That lightning-in-a-bottle idea and the art of marketing indy comics

monster city 1Sometimes you need a great idea for inspiration to strike. Just ask comics team Timothy Compton and Aaron Nicholson. The Chicago-area residents had their own big idea: Why not create a black-and-white noir-flavored comic series about a mob war in which the mobs are headed by classic film monsters such as Dracula and the Phantom of the Opera?

The result has been Monster City, written by Compton and illustrated by Nicholson. The pair have already released the first two issues of the series — with issue 2 debuting at the C2E2 convention in Chicago in late April.

The pair plan to at least finish one big story arc in the series, an arc that should take them through at least 12 issues.

Now? Nicholson and Compton are working hard to build an audience for their series. But they have an advantage: the killer hook of a mobster story in which one of the most powerful gangsters is actually history’s most famous vampire.

The pair recently spoke to Careers In Comics about that bolt-of-lightning moment when a big idea arrives, and the hard work that comes after.

Here’s the big question: How did you come up with the idea for Monster City?
Timothy Compton: My background is in film-making. If you check out our Web site, you’ll notice that we have a Web series on there, our live-action adaptation of The Invisible Man. I’ve had an interest in monsters for a while now. For my next project, I was looking for characters that were in the public domain, something that people are already familiar with. We wanted characters that already had a built-in following. The idea of modern noir versions of some of the classic monsters seemed to fit and resonate.

That led to us talking about film projects featuring these monsters, which led to the Invisible Man Web series. I was talking to my film-making partner Sean (Malone) about not only making noir versions of the monsters, but making the monsters into gangsters. The idea, then, was birthed between me and Sean.
Aaron Nicholson: The idea was certainly a lightning-in-the-bottle idea. That film noir setting with gangsters as classic monsters: I have never seen it combined in this way. It’s a fantastic idea. I had to be a part of it. I’ve been an artist my whole life. I’ve never really had that great idea for a story like that of my own. I’d been waiting for a writer to come along and give me a story that I just knew I had to draw. That was this idea.

How did that idea move from film to comics?
Compton:
We sat on the idea for a year or so. Eventually, I got the idea that maybe the story would work better as a comic. I asked Sean if that would be OK. He told me to go for it. That is when I got Aaron involved. Aaron’s an old friend of mine. I’ve known him since we were teens. He graduated from art school. He’s an illustrator. It was a good fit.

Was Aaron as excited about the idea as you were?
Compton: It really has been a passion project for both of us. We’ve worked on it nights and weekends. It helps to have a friend who is willing to take the plunge with you, who is invested in the project just as much as you are. You’re not just working with some random artist who you are paying, an artist who might be disconnected from the project otherwise. You are working with someone who is just as passionate about the project, and who is willing to put in as many hours in it, as you are.

How long does it take you to finish an issue?
Compton: It can take a few months. This is a passion project, so we are both working on it on the side. The first issue definitely took us longer to finish. We had a learning curve on that one. Going into the second issue, we were more confident about executing certain things. The second issue took us just a couple of months from the time we jumped into it.

The comic certainly has its own sense of style. What are some of the inspirations for Aaron’s art?
Nicholson:
Frank Miller has certainly been an influence. I love his run on Daredevil, and I’ve always been so impressed by The Dark Knight Returns. Sean Phillips, too, has been an inspiration. He’s done the art on an Image comic called Fatale. That’s a noir story, too, with some supernatural elements to it. I was definitely inspired by it. I love his black-and-white covers with a splash of color. Other big inspirations would be Erik Larsen and his work on Savage Dragon. I really respect Alex Ross, too. I love his covers, the higher level artistic approach he takes.

You’ve now self-published two issues. How are you spreading the word about them?
Compton: We started hitting conventions last August. Chicago Wizard World was the first one we went to last year. We’ve held some signings at comic stores located in the Chicago area, and we’ve been working with local comic shops to get our books on their shelves. We’ve also started submitting to publishers that handle indy titles. The publishing process is slow, so who knows if or when we’ll hear back. We are selling our issues now on Comixology, which has been a big help in spreading the word. We have yet to see how far our reach will be on the site. We are hopeful, though. There is something inspiring about knowing that someone on the other side of the world through Comixology can find your book and give it a read when otherwise that person never would have had an opportunity to buy your comic.

How successful have the conventions been for you and Monster City?
Compton: Measuring that success is challenging, but we think being at the conventions has made a difference. The more conventions we do in the same geographic region, the more people we have who remember us. We have started to develop a small fan base. A handful of people picked up issue 1 at a convention and then messaged us on Facebook to see when issue 2 was coming out. At our most recent convention, C2E2, a small group of people sought us out. Some had bought our first issue and picked up our second. Another person came up to our booth, started thumbing through the book and realized that he’d seen it at his local comic shop. The conventions do help. Attending them is a lot of work. It’s a slow build. It’s hard starting out as someone no one knows about with a book that no one knows about. We have to sell the concept of the book. That’s a slow process, but we are seeing some results.

What do you do when you’re not working on Monster City?
Compton: I do freelance work in the film industry. Being a freelancer does help with the comics to some degree. There are periods of time when I am doing a lot of freelance work and I have zero time to work on my side projects. Then there’ll be a patch of time when I am not working on freelance projects for a week or two. During these periods, I can treat my comic and film projects as my full-time job. That has helped with Monster City. I’ve had pockets of time when I can jump in there and crank out some stuff. If I had a full-time job, that would have been harder. Of course, I’ve seen plenty of other people work 9-to-5 jobs and get their comics done, too. So it’s not impossible. Aaron does that. He has a 40-hour-a-week job. When he wants to get work done, he has to roll up his sleeves and decide to not sleep for a night or devote a whole weekend to the comic.

How do you find time to work on the comic?
Nicholson:
It varies. I’ll go through long periods of work if a deadline is coming. My wife and I agree: We’ll put the baby to bed at 8:30 at night. I’ll be at my drawing table until 10:30. It’s important to set a strict time to work. Other than that, you have to work when inspiration comes. It might be at work. Or I might be out and about. I always try to have a sketch pad with me. You have to squeeze in the work. The ideal would be to be successful enough to quit the day job and be an artist all the time. Until then, I do the best I can. If it’s a dream, you make time for it.

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