Alpha Shade is a wonderful blend of history, fantasy and science fiction from two brothers: Joe and Chris Brudlos. Al Schroeder interviewed them about their website, their working methods and their plans for their webcomic Alpha Shade.
What does your title mean? Why Alpha Shade?
Joseph: We came up with the story long before we decided on a name. However, we were forced to come up with a name when we entered Tokyopop’s first "Rising Stars of Manga" contest back in 2002. It wasn't easy to come up with a name that would embody the complex plotlines and characters that we have in our story. Then we realized that we really didn’t have to. The name would associate itself with our story not the other way around. If you think about it, most Anime and Manga titles have little to do with the content of the show or the book.
The name Alpha Shade actually comes from the process we use to shade characters and objects in the comic. We work remotely and send the files back and forth through email and instant messaging. I’ve done all the coloring since the actual comic started, but when we were producing the test comic Chris did all of the coloring; since it was black and white, we called it shading. He was new to illustration in Flash so we were always talking about process, we found that we were talking about "Alpha Shading" quite a bit, "Have you alpha shaded that page yet?" or "It looks like Laura could use another layer of alpha shading." Then it hit us. Hey! Alpha Shade is a pretty cool name. Ta Da! It just beat out Black Pepper.
Another interesting story is why our domain name has a hyphen in it. When we finally decided on the name and entered the contest Chris went off for a couple months to write down the story. When we first came up with the name we checked the Internet and registries to see if Alpha Shade was taken or not. The only thing we could find was a style of lampshade so we stuck with it. However when we were ready to put up the website and I went to register the name it had been taken in the intervening months by someone who was using it for his personal web page. It was this hideous green and black number with his big old head up in one corner, I kept thinking people would be looking for us, see that, think we were losers and never come back. Then some company had "AlphaShade.com COMMING SOON" For another year. It was really frustrating to not be able to get the domain when the people who had bought the name weren’t even doing anything with it. We didn’t want to be .net so we went with the hyphen. We’ve actually waited them out and now we own the alphashade.com domain, if you type it into your browser it will take you to our site, but now we’ve trained people to come to Alpha-Shade.com so there you go.
Alpha Shade is known for its beautiful art style. Who are your artistic influences, Joseph?
Joseph: It’s hard to say who my artistic influences are, obviously anime in general has influenced my style, but I use it as a base not a guideline. I’ve always been partial to Hayao Miyazaki, he always seems to be doing his own thing artistically. I think that is an important aspect to any creative venture, and it’s that concept that I try to emulate. When someone looks at an image from Alpha Shade I want them to think "Hey! That Alpha Shade guy did this!"
If I had to pin it down I would say Wendy Pini from Elfquest, Hayao Miyazaki and his work on Naussica, The movie The Wings of Honneamise (which if you haven’t seen it, you must), Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (the manga and the movie), and Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed series. There are some other things in there, like Area 88 and the Yamato series, but I don’t want to go too crazy with the list.
My father is an excellent artist, and I’ve always been inspired to become as good of an artist as he is, but I haven’t gotten there yet. You wouldn’t know it now, but Chris used to be a much better artist than I was. He is almost 5 years older than I so he had an edge agewise, but I wanted to get better than he was so I worked really hard at drawing. Then he stopped drawing almost completely once he got out of high school, and there wasn’t any competition. I always felt cheated out of my victory!
Christopher: When people usually ask artists what their early influences were, they rarely list children’s books. Lyle the Crocodile, Miss Jaster's Garden with Hedgy the Hedgehog, and Richard Scarry’s books. They left a lasting impressing on us, that images as well as words could tell a compelling story.
Who are your writing influences, Christopher?
Christopher – We grew up with our mother reading us books like The Hobbit, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and The Chronicles Of Narnia. As I got older, I read books like Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series, Terry Brooks’ Elfstones of Shannara, The Shogun series of books, and Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori trilogy. TVs shows like Northern Exposure, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, Deadwood, The Sopranos, and I, Claudius, the old BBC miniseries that ran on PBS, were also a big influences. I’ve always been interested in long, continuing storylines. When it came time to write a script for our comic, I wanted to create an epic-style saga with many interconnecting story lines.
The combat scenes, the death under fire, are extremely realistic and graphic – considering it's a fantasy webcomic done in a world of telepathic cats and Kong-sized domesticated vultures. Does either of you have any military experience?
Christopher: Neither of us was in the military. Both of our grandfathers fought in World War Two. One was in the army in North Africa in 1942, the other was in the 8th Air Force as a top turret gunner in a B-17. When we were growing up, one of our grandfathers had a huge Civil War, World War One, and World War Two collection. Uniforms, hats, helmets, metals, flags, pistols and rifles in the hundreds. We were able to pick up a German Lugar or K98, an American M-1 Grenade or a British Enfield. Each piece had a story. When you are actually able to touch, smell and feel the weight these things, it’s almost as if they are alive. They all have their own stories to tell. It’s sort of hard to explain if you haven’t held a piece of history in your hands. I’ve read a lot of military history books, but oddly it’s video games that taught me many of the tactics seen in the first chapter. I played the online flight sim Warbirds for over five years. This was an ultra realistic massive online flight simulation. There were players there from all over the world, many were in the military or commercial pilots. You needed to use real world tactics to survive.
Joseph: Showing war without consequences seems irresponsible to me. I remember watching GI Joe as a kid just to see if SOMEONE would die in the battles they had every week; no one ever did. I remember thinking what a disservice that was to kids, the whole dumbing down of cartoons because kids couldn’t handle the violence, and yet all of the cartoons for kids were about violent things. The violence doesn’t need to be graphic, but if you have people shooting at each other without even taking cover and NO ONE ever gets hit what’s the point? You might as well have a show about a tea party. It always made me angry when they would take Japanese shows and remove all of the violence, and, let's face it, all of the story. The Japanese got it, I think that’s why I turned to Anime and Manga. American comics and cartoons were all about "the comic code" and I couldn’t stand it.
As far as the violence in Alpha Shade goes, I try not to go over the top too much, we wanted it to be more on the realistic side, but we also wanted the readers to be horrified and empathize with the surviving characters. The people who were going to die were purposely written and designed to seem like they could be main characters so it would add to the realism of the story. They didn’t know they weren’t going to make it, neither should the reader.
Tell us a little about yourselves. Does either of you find it odd working with your brother?
Christopher: I’m a locomotive engineer for a class one railroad. I’ve been interested in graphic novels and anime for as long as I can remember.
Joseph: I was an illustrator and animator for an educational software company. In November I decided to quit my job and work on Alpha Shade full time.
Christopher: Our interests and tastes in books and movies are very similar. We work very well as a team. Neither one of us is afraid to bring up problems we see with any aspect of the project and give our honest opinions. I may not like Joe’s criticism of parts of the script and he may not like my nit-picking how the pages are coming together, but we both know our intent is to create the best product we can.
Each chapter is planned for 80-90 pages. The first book is supposed to be 16 chapters. The initial plan is for three books. You seem to be very sure where you're going, no matter how long it takes. Did you write this all out as a novel before you turned to making it into a webcomic/graphic novel, or do you just like to plot your storylines waaaay in advance?
Christopher: I didn’t write out the entire script right away, but worked on a complete outline for the first book. We have over 200 pages of the script finished. As of page 94 in the comic, we’re only on page 18 of the script. I think it’s important to have your story arc planned out in advance and to stay many chapters ahead of your finished pages. If you are planning on starting a comic/webcomic you can never do too much preplanning. Having a solid script you can draw from will be a major asset in the long run. Many comics have hit brick walls when their drawn pages catch up to the finished story. One of leading causes of early webcomic demise is the lack of any kind of direction. If you’re going to start a comic, start with an outline and then write out your story. Don’t be afraid to go over the script now and then to and rewrite or even change entire chapters. Right now I’m in the middle of completely rewriting the rest of the script in order to better flesh out some of the characters. What initially worked well in the script became a little sparse when it came time to draw out the pages. Some people like to script out every page and panel fifty or a hundred pages in advance. That style of scripting can work for you, but it leaves you very little wiggle room in the long run. As your comic’s pages are drawn out, you may want to change a six panel page into a four panel or a three panel page into a five. This rigid style can throw off your entire script. In our comic, the script, storyboards, and finished pages are all very flexible. We can change, delete, or add text or frames easily and still have a usable script.
This is a rather unique fantasy – a cross between a World War I novel like All Quiet on the Western Front, mixed with fantastic elements, which results in pilots riding roc-sized birds who drop bombs, and dogfights between biplanes and Cyclopean vultures. What was the initial inspiration for Alpha Shade?
Christopher: I think it started with when fan fiction started to get popular on the Internet. I had been a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer years ago. I was looking online to see if there were any rumors about releasing DVD box sets (this was a long time ago). When I accidentally stumbled onto a fanfic site, I simply bookmarked it and moved on. Halfway into the fourth season, when the writing in the series started to tank, I went back to the site to see if their writing was any better then the shows. Oddly it wasn’t… And I thought "Hell, I can do better then that." Then as I started to think more and more about it, I thought, if I’m going to put effort into it, I might as well do my own story and create my own characters. Creating the Alpha Shade world was the hardest part, but once I had set up the basic element moving the characters around inside it was easy.
How do you collaborate? Do both of you contribute to the original plot, or does Chris plot, write a script, and Joseph draw strictly from that script? Or do you storyboard and then script over the finished art? Have there been any serious disagreements on where to take the story?
Christopher: I write the scripts, create the storyboards, page layouts, equipment designs and sometimes little mini-comics. Joe does the uniforms, clothing designs, creature designs, site design/maintenance, product shipping, and the finished art. Every time we talk about creating a webcomic, we stress doing storyboards first. This allows you see how a scene is going to flow. If you’re planning on printing your comic, you can see how the pages will balance and play off each other. Even though I do the page layouts, it doesn’t mean that Joe is boxed into following it to the letter. He has total freedom when it comes to the final page layout and character poses. I do my best to visualize a scene, but sometimes Joe wants to take it a step further and will make last minute changes. You can see examples of the changes between the storyboard layouts in our high bandwidth version of the comics. There is a storyboard button that allows the read to toggle between the original storyboards and the finished page. We don’t have disagreements about the direction of the story, we know how book one is going to play out. However we do disagree about some of the minor details. Joe will want a character's dialogue sharpened up or I’ll want more detail or different sound effects on the pages before it’s posted up. It almost always boils down to one of us trying to argue his way out of doing more work, but in the end we know the other is right and the comic has turned out better because of it.
What's the greatest satisfaction of putting this on the web, and what's the greatest frustration in doing so?
Christopher: We treated our comic’s website like a DVD. We try to add interesting extras like audio commentary for each page, scripts, storyboards, tutorials, design sketches, mini comics, and fan contests. We’re also added in blogs to our profiles, to give a behind-the-scenes flavor to the mostly boring "about the author" section. It’s fun to sit back and watch the world and community you’ve created develop. Webcomics can be like little plants. You have to water them, give them sunshine, and then sit back and watch them grow. The greatest frustration is trying to meet self-imposed deadlines. Also, dealing with server issues that can be a pain. Nothing is more irritating then having forces outside your control affecting your site.
What are your plans for Alpha Shade? I know you're printing the first chapter as a graphic novel. That this was all originally planed as a series of graphic novels. Are you looking into any other mediums to present this in? Are there any other projects you're planning?
Christopher: Our overall plan is to print out the comics in 90-120 page books. Our first book just came back from the printers. We took great pains to make sure our first book was the highest quality product we could produce. At some point we’d like to see Alpha Shade done as an animated series, but that’s a long, long way off. We have enough material to keep us busy with this project for over ten years. For now, we’re going to focus on putting out the best product we can. We don’t feel right approaching companies about publishing or expanding our project beyond the internet until we have built up a large block of content. I see many new webcomic/comic creators out there that create 8-10 page comics and then submit it to a publisher. When they’re rejected, they get angry and want to give up. If Megatokyo had submitted their first 8-10 pages to Darkhorse, would they have published it? I don’t think so. Fred Gallagher worked hard at creating a large volume of content and built up a fan base before thinking about publishing. This is a model for success that more comic creators should follow. You have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to put in the time and effort. Don’t start out trying to create a title to please a publisher. If you believe in your story, if you commit the time and effort to create the best comic you can, readers and publishers will seek you out. Success isn’t luck or timing, it has to be fought and won through drive and dedication.
Al Schroeder is the Interview Editor for Comixpedia.