In this interview series, I speak with other comic creators to learn about their work! Here, I have a discussion with Sarah Roark of After Daylight.
Travis Blair: Sarah! First off, congratulations are in order for the Kickstarter success. How’s it feel to get volume 1 of After Daylight funded to print?
Sarah Roark: Thank you very much for the congratulations! It definitely feels like finishing a long uphill haul and raising your fists triumphantly to the sky…aaaand then looking down and seeing that that’s just the first hill in a series. 😀 Honestly, I think the only people who would really enjoy running a Kickstarter during the campaign itself are adrenaline junkies, folks who thrive on the thrill of uncertainty. For a neurotic writer/artist like me, it’s more like slow torture. Especially in those middle weeks. But having finished it, and having successfully funded, is extremely gratifying on at least two counts. One: I’ve proved to myself that I can do this part of the emerging business model, which is very important. Indie comics creators have to wear a lot of hats (at least until and if that day comes when they make enough extra money to outsource some stuff). So some of my feeling now is “okay, great. That’s not a hat I enjoy wearing, but I can wear it, which means I can crowdfund my print runs. Go me!” Two: it’s been really heartening and encouraging to see all the love that comes out during a Kickstarter. So much of what we do is solitary and a lot of the time you don’t really know how you’re landing out there — but this is a time when fans who’ve been enjoying a comic can not only express their appreciation, but materially help their favorite creators’ works come to be; and fellow creators show a slightly different, but also very valuable, kind of support for their friends and their community. I guess what I’m saying is WARM FUZZIES FEEL NIIIICE.
Travis: Well I’m glad to hear it! I bet the project was quite the ride. You create a quality comic, and I’m glad to see that it’s going to be in peoples’ hands in a tangible form. So, what’s the transition like moving on to volume 2?
Sarah: Honestly? After the stress of the Kickstarter, returning to a weekly page deadline is going to feel like greeting an old familiar friend. It sounds like heaven to me right now. Yeah, I’m sure you could ask me again in a few months and I’ll have done a 180 on that, but right now I can’t wait to get Volume 2’s story started! However, it is going to have to wait just a little longer, until after the book is off to the printer’s — because there’s a multi-week wait for the book to come back from the printer’s, so I want to get that in the queue first thing. Then, assuming the proof-checking process doesn’t reveal any seriously delaying revisions that need to happen (which is always possible, alas), I intend to split my time between readying Volume 2 to launch — and it’ll update weekly for free on the web, by the way, just as Volume 1 did — and working on my voluminous inbox of special Kickstarter commissions such as marker portraits.
(Thank you for the compliment, also! I really try to put out the kind of work I feel readers deserve. ^^)
Travis: There really is a lot involved in the process! I’m looking forward to seeing the launch of Volume 2, but totally understand that you need to focus on printing. What would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered when taking your webcomic from the screen to pages?
Sarah: I would say it’s the juggling of multiple details. I’m an obsessive, which lends itself well to creating pages. Making a page is a predictable pipeline for the most part — you script and thumbnail, you pencil, you ink, you marker/shade, you scan, you digitally edit and panel out, you letter — rinse and repeat. There’s a lot of details to handle, but they mostly come at you one at a time and in logical order. But pricing a book’s print run, working out the math on a Kickstarter, talking to potential print vendors, settling technical details, learning publishing layout software, checking on specs and actually putting the thing together are a bunch of fiddly, only marginally similar tasks that still have to fit together. Just dealing with the sense of overwhelm and breaking it down into one bite at a time is probably the biggest challenge. I know it’ll get done if I just keep moving forward, but in the opening phases it feels a little bit like looking at the garage you haven’t cleaned out in 15 years and not even knowing where to begin!
Travis: But at the end of the day, everything is stowed in labeled boxes and your space is productive! I want to know about the writing that goes into After Daylight. How do you go about progressing the story? Moleskine journals labeled by chapter, perhaps?
Sarah: AHAHAHA if it were anything that classy. Maybe I should just lie? Sometimes I do still write things longhand, in whatever the notebook or sketchbook of the moment is. Usually this will be some pivotal scene that has finally formed itself just the way I want it, that I suddenly realize I’d better get down before I forget it again. (Walking and driving are good times to plot, but afterward you have to get it down!) Other times I write just fragmentary notes that wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me. I do have some crucial stuff scripted out many months in advance, and those are in a compilation file on the hard drive waiting for their entrances. But for the interstitial plot points, the things that aren’t as big emotionally or plotwise, the details often aren’t set until I begin work on the first of the relevant pages. (Since my comic only updates once a week, it’s very important to me that in addition to the larger story arc making a satisfying crescendo and climax, the individual beats of the pages work as well as possible on a standalone basis too. That’s not always possible, but you will notice that I usually try to end a page on either a punchline or a cliffhanger. Sort of like a bigger version of a newspaper strip actually. So that requires some willingness to be flexible with the script.)
I always have the big outline in my head, and certain things that I absolutely know I want to do, but when it comes to exactly how we get there, I try to let the characters have room to breathe and interact and find their own path most of the time. I only pressure them when it’s time to build to a peak. And if, for instance, I finish a big dramatic scene and my musician’s brain says “hrm, I was planning to go into some comic relief but now that I’m here, it feels more like we need a poignant moment of Quiet Feels instead,” then I will go ahead and swerve over that way. There are so many potential ways to tell a story that as long as you keep your mind open to all the possibilities, and as long as you’ve done good foundational work with your character design and the environments you’ve placed the characters in, very rarely should you need to force the plot. — And you can do that in either order, by the way. You can create a character and then place her in a situation she’s naturally at odds with, or you can create a situation and then design the character who’s fated to be out of step with it. For this comic, I kind of did both — I developed the big world/story premise first, then I came up with characters that would interact entertainingly and above all inharmoniously with that premise, and then I created individual plotlines meant to really bring those implicit conflicts to the fore. But however you do it, conflict — from which Plot arises — is something that should naturally grow out of how people fit into, or more to the point don’t fit into, their situations.
Travis: I like what you said about letting the characters have room to breathe, and taking the story arc and how each comic is perceived into consideration. That in mind, has there ever been an adjustment in your storyline that you’ve enjoyed better than what was originally planned?
Sarah: (Heh. Of course the vampire characters are only figuratively breathing.)
But to answer your question: Yep! For instance, I originally didn’t have any plans for the vampire-friendly pop-up nightclub scene that appears partway through Volume 1 (let’s just say, AWKWARDNESS ENSUES). But when the idea came to me, I realized that not only did I have to do it, I had to do it pretty much now, before I started knocking over any more plot dominoes, because it’s a scene that definitely plays better in that uncertain space between full vampire secrecy and full Daylight. So be it! — so I delayed another scene that I was also really looking forward to for the sake of that scene. But I think the story’s better for it, and as a bonus, I got to work in some important world-building/metaphysics information in a relatively graceful fashion!
Travis: See, that’s where writing – and pardon the pun – can take on a life of its own. So, what is one thing you’ve enjoyed about using vampires as characters? The vampire ladies certainly couldn’t powder their noses in the nightclub restroom! You know, because they wouldn’t appear in the mirrors. OK, I’ll stop – back to you.
Sarah: Well, actually, my vampires do show up in mirrors — I decided that one would be entirely too hard to explain their being able to hide for all these years. (Showing as cold on thermography is a bit of a different matter, because thermography is a 20c technology that’s only now really coming into consumer reach. And I mean like literally — the FLIR cellphone attachment at the $300’s price point came out DURING Volume 1, not long after I had a Nigerian inventor crowdfund it in my comic! I have to scramble to keep up.
Vampires are fun to write on a many points. Of course, any story about monsters is really about human beings and their capacity for the traits we ascribe to monsters, but using the conceit of the monster allows you to pull those themes out and make them larger than life, so to speak. I very carefully positioned my vampires where it is theoretically possible but currently vanishingly difficult for them to survive without ever hurting or taking advantage of anybody in any way at all, which is sort of the situation many human societies collectively find themselves in too — first-world guilts and sins, and so on. It’s the human moral dilemma magnified, which is fun in a more cerebral/fascinating way. As for what’s just, you know, fun fun — well, for one thing, I enjoy sticking a pin in the pomposity of some vampire tropes. If vampires really existed, they couldn’t all be Lestat or Edward Cullen, these impossible paragons of sexycooldangerous. No way. And as distressing as the problems of undeath would be, they would also lead sometimes to absurdities that I would hope even they couldn’t help but laugh at! But vampires really become fun-fun only when you juxtapose them with mortals. There’s a reason a lot of sitcoms rely on the premise of one of the characters having a secret or a secret life. The clash of expectations, assumptions, priorities, viewpoints that come out of the frantic efforts to preserve that secret is where comedy and conflict both happen, and then of course when the secret comes out it only gets crazier. Can you imagine a more awkward conversation than “so can we talk about how you’ve been sucking the blood of the living all this time and we never knew it? Can we talk about how diner and dinner are having a conversation right now?”
Travis: I liked the introduction of thermography to your comic. Hearing your thoughts about it makes it even more interesting.
Thanks a lot, Sarah, for shedding some light on After Daylight!
Sarah: You’re very welcome indeed! Thank you for the awesome interview!