Rick Burchett is used to a question many industry veterans get asked at comic conventions: how did you break in? At his spotlight panel Sunday at WonderCon in Anaheim, the artist, who has worked on titles as varied as "The Phantom," "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" and "She-Hulk," looked back at his early days in the business, the many ups and downs as well as the future of his webcomic with writer Greg Rucka, "Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether."
Burchett knew he wanted to draw comics from the time he was five and assumed everyone wanted to do that job, but found it was difficult to share that dream with any of the adults around him. "My parents lived through the Depression. My father said, 'Why don't you get a stable job?'" Burchett said of how tough it was initially to even verbalize his dream. School guidance counselors offered no help as they did not know how people became involved professionally in comics.
He eventually earned a teaching degree that went unused as he found himself breaking into advertising the old fashioned way: through the mail room. Five years later, he was an art director at the company working on television ads, but still yearned to work in comics. At night Burchett would toil away on samples. "Like everybody, I accumulated rejection slips," he joked. All the while, he continued to improve his technique. Finally, during the direct market boom of the early 1980s, he found work at Eclipse, Pacific and other publishers that sprang up during the era. He characterized the work as "usually just one-off things."
Reading about First Comics opening up in Chicago, Burchett rushed to send his samples to the new company. His logic: "If I wait until they have books on the shelves, they'll be flooded with submissions." He was hired to ink an eight-page backup story written my Mike Barr. The assignment would lead to a long association with First's co-founder Mike Gold.
"Just because you have a regular gig doesn't mean you're working in comics," he explained. "You have to build up a reputation for being dependable." In the ensuing five years, he continued as an art director by day while working on comics and his reputation in the field by night. He recalled brutally hot summer nights in Missouri when he "sat there in gym shorts hoping none of my sweat got on the page."
Despite becoming a dependable hand at First, work slowed after Gold left the company. When Gold was firmly established at DC Comics, he called Burchett and offered him a number of projects that fell through, including a run on "The Shadow" that wound up going to Bill Sienkiewicz when the original penciller assigned to the project "vanished." Gold then offered Burchett the "Blackhawk" feature in "Action Comics Weekly."
When "Action" changed to a weekly schedule in the mid-1980s, the plan involved a number of creative teams on rotating features to accommodate the production schedule and give each team a break. Burchett never enjoyed a break as the "Blackhawk" feature started late thanks to government intervention. "Mike Grell was going to write the first story, but he was on an extended trip to Asia and dictating his scripts into a tape recorder. The first tape was lost in U.S. Customs for six weeks!"
Even with the rough start, "Blackhawk" proved to be a popular feature and never rotated out of "Action Comics Weekly" until Burchett received a call from Gold. The book was going to become its own monthly title, but there was a catch. "We were already behind schedule," Burchett said.
"I was finishing issue #7 when issue #6 hit the stands," he said of the pace of production. "It was my baptism by fire." It also allowed him to finally quit the ad agency. When the series ended, he went back to jumping from title to title with work as varied as the short-lived Impact Comics line to inking Dan Jurgens when the writer/artist took the reins of "Justice League America" in the mid-1990s.
This eventually led to a fifteen-year association with the Batman animated tie-in comics. Initially, he was hired as an inker and a sort of "continuity cop," making sure each new penciller stayed on model with the Bruce Timm design style. "Once they found Mike Parobeck, he became the series penciller," Burchett recalled. "It was one of the best instances of working on anything. The team on that book was the best." Rick discovered a new fanbase at conventions thanks to the TV show tie-in books -- an audience made up of women, children and animation fans that the publisher coveted, but could not get to read their mainstream titles. The fans were loyal, but DC itself was never fond of it. "They didn't like the animated books and probably wouldn't have published them if not for Warner Bros.," he said.
Unfortunately, when the DC Animated Universe tie-ins ceased, work again became difficult to come by. Editors assumed he could only work in the Timm style and "people didn't want the cartoony stuff."
After some "floundering, picking up stuff here and there," and a run on "She-Hulk" with Dan Slott, Burchett found himself sending out samples again."The job of the greeter at Wal-Mart was looking pretty good," he joked.
During the rough patch, he was talking with writer Greg Rucka, who was disenchanted with mainstream comics. They discussed outlining a project that they could market to book publishers, but Burchett offered to do it as a webcomic. Listing a number of ideas, settings and visuals they both always wanted to have in a comic, they had the basis for "Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether." The steampunk strip about a privateer of the seas and skies launched in July of 2011 and has been growing a loyal following ever since.
In order to make the fans feel like they are part of the process, web site designer and "third guy" Eric Newsom asked the readers what they wanted from the team. The response surprised them all: "People wanted it to be a book they can buy." With two-and-half years of story already in the can, Rucka and Burchett chose to print the first five chapters. Weighing their options, the team went to the readership again and asked if they should approach a publisher or crowdfund the collection. The audience thought it was best to let them invest directly via crowfunding website Kickstarter.
Researching the printing and shipping costs, Rucka, Burchett and Newsom settled on a goal of $27,500, made their video proposal and uploaded it to Kickstarter in May of last year. The three were optimistic about reaching their goal, figuring it would happen by the end of the campaign. The project was funded in eight hours with a final total of $143,000. Suddenly, the webcomic had huge buzz around it and outlets as varied as MTV News wanted to know how they did it. "[We] use common sense whenever possible," Burchett said. "Don't cheat the reader."
All the money funded new incentives and a capital investment Rucka and Newsom wanted Burchett to make: an up-to-date computer and a Cintiq tablet. "Greg said, 'Look, if we make $110,000 can we call that Rick 2.0 and get you the stuff?'" Believing they'd never hit that stretch goal, Burchett agreed. Once Rucka and Newsom announced their plans to the readers, the money came in even heavier.
Because they were open in regards to using a portion of the funds to update Burchett's set-up, one fan offered up his employer's friend-and-family discount to make the computer and tablet less of a strain on the budget. Now updated, Burchett said, "I'm living in the future." The artist is still getting used to the tablet, but like everything else regarding "Lady Sabre," it is a new education.
"It's been like that now for three years," he said. "I learned to color, I learned to use a tablet and we learned to publish a book." The end product became a more elaborate hardcover volume, leading Burchett to learn how to design a dust jacket. Though the process was slower than they expected, the books finally arrived three weeks ago and are slowly getting shipped by Rucka to the Kickstarter backers. Any remaining units may become available on the strip's website.
With the success of the campaign, the team is planning to continue the print editions. There is even some interest from an established publisher to release the first volume as a trade paperback. Burchett, after all those years of hard work in comics, is happy with the response. "People seem to like it," he said.
"Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether" can be read at www.IneffableAether.com.