Trevor Hogg chats with Eisner and Harvey Award-winners Adam P. Knave and D.J. Kirkbride about the magic of comic books and Amelia Cole...
|Adam P. Knave|
"My family is full of clever, funny people who can tell entertaining stories and make weird, interesting observations, but I’m the only one who feels compelled to write things down and try to draw sometimes, at least that I know of. They might be holding out on me,” states D.J. Kirkbride whose creative collaborator Adam P. Knave has had a different experience. “My father was a writer and my mother is a writer and editor; she doesn't do fiction, and he did. The idea that I might not end up writing was a baffling one to them, for the small period I considered it.” Comic books were collector items in the Knave household. “My father loved comics and although he had stopped reading them for years before I was born, he kept them. I started by reading Kirby/Lee X-Men books, Steranko Nick Fury stories and the like. I got in on the ground floor of the Marvel universe, by sheer luck.”
“Like Adam, I was introduced to comics by my dad,” explains Kirkbride. “I always loved superheroes through movies, TV, and cartoons, but my dad introduced me to the source material. I remember him coming home from work one day when I was ten so, and he had two comics: The Mighty Thor #318, with a great Walt Simonson cover featuring Thor merged with The Destroyer, and Daredevil #245 which had an Al Milgrom cover featuring the Black Panther and the amazing caption, ‘The Good, The Bad, and THE BLIND!’ My mom asked him if he got those for my brother and me, and my dad hesitated and then admitted that he’d actually gotten them for himself. I’d read comics here and there, but I started getting into them around then, or maybe when the Tim Burton Batman movie came out in 1989. But it’s all my dad’s fault, honestly.”
Besides writing comics D.J. Kirkbride also does script editing and composes poetry. “Writing comics is my clear favourite out of those three, as I can actually only write poetry about ninjas, and script editing is just something I am okay at due to my obsessive nature. I’d like to do some more full-on, collaborative editing in the future.” Along with writing comics Adam P. Knave composes fiction and is a columnist. “It's not the same soup every day for dinner. Each one is a different muscle, and I work on them all to keep myself rounded. Getting better at prose makes me better at comics and so on; it's all about telling stories. The tools, the formats, they all change – the basic concept of telling a story never does. By using multiple tools, I allow my brain to find new ways to recreate tricks from one medium in another, and make brand new tools.”
“Digital comics have a much cheaper buy-in not only for the reader but also the creator,” states Knave. “We don't have printing fees or distribution fees to contend with. It also eliminates the shelf-life problem with physical stores, letting our older issues sell no matter how old they are. DeviantArt can be a great resource for finding new artists. The problem is it is a major time commitment. I've spent easily six hours to find three names and then out of those three I'm lucky if one is right for the project. You can email, but shaking someone's hand will always be a different bond.” Kirkbride observes, “Digital comics make comics available to folks who can’t make it to comic shops for whatever reason, and, since more and more people read everything on their iPads or computers now, it’s just smart to make books available to them. Digital is also great in that books don’t sell out. Amelia Cole #1 and all other previous issues still sell every time a new issue comes out; that’s huge as people can catch up and not avoid a book because they can’t start on the ground floor. As for Deviant Art and other such sites, we’ve met some great artists on that site, from our time as anthology editors, to now when we’re looking for artistic collaborators. Like Adam said, there’s nothing like meeting someone in person, but often that’s not possible.”
Digital publishing is the way of the future. “It’s definitely made it easier for comic book writers not to go flat broke while making comics,” remarks D.J. Kirkbride. “Print is expensive, and often the writer has to be the producer of the book, too. It’s fine and fair in a lot of ways, but it also means that as a writer trying to get projects off the ground, I feel like I have to be rich. Digital takes some of the pressure off in that regard, and it’s also more affordable to the readers. Honestly, I love print, and I’ll always buy print comics, but I’ve come around to digital thanks to doing this book and checking out the other MonkeyBrain books. It’s a great way to get comics made and to get readers, two of my favourite things.” Adam P. Knave notes, “As D.J. says, print will run you thousands of dollars of risk, per issue, and you get a week of shelf life, generally, for it. Obviously, it's done all the time. But to be able to not have to do it that way is a gift, and one we cherish. The readers can pick up a good story for a buck which is also great news.”
Movie potential is being considered when different proposals are being accessed. “Some publishers, definitely, though that’s not a consideration at MonkeyBrain,” states D.J. Kirkbride. “They are just in it for the comics and the digital versions specifically. While they are always there with advice they’re hands off with the print versions.” Adam P. Knave recalls, “Years ago we had that problem when Hollywood-types were walking Comic-Con and grabbing anything they could get their hands on. It's settled now, though, it seems, and people have gotten smarter, realizing [and this is something we all knew, so no one knows why it took them a few years] a good story matters more than the mere fact it is a comic.” Madman #1 by Mike Allred was a revelation for Kirkbride. “The look of it, the feel of Laura Allred’s bright colours with Mike’s clean lines, and all these interesting, quirky characters… it’s the reason I didn’t give up on comics, honestly. As for a comic book movie, the greatest to me will probably always be Superman: The Movie . There have been so many good to great ones since, but the magic of that particular era, with the crazy 70s fashions, director Richard Donner and main writer Tom Mankiewicz’s choice to make it funny yet earnest, and, of course Christopher Reeve as Superman and Clark Kent; his portrayal is how I’ll always see and hear the character.” Knave finds his personal preferences are always changing with comic books. “My current favourite comic book would be Morrison and Quitely's All-Star Superman. I can reread it weekly and it just makes me happy. As much as I’d agree with D.J. that Superman: The Movie was one of the greatest, I’m giving the nod to Scott Pilgrim . It upped the visual language of comics into film, and pushed everything forward, while still being fun and an adaptation not a slavish remake.”
Delving into the crowded literary world of Young Adult Fantasy was not a worry when producing the comic book series Amelia Cole. “That sort of concern simply cannot enter your mind,” believes Knave. “You find the story you want to tell and tell it. If there are twenty other books about talking otters that month, so be it, you tapped into something. Amelia comes from a desire to tell a female-led, hope-based story. The fantasy aspect of it came along for the ride, but it would have worked as science fiction or any number of things. We landed where we did because it felt right for the characters and for our heads as a story to tell.” Kirkbride admits, “I do have concerns about, ‘Has this been done before?’ sometimes. But one can’t drop it because there are other stories with similar broad strokes. If an idea is developed independently, like Amelia was, that’s valid. The execution of the stories is going to be unique if written from an honest place, which is how Adam and I approach all of our books. There are other young adult magicians and fantasy heroes and heroines out there, but there’s only one Amelia.”
“One of the things that makes Amelia unique to me is that it wasn’t an idea that Adam brought to me to help develop or vice versa,” reveals D.J. Kirkbride. “We were introduced to artist Nick Brokenshire by our friend and fellow writer Tim Simmons; we wanted to work with him so we asked for what kind of comic he’d like to draw. Nick mentioned fantasy and maybe a female lead, and then Adam and I got to talking. I remember clearly wandering around my old neighbourhood on my cell phone after work. Adam and I were tossing ideas back and forth, and Amelia started to develop in that conversation. So much changed story wise, but we had a clear idea of what we wanted. We needed to write an interesting, strong, and believable female character who even amidst all the crazy magic shenanigans felt real and true. Honestly, Amelia is what makes Amelia Cole different to me. Amelia is not only a character I love she’s a character I aspire to be more like; this hit me recently and now I can’t get over that realization. Adam and I are writing someone who is not only a role model for female and younger readers, but also for me. Amelia running toward trouble to help instead of steering clear or minding her own business and not getting involved; I want to be more like her, and it’s an honour getting to write her.” Adam P. Knave remarks, “Amelia Cole feels like the culmination of a few themes I've played with in my prose before. It's the point where I think I've figured it out, and that's entirely due to D.J. and Nick.”
“D.J. and I have been writing together since we met, oddly enough!” chuckles Knave. “We were both working for Shannon Wheeler's Too Much Coffee Man Magazine, and somehow decided we should try co-writing. We honestly cannot remember who approached who with the idea. With scripts we have a system. There is an overview pass that lays out the plot of the whole arc and breaks it down into what needs to happen in each issue. We sit and work that out together, in conversation. Then one of us does a beat pass which is the stuff that happens on each page of a comic, laying it out as simply as possible, ‘This happens, then that.’ We hand it off and the other person does a pass at the script. After that we pass it back and forth to edit. The next issue we reverse who does what.” Kirkbride was impressed by an article written by his colleague about the Klingon language which caused him to laugh out loud. “This lead to us chatting, and he suggested we collaborate, acting as a kind of one-man welcoming committee to the new guy, basically. Then our process is just as Adam said. In the end, we often aren’t sure who came up with what because everything has been fiddled with by both of us. When we write together, it’s not about doing half the work. It creates new work and the results are stories that neither of us would’ve written solo or with a different co-writer. It’s very organic and sometimes intensive, but it’s exciting, and I think having to keep up with Adam’s giant mind has made me a better writer.”
Magical elements are depicted with bright colours in Amelia Cole while the other elements consist of muted tones. “The magic is believable because the characters are,” Adam P, Knave. “They don't treat it like a cheat code, and work for it. It comes across as a thing that exists. We also have a bunch of rules that the reader never needs to know, but that keep us honest. The colouring differences are all Nick and Ruiz, making the exciting visuals pop.” D.J. Kirkbride explains, “With magic, we try to keep the internal logic sound, so that the rules we’ve made up work and feel logical within the worlds we’ve created and our story. We don’t want to over explain anything, because the more we try to explain, the more questions might arise. So long as we can keep it all consistent in our brains, it should come through in the writing.” The other challenge is writing from the perspective of a female in her 20s. “We approach writing her as Amelia first, female second or third. By that I mean that once we decided to have a female lead, that’s kind of where my conscious thinking about her being female ended. Sometimes she might seem more feminine than, say, Hector the Protector, but I’m more feminine than him most of the time, too. I go with my gut a lot with this writing. Adam might have a more intellectual take on it.” Knave points out, “Here's the thing for me: I've also written zombies, monsters from other dimensions, children, and brutal killers as lead characters and no one has ever asked me if it is difficult to get into THEIR heads!”
Could Amelia Cole and Buffy the Vampire Slayer be friends? “I like the Buffy comparisons a little better than Adam does,” says D.J. Kirkbride. “They would probably be buddies, as their both kind of alpha-types who do their best to protect the good folks from the bad ones. If anything, Amelia might give Buffy a pep talk or two, maybe some tough love sass here and there, as Buffy could sometimes get a little more mopey or down on her situation than Amelia will allow herself to. That’s not a slam against Buffy, and Amelia should probably accept and explore her feelings more sometimes, but she’s a lady of action.” Adam P. Knave believes, “They could be friends, but never close friends. Amelia would be a bit put off that Buffy was this ‘chosen one’ and hadn't had to scrape by and earn it all herself. What makes Buffy a better slayer than Willow? She's The Chosen One. That's it. Some Hand of Fate decided it. Amelia is far more of a ‘do it regardless of what someone says’ type of person.” An impressed Kirkbride replies, “That’s a great point, Adam, and I can’t believe I didn’t realize it! Yeah, Amelia would definitely NOT put up with the ‘Chosen One’ shtick. We make it a point that Amelia isn’t a chosen one or inherently any more special than anyone else. The reason she’s the lead of the book and taking all the other characters by surprise is her internal fortitude and unwillingness to give up, not some ancient text or beings telling her she’s a big deal. Amelia IS a big deal, but in the same way we could all be, by working harder than everyone else and not quitting when things get tough.”
Different storylines have to be kept track of for individual issues while maintaining an overall story arc. “We talk a lot and go over where the story is leading and where we are,” states Adam P. Knave. “It comes down to project management skills, as dull as that sounds.” D.J. Kirkbride remarks, “We start with a general idea, with a general beginning and end point. We can veer and adjust here and there, but we know where were going enough to get there and not get too confused.” Ideas need to be articulate to artist Nick Brokenshire, letterer and designer Rachel Deering, and colour assistant Ruiz Moreno. “We have fairly detailed page breakdowns and descriptions in our scripts. Unless we need something specific, we are pretty general on the character designs. Adam, Nick, and I all had a learning curve at first, with us giving notes to him on the layouts before he started pencilling the pages. Once we had a couple issues under our belts things started clicking. Now it’s a well-oiled machine with Nick sending us his inks, and Adam and me giving him art notes like, ‘Great job!’ and ‘Awesome work!’ Then Ruiz Moreno does the flats, Nick does the finished colours, and the pages look snazzy. For the lettering, Rachel, who is a terrific writer herself, really gets storytelling, and aside from catching typos that are our fault, Adam and I mostly give her high fives at this point.” Knave adds, “We write everything out in the script and leave notes where we need a certain effect, or a link to some reference if it matters. Past that, as D.J. says, we've all grown to know how the others think, so we can short hand a lot of it and know how it'll turn out.”
Introducing the main character and her “unknown world” t was not creatively restrictive in the debut six issue series Amelia Cole and the Unknown World. “It isn't as if we had a title and then had to make it work,” explains Adam P. Knave. “We had the story of a woman who goes off to explore a larger world leaving everything she knew behind. We introduced Amelia in the first issue and past that we laid out the world, for ourselves, and set her loose. There were zero restrictions creatively for it. The story we told is the one we had in us.” D.J. Kirkbride agrees. “The title was created to go with the story, not the other way around, so we didn’t necessarily box ourselves in.” Particular sequences are memorable for the co-creators of the series. “The helicopter rescue in issue two, part two of The Unknown World stands out as a moment when Nick shocked me with his storytelling talent,” reveals Kirkbride. “We had maybe six panels described for one of the pages, trying to get all the beats in without going crazy, and then Nick suggested adding more panels! Like, way more. That’s rare in and of itself but his reasoning was also right on the money, as he wanted to show each beat and slow down the storytelling to really get readers into the scene. It was some marvellous storytelling and one of the many times I’ve realized how lucky we are to have Nick on the team.” The conjuring of a sidekick made out of junk captured the attention of Knave. “The first panel where Lemmy is created stands out for me as perfect; that scene could have gone a million ways but Nick's mastery of body language sold it on more levels than we could have dreamed of. Amelia's shock was a physical thing, the eerie way Lemmy comes together, the lighting of it, and sunlight mixing with magic.”
“The biggest challenge to me is when we went from two worlds to three in our planning,” begins D.J. Kirkbride. “Adam said, ‘Let’s set up Amelia’s worlds in the first issue, make people think that’s what the book’s going to be about, and then just pull the rug out from under everyone!’ To which I said, “Buuhhhhh… let me think about it.” We talked more, plotted, schemed, and I feel it was a bold move. The challenge was in making sure readers didn’t feel like the first issue was essentially a dream or ‘imaginary’ or pointless; we have to refer to it and Amelia’s former life. While she’s cut off from the two worlds she knew and lost her aunt and mentor all of it still affects her life. By showing it all still matters, we helped win over some folks who were upset with that twist.” Kirkbride notes, “Some folks get a little annoyed when things go sideways, but that’s part of the fun of writing stories, messing stuff up and then figuring out what the heck to do next.” Knave was surprised by the reaction. “I still don't get why they were upset. We laid out, ‘Here's where we launch from’ and then launched a ship. It's like being mad at a space story because they left Earth and the story isn't about Earth so we don't go back there. But that's me. The biggest challenge I had was the rules of magic. I tend to lay that sort of thing out in broad strokes and navigate it by feel and history, whereas D.J. likes a more concrete set-up. There were some struggles early on with ‘We need a rule’ and ‘But it just makes sense’ while we each found the right middle ground that let the story get told without bothering the readers with rule details, or driving us mad.”
Nuances can be discovered in the imagery such as Amelia tying back her hair into a ponytail after killing a persuasion demon as well as a bystander wearing the Batman T-shirt. That's a Nick touch,” enthuses Adam P. Knave. “He's so great.” Nick Brokenshire also has a big fan in D.J. Kirkbride. “Seriously, I’m still finding little background details and surprise touches that Nick sneaks into the panels for his own amusement; he’s a gem.” Blue and orange coloured skies distinguish the various worlds. “Nick came up with it,” remarks Knave. “The different worlds have slightly different skies and architecture so there is always visual signs as to where we were. When you think that we saw two of them for a handful of pages makes you wonder why all that work was done. There are... reasons.” There were some doubts with the approach from the other half of the writing team. “I started thinking we should get very concrete and blatant about those differences, but Adam talked me down from that kind of rigid thinking. We learned to trust Nick’s visual sense, and his and Ruiz’s colour palette.” Kirkbride explains, “We break down each page panel-to-panel, giving Nick general directions on what panels should be bigger with the caveat that if he thinks of something better, he should go for it. At first we wanted him to run everything by us, but he’s so good that we’ve learned to calm down more and to trust his instincts. It’s all about being clear and telling the story effectively. None of us are into making things look ‘cool’ at the expense of story. We want the words and art to work together to effectively show all the action and acting of the story.”
“How close is the comic to the first idea of the story?” reflects Adam P. Knave. “It’s not at all the same thing.” The first drafts of issues 2 and 3 had to be rewritten upon the realization that “we were telling the strong story in a strange way. It was absolutely right for the story, big things didn't change but a million tiny ones did, adding up to a different heart at the centre.” The age of the protagonist was altered. “Amelia was older, in her 30s, and, by that alone, would’ve been a very different character,” remarks D.J. Kirkbride. “But when we made her younger and realized that, cool magic and adventure aside, the comic we wanted to create was more about her growing as a person than anything else; it all fell into place fairly quickly.” Exposition was incorporated into a particular character trait. “We hit on the idea that Amelia talks to herself, chiding and being annoyed,” reveals Knave. “It lets us slip in exposition at times. Also, a nice cast of supporting characters can let you have a conversation over a beer without it seeming to be forced.” Kirkbride adds, “We try not to get to exposition-heavy. We’ve gotten better at it. Like Adam said, having a lot of it come out of Amelia’s captions/brain chatter helps make it all entertaining instead of dry and too info-dumpy.”
“It’s all about character,” believes D.J. Kirkbride. “Amelia’s captions boxes read so differently than Hector’s that even if they were the same colour, I think folks could tell them apart. Sometimes they have to get exposition-y, but so long as they have a personal, conversational feel, they work. As for the dialogue, the goal is to make every character sound as distinct yet natural as possible, except for The Council. I don’t know what I was thinking when I suggested that madness.” Adam P. Knave observes, “If you want your characters to sound real you have to write them real. But never quite how humans talk. There's a strange line between effective dialogue and real spoken speech. Real speech is always far more rambling. But faking it, so it hits the point where people recognize it as real and individual speech, with the clumsy edges sanded down some, is something you learn by reading and watching TV and listening to people endlessly.” Critical to the packaging of a comic book is the front cover design. “Nick floats ideas by us, but usually we just say, “Go for it!” and have a few notes here and there,” states D.J. Kirkbride. “He came up with the fancy and Mucha-inspired look for The Unknown World covers, which we loved. For The Hidden War, we suggested something a tad darker, with a little more edge, to reflect the difference in the storylines. Nick has delivered each time, reflecting both the issues and also just making cool art that I want framed!” Adam P. Knave remarks, “I'm fairly sure if we told Nick we wanted a specific image he would aim for it, but generally we let him play and create the covers. Nick is an amazing cover artist.” The other half of the writing team adds, “If we asked for something, I’m sure he’d make it work, but in the end we want him excited, because drawing’s a lot of work, and we wouldn’t want to constrain him too much.” IDW has gathered all six issues of The Unknown World series into a single edition. “It's a dream come true,” says Knave. “This is the first collection of a comic I co-wrote to come out in print. It will always be special.” Kirkbride agrees. “This is our first long form story after having shorts in anthologies. It’s a HUGE deal. We’re also fans of IDW as they make great looking, quality books. Getting to work with our trade editor Justin Eisinger has been a treat and a learning experience. I’m so happy to have this book collected… and want to use everything we’ve learned to make future trades even better!”
“I love origin stories, but I also love when they are out of the way,” notes D.J. Kirkbride. “Having said that, part of me still thinks we’re on Amelia’s origin. We have a vision of where we want her to end up, and she’s not there yet. The Amelia in The Hidden War is even more powerful than in The Unknown World; she has to deal with more complicated issues and is trying to maintain her sense of self, humour and justice while navigating a whole new stage. Amelia is still getting started in my opinion, and that’s exciting.” Shorter issues were a major creative challenge when assembling the second series The Hidden War. “Shifting from 22 [though some issues were 28 or 26] pages over 6 issues for an arc to 12 pages over 12 issues forced us to really rethink how we wrote the book,” reveals Adam P. Knave. “We wanted to give readers a full monthly story over 12 pages without it feeling rushed and condensed.” Kirkbride remarks, “We like packing our comics with story, as does Nick, so we were able to make the format shift work.”
“Personally, I loved the first flashback to young Amelia and her dog Lemmy,” answers D.J. Kirkbride when asked about having a favourite moment in The Hidden War series. “I had to convince Adam on this one, but I felt it was important to remind readers where she came from and also show Dani again, albeit a younger version. While we don’t’ want Amelia lamenting her loss and moping, we need to always show that Dani is still very much alive in her memories and her heart. I also get oddly emotional about Amelia’s green eyes, which is something that came out of that scene. I love it and am glad Adam and I worked it out in a way that fits with the story and isn’t just an arbitrary flashback.” Adam P. Knave teases, “There really is. But you haven't seen it yet and I can't say anything.” Knave continues, “We know the rest of the Hidden War arc and the large beats of the third arc.” The co-creators are “playing a long game” with Amelia Cole. “There will be a LOT of evolution, that’s for sure,” believes Kirkbride. “Since this isn’t a corporate book, and we’re not beholden to any bigwig IP concerns, we can allow the characters to change and grow. It’s exciting, and I’m looking forward to contrasting the Amelia from The Unknown World to the Amelia by the end of The Hidden War and beyond.”
The first trade print edition of Amelia Cole and the Unknown World is now available courtesy of IDW Publishing while the adventure continues digitally at ComiXology.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.