I pray all is well. For today’s interview we have Dan Conner. He’s a comic editor for Lamp Post, including the anthology Toned: Comics in Black and White. He’s also the creator of his own comic series Heaven Forbid. Before Lamp Post and Heaven Forbid, he created comics for Antarctic Press, the San Antonio Baptist Association, the Megazeen, and ABDO (including adaptations of Dracula and a few Shakespeare plays). In addition, he’s had comics in various other magazines and websites. When he’s not working on comics, he’s doing album covers and event posters. And now for the interview…
When did you first get into comics as a reader/fan?
The first comic I collected regularly was Sonic the Hedgehog, published by Archie Comics, starting in third grade. I was really into comic-related media (esp. TMNT and Batman), and had a couple of comics before that, though. I loved Sonic from the cartoons and I thought the games were cool, but I didn’t have a system until later. After around issue #8, I became hooked and scrounged together all my spending money to save that 1.25 each month. My mom even ordered the back issues from an ad after a while. I also really liked the X-Men. Although, I wasn’t able to get as many of their books until later. And when the Spidey cartoon came out- I was into it immediately! It was funny. I’d seen older cartoons when I was younger- but Spider-Man wasn’t as prominent again until the 90’s show started. I remember, my mom was like, “Really, Spider-Man? Isn’t he old?” I knew my dad had been into him as a kid, too, so it was fun for me to get into Spider-Man.
As a writer/artists/creator?
Even before actually collecting comics, I remember in Kindergarten, I would just make up and draw Ninja Turtle-inspired characters. Of course I’d draw the actual Ninja Turtles and Batman or whatever, too. I think around the end of 4th grade, I started drawing my own stories. This continued through 5th and 6th grade heavily. I even was in a group of friends in 5th grade who would draw comics for school projects. We all had our own characters and we made a team of them. Looking back, most of what I did was heavily derivative of what was going on in X-Men or whatever I was reading. It was fun, but I took it pretty seriously! I even had a schedule to do certain books on certain weeks of the month! Then in Jr. High, I got more into playing in bands and Christian punk rock. I started subscribing to comic series before that and I found that the stories weren’t as interesting anymore. Maybe it was just the books of the late 90s, but I had become bored with most of the superhero comics I had loved, and obsessed with music at the same time. Of course, you change a lot around that age. I’d still pick up something once in a while that looked interesting. But, I was definitely not reading anything regularly.
In high school, some “comicky” bands got me back into comics, specifically Calibretto 13 (their bassist, Aaron Richardson, actually helped me out with some early web comics stuff. But, I’ve since lost contact with him. I’d love to get back in touch if he’s reading this or if anyone knows how to reach him!). Then I got into webcomics, manga, and indie comics. Some punk friends recommended stuff like Blue Monday, too. So even then, the comics/music tie was in place. I was also old enough to drive to the comics store by that time and the manga I had read about years earlier was becoming more readily available in the US.
Shortly thereafter, I got back to drawing and started my first web comic. I started submitting to publishers and did my 1st published work before my senior year of high school (I did another two short published stories before graduating). I also got an internship with Antarctic Press after high school/before college and things have picked up from there! I actually finished college kind of quickly and got married right after, so there wasn’t as much time (or money!) for comics during those years. I drew some stuff, but nothing on a regular basis. I was more focused on music at that time.
Why comics? What do you like most about this medium
It mixes my love of art and storytelling. Plus, I can do it by myself or with a few friends. It’s accessible.
Say a little about the project(s) you have worked on in the past (if any), and what they were about?
When I picked up drawing comics again regularly after college, I tried doing some monster stories for a while. But, people thought I’d do better with humor. I really wanted to do horror. It has lots of possibilities for religious metaphors and I grew up on those old Universal Monster movies. A mentor/friend from Antarctic Press, Rod Espinosa, said he’d wanted to do a religious humor newspaper strip type series, called Meet@Church, and suggested that I try it. For a while I worked on it under his guidance, but it didn’t quite pan out. I focused on some other books a bit- anthology stuff and the ABDO adaptations. I did like 5 of those. They were really cool and a great opportunity. Some of my favorite artists (who’d become friends) drew them, like Ben Dunn and Rod. Basically, I scripted adaptations at an elementary or middle school reading level from the original texts of books like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and even Dracula. They’re mainly sold to schools and libraries, but you can also find them online. I was actually pretty excited to find out that they have about eight copies of each throughout the school district where I work, which would have been ordered before I began working there or I’d met any librarians! Of course, I got to channel the desire to do horror with some of those, too.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
After learning more about doing comics on anthology work and the adaptations, I came back to the religious humor series, which ultimately became Heaven Forbid. I guess it’s what I know best and many things are exaggerated versions of actual happenings. After the first story, I took it away from a church setting, since I found that most of Christian life does not happen in churches. That series has been my main comics gig for the past couple of years and is to my knowledge the longest running Christian humor narrative comic online. Maybe even the longest running Christian webcomic period, depending on how you define “webcomic” and “longest running” (If anyone knows of another comic that would surpass Heaven Forbid, please let me know and I’ll stop making my claim)! I’ve currently done around 325 postings. I printed DIY mini-comics from its inception, too. When I had a whole book’s worth of stories, it was picked up by Lamp Post, which led to me editing other comics for them. My current story is about the characters in, you guessed it, a Christian punk band! So, I’m getting back to mixing together all that I know…music and comics! I plan to be on Heaven Forbid for a good while, if I ever stop it!
What format(s) do you prefer for telling your stories (e.g., on-going series, mini-series, one-shot, graphic novel, etc.) and why?
On going, with self contained storylines. Might be a one shot comic or less–might be more–but each bit should feed into the overarching story as a whole. That way, readers can read more but any bit stands on its own for a new reader.
What sources of information and inspiration have helped you along the way?
All the comics I’ve seen and all the experiences I’ve had! I think my mind is like a blender! It all goes in there and I guess what I like best comes out! People will often pick up influences in my work that are not intentional. I guess they just float around my mind until they come out through my comics! I will often test out jokes in person to see how they go over before putting them in my comic and I’ll pull anything funny from real life into Heaven Forbid, too. If I think of a joke in casual conversation and people like it, chances are you’ll find it in my comics.
I’d also like to address manga, since I think it’s pretty important here. A lot of folks my age were coming of age when manga was first starting to influence artists on stuff like X-Men. Now I see those books and think, “this isn’t anything like manga at all!” But in 1996, I’d see an issue of Uncanny and think, “this looks just like Japanese cartoons!” So we kind of picked it up through influences in others’ work. Then, manga was a little like a bubble that was about to pop. We were really seeing its influence more in the early 2000’s in indie comics and slowly bookstores were expanding their manga shelves. Then, manga was a really big thing. There were tons of comics being translated from Japan and tons of American comics done in a manga style. Next, that fizzled out. I think some people are still trying to hold on to the manga influx of a few years ago. Or, maybe it’s just that more Christians, who are a couple of years behind the times, are just hearing about it now.
Anyway, I began describing my comics as “American manga” in like 2002 when a lot of other people were doing that. I’ve since stopped describing it like that. Honestly, I look at my comics and then I look at the majority of manga and then I look at other American comics and I see overlaps in all of it. There are techniques I use that I probably got from manga, sometimes without realizing it. I really wanted to fit that description for a while, until I noticed that my work is really separate from it. Do I draw big eyes? Yes, but so do many cartoons. Do I typically not draw a full circle around an eye and instead really just draw the eyelashes? Yes, but the core Archie artists draw eyes a lot like that, too. It might not be manga as much as cartooning. I think I’ve definitely been influenced to use screen tone (those little black dots and patterns) from manga. But, lots of people use screen tone independent of manga and there is lots of manga that doesn’t use it or uses it very minimally. I’ve kind of taken that influence and ran with it. There are similarities, but I definitely use it differently than many manga artists. I just love the effect and it’s great for black and white comics. I’d probably describe my stuff as manga influenced or “post manga,” but not manga itself. And I think that’s where we as creators need to be. We shouldn’t be trying to emulate the now outdated manga craze. We should take the manga we’ve read and do our own thing and not pretend to ignore other American influences which we may have had earlier in life.
But, at the same time, I do have a story being translated for a Japanese release, so I guess maybe I’ll be a real manga creator one day after all!
Say a little about how you’ve been able to communicate your faith through your project(s).
Doing my own stuff has been great! Heaven Forbid is 100% evangelical. I do it for fun, but also to share my faith. There are stories that are all about the Gospel and some that are overtly less so, but present spiritual concepts. There are some that are more about awkward or funny situations–but they’re all within a Christian context and everything has its own purpose. I don’t expect non-Christians to read stuff all about Jesus. So I try to have something for everybody. Reviews have shown that I have been able to do just that.
Exceptions for hoping non-Christians will be interested in stories about Jesus include some of my comics like Son of Zeus vs. Son of Yahweh or even What’s With This ‘Jesus Thing’!?! If you read those, you’ll find they are all about the Gospel. But at first glimpse, they may not seem like it. I’m not trying to be deceptive, but I’ve definitely had people who’ve thought I was anti-Christian over and over again. One guy even bought a (or some?) book from me at comic-con and described how cool he thought it was that I was doing an atheist comic. I then explained that actually, they were Christian, but that there was plenty of stuff discussing beliefs, including points of view of non-Christian characters. He continued to say that he thought the discussion was cool. I would have given him a refund, if he’d wanted. Another lady was like, “What’s with this Heaven Forbid series amongst your (Lamp Post) Bible adaptation comics? Don’t they contradict each other?” Sometimes people find my work to be way too Christian. Other times, they think it’s not Christian at all. It’s weird. I guess I like to play on some shock value, but I’m really not that shocking at all. I always make sure to have a place that “brings it all home,” even if it’s just an editorial describing why I did the story, especially for a comic where Hercules fights Jesus.
What has that process been like? How has it evolved over the years?
Artistic, creative, evangelical? I’ve learned tons and it all helps–from marketing, to storytelling to art. I think it’s easy to see artistic changes, especially over the first Heaven Forbid book–which was drawn in about 9 months. I think my art has stayed pretty consistent since then, although it’s been another year and a half. It’s not such a conscious thing. I’m trying to stick to this “manga~ey,” “cartoony,” American indie comics deal. But just to do it better!
What advice would you give to other Christians who are considering making comics?
Do it! We need more Christians doing comics! Especially with Christian themes. If you’re a Christian doing comics, it should show in your work. Also, don’t try to make a living on comics. Find a career and then do comics when you can. Go to college, study the Bible, study theology, study art and sequential storytelling, study the industry. Find something that no one else is doing and then do that! Also, draw for you first. If you don’t like it–probably no one else will! And if no one else ever sees it, at least you’ve had a good time! Of course, I’m tempering that with seeking God’s will.
Are there any future projects you are working on, or would like to work on?
For now, I’m working on what will probably end up being 2 Heaven Forbid books. It was going to be one, but I think by the time I’m done, dividing it will be best. I have another book planned after that and then would like to do some Heaven Forbid offshoots or something.
There are another couple of things I’ve worked on and want to continue, too. Often times, I’ll have a bug of some comic idea in me that I’ve got to get out! So, I’ll take a week and do a mini-comic or something. Potentially, I’d love to do a full graphic novel of each of these. But, due to scheduling, I’d like to get someone else to draw them. They include: The Pilgrim’s Process (my take on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress), Captivated (a fantasy story with a strong female lead), Cow Puncher (named for an old 1940’s comic–basically a supernatural western– actually, I’d probably change the name if I do a whole series), and others. I have a few other projects in the works, but no word on those until more is finalized…
What is your take on the current state of Christian or Christian-themed comics?
I think there is some good stuff out there, but that the current state could be better. There are always ways to improve. I wish more Christians had more Christian-themed comics. Maybe we’re too afraid to lose sales or that people won’t like us. Who knows? Also, I wish distribution was different. Of course that’s changing with e-books and the internet vs. mall book shops.
What, if anything, would you like to see more of in the future?
Christian books that are relevant to their cultural context! Also, there are a few people I wish would finish their books! (If you’re reading this–you know who you are, lol!)
What, if anything, would you like to see done differently?
Study the industry, find what people are reading, and do your own thing that fits with that context. Don’t rip people off, and try not to be outdated. I think some artists get stuck in a style that was huge for its time, but not anymore. Draw in your own style. If you choose to follow fads, try to find what is popular now, not a fad from 15 years ago. This goes for Christian and non-Christian comics. But I think it is more applicable to Christians, since we have a tendency to be behind the times. I also wish less folks were shy about their faith. Be open! If you’re a Christian and you have a platform for people to learn how you think, share Jesus!
Or, you can do something completely out of left field that doesn’t relate to the industry at large. I think that is admirable. But, don’t be surprised if it’s too out there and you can’t find people to read it.
What is the best way for people to contact you, and to read/purchase your work?
Here is where I typically upload new comics two or three times a week. You can also E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me via twitter @crazygoodconner or Facebook.
I’m also planning to set up a store at my site where I’ll have sketched versions of my books, limited edition mini-comics that aren’t available elsewhere (other than the coolest comic stores in Denver, CO!), and whatnot.
Any last thoughts?
Nope! We’ve covered more than I even thought we would! Thanks so much for your opportunity. I’m really impressed by your knack at internet marketing!
And that’s a wrap! Until next time, take care…
© Justin Martin and www.rsquaredcomicz.com, 2011. All rights reserved.