Digital comics have opened the doors for all kinds of storytelling — both for creators and readers — allowing unique series to gain loyal fans around the world. One such story is Valentine, by Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen. Available in at least 16 languages and downloaded more than 350,000 times, this supernatural historical thriller is coming to print October 3 from Image Comics!
We had the chance to conduct a lively interview with writer Alex de Campi, who was happy to be open about the struggles of self-publishing, the joys of the sequential arts, and the frustration she feels with the Big Two publishers.
The opinions expressed below are those of Ms. de Campi and do not reflect the views of Things From Another World. WARNING! There is some adult language in this interview.
As the mightiest army in the world is pitilessly ground into dust by the Russian winter, two soldiers, lost in a blizzard, are given a package by a dying general. Suddenly the young soldiers find themselves hunted by relentless, blood-eyed monsters out of their worst childhood nightmares. Make sure to pre-order your copy of Valentine: The Ice Death, collecting the first 10 chapters of the series and including an exclusive, print-only 42-page bonus story drawn by Cassandra James!
TFAW.com: What are your earliest memories of comics? What was the first comic you read?
Alex de Campi: Gosh. I did some fast living in my 20s and I have a lot fewer “earliest memories” than I used to. I can, however, remember the lyrics to a number of truly dreadful pop songs in their entirety. My first comics were probably Asterix and then Elfquest, which I totally loved, being a massive fantasy/sci fi nerd.
Eventually that moved on to X-Men, which my mom would buy me off the spinner rack in the drugstore to keep me quiet. I think that was mid-Claremont years, just before or just after the whole Dark Phoenix saga. I looooved Punk Storm. She was the best. She had a leather jacket and a mohawk! How cool was that? And she didn’t take any shit from anyone. In one issue she even quoted King Lear. To this day, most of the Russian I know is from Colossus’ dialogue. I also watched a ton of anime on the local TV stations — Star Blazers, and the one with the four space pilots whose outfits were sort of like birds.
TFAW.com: What inspired you to become a writer, and when did you first begin to explore that creative outlet?
AdC: Like a lot of little kids, I would read or listen to stories and then daydream about being the main character, or being a new character who was somehow more awesome and soon indispensable to the main characters — their new best friend. Or who convinced the bad guy to be a good guy. And I got into role-playing games, which are sort of another gateway drug to making up stories (you’re either making up a character, or making up the plot for other people’s characters). Most kids eventually stop doing this. I didn’t. And eventually, voila, original stories.
By then I had moved on to soaking up a lot of poetry and big modernist literary novels, which is where my writing influences mainly stem. I’ve sadly lost touch with a lot of prose sci-fi and fantasy, and I’d like to get back into it. I have less tolerance for bad stuff now, and zero tolerance for 5,000-page epic series.
TFAW.com: Can you introduce us to Valentine?
AdC: The book is a big fat pulp supernatural thriller that will take you places you can never expect. It’s an unexpected twist or a battle scene or both every few pages; the pace is relentless. The title character, Valentine, is a soldier during Napoleon’s horrifying, tragic retreat from Russia in winter 1812 (spoiler: everybody dies).
He ends up in the middle of a plot by two supernatural groups stuck on Earth after the magic went away, to open portals back to their homeworlds. Honestly? He would have been better off freezing to death along with the other 90% of Napoleon’ army. The story is, however, in no way a historical thriller. All the historical stuff is super accurate because I’m secretly a big military history nerd, but 1812 is just the start of the story.
TFAW.com: Valentine originated as a digital comic, but will soon be a trade paperback from Image Comics. What was the experience like, moving from digital to print?
AdC: Crazy! Especially as Valentine is optimized for phones, so it is panel by panel, with each panel fully the size of a smartphone screen. You know how most comics are cut up kinda weird to read on phones? Well I had to do the exact opposite . . . take all these mainly same-size landscape panels and create dynamic portrait-format pages with them. Every page had to be laid out . . . not anew, because Valentine never had pages to begin with. I had to create pages from scratch.
TFAW.com: Looking back over the first 10 chapters, what are you proudest of? Would you make any changes?
There’s so much I’m proud of in the first 10 episodes. Christine’s art; Tim’s colors . . . the many, many cliffhangers and unexpected twists . . . the kiss scene is especially beautiful. The Chapter 8 twist you will hate me for but I love. The way we take a lot of traditional fantasy tropes and totally upend them in Chapter 7.
As for changes, we sadly lost all the original layered art in a hard drive crash. I really wish we still had that, as we’d then be able to go back and do some cool stuff with the series as (if!) we get funds to upgrade . . . have snow actually falling, fires flickering, etc. Subtle, looped effects that would raise the sense of atmosphere.
TFAW.com: You made an unusual move when you created Valentine by offering it in about 16 languages. What prompted that?
AdC: I have a lot of friends whose first language is something other than English. And I’ve lived in a lot of parts of America where there are significant Spanish-speaking communities (HOLLA, South Bronx! ¡Ti amo!) It takes forever for series to be picked up and translated, thanks to the archaic and territorial setup of the publishing industry. So we thought, fuck that, Spanish from Day 1! And we’ve been totally justified.
We get 150% more downloads in Spanish on Comixology than we do in English. French downloads are about 50% of English numbers, so still very respectable. Overall, between Comixology and the sadly now defunct Valentine app run by Robotcomix and Kindle, we’ve done over 350,000 downloads worldwide. And I still can’t find a digital publisher interested . . . rassum frassum . . .
TFAW.com: How has your experience been as a female creator in the comics industry?
AdC: It’s totally not a big deal until the moment it is, and then I’m just gobsmacked that it can even be an issue at all any more, here in an age where we’re landing on the moon and building electric race cars. I mean, I have an androgynous name, and I write mean action books that are enjoyed by male readers just as much as female ones. But every so often I run into the feeling that I can’t write this/go there/publish at this place because I am female and therefore not welcome. Or that no publisher will be interested in this female-lead story because “women don’t buy comics” (other than manga). Or there’s just some headshaking bit of misogyny or terrible anatomically twisted tits n’ bum art or something else, and I just sigh, “really, comics?” and walk off to make a cup of tea and write mean stories in my notebook.
TFAW.com: What’s your favorite part of telling stories in the sequential arts?
AdC: The unlimited budget for spectacle contained in what to many is a plain white rectangle of paper. Giant space battle? We can do that. Tender scene in kitchen talking about feelings? Yup, that too. Dinosaurs? Well, how many would you like, madame director? How about on Mars? With Nazis? Done! But all that spectacle means nothing, it is just hollow Potemkin towns, unless you can and do unexpectedly reel it back in to quiet, human moments where terrified people, who are suffering more than you do, make desperate decisions. There’s a lot of that in No Mercy, the series I’m sketching out at the moment.
TFAW.com: What aspect of comics have you struggled with, as a creator?
AdC: Just, the whole way the mainstream is set up. The indy publishers have made amazing strides in the past few years and are so tremendously supportive of new creators with different stories. Yet still, DC and Marvel have less than 5% of their output written or drawn by women. Seriously, the construction industry employs more women on building sites than DC and Marvel do to write or draw stories.
The answer many give is, why should this matter? DC and Marvel are certainly dinosaurs, who cares what they produce? Quite a lot of people. And big movie studios. And that production, even when edited by women, can and does regularly veer into the racist, misogynistic and homophobic, and there is very little way to counterbalance that without a more diverse group of voices creating those stories. Kids read this stuff!
We should be much more conscious of the values espoused in superhero comics. Of course, since the GOP is debating something called “legitimate rape” (as opposed to “she was asking for it rape”), maybe there is no hope for us all and I am simply tilting at windmills.
Also, from a strictly financial standpoint, a gig at one of the big two (and its inflated paycheck) is what pays for many creators to take time off and do original stories. It also builds a big fanbase and retailer support for those original stories. And it’s not like female creators don’t reach out to the big two. Hell, I spent nine months emailing DC editor Bobbie Chase on Scott Lobdell’s kind and enthusiastic introduction. How far did I get? Nowhere.
I think another thing that infuriates me is people telling me how lucky I am to be able to self publish. These people, of course, have never actually self published themselves. They are usually “pundits,” which is what bloggers call themselves when they tip over into a certain overweening sense of self-importance. Self publishing is a horrible pain in the arse and makes me do jobs I hate and am not good at: marketing, book layout, distribution, and so forth, and denies me the services of people that secretly make books awesome: editors, designers, and so forth. I don’t want to self-publish.
But some of my books, there is no market for them. Margaret the Damned, my big literary horror graphic novel… ain’t nobody for that. Valentine, even. 350,000 downloads and no one to help me do more of the book. So we’ll have to do a Kickstarter to get the last 14 episodes of Valentine done. I am not looking forwards to another soul-destroying two months of panhandling along the information superhighway.
TFAW.com: What was the last comic you read?
AdC: The last comic I read and loved was the first Fatale trade, by Brubaker/Phillips. It’s really faultless. So many comics these days, I want to just reach in and adjust things, like walking into a house where all the pictures are crooked. Not this one. Also, one of the best and most prismatic female characters to come along in an age. I also picked up the Beasts of Burden trade by Dorkin/Thompson. It’s been out for a while, but dodgy personal finances meant I haven’t been buying books or comics for a long time. I have so much time for Dorkin’s work. If life were fair, people would literally be giving him and Jill Thompson a tickertape parade through New York where we all throw fistfuls of money down to let them do whatever they want. There’s an undercurrent of darkness in all of Dorkin’s work that really helps the stories shine, and of course Thompson’s watercolors are peerless.
TFAW.com: Whose work had an influence in your writing?
AdC: Oh, if I could write as well as Thomas Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy, I’d be a happy gal. Cormac McCarthy taught me about straight lines; Pynchon taught me how to throw a curveball.
TFAW.com: What comics would you recommend that readers check out?
AdC: Other than the aforementioned, I adore Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting books. And pretty much everything Naoki Urasawa’s ever done. Erm, that’s it, really. I’m dead flat broke and hardly ever have the money to buy comics, so I haven’t really stayed current!
Our sincere thanks to Alex de Campi for the thought-provoking interview! Make sure to pre-order your copy of Valentine: The Ice Death now.
What do you think about Alex’s account of self-publishing? Post your comments below!