Saturday, September 5, 2015

Kickstart the Week(end) with Black Suit of Death #1

By: Nicole D'Andria

This week I am showcasing the Kickstarter for Black Suit of Death #1. This is a satirical comic book series with elements of both science-fiction and horror. The story is about society, mental health and the Grim Reaper in an alien bio-mechanoid suit. I interviewed writers Ed Ellsworth and Benjamin J. Kreger and artist Dexter Wee.

The protagonist of Black Suit of Death is a graphic design student named Edd.  He suffers from depression and social anxiety, leaving his outlook on life bleak. When Edd attempts to commit suicide, he discovers the Black Suit of Death and becomes the present day Grim Reaper.

Writer Benjamin J. Kreger (The Less than Historical Adventures of Li’l Lincoln, The Spirits of Independence: A Ghost Walk Companion) claims the Grim Reaper isn’t supernatural and instead poses two questions to his readers:  “What if, every myth, every story about the Grim Reaper were based on a single truth? What if, since before recorded history, an alien bio-mechanoid suit, with a host of pilots throughout time, were responsible for all the stories now found in mythological or religious text?” In Black Suit of Death, Kleger seeks to answer these questions.

Kreger is working alongside fellow writer Edward Ellsworth on this project. The artwork is being drawn by Dexter Wee (Cura Te Ipsum, Swerve, Patriot-1) and colored by Jeremy Kahn (Ringa Raggedy, Spirits of Independence). The comic book will be published under Kreger’s imprint Warrior Innkeeper Creative.

Black Suit of Death #1 is not the first time Kreger and Ellsworth have written about a Grim Reaper power by a bio-mechanoid suit. In 2013, the two published a prelude to this series called Black Suit of Death: The Ides of March. The penciler and inker is Stefano Cardoselli (Heavy Metal Magazine), the colorist is Craig Gilliland and the cover art was painted by Tony Morgan (Gun Baby Graphics). This one-shot told the origin story of the bio-mechanoid armor known as the Black Suit of Death (B.S.D.).  

The armor was developed by Doctor Seitsan as a killing machine to control overpopulation and the energy crisis on the planet Utopia IX, only to be branded a traitor and banished to live the rest of his days on Earth. This prequel is available at DriveThruComics and on comiXology.

Th Black Suit of Death #1 Kickstarter is raising money to produce Black Suit of Death #1. This will be a 24 page comic book with a 20 page story. The first issue will be funded if $5,639 is pledged by September 14, 2015 before 2:12 PM.  

The number of the funds was based on the following production costs:
$4,000 to cover Pencils, Inks, & Color
$1,237 printing costs and other rewards +Shipping costs
$456 Fees (An estimate based the percentages provided by Kickstarter)

Any additional money raised above this goal will go towards convention costs and/or their yet to be announced stretch goals.

Some rewards for pledging their project include the Black Suit of Death: Sketchbook I which includes a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the prequel book Black Suit of Death: Ides of March for $1, any add-ons including t-shirts and art prints for $3, a PDF of both Black Suit of Death #1 and Black Suit of Death: Ides of March for $6, and many more rewards. You can check out the rest of the rewards and make your pledge to the Black Suit of Death Kickstarter here.

UPDATE: This Kickstarter was unfortunately unsuccessful. However, a new Kickstarter for the first issue was relaunched here. The creative team is now trying to raise $6,000 by May 19, 2016 at 3:00 PM EDT.

I interviewed the writers of Black Suit of Death, Benjamin J. Kreger and Edward Ellsworth. I also spoke with artist Dexter Wee. Hear their inspiring stories below:

Benjamin Kreger
Me: You mentioned how Edd is an amalgam of personalities of people in real life. Can you talk about some of his traits and who they were inspired from?

Benjamin J. Kreger: I can't say exactly how that evolved but I'm sure it had something to do with the nature of the nomenclature. I love irony and bad puns, so when it came to naming the guy in the suit, I played with both. At the time I had a miniature pincher named Edd, named after a character from the cartoon series Ed, Edd & Eddy. I had called up Ed Ellsworth, my co-creator, and snickeringly told him of my brilliant idea to name the guy Edd. Maybe it's only funny to me but I love that the guy is named after a dog, a cartoon and my co-writer.

From there, he began to morph into a natural extension of Ed and I. I intentionally, like most writers I suppose, start a story from a piece of my life experience. I believe a good story begins with a kernel of truth. In the case of developing the character of Edd, for me at least, it was a very organic experience. We needed a person struggling with self-identity to become the Pilot of the Black Suit of Death (BSD) as well as someone who was frustrated with life in general.

As I began to write him, pieces of me just sort of fell into the character and I think Ed would say the same. Then in other aspects, like being a graphic designer, a D&D geek, and movie aficionado, he's a part of the group of friends Ed and I had in our youth. As for his description, I very much based his look on Ed when he was 19-years-old and had played the role in our home movies. So, really, BSD is Ed in more ways than one.

Edd Grimes Sketch

Me: I know you also shared how both you and Edd both suffer from clinical depression and PTSD. Thank you for being so open about having to go through this and sharing your experience with readers. What do you hope people will understand about these illnesses when they read Black Suit of Death?

Kreger: I can't say we went into this advocating anything. It just became something more. 

Back in 2006, I had recently returned from my first tour in Iraq (OIF III) and had begun learning the role (or the MOS) of Chaplain Assistant. My unit was without a Chaplain for some time and I attempted to fill the role as best I could as I went through my training. I was leading discussion groups and unofficially counseling my fellow soldiers. I was reading a lot about PTSD and Depression.... I began to recognize some of the symptoms in myself, but like many soldiers (despite knowing better and telling my battle buddies otherwise), I wanted to handle it myself, I thought I was being courageous by not making my problems anyone else's burden. I wasn't. What I discovered was that it was more a sign of strength and courage to ask for help, even if receiving help remained a challenge.

The experience on a whole was quite possibly the worst thing which I've ever been through but at the same time the best thing I could ever experience - in that, I came through it all, a better man in many ways. I'm happy now. Of course I still fight it, clinical depression isn't something that goes away and PTSD... well, that's a bitch. But it can be managed. Nearly 10 years later, I'm still here.  

To answer your question, what I hope people will understand about these illnesses is to not let them tear you down. There is help. It seriously, if you want it to, does get better. Life does go on. And even if you feel you are unworthy, trust me, your life has value. 

I'm being a little bit vague only because it's still difficult to talk about...

I'm struggling to illustrate here... maybe you're in a bunker, alone at night with a barrel to your forehead and your finger on the trigger, maybe you're in a bathtub with a blade, testing the pain and trying to decide if you should just cut, maybe you've taken one too many pills and are wondering how much time you have to vomit them up before they kick in and you go to sleep forever... Yeah, I've done these. For whatever reason, I was stopped or stopped myself. It's a little more clear now, looking back, as to why I didn't succeed in those terrible attempts on my own life... I went from losing everything, living on a friend’s couch, to finding the love of my life and having two amazing, beautiful, and wonderful baby boys, and uncountable blessings.

There is this webcomic, the one where I first discovered the art of Dexter Wee (the artist on Black Suit of Death), called Cura Te Ipsum. Pages 5 & 6 literally illustrate my experience well. A man kills himself over and over again on page 5 then on page 6 he stops himself, or rather an alternate reality version of himself stops the gun from firing. These pages spoke to me so much, I ended up buying the original art for page 6. While we can't rely on an alternate self to show up and stop us when these terrible thoughts come into our minds, and while the pain can be near-unbearable, we can, and I'm living proof I think, commit to helping ourselves overcome the challenges these diseases force upon us, even if it's taking one day at a time or even one minute at a time. It's often all about baby steps. "If I can make it through this moment, then I can make it through the next."

I hope that makes sense. 

Black Suit of Death Sketch

Me: If you wouldn’t mind sharing, can you talk about some of the difficulties you’ve had living with clinical depression and PTSD and how you get through them?

Kreger: It messes with your mind, and I mean a lot! Beyond suicidal thoughts, there is paranoia, those infamous flashbacks of things you'd rather forget but keep popping up at the least convenient times, wanting nothing more than to connect with people you love but at the same time not being able to stand a hug... so much bullshit comes with them. What works best for me, beyond reminding myself that I am loved and I love my wife and kids too much to hurt them (and that is really important), is staying creative. Comics are my therapy in so many ways. Working on Black Suit of Death is very cathartic. I get to express my frustrations in very creative ways that aren't destructive in the least. Getting to work in the collaborative arts reminds me I have friends who not only like the silly stories I write but also seem to like me, at least on Facebook. LOL.

It's important to note that it is something you can live with and even something that you can overcome and the pain does go away. You have to want it, you can't allow yourself to be in love with the disease, as I've seen people do. They seek out the attention, the "there, there." You can't do that. It doesn't help you, it only hurts you. Instead, seek out a counselor, and/or a doctor. Work with a professional and be willing to work on yourself. Healing is possible. A good life is possible. And believe it or not, you do have the strength to climb out of the darkness and into the light. 

Me: What do you ultimately hope people will gain from reading Black Suit of Death?

Kreger: I think most writers actually write for themselves. Not to diminish our audience, our readers are incredibly important, but what readers might gain is almost an afterthought. I hope I don't offend anyone by saying so. I guess what I hope people will gain is, perhaps, a little escapism - as comics did for me when I was a geeky adolescent - as reading provides for most. 

I certainly hope they enjoy it enough to come back for more, but again this is a little selfish because I want to keep making these funny books and when there is demand, creating the next one is much easier. 

At the same time I feel writers need to tell their stories as much as they also need them to be read. LOL. I think I'm contradicting myself. 

Me: You’ve written a variety of genres. What is your favorite genre to write and why?

Kreger: I don't know that I have a favorite genre. When I was younger I thought I would be a Sci-Fi, Fantasy writer. Now, I write nearly everything. I suppose if I have a favorite it would be writing speculative fiction. I enjoy imagining, "What if's..." Exploring other possibilities. I feel my curiosity, my want or need to know how a story or how history might have turned out if this, or that happened is my strong point or my specialty as a writer. Of course, this curiosity is terrible to have when you're playing cards. I often play a hand of Poker way longer than I should just to see the "What if..." outcome. 

Me: You listed two very different projects as your favorite comics to write: your all-ages comic book The Less Than Historical Adventures of Li’l Lincoln and your much more mature comic book Black Suit of Death. What is it about these stories that makes them your favorites?

Kreger: With Li'l Lincoln, it's about the wonderment that is childhood. Discovering new things, old tales, having adventures your parents will never know about. I get to be more whimsical than in daily life. Writing about folklore allows me to reach back in time to when I was a boy watching The Wonderful World of Disney on a 13-inch black & white television, with antenna you'd have to adjust once or twice. It's about sharing my love of history and my love of stories with my children and it's just plain fun to write.

The Black Suit of Death allows me to go places and explore themes I wouldn't normally get to. There's an excitement that comes from writing a dark comedy. Like a taboo that tickles my imagination and flirts with the revenge fantasy's from my adolescent mind. 

There's a sense of nostalgia with both. Something our current culture is very much in love with. I'm no exception there.

Me: You’re publishing Black Suit of Death #1 under your imprint, Warrior Innkeeper Comics. Can you tell me why you created your own imprint and what other comic books Warrior Innkeeper Comics has published?

Kreger: We had a name change last year. We're now going by Warrior Innkeeper Creative. Changing the last word in our name is a reflection of the diverse services we provide as a small business - outside of publishing, I also do work as a Graphic Designer and offer Marketing Solutions for a number of cliental. Of course, we began much smaller.

In many ways, it all began with a, "What do I have to lose?" kind of thought. 

Back in 2009, I had just lost everything, almost quite literally. My Depression and PTSD was in full swing during the economic collapse of 2008. I lost my job, my house, I had just divorced my first wife, she took the dog... oh, and I lost my mind. That said, I had gained two important friends. Ty Wakefield was the first person to believe in me as a comic writer and showed me creating comics was something I could do, and I learned a lot about overcoming great challenges through his example. When I met him, he had just been cleared of cancer and used it as reason enough to start his childhood dream of being a comics publisher. He would go on to create an inspiring comic for kids battling cancer called Captain Cure! It breaks my heart to this day that his cancer re-emerged and despite being the strongest person I have ever known, he lost his own battle some years later... 

I look back and I've come to realize he's still with me, in spirit. I say this confidently because I am doing everything he taught me. I owe a debt to the man for many reasons, the greatest of which, I'm sure, without his intervention in my life, without his example, I wouldn't be here today. He saved my life in more ways than one. Of course the point of bringing this up is it was the first time I ever saw that a normal person like myself could, in fact, make comics. 

Then I met Adam Watson of Darkslinger Comics. Here is a man with ambition akin to my own but with a drive like none other. I met Adam at the Olympia Comic Fest in Washington State. You wouldn't think him and I would hit it off but surprisingly to both of us perhaps, we became really close friends. This is important because when I had lost nearly everything, it was Adam who offered me a place to stay until I could get back on my feet. While living on a couch in his house, he encouraged me to keep the dream alive by starting my own imprint as he had done. He showed me the ropes. Taught me a hell of a lot. Under his tutelage I became the writer/publisher I am today.

Now that's the rough and short backstory to my comic publishing origin, but I think I knew I always wanted to be a publisher. When I was a teen, I had created my first imprint, Quantum Comics. It was a superhero based universe that borrowed way too much from Marvel but the seed was planted then. As I first got into comics, I was of the thinking this would be practice and someday I'll write Superman or Spidey!

Now, as much as writing my favorite heroes still intrigues me, I might just be happier as a publisher and building Warrior Innkeeper Creative into a stronger publishing house. There are so many great ideas out there, so many independent comics which don't get to see the audience I feel they deserve. With that in mind, I've adjusted my 10-year plan (on year 7) to do just that—to learn as much about publishing as I've learned about creating comics.

I've got a good foundation so far. Warrior Innkeeper Creative has titles for many different types of readers. 

We have two all-ages comics at the moment: The Less Than Historical Adventures of Li'l Lincoln tells the story of a 10-year-old Abe Lincoln who, along with his best friend, a mutt named Fido, goes on a series of adventures with characters from American Folklore; and The Magnanimous Inventions of Ben & Mike which follows Benjamin Franklin and his pal Mike the gremlin as they build a time machine and muck up history with not-so-hilarious results. Li'l Lincoln's first three issues are currently undergoing an adaption into a collected trade which will be the next project I focus on.

Then there is our first Young Adult title, SVB: Super Vampyre Bunny. This tells the tail (pun intended) of a young man in High School facing the daily drama that make up a teen’s life. He also happens to be an anthropomorphic bunny in a world of regular humans… also a vampire bunny. It's a story based on characters created by my niece when she was very young that her father (comic artist Shua Kreger) and I finally put together into a comic series.

I've also been commissioned by the great City of Independence, OR to create two unique comics as advertising. The first was a lot of fun. The Spirits of Independence: A Ghost Walk Companion was created as a fund raising effort for the City's Hops & Heritage Festival we have every fall. Independence hosts a variety of events but perhaps the most famous of those is the Downtown Ghost Walk, where you get to hear all the crazy stories of possible hauntings in the 100-year-old buildings on Main St. I did a ton of research on local ghost lore and ended up writing several speculative stories for the comic. I also finally got to work with Dexter Wee for the first time, which as a fan of his work, was pretty radical. 

About a year later I was asked to create a comic promoting the awesome internet power (we're a gigabit city) we have in town to encourage technology businesses to set up shop here. The Test Drive Independence comic is a thinking out of the box kind of flyer. This was incredibly fun yet challenging and I got to work with Dexter Wee again. We created two short stories for this one, a 1-pager and a 2-pager. I attribute Dexter's creative layouts to the success of this comic. It's an ongoing promotion I feel lucky to be a part of.

So, there is a foundation and I'd like to do more comics that aren't just mine. Getting the finical support from Backers on Kickstarter is only one building block in a much larger goal. While I may get to write for the Big Two someday, that's no longer the dream. Getting Warrior Innkeeper Creative to a place where we can be a competitive publisher is.

Me: What inspiration words do you have for aspiring comic book writers?

Kreger: We launched our Kickstarter effort at the Northwest Comicfest last weekend (Aug. 15th). There were a number of us comic creators joking about Shia LeBeouf and his "Do It!" video. We'd see a friend wandering around the show floor and shout at them from behind our tables, "Do IT!" While making one of LeBeouf's exaggerated gestures. 

We laugh at that but really, that crazy bastard has a point. There comes a time in your life when you have to stop saying, "I want to be a comic book writer," and start saying, "I am a comic book writer."

You won't learn how to do it until you, "Just Do It!"

But understand, that with any art form, you must invest yourself in it. You must practice, study - never stop studying the art of writing - you need to read, read, read, and read some more. There is a whole lot to learn but the most important thing is to, "Do it!" and never look back.

Edward Ellsworth

Me: How did you get together with Benjamin Kreger to create this project?

Edward Ellsworth: In the late 90s a mutual friend pulled us both into his D&D group. Aside from being the kind of kids who played D&D, we were also movie geeks, so much so that we got the idea in our heads that we could become filmmakers ourselves. The movie Scream was really popular at the time, so we set out to make a parody about this black-robed anti-hero running around seeking revenge against people who annoyed him.

Years later when Ben got into publishing he asked what I thought about turning our crazy little script into a comic. I loved the idea, so we started working on a back story for the character, and it evolved from there.

Me: Since you mentioned Ben knows more about the comic book script format than you and that he suggested changing the screenplay into a comic book, what was your relationship towards comics before you began this project? Do you have any interest in writing other comics in the future?

Ellsworth: I have always liked comics, but I wouldn't say I've been devoted to them as much as a typical fan. I have a small but growing collection. Working on this project has opened my eyes to the potential for great storytelling that the comic book format has to offer. So yes, I've already got a few ideas for other comics rattling around in my brain.

Me: Who’s responsible for what parts of the writing? Do you handle a certain number of pages, particular plot elements, characters, etc.?

Ellsworth: I tend to focus more on plotting, while Ben writes more of the dialogue, but there really isn't a clear line of demarcation. Our process is basically to toss ideas back and forth until they are refined enough to use. At this point, when I read the script I honestly can't remember who wrote what.

One exception to that is script formatting. When we first talked about writing this together, I made it clear that I had no idea how to write a comic book script. Ben understands the medium better than I do, so when it comes to turning the story into a properly formatted script that an artist can render, that's all Ben.

Me: What do you want readers take away from reading Black Suit of Death?

Ellsworth: I mostly just want readers to be entertained. But, along with a good bit of silliness, our story does deal with the serious mental health issues of the protagonist. I would like to promote a better understanding of depression and social anxiety. I think some people view depression as just sadness, but it’s more complex than that. It often turns into anger and resentment, and those play a major role in our character development.

Me: A lot of interpretations of the grim reaper have been written. What makes your grim reaper different from the rest?

Ellsworth: One thing I think is unique about our grim reaper is that there's absolutely nothing supernatural about him. He's not responsible for transporting the souls of the departed, and we’re not trying to concoct some explanation for how the afterlife works, or anything along those lines. We’re taking a totally secular approach, attempting to giving a science-fiction based origin to the myth, rather than trying to validate the myth as something real.

We are also using the concept as a sort of metaphor for our protagonist’s internal struggles. Putting on the Black Suit of Death doesn’t really make him the grim reaper, but it does turn his anger into literal death and destruction.

Me: What inspirational words do you have for aspiring comic book writers?

Ellsworth: Right now is a great time to be an aspiring creative of any type. The big publishers that once got to decide what was worthy of being produced are less and less relevant. Consumers are the gatekeepers now, and there are many ways to reach them. If you want to write comic books, just start doing it. If you don’t know where to start, just ask Google. There’s nothing stopping you.

Dexter Wee

Me: How would you describe your art style?

Dexter Wee: I think it's a mix between classic old school comics, modern mainstream art and anime.

Me: In what way would you describe the tone of your art style and how it fits with Black Suit of Death?

Wee: I'll be using more brush works and black for the inks when Ed turns to BSD. But in the first part of the story, the art will have a more clean lines look.

Me: How did you break into the industry and what was your first comic book project?

Wee: I started drawing comic books around August 2007. I was working as a computer graphic artist in a local retail store back then until a friend handed me a Reader’s Digest book which featured a story about working as a comic book artist online.

So I did some samples, sent it online and was fortunately hired by two great guys, Sean McArdle and Jon Judy. We did a comic book project called The Reserves for the 2008 Comic Book Challenge which landed on the top three. After that comic book work started coming and I decided to work full time as a comic book artist in 2009.

Me: What do you think is the #1 reason why readers should back Black Suit of Death #1 on Kickstarter?

Wee: Black Suit of Death is a modern take of the Grim Reaper. It’s part sci-fi and part horror. And it's also a fun book with humor and great action scenes.

Me: I know you also worked on Cura Te Ipsum, which is also on Kickstarter right now. What is this comic book about and why should readers back it?

Wee: Cura tells the story of one man’s quest to save his own life across the multiverse! We already did two successful Cura Kickstarters in the past two years and this year we are campaigning for the whole Year 4 story. The artwork is already done and ready for printing once it is funded. I also feel that this is the best work yet I've done for Cura. 

Me: So you are a self-taught artist. How did you teach yourself? What tools did you use?

Wee: I started drawing since I was a kid. My father loves to draw and we used to have sessions drawing superheroes, soldiers and cowboys. I stopped drawing after college and went to work on different jobs from fast food service crew to a computer graphic artist. 2007 was the year I started drawing again. There was a lot of learning to be done. I started backtracking comic books and read them just to get updated. I stopped reading comics in the mid-90s. Growing up my influences were John Byrne, John Buscema, Joe Kubert, Jim Lee, Sean Murphy and Jerry Ordway. And recently I discovered artists like Bryan Hitch, Oliver Coipel, Stuart Immonen, and Steve McNiven among others who have influenced my work too.

As for the tools, I used only pencils from August 2007 to April 2014. On May of 2014 I started inking my own work and discovered that I actually enjoyed inking. I used a variety of inking tools, from pens to brushes and markers. I also used G-pens. The inking tools depends on the type of project I'm working on.  

Dexter Wee Profile

Me: What inspirational words do you have for aspiring comic book artists?
Wee: Just continue to draw and practice. It's a continuous learning. Be professional. Have discipline and love your craft. And have fun.

Me: Thanks for your time and for sharing your inspiration. If you haven’t already readers, check out Black Suit of Death #1 on Kickstarer.

Do you have a Kickstarter? Want to be interviewed about it and have it showcased on “Kickstart the Week?” Let me know in the comments below or message me on my personal website  
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