In keeping with our series of local Los Angeles comics talent, today we’re speaking with Karl Altstaetter, who has worked in various creative capacities on everything from early Image projects, to Marvel and DC work-for-hire gigs, to his current labor of love with MTV (more on that later).
As you will soon see, Karl’s years of experience really shine through in his answers, so I’m just going to shut the hell up and let him get to the good stuff…
FAT: Karl, let’s start with your early days in the comics biz. How did you get your first foothold in what was, at the time, a pretty dynamic period for our industry?
KA: I was a serious reader when I was a kid and that made me want to start writing. I had friends that were into comics and they introduced them to me during lunch at school. We would create characters and talk about stories for them. Wild stuff that makes little sense but is pure imagination. I started drawing comics as a way to express those stories and characters. I always wanted to draw and write comics professionally but I also wanted to teach so I had a plan A and a plan B. I started sending my samples to comic companies at about 14. I got tons of rejection letters until Carl Potts an editor at Marvel at the time sent me some great comments which really inspired me to refine what I was doing. I ended up getting some work from a few small publishers which was great experience. Eventually I met Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio and Scott Williams at a store signing. They hired me as an assistant and that was my entry to working for Marvel and DC. Than the big Image explosion happened and I worked for various studios until I got the idea to form my own publishing company, Hyperwerks.
FAT: Can you elaborate a bit more on the application process and your eventual hiring by the Homage/Wildstorm crew? I’m sure any aspiring indie creators reading this interview would kill for such an opportunity (myself included). In retrospect, was there something you said or did that clinched the job for you or, at the very least, set you apart from the other fans at that store signing?
KA: There wasn’t an application process during that time. The studio didn’t even have a name. It was just some guys sharing the same space while they worked. When I joined those guys they were not big names yet so it was more organic and relationship based. At the time, I fit in with that group. We had chemistry, which is important when you are doing labor intensive work in a tiny space with a group of artists that demand quality and have the egos and skills to back it up. That was actually the most exciting part for me, being around creative people that set such a high bar for themselves.
Back to the idea of relationships. It’s really all about relationships in Mainstream comics. The more people you know and that are familiar with your work the better chances you have of getting work. More so than any other industry I’ve been in. Comics really lives and breathes who’s in, who is out with what person in power. People give jobs to their friends. In some ways, that’s great but, in other ways, it makes for a very closed industry. If you are not in the clique, you need to get in the clique. I think that’s especially so with writers. With artists it’s a little bit different, because the quality of the physical work can speak for itself and that can help you in the door. For writers, you really have to have someone recommend you or in some cases make so much noise as an Indie creator that you appear on their radar. It’s also tough on writers because one writer can write multiple books. It cuts down on the amount of available spaces for gigs.
That being said, I think the industry is moving more towards the animation model. The stories will be created by an editorial staff and given out to writers who will flesh them out. The art will be outsourced to other countries. From a business standpoint, I see why the Big Two would want to go this way. It’s much better to promote characters than to promote the artists/creatives. Promoting artists builds their brand, not the companies’ brand. Taking the celebrity element out of the equation makes sense for them. I personally think that mainstream comic readers share a lot with fans of music. They want to see their favorite artists doing the hits. They want to see Jim Lee drawing Batman and Joe Mad drawing X-Men etc. It’s those pairings of IP and artist that really excites people and sells tons of books. It’s no secret formula it’s just counter to modern IP management thinking. It’s hurt mainstream comics in a big way. Not having the biggest names on the biggest titles monthly has sort of chopped off the head of popular comics. There was a time when you could get Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, John Byrne and George Perez in the same month. Month in Month out. Now you see an artist on a book for two or three issues and then a guest or some other team for a few months. The era of the consistent run as a standard seems to be over.
In some ways that’s why in recent years readers have begun to look more at Indie creators. There is a sense that what they are getting from an Indie book is a direct interaction with the creator. Indie creators tell stories that mean something to them. It’s about their vision and their voice. That’s why you don’t see guest artists on their books. It would just go against the vision of the book. As the world becomes more and more connected the “singular vision” of a creator becomes more and more interesting to a larger and larger group of viewers. In essence the mainstream has given up on promoting the singular vision of creators, and Indie books have filled that void.
FAT: If I’m wearing my day-job hat at DreamWorks Animation, everything you’re saying right now makes sense to me. Now, you just alluded to Marvel and DC, and many indie creators view creator-owned books as an entree into the “Big Two.” Yet your career seems to have the opposite trajectory. Is this happenstance or all part of a master plan?
KA: Part of it was because of where my career started. I was part of the group of creators caught in the wave of the Image explosion. That sent ripples through the industry and talent went one way or the other. Either you hooked up with Marvel and DC or you worked form the Image owners. I fell into the Image camp which was a lot more profitable and had a lot more creative freedom. I also worked for Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, which are two creators who always had their eyes on owning their characters and the larger picture of how you benefit from owning those rights. Their perspective sort of rubbed off on me early in my career. I always felt like I should own what I create, which I think was something that took hold in the post Image generation of creators.
From a creative standpoint I really just wanted to write and draw my own stories. I love Batman and Iron Man as much as the next person but I never had the burning desire to play in the toy chest of the Big Two. I think it’s more of a challenge to make your own ideas. Creating directly from my imagination is what really thrills me and inspires me to make more comics.
FAT: To that end, can we go back a bit and have you speak to your eventual choice to go the self-publishing route with Hyperwerks? What was the spark that led you to apply what you picked up from Jim and Rob towards your own material?
KA: I mainly just wanted to own what I created. I had some bad experiences with ownership of my ideas and the contributions I made to certain characters and comics. I learned that owning what you create and managing what you create is the most important thing you have as a creator. Writing and drawing is a marketable skill, but in comics there is no retirement plan. Your retirement plans are the ideas you own.
FAT: How, then, would you characterize the differences between work-for-hire and going the indie route? Is one fundamentally better than the other?
KA: I wouldn’t say one is better than the other because they are such different routes into the industry. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve. It also depends on the ownership level you want to engage in. When I say ownership I mean of the ideas you create and the ownership of the small business you are creating by self-publishing. I can totally understand not wanting to take on the extra pressure of marketing your ideas and selling them. Some creators find the challenge of creating enough others want to bring their creativity into every aspect of the comic/publishing process. It’s all about the individuals goals.
FAT: One of the refrains I’ve heard at many self-publishing seminars is how marketing your material almost rates as a full-time job unto itself. In looking back at your time at Hyperwerks and now with your current projects, are there certain essentials or shortcuts that the indie creators in the wings should keep in mind?
KA: I think every creative person feels a need to have some hand in how they are promoted and how their work is presented to the public. It’s no doubt a full time job. As I mentioned before, this side of self-branding etc. isn’t for everyone. It does take a lot of time and for a lot of creators the struggle with having to learn an entirely new skill set. Which in some cases may go directly against the artistic persona they have adopted. I think the process of presenting your brand to the public sort of goes in stages and you need to have a purpose behind what you are doing. When I say purpose I mean you need to have some goals. Awareness for your work, awareness for your ideas/IP, marketing and selling of your work. Having a specific idea I think helps you manage your time on that side of things and helps you get back to making art and creating.
As far as shortcuts. I’m not sure there are any. You just need to be honest with your work and understand what about it appeals to people and focus on presenting that out to the world. Keep the message simple and let it be organic.
FAT: You have a pretty strong web presence: blogs, Twitter, and DeviantArt, to name a few venues. Are these meant to supplement your printed works, interact with fans, or are you blazing a trail into what many consider the future of the comics industry — digital?
KA: I feel like digital is ultimately the way all comics concepts will reach their readership. How we define what a comic is and or how it interacts with other storytelling ideas and technology platforms is really interesting to me. I’m always looking for different and unique ways to tell a story so being aware of how to reach viewers/readers in this space is important to me. Comics in particular, I think, are very well suited for the digital space. They can be created by individuals at a very low cost and by using the reach of technology you can tell almost any type of story to any sized audience and it can reach and retain them. I also think for the fast moving and fast thinking Indie creators it gives you an advantage to our maneuver the larger companies in the digital space. Where comics can go in the digital space creatively and business wise has just scratched the surface. It’s exciting.
I see print as just another way to reach a potential reader. The focus on print vs. digital is a moot point. All ideas for reaching an audience need to be on the table for creators so I don’t really separate them. It’s all part of your creative and business strategy.
As for reaching out to readers through the web, I sort of see myself as a micro brand that has different divisions. I have an Intellectual Property division that creates ideas and releases them to in various forms at various prices with various goals. Sometimes those goals are to make money other times they are about building awareness. The one constant is the creative integrity of what I’m creating. How I distribute or display what I create is a different mindset than what I create. Two different hats, so to speak. I also feel like I have a pure art division of my micro brand. It’s just about imagery. Myself as an artist and how I present my purely visual works to the world. I’d say a sub brand would be how I market myself as a freelance artists which is more geared towards product development and my artistic skills as a resource.
FAT: OK, here’s the de rigueur comics fan question. Favorite comic of all time?
KA: My favorite comic of all time is Ronin by Frank Miller. I have others that come close but Ronin is it. Ronin to me is more important than Dark Knight because it’s a major creator telling a creator owned story in his own way. The art is unapologetic and diverse. It’s the most Indie move I’ve ever seen a major creator in comics take. It’s inspiring.
FAT: Are you a native Los Angeleno, or do you hail from another city? If so, what’s the comics “climate” in your old town vs. LA? Is one city more comics-friendly than another?
KA: I’m native. LA is a strange place for many reasons but in terms of meeting other creators, networking and building creative relationships it’s awesome. As far a comic scene, I think it has regional collections of creators that work together. I interface with a couple of those groups. As far as launching a comic in LA. LA is not a good convention town for comics. You are better off launching your book and showing it off in other towns. If you want to do signings, there are some fantastic Indie friendly stores here.
FAT: I’d really like to hear more on your assessment of LA not being a convention town because, despite the title of this column, I couldn’t agree more. In a town tied almost exclusively to the entertainment industries and that is constantly looking for the next million dollar idea, why is it that Los Angelenos just don’t seem to check out indie comics?
KA: I think the creative community supports Indie projects, but LA is a huge place that is spread out. The fans here are a bit jaded and they seem to respond to mainstream creators and projects more so than Indie creators. I think LA is infatuated with creative people from different places. Maybe that’s the Hollywood influence. Maybe Love and Rockets is the only homegrown Indie book to be beloved by LA hipsters.
FAT: Finally — and perhaps most importantly to you — what can you tell us of your involvement with MTV?
KA: I met Tom Akel and Bradley Hatfield, the minds behind MTV Geek, a new site from MTV that focuses on all the cool stuff like comics, video games, toys, Anime etc. They knew about some of my past work and they asked me if I would be interested in doing an original exclusive comic book series for them. I pitched them an idea and they were into it. That idea is called Me2 and it’s about a young girl with multiple personalities and each of the personalities has it’s own super power. It’s a bit of a dark, action packed story. The first book is available through Comixology for the Ipad and Iphone. I’m midway through book 2 right now. Partnering with MTV has been great because this story is perfectly suited to their viewers and it gives me a chance to introduce my work and comics in general to a new audience.
FAT: As a comics fan and a Psychology major from my college days, this sounds like a fantastic concept for a book. How much research went into Multiple Personality Disorder? And, on the topic of timeliness, how many months do you want to put between the books? Is that by design or MTV decree? I ask, because many indie creators have, for various reasons, a difficult time in meeting deadlines and their building momentum and readerships are often the casualties of those delays.
KA: I did quite a bit of research on Multiple Personality Disorders, especially how it relates to Post Traumatic Stress disorder. I wanted to have the basis of what the character was going thorough have a basis in reality and for the reader to want to understand what she is going through and perhaps questions the main characters sanity and if her point of view is real or just another one of many personalities floating around in her head. It’s been a challenging story to write because I didn’t gloss over the problem and get on to ass kicking super hero stuff. What the character Crystal is going through is difficult and terrifying. Coming to grips with who you are and how you relate to the world is a big part of the story. I’ve explained it like how when you are a teenager you explore different parts of who you may end up being. She is doing that but on a much larger scale. The personalities are so well defined you may begin to wonder if they are parts of her or separate people trapped inside one person. There is a mystery there.
As for the amount of time, I wanted to get more of the story out but I felt it was important to make sure the quality was there. I’m not taking any shortcuts with the art and the story so it’s taken more time but in the end I think it will be worth it for readers of the story and those that follow my work.
Once again, I’d like to thank Karl for his time and for sharing his years of experience and expertise with us. Selfishly, these things feel like mini-Masters courses in self-publishing to me, and I learned at least ten new approaches that I’ll be applying to my own future works.
As always, please do yourselves a favor (and kindly repay Mr. Altstaetter for all of his free advice) by checking out Me2 at MTV.com.
Richard A. Hamilton is a Los Angeles resident for 12 years running the founder of Dial “C” for Comics and the writer/publisher of Return of the Super Pimps and Miserable Dastards. In his free time, he seeks out new Indie comics, local beers, and –on good days — both.