Earlier this year at the 2009 Mocca Art Festival in New York City, Thomas Hall and Daniel Bradford debuted their new comic book titled "Robot 13." Their creation quickly became one of the show's most talked about debuts. The two have been collaborating together for years, first on a book "Enlightenment" which was picked up by Markosia but has yet to see print and on the one-shot "KING!" which, like "Robot 13," was released through their own Blacklist Studios publishing label.
CBR News spoke with the creative team about the genesis of "Robot 13," using social media and the web to promote themselves and their work, the various influences that inspired the creation of the character and series and more.
CBR News: For many people, "Robot 13" is the first work of yours that they know - could you start out by introducing yourselves and telling us what it was that made you want to create comics?
Daniel Bradford: I had been a pretty avid reader of comics through high school, reading "The Crow" and largely anything from Vertigo. I was a huge fan of "The Geek," "Sandman" and anything Gaiman related. But when I got into college and began my studies in graphic design, I stopped reading comic books and began reading package design. When I graduated. I found myself with a lot more free time and started reading comics again. The first book I picked up was "Gotham by Gaslight." That book, alone, changed me and I decided that I wanted to draw comics.
Thomas Hall: Comics have been a part of my life since as far back as I can remember. There was a "Hulk" issue by Sal Buscema that I was obsessed with when I was little - it was just so cool, and I just stared at the pages and I made my dad read it to me countless times. My dad explained word balloons to me through that book and told me there was someone called a writer and it was his job it was to write the Hulk, and I was hooked. From that point of about 3 years old or so, I wanted to be a writer. It hasn't been a straight line since then, but writing has always been something in my blood. I did a lot of DiY comics in high school and college, mostly little mini comics, and I kept doing underground stuff later on. I wrote a few things for an anthology called "Megazeen," and working with those guys was where I learned a lot about self publishing and promoting a small book. Everything that came before I met Daniel kind of prepared me for what we have been through together with Blacklist, and it's all made me a better writer.
How did the two of you meet and decide to partner up?
Bradford: On the internet. We're one of those few successful stories.
Hall: Back when I was with "Megazeen," I saw some work of Daniel's on the internet and wrote him an email, telling him I liked his work. I offered to write something for him, telling him something arrogant, like if we worked together, you could hide our book under a rock and people would go and find it because it would be so hot. Looking back on it, I admit now that I had no idea what I was promising, but I also really saw something in his work that excited me. We shared some of the same sensibilities and I just knew we could do something really cool together. I got a reply in like a day, and Daniel was interested in us working on something so he wrote me a list of ideas he had that he thought needed some development. One of those ideas meshed well with stuff I was already kicking around in my head, so we jumped on that and started work on a book called "Enlightenment." That book got picked up by Markosia, but has been endlessly delayed for a variety of reasons. Those delays led to Daniel and I self publishing and making Blacklist Studios a real company. We did a one shot called "KING!" and then moved on to do "Robot 13" early this year.
Where did the idea for "Robot 13" come from?
Hall: The design for "Robot 13" as a character came from Daniel. We were approached by a company who knew about "KING!" and wanted us to develop a property for them to turn into a CGI film, so we kicked around some ideas and came up with somewhat of an Ultraman meets Metropolis story. It was full of giant Godzilla-type creatures attacking this "world of the future"-type city, and we had the robot flying and all sorts of crazy stuff. That story had a different name when we started, but we found that name was taken so I named it "Robot 13," which was my attempt at a Toho-type name.
That whole project kind of fell through, and we took the work we did and walked away. We ended up scrapping that whole story, and all we used was Daniel's original design, the idea of him fighting giant monsters and the name "Robot 13." The Greek mythology stuff came later - Daniel had made of print of "Robot 13" having just killed a giant squid, and I asked him about it. He told me it was a Kraken, and I asked if he wanted to have the robot fight a Kraken and we agreed it would be awesome. When I got into more research, I saw how we could use Greek mythology to make a really cool story, and we just ran with it from there.
There appear so be a clear Hellboy and Mike Mignola influence on the artwork and the story, but it also feels influenced by the same work and people who influenced Mignola himself - Ray Harryhausen, Robert Howard, Gerard Manley Hopkins, etc. Is this an accurate assumption?
Bradford: The mythology side of the story basically just came from the desire to draw those monsters. Granted, the Kraken isn't part of the Greek mythos, but it's still a badass monster that doesn't get much attention unless it's fighting Johnny Depp. It seems to me, only recently are the awesome Greek monsters - Medusa, cyclops and the sirens - getting some of that much needed spotlight that vampires and zombies have been holding onto.
Hall: I love Mike's work, but I always liked that he put his influences and research out there so you knew where his roots were. Mythology is great because those stories were not really conceived as fiction. There were things that people believed in which drove those stories, and you can't minimize the importance of that. Sailors used to believe that there really were giant monsters out there attacking boats. People believed in creatures like the cyclops, and that those kinds of things existed. So the stories about heroes defeating those beasts had maybe as much meaning as us telling stories about how the Mets won in '86.
I know we feel like we have evolved beyond mythology in today's world, but those stories still resonate because they were held in such regard by the people who originally told them. As for the influence of things like Ray Harryhausen's films and some of the great writers of fiction, sure it's all valid. Everything started with Mythology and Folktales for those guys, and they used their imaginations to do amazing things with those core stories. I want to try and do that as well, so it's natural that people who excelled at that would be inspiring.
Robot 13's look brings to mind a lot of characters and creatures, but isn't exactly like any of them. What inspired the character's design?
Bradford: The robot has actually gone through a few designs. The more I drew it, the more I found myself wanting to make it look as skeletal as possible while still maintaining a robotic appearance. Ashley Wood was a very large inspiration to just want to draw a robot. Much of his design work influenced the feel of R13, particularly "Popbot."
The first issue was very much set-up, establishing the basics of what's happening and featuring a really cool fight scene, but the second issue is very much getting into the story and going deeper and really finding its own voice. Was the intention of the first issue to be an introduction to the style and feel of the series?
Hall: There are two things at play in the way we present "Robot 13," and those elements caused us to structure the story as we did. First of all, I am a big fan of naturalism in literature. I think that almost going for a documentary approach in telling a story gives it a sense of realism and immediacy that you don't always see today, especially in comics. Having things unfold as we do gives the reader the feeling as if they were there the day that "Robot 13" was pulled up from the ocean. I mean, for those sailors, the story would have started just that way, right? So presenting it that way really gives people that feeling, like we were telling a "true" story. The other thing we wanted to do was tell the story so that it really is a true mystery story. We want you to have all the clues and see everything that you will need, so when the final end of the story comes along and we reveal everything, you can go back to the first issue and say, "Oh, that is why they do that!" We pretty much know the beginning from the end of "Robot 13," so we wanted to give people the whole picture.
How long is this mini-series and do you have plans for the character beyond the end of this story?
Bradford: It is a mini-series. There is an ending, but because of the timeline of the story, we would be able to put together another story if the opportunity ever came up. But right now we're focused on just completing this story.
Hall: Our intention is to do a series of mini-series, and maybe a one shot here or there. Telling a story as a long, ongoing thing is really a model that's hard to keep going for an independent book. Issue 3 will finish this mini-series, but it is far from the "end" of Robot 13's story. It's more like the launching pad for more down the road.
When it comes time to start illustrating a story, do you work from a full script, is there constant collaboration and discussion on the story or layout, or how do you work?
Bradford: Usually we just discuss an idea, lay down a few ground rules, Tom buries himself in research while I work on some concept drawings, and eventually Tom comes up with a script. He emails me the script, and I begin work on the book.
Hall: Both of us are very focused, driven people when it comes to creative work. We always have been, even before we met each other. Our goal is always making the best book, so we both start with our areas of expertise, with Daniel designing visuals and me coming up with story details, but we both give each other input as well. Sometimes Daniel has something he'd love to see as part of the story, sometimes I have a visual idea that sticks in my head, and we both are open to look for whatever will be the best idea. But Daniel and I have a method where I am pretty free to try and write whatever I think makes the best script, and he's free to find what he thinks is the best way to turn that script into pages.
Occasionally we give each other feedback, but we are to the point, after having worked together for 6 years, that we pretty much trust each other fully. I never worry that he's not going to kick my butt with awesome pages, and I never feel like he doesn't trust me to give him a script that doesn't hold anything back. It's great, because we always feel our next issue or next book will top the last. Hopefully we will keep that trend going strong.
Why release "Robot 13" as a quarterly series as opposed to publishing a graphic novel or doing the book as a webcomic?
Bradford: Honestly, I'm a huge fan of the GN format. Our very first project, however, was never completed because we were doing it as a graphic novel. I find it helpful to have the pressure of having to put out one issue and then the following issue and so on to keep me going. Working on a graphic novel this early in my career lulls me into a sort of laziness where I keep telling myself that I still have plenty of time to put out the book, so there's no rush. I'm not that disciplined, yet. But when we've already put out a chapter, I am forced to bust my ass to get the next one out in order to maintain our readership.
The quarterly schedule is simply because there ain't no way that I'm getting these books drawn, colored, lettered and packaged while raising my kids, feeding my dogs, and watching TV with my wife, all in one month.
Webcomics are something we plan on getting into in the near future.
Hall: We are trying to do everything ourselves, for starters. We have recruited some people along the way, but the day to day stuff is Daniel and me doing most everything. Doing it that way takes time, so we had to stretch out the schedule a bit. Going forward, I think we will compress that schedule a bit, but as long we are doing everything ourselves, it will take time.
What have your experiences been while self-publishing the book through Blacklist Studios? Do you find yourselves utilizing the convention circuit or using social media to promote the book?
Bradford: For my part in actually putting the book together ,having a background in graphic design has been a tremendous help.
Hall: Putting out this book ourselves has been a lot of work, but we are finding that if you do good work, all these avenues are open to get the word out. Conventions are always a great thing for independent artists, because if you get the word out that you will be at a con with a new book, people love to check you out. It's awesome meeting people, and putting our books directly in their hands and nothing beats that.
The internet, however, has made it so much easier to spread the word about a book like ours. There are tons of fantastic blogs out there that have their readership, and we were fortunate to be of interest to quite a few of them. Quite a few podcasts have latched on to "Robot 13," too, and we always enjoy being on shows and chatting about comics with those guys. Twitter has been big for us as well, because people follow us and it's a pretty direct way of getting news out about what we are doing. (Daniel is twitter.com/blacklist_da and I am twitter.com/robotthirteen) And of course there are all the major websites that cover comics- tons of people get their comic news from CBR or Newsarama or Ain't It Cool, and we are thankful that we attracted interest from them. It's a lot of work contacting everyone, but it's been worth the effort.
Are you planning on branching out with the "Robot 13" characters into any licensing or other non-comic book related products?
Bradford: Prints are coming. In fact, there has been a black and white print available only when we've done conventions. Another print was made for the Children's Cancer Network Toy Drive at Arizona's Spazdog Comics back on December 5th that I also did a signing for. Since the Arizona Ghostbusters were one of the featured guests, as well as a 28ft tall Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, we did up a very limited print of R13 fighting Stay Puft. Tom and I have discussed a couple ideas for some new ones which I will be getting started on once R13 #3 is off at the printer.
You mentioned another book earlier, "KING!" What's that project about?
Bradford: ["KING!" is] very different book about a former professional wrestler from the Southwest turned monster hunter. King is an undefeated [wrestling] champion who adopted the persona of Elvis as an expression of how awesome he is. He even just goes by King. But after beating opponent after opponent, he gets bored and retires from wrestling to take on the bigger and badder opponents of the desert.
Hall: We love "KING!" - it's such a fun book to work on. It's not as complex or as deep as "Robot 13," but it's pretty much a joyride of a book. The concept of "KING!" is that we started off with the idea of making his situations as surreal and as over-the-top as we could. Seeing this '70's-style Elvis-looking character with a gun blowing away zombies and ghouls is just a lot of fun, and we are going to try to make each issue bigger and wilder than the one before it.