A Weird Tale of Monsters and Rooms - An Interview With The Creators of The Dead

The Dead is a series that we've followed pretty closely on the site. It's from creators James Maddox and Jen Hickman and it's gone from a weekly web series, to digital issues and a super successful Kickstarter to produce physical copies. With a journey like that it really is the epitome of indie comics. I had the chance to interview the creators about The Dead and so it's my pleasure to present that to you below.

DUSTIN: Where did the idea for  THE DEAD come from? The series started as a web-comic and then moved to collected digital issues, to Kickstarter, and physical copies. What’s been the challenge of each medium?

JEN: I think this probably has a bigger impact on James, who does the lion's share of promoting the project. For me it's more like, "what kind of file output am I doing" which is an incredibly micro view of the situation.

JAMES: Yeah, I’ll take that one. THE DEAD was a story that I’d been wanting to tell for years. As a creator, it challenged me to imagine a strong story for a number of varied settings and characters. Before I knew it, I had a plot going and the connections were tying themselves together and pushing themselves further and further along.

be6787e48f4a40dd9316b03a4dbcdfe9As for the comic’s production, I’m a print guy at the core, so my first instincts when starting a new comic are to put together pages for print. I travel to enough conventions that I’ll always need something to sell, and when we started work on  THE DEAD, we did it as a print book. But after the con season ended, we decided to move further with the series than your standard pitch. We needed to keep active, so we decided to experiment with a new way of delivering content.

Our first move was to release the story a page a week on my personal website (www.jamesmaddox.net), but after that showed some success, we moved it to its own domain (www.thedeadcomic.net). After we were about three issues in, we submitted to ComiXology, and that’s when things started to get interesting.

ComiXology opened us up to a wider readership. After the second issue went up on ComiXology, the reviews from readers and critics continued to be favorable, so Jen and I committed ourselves to bringing THE DEAD to print. To do that, we turned to Kickstarter.

The Kickstarter campaign we ran for DEAD was pretty meager. We wanted to raise $4,000 to cover production and print costs. We didn’t know what kind of reception to expect, but when the campaign was fully funded in six days, we were floored. Then even more attention was heaved our way.

Readers, reviewers and podcasters started placing a spotlight on our story and even more backers pledged to the campaign. We even received nods from professional creators like Mike Carey and Robert Venditti that helped us gain the readers of mainstream titles like Lucifer, The Unwritten, and Surrogates.

As the readership grew, I suddenly realized that explaining how THE DEAD was not another zombie comic was happening a lot less. Instead, people were starting to hear about this weird tale of monsters and rooms, and they were curious about it.

By the time our Kickstarter campaign ended, we’d raised over $9,200 (230% of our funding goal) and THE DEAD had received a huge boost. Now all that’s left is to complete the story, print the books, and see how people react.

DUSTIN: How did you two end up working with each other?

JEN: Baltimore Comic Con 2012. It was my very first convention ever, and I was sharing a table in the Artist Alley and learning how comic book conventions work. James came by and we did the whole business card swappy thing, then decided to work on a pitch together. That was THE DEAD, of course, and publishers didn't bite at the project like we hoped they would... or at all. But by that point I was quite attached to the story, so when James suggested we self-publish the thing, I was all for it.

80205310e3a6cda27c6fc54c045ab274DUSTIN: What’s the collaboration like? Is it just James writes, Jen illustrates or is there more of a collaborative effort?

JAMES: I love collaborating. It’s what keeps me coming back to writing comics. The right creative team can create something amazing and poignant and fun. Because of that, I’m so happy to be working with Jen, because she’s willing to go back and forth with concepts and approaches to the character and the story.

Also, Jen knows how a good story plays out and will speak up when she feels something’s missing. You couldn’t ask for a better collaborator than someone who trusts that you have a plan while looking out for ways to make the overall product better.

JEN: It's mainly the former. Occasionally I'll find a bit of writing that doesn't sit right, and we'll talk and get it fixed. And occasionally I'll send a rough page over and James will find something that isn't quite working, so I'll try another tack.

DUSTIN: In regards to the story it makes a lot of reference to the house prior to Sam’s arrival; will the story ever fully reveal that time or is just a way to show the history of the house?

JAMES: I definitely drop hints and references to how the House came to be, and by the closing of these six issues, the readers will have a better understanding of what the House is and how it was created. Plus, thanks to the Kickstarter stretch goal, I’m thinking we’ll have a good prologue that will help us to explore more of that side of the story, as well.

DUSTIN: How long do you see the series running?

JAMES: The plan is to have our main story run six issues. That will present the tale I’d hoped to produce, but the cool thing about THE DEAD is that it’s an infinite premise story. Because of the varied settings and characters, we could literally put together any kind of story that strikes our fancy, so if the House comes calling for us to revisit it, we’ll always have that option.

DUSTIN: I’m assuming Jen comes up with all the character designs (if I’m wrong please correct me), but where do you draw inspiration for them?

JEN: This area is pretty collaborative. James usually has some clear jump off points for most of the cast, which sends me off in the right direction.

dead2_01-661x1024THE DEAD is unusual in that the characters don't necessarily come from the same world. James has done a great job of coming up with a truly disjointed cast, which is one of the things I like about the story. It means that my research is really varied. Sometimes I'm looking at Victorian post-mortem photos, other times I'm scouring LookBook. But for me it's always a process of gathering research/reference materials, then picking elements from the research that will work well for the character. And I try to make sure that each character has something distinct to them, so if you see them in silhouette you'll know who they are. Even though they all come from different eras and walks of, erm, post-life, they do need to fit with each other in that aspect.

DUSTIN: Another one for Jen mostly, what’s your approach to coloring the world? How do you keep it vibrant and yet eerie?

JEN: I try to think about the emotion of the scene before I think about anything else. Color can impact the emotional timbre of a scene in the same way that a soundtrack can set the tone in a movie. And, good news! A lot of the emotional impact (especially for new rooms in the house!) comes from how dang eerie the place is.

DUSTIN: Is there something you can tease that’s coming to the series soon?

JAMES: As far as THE DEAD is concerned, we don’t have any new announcements, but Jen and I are working up some fun things for the future! Stick with us, and we’ll continue to deliver the goods.

A big thank you to James Maddox and Jen Hickman for taking the time to talk to me about The Dead. Be sure to check the series out at www.thedeadcomic.net or pick up the book on Comixology.

Follow The Dead on Twitter @TheDead_comic  and creators James @jamescmaddox and Jen @umicorms.