Wes Locher: Breaking into Alterna, writing what you love and the glory of sci-fi comedy

Wes Locher has not one but two dream jobs: First, he earns a liveing as a writer for video games, including for such developers as Pocket Gems, Nanobit Software and FableLabs. And in his spare time? He’s built a busy career in the world of independent comics, writing scripts for comics publishers Titan Comics, Markosia Enterprises and Arcana Studios.

Major independent publisher Alterna Comics recently picked up his Unit 44 series, a sci-fi/comedy story about what happens when agents working for the government’s Area 51 secret UFO research department forget to pay their rent on an off-site storage unit filled with extraterrestrial weapons and gadgets. The story follows the efforts of these two agents to recover the now-missing objects and save the world from an alien invasion.

Locher, whom you can learn more about his website here, first began publishing Unit 44 on his own until Alterna Comics came calling. The publisher released a 104-page graphic novel of the series, drawn by talented artist Eduardo Jimenez, in August.

I recently spoke with Locher about the success of Unit 44 and the work involved in building a career in independent comics.

Tell me a bit about how Unit 44 came about
Wes Locher: It started as a Kickstarter project. I had the story, the gist of it, planned out before we started our Kickstarter campaign. These two agents forget to pay their rent on an off-site storage unit and much hilarity ensues. The idea came to me when I was watching an episode of that TV show, Storage Wars. As soon as I turned it on, this idea hit me. The show is all about these people who buy storage units and have no idea what the contents are. What if someone opens a storage unit and the secret to who killed Kennedy was in there? The story just started to fill itself in.

I hit stop on the show, grabbed my notebook and started working on it. I wrote it all right there, basically, and then went on the hunt for an artist. It seemed like the right idea for a comic. It was silly and it was funny.

How did you bring the story from an idea to actual completed comics?
I took it to Kickstarter in 2014 to fund single issues. That allowed Ed, the artist, to eat while he worked. He is a full-time artist, so he needs to make money while drawing. We had a lot of success with that Kickstarter. A lot of people backed us. Once we had the first issue in the can, we sent it out to publishers. People said a lot of really nice things. But everyone also said “no.” We were undeterred by that, so we powered forward. We relied on Kickstarter to fund the remaining issues, the following year.

How did Alterna Comics get involved?
Right before we ran that second Kickstarter, we got a random email from Alterna. The hardest part with any comic is finding someone who likes it as much as you do and offers to publish it. We were content to self-publish it ourselves. Humor three years ago was not common on the shelves. People kept telling us they’d be readers, but that the comic wasn’t right for their company. Alterna’s editor in chief sent us an email asking what was going on with the book. I knew Alterna, of course. I had never limited my comics reading to just Marvel or DC or Image. I had their books on my bookshelf. We opened a dialogue with Alterna. I told them that we were launching a new Kickstarter campaign and that we’d be happy to look at their contract.

That was a big deal. That was the first time, and still the only time, that someone had come to me like that. That has never happened again. Alterna offered us a contract, one that I think is the best and most fair to creators. We were able to launch the next Kickstarter campaign and advertise that the comic would come out through Alterna. To have Alterna behind it was a huge help. We funded the final issues really fast, in, maybe, a week.

What kept you going with Unit 44 even when publishers weren’t biting?
Locher: I’ve always liked things that are outside the box. I’ve never wanted to write something that anyone else would write. I wanted to create comics that were uniquely my own. I had some other comics published, but I didn’t think they were representative of me as a writer. The Area 51 idea seemed new to me. I figured, even if no one else reads it, I will be more fulfilled for having completed the project. I was OK, then, with us just putting the comic out digitally to no one. Thankfully, it took a different turn.

How has the demand been for the graphic novel?
Locher: It’s been better than I anticipated. We haven’t sold out and I’ve not been able to purchase an expensive car, but I am happy with the reception. It makes more sense when selling at a convention to have a graphic novel. You make more money versus selling it as a single issue. If you sell the floppies, you risk losing money. You can’t price it over $4. Your margins are better with a graphic novel.

When I’m at a convention I have my two-sentence pitch about these agents not paying rent on their storage unit. People usually laugh. So I try to pitch them on the even greater joy they’ll get in purchasing the whole book.

Seeing it in stores has been cool. My local retailers were gracious enough to stock it. But having people send you pictures of it in California, Texas or Times Square in New York City is amazing. It feels a bit surreal. There is a lot of competition out there. it’s nice to know that for someone who is touring the shelves and looking for something different, that our book is available for them to stumble across.

How have you promoted Unit 44?
Locher: Alterna has been doing a lot. Alterna reminds people that it is out there. I have also been doing a lot of comics interviews through the podcast circuit. It’s been mostly every single night for the last two weeks, actually. There are a lot of podcasts out there. Not everyone listens to all of them, so even if you occasionally tell the same stories, each has its own audience. The hosts have all taken the time to read the book and have all said nice things about it, which is great.

What projects are you working on now?
Locher: I’ve been developing my new comic, Edison, for the last year or so. That project is moving along. That is a fun self-published project that has been in my brain for a while. It’s just a matter now of getting issues through production. For that one, I’ll be surprising people with new issues when they become available.

One of the things I have found is that the costs of the production, printing and shipping of a book adds up quickly.  Having shipped a graphic novel all over the world, I can tell you that it’s not easy on the wallet to ship copies to Australia or France. Anything you can do to limit the amount of money you need to spend is good. The goal is to have a book in your hand. I know that. But why not release it digitally? Then you have it finished and if yo want, you can print it for conventions or smaller runs.

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