Written by Neil Greenaway
At Phoenix Comic Con 2017 I had the chance to sit down and talk with Daniel & Dawna Davis of Steam Crow/Monster Scouts about their take on creating a new scouting organization. This interview originally ran on Bleeding Cool on 6/08/2017, and you can read their version of it here.
Daniel & Dawna Davis believe in monsters. They have been creating monster themed art and apparel for the last 11 years. Over the past several years, they have also revealed (bit by bit) their world of Obscuria – the veil separating our world from the world of the monsters (Monstru). As the lore behind their world grew, so did their following. The people who wanted to know more about the hidden world of monsters transformed into the Monster Scouts. The scouts led to rallies, the rallies led to campouts, and the campouts changed the direction of Steam Crow as a company. This year, at Phoenix Comic Con 2017, I was able to sit down and talk to both Daniel and Dawna. We talked about their origins, their current projects, and what the future might hold. We also discussed their push to start a nationwide Monster Scouts initiative and how people could join the Shindigs that are already planned. At the end of this interview, I have included a photo gallery showcasing the scout parade and panel.
Neil Greenaway: To start us off, can I just get a brief history of how Steam Crow came to be? And how did it evolve into the Monster Scouts?
Daniel Davis: We attended the 2005 San Diego Comic-Con as fans
Dawna Davis: It was my very first con ever.
Daniel: I was 35. I was an artist with a really boring day job. I was a graphic designer for credit unions, so I designed websites for them. Dawna was a full-time art teacher. But it afforded us enough money to take a vacation, and we went to SDCC. Now, in my brain it was too late. I was never going to get to be an artist like I wanted, but it was still so exciting to get to go to the con and to see all the big spectacles. But better for us was getting to see all the creators, the guys who worked at Pixar and DreamWorks and Disney – because the artists that were there were concept artists, mostly. We were like “Wow, you work at Pixar?”, and they would say “Yeah, but that’s just a job. What I’m passionate about is this book I made.” That was eye-opening for us, that was really amazing that we got to meet these guys. So then Dawna says “You should do a book, you could do a haiku monster book,” and I was like “What? Really?” That’s how I remember it anyway. It was like a gift that she gave me – when she told me that – my eyes opened and I said “Yeah, let’s come back to San Diego Comic-Con next year with a table and a book!” Which is kind of audacious to say, but at Royal Thai down there in the Gaslight I started drawing some of the monsters for that book.
Dawna: We started writing, but the thing is he already had a CafePress store filled with shirts with monsters on them that all had backstories. So everything he creates always has this little backstory, to create content so people can search for and find things.
Daniel: In reality I’m like a dungeon master, right? So everything is around this dungeon master mentality of building this world.
Dawna: He already had this world. This is how I remember it – he said to me that he wanted to be an exhibitor at San Diego the next year, and I said “Write the book.” And he said, “I don’t want to make it too long,” so I suggested a haiku book. Haiku is so concise and has such nice rules to follow. We started writing at Royal Thai. He finished it in about two months. We had a two year old at the time, so I said “You go work and I’ll take care of all of this stuff and let’s get this done.” He got it done, sent the proofs in, and it got us into WonderCon and into San Diego 2006. That started it all.
Daniel: We got into Phoenix that year as well. We got in, and WonderCon in San Francisco was our first show. The amazing point for me was that I got the most attention and praise for what I had been creating I had ever had in my whole life. In just one day of the show. It was amazing for my ego, and not in a terrible way. I just thought, wow! There’s so much energy and its exciting. Then somebody at the end of the show said this was his favorite stuff there, and it blew my mind that that would even be possible! I didn’t think anyone would ever tell me that! When I realized that, I thought, “Man, we could do this!” With that person there’s one, but there could be many. So we started being road warriors, making our own content, illustrating these worlds, and making Steam Crow.
Dawna: And we kind of fumbled through things. That first show, we did it completely wrong. It was awful but we learned quick, thankfully. We are really good at modifying and adjusting and you have to do that. Otherwise it’s just not going to work for you. We’ve been really fortunate that we have been able to innovate within ourselves and keep one step ahead. The Monster Scouts came out of that, it was really a happy accident.
Daniel: Yeah, our brand was in search of a focus.
NG: How did the monster Scouts come about? I suppose it naturally lends itself to the cryptozoological aspect of your storytelling, but how did the actual meeting of people at a campsite come about?
Daniel: So sometimes you’ve got to put on the artist hat to be really creative and sometimes you have to put your business hat on, right? You kind of have to switch those back and forth. At first, it was simply to solve a business problem. After we saw the stats for people coming to our booth, we were seeing that the return rate was really low. So we had to fix this problem, but I don’t know what our brand focus is. Steam Crow is a little too vague, it’s vaguely monsters, it’s vaguely steampunk, but it isn’t really steampunk. It was a problem. So I thought, “Well, what if we made badges?” What if we made badges for people and they came to our booth? They could join our little fan club, and we called them Steam Crow Scouts. Then we had the badges, why don’t we make a bag for them? So we made a bag that they could put their badges on, hoping that if you were a Steam Crow person and you met another one at a bus stop you would go – "hey, Steam Crow" and shake hands. That was all it was going to be, this rewards program with some story behind it. But then I put on the artist hat again and I really started to cook up some fiction around it to make it interesting and cool. What happened next was people said, “That’s great. I’ll see you at the next show in my uniform.” That was not expected. What uniform? And they’re like, “My Scout uniform, dummy.” So I asked what it looked like. It was a boy scout shirt with a blue bandana. So I said, “I can’t wait to see it.” But then someone else told me the same thing, and they were doing something different. Then someone else told me. So I told everyone making a scouts uniform to stop and I made some uniform guidelines and, being a dungeon master, I made all the different kinds of Scouts. There are Monster Medics, Scare Force, Forest Rangers, all these crazy things that can never be Scouts. And 26 people showed up in uniform. What happened next was one of those Scouts said “We need to do a rally at Phoenix Comic-Con!” And I’m thinking, I don’t have time to do a rally. Why would we do a rally? But they talked us into it. That room filled with 100 people that were scouts, and we made it exciting for them. Then we made missions to go with the badges and uniforms. Then someone said, “Let’s go on camps!” And I said, "No. No, no way. We don’t camp." In the close to 20 years we’ve been together, Dawna has never said “Let’s go camping”. So I said “No, that’s a bad idea.” But it kept coming up, and we realized we had to do it. Now, if we’re going to do something we need to make it meaningful and interesting. The first one, we weren’t even quite sure what it was going to be. We made some secret opening ceremonies. We summoned Marrow Thatch, a pumpkin golem that came out of the darkness around the fire. He hands out sweet potatoes to some favored Scouts. We just made it an experience that was interesting, weird, and cool. We played board games and made lots of food.
Dawna: Yeah, it was just relaxing and fun.
Daniel: Once we did that first one, we realized that this was way cooler than anything we could do at a convention and that changed our whole vision of what this is. Steam Crow has been eclipsed by the Monster Scouts. Monster Scouts tells you a lot more than Steam Crow does. So now that’s what we’re all about.
NG: So do you see yourself as a company moving away from prints and t-shirts and more towards camping and badges and that sort of stuff?
Dawna: They all really work together.
Daniel: It’s all related. I’ve never thought of myself as a print artist. At our very first con, we had resin cast toys that we made. The whole thing is a huge multimedia experience and experiment. Designing a badge is not too different than designing a shirt – and we’ll do both – but you’ll see that the prints that we make are mostly Monster Scouts now. The shirts crossover to camping or Scouts, so we are slowly focusing in. The more we focus the more people are interested in it.
NG: You guys recently finished a Kickstarter that was wildly successful, earning you 271% of what you had asked. What were your thoughts on that? Did you expect it to do so well?
Daniel: No. Not at all. Our Kickstarter’s have all been successful so far. We’ve done six of them but they’ve all been pretty modest.
Dawna: Our biggest one up until this time was $7,000 and that was our first Scout Kickstarter.
Daniel: I always think of the Kickstarter’s as another test. Like, is the Scouts a great idea or not? But it went well. Generally, we’re making our goal in a day, that is our goal for every Kickstarter. If we can get that to happen in a day, we are happy. But this one just kept going.
Dawna: We were pleasantly surprised! It was great! We knew we could fund it, but they went above and beyond. Our Scouts spoil us rotten, they treat us really well.
Daniel: Yeah they do. So we’re taking all those proceeds to just invest more into scout gear and stuff like badges for the next year. That was kind of the point of doing this. When we make a badge order for all these embroidered badges, it costs thousands of dollars. So this is a great way to do that.
Dawna: It’s also allowing us to focus the Scouts more. We have 12 distinct branches and now each one will have a core patch. Then we’ll have other things like bandanas and everything that go with that. When you join the Monster Scouts it’s not just the generic Scouts. We have Psychic Scouts, Deep Sea Scouts, the Conjure Guard, and they all need their little identifications.
NG: How many states do you currently have camps in?
Daniel: 5 States right now. Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, and California.
NG: Obviously, it’s you guys doing the camps right now. Do you ever see a time when the Monster Scouts might exceed your reach? At a point when you might need to have other scoutmasters?
Dawna: Yes, and it’s happening fast!
Daniel: Our goal is to do a national tour of campsites. But we can only see so many before we’re going to be exhausted. With that giant tour, the hope is that we can come up with a model that allows us to identify these great personalities and people in these different cities. We would like to set people up as scout leaders in their state so that they could run events. Maybe we’ll even make them a special patch they can sell so it’s like a little mini business.
Dawna: So it’s either going to be a franchise or like the Avon method.
Daniel: It’s a great thing, but if you’re going to be calling yourself Monster Scouts it creates a challenge – people expect that it’s an ongoing thing in their community, and I agree. But it can’t always be me and her doing it.
NG: What is the age range that you guys generally get in your Scouts?
Dawna: We have from 3 year olds to mid-60s. It’s family-friendly. Most of the time the parents are the scouts and the kids come along, and then the kids are scouts. It happens that way. Very few times has it been kids that are the scouts first and then the parents join.
Daniel: For us, we wanted to be open to everybody. Mostly its adults, but sometimes cool adults come with cool kids.
Dawna: We have a son, so what are we going to do? He has to come with us, he’s 14 so it has to be family friendly.
NG: Does your son enjoy the Monster Scout events?
Dawna: Yes, but he’s the typical teenager. For the longest time he was like, “I’m going to be an artist too”. Now he’s like, “no I’m going to be an engineer.”
Daniel: He likes the campout stuff because it’s like a weekend of play for him, so yeah, he digs it.
NG: You guys have said that you plan to camp the whole month of August. Is that one consistent camp or will you go to different places?
Dawna: This will be the start of our campground tour. So we’ll start in Colorado and do a campout that first weekend, then we go to Idaho, and then Washington, and then California, and then we’ll come back home. We camp in between stops because we’re already set up for camping.
Daniel: Right now, we can’t really string together a tour of conventions. There is no way for us to really go to New York Comic Con without really risking everything or just doing a really small table. That doesn’t make sense for us, as our brand is big in its own little way. We have a lot that we want to bring and there’s no way to do it unless we have the legs to get us along the way. This camping tour will help us get those legs. And next year we’ll make that tour bigger.
NG: You had mentioned hiring extra personnel across the nation and scaling your own operations back to just Arizona. What would your timeline on that be? For reference, you’ve said you’d been doing Steam Crow already for 11 seasons. How much longer do you see yourselves living the road warrior life?
Daniel: I don’t know. We have a couple years of just seriously being road warriors on tour to build this.
Dawna: That’s where we have to put back on our business hats, too. It’s easy to be the artist, it’s easy for us to take it with us and go, and do it ourselves. But now we have to look at that business side, the legal side. So that’s a whole different ball of wax. We will need time to finalize that and learn about that.
Daniel: And we have to show up in these other places that want us, like New York and New Jersey and Philadelphia. There are people there waiting for us to go. There are not going to be Scouts until we show up there and make them Scout somehow. When it comes down to it we need those other core people who believe in the monster Scouts movement.
Dawna: The thing is, if we don’t do that then this whole business collapses.
NG: Switching tacks just a little bit: Dawna had mentioned that you guys liked to play tabletop games at the campouts; and Daniel, you have been showing a gaming table on social media that you made. With this love of gaming apparent, have you ever thought of making a Monster Scouts tabletop game?
Daniel: I am working on it right now! My game of choice is called Fate Core. Its open source, so I can get a free license. I am building our game right on the back of Fate Core, so it’s a gaming system I’ve been playing for a long time. I am writing it right now which is really great because as we expand this universe, we’re adding four new branches. Well, somebody has to write about what they are! When I write for the RPG, it’s doing all that work. I think our goal is to run some games and either record or video them so people can hear the Monster Scout story, what it’s about. I think that through the game would be a fun way to do it.
NG: You have created so many different monsters and backstories for them. Have you ever considered making a cryptozoological encyclopedia, or something to keep track of all of the monsters?
Daniel: We grew up with monster manuals, right? So, yeah of course eventually. With our Kickstarter we’re going to put out a little mini handbook every year. The one for this Kickstarter is just a simple rundown of the core of what Monster Scouts is. The next one could be focused on something else. Just on Monster Medics or just on a monster encyclopedia kind of thing. It gives us the ability to do that. Right now I’m building all of that on our monsterscouts.com website. When I make up the monsters, they go over there and it is an encyclopedia (kind of) right now.
NG: So there is a backstory for every monster that is out right now on the website?
Daniel: Right now we’ve got a good start. We’re just beginning this thing, so there’s years of writing to do, but yeah we’re getting there.
NG: And now we’ve talked a little bit about your campouts, you’ve also got the Monster Scouts rally here this weekend. What takes place at one of those?
Dawna: That depends…
Daniel: Basically, we get the greatest group of people together that we’ve ever known. Dawna and I both come from bands. In 16 years of me playing in bands, there were two shows that were amazing and the people were really on our side. Every time we do a rally, every time we do a campout, it’s that high again. Generally what we’ve been doing at the rally is we form three teams, and we’re going to give them a challenge they have to work on while we are doing the panel. They will be working on translating Montalk (the monster code) and it tells them to do things and they’re going to build something and it’s going to be ridiculous. While we’re in the middle of doing our panel that will happen, hopefully. We don’t know how it will happen because it’s all really organic. Then, the reincarnated body of Klein Redback (a musician from 1967, wink wink) – whose album was found and played for the Monster Scouts – he is going to perform at the rally as well.
Dawna: And we’re going to tell a little bit of our story, because we always have new scouts and new people who come in. They don’t quite understand that the Monster Scouts is not a cartoon, it’s not a corporate brand or anything, it’s just the two of us.
Daniel: And it all comes from us. I think some of the new people think this was an organic thing that just somehow happened. So we’re trying to teach them that we’re the people writing this stuff.
NG: Showing up at so many different comic conventions, do you guys ever get requests for a sequential art book, just a regular comic or graphic novel?
Daniel: We do have a couple. We did a webcomic called Monster Commute but it got inundated with spam and the site got destroyed. We did do two volumes of that in print. It’s about the monster world. It’s the world on the other side of our own, so it’s still the foundation of the Monster Scouts. Its just the monster world, where sometimes they leak through to ours.
Dawna: It does tie in. Actually, it’s funny because everything we’ve created – from the very beginning – ties in. The first book that we wrote was about Duke Davis. He captures monsters, puts them in this castle, and writes haikus about them. Well, Baron Davis created the Monster Scouts. His brother Duke Davis is a Monsterologist, so he’s the evil to our good. The other thing that we’re working on letting people choose: you could be a Monster Scout or you could be a Monsterologist…
Daniel: They’re the monster hunters, so they’re at odds with us. We (the Scouts) are the newcomers who are trying to save monsters, and the Monsterologists think that they protect Humanity. They go to academies and learn about monsters, and then kill them to protect Humanity. That’s our major conflict, which is perfect for the RPG too.
NG: That all sounds really, really cool. If people wanted to find out more about Steam Crow and the Monster Scouts, where would they look online?
Daniel: Monsterscouts.com is the core site and then we have a Monster Scouts Facebook group. It’s real easy to find. Those are the core places, and then, of course, steamcrow.com is the people who make the Monster Scouts.
If you would like to experience a Monster Scouts campout for yourself, you can see the events that they have available here.