A kind of comic book life: Interview with Gary Spencer Millidge

Following on from my previous overview of the comic book series Strangehaven; I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to ask a few questions of the creator – Gary Spencer Millidge.

GSM - Profile
With Strangehaven on a fairly long hiatus; do you feel surprised and/or pleased that fans, new and old, ask when the story will be carried on?

“When’s the next issue of Strangehaven out?” became somewhat of a running joke at all my convention appearances, even if it was the launch day of a new issue. I had always struggled with a regular schedule, due to meticulous and particular method combined with frequently unstable personal circumstances, but somehow always managed to meet announced deadlines, by hook or by crook.

Of course, it can get to be somewhat irritating to be reminded of one’s failing to provide fans with their fix, but essentially of course it’s a tremendous compliment, in that your readers are asking for more. After such a long hiatus, yes, it does increasingly surprise (and touch) me that people still remember the series and want to see it continued as much as I do.

AlanMooreStoryteller_crop

You have several other books you’ve authored and co-authored – Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentlemen, Comic Book Design, Alan Moore: Storyteller being the most well known. Have you found that there’s a different approach or mindset you take on when writing factual works, compared to when you’re creating a visual story?

I think some elements of the process are the same and others are different. I certainly like to think I approach every creative venture in the same, meticulous way, whether it’s a labour of love like Strangehaven, or a work-for-hire book like Storyteller.

The similarity would be in the preparation and research, making notes and planning structure with spreadsheets and flow charts.

The actual writing of factual prose feels pretty much like chipping away at a block of granite with a cheap spoon, trying to reveal the truth of what you want to say, in a concise, accurate, and if possible entertaining way. For me it requires a high degree of concentration to get right.

SH15 - Rough layout interior

Writing a comic – specifically comic book fiction – is different as the core aspect of it is created in the unconscious. If you can get yourself in the right frame of mind, it’s almost like watching a film – or a dream – unfold and all you have to do is take notes. It’s a film that has been running away in there for a number of weeks or years even, and it’ll turn out different depending on when you decide to access it.

After that comes a process of turning that information into rough thumbnail drawings of the page layout, which is the critical point where the visual storytelling becomes apparent.

Then there’s an editing and consolidation stage where I refine the layouts and dialogue until I’m happy with it, which is a more conscious process, more akin to polishing the final draft of a factual piece.

SH - 15 page dev layout

In previous interviews you’ve always stated that your intention has been to complete Strangehaven. Does it ever get frustrating to have an unfinished story in your head or do you write and sketch out those ideas to keep a record for when you can focus on it again?

I wouldn’t trust anything to stay in my head for more than a few seconds without writing it down somewhere. But actually, it was after the second book – that is to say, the twelfth issue, when I decided that I probably needed to plan ahead and plot out the second ‘half’ of the narrative.

Strangehaven was initially conceived as an on-going, soap-opera style format with overlapping storylines, but after working on it for a few years, two things became apparent:

1. I couldn’t create and publish on anything like the schedule I needed to make the whole concept work as I’d anticipated, either creatively or financially.

2. A grander, finite story was emerging as the plot threads gradually became more tightly intertwined.

Almost twenty years on, the concept of the on-going comic book saga is long out-of-fashion, and readers seem to prefer their comics in large, chunky complete volumes – which then makes tedious necessities like marketing and so on so much easier.

Therefore I think it was probably good decision. Since then, I’ve honed, changed, edited, expanded and contracted the script for the remaining pages on several occasions as part of my on-going work on the project.

All that remains really is for me to somehow find the time it’ll take to sit down and draw the damn thing.

Strangehaven Issue 14 cover

With the rise of online reading formats; if you were starting Strangehaven as a new series now would you consider releasing it as a webcomic, rather than self-publishing in printed form? Do you read any e-books or web-based comic series?

I am not a fan of reading comics on the computer. I don’t actually enjoy using the computer for any passive leisure activities like reading fiction or watching streaming TV. I use computers for work, for admin, for communication. I use social media to stay abreast of modern marketing techniques, and to stay in touch with friends.

But I like to watch TV on my TV, films at the cinema, and enjoy books and comics as physical objects. It’s a big debate, and I understand the advantages that digital has over paper, but my personal enjoyment is diminished greatly by digital format.

I think the iPad may be the game changer, but I don’t have one, not yet.

I don’t purchase digital comics, books or magazines, as I’ve never even taken a look at the free ones that I’ve taken the trouble of downloading. I simply don’t have the time or inclination.

Having said that, I certainly don’t have an issue with Strangehaven being made available in digital format, and I have already had a couple of offers to do so. I don’t see it as a web comic though, but rather as downloadable ‘issues’ or volumes, which is a market which seems to be expanding and developing.

But I don’t really want to go launching another format in which the story’s not finished at this point in time, so I will keep my options open until I have finished the entire project, whenever that may be. We may all be flying around in little airships by then.

Comic Book Design

Making choices about being in a creative career can lead to difficult compromises and decisions. Did you have a time where you thought of moving away from a creative career entirely? 

For me, creativity, in one form or other, is a necessity. It’s probably the only way I can usefully define my short time on this planet. Unfortunately financial survival and personal circumstances can take precedence from time to time, and creative industries are rarely the most rewarding.

So, most of my life has been trying to strike the right balance between money, relationships, work, creativity and career. At this moment in time I’d say I haven’t been very successful in doing that. But I have never abandoned at least the hope and intention of working full-time on my creative pursuits.

And I think there are levels of creativity:

My main source of income at the moment is from web site design, which is creative in the sense that you’re creating something from nothing. But a lot of the time it’s spent working with templates and frameworks developed by others, figuring out server issues and coding problems. But there is a certain creative satisfaction when a site is launched.

My non-fiction books like Alan Moore: Storyteller and Comic Book Design are creative to an extent, but I don’t really feel the same pride writing about others’ work as I do about creating my own. Even working on original comics, but with characters created by someone else, as I did with the Simpsons strip I wrote and drew for Bongo Comics, doesn’t give me anywhere near the same sense of accomplishment (even though it pays a lot better).

There are freelance projects which are both creative, and can help to pay the bills. But they do remain to various degrees, frustrating from a creative point of view.

As a self-publishing comic creator I have been spoilt with the concept of owning my own (in modern parlance) ‘intellectual property’ and doing more of that kinda stuff is where I hope my future lies.

Additional note: Strangehaven is due to return in May 2014. Further details can be read at Gary Spencer Millidge’s post The Long Awaited Return of…