Comics - Interview: Rob Jones & Mike Sambrook

Catching up with comics genii, Rob Jones and Mike Sambrook about cracking comics crowdfunding, the secrets of successful lettering and why we should all just #BlameSambrook...

It's been a while since we heard from any of the guys from Madius Comics, in fact not since the now infamous Stale Doritos Incident of 2015 (if you don't know what we're talking about, you can read about it here). To be honest, it's been difficult to get any of them to slow down enough to actually talk, rather than tweet, to anybody of late, so we count ourselves very lucky and incredibly honoured to catch up with not just one but two of the Madius Mega Minds in one superb interview. Or maybe it was the bribe of fresh Doritos...

Thanks for taking time out to chat Rob, how on earth have you found the time, you always seem so busy?

ROB: It’s all an elaborate hoax, really, I sit in my toilet, using multiple twitter accounts to tweet myself. Like Operation Fortitude, when the allies created false divisions by having two blokes sat in a shed in Scotland, I am creating false twitter buzz around myself. Although, that in it’s own right is also exhausting… plus, I have a Sambrook…

*Rob opens his bedside drawer and allows mini Mike Sambrook out of his matchbox…*

MIKE: I’m his secret weapon. The sword in his umbrella. The knife in his boot. The err, salt in his otherwise sweet popcorn? We’re lucky that we form a two pronged attack. We tend to work completely opposite shifts in our day jobs (our secret office based identities) so it means that someone is usually around to man our social media and to generally beaver away on script pages, editing, lettering, colouring, whatever it is we’re up to. That’s probably why we appear to be so omnipresent.

For those heathens out there that may not have seen the light yet to worship at the feet of Jones & Sambrook - Comics Godz, tell us a bit about your comics upbringing. Do you remember the first comic you read?

ROB: I wouldn’t go so far as Comics God. I am a lowly and most grateful upper lower tier comic creator, and I am fortunate to work with incredible creators who seem to elevate my work from mediocre guff to passably alright nonsense! I have the best co-writer and editor in Mike Sambrook, the greatest wildcard friend and collaborator in Nick Gonzo and the silentest but most deadliest print and design guru in Brad Holman to back me up with most of what I get to work on. We’re like the Channel 4 news team in Anchorman. But more British, and with better hair. Plus, you know, the plethora of simply astounding artists I get the pleasure of working with, both on my own stories and when lettering!

And when it comes to my own comics lineage, I would have to say it would have been the Beano or the Dandy when I was younger. I used to collect it weekly and particularly loved Billy Whizz and the Bash Street Kids. When it comes to the kind of comics I create myself, I would have to say that yes, I do remember the first comic I read, and I got the internet to choose it for me, for I was a late bloomer when it comes to comicbookery. It was All Star Superman by the incredible team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly. (Who, incidentally myself, Mike Sambrook and Nick Gonzo ended up drinking with along with David Aja at last year’s Glasgow Comic Con, so that gave me an opportunity to say thanks the man who got me into comics!) It’s a nuanced standalone series which features some beautifully written scenes. I implore you to purchase it and give it a go!

MIKE: Yeah, as Rob’s said, we’re lucky that we have an incredible team of supportive and talented people around us. The indie comics community is so unbelievably inclusive and we’ve been completely bowled over by how we’ve been welcomed into the crowd. And yeah, the artists, they are the ones that make us look good and the real talent here. They turn our weird half formed ideas into spun silk, wonderfully rounded creations that make us look like we have some idea of what we’re doing. (We don’t).

My comics origin is much like Rob’s which is probably why we gel so well and in fact it’s how we started working together. Rob started a blog column as he was first finding his feet in the often confusing and largely impenetrable world of comics, sourcing advice from other readers about things he should try and stories he needed in his life. I was one of the early people to respond to his blog and throw some suggestions his way. I only really found comics later on in my twenties too so it was all a brand new journey for me as well and before we knew it, we were exploring these weird streets together. Again, much like Rob, as I was growing up I was a constant reader of the Beano and the Dandy and absolutely loved poring over the pages of those masterpieces for countless hours. I think you can definitely see those uniquely British influences creeping into both of our work today. After finding comics again in my twenties they have completely taken over my life. I now juggle a pull list of about 20 comics a week and my home is primarily a comics storage warehouse with a bed at this point and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Did you have any childhood favourites? And what about the comics you read now – any that you really enjoy or would recommend for people to look out for?

ROB: Comics I read now aren't what you would call current comics. I'm quite lapse in regards to keeping up with the status quo, preferring to cherry pick stories and series to read.I follow a fair few writers and their work, and I would heartily recommend anything by Warren Ellis; Trees, Transmetropolitan, Fell and Planetary are all incredible series to check out. I'm also a huge Rick Remender fan, his series Fear Agent, Deadly Class and Black Science are all essential reading! I'm also a sucker for a Garth Ennis book, and love Preacher and The Boys. Finally, writer wise, I love Brian K. Vaughan. His Y the Last Man, Paper Girls and Saga are, again, essential reading.

MIKE: Childhood favourites would definitely have to be, as we’ve already mentioned, the Beano and the Dandy. On top of that I grew up reading tons of weird illustrated fantasy books like the serialised Ancestral Trail, which is a magazine that up until about 3 years ago I thought was totally a figment of my own imagination. It was one of those hazy memories from childhood that was largely images and not words which makes it far more difficult to Google. BUT I FOUND IT! Not that any of this is really relevant to anything. But, Google, right? Ain’t that some shit. We live in wonderful times. Recently though, I try and read as much as I can from a real mixture of writers, artists, publishers and genres. You never know where ideas and writing solutions will come from so it’s best to consume a varied fictional diet. Or at least that seems to work for us. Some recent books that have knocked my socks off and would highly recommend would be: HARROW COUNTY, HEADLOPPER, TRILLIUM, DESCENDER, OUTCAST and KILL OR BE KILLED. I mean, I could go on and on endlessly about all of the top quality books that are coming out at the moment, but I think that gives you enough of an idea of the kind of things that are influencing and inspiring me right now.

So what particularly inspired you to go on and create your own comics? Something must have lit the spark?

ROB: Blame David Hine. (Bulletproof Coffin, Spider-Man Noir) I did an interview with him for a site I used to write for, all about Spider-Man noir, and I shared a few of my other pieces, one of which included a little bit I wrote as if it was from a Hellblazer comic script. David gave me the push to try and write as he thought it seemed well laid out. He's been really supportive ever since. I've seen him at a couple of conventions since, and each time he's been chatty and encouraging.

I've always had a love of writing too, and enjoy creative writing immensely (whilst not fiction, writing my dissertation at uni about Anglo-German Diplomatic relations between 1933-41 was one of my most joyous undertakings, created and researched with copious amounts of the Who and whisky!) and so myself and Mr Sambrook decided we'd write and draw a comic between us… This comic has never seen the light of day, however, one day we may unleash it on an unsuspecting world!

MIKE: Oh, Jesus, the world isn’t ready! That’s exactly how it happened though. Rob decided to give writing a go around the same time I was giving drawing a try. We met via his blog and before we knew it we were chatting story. We decided to create a story together and I was supposed to be the artist to bring this vision to life (lolz). Obviously our vision way outstripped my (lack of) artistic talent and before we realised it we were both just working on the script together. We had such a blast working on it that we just knew we had a potentially awesome working relationship and we should both just stick to our strengths, which is definitely writing.

Much like Rob, I’ve always loved to create though. Whether it be music, art or writing and I feel that without some form of creative expression in my life I go completely crazy. Like a can of coke in the freezer, I will explode if I don’t release the pressure. I’ve slowly bumbled through life making things until I started working on these stories with Rob and it just seems to have clicked. Like this is the way I was always supposed to express myself creatively? I don’t know. Maybe that’s all a bit wishy washy. Let’s just say, creative people are going to create and writing comics is something that really scratches that itch for us.

We’d like to talk a bit about comics lettering because you, Rob, are the maestro as far as we are concerned (dare we say a “font” of knowledge on the subject? No? Ok then) and it seems to be a hugely “unsung” area of comics creation.

People enthuse over the story or the art a lot when talking about comics but nobody much seems to mention lettering so, if you don't mind me saying, lettering is an unusual aspect of comic creation to concentrate on - how did you get into that area in particular? Was it through necessity with your own writing or did your interest in writing come after lettering for others?

ROB: I got into lettering for necessity. I couldn’t afford a letterer, so I practised. A lot. When I first started, I was still really...REALLY rough around the edges, and those rough edges are slowly but surely being smoothed as I letter more and more projects. I am by no means a pro-letterer...not yet. I am constantly learning, and occasionally having to relearn methodology and such, as each project presents its own problems and challenges! I’ve read about all manner of lettering process stuff, from giants in the field like Richard Starking and Blambot, I look at the work of other letterers, such as Taylor Espositio and Jim Campbell and constantly try and tweak my style to ensure I am at least attempting to match their flare, you know?

When it comes to our own projects with Madius, having me lettering our stuff allows for one final, FINAL pass at the dialogue. It helps us find out what works, what doesn’t, what seems clunky, what looks bad on the page etc. It really helps us finalise the book.

MIKE: Yeah, what started out as a necessity has quickly evolved into something very practical and useful. Rob has managed to level his skill set up at an absurd pace and he genuinely surprises me with the constantly improving quality of his work. What he’s been able do in the short time he’s been doing it is nothing short of spectacular. From a selfish standpoint it means that we keep all creative output under our control. It gives us that one extra chance to refine and edit things before they are thrust out into the world. It also means I can change my mind a thousand times and it’s only Rob I will drive bonkers. Sorry, Rob, as always. (#BlameSambrook)

For people who don't know the work involved, what's the process that goes into lettering a comic? Do you get a fairly free rein or is it very much directed by the writer and/or artist?

ROB: This, again, depends on the book and the client. There are some who send placeholders and planned reading orders for the book, others who are very free form.

First up, you have to ensure that you’re working to correct spec, so page size, bleed, trim etc. I have built up a variety of templates which I use to size my comic work correctly, so it means things are smoother for print prep. Then you work in layers, so you have your artwork on the base layer, locked so it cannot be messed around with. I then have separate layers for my speech balloons and type/text and SFX. Everything builds up as layers, which means art can be swapped, things can be masked etc.

MIKE: Rob probably gets the most freedom when he’s not working with me haha. I can be a brutal taskmaster. *sharpens whip* *sends over the 28th batch of edits*

I know, when I read a comic, that I can tell whether or not the lettering is good (yes, yours is good) but I don't know why. What do you think makes lettering good or bad?

ROB: It’s gonna sound weird, but you shouldn’t notice good lettering. It should be seamless. That’s the sign of a great letterer, someone whose work keeps you immersed in the story and art, and doesn’t jar you out of that immersion with odd choices, bad placement and the like. I am by no means a pro at lettering, and look back at a lot of my earlier work with a mixture of bemusement and disgust sometimes, which is why I relettered a lot of Papercuts and Inkstains for the collection!

Now, again, I am in no means a pro letterer, but what I've picked up along the way is that bad lettering involves poor font choice and sizing, poor placement (be that in relation to the individual panels or the flow of the page as both can be jarring and distracting for the reader) and poorly shaped balloons. These irk me more than most.

MIKE: Yeah, that’s exactly it. Good lettering should be invisible. The reader should be transported somewhere else when they are reading and their eye should naturally flow across the page like they are being guided by a path they haven’t realised they are walking on. It’s often only the strange choices that pull readers out of the story, much like a dog poop in the centre of that path. It suddenly snaps you back awake and that’s something we never want to happen. We want to keep readers in that dream state as much as we can.

Are there other letterers whose work you admire or who have influenced your own style?

ROB: LOADS! There are so many great letterers who are working today - Jim Campbell, Taylor Esposito, Micah Myers, Ken Reynolds, Matt Krotzer, Nic J. Shaw, Joe Caramagna, Clayton Clowes, Rus Wooten, Todd Klein...the list is MASSIVE!

I think I try and take a lot of influence from Clem Robins. He’s lettered some of my favourite comics (Hellboy, Wytches, Preacher, Transmetropolitan...again, the list is MASSIVE!) and his style is so organic and versatile. I know he designs a lot of his own fonts, which is something I would love to do...but the technicalities have me a little baffled for the moment, plus my own handwriting looks abysmal...

What's your favourite story/comic that you've ever lettered? And what are you proudest of?

ROB: That's like asking me to pick my favourite child. I'm beyond excited to be lettering up my second issue of The Phantom, as working on a property which I used to watch the film and cartoon of is insane! However, I put as much effort and love into every book I letter, so it's hard to pick. There's aspects of every comic which I love, like Ness (By Chris Welsh, Rob Carey & Dee Cunniffe) was an exercise in learning to do cool SFX, but then we challenge ourselves with every new Profits of Doom to see how much dialogue we can feasibly fit on a page before it's an essay… Which is again a challenge, as it has to look presentable and legible.

I think the design work on Paperbacks and Inkstains is possibly the most polished we've looked, and the most well thought out. I love the way we've got it looking at the moment. I particularly love how I lettered Laudanum, but then I've just lettered a new Madius book called Corsair, which is written by Nick Gonzo, art attacked by Magicians House and based on an idea which Nick and I toyed around with for a while, and that's pretty damn spanking looking. There's also the fact I got to design a logo for a possible TV comedy as well, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing. There's loads of aspects of lettering and the design work which goes into it which is fun!

Have you one lettering tip that you would share with indie comics creators who do their own lettering?

ROB: Make sure your artist always starts off the panel with the first speaker on the left. The 2000AD artist submission guides are perfect for new starters.

And one other lettering tip is to hire a letterer. Don't slap poor fonts with wonky balloons on your pride and joy and hope no one notices.

MIKE: Do as we say, not as we do! Hire a pro haha!

Before we move on from lettering, something I've always wondered - do comics letterers ever use Comic Sans? And do you have a favourite typeface that is your "go to" for lettering?

ROB: Only if they’re looking to take the piss. Mike Stock, Mike Garley and Joshua Sherwell did a great mickey take for an advert in Starburst Magazine for their comic, the Kill Screen, using comic sans. However, it’s not really the done thing. So no, I don’t think they do!

When it comes to me and my “go to font”, I usually try to assess the story type and figure out a font from there. Different story and balloon styles warrant the use of different weight and stylised fonts. I do love Comicraft’s Joe Kubert and CCMeanwhile, and when it comes to Blambot (Nate Piekos, an incredible letterer whose work you’ll have seen on such comics as I Hate Fairyland and the new X-Men comics) I love his SFX fonts. He has a tonne of stuff available for free, so any new comic creators/letterers should raid his free fonts before they do anything! In fact, here, let me help. Go here and do it…

Places like Dafont and 1001 Fonts are good, but be sure to check the license as some are simply free for personal usage or demos, you need to make sure you’re not gonna end up getting sued somewhere down the line!

Where, apart from Madius of course, can we look out for your brilliant lettering next?

ROB: Well, as I stated earlier, I'm lettering for Lightning Strikes Comics The Phantom comic, then there's Comichaus (which Mike and I have an ongoing story in to boot), I'm working with some American small press groups, Mad Robot Comics’ Last Exit to Brighton and their Cadavers series, there’s a story called Away and one called Pendragon; both for Markosia and a whole heap of other small press things. I'm also working on a comic with Doug Eboch, writer of the rom-com Sweet Home Alabama, buts it's a lot more goth and has a Victorian pulpy feel to it...and also no Reese Witherspoon.

MIKE: No Witherspoon? I’m out.

Talking of Madius – how are things in that mad world?

ROB: Busy. Not only are we pre-prepping Paperbacks and Inkstains (all 250 pages of it…), we've got a brand new Papercuts issue ready to release on the world. Griff Gristle: The Siren’s Song is currently being coloured up by Rory, we’re plotting new Horrere stuff (a damn fine collected edition no less…), Nick has Corsair, 50 Signal 3 and Funk Soul Samurai 2 in the works, Mike has his first solo comic coming in the shape of Bun, an MMA/Bunny Rabbit romp and then we've got Brad working on a children's story about a secret agent...who's a mole…

We're as busy as ever...who needs lives, right?

MIKE: Yeah, we’re going through probably our busiest period ever right now even though from the outside looking in it appears to be the exact opposite. Everything we are doing at the moment feels like manoeuvring in the shadows haha. It’s so strange to be in the fifth month of the year and not have any new books out yet. MADNESS I TELL YOU! The frantic shuffling is largely down to the fact that we’re both working on new material in the form of GRIFF, PAPERCUTS, HORRERE, HOMEOPATHOS, BUN, RAMLOCK etc etc at the same time we are consolidating down, retweaking, polishing and editing collected versions of our previous work too with PAPERBACKS and HORRERE. So it’s like being pulled in both directions, back into the past and forward into the future at the same time. Very tiring, but also very rewarding. And as I’ve brought up PAPERBACKS now feels like a very good time to shout out a giant thank you to everyone who backed our recent PAPERBACKS kickstarter. We couldn’t have done any of it without the incredible support and we honestly take none of it for granted. So, THANK YOU!

It was good to see the recent crowdfunder for the Paperbacks and Inkstains collection hit target. How did that feel and were you ever worried that it wouldn’t?

ROB: Griff Gristle was a test of stretch goals and management of those. Paperbacks was a test of endurance, and getting a behemoth like that over the finish line. It took a lot of work, effort and energy from all of the creators involved to help get that monster to the funded line. It was scary for a while and seemed really disheartening when it looked like we might not cross the finish line, but a penultimate day surge really helped us out.
It's nerve wracking doing anything like Kickstarter as you never know how things will be received. We switched up our ads a couple of times during the 30 day campaign to keep things fresh, you know?

MIKE: Yeah, every time you go out there and try to crowdsource money you just have NO idea what’s going to happen. With GRIFF we expected a slow crawl and ended up funded on the first day so when we launched PAPERBACKS we just had no idea what to expect. PAPERBACKS also had the extra uncertainty of it being a collection of previously released material. It’s hard to know how people are going to react to that and we weren’t sure if our fans would be willing to double dip and come back for stories they were already familiar with. Turns out, people were into it and we couldn’t be happier about that fact. In terms of whether we thought we would hit the target, we never expect anything. We’re so lucky to be in this position where we are able to bring these stories to life and we’re so thankful we have an audience of people who enjoy what we’re doing so we make sure to constantly remind ourselves not to take any of that for granted. We are just going to keep making the best quality content we can and we hope people continue to support us along the way. Fingers crossed!

And now that you are seasoned veterans of the crowdfunding idea, do you have any advice for indie comic creators looking to crowdfund their own project? Best choice of platform? Things to watch out for?

ROB: When it comes to choice, my opinion is limited to Kickstarter, they've been incredible though for helping us get our comic out to potential readers. There's so many help guides to using Kickstarter, and to be fair, we largely ignored them and did our own thing. Images with info on are great for social media, as it gives maximum impact and knowledge dumps for minimal work on the platform.

MIKE: Yeah, we’ve only experienced Kickstarter when it comes to crowdfunding, but our experience with it has been nothing but positive. Other than the advice that Rob has already said, I think the other big thing is, only promise what you know you can deliver. If you are looking to crowdfund a 500 page book, make sure you know you can. There’s nothing more frustrating than campaigns that overpromise on content or timescales and then wildly fall short of their claims. I feel like this lack of planning and foresight can make things harder for everyone. It makes it harder for people pledging to have faith and trust in the campaigns they are supporting and it makes it harder for people running the campaigns to stand out from the noise.

What’s next for Madius (please say Griff Gristle! - Susan)

ROB: Susan, it is indeed, Griff Gristle. Rory is currently colouring up all the finished inked pages, everything has already been lettered, so it'll be a case of switching out layers and unleashing it on the world. We’re also toying with the idea of a black and white version of Griff, once we complete the whole story.


Follow on the madness on Twitter


On Facebook

And find more Madius Madness

Images - Twitter, Amazon, Rob Jones Letters, Madius
Powered by Blogger.