioned, when we connected I had been reading comics for years. The X-Men are something I’ve been obsessed with since I was a kid and that brought me to the more modern stuff. I read Watchmen right before I moved to Los Angeles and that was very mind expanding. I was working on a mutual friend’s film shoot and one of us mentioned The Ultimates and the other just purred. It immediately became that thing where I was supposed to be doing sound design and Jack were you doing light? What were you doing there?

Jackson: Yeah, I was the gaffer. I was doing the light.

David: And we both got so distracted that we had to (as comic book fans do) table our conversation and be like “Listen, this movie is never going to get done if we have the conversation that we both want to have.” So we immediately set plans to have lunch the next day. At that lunch Jack told me about the comic he’d written, which was really cool. I’m certain it will still be published someday.

WPR: What was it?

Jackson: The book is called Proletariat. It’s a political/superhero/post-cold-war/spy story. I’m still working on that in the back. It’s not contained like Freakshow. It’s more of an ongoing. Unfortunately when you’re a first time writer they don’t give you an ongoing.

(Everyone laughs)

WPR: Freakshow—it’s a three issue mini-series. It is self contained. Are there future plans for it with its success?

David: Our plan has always been that we had one story that we really wanted to tell with these characters and in this universe. There’s an ending to the story which doesn’t mean that no more stories can be told in this world. We made a very conscious choice, knowing, as Jack mentioned, as new creators we wouldn’t get access to an ongoing or anything longer than a maximum of six issues. So we made a choice to say, “Let’s tell this story. Let’s tell it fully.” Everything we love about these characters and this particular part of the saga. And if this is something people want more of we know what we can do.  We wanted to feel comfortable that for whatever reason, be it the marketplace, fan-response or whatever happened, we could feel happy that we got our statement out. We told the story that we wanted to tell.

WPR: So you have a beginning, middle and end. It was a double-size issue right? It was somewhere nearing fifty pages. Are they all going to be that long?

Jackson: The first issue was forty-eight pages. The second and third issue are both at thirty-two. They’re a little bit shorter, but they’re still at ten pages over what your getting regularly.

WPR: So it’s almost like your getting five issues worth of material.

Jackson: That was the great thing about the opportunity that was offered to us at Ape. As I said and David hit on, when you’re young and just staring out in the industry you aren’t afforded the opportunities that bigger writers are. You don’t get a six issue mini-series. You certainly don’t get twelve. Well, we had planned this for twelve issues initially. We quickly realized we weren’t going to get that, so we took it down to eight. Then we were like, “Ah, we’re not going to get that either,” so we took it down to six and we pitched it as six. When we came up against the reality of the marketplace, what we found was that three issues was what we could get out and feel safe that we could sell. We never expected it to sell out, but we expected to sell good enough numbers. We realized we could sell three issues but get a really large page count so at the end of the day when we go to create it feels more substantial. We did get the space of five issues. Ape was really great about putting that together for us, allowing us to go that extra mile and putting that book on the shelves the way they did. I’m very happy with the page count we got because it made us look at our dynamics and make every scene matter. There wasn’t a lot of fat. I think that ended up leading to a book that felt more deliberate.

WPR: I think all first issues should be double-sized. I enjoyed that. I didn’t realize it was fifty pages and I thought it was getting close to a cut off point but I got double the story.

David: It was nice for us. We knew going into it we had an ambitious story. Jackson and I are both really into mythology, not in the sense of sword & sorcery but having a lot of background to our story lines. We wanted to come into a world where some things had already gone down. We wanted it to feel fully realized and then get off and running. As a writer having the opportunity to have that much space in a first issue is a tremendous benefit. It allowed us to get the message across and have some quieter moments to get beats. They give a greater sense of depth to the characters. We could give certain information and let some moments play out naturally. We were thrilled about Ape’s perspective on this.

WPR: What comes to mind is the scene with Critter roaming the hallways and his quiet vignettes. That definitely couldn’t have happened in a twenty-two page opener.

Jackson: I agree. That was a big thing for us.

WPR: How did you connect with Ape Entertainment?

Jackson: Once we had found Joe we put together a pitch packet. This is sort of “comics 101.” If you’re trying to sell a book that no one’s ever seen, you have to show something that can be made. You put together generally four or five pages of finished artwork, lettering, your script, character designs, character biographies, story synopsis and put it all into a nice little packet. You try to get that out to as many editors and publishers that will look at it. We went out and pitched it around San Diego Comic-Con; again “comics 101”—don’t do that. Comic-Con is the busiest day in the world and there’s no way you’re going to get a word in edgewise with any editors. Fortunately one of the co-owners and co-publishers of Ape, David Hedgecock, had actually lettered our pitch packet as a favor. Joe had set up a book at Ape called Monoluminant and a couple of other projects. David Hedgecock had lettered the pitch packet as a favor to Joe. At the end of the show at San Diego he came up to us and said, “Why didn’t you pitch to us?” We were like, “We figured you lettered the book. If you wanted it you would’ve said it.” And they said, “We’d like to publish the book.” A couple weeks later we signed a deal with them.

WPR: Where did you find Joe?

David: That was actually an interesting and cool process but it took several months. We had a good friend from USC Film School, Hanae Rivera, that did some initial designs for us. Ultimately she ended up moving back to Northern California. For time purposes we agreed we would look for someone else to do the interior art. We went through a months long exhaustive process trying to find someone that fit properly. The internet is tremendous for that. There’s so many thousands of people out there that haven’t broken in yet. They’re just looking for an opportunity. So Jack and I spent a lot of time on Deviant Art, Conceptart.org, and a lot of portfolio sites. We found some really great artists—some people we’d both be interested in finding other projects for but we had set such a specific tone that we needed to find someone that could cover everything. It wasn’t until we started looking at the personal blogs of artists we loved that we found something really cool.  Most famous established artists at Marvel or DC with a personal art blog, have half the links on their sites to creators that are known. The other half are links to people that they have found and and think are really talented but haven’t broken yet. We were on Sean Galloway’s blog and he had a link to Joe. We found his blog and it showed an ability to do all the stuff we really needed. His designs were lanky and had a kind of creepy quality. The characters in Freakshow have been out in the dirt and muck. They’ve been grimy. Joe had that vibe. He also had the ability to do bigger more muscular stuff from the superhero mold. We knew right away between that and his tremendous color palette that he was the perfect guy for it. He lived in Long Beach which was better than the guys we had been looking at that lived in like Korea—which would never work right. His favorite restaurant was five minutes from our house. We were like, “This is too good to be true.” Our first meeting we knew it was going to work out. We actually got our first design from him within twenty-four hours.

WPR: How does working with a co-author work specifically? How do the technical aspects play out?

Jackson: I had never done it before I worked with David. Before it was like, “my stuff is my stuff.“ Working with a co-writer forces you to rethink that core truth. It makes you start to look at writing as less like an art-form in some degree and more as a craft. Between the two of you, you are trying to make something work. The way that we did it in terms of process, evolved. Initially David hadn’t done a lot of solo writing and that was the only thing that I was doing. David wanted to work with me because I was ready to go. We sat down and paneled out the book’s structure. Then I would take that and give it a script. Issue one was essentially scripted by me. Then David would go through a notes process with me much like a director would. Until we got to issue two where his direction became more specific and he would just write a scene. By issue three we had started in on Penguins and we would write half the book each, go back and do notes, and basically do a rewrite on each other’s pages. As long as you trust that the other writer is better than you, it’s not so bad. On Freakshow I had full trust that David knew these characters as well as anybody possibly could. I would never be steered in a wrong direction.

David: As someone who loves the medium I wanted to get in there and create something. A lot of people have struggled to find a good match. I understand why because you really need to be on the same level in so many departments. I feel so lucky I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with Jack. We have the same interests but we can be drawn to very different things. I think that’s part of what makes the book work so well. We both get what it’s supposed to be but we’re playing slightly different tunes. It’s like a symphony.

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