Indie Insider: Interviewing Samantha Mathis and Caytlin Vilbrandt
The indie comic scene is filled with amazing artists creating diverse, entertaining comics. Hence the creation of this new feature on Comic Booked, the Indie Insider. The goal is to showcase some of the many artist making a splash in the independent comics arena.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Samantha Mathis and Caytlin Vilbrandt of Grey Ink Studios, the creators of the web comic Walking On Broken Glass. We spoke about lots of topics, geekiness, women in comics, starting a comics studio, and much more. Sit back, relax, and learn more about this amazing group of comic creators!
Tell us a little bit about yourselves? Who are the people behind Walking on Broken Glass?
On top of being a writer, I’m also a seamstress and a bartender — as far as my marketable skills go. On the more personal side, I’m married and I have an eight-year-old son who is adorable and gained the very present nerd gene. I guess I don’t have to mention that I like nerdy things, given that I write about werewolves and magic, but you know. I like nerdy things! I’ve been into comic books for a long time (I’m a Marvel) and Star Wars [fan], and even things like musicals, but I guess I have to blame it on Tolkien. That was the first fantasy novel anyone ever handed me and it certainly set the course for my entertainment tastes later in life.
As for me, I’ve been doing art since I could pick up a crayon, as most artists will tell you! I got into comics at a young age thanks to an awesome babysitter, and my love for them has only increased over the years. My other passions are linguistics, neuro-psychology, and creative writing (though to a much lesser extent).
I’m a huuuuge nerd. I love video games and tabletop games, I regularly play D&D (well… Pathfinder, though I’m familiar with 3.5 and 4e as well) with friends, I collect dice. I love to program. I’m married as well, to a lovely man I met when I was 11 (he was 15), online, in alt.games.Nintendo.Pokemon. Yes.
Tell us the inception story of Walking on Broken Glass? How did it come about?
original story came from. And while the game itself eventually petered out, we had really gotten ourselves hooked on these characters and their story. Cayt had always wanted to draw comics and I really love to write, and it seemed like a completely logical step to take this story that we love and present it in this medium. And really, I think both of us were pretty sure she and I were going to be the only people who would care to read it.
Kennedy and Nicholas (the main characters in the comic) are in a yin-yang relationship in the way they balance each other out. Could the same be said about your work relationship?
Caytlin: Hmm! Interesting question. I have to say that we balance each other pretty well in most aspects. Sam is fairly level, while I’m pretty excitable. She does amazing things with scripts and writing and comics, and I do my best to bring her vision to life. Well, it’s sort of our vision, but it’s more her retelling.
Having written all my own comics in the past, I’m particularly thrilled to be working with her as a writer, because not only do we line up really well, but having that hard script makes comicking so much easier for me. I’ve never been able to actually script comics — it’s too… mushy and ethereal in my head. I just kind of go with the flow. But having this great story all lined up and organized makes it a lot easier to focus on the rest of the niggling details and make it really pop. So yeah, I guess we are pretty yin and yang together!
Samantha: Yeah, Cayt pretty much covers it. We happen to be on the same page for a lot of things, which is really helpful. I know I can give her minimal direction in the scripts and she’ll nail the emotion or angles or composition without me having to dictate everything. I think it helps, that we both have a lot of freedom and choices in our parts of all this, but we share the same vision for the finished product so it comes out just right.
What happens behind the scenes for us to get Walking on Broken Glass on our screens each week?
Samantha: Well, the week-by-week behind the scenes is really Caytlin, but to get to that weekly work, we started long ago with the brainstorming and we basically laid out a rough outline of the entire run of this comic and the overarching plot that’s only slowly building right now. But once we had the general idea down, I started writing. I wrote a good chunk of the first issues before we even had a webpage and all that. As of now, the first twelve issues are done, writing-wise, aside from last minute editing that happens as we go along. So I guess my own weekly process is to go back and read what we’ve already done to get myself focused on the page coming up. Then, I read over the current page and make sure I’m still happy with the dialogue and expressions and little things like that that would be easy for Cayt to change when she starts the art. I make changes if they’re needed, and then I read ahead of where we are to make sure it makes sense in that direction, too. And to make sure we don’t miss opportunities to foreshadow or to add in something humorous. And then, if there are changes, I send them to Cayt (hopefully before she’s too far along so she doesn’t start hatching plans to murder me in my sleep).
Caytlin: Samantha scripts it all in Google Docs, so when I catch wind that she’s doing scripts, I high-tail over there to watch because it’s THE MOST EXCITING THING IN THE WORLD (I do not exaggerate)! And that way, I’m caught up on where we’re going and what we’re doing in the future, so I can incorporate things into the art, like little hints about the future. One thing I’m really bad about is nailing down environments and characters ahead of time, so the rooms are in this weird constantly morphing state where I’m trying to keep them consistent with what I’ve drawn before, but added in things that are plot-relevant as they come up. Also, when I started the comic, backgrounds were reeeally not my strong point. … BUT I digress, because I am very good at rambling on tangents.
Anyway, weekly stuff! Usually about midway through an issue, I’ll sit down and start thumbnailing the next issue in my free time. it’s a nice break from the litany of inking/shading about then. Each thumbnail is actually a full 8.5″x11″ sheet with a template for the final comic size, and it’s really more a 0 draft of each page. I try to nail the expressions, the composition, and the speech bubbles. If something needs changing, I’ll usually draw the thumbnail how I like it, then send it to Sam and see what she thinks. Sometimes my idea turns out not to work as well as the original; sometimes the original was that way for a reason and I’ll happily keep it that way. Most of the time it’s no big deal! (Like Sam said, we really share a vision with this. Also, I think we have very similar sensibilities in comics.)
Then eventually I’ll start penciling pages, and then I scan them in, and I ink and color them. When I first started out, the ink/color process was 30 hours per page. But it’s knocked down to 6, thanks to reprioritizing and new tools. I’m always on the lookout for more ways to improve though, and bring it closer to the images in my head. Then I send the web files to Sam, if I’m smart and got the pages done before Saturday, and then she uploads them, and when they go up, she makes the rounds and informs our various social outlets that the comic has updated.
One of the things I love about your web comic is the strength in Kennedy’s character as the female lead. She has no powers (that we know of yet) but goes toe to toe with some of the toughest creatures out there. Looking at the many comic blogs, one could believe comics turn female leads into centerfold models. Is this truly an epidemic? If so how can this issue be resolved.
Samantha: I didn’t really create Kennedy with the intention of her being a statement, although I do admit I have a tendency to write my female leads as strong individuals and a bit sassy. I do agree that it’s a bit of an epidemic in comics to make the women a selling point via their sexiness rather than just being a fleshed out, three dimensional characters like the men are. I don’t think it’s always the case, but it feels like it’s the majority a lot of the time. As a female reader of comics, it’s sometimes hard to relate to these women at all. And that is a problem that seems to stretch across several mediums of entertainment, unfortunately. I think the solution is fairly simple. Writers and artists only need to pay attention to the women around them and write their fiction women from a basis of what they know about actual real women. And we can still have sexy ladies running around fighting bad guys (or good guys!), even if we start treating these characters like people instead of like the constant subject of a centerfold.
And I also think women need to get out there and create more. Women telling their own stories about things that matter to them, that would certainly help comics turn away from women as objects and onto women as people. And that’s all Kennedy is. She’s a character that I feel is believable, strong and fun. She’s not without her flaws and she’s not perfect, she’s just a person. Who happens to be female.
Caytlin: Yeah I think one of the things I love about Kennedy is that she shows you can be feminine and sexy and still a total badass. But, to speak to your question, I grew up mostly on indie comics and, later on, web comics. I didn’t even touch Marvel (etc) until, like, two years ago. In my experience, women were creating comics all over the place. In fact, it was stranger to me to see a dude artist, than a lady artist.
And I think part of that is because I never related one ounce to the female characters in the superhero comics I saw. I always related to the guys more. When I’d watch the Fantastic 4 cartoon, for example, I always dug Thing more than I dug Sue. And the Batman cartoons? Sure, I liked some of the ladies, but I really liked Batman. And also Robin, who seemed more approachable, as a kid.
But now that I’m a little more entrenched in mainstream comics and comic news, I am seeing just how pervasive this is and I honestly don’t know how to feel about it, besides bewildered and offended. I mean seriously, like the recent Comics Alliance article said, it’s not like I’m interested in getting rid of sexy women FOR ALL TIME FOREVER — I think women should be comfortable and happy with their sexuality — but geezy creezy, some variety would be nice. Some real personalities, some heroines that don’t have rape origin stories, some three dimensional characterization … Is that so much to ask?
So yeah, mostly, I see a lot of strides in indie comics in that direction, and I see the “mainstream” being kind of like an old bogged down machine that’s still wading through the past. Which is sad, to me.
Speaking of women and comics, I hear you’re involved in the Womanthology Kickstarter project, what are your thoughts on it?
Caytlin: This has been our first time working in an anthology and it has been interesting. And good! And interesting. We have had the chance to work with a few different people on it, and gotten our “deal with other professionals as professionals ourselves” merit badge. I really like the Womanthology, and what it’s achieving, especially to the end of that last question there. It’s giving some great opportunities to creators who maybe haven’t had the chance to get noticed or published or whatnot. I really feel for Renae and crew, because I can only imagine how much of a logistics nightmare it’s been, but they’ve really stepped up to the plate and done a ton for everyone involved.
Regarding the whole controversy that hit Womanthology earlier, about contributors not getting paid and a charity being picked “belatedly,” I think what a lot of people didn’t know is that all of this was flat on the table from square one. She created a forum and explained it all, and we all got on board with the complete understanding that it was going to be work for a cause, not for money. And then we all voted together on a charity long before the Kickstarter was made. So, I think it’s a much better and more moral project than a lot of people gave it credit for, during that hiccup. Though, I won’t lie, paying your contributors goes a long way to bettering artists in the industry in general — but this project does not have to be the project that champions that, when it clearly has had a different goal from the beginning.
Anyway, I enjoyed working on it, especially with Sam. It was a good experience!
Samantha: We’re really proud to be a part of it. Like I said before, women telling their own stories is something I think needs more encouraging. It’s important to me and when this anthology was proposed it was really the perfect project. Like Caytlin, I do believe that artists should be paid for their work, but I also believe in putting your skills toward a good cause because it’s a good cause, not because you’re getting money for it. For it, it seems your contribution will be a lot more heartfelt and meaningful. And like Cayt said, we all came in with the understanding that this was for charity and we wouldn’t be getting paid and if that bothered anyone, they certainly weren’t forced to contribute, so. I agree that it’s been a fun experience.
Most web comic artists typically just post their comics on the web for years and do work under their own names. But we notice you work under Grey Ink Studios. What made you decide to make that leap and be a company?
Caytlin: Once upon a time, my Dad called me up out of the blue and told me that one of his old students, Brett Smith, from the Art Institute of Phoenix had talked to him recently, and wanted to help me get my foot in the door in the comics industry, as he works as a colorist. (I know he’s done work for Top Cow, and now is coloring Justice League pages…) I had not thought about comics in a long time, and at the time I was jobless and fresh out of college, and the thought that I could DO COMICS!!! for a living was thrilling. So I flew to Phoenix Comicon and met him and met some people in the industry, and that’s when Sam and I started hatching plans to make a comic.
The reason we go under Grey Ink Studios is because from the beginning, I’ve been treating this as a Job. I have deadlines I have to meet. I have business to enact. We fill out our taxes, we keep expense reports, and I try to make this as legitimate as possible. I do some freelance design and illustration, but working as artist and co-manager for Grey Ink Studios is what I consider my Real Job. Thanks to Brett’s call, I was able to personally see it as a viable living, and not just a pipe dream, and well… I tend to jump into things whole hog. So, we went from “let’s make a comic” to “let’s totally run our own comic studio because Caytlin is insane” and truthfully, I’ve loved every second of it.
Samantha: She’s waaaay better at the business stuff than me. So I’m really grateful she took the initiative in creating Grey Ink Studios, because I wouldn’t have had a clue what to even do about! And I am not prone to jumping whole hog. I’m like… but, wait. What about… What if… How does this work… General hemming and hawing. And in the course of this year, I’ve gotten into the idea of self publishing niche ideas like this, thanks to Chuck Wendig and his writing advice blog. So I guess we’ve gotten very influenced by the professionals out there.
Caytlin: I think from this experience, I’ve been thrilled with self-publishing. It hasn’t been very profitable, and it’s really hard, but I really enjoy the freedom it gives us, and the fact that we have control over what happens to our content.
What is one piece of advice you wished you knew before you created Walking on Broken Glass?
Samantha: I wish I’d had a better grasp of how to self promote. And the advice to use social media to that end. It’s out there and it’s a great tool. I really hardly even touched things like Facebook and Twitter before we started this, and have only recently really gotten the idea that hey, people use these things and we can use them, too. Related- the advice to be yourself on these bits of social media, instead of treating yourself as part of the product with an image to sell. In the Twitter-like mediums, people would rather see a person on the other end, not just a marketing scheme.
Caytlin: I think for me, it’s that you don’t have to do everything right the first time. When we started out I had kind of an obsession with getting everything perfect, from doing the pages to doing our taxes (hence how it started out at 30 hours per page). I’d agonize over perspective, when I had so little experience with it; and I’d have panic attacks over remembering if I’d itemized everything for the taxes because CLEARLY the IRS was going to beat down our door if I forgot to put down the paper I bought. And, what if the paper I bought wasn’t supposed to go on the taxes? Oh my gosh, it was a mess. And I was so worried that if we did something wrong, it’d all fall apart. But no, it didn’t fall apart. Mistakes get made, and you get better because of them. It’s really okay if everything is not perfect the first time. The world is more forgiving than you think, past-me.
What events/conventions can fans find you soon?
Samantha: Well, Geek Girl Con!
Caytlin: Yes! October 8th and 9th at the Seattle Center.
Samantha: Other than that, we don’t have any planned, but we’re definitely going to try to make it to a few here and there.
Caytlin: We’re also trying for a table at Stumptown next year with Peggy von Burkleo, but we haven’t heard back on if that’s a Thing yet. (We’ll hear in December.) Yeah, as time and money (and sanity) permits!
Samantha: Right! Most of them will be Caytlin fielding them, since time, money and the presence of the small child makes travel kinda difficult for me, so as they come up, fans will probably see Cayt at them more often than myself.
Caytlin: Maybe we’ll find a way to Skype you in, like the ridiculous technophiles we are. But! The two of us will for sure be together at GeekGirlCon, sharing booth 108 with Backthatelfup.com
Anything else you want to share?
Caytlin: My last bit of sharing: if you want to do something creative, jump in and do it. You can figure it out as you go, and nothing will make you improve like really putting in the work. And you really can’t get anything done by just thinking about it! Fake it till you make it, baby!
Samantha: Yeah, my final thoughts are similar. Create! And if you want to create something, be it comics or art or novels or whatever, take advantage of the digital medium. Take advantage of social media. Art for art’s sake and just get it out there.
Walking On Broken Glass Web Comic
Grey Ink Studios
Caytlin’s portfolio site
About Walking On Broken Glass
Walking On Broken Glass has been described as a Supernatural Office Dramedy Romance about Murder. Which, while maybe not specifically accurate, does display the wide array of topics and ideas this comic embodies. It’s about a man dealing with a dark fate looming over his future and his quest to make up for the wrongs of that future in the present. It’s about a woman with enough strength, determination, love and stubbornness to stand by his side through thick and thin. It’s about monsters. It’s about magic. It’s about werewolves! And witches! And vampires! (Oh my?)