Licensing & the Future of the Digital Comics Industry According to Matthew Dow Smith
Published: April 5, 2011 - 6:46pm
Along with work from DC, Marvel, Image, and IDW, Matthew Dow Smith has several licensed properties on his resume supplying the art for the comic versions of Supernatural, Dr. Who, and Mirror's Edge. Dow speaks about these projects as a creative and professional opportunity for those aspiring to work in comics.
I grew up reading the 'Star Wars' comic book. That literally was my very first comic book. I think we look down a little bit on things that are being translated into comics and I avoided doing them for most of my career. It wasn't until Ben Abernathy at Wildstorm called me up and asked if I'd be interested in doing 'Supernatural' that I gave it a go. The interesting thing about the approach they took on 'Supernatural' was that they specifically told me 'We don't want it to look exactly like the actors. We're not going for photorealistic representation of them. We want it to look like a Matt Smith character, but close enough that you knew which character from the show it was.” I'm not the best at photo likenesses, so we experimented a bit to get it close and it felt comfortable. There's a lot of shadows, monsters, and creepy things. It's some of what I feel is in my ballpark .
Once I started on the road of doing licensed projects, suddenly I was getting all of these licensed projects. None of them were really all that uptight about the likenesses. I was more uptight about the likenesses for Dr. Who than I think IDW and the BBC were because I'm a huge 'Dr. Who' fan. I try to do what I like to call an emotional likeness," he stated, "The character is going to move in a certain way that people recognize from the TV or the movie and I put a lot of thought [into that]. It involves studying how an actor holds his body, which is a lot easier to represent in comics because you're never going to get a comic book drawing to look like what you're seeing on television. I think that if you're trying to make it look like what you're going to see on television that you're kind of missing the point. With what comics are capable of, you can tell a different kind of story or you can write a story with more layers than a 1 hour TV show. If you're going to do a comic off of a TV show, make the best comic that you can.
I started out doing creator owned comics at Caliber, which was great because you have an incredible amount of freedom because I could write and draw my own stuff. I could do the kind of stories that I wanted to do. But there was a draw back that (even in the 90s when the comic industry was much bigger than it is now because of the size of the audience) you weren't really making much money unless somebody optioned your comic to be a movie. I think I got only one royalty check from all the comic books that I did earlier in my career that were creator owned books. The goal then was very much to do a creator owned book, break into DC or Marvel or Darkhorse at that time, and then go on to do corporate comics and you didn't have any rights. If they made a movie based on the comic that you were making, you didn't really make any money. I don't know what the controversy really is now, but I know that Steve Niles was really pushing some of the creator owned stuff and my friend Josh Fialkov has done much like we were doing in the early days.
These days you almost can't talk about creator owned comics without addressing digital comics. A lot of people are a little uneasy about digital comics and I love digital comics. I'm a big fan of being able to write and draw your own material and publish it yourself for next to no money at all. There's really something to be said for being able to do all that yourself and not having to rely on a larger company to accept and publish it for you. It's going to be really interesting to see how that's going to change the material. Ron Marz on Twitter (Because he really likes messing with people.) had made the point several times, and I I would tend to agree with him, that we've really limited ourselves in the comic book industry in terms of the kind of material we put out there, which is both true and not true. There's a lot of different kind of material out there, but our bread and butter is and probably always will be superheros. There are places that you can go with a comic book that we are very hesitant to go. The nice thing about digital comics and doing all that stuff yourself is it costs next to nothing to make so as long as you're willing to do it for relatively little money, you can do whatever you want, and try to build up an audience that way. As someone who writes and draws, I'm a big proponent of doing creator owned material and I've done very little of it in my career since making the leap from Caliber to DC in the nineties, I've done very little of it because the reality is when you're drawing comics full time, you gotta to keep a roof over your head, so you're drawing whatever someone's is willing to pay you to draw. That sounds cynical, and perhaps it is, but it's a funny kind of way to make a living and sometimes.
Dan Waters (Generation Dead) and I talked a few times, 'If you won the lottery and you got ridiculous Stephen Kings amounts of money, what would you do?' The thing that I would say that I would do is I would buy DC Comics. I'd stop publishing all of their books, and then restart them. I know the fans love continuity and I love continuity (I'm a huge Legion of Superheros fan and that book is all about continuity.), but I think we get really bogged down in it. I think it's really hard to reach an audience outside of the already established and very faithful audience. Lord knows this is what keeps the comic book industry going right now, but it would be really nice if we could reach out and bring some other people back in who don't need to know the history of each character: 'Green Lantern' or anybody. I used 'Green Lantern' as an example because you have the movie coming out. Wouldn't be great to have people see the movie and say “that's a really interesting character” and have a 'Green Lantern' book that they could get into. I'm not sure, not for lack of trying, how accessible a lot of the comic books we do are to an audience that isn't already reading comics. It's a business issue, but it's also a creative issue to the people who are writing and drawing these books. You have to keep in mind that you have to appeal to an audience that doesn't know a lot of the history. Certain guys, Geoff Johns being a perfect example, who can kind of balance those two things and have a book be a little more accessible to an audience outside. I think that's one of the potentials of digital comics because, with all respect to the comic book shops which again are our bread and butter , a lot of people are not going to go into a comic book shop to buy a comic. A lot of people can buy comics without going to a comic book shop and we need to have the kind of material available that can appeal to those people as well. Let's get them started reading in the format, then start feeding them things like Watchmen; start feeding them things like Sandman and lead back into superheros or whatever they're interested in. That's the potential of digital comics. How well we take advantage of that is going to be the question of the next ten years in the comic book industry.
I've worked with some of the best writers in comics. That sounds like I'm trying to be nice, but it's true. I got to work with Alan Moore on some issues of 'Supreme'; I go to work with James Robinson on Starman, which for my money is one of the best superhero comics from the 1990s; I've worked with Ron Marz; and the only one I haven't worked with is Neil Gaiman in my personal pantheon of great writers. I've learned something from all of them. It's been a long process of learning that I can't actually write that well. Working with these guys like James Robinson who thinks about stories in an amazing and original way. Seeing the process [which is] bringing one of his scripts and turning it into a comic book. It teaches you so much about how to tell a story. I'm  interested in telling the story as best I can [visually]. Most storytelling mediums don't have this level of collaboration between people.Someone like Ron Marz, we had done 'The Path' together for Crossgen and we just did two issues of 'Witchblade' together. The interplay between both of us really helps make the story better. Ron was trying to play to my strengths. Ron and I were talking about the story from the very early stages putting the story together so he could make it play to my strengths. I'm so familiar with the way he writes that I was able to understand what he wanted to convey and punch it up. You can't do that in movies. You can't do that in television. If you can, it's really incredibly rare to have that kind of collaboration for people. It's always interesting to me.
Matthew Dow Smith's next project will not be a collaboration at all, but a prose novel with illustrations: Night Folk.
Twelve year old Victoria Thompson has always felt like an outsider. While other girls her age are spending time gossiping about boys and reading teen magazines, she's more interested in spooky stories and drawing monsters in the margins of her notebook.
With no friends to speak of, Victoria doesn't mind when her family has to move to a small town in Upstate New York. If anything, she's looking forward to a fresh start at a new school, and hoping to meet someone who shares her interest in the odd and unusual.
But Victoria is about to make some new friends who are odder and more unusual than anything she could have imagined...
The Night Folk.
[For this work, the author rekindled his new desire to write. To step away from his ever growing responsibilities as a comic artist, he set up a Kickstarter campaign to finance his original work through donors.]
This is me being an egomaniac saying 'I have a story to tell and I am going to tell it! About five or six years ago, I decided possibly incredibly pretentiously to put a little more effort, spend a little more time, on my writing. I hadn't really intended to be a comic book artist. At best, I wanted to write and draw my own material, if not just write it and have other people draw it. I took a break from comics for a few years and started studying writing prose. I thought that I had a story in me, which again sounds pretentious. I didn't see an opportunity for those things in comics. It was very influenced by the early Vertigo stuff: 'Sandman' and Alan Moore's run on 'Hellblazer'. No ones really doing those types of stories in comics anymore. Things are a little darker and a little more twisted. I went to a writer's workshop where F. Paul Wilson was one of the teachers, who I'm a huge fan of. Paul was familiar with some of the short stoies I've done in Negative Burn featuring my character Evan Fade. I'd sent some to him and he was very positive about it. He look at what I brought to the writers' workshop and was basically saying, 'This is good but why aren't you doing Fade stories.' I was standing there talking to him saying, “Yes, why didn't I do a fade story?” The next time I did a writer's conference, I did a Fade story. I made the decision that I need to do something shorter; I needed to find a way to fund working on it, which is where the Kickstarter thing came in. I took one of my ideas that ties into the Fade stories, which is this project that you mention Night Folk. It is, for a lack of a better description, a dark fantasy novel. A young girl who really doesn't feel like she fits anywhere discovers a world of these strange creatures. The tag line I always use is “She makes some unusual new friends,” but it ties into all of these stories that I wrote very early on in my career at Caliber and the Fade material that I've been developing for pretty much 20 years now. It was time and I need to find a way to be able to afford to step away from the art table long enough to finish a project and the Kickstarter thing is really interesting. We're about halfway through and it ends at the end of April. Hopefully we'll have the whole thing financed by then and we're aiming to have the book come out at the end of summer. We're doing it digitally. We're doing through Amazon's Kindle Store and Apple's Ibook Store. The only print edition that we have planned is a very limited edition print run for people who give a certain amount on the Kickstarter page.
To see some of Matthew Dow Smith's sketches and writings, check his official website here.
To learn more about Night Folk and it's Kickstarter campaign check here.