Breaking into comics is hard, but publishing your first ever effort at Image, the same home of legends like Robert Kirkman and Jason Aaron, is an accomplishment that may have needed a little divine inspiration. We were incredibly thrilled to be able to talk to the creators of Saints, the brand new book from newcomers to the industry. Writer Sean Lewis and artist Benjamin Mackey proved to us that they were the only team that could have possibly created this book and discuss a newbie’s perspective of the comic industry. Check out the end of the interview to see how you can score a signed copy of Saints #1.
SC: Saints opens back stage at a concert, can you talk a little about the music you both like and how it influences your work?
Ben: For me, I like a lot of bands that deal with religious undertones like Sufjan Stevens or Me Without You. They have these really great pseudo religious narratives where they’re not really clear as to whether or not they have “faith” in their religions. It’s kind of like they’re just constantly questioning things. It’s maybe not so much like there’s a direct influence, but there’s a mentality that this music has of being in this constant state of questioning and pealing back the layers behind religion. That’s something that I like to implement in the book in some way.
Sean: Well I grew up with an uncle who was in a death metal band and we lived in the same house together. I thought he was super cool so I used to go through his record collections all the time. Old school metal has always been something that has been present. I’m also a huge hip hop fan. I usually get drawn to musical styles that have some level of narrative storytelling. A lot of metal has weird Dungeons and Dragons lyrics in it and a lot of the urban lyrics of hip hop music does too. I like a lot of music that changes style and moves around. I listen to a lot of Death Heaven right now and a lot of this rapper named EL-P and Run the Jewels. So things where the dynamic shifts constantly, whether in music or in literature; those are like some of the biggest influences on me. Where you’re watching something where it’s really funny, and then you’re crying, and then it’s dark, and then it’s light. It feels more like life to me, so even the music that I listen to is a lot like that. I would encourage people to get the new Death Heaven; it’s excellent.
SC: My[Kaitlyn] Confirmation name is actually Lucy, which I chose because that is the name of a character in The Chronicles of Narnia. We’re sure that a lot more purposeful decision making went into which saints would be included in your book. Can you talk a little about the research that went into these characters?
Sean: Ha, well my confirmation name is Blaise (the first saint that we meet in the book). The original idea from the book is from Ben. He had been pretty obsessed with the saints.
Ben: So in college I was a painting major and I took a before-1400 art history class, and that got me really interested in western art history, which further solidified into medieval art and early Renaissance history. During those time periods you are just inundated with saints and you can’t escape them because they permeate art for hundreds of years. I studied abroad in Italy for half a year and that was even more full of constant saint exposure. They’ve taken on these iconic super-heroic proportions. I started thinking of about “Oh, what if these saints use their symbols and martyrdoms to inspire their super powers.” So St. Sebastian, for example, was martyred by a hail of arrows, so it became “Oh, what if he can grow these arrows out of his chest and then fire them at people?” Or maybe St. Lucy, because she lost her eyes, maybe she could have this saintly vision and extra-perception that she can tap into.
SC: Seems like a logical path of inspiration to us. We should take a moment to congratulate you both on publishing your first issue of your first comic ever! Issue #1 a solid opening for sure. How did you break into the industry?
Sean: It was kind of crazy and fast. Ben and I only met a year ago and we started talking and this idea came together. Basically we put the book together in about six months and we sent a pdf to Eric Stephenson, the CEO at Image…and he decided to do it.
SC: That’s incredible!
Sean: Ha, I don’t think it’s the typical story. We did a signing with some of the other Image creators the other day who asked how we got in. When I said, “Oh, well we just sent in a pdf,” they were like, “No, seriously, how did you get them to read it?” I don’t know. The timing, I guess, must have been good, but it was very fast. We sent it in, I don’t think expecting-
Ben: It was like our pie-in-the-sky
Sean: Yeah. It was like our reach school for college. You know, we sent off our SATs to reach school and prepared to look at others that we were probably going to be at.
SC: What made you guys choose Image?
Sean: I grew up reading comics but went away for a little bit until I got really obsessed with Jeff Lemire. I read Essex County and that was what brought me back into comics. When I heard that he was writing some books for Image, that brought me over to looking at some of their other work. I started picking up Saga and Southern Bastards. Working on this book, I started reading some more Image books and noticed that they’re doing some really intricate character stories and ours is definitely a weird character story. So then it just seemed like the right fit.
Ben: I didn’t really start reading comics until 6th grade when I started with the typical Marvel and DC books. Then I read Invincible from Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley and that totally switched my view of how you can make comics. It was so different and more real than Marvel and DC ones. That led me into all these other Image titles. Image has been one of my favorite comic book publisher every since then.
SC: We definitely think that once people expand their reading beyond what Marvel and DC has to offer, they realize that comics encompasses a huge world with a lot of variety.
Sean: I’m kind of amazed walking around [at NYCC]. I had no idea the breath of independent publishing and how many companies that there are.
SC: Going back to Saints. Will you be incorporating other beliefs and faiths into your story?
SC: “Yeah” is a perfectly succinct and clear answer.
Sean: Ha, well without going to deeply into it, that’s been a big conversation.
Ben: Even the stranger aspects of Catholic mythology. But we’ll be getting into Zoroastrianism and Gnostic Christianity and occult Christianity.
SC:Have you gotten any backlash from depicting certain aspects of Christianity?
Sean: Well the book only came out two days ago. My grandparents are constantly asking me about it. But in some ways that would be interesting because it would lead to some interesting conversations. Just in the sense, for me at least, religion is this fascinating thing that, whether you are religious or not, is such a huge informant on your life. So many laws and wars that people we know go off and fight are centered around religion. It’s this thing that, whether we want it to be or not, is part of our every day life. I think that there is so much room that if people were to get upset, I’d be like “good, let’s actually talk about it instead of being like ‘Well, I believe it and you don’t’ or ‘I think you’re crazy and you believe in fairy tales so I’m not going to deal with you.'” I’m curious about where you can get those pictures of faiths.
My grandmother is insanely devout and I think sadly thinks that this is going to get taught in Sunday school. Her son is a pretty militant atheist. For me, those are the heavily influences within my house.
SC: So this book is Christmas dinner.
Sean: This book is like every Friday night.
SC: Ha, well moving from family dynamics to your working relationship. Do you provide a really strict script to Ben, or does he have free reign to interpret your words?
Sean: Not too strict. I think we’re learning that not a lot of people create the book the way we do. I come from a fiction and playwriting background. So Ben and I break the story down together. So we discuss that “Oh, Sebastian and Lucy will end up here” and then for each issue I go and write like a 3000 word short story, like a really vivid Flannery O’Connor type short story. I send it to Ben and he adapts it into the panels. Then I don’t start writing language or narration until Ben gives me the panels back. It allows us both to really own the world. I get to give him emotionally where I think the scene was or how things were happening and how the characters live and behave, but then I get to see visually where the camera angles are. So I get to really interact with what he’s drawing.
Ben: It’s been great. Having the short story to work with, I get filled with so much more than what a basic script would give me. I’m filled with these emotions and tones that would seem sort of distant in a script. They inform color pallets and how characters would carry themselves and expressions. A lot of the subtle undertones come through by working with the short story that Sean gives me.
Sean: And vice versa. It does two things. A 3000 word short story would be like a really long comic book. So some of the editing naturally happens. The pacing gets better and tighter from what Ben has done. Some of the angles or panel breakdowns help me realize that “Oh, I only need these things” because it’s so much more clear. It’s been a nice give and take on that way of finding the book in that trade.
SC: What about the character designs? Did you collaborate on those?
Sean: We talked about what we thought they would look like.
Ben: We were always on the same boat. I think that we had the same idea about who a character is. I would come with a sketch and Sean would be like “that’s what I was thinking!”
Ben: Well for Sebastian, his design has a historical precedence. If you look at paintings of St. Sebastian, he looks a lot like that. Over the years he’s turned into this gay icon. That was something that we wanted to reflect in the popular culture that’s been assumed around his precedence and bring that into the comic book world.
SC: Since you are both newcomers to the industry, we’re wondering if you have come across a “club mentality?” Do you feel on the fringe?
Sean: So far people have been really cool. We were just talking about that. Even other companies have been so supportive. The people that we’ve met at Image have been really lovely. To be honest, I haven’t met a ton of other creators yet, but the ones that we have had been really inviting.
I work primarily in theater, which sometimes has a collegiate atmosphere, but there definitely can be some club mentality. I’ve found the comic world a bit more supportive, overall. Just in terms that I’ve been surprised how much other publishers have told us that they hope our book does well.
SC: Leave the competition to DC and Marvel.
Sean: Which seems so smart. There’s been a lot of mentality that, well if you guys do well, we all kind of do well, which is so nice to hear. I’m used to it being like “well, your show is opening against our show, so I hope your show dies.”
SC: As far as the big two are concerned, do you have a dream project that you’d ever do?
Sean: Right now Saints feels like a dream. We met doing a play, so we’d be painting the set while talking about this. So the idea that it went from that to we’re here at Comic Con is insane.
SC: Is this your first convention?
Ben: Oh, yeah.
SC: You guys started big. Have you been able to walk around at all?
Sean: They told us it was big, I didn’t know what that meant I guess. Thursday I was here and able to. Today’s been really overwhelming.
*It should be noted that Ben and Sean were talking to us at the Image booth where Robert Kirkman was doing a signing across from the Marvel stage where, at the same time, the Daredevil cast was trotting out and also next to Viz Media where Naruto dominating the Con . It was the nexus of hell.
Ben: I think right now there’s still a lot of world building that we’re doing. We’re starting to see these dreams in the first issue that are cryptic and mysterious. We’re going to see those starting to have more grounding in what’s going on in the plot. You’re gonna see a lot more growing of the characters and interactions with one another and how they relate.
Sean: Plus the growth of the threat. One of the things that you were asking about with faith, you’ll start to see emissaries of other breakdowns of Christianity first. What they want to use the saints for or what they want to do to the saints starts to become really apparent. That’s coming up really soon and heading toward some big face-offs.
SC: We were really interested in your diverse cast. Blaise is half-Irish/half-Mexican and Sebastian is, as you mentioned, a gay icon.
Sean: It’s funny. I was just talking to some people at another booth and they mentioned the same thing. Maybe it’s coming from theater, but it wasn’t really a choice. It just feels like the world to me. You look around Comic Con right now, and that’s all you’re seeing. I’m glad people are responding to that, but I didn’t expect it to be something that would even be a noticeable entity in the book.
SC: Are you familiar with the #lighten up story by colorist Robert Wimberly concerning editorial notes to lighten the skin tone of a mixed-race character? Welcome to the industry, we guess.
Ben: Yes, I read that story.
Sean: So there’s almost like a literal white-washing of characters. In theater, especially, but I guess this is always a conversation. In comics, is there more of a championing for representation and diversity?
SC: Oh, for sure. You’ve entered the industry at a really interesting time. It’s a really good time for a book like Saints to come out.
Ben: I’m just happy because I’m a nerd about saints and that’s like a weird thing to be. I didn’t think anyone was going to like saints as much as I do.
SC: Ha, well that might be true, but I think you’re getting some of us there.
Ben: Ha, well I think Sean has made it more approachable and getting people to nerd-out about saints.
Sean: It’s been helping me deal with Catholic school in a whole different way.
Me too, Sean. Me too.
We want to thank Ben and Sean for taking the time to talk to us and for signing a copy of Saints #1 for us to give away! For a chance to win, follow @ and send them a tweet to let them know @sub-cultured sent you! Saints #2 will be out November 4th.