FAN ABOUT TOWN – Interview with Mark Steger of Gearboxcomic.com

Image courtesy of Gearboxcomic.com

Image courtesy of Gearboxcomic.com

Hi, Los Angelenos and other assorted Indie Comics fans! We’re back from “Summer Break” with a new addition to our LA interview series, this time speaking with Mark Steger of Gearboxcomic.com.

To be honest, I am floored by the level of artistry and sheer inventiveness at Gearbox. In an era where pundits debate the merits of print versus digital comics, Mark’s work not only contributes to that discourse, but may even show us all the way – or, at the very least, one of the avenues – to the future.

It’s hard to put Gearboxcomic.com into words, so I’ll let Mark do the talking, but please be sure to give your eyes and brains a treat and visit his site post haste. And a word of warning: make sure you do visit on a day when you’ve got some free time to kill. The Gearbox experience is so immersive, I found myself disappearing down the rabbit hole for hours on end! 

FAT: Mark, can you provide us with a summary of your background? I guess this is sort of the basic “secret origin” question, but I’m specifically wondering about when you first got interested in comics and when you decided to actively pursue creating them.

MS: I’ve been interested in comics as a visual medium since a very early age.  I remember drawing them when I was a kid and that’s always stayed with me.

This went hand in hand with my interest in movies and animation.  I made super 8 films with animated characters and had my friends as actors. I’m sure this background is shared by thousands of people.

My comics reading began with the usual exposure to Marvel and DC but, even though I loved some of the art, I was never as interested in Gods and super powers as I was in the human characters that were just really clever and resourceful.

Eventually I became exposed to underground comics and books like RAW magazine.  At the same time I was watching more experimental and international cinema.

All this time I was constantly drawing and painting which led to work in experimental theater and illustration.   In the early 90′s I began working at an animation studio in San Francisco called Colossal Pictures. This is where the classic Liquid TV series was created for MTV. Shows included the original Aeon Flux by Peter Chung, Richard Sala’s Invisible Hands and other animated series.

While I was at Colossal the opportunity arose for me to tour with a crazy performing arts company I started and this pretty much took over the next 15 years of my life.

I started working with this idea for Gearbox at the end of a tour of Asia and it’s stayed with me for years, undergoing many transformations until it reached its current form.

FAT: I’m curious about your background in animation. It seems that there is now, more than ever, a greater cross-pollination between comic book and animation professionals. For instance, my day job is as DreamWorks Animation, but I know that there are tons of animators who do comics “on the side” just for fun and, conversely, there are many comics creators who are looking to supplement their work in animation. Could you speak to what you perceive are the differences and similarities between the two fields?

MS: The association makes sense.  The way sequential art plays out in comics is very filmic and, as I’m sure you know, storyboards look like comics.

The visual vocabulary is very similar.   Though I sometimes have to stop myself from doing endless tweaks, for both animation and comics there is a degree of control you have that is very satisfying.

I think for a comics creator, seeing your words and images given real sound and put in motion is thrilling.

For someone who does animation, the relative immediacy of doing comics is very appealing.  Animation can be a very time consuming process.

When I’m working on Gearbox I’m constantly thinking about how to put the images in motion but the last update I did was purely graphic and for me one of the most satisfying for its simplicity.

There’s also just love for the forms.   Often there’s a point when I’m doing one and I get whimsical and think about how nice it would be to do the other.

I grew up watching and making both illustrations and animation, as I’m sure many people have.  I feel very lucky in that sense to have found some continuity between my childhood and my adult life.

FAT: Yeah, talk about living the dream! Now, what inspired you to go with the multi-media approach of Gearboxcomic.com and parsing out the information in “fragments”? The way visitors are allowed to navigate freely around the site, I’m reminded of the choose-your-own adventure books I used to love as a kid…

MS: I had been kicking around this idea of Gearbox in various forms for years — as a movie, a comic book, an animated film — but it wasn’t until about 4 years ago that I realized it could be an interesting project for the internet.

There are a lot of online comics right now, it’s a good way to self-publish.   But I’m old fashioned and if I’m just looking at images and reading text I’d rather hold it in my hand.  I love the printed medium and hope it’s always with us in some form — I still buy printed books and comics.

The other thing I was starting to see a lot of were motion comics, which are basically limited animation series or shorts.  Some of these are good but I thought there was somewhere else to take the form.

I was always thinking of what’s unique about the internet:  that you can use any type of electronic media, and that you follow links and threads, not necessarily in a linear fashion.

With Gearbox I was able to bring together all my influences and the different forms and media I like to work in.  It was also thought out as a linear narrative but is presented non-linearly.

People often mention Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books when they first see Gearbox and that’s a fair comparison.

I want to keep that element but I also want it to eventually develop as an Exquisite Corpse, where different artists create different threads of the story and go off in whatever direction they want, maybe interweaving theirs with others.

The way it’s parsed out in fragments is partly because it seems like an interesting way to do it, but also because, practically, it’s the only way I can do it right now.  It takes a lot of time sculpting all the different media into a finished form.

FAT:  This is only the second time I’ve ever heard anyone in comics reference “Exquisite Corpse” (the first being our BIC poombah, Dale Wilson, who has been pushing similar boundaries in his MagnificentCreatures.com webcomics). What is it, specifically, about this form of expression that you find so liberating? Do you think the increased number of experimental and non-linear comics we’re seeing now are just a coincidence, or is it perhaps a greater reaction to dissatisfaction with the usual superhero fare?

MS: It’s an interesting way to collaborate. The internet is a natural for it — one person or group of people taking a thread and running with it in whatever direction.  It’s a way to give something a very unexpected life.  With digital media especially, being bound to conventional storytelling (which I love, when it’s done well) can be limiting when you think about the way it functions and what’s possible.

FAT: As you know, many comics collectors are sticklers for continuity and expect each issue of a series to fit into a bag and board. Have you ever met any resistance to your brand of non-linear storytelling? Or is that expectation that everything has to flow from point A to point B the very assumption you’re trying to challenge?

MS: I’m not really concerned about what people think of as the right way to present work.

We’re not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel but we do want to explore the possibilities of the medium and use the medium for its strengths.

I love traditional narrative but I’ve also worked more abstractly and don’t think there is a right way or wrong way to present the work as long as it’s involving.

Gearbox may take a little more attention and be a little more challenging because of the way it plays out but the response has been really great.

I also feel that, after a tremendous learning curve, it’s getting better and I feel more confident about the direction it’s going in.

FAT: Considering your background in both comics and animation, what’s your take on digital comics as they currently stand? It seems like some of the new offerings from Marvel Infinite and even Mark Waid’s Thrillbent.com seem to use some animation fundamentals to help convey their stories. Is there room for more innovation along the lines of motion comics, or does that push us too far into another medium?

MS: I don’t think digital books or motion comics replace printed comics or vice versa.  I think there will always be a desire by a lot of people to possess a printed comic.  I personally love the experience of reading printed ones.  The way they look and feel, the smell of the paper and ink, even how much tooth the paper has — all these things make it a different experience than looking at a screen.  And physical objects like these possess a certain mortality that I appreciate, like vinyl record albums.   You develop a history with them, with the creases and scratches and other ways that they decay that are like scars that call up memories and emotions.

But, that said, it’s a very interesting time for electronic media and I think there’s a natural synergy between those and comics. I’d be crazy to think that more people aren’t aware of this. I think ebooks and comics are a natural fit and I’m not just referring to a book with electronic pages that you turn.  I’m thinking of the other types of interactive functionality that come with new media and how, like the web, you can use animation, video and sound.  I’m forgetting more ideas than we’re actually able to implement.

Kids are growing up now with a relationship to devices and touch technology that’s as natural to them as bulky text books, cassettes and VHS was to my generation.   It’s another tool for artists to create with, like one of my favorite pens or mechanical pencils.

The fact is though that it’s still a very new form and you pretty much need programmers to help you develop any advanced functionality.

But that genie is already out of the bottle and will be granting wishes for a while.

With Gearbox we’re trying to create with all of these tools.   It presents challenges but I’m feeling more comfortable and more possibilities as it progresses.

FAT: So, do you plan on doing collected editions of your comics? Can you even collect them? They’re so hard to define!

MS: Yes but not sure what that looks like, probably something like an ebook which I think will really be a great platform for comics.  The producer on Gearbox, Deborah Stoll, is creating a children’s ebook right now and it’s making us see the enormous potential of that medium.

Of course I’d love to make an actual printed book someday…

FAT: Since the focus of this column is the Los Angeles indie scene, what do you think of LA as a comics town? Clearly, you’re a big proponent of mixed media, so this city has to be a good fit for you, right?

MS: I’m not super knowledgeable about the whole scene but the Indie Comics/Creator Owned movement seems to be building steam.  It’s good to know that there are alternatives to all the Underpants Men comics and movies. I’d actually like to get to Trickster 2 in San Diego.

I think L.A. is a terrific place and I know there are a lot of great artists here in all different media, some of whom I’ve had the good fortune to work with. I also work a lot in film and have had a tremendous amount of support from that community.

We shot the live action for Gearbox and did most of the compositing/FX at New Deal Studios.  It probably wouldn’t exist without them.

So yes, L.A. is a very good fit.

And on that upbeat note, I’d like to once again thank Mark Steger for his time and extremely informative answers. Conversations like these are what stoke my fires about comics all over again! Until next time…

***

Richard A. Hamilton is a Los Angeles resident for 12 years running and the writer/publisher of Return of the Super Pimps and Miserable Dastards.  On his free time, he seeks out new Indie comics, local beers, and –on good days — both. 

 

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