3 Million Years Interviews: Mike Jasper & Niki Smith of In Maps & Legends

Today marks the day of issue #3 of former Zuda hit and now digital sensation In Maps & Legends. If you haven’t read it already you can go to WOWIO, Comixology, Graphi.Ly, DriveThruComics, Android (Robot Comics), Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Longbox, MyeBook, MyDigitalComics and Scribd *Phew*

I am really pleased to bring this interview with writer Mike Jasper and artist Niki Smith who took the time to answer some of my questions!

Where did you inspiration for IM&L come from?

Mike: The comic started out life as a novel — I got a two-book deal with Prime Books when I sold them my novel A GATHERING OF DOORWAYS a few years back, but I didn’t have a second book handy. So I threw together some ideas and this one stuck — the image of a young woman working late at night, carving a map into the wall of her spare room. When the deal for the second book fell through due to the economy, I hung onto the idea (and my opening three chapters), just in case. I’ve always loved maps, especially those at the front of fat fantasy novels, and I wanted to use maps as the cornerstone of my plot.

How does your scripts/art relationship work – are the scripts more descriptive, like Alan Moore, or less so?

Mike: As this is my first comic script, I’ve been learning every step of the way. I’m figuring out when to be verbose and when to let Niki take over with her design and visual skills. I try not to get too technical with camera angles and so forth, but just describe what I see in my mind’s eye for each panel — who’s in the panel, what are they doing, what’s in the background. After I have the script put together and polished, I send it to Niki, and she sends me her questions, suggestions, and comments before she starts thumbnailing. I also send lots of links of settings, objects, and other visual cues to help Niki flesh out the look of the comic.

Niki: There have been a few instances where he’ll draw a rough thumbnail of how he wants the page to look, but normally he’ll just set it up panel-by-panel and leave the layout to me. And more than long Alan Moore-esque description, photo references are a huge help!

How do you find writing/drawing for the mobile/digital medium? Were there any restrictions or any extra freedoms?

Mike: Some of the restrictions come from the format imposed on us from Zuda Comics, which provided the genesis of this whole project — they used a horizontal format, 4:3, which to me is like a double-page spread of a traditional comic. It feels like we have more room to move, though I’m trying my best not to cram 8 panels into every page. I don’t really think there are any major restrictions other than the horizontal format, which has caused some issue with various sites used to the traditional, vertical comics setup.

Niki: We work horizontally, which is the biggest difference. But the pages fit most monitors perfectly (and e-readers and iPads, just rotate the device and voila!), so there’s no scrolling involved like when you’re reading a traditional comic on your monitor. It took some getting used to in the beginning, getting layouts to flow well– and there’s not a lot of space to show a body head-to-toe, for example. Other than that it’s pretty traditional– mostly due to our Zuda origins and their strict guidelines. If we’d aimed for a variety of mobile/digital devices from the start, I would have allowed myself to experiment much more.

Mike – How did you find writing a comic over your novel work?

Mike: Scripting a comic has been a blast, because I’ve been reading comics for decades, and I’ve always wanted to try it, but never took the time to learn it, and never had a compelling story I wanted to tell in comic form. I think writing comics has helped me with writing my novels, too — because comics are so visual, writing one is training me to always be thinking of the setting and character’s actions. With novels you can cheat a bit by having more internal monologue and not a lot happening — too much of that in a comic and the reader will lose interest. That said, in many ways, novels are easier, because it’s just me doing all the work, but that can also be a curse — I get lots of great feedback from Niki on the script and characters with each issue (which I wouldn’t get if I were going it alone with a novel).
How did you feel when Zuda closed?

Mike: Ah, that was a bad day. We’d had hints of what their demise, but we were hoping for the best. It would’ve been much less stress for both of us (and our families!) if Zuda had continued on, and we could’ve leisurely posted one page of MAPS each week for the next year or so. But going digital, with 22 pages every 6 weeks, really pulls the story together for us, forces us to keep on our toes, and helps us keep our momentum. It’s a rollercoaster ride compared to a slow stroll through the countryside.
What are your thoughts on digital comics as a medium?

Mike: I think digital comics are in the process of changing the nature of the comics industry, just as ebooks are currently doing to the traditional publishing of non-graphic novels. As more and more people pick up Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, or get used to reading on their phones or computers, more comics made for those platforms will get sold. And I think this digital trend will hook people who used to read comics but dropped them, or people who’ve always been curious about comics but never read them. All the comics-related movies helps immensely, too, to create new comics readers. Digital opens a lot of doors, and not just in America or the UK, but all around the globe. I for one don’t want to buy any more single issues in print that I’ll just recycle in a week or two — I’ll do my reading on my phone or computer, via Graphic.ly or Comixology, or any of the other distributors out there.

Niki: I love ’em! There are so many more opportunities for an impulse buy, and GREAT opportunities for the indie creator.

What made you choose digital distribution over looking for a print solution?

Mike: Print is still a viable option for us, and in a way that’s the desired outcome when we’re all done. But we’d essentially be doing it as print-on-demand and distributing it ourselves, which isn’t worth the effort.  We’ve gotten so much more exposure working with all the various online distributors, all of whom are very open to indies like us. Hook ’em with the digital version, and they’ll come back to buy the trade paperback version. Or so we hope…

Niki: There aren’t a lot of options out there for creator-owned comics. We started out digital and it seemed only natural to stay that way. Print may come eventually but it was designed for screens and I’m fine with that!

What sort of response did you get from the digital publishers? Were there any difficulties?

Mike: We’ve had really great cooperation and enthusiasm from all the digital publishers we’ve worked with on a one-on-one basis. Some places, like Scribd or Myebook, don’t require us to talk to anyone — we just upload issues of our comics, and we’re done. But the people at places like Comixology, Graphic.ly, Robot Comics, and LongBox have really helped us out and given us incredible support. The only real difficulty we’ve encountered is the iTunes Store from Apple, which feels the need to review each issue of our comic before allowing our distributors to make that issue available for download via iTunes; as a result, there’s sometimes a time lag thanks to Apple’s review process.

Niki: So far it’s been really great working with the various distributors. Many of them are still young and working out their own kinks, so there’s that to deal with, and like Mike said, one of the biggest frustrations is how hard it can be to get a simultaneous release date set-up.

Have you had any figures back from issue #1? Were there any surprises?

Mike: We’ve gotten sales figures back from over half of our distributors, and I think the biggest surprises have been the brisk sales of the PDF version at DriveThruComics (another site that’s really thrown their support behind us in a big way), and the kind of explosive sales coming from Pub-It, the Barnes & Noble publishing arm that distributes our comic for the Nook. Almost 25% of our sales (that we can track, that is) have come from the Nook, and we just started selling it there in mid-October.

Niki: It’s surprising, but great to see, how many eReader-owners are interested in purchasing comics for the nook or Kindle! I suppose it shouldn’t be as surprising, though– these are people used to purchasing digital books, unlike, say, someone who thinks webcomics should be free and doesn’t want to pay for something on Comixology’s viewer.

IM&L is one of the few titles to be released across so many mediums – did this cause any issues with distributors?

Mike: No issues at all, other than the issue with the Apple Store. All our distributors realize the emergence of digital comics, I think, and how hungry readers are to have comics to read on their chosen device or through their favorite digital storefront. We’ve gotten generous royalty rates — most of them between 50% and 70%, which is just fantastic — and again, great support from all distributors.

IM&L has been well marketed over the digital medium, and I noticed on Mike’s blog a post on digital marketing – was this something new? and how difficult was it getting the word out?

Mike: Digital marketing is pretty knew to me, but I’m learning fast. And trying not to be too annoying on Twitter and Facebook when I’m wearing my marketing hat. I’ve learned that there are many niche sites out there, and each is very good at doing one or two really good marketing things for us. Places like PRlog.com (electronic press releases and a digital press room), Project Wonderful (targeted graphic ads for other sites), TopWebComics (economically priced banner ads), and comics news sites like yours all work together to spread the word and hopefully generate interest and enthusiasm in each issue. It’s a lot of work, staying on top of all those sites and managing the flow of information — more than I’d ever imagined. But it’s worth it, in the end.

Niki: Since I’m busy doing all the art, colors & lettering, Mike’s agreed to take on much of the marketing, which I appreciate enormously! It’s a good split of our energy– he gets the scripts to me and I spend the time producing to meet our steady deadline, while he makes sure the word gets out and we don’t get lost in the ever-changing internets.

Are there going to be any future comics digitally, outside of IM&L?

Mike: Oh man, I can’t even think about any other project right now, as I’m in the middle of a marathon scripting period this month and next to get the last few issues of the first story arc put together. I’d love to do something new, though, something shorter, like a mini-comic or a one-shot type of thing. I wrote a prose story that’s a sort of prequel to IM&L that might work nicely as an 8-page comic, for example. And yeah, I’d love to dive into a new comic project altogether — something brand new and off-beat as usual. Ask me again in a few months, okay? Right now, all my creative sparks are going to feed the fire of IM&L.

Niki: I would love to, though I’m not sure what kind of project I’d like to work on next. I have a few of my own in the works, but they may be print (and publisher) based instead. But who knows! Digital comics can grow in so many ways and do so many new things.

What can we expect in the future from IM&L?

Mike: Issue 3 comes out on December 1st, and it’s our most action-packed issue yet — you can expect to see some airship battles, some more weird tech-magic and cartomancy, and more chaos on the dying world Kait and her friends have found themselves visiting. Some mysteries about the past get answered, while more mysteries arise. Old friends leave, new friends enter. And so on. Plus some of the best art I’ve seen yet from Niki — and that’s just issue 3. Can’t wait to share more with you all! Thanks so much for your time and questions.

Niki: Issue 3 in December, then seven more issues after that! We promise not to leave our readers hanging.

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