No Need To Beat Around the Bush: An Interview with Alex Kolesar and Joseph Kovell
Alex Kolesar and Joseph Kovell are the creators behind the historical action comedy webcomic No Need for Bushido. I got a chance to interview them via email last month.
Give me the 30 second "convention pitch" for your comic
Joe: No Need for Bushido is an action-comedy comic that takes place in feudal japan. Ina Senshin, the daughter of a Feudal lord, runs away to avoid an arranged marriage and inadvertently propels the country into an all out war. Now, with an odd cast of characters she's joined on the way, Ina must try to save her clan while trying to survive the bandits, ninja assassins, prophetic warnings, and armies that stand in her way.
Can you tell us a little about each of you?
Joe: I'm the writer and general website fiddler for No Need for Bushido. I began working on NNFB a little over six years ago during my Freshman year at the Columbus College of Art and Design, where I studied Industrial Design.
Alex: Well, I graduated from Columbus College of Art and Design back in 2005. Other than drawing NNFB, I do some freelance illustration and webdesign. I’m a fun loving guy who watches too many cartoons and generally likes hanging out with friends and playing an occasional video game. My favorite movies are The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell, and The Empire Strikes Back. I know none of those are samurai films, but I’m just as much a scifi junky as I am a samurai fanatic.
What's a typical day like recently?
Joe: I work as an IT technician during the day so aside from my obsessive email, forum, and Twitter monitoring, most of my work for the comic happens pretty late in the day. I think I spend more time adjusting our website than actually writing – partly because our weekly update schedule doesn't require daily writing and partly because I can't seem to just leave the site alone.
Alex: My average day involves spending far too much time staring at a computer screen.
Where are you located these days?
Alex: The same as Joe.
Do you have other jobs besides working on comics?
Joe: As recently as last year, I still considered NNFB just a hobby that happened to make enough money to pay for its own expenses, so really pushing it into the realm of being a full-time job wasn't even on our radar. Since we moved to Keenspot, a few things have fallen into place that might helps up make the jump to making NNFB our only job, but we aren't making that jump yet.
Alex: Webdesigner and freelance artist. NNFB is definitely my second job.
Any collectives you're working with?
Joe: We joined Keenspot just before it changed over to full ownership under Chris and Terry Crosby a little under a year ago. Since then, we've had a lot of support from all the comics on Keenspot including help with advertising and advice on running the business end of comic making.
Do you work with all of the other Keenspot creators or is too big a group for that? Do you talk to the Crosbys directly a lot or is less personal than that?
Joe: I think once any Webcomic Collective grows beyond a dozen members, it becomes pretty difficult to really get to work with everyone. With over 50 active members, Keenspot is no exception. We try to take every opportunity to overcome that reality. We've had a couple conversations with Terry and Chris since joining Keenspot and they've always been very responsive whenever we've asked for help or their opinion.
How do you go about promoting your work? What seems to be most effective at pulling in new readers?
Joe: We've done a little advertising here and there, but most of our readership still comes from word of mouth, links from some of our webcomic friends, or through our connection to Keenspot.
Alex: I admit to letting Joe deal with most of the advertising stuff. I do ask for link exchanges with some of the comics I like, and fanart is a type of promotion, too!
Did the jump to Keenspot help grow your audience? The Keenspot newsbox is reportedly still a very effective promotional tool.
Joe: When we first joined Keenspot, we saw an immediate increase in readers. The newsbox itself is still extremely effective – mostly due to the incredible number of readers it reaches and how it constantly changes and stays fresh.
When you create a comic, how do you approach it? Do you start with the words and then think about the scene that should go with it or do you start with more of purely visual approach or none of the above?
Joe: The basic goal of each story arc is very loosely planned months ahead. Then I'll write out a few dozen pages worth of script at a time, with a basic idea of where each page will cut. Alex will draw out the page, sometimes dividing it when needed. After the comic is completed, the dialog might get reworked slightly to fit the visual pacing of the page.
Alex: Each comic page forms organically as Joe and I pass scripts and art back and forth. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to get a large buffer of comic pages finished because we both need to be working together to finish a page. If Joe doesn’t have time to work on the script, or I don’t have time, then it may come down to finishing the page at the last minute on Sunday night!
Drawing a page of NNFB is extremely challenging. Since it’s a comic that updates once a week, I want there to be enough content on a page that the reader doesn’t feel like nothing happened all week, but I also want the pacing when reading through the archives to not be jarring. I can spend an hour or two just trying to figure out how best to lay out the panels on one page.
How has the strip evolved over time?
Joe: NNFB has changed a lot over the years. The art has greatly improved and gone through many stylistic evolutions, the writing has gotten more concise, and the characters have really taken over the story in a way I never expected. The changes have happened very gradually over time so that, even when reading straight through the archive, its difficult to spot where this or that improvement clicked into place, but side-by-side, the differences between page one and our current work are startling.
Alex: For four years or so, I never took doing NNFB very seriously. Updates were very sporadic and that resulted in some very inconsistent art. Also, when the comic was younger, I would try out more extreme style changes just to see how I felt about them. Although in the last couple of years we’re really started to take NNFB more seriously, not missing updates and keeping the site maintained. I wish I’d taken the comic more seriously from the very beginning because who knows how much it would’ve evolved by now since it’s grown so much in the last two years!
Do you have a favorite strip or storyline from the comic? Which ones do fans seem to bring up the most?
Joe: My favorite storyline right now is the one we're working on. It features the first major battle in the Senshin-Wataro war. For the first time, the main cast runs head first into the consequences of the war building around them. The arc is going to have a lot of fighting, which has always been a large part of what NNFB is about, but it also provides some much needed character development for Ina Senshin, who had in the past been forced into a very passive role.
A lot of readers enjoy "Brothers and Arms" (Ch 15) and "Leading the Blind" (Ch 19), which are two arcs that straddle a long series of fight scenes between a multiple main characters and the forces that have been hunting them. These chapters also had the benefit of following "Kabuki Katastrophy" (Ch 14), which was almost entirely comedy, so the fighting was a good change of pace.
Alex: Joe likes to break everything up into chapters in arcs, but, really, the comic is just one long story, and I love to watch how all the characters and events play off of and build on top of one another. I definitely enjoyed drawing the fight between Yorikiro and Ryoku in the abandoned shrine, and some really great action is coming up that I’m very excited about.
Are there any of your characters you're really fond of? Any that are particularly difficult to use?
Joe: I really like all of our characters and can imagine making any one of them the focus of their own comic. I do have a few favorites, though. The blind Taoist priest, Cho, has been one of the most enjoyable characters to write. He's very easy going, which plays well off the main cast when in impossible to overcome situations. He also provides the occasional wise (sort of) saying, which is one of his most popular traits among readers.
Alex: The story has altered so significantly from what we’d originally planned that Ina’s role kind of became muddled, and she lost a lot of her original purpose. She’s definitely posed the most challenging problem in the comic simply because we weren’t really sure what to do with her. Recently, though, she’s finally found a purpose that we’re excited about.
It’s so hard for me to pick out a favorite cast member since they’ve been with me so long that they all kind of feel like family. I think Yorikiro and Ken are probably my two favorites, and I really dig how they play off of each other. When I think of their relationship, it’s like Yori’s the goofy popular kid who always means well, and Ken’s the school bully, and they’ve both been assigned as partners for a senior thesis presentation. With those two, hilarity always ensues in an 80’s sitcom type manner! Except with swords.
There are also a large number of side characters that don’t get enough screen time! Genchu, Yumiko, Masushiro, Yukizane, and Bunzo make a partial list of side characters that I wish were in the comic more! Unfortunately, since our cast is reaching biblical proportions, we really have to pick and choose who gets the most focus, and usually the main cast wins out.
Do you have any long term goals or ambition for the future of the comic?
Joe: No Need for Bushido has a definite and pre-defined end, so our goal is to reach that end in a satisfying and complete way.
Alex: I hope this comic continues to gain more readership and so that whenever we move onto our next project, we’ll have a nice established fanbase to bring with us!
What conventions are your favorites to exhibit at? What advice do you have for others just starting to show their work at conventions?
Joe: The largest convention we've spoken at was Anime Expo, but one of our favorites is a smaller convention in Ohio - Matsuricon, which we've been guests since its first year in 2005.
We have already begun planning for San Diego Comic Con '09 with a bunch of Keenspot members-, so that will be a lot of fun.
Alex: We’ve been invited to several out-of-state conventions as guests, but it’s usually too impractical to attend, which is always disappointing because both Joe and I love cons. I hate turning down con guest offers!
How would you describe your relationship with your fans? Do you engage in a lot of online interaction with your readers?
Joe: We have blog comments, a comment section under each page, A shared forum with Zap!, and good old email. Following and replying to reader input can keeps us pretty busy, but we really enjoy hearing and responding to comments no matter how they reach us.
Alex: I love the fans! If we never received any comments from the readership, it would be a lot harder to justify doing the comic. What’s the point of putting your work online for other people to enjoy if you can’t talk to them about it? I mean, aside from the money. I especially love receiving fanart. Little is more rewarding than knowing another artist was inspired enough to want to interpret our own characters. It’s just really cool. After six years, we’ve amassed quite a collection of fanart, which Joe has painstakingly archived on our site.
Any plans for a print collection?
Joe: We're looking into several printing options, but there's nothing specific planned just yet.
Alex: One of the biggest obstacles with printing is that a lot of the older pages weren’t made with printing in mind. Reformatting and re-editing all those old pages is a huge workload that’s hard to find time for.
What tools do you use to make comics? Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?
Joe: Alex and I will discuss the overall direction of the story, bringing up a few plot points or interesting scenes we want to work in. I'll then work that into an actual script. Since Alex and I work very closely on writing, the scripts aren't particularly detailed beyond dialog and a few comments on actions and scene layout.
Alex: I sketch the comic on Bristol board with blue lead, and then tighten up the linework with a .3 mm mechanical pencil. After that, I can the page into Adobe Photoshop, and use my Wacom Cintiq tablet to digitally ink and color the comic. I’ve learned a lot of quick tricks over the years to help digitally color faster, but the whole art process from beginning to end can still take up to fifteen hours. Easier pages may take between eight and ten hours. It all depends on the complexity of the page.
Did you do your own website? What software are you using on it?
Joe: I tweak and rework pieces of the website almost weekly, although Alex created the theme our current site is based on. We use Blogger, hosted on our own server, for the front page, Disqus for comments, and iStrip for the main archive. The site is coded by hand, but I use Dreamweaver to visualize the results as I go.
Alex: To distribute the workload of the comic more equally, Joe does most of the site related work.
Do you read other comics? What are you reading online or in print?
Joe: I don't read many print comics, but I do follow a ton of webcomics. I read a lot of story based strips like Zap!, OOTS, Good Ship Chronicles, Gunnerkrigg Court, and The Zombie Hunters, and a few gag strips like Book of Biff, Penny Arcade, XKCD, and SMBC. This isn't even a tenth of the complete actual list, but you get the idea.
Alex: I’ll mention some of my friend’s lesser known but still very entertaining webcomics. My friend, Mindy, does a series called White Noise. It’s about a post-apocalyptic earth where humanity has been divided by an alien invasion. Wren, a boy mutated by alien experimentation, struggles to survive in a hostile environment and a racist society. I’m always impressed by the layers of personality she writes into her characters. Her art is also really fantastic.
My friend Ed does Middlecenter. It’s a furry comic that’s a tongue-in-cheek parody of the fantasy genre. It’s definitely a must for anyone who likes jokes that are ‘so bad they’re good’. His artwork is always improving, too.
Long time NNFB fan and forum-goer Brian does Reaper 7 . It’s sort of a techno fantasy world full of empires and conspiracies. The main characters are a couple of ex-enemies brought together to try and stop ancient forces from spiraling the world into anarchy. The writing is spot on, and there’s a lot of potential behind his current art style.
A few other comics I read regularly that Joe didn’t mention are Atland, Errant Story, Kagerou, Feywinds, and College Roomies from Hell.
Did you read comics as a kid? Which ones? What are your influences from comics today?
Joe: As a kid I mostly read daily newspaper comics, although I did get my hands on some old X-men comics that somehow made it into my grade school library. NNFB is mostly inspired by anime and manga, particularly Rurouni Kenshin, which we had originally intended No Need for Bushido to directly parody. Although the influence from Kenshin is undeniable in some areas of the comic, NNFB has really changed into an entirely different story.
Alex: I do have a holy trinity of Japanese comics that I pull a lot of influence from: Rurouni Kenshin, Berserk, and Blade of the Immortal. All three have a heavy emphasis on swords, which I’m very keen on. I really like swords.
Other non-comic influences on your art and/or writing?
Joe: NNFB takes a strong visual cue from cinema, particularly when it comes to camera angles and pacing. No Need for Bushido is only a few steps away from being a storyboard.
Alex: Joe and I both think in terms of motion picture when story telling, and we’ve had plenty of readers tell us the comic reads like a movie. Plenty of influence is taken from Akira Kurosawa films and other samurai epics. The fight scenes are heavily influenced from anime like the Kenshin series and Samurai Champloo. There’s clearly some The Matrix in there, too.
What is it about comics that leads you to pour your creative impulses into that form as opposed to writing or some other art form?
Joe: From a writing standpoint, comics allow me to focus more on dialog and plot rather than detailing every small action or detail, which Alex can really express directly through the comic's art. I have a lot of respect for straight out prose, but the comic format allows me to be pleasantly surprised when I see the final product, which runs through Alex's own interpretation.
Alex: I love to draw and I love story telling, so comics just seem like the best choice, really. Also, doing webcomics allows me to tell my own story instead of illustrating an idea that’s not my own.
Any other creative endeavors you're working on?
Joe: Most of my projects – side comics, flash animations, etc. are NNFB related. This year I created a flash program called “The Comictron” which allows users to make their own sprite comics using NNFB and Zap! characters and scenes. I'm still working on expanding this project to have a lot more features.
We are about to launch a new podcast called Gutter Talk with Pascalle of Zap! And Mindy of Doom 'N Stuff. We'll be discussing webcomics and whatever else comes up through reader email and comments and guests.
Alex and I have several unrelated comics in mind either to work on after No Need for Bushido ends, or possibly concurrently with NNFB if webcomicing manages to become our full time jobs.
I liked messing around with The Comictron! That looked like a large chunk of work - how long did you spend programming it?
Joe: Thanks! It was a lot of work, but mostly because I had never really programmed anything in Flash before. The Comictron took about 2 months to make, then an additional week to completely redo once I figured out what I was doing. The process of making The Comictron was tedious, frustrating, and completely worth it.
There are a number of such "make a comic" sites out now (another one called Comic Brush debuted pretty recently) - is your site something you're hoping will grow in scope and popularity?
Joe: I'd really like to greatly expand the feature set for The Comictron – user made custom characters (you can see a functioning preview of that here), a way to export, host, and archive comics, and a ranking/comment system. Most of these are way beyond my current abilities, so I have a lot of learning to do before I can make any of that a reality. I don't know if it will ever grow into its own separate site, but I'm open to that possibility.