We here at Kabooooom have been loving the comics of James Muholland (check out Erik Radvon’s review of PROUD). Editor Isabel Hsu sat down to chat with James about his creative process, inspirations, and upcoming projects. Read on to get the full scoop!
Comics are more recently discovered for me. I come from a small town in Ireland called Dundalk. We don’t have a comic shop so I never grew up around them. I grew up loving the Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men TV shows on Cartoon Network and Fox, though. Then, a few years ago I came out of the Thor movie and a friend of mine was telling me about Planet Hulk and World War Hulk; they sounded amazing to me so I got them both in trades. My love for comics began there, so I’ve been reading a lot since around 2010 – 2011.
And how long have you been creating comics?
Not long. I wrote my first 22 issue comic back in October called Minority, which still hasn’t been completed yet. By Christmas, I was bored waiting around so I decided that I wanted to do some web-comics to get better at the craft of writing comics, release them for free, and get feedback to improve. I also set myself the challenge that each of my web-comics had to be written in a day (from idea to full script). I only give myself one lettering pass at the end before I put it online. I wanted to do this to put myself under pressure, to see what I could come up with if I had deadlines on me. So I ended up releasing my first story, A Dead Good Friend, Part 1 in March 2014.
So do these deadlines have a mostly positive effect on your work? Or do you look back at your comics and think, “If I had more time, I would’ve done this or this differently”?
At the start I was really scared of the deadlines, but I have nobody putting pressure on me, so I’ve never had to write with that pressure. So at first the deadlines scared me, but after putting my stories out there and seeing people enjoy them, I started to embrace the deadlines. I think every one of my comics would be a lot better if I wasn’t using this deadline system, but I believe it keeps me on my toes and makes me a better writer. I think I’m going to stop the deadline system for now — I’ve proven to myself I can do it, so I want to move on from it and write without deadlines for my future web-comics. Gone is Innocence will be my last web-comic with the one-day deadline in place.
Let’s talk about PROUD. It’s a beautiful short comic with a surprising ending, and the Kabooooom crew has been loving it. Can you tell us a bit about your inspirations for this specific comic?
PROUD started as a 2-page screenplay. In Ireland, we don’t have very many options for funding films, so I wrote the story to apply for funding in a short film scheme. When I finished the script I still had another six months to go before the funding applications opened, so I decided to turn it into a short comic. Again, this was kind of a test. My screenplays are very different from my comic work — I deal with a lot of family issues, drugs etc in my screenplays, my comic work has been more fun, such as gangster stories, secret agent stories et cetera, so I wanted to see how well I could adapt a screenplay into a comic format. I think it worked perfectly and it’s my favorite piece of work I’ve done in comics, because it just wasn’t the story that worked. The art, colors, and panel transitions all came together to make the comic a complete story. As for the idea… I had an image in my head of a child in a drug den, I wanted to know how that kid deals with that world… and PROUD was born.
Also, really quickly — I want to give a shout out to Caitlin Soliman who did the art and colors on PROUD. She did some amazing, amazing work to make the comic work as well as it did. I still remember her sending me the first character sketch for the little boy. I knew right away that we were on the same page, which was key for this story to work.
I was just about to bring up the art! The art in your comics always reflects the tone of the story so well, especially in PROUD. How do you go about collaborating with an artist? What qualities in an artist do you value most?
I love collaborating with the artists because what they can do astounds me. I can come up with an image in my head, describe it, and then they always make it better. I usually start my script up by telling the artist that I’m a screenwriter and I write my comics like that, so I describe places because I need to. I usually explain what’s happening in the panel, and in my description, I give an idea where the ‘camera’ is supposed to be. Whether or not the artists goes with that or not, it’s up to them.
I’m big into the small details. A spoon is the magnet in PROUD that holds the note on the fridge on page 1. A spoon is usually involved when heroin is involved. So I would tell the artist I need stuff like that, but overall, I let them have a lot of freedom to do what they do best. If I don’t like a panel, I talk to the artist about in at they change it, but that’s only happened once or twice.
I value the back and forth the most. I want the artist to know I respect them but I also want them to respect me and know how precious my stories are to me. So if they don’t agree with something, I want to talk about it. I don’t want them to go do whatever they want and send me the pages and I’m like, “This is nothing like the script”. A good dialogue is key between all roles in making a comic, I believe.
You’re obviously a very talented writer, but you’ve also got a knack for visuals with your work as a filmmaker. What is your comic creation process like, given your strength in both areas? Do you visualize panels and layouts as you write, or do you leave that mostly to the artist?
Thank you for the compliment. I spent four years as a director of photography, shooting music videos and films for free. I also love photography. So I usually have a rough outline of the story, then I start to write the script and come up with the panels as I write. For PROUD, I had a big say in the layouts, hence the 3 panels side by side for pages 1-3. On Gone is Innocence I don’t do layouts; I leave that to the artist. I’m just testing which way I work better, but I believe most artists don’t want to be told the layouts on every page. So I might keep doing layouts for the real symbolism stuff.
Your comics span a number of genres, from pulpy crime fiction to coming-of-age tales in the literary bildungsroman tradition. How do you manage such diversity in your work?
That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve no idea how I manage it. The web-comics are about me testing what I can do and exploring myself. So each story is scary to me. Are people going to buy that I know what I’m doing writing a crime story? Does the dialogue match up with that time period? I can’t explain how nervous and excited I get before putting them out on the internet. Luckily, people are responding well and it gives me confidence to keep pushing myself and writing different types of stories to see how diverse I can be.
How do I make it work? My only answer would be, for crime, I watch a lot of crime movies and read a lot of the great Ed Brubaker. I do stuff like that for each genre I write.
While we’re on the topic of diversity in your writing… many of your short comics seem to have an undercurrent of cynicism (PROUD, Gone is Innocence), but others do have a strong sense of optimism (Miracle). Can you elaborate a bit on this dichotomy?
This is a great question and I hope my answer is good enough for you! That’s a great spot. My life has had a lot of negative stuff happen in it, and it’s translated into my work. A friend noticed it and told me that he liked my stories, but that endings were always dull. I think it’s because I’m from a working class estate — I see the real world and grew up in that world. But, in real life I’m much more positive, so I’m trying to take that into my writing a lot more.
At the moment I feel I need to tell stories with real raw emotion in them. If that means they end happy, then great. If the story dictates a more negative ending, then I go with that. I do want to do more happy endings in my stories, but at the moment I’m in a different place. However, I want to ensure a lot more ‘hope’ in my work in the future.
God damn, you’ve got me still thinking about this question, so many ways I could answer it. I would add, when I read a comic or see a movie, what stays with me more? The sad, shocking ending, or the happy ending? It’s definitely the former. So I think I try to get people to remember [my endings]. I know I’ve had people tell me that PROUD has stuck with them for that final image. If it was more uplifting, I don’t think it would be as memorable.
I think that the ending of PROUD sticks with readers so well because we relate to that feeling of wanting to be able to fix something we’re powerless against. It’s a very universal feeling, yet so personal in each individual case.
Yeah, I think so too. I also think we all want to make someone proud — parents, partner, etcetera. As humans, we want people to take notice and believe in us. I think so, anyway. Also, the ending shows a real life situation — there are young kids out there, who come home from school to parents drugged out. It’s not right.
You’ve got a graphic novel coming out soon. Can you tell us a bit about it?
It’s called JORUND, but I’m thinking of changing this title to make it a bit more marketable. The story follows a young Viking called Jorund who is tasked by his mother to regain their family’s honor by killing the Viking who murdered his father. Jorund doesn’t fit in, though; he’s living in a Viking world, where violence and death surround him, but he doesn’t understand why and doesn’t agree with it. Because of this, he has barely any friends or connections with other people. He’s looked upon as weird by his people and his family. It’s a very small personal story, not a big war epic. I’ve currently received 20 colored pages. I’m sending them to the letterer next week and then when I get them back, they’ll be sent out in hope of getting a publisher on board. I’m hoping to release it in early 2015.
Art and ink are by Julio Falkenhagen, and colors are by Armand Jasmin. They’re knocking it out of the park on this book and I can’t wait to get it out into the world for people to read.
(NOTE: You can see teaser pages and updates from JORUND on James’ Facebook page!)
That sounds incredible. I can’t wait. Most of your work does tend to focus on more personal stories within a bigger picture — was this always a conscious choice, or did your stories just happen to turn out that way?
I think those are stories I’m more attracted to at the moment. I started out by writing screenplays and I’ve no big budget so my scripts always had to be small and personal. I’ve brought that to my comics, and I like to tell small personal stories that are involved in something bigger.
In my web-comics, I know the bigger picture, and there are ideas for on-going series, but I keep them personal. My first graphic novel will stay with that, there’s also a 32-page one-shot I’m writing that will also be a very personal story in a big zombie apocalypse. These are the stories I’m interested in telling and if I ever get the chance to write Batman, Spider-Man or any of them amazing great characters, then I’d bring that personal writing to those characters while balancing the obvious massive scale stories.
I want readers to not just enjoy and be entertained; I want them to connect and feel something. I remember reading Severed by Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft. About halfway through that story, they kill off a character who I won’t spoil, and that connected with me. I remember saying to myself. “Oh no,” when the monster was beside that character. That was when I realized that comics can connect with people in this heavy emotional way.
Yeah, definitely. I had that same “Oh no” feeling when I read the last page of PROUD.
I’m happy you did. I’m honestly really happy people are enjoying that story.
Is there anything you’d like to add as we wrap up?
Eh, yeah, just one last thing… the one-shot zombie story I’m releasing is called The Disease. It follows an elderly man who wakes up and his family is missing, and all of a sudden there are extremely violent, cannibalistic monsters running around and he has no idea what’s going on. He goes out in search of his family, but what he ends up finding out will be hard to believe. It’s set in Ireland, and again, it’s not about the zombies or how that happened. It’s about this man and his search for his family. All told in 32 pages. That’s coming out the same time as JORUND. Daniel Romero, who also did the art for Gone is Innocence, is starting the art next month.
Looking forward to it! Thanks so much for chatting with me, James. Can’t wait to see what you’ve got coming down the pipeline!
Thanks a lot for taking nearly two hours to talk to little ol’ me. I appreciate it. I hope you enjoy what’s coming. It’s a big time for me early next year to try make a push to get my work a lot more attention. Thanks again for this. Have a nice day.
You too James! Thanks again!
A huge thanks to James for chatting with us! Follow him on Twitter and ‘Like’ his Facebook page for updates on his upcoming projects! You can also check out his website for his web comics, plus a 16-page preview of his upcoming graphic novel, JORUND, that will be available until August 10th.