Written by Neil Greenaway
At Phoenix Comic Con 2016 I had the chance to sit down and talk with Ash Maczko and Ashley M. Witter of Squarriors comics about their take on publishing indie comics. This interview originally ran on Bleeding Cool on 6/06/2016, and you can read their version of it here.
Ash Maczko and Ashley M. Witter have been taking the comic world by storm with their smash hit Squarriors. This weekend at Phoenix Comic Con, I had the chance to talk with them about their process, Kickstarters, and why there are no guest artists on their book.
Neil Greenaway: We are sitting here in Phoenix Comic Con talking to Team Ash. How are you guys finding the con so far today?
Ash Maczko: Today is just getting started but yesterday was banging. A lot of people, a lot of fun.
NG: Have you guys done Phoenix before?
AM: Never done this show, first time in Phoenix, I’ve never been to Phoenix until yesterday.
NG: Well we’re rolling out the 117 degree heat for you.
AM: No, we were looking forward to it. We were hoping it was going to hit maybe 120 or something,
NG: You just wait, you just wait.
AM: I’m hearing it might be like that tomorrow.
NG: So I understand that you guys just finished your second Kickstarter for Squarriors (for the hardcover). What was it like to see that this had the following that it has gained for the Kickstarter to have been as successful as it was?
AM: It was kind of a funny thing. I wasn’t sure how well this Kickstarter would do because we already came up with the book, we came out with the trade paperback, now we were just coming out with the same thing the people already had, just in a hardcover version and a bigger format. So I was kind of a little concerned that people had already gotten the book. I didn’t know how well the Kickstarter would do. So to see it be successful and be that successful, again, was pretty exciting. There were enough people out there, enough interest was there for a squirrel book that they wanted a hardcover, they wanted big print, they wanted more Squarriors stuff so it was exciting, it was fun. I was a little nervous at first but it went off pretty good.
NG: Just speaking of the Kickstarter, there have been publishers in the past who tried to use that platform to get a new book out, only to hear backlash from the fans about established companies using crowdfunding. Do you feel that tension? Is it anything that you hear at all?
AM: You know I haven’t heard anything as far as like Squarriors just because Devils Due is still a pretty small publisher. They’ve done, I mean almost all of their books have started through Kickstarter. So while I definitely understand in a way, you know the debacle that happened with Archie wanting to do a Kickstarter and things like that, I could see that. It just doesn’t seem to be the right venue for a really big established publisher to crowdfund, but we didn’t have any problems. We didn’t get any emails with any kind of contention. I think it was pretty understandable, we’re small, we’re on small label. It’s kind of natural for us for something big to take it to a crowdfunding source.
NG: On the way that you guys work (because I have been curious), do you use a collaborative style? Do you use the Marvel style, where you write a script and then Ashley gets all the drawing after that?
Ashley Witter: I think it’s more collaborative than anything. Because when Ash is coming up with the story I kind of talk to him about it and kind of bounce stuff off of each other. Mostly he does the scriptwriting and he comes to me and I do the thumbnails so that I have like my interpretation of it. And we kind of work on that together.
AM: Yeah that’s about right. Like we’ll kind of come up with some kind of direction together and then I’ll put together a script bring it over to her and we’ll kind of go panel by panel and decide angles and how everything will work. Obviously, her vision as the artist usually ends up being something cooler than I originally thought of anyway. So I just give kind of general notes, something like this, something like that. Then you know by the time I see it, it’s amazing. So yeah, there’s some collaboration but we’re still kind of I’m over here and she’s over there working and then we kind of come together when we need to come together.
NG: How did you guys get together as a team?
AM: We’ve always been a team. Ashley was already doing comics and things and I had to come up with the Squarriors concept and she was just the right person for the job. So we got together and started working on it, it’s been about a year and a half now I think, Squarriors has been going. But we’ve actually been working on the book closer to three years as far as like the first concept started coming together. Again Ashley has been doing comics for some time; she was already doing that before we even met.
NG: Is Squarriors your first comic?
AM: Yeah, my first and only book is Squarriors. I just kind of dove right in I guess and that was the first thing I came up with.
NG: It’s always awesome when the first one is a success.
AM: You know it feels successful. I wasn’t sure how well a book about warrior squirrels was going to be taken.
NG: Ashley, what was the first comic you worked on?
AW: The graphic novel adaptation of Interview with the Vampire. It was based on Claudia the little girl vampire, so that was like my big introduction into doing like graphic novels. Since then I have worked on the Twilight Graphic Novel series and Anne Rice’s Wolf Gift and then we did Squarriors. After Squarriors came out I had my web comic that I started back in 2007, Scorch, so we have that in print. I also worked on a comic written by Mark Landry called Bloodthirsty, which takes place in New Orleans and it’s about vampires. So I had a lot of vampire work in my repertoire.
NG: Was it an odd change switching over to drawing nature, squirrels and trees and such?
AW: It was a little strange when Ash came at me like, we’re going to draw a comic about squirrels. I’m like, I’ve been drawing people, anime and stuff. When I was little I drew a lot of animals, so it was kind of like returning to that. But yeah, it was definitely a change, it was a little strange.
NG: Personally I think you have been blowing it out of the water. It looks like, and this is an odd statement, but it looks like you’ve been drawing squirrels your whole life.
AM: That’s because she has a terabyte worth of reference material on the computer (laughs)
AW: Well it’s like art wise really strong fundamentals. And it did take me a while to learn how to draw squirrels. But it’s the same way I would approach drawing anything else, just have to learn how to do it and get better at it.
NG: Recently I’ve been hearing the book referred to as Game of Thrones meets Wind in the Willows, is that something that you would agree with?
AM: I can definitely see Game of Thornes is almost like a buzz word at this point. It’s like lots of things are compared to that because it’s the biggest of that genre.
NG: He has a sword!
AM: Yeah exactly. It’s like oh it’s medieval fantasy it must be Game of Thrones. I think how it relates to Squarriors is more like Squarriors is obviously not like a superhero comic in that it’s not like just a character piece. This isn’t just about a squirrel doing things, it’s about lots of animals and lot of themes of intrigue and clans, I think that’s how people relate it to Game of Thrones because you know there is, there are so many stories going on, there’s so much to it so many dynamic things happening between characters and all different places and I do think with Game of Thrones being the big thing that’s going on right now as far as that feel. I think that’s the connection. I think that’s what everybody is seeing. They pick up a comic book, they look at Spider-Man; oh it’s about Spider-Man. Squarriors is about lots of things going on, I think that’s where that’s connected.
NG: In that vein- do you guys have a grander universe planned? I know you’ve only told really the one story, you’re working on the second series, how big is this world?
AW: It’s big (laughs)
AM: It’s big. Squarriors, my vision right now, the first 16 issues that we’re kind of writing and working on is almost a prequel in my mind. You know it just takes place in a very small little rural area where the whole world, all these other things going on. So I’m planning on taking this little squirrel story and going further and further till you can see this grand scheme, how all these other animals are living and all these other things going on across hundreds of miles, not just a couple of yards. So that’s the plan.
NG: Now, obviously in the real world, forests and just spots of nature like that are fairly secluded. Is there a chance that you would run into like different kingdoms, like other squirrel worlds even?
AM: That is exactly the plan. What you’re look at right now is again, this kind of a secluded little bubble and you have to imagine that something completely different is happening in the suburb, or in these houses. Or in this skyscraper or in this diner or in this shopping mall. Lots of different things will be going on at once and I want to start hitting all kinds of little things. What’s going on at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago? You know, what are the lions doing now? What are the bears doing now? What about the giraffes? And all these animals think now or can speak rational ideas or thoughts. I would like to get to all that stuff.
NG: That sounds pretty epic.
AM: That’s the plan.
NG: When it comes to the publisher itself, did DDP approach you guys? Were you guys shopping the book? How did you get picked up by?
AW: I’ll let you tell that story. I kind of felt like Josh had been following us.
NG: Josh Blaylock, the stalker.
AM: Kind of, sort of. It was funny, we came up with the idea for Squarriors and we just had the one image, you know, we made this poster of the book. And that was before there were names of characters, before there was anything. And we made a Facebook page for it. It was just that image, we had maybe a dozen likes from random people and somehow, we had three publishers message us. They didn’t know anything about the book, they didn’t care what the book was – they wanted to publish us. So after kind of messaging back and forth with a couple different people, we started talking to Josh. Then, Josh (really coincidentally) runs into us at about three or four shows in a row asking about Squarriors
AW: He would make like a random guest appearance at a smaller con we were doing (laughs)
AM: Yeah he would just sort of show up and after talking to him a few times it seemed like he kind of had the same idea that we had about where we wanted to go with the book, how we wanted to get it out to the public, so here we are.
NG: Going back to the grander universe scope, I assume that if the universe is ever as fully fleshed out as you like, at some point you would have to hand off to a different writer or a different artist, is that something that you have planned?
AM: Definitely not planned, but I guess in the grandeur of seeing Squarriors five, ten years in the future… You know if it was some larger license, I could definitely see how there could be like almost spin-offs or other tales. And sure other writers and other artists doing the story that’s going on over here while this story’s going on here. There certainly is room to have something like that, but we’re here right now.
NG: It seems like a really cool universe and I’ve seen it happen before, just right off the top of my head, with Mouse Guard, David Petersen created that universe and then he eventually went on to do the Tales of the Mouse Guard so that other artists and authors could dip their toe in his universe, not necessarily effect the grand scheme of things, but able to contribute at the very least. But talking to other people, it seems that you guys created a property here that other people are excited about.
AM: I hope so. Again, that’s a very positive optimistic thing that I hope happens one day, but right now we are still just trying to get the issues out that we’ve got.
NG: What are the big plans for the 2nd series? Are there any secrets that can be revealed? I would understand if it all had to be a little hush-hush.
AM: I don’t even tell Ashley about things to be honest, until it’s already written.
NG: That smile says she’s just bursting with something.
AM: Oh I’m sure she knows a couple secrets.
AW: I started working on the next issue and we’re just getting started. It starts off so good in my humble opinion.
AM: So some of number two, which we’re working on, comes out in August. I think I’m personally excited about it. I think just like taking another step, writing wise. The writing got a little sharper, a little tighter and I’m excited for that issue to come out and just get some response, you know, some feedback on that. Feedback’s great up until now. I’m hoping that people kind of see it develop and mature a little bit. I think issue 2 of summer shows that more than the other books so I’m excited about that.
NG: Do either of you have any other books in the works, or is it all Squarriors all the time these days?
AM: Ashley works on lots of things. Covers, guest covers, things like that.
AW: I mean I look forward to doing other side projects with Ash that really shows the variations of our talents.
AM: I do have a couple of pitches out, I can tell you that. There are some things that I’m working on. Some scripts that are already written. Some things that got accepted that we really haven’t been able to announce yet. And again some pitches that are just out in the ether right now that we are waiting for responses on. So hopefully you will see my name on a few other ideas and other projects besides Squarriors.
NG: Well that would be very cool. I wanted to ask about the covers, have you done all of the cover art or have you guys had any variant guest artists at all?
AW: Ash had a policy on Squarriors that I was like, huh? Do you want to talk about that?
AM: Ashley’s the artist for Squarriors honestly, unless something happens license wise or again we do like a splinter thing with another team, some side stories. We honestly get lots of offers for people wanting to do guest covers and stuff, but I just want Ashley to do them. I just want the covers to be Ashley, that’s what Squarriors is and I’d like to keep it that way. It’s our little thing and I want to keep it to us. If you get a Squarriors cover variant or otherwise I want it to be something that we did together, that we approved. That’s the best it can be for our book, so I think we will probably always just be doing Squarriors ourselves.
NG: It lends the collection, when you see all the single issues together, a real sense of consistency.
AM: You should see our hallway wall with all the covers.
NG: I believe I have on Facebook. That was fairly impressive. Was that all the covers to all of the issues?
AM: No, we still need several frames. And there are actually a couple of variant covers that we don’t have.
NG: Really, even you guys?
AM: Yeah, no, there’s like a Cincinnati-
AW: They’re hard to get a hold of.
AM: Yeah, some of them are tough to get a hold of. You know like we’ll get a couple of them and we’ll sell them at a show thinking we are going to get more only to find out that Diamond sold out, the publisher sold out and now we’re buying our own books off eBay.
NG: Ok, that’s fairly odd, but all right. Another question, this time specifically for Ashley. There has been a lot of talk recently about piracy and image theft. Is that anything that you have dealt with personally?
AW: We actually just recently had a friend that I gave a Squarriors image to, and we kind of gave him permission to go get it printed as a product. And he wrote me back and asked me permission to prove that he had copyright rights because Google images identified it as copyrighted material. Which you know, we live in this day and age when computers can just out right say, yeah that’s copyright, so it was just really cool and interesting. You know, back a few years ago, it was something you had to worry about. Now, with advances in technology, it just does it for you. So that is one recent thing that has happened, but we were saved by Google because it’s registered so that was pretty cool. I did have one piece of art that was obviously based on something of mine and they didn’t credit me. But that was years ago and I let it slide because they weren’t trying to make money off of it or anything. It was just kind of, if you’re going to do that definitely give someone credit. But other than that I haven’t really faced any kind of art theft.
NG: Do you feel that there is room there for forgiveness?
AW: I mean it’s tough, it really is. If someone were selling prints of my artwork at the same show I’m at, it would suck. But then there’s people who are buying it which is really interesting. Because now this is totally legal. Other people can buy my art from other people on eBay, but like they won’t buy it from me. It’s that weird thing where I’ll be selling commissions but people will pay more to buy it from a dealer, not the original artist. And that’s not theft, but it kind of is. So it gets kind of weird.
NG: Do you see a lot of your sketches or show commissions being flipped online?
AW: Early on I would like personalize everything, so it kind of broke my heart when I saw it go up on eBay like right after. I was like, oh. Ash would say “Well, you kind of got to do the sketches for people because they are paying for it”. And I know, it’s just when you do something so heartfelt for someone and they just go and flip it, it’s like oh. But whoever buys it probably loves it so there you go.
NG: I guess that’s fair enough.
AM: It’s weird selling a commission for like $75 and somebody sells it for like $400 on eBay and it sells (snaps his fingers).
NG: That’s crazy. There is a current trend I have been hearing about and I’d like to get a writers perspective on it. Because artists have the ability to draw a picture or commission or to make a print to sell at con, I’ve been hearing a lot of authors talk about writing short form stories and printing them out on a 11” by 17” stock and selling them as prints, never to be published elsewhere. Just a story that you can only buy at a convention. Does that idea hold merit as an author?
AW: I already know his answer.
AM: It’s funny because I have thought about things like that almost as a joke. I have actually had people come with sketch covers not wanting me to sketch on it but saying “Write me something on there”. And you know I think the verdict is still out on something like that. If it’s working for authors, they’re making money, if that’s a way for them to monetize their work; I think it’s great, I think it’s wonderful. Me doing it? I don’t really feel that would be the medium I would want to sell anything on, I would rather focus on just pushing my book or you know helping Ashley push her other work. I think it’s just two totally different things and I’m not sure that I would want to crisscross those and sell prints of a story. I think I would just rather focus on what I’m already working on.
NG: All right, one final question.
AM: The final question
NG: The finalist final question- are there any big plans moving forward for Squarriors that fans should know about?
AW: There’s stuff going on, there’s always stuff going on.
AM: Every issue is important. Everything is big. I guess one thing I would like to remind fans is that Squarriors comes out in 4 issue blocks. The first one was spring, what’s coming out now is summer, and then fall and winter. I think if you just think about that a little bit and the aspect of how that relates to animals and the seasons and stuff you can get an idea of how dire important things are going to get as the series progresses. What I’d really like to put out there – because we haven’t had too much feedback on this – is that every panel, every word of every issue of the book, there’s a reason it’s there. There’s something important to go back to and look at in issue 1 page 3 that’s going to be extremely relevant in issue 12 page 15. And that’s something that I’ve had a lot of fun with, putting these little hints and little treasures and things in there. And lots of them have not been found yet. I’ve had a couple people who are really into the book come up to me and piece together little things but there are a lot of mysteries to be solved just in the first 4 issues people haven’t caught on to. I definitely encourage people who are really into the story to go back to issue 1 and issue 2 and piece some things together. I think there are some really satisfying things they are going to see in the future with the book.