An Interview with Brian Babendererde, Creator of Soul Chaser Betty
Brian Babendererde started serializing his comic Soul Chaser Betty on the web in 2001. Later in 2003, it became one of the titles on the Graphic Smash anthology website. Serialization of the comic continued throughout 2004 until the story was finished. I know -- a webcomic adventure tale with a beginning and an end, fully published online within approximately four years. Normally that might take a decade or more! Okay maybe a slight exageration, but it strikes me that Babendererde's initial run on Betty is no small accomplishment, given how many dramatic, longer-form comics run off the rails for long hiatuses before finishing (if ever).
So why are we talking about a webcomic dating from the beginning of the decade? Well in 2007 Bebendererde went back to the comic to redo many of the panels and re-work some of the story, in preparation for publication as a stand-alone graphic novel in print. The book has been available for awhile but more recently Bebendererde placed it in the Diamond monthly catalog making it available to comic book stores. I was interested in talking with Bebendererde about how the new push for the book is going and what it's like to work on a specific comic over the course of almost a decade.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? What's a typical day for you like recently?
Sure. I work as a freelance artist, writer and game designer, in addition to my work as a graphic novelist, so it can be pretty hectic on most days. Recently I’ve had to split my time between promoting Soul Chaser Betty, working on art and scripts for video games, as well as trying to find time to create new material for my next project.
What's your freelance work like?
Some of the more well know titles that I’ve worked on include PSI-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy (XBOX / PS2), SepterraCore: Legacy of the Creator (PC) and Beavis and Butt-head in Virtual Stupidity (PC). Game design is something that I’ve been involved in for about 18 years, so I have a lot of older games on the resume as well for such classic consoles as the SNES and Genesis. It’s something that I love doing just as much as comics. I used to do it full time until about 2001, but I switched to working freelance to allow myself more time to work on my own art and comics.
Give me the 30 second "convention pitch" for your comic.
Soul Chaser Betty is the story of girl spending her summer vacation with her Grandmother in the country…Fighting monsters, renegade necromancers, chaos demons, undead zombies – your usual summer activities. Oh yeah - and it takes place in the awesome 1980’s.
Of course the story is much more than that, and I go on to talk about the depth of the mythology, the characters and the great action as well. But people get hooked by the basic idea and the ‘80s nostalgia, then find the story threads that take it beyond that initial hook.
Let's talk about the book. When did the Soul Chaser Betty graphic novel come out? What's the availability of it now?
The book originally came out in the spring of 2007, but its availability was limited to direct sales from my website.
Now, the book has launched into comic stores across North America via Diamond and Previews. It appeared in the December 08 catalog (Catalog# DEC084285) and hit stores in February 09. So you can ask your local comic store to grab you a copy, or you can always order a signed copy from my site at www.TwilightTangents.com/betty.
What's the reaction to it been?
The response has been great. I’ve had some great reviews by places like Ain’t-It-Cool-News, and some not so great - but you can’t please everybody. Retailer reaction was very positive, and in general I have some great fans and readers that have followed the story when it was originally online, or later discovered it with the release of the book. People respond to the characters and the mythology of the world, and that’s been very rewarding for me.
Jennifer Contino did a nice interview with you at Comicon that really got into the details of the graphic novel. You talked a lot there about the research into various cultural mythologies. How did you go about using that in the story -- is it primarily one cultural tradition you're drawing from was it simply taking interesting bits from each?
Part of the creative process for me is building fantasy worlds. I do that for the RPG and science fiction games that I’ve worked on. Therefore, one of my primary interests as a writer is world mythology. The creation of Betty was no different, and in fact the original idea began as a pitch for a video game. When it transitioned into a concept for a graphic novel I spent quite some time researching some of the core ideas I had originally had for the demons, creatures and gods that were to make appearances in the story.
Part of the fun of this research phase is looking at a large cross section of mythology and religion, and drawing connections between those traditions that are new and unique. From there new ideas and concepts build upon the core traditions. In that respect, I drew ideas and inspiration from diverse places, such as Judeo-Christian, Norse, Hindu, Buddhist, American Indian, Egyptian and general Middle Eastern folklore. Because humans are very similar in terms of the basic story telling of their mythology, these diverse traditions often touch on many of the same themes and ideas. There is always something that eventually connects them and can be spliced together to create a more cosmopolitan mythology for a story. Joseph Campbell’s classic work The Hero with a Thousand Faces is definitely at the heart of my use of mythology.
The graphic novel was serialized originally online -- do you think the experience of posting it online as you were creating it had an impact on the final result? And how much work did you do in revising the online comics before publishing the graphic novel?
Yes, the end result changed as a result of the serialized format. I generally posted the book in updates of about 12 pages - that’s about a half a chapter at once. Although it seems that kind of schedule wouldn’t necessarily lead to that much more feedback than a traditional print schedule of 6 issues, in reality the feedback is immediate online and can influence the creation of pages that are still under development, whereas with a traditional print schedule the later issues probably would have been at least fully blocked out with preliminary art before the first one even hit stores.
Having said that, it’s important to note that the story was fixed from the outset, and that I never waivered from the original overall plan. But based on the feedback on what people liked, what readers wanted to know more about, and how I myself may have changed my priorities, the story as it developed scene to scene was strengthened with additions, deletions and tweaks.
As far as the book goes, yes, I did a lot of revising before printing. Most artists get better at drawing their characters and hone their style as a story goes on, and I was no different. So I went back and redrew hundreds of panels in the story, especially in the earlier chapters, before going to press. I redid a lot of special effects, shading and lettering as well, in order to make the entire book feel more consistent. Finally, I went back and added several pages throughout the story to extend a few key scenes that I felt were a little too short the first time around.
I consider the graphic novel to be the Director’s Cut!
Is there any more stories in the Soul Chaser Betty universe you plan on telling online or in print?
I love the characters, and I’d like to revisit them someday. However, I don’t have any immediate plans to do another Betty story. I have some ideas and notes locked away somewhere, but in the meantime I’m concentrating my time on working on new concepts.
Do you read other comics? What are you reading online or in print?
Oh yeah, I read a lot of comics, not in the sense that I read everything out there, but I tend to find series and authors I like and then devour everything that’s available. In that respect, I tend to collect graphic novels of a series that I like and then read them all in a row. I prefer that to the monthly dose approach. Some of my favorites include the original Battle Angel Alita, Hellboy, Naussica, Blade of the Immortal, Sin City, Strangers in Paradise, Video Girl Ai, Akira and pretty much anything by Alan Moore. Recently, I’ve been reading the new Dark Horse printings of the classic Savage Sword of Conan and getting into The Walking Dead.
I don’t honestly read a lot of online books – I tend to like to have a book in my hand. But a great online book to check out is Dirk Tiede’s Paradigm Shift, (which is also available in book form).
How do you go about promoting your work? What seems to be most effective at pulling in new readers?
Honestly, I don’t feel that I’m all that great at it. I know artists that are incredible at generating buzz about their work through their online presence, and I know artists that simply let their work speak for themselves. I’m probably somewhere in the middle. I try to make sure there is a presence on the web, to advertise the book online and to look for ways to get the word out any way I can, from speaking at local cons, to calling hundreds of comic stores directly to put Soul Chaser Betty on their radar. You can’t sit back and hope people will find your work, you have to get out there and make people aware of it, but at the same time you can’t annoy the world at large by jumping up and down and screaming about it 24/7 . Bottom line: be professional, enthusiastic and confident, but never arrogant, about your work.
Unfortunately, like many artists, I’m way more comfortable behind a drawing desk in my studio than being a salesman!
What conventions are your favorites to exhibit at? What advice do you have for others just starting to show their work at conventions?
I tend to stick to local cons, but I’m lucky to live near a large city where there are plenty of shows. I absolutely love Anime Central here in Chicago. The people there are great, it’s friendly to artists and the fans are very fun. Wizard World Chicago is the next show I always make sure I’m at, but it’s much easier there for small press to get lost in the super hero shuffle.
My advice is to go to lots of shows in your area. Test the waters and see which shows you have a good time at, and which ones are duds. Even very small shows can be great for getting the word out, because a small show can be more intimate - artists and fans have more time to interact. And it’s the fans and readers that can drive word of mouth, both locally and online, to new readers and retailers.
What tools do you use to make comics? Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?
When it comes time to do a new chapter I first pull out the script and re-read and tweak the chapter that I wrote a month before. It’s always good to let some time pass between writing it and drawing it, as you’ll have a better perspective on the story after some time has passed.
Every page starts as a tiny thumbnail layout where I work out the meta-panel design of the overall page and panel flow. I do this for the entire update or chapter at once, making sure it all flows together. From there, I break each page down when I’m ready to create it as a sketch on regular 8.5x11” printing paper, nothing special. This in my “underdrawing” stage, where the panels get set out, figures drawn in, and indications of expression and props are added – there is no detail yet. The page is then scanned into Photoshop, where I might play with composition, scale and arrangement. That image is then enlarged, printed out and transferred to a lightweight smooth 11”x14” Bristol. At this point most of the heavy lifting is done - the page exists with figures, action and panels. All that needs to be done is to add the details and create finished drawings.
That final penciled page is then scanned back into Photoshop and exported to Painter, where it’s inked using a Wacom stylus, using Painter’s excellent pen and ink and light box tools to freely ink the page exactly as I would at my drawing desk, but with the added bonus of an Undo button and multiple layers.
The finishing shading is done in Photoshop, where I may also add other elements, such as screen tone, textures and speed lines. Finally, the letters are created in Illustrator and imported into Photoshop as a separate layer.
Did you read comics as a kid? Which ones? What are your influences from comics today? Other non-comic influences on your art and/or writing?
Yeah, I grew up reading whatever comics I could find at local garage sales. There was nothing quite like the joy of finding a stash of comics going for pennies, bringing them home and just reading all day long. Superheroes, monster books, mysteries, horror - what ever it was, I read it.
I eventually became a Marvel kid, and followed most of the Spiderman titles. As I got into my teens I transitioned into the black and white books that exploded in the 80’s, like TMNT, and then into Manga. As an adult I’ve pared down my interests and usually go for the small press, creator driven series and more sophisticated Manga.
I’d say that my comic influences are pretty much based on my favorites, which I listed above. As for non-comic influences, I love dark fantasy movies, stuff like Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson and Del Toro. The tone of classic stuff like the Dark Crystal and The Empire Strikes Back and newer films like Brotherhood of the Wolf are always in my mind, although Betty is not really an example of that style.
For writing and books, I tend to read a lot of classic early fantasy, from well known stuff like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, to more obscure authors like Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison. It really feeds my love of fantasy world creation and mythology. Of course, it all stems from an early infatuation with Tolkien that continues to this day.
Any other creative endeavors you're working on?
It seems like I am always working on something new. Since Betty’s initial run ended I have been focusing on writing and creating a new fantasy world setting to tell stories in, but so far it’s been tough to find the time to seriously work on it, especially with the Soul Chaser Betty graphic novel hitting stores this February. However, I hope to be working on something concrete in the near future.
Of course, readers can check out my website at www.twilighttangents.com to see the latest color art prints and sketches, check out the gaming scale miniatures that have been created based on some of my fantasy art, and generally see what I’m currently working on.