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AICN COMICS Q&@: Elston Gunn Interviews Artist Mark Wheatley and Writer JC Vaughn About RETURN OF THE HUMAN & David Lloyd’s ACES WEEKLY!

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Q’s by Elston Gunn!

@’s by Mark Wheatley & JC Vaughn!!!

Hello. Elston Gunn here.

Comic enthusiasts love print. No question. I honestly didn’t know of anyone who was reading their comics on a tablet. That is, until a few weeks ago. Going into your comic shop, picking it up in your hand, pressing flesh to a tangible work of your favorite creators, smelling the ink, bagging it up…it’s part of the process, part of the love. It’s hard to turn your back on it. And no one is really asking you to turn your back on that, but you can’t deny the transitory times we’re in and what all print publications have to face in order to survive. Some have to adapt. But are digital comics there yet? Have you been satisfied with what you’ve seen so far in terms of digital comics?

Artist Mark Wheatley (BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT, HAMMER OF THE GODS, LONE JUSTICE) is really excited about what David Lloyd (V FOR VENDETTA, KICKBACK) is doing with ACES WEEKLY, a digital comic anthology featuring artists from all over the globe. You pay a subscription fee ($9.99) for a seven-issue volume (126 pages) and can access it via desktop, laptop, phone or tablet device. It’s a gamble, of course, but everything is in this digital transition. What Lloyd has, however, is a roster of amazing talent ready to tell stories the way they want.

Wheatley and JC Vaughn (ZOMBIE-PROOF, VAMPIRE, PA , ANTIQUES: THE COMIC STRIP ) are offering up RETURN OF THE HUMAN, a unique take on an alien invasion story. Wheatley’s work looks damn good on an iPad or Nexus . Lush, ethereal. You may miss the smell of ink, but not for long once you get into the story. It’ll be interesting to see how the story and the magazine will fare. You can check out ACES WEEKLY here.

Wheatley and Vaughn took time to answer questions for AICN.

ELSTON GUNN (EG): How was ACES WEEKLY born? How does it work?

MARK WHEATLEY (MW): ACES WEEKLY was born in the dark recesses of David Lloyd’s imagination. He wanted to re-create the stimulating mix of content that he loved reading in popular British weekly anthology papers and magazines when he was a boy, but positioned for the high tech, modern world. He also recognized that there were a great many super-talented and very popular creators who are no longer being kept completely busy by the major and minor publishers. And the reality is that since the crash of the world economy, those same publishers have a much lower interest in releasing creator-owned titles. Even rates and conditions for creators have been pushed back to levels we have not seen since the last century. So, the time was ripe to establish a venue that would reward the creators for doing their best work while treating the public to an all-star lineup of international comics talent!

ACES WEEKLY has managed to attract a growing, amazing list of contributors. This whole thing has been put together by David Lloyd of V FOR VENDETTA fame. David is the publisher, and Bambos Georgiou is the editor. Now, here's the part that should blow the minds of fans everywhere: the creators involved include David Lloyd, Kyle Baker, John McCrea, Phil Hester, Mark Wheatley, JC Vaughn, Steve Bissette, Alain Mauricet, Alexandre Tefenkgi, Billy Tucci, Herb Trimpe, David Hitchcock, Dave Jackson, Dave Hine, David Leach, Marc Hempel, Lew Stringer, Colleen Doran, Bill Sienkiewicz, Carl Critchlow, Henry Flint, James Hudnall, Val Mayerik, Shane Oakley, Esteban Hernandez, Paul Maybury, Dylan Teague, Dan Christensen, Mychailo Kazybrid, Phil Elliott, Shaky Kane, Arvell Jones, Rory Walker, Hunt Emerson, Roger Langridge, Kev Hopgood, Ferg Handley & Mindy McPeak, Yishan Li, Algesiras, Paul Peart, Ben Dickson, Gavin Mitchell, Antonio Bifulco, Giuseppe Rungetti, Antonio Baretti, Louis Shaeffer, Warren Pleece and Batton Lash. That's just the list so far. ACES WEEKLY creators come from UK, USA, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, China, the Philippines and New Zealand. We're very international.

So, the way ACES WEEKLY works for the creators is that we support the central ACES WEEKLY office with a small fraction of our earnings and the lion’s share is divided between the artists and writers.

The way ACES WEEKLY works for the readers is ACES WEEKLY is being released as seven weekly, digital issues which form a volume. Each issue will have at least three landscape pages from six contributors (18 pages per issue), plus extras such as artists sketches etc. In the case of RETURN OF THE HUMAN, we have quite a few more than three pages an issue, so there is quite a lot of content that is above and beyond what is promised. Lots of Easter eggs!

Then there’ll be a two week break in publication between each seven issue volume of ACES WEEKLY. That will give the readers a chance to actually read all of that mass of terrific art and story – and it will give the creators a chance to get some sleep and reintroduce themselves to their families!

ACES WEEKLY is available exclusively online and features all new material and can be viewed on home computers, laptops and tablets. Remember that old “if you have a phone, you have a lawyer!” TV ad? Well, with your connection to the internet you will always have your growing library of ACES WEEKLY!

EG: How did you become involved?

MW: David and I had connected at comic cons over the years and are friends on Facebook. We both contributed to the fine FABLES FOR JAPAN project and kind of got on each other’s radar again. David started to pitch the idea, this was about a year ago, and I saw where he was going with it immediately. So, I was in, even though I didn’t know what I would do for it or when it would start publishing.

At the same time, I was working with JC Vaughn on a new series for HEAVY METAL magazine. I did a good deal of work for HM way back at the beginning, many years ago. In fact, they offered me the editor’s position when Sean Kelly was leaving. But I was too happy as a freelancer to get tied to a desk. Then last year I did a new story for HM that went over very well. Kevin Eastman and I were planning this new series as a result. Jeff Vaughn and I were well into the series when HM hit a cash flow snag and Kevin had to cut us loose. So, we had RETURN OF THE HUMAN and nowhere to put it. Now, the really odd thing is RETURN OF THE HUMAN was designed for a “fake” digital presentation. I was doing all the pages as double page spreads with frames to make it appear as if it was being read on a tablet. At that moment, David Lloyd hit me with their ACES WEEKLY format and said “So, since it is a landscape format, I’m afraid no one will be able to use any pre-existing comics work because of the difference in the pages.” Little did he know! There was only 1/8th of an inch difference in the aspect ratio!

Now, life would have been easy if Jeff Vaughn and I had just transferred the HM version of RETURN OF THE HUMAN directly to ACES WEEKLY. And we did start out that way. But after we were about three chapters into the new digital version I decided that if we were doing an exclusive digital story, then we should dump all the old, clinging print limitations. We should embrace, fully, the digital potential for comics. And we did. I ripped the entire thing apart and rebuilt it from the ground up to take advantage of the digital presentation. I’m a real sucker for new ideas!

J.C. VAUGHN (JCV): Mark and I had been developing RETURN OF THE HUMAN and he called me and told me about ACES WEEKLY. I had met David several years ago. I liked his work as far back as ESPERS, and loved his graphic novel KICKBACK. When I heard about the other creators involved, it was impossible to pass up. Seriously, how could you pass it up?

EG: As an artist/creator, what's the appeal of what David Lloyd is doing with ACES WEEKLY?

MW: David not only made the offer that I can do whatever I want, but that I SHOULD do what I’m most excited about. Combine that with an outstanding platform, standing shoulder to shoulder with the massed, top talent of the world of comics and how could any creator lucky enough to be invited refuse?

JCV: I'm a big believer that in the long run digital comics sells more print comics. This runs counter to the way a lot of people think. I'm not saying that we understand how that will play out -- maybe it's only more collected editions, I don't know--but it gives us a chance to reach SO many more people than who are presently coming to comic shops. If they have a chance to really discover what comics are all about, I think it's nothing but good for the industry. What David is doing is taking top creators and giving them a venue in this new realm, giving them a chance to recruit new fans, new readers, through this new delivery means. It's a wonderful, egalitarian opportunity. And if I'm wrong about print, then we have to be digital anyway.

EG: How do you compare this format with other digital or motion comics? What's the advantage to the consumer?

MW: Like I said, I’m a sucker for new ideas. I looked at motion comics early on. I was excited by the possibility that might expand comics storytelling abilities. But the more I see motion comics, the more I think it is just low-grade animation without the virtues of the traditional comics reading experience. It takes the power and charm of the active, involved relationship a reader has with a book and turns it into a passive experience where the presentation is totally in control. I think the golden rule of digital comics is simple: THE READER IS ALWAYS IN CONTROL. If there is a second rule, it would be DON’T DISTRACT THE READER WITH TRICKS AND GIMMICKS!

When I thought of rule two, I was thinking there would be no place for digital tricks of any kind in a good digital comic, but rule one trumps rule two. As long as the reader is in control of the use of the tricks and gimmicks, it seems to work just fine. Here is an example: in a motion comic where a Flash-animated monster suddenly leaps across the page, making a roar of sound – that’s passive and bad. But, if the reader advances to the page and reads the CAPTION: “Our hero thought he was safe at last --“, then clicks to reveal a monster who had been hidden by the shadows, and then clicks to trigger a roar, then I think this is READING and not WATCHING. I’m a little on the fence about the use of sound, but I think it can work as long as the reader is in control. I do think it crosses the line to have anything beyond sound effects or, maybe, music. Recorded dialogue gives the voice to an actor and takes it away from the reader. Anyway, I’m not doing any use of sound in RETURN OF THE HUMAN. Kind of. I did do a theme song for RETURN OF THE HUMAN and a music video. But that was just for fun and PR use – and an added easter egg. Here is the video.

JCV: I'm not a huge fan of motion comics. Nothing against them either, really. They just seem like a dead end in an evolutionary sense. Full animation already exists, so let's settle for partial animation? I don't know. ACES WEEKLY, on the other hand, seems like a logical progression of comics moving into the digital world.

EG: Where did the idea of RETURN OF THE HUMAN come from? Not to sound reductive, but it almost feels like a scrapbook of archival information where you're trying to piece together a mystery, while detailing what has happened to these planets and characters. It's like a documentary. And what was it about RETURN OF THE HUMAN that made you believe it would be perfect for the digital format?

MW: That’s exactly right! Our pitch for RETURN OF THE HUMAN was “the history of an intergalactic war, told in the style of a Ken Burns documentary.”

The content pitch was: 'A thousand years after humanity abandoned the poisoned Earth to build an empire across the stars, one man returns. Lance McCoy finds the Mother Planet is more than anyone suspected. But will it be enough to save his Galactic Civilization from a relentless attack that seems designed to exterminate mankind?'

I had approached Jeff about scripting a space opera project I wanted to set up at HEAVY METAL magazine. I gave Jeff a shopping list of visuals and subjects I wanted to deal with, and then he went off and tried to make sense of it. When he came back he had the bare bones of the idea laid out. But at that point he was thinking of telling the story in a typical graphic novel form. But there was a tone of voice Jeff had used in his written pitch in one of his early paragraphs that reminded me of the voiceovers in Ken Burns’ CIVIL WAR documentary. So, I started pushing for us to tell the story in that documentary style, and Jeff was quick to jump on that idea, too. So, instead of telling the story scene by scene, we are able to tell the story from the point 20 years after the end of the galactic war. We are working as if we are pulling from historical events, photos, videos, interviews, artifacts, letters from home, advertisements, sketches, personal accounts and anything else we can think of. The approach makes everything we are doing seem fresh and new. Of course, while we thought this would end up in HEAVY METAL, we were really working hard to make it seem like a documentary even though it was just a few pages in each issue of a print mag. But when we moved on to the digital format of ACES WEEKLY, the digital option proved to be the final, transformative ingredient to turn RETURN OF THE HUMAN into something exceptional in my working experience.

JCV: The idea is that it's a Ken Burns-style documentary of a future war told from even further in the future. Some of the story is told through artifacts and interviews and re-creations, so it sounds like you really got it in just a few short chapters. The project was originally conceived for print, so the format has really caused us to push our thinking.

EG: It's an interesting twist on the alien invasion genre, and there are other themes and issues at work as well -- political, sociological and practical (how would one evacuate a whole planet?) and the painterly art brings those home potently compared to more traditional comic illustrations. The art almost looks like a series of comic covers, which is a compliment. Why this route?

JCV: Mark has infused so many elements and so much thought into the art that it's difficult for me to point all of them out. It really does lend the epic feel to it.

MW: I was, indeed, looking for a way to tell a story on an epic scale, a way that would not break my back with all the illustration work. So the emulation of a documentary style opened up all sorts of unusual and exciting possibilities. And I have a restless imagination--I’m always looking for a new way to do things.

EG: How many books are you planning? Without giving anything away, what can readers expect from the upcoming installments?

JCV: Readers should expect staggering events and more personal revelations against an epic backdrop. Twists, turns and all the good stuff that will, we hope, keep people interested.

MW: There are three volumes planned for RETURN OF THE HUMAN. BOOK ONE is running right now. BOOK TWO is scheduled for ACES WEEKLY VOLUME 3 and BOOK THREE is scheduled for ACES WEEKLY VOLUME 5.

The three books will tell the story of the entire intergalactic war – and we will see how the lives of our characters are impacted by the war, and if they survive how they change the universe following the war. Since the story is told from a point twenty years after the end of the war we can give it a sense of history and perspective.

Of course, the comics in ACES WEEKLY will be exclusive to the digital format, by contract, for a period of years. And in the case of RETURN OF THE HUMAN, my approach to the story is designed for the digital format. It just will not work as it is in print. Because of this new format, I've managed to make myself as excited about creating comics as I was on the day I started waaay back in the 20th century!

EG: Mark, it appears you draw a lot of inspiration from pulp magazine artists, and a little Frank Frazetta as well. Did you draw on anyone's work in particular for this story?

MW: I’m a melting pot of my influences. I’m a student of 20th Century illustration. I have an extensive collection of books and magazines going back to the late 1800s with thousands of incredible illustrations. So, I have plenty of inspiration. I share a lot of this on my Facebook fan page. Anyone can come see just what and who my influences are – and get an education in the great illustrators.

But my major influence for painting would be N. C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle.

EG: Have you received a lot of feedback? How would you like to see this progress?

MW: The feedback I’ve been getting has been overwhelmingly positive. In a way, I think I’m cheating. I’m giving the readers so much in the art, and the story that Jeff and I are telling is packed with years of emotional events – the entire RETURN OF THE HUMAN experience is like the difference between a slick and exciting James Bond movie and a weekly episode of FRINGE. Our production values are able to be far beyond what the standard comic book has any hope of delivering. Between the year-long lead time for production and the technology of the ACES WEEKLY platform, we really have the edge.

I want more and more people to subscribe to ACES WEEKLY so Jeff and I and David and all the ACES will be able to tell our stories for a long, long time!

EG: What else do you have in the works?

JCV: For Gemstone Publishing, THE OVERSTREET GUIDE TO COLLECTING COMICS comes out in late November. I just acted in Billy Tucci's featurette promoting his upcoming Kickstarter campaign for THE BOYS OF COMPANY Z, and following that I'll have my own Kickstarter to do the collected edition for ZOMBIE-PROOF, which I did with Vincent Spencer.

MW: I just illustrated a Sherlock Holmes story for the new magazine POE FOREVERMORE. The story is written by David Gerrold. So, I get to illustrate one of the all-time classic characters and work with a science fiction legend at the same time!

And I’ve just agreed to illustrate a new graphic novel that Thom Beers of reality TV fame is developing. I can’t really go into details about it yet, except to say that I’ll be working with the very talented Todd Livingston on the project, which is a very big reason I’m looking forward to it.

And our Dracula vs. Jack the Ripper motion picture based on the BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT graphic novel that I did a while back with Rickey Shanklin and Marc Hempel has a shooting script and is now in casting. Breck Eisner, the director, is working with the line producer on getting the most out of his budget. I’m looking forward to seeing if I can schedule time to visit the shoot when they are on location.

Editing, compiling, imaging, coding, logos & cat-wrangling by Ambush Bug
Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G

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