Saturday, 11 October 2014

Interview: Seth T. Hahne, comic book reviewer and creator

A short while ago I received a comic in the mail by one of my favourite comic book reviewers, Seth T. Hahne. I decided to send him a little message to tell him I enjoyed his comic and to ask him if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. Lucky for me, he said yes.

For those who might now know him, Seth reviews comics at Good Ok Bad. In my opinion he’s one of the best reviewers online for several reasons. He does an equal amount of small press, small publisher, big publisher and manga reviews. He pays equal attention to the art as he does the story, something that I have a hard time doing. He also has an earnest and intelligent voice to his writing that not only endears me to the reviews but to the comics themselves. I’ve checked out a few comics and manga based on his reviews. One of them, Yotsuba&!, was a particularly fun and rewarding reading experience. Most recently he’s taken the plunge into the world of comics and created Golden Rules. Today we’ll be discussing his reviews, his comics, Rob Liefeld, and whatever else pops up.

Shared Universe Reviews: First off, thanks for agreeing to take the time and answer a few questions. You’ve been a comics critic for a few years now, correct? What were your reasons for creating a reviewing site and how has that experience been for you?

Seth T. Hahne: I'd been reviewing things on and off for about fifteen years—really, ever since I started my first blog in 2000. At the time, I was mostly invested in film as my pop-cultural artifact of choice and I had small dreams of becoming a film critic (fueled by then-amateur reviewers like James Berardinelli). Eventually I moved from film review to book review, focusing on whichever novel I'd just finished. I began cross-posting on Goodreads and enjoyed  a small bit of popularity there (my The Lovely Bones review is still their Number 2 review of the book, even though technically it's more just a petulant gripe).

Along the way, I began thinking how few resources I could think of that were dedicated to comics reviews. Certainly there were comics bloggers who would review books and provide criticism, but the sites were always organized across a chronology rather than by title. With Goodreads, you go straight to the book you're interested in through an easy interface. I wanted something like that for comics. A database of reviews. So I made one.

Good Ok Bad launched on 19 March 2011 with a handful of reviews brought over from Goodreads. The original conceit was that I could simply just have an out-of-the-way three-star rating (Good, Ok, or Bad), leaving me to focus on the content of the review without concern for the metric. Along the way, I've largely stopped writing about books I'd consider Bad, largely because I really just want to tell people about great comics. There are so many fantastic books out there that I won't nearly ever have time to cover them all. It's a very personal choice, but I figure: Why waste time telling readers about books they won't want to spend time with when I can direct them toward something they might truly enjoy or be affected by?

All told, the experience of shifting full-bore into comics criticism has been a lot of fun. As with any time a person offers an opinion on something others care about, there's going to be some negativity from the outside. My highly subjective and fluctuating Top 100 list has probably generated the most negativity, with forum posts taking me to task for not including Title X, for including Title Y, for not placing Title X high enough, for including foreign works, for being wordy or pretentious, and even for being "obviously some chick." On the other hand, because of the website, I've gotten to have some fruitful and pleasant interactions with some wonderfully talented creators and fellow critics. All told, it's been a blast. Also, Good Ok Bad is what got me to SPX.

SUR: Last year you attended Small Press Expo 2013 and for a regular visitor to Good Ok Bad, I noticed the scarcity of content on the site that followed your convention attendance. Later I learned it all had to do with Golden Rules. Can you talk about how SPX inspired you to tap into your own creativity and work a comic?

STH: Yeah, I've been agonizing over the diminishing content on Good Ok Bad. Golden Rules was absolutely a huge part of that. Additionally, my reviews have been steadily growing longer and more involved (when I first began, the average review was around 900 words long; now they hover around 2500). As well, my illustration work and other contract project keep edging in. And finally, a crash on my Vespa in the Spring set me back for about eight weeks.

But SPX! Man, I didn't expect to be as affected as I was. I'd been to comic cons before (San Diego Comic-Con and Wonder-Con), but I wanted to check out something less corporate. And honestly, there was a lot of stuff there that wasn't to my taste. Still though, to be in the presence of 600 creators, most of whom had no outside financial backing to their projects—it was very moving. These were people living the dream. They were putting themselves out there. It was amazing to me. And there was this tremendous sense of community. Looking back, probably a lot of that was veneer, but I found it inspiring nonetheless.

So I got home galvanized. One of the first things I told my wife (who couldn't fly out with me that trip) was that I needed to be a part of that. I needed to make a comic.

In high school, making comics had been my dream job. This was right when Rob Liefeld was making it big and just before the formation of Image. I thought he was amazing. I was this kid with some raw talent and no art schooling and he was this guy who had no art schooling. That was inspiring. Fortunately, I've always had massive problems with timidity and actually putting myself out there wasn't something I would have been able to do at that age. (I actually forfeited a job airbrushing surfboards simply for fear of blowing it.)

I'm glad I didn't follow the dream when I was eighteen because, frankly, I wasn't ready. I wasn't diligent. I didn't practice. I talked a big game but I was chained to my influences.

But twenty years later, after SPX 2013, I'd grown up a bit. I had several years of illustration work under my belt and a sliver of the confidence I'd need to make good on an attempt to make a book. I had a 275-page script that I'd written about seven years ago laying around, but I needed something short, so I wrote and drew a 20-page homily on how men have a tendency to pee on toilet seats and how that essentially reveals the natural depravity of the race and how we should probably grow out of that tendency. It was exhilarating.

SUR: You’re saying Golden Rules isn’t your first creative endeavour. You’ve done illustration work for a while now, too. Illustrations and comics are obviously two different types of creative work, how where they different for you? Do you like doing one over the other?

STH: Apart from an abandoned career in restaurant management (six years of squandered time), in the twenty-two years since I graduated high school, all of my jobs have been creative in some respect. I airbrushed skimboards for a couple but have spent most of that time in web design. On top of that, I've done illustration work for web magazines pretty much constantly since I started Good Ok Bad (just a coincidence on the timing there).

Really, being prompted by a friend to start taking on the illustration work was essential in giving me the confidence to do Golden Rules. And while you're right that straight illustration work is substantially different from comics, there was just enough overlap that I never felt out of my depth creating a comic (though I won't discount how much the fact that I spend so much time reading and thinking critically about comics played into that comfortability). Actually, I find the kind of illustration work I do much more challenging. Typically, I'll receive either a pitch or rough draft of an article and have to turn in an illustration for it two or three days later. Abstracting someone's 2000 words into a single representative image is sometimes easy, but usually mind-wracking.

With comics, it's much more straightforward. Especially with those I've written myself. I'm currently doing art on a back-up story for someone else's graphic novel and accommodating that script into something that will make both of us happy is a different kind of challenge altogether.

If I was independently wealthy or could subsist somehow without my design job, I'd love to write and draw comics. I could never give up writing wholly for drawing. Words are too much a part of who I am. But I love the combination of the disciplines in the comics medium. Honestly, I'd probably write, illustrate, and create comics. I love it all just too much. Maybe I'd throw in some videogame art design and animation projects just to keep things lively.

SUR: Has creating your own comic changed your perspective on appreciating and reviewing comics? Do you have a better appreciation for the hard work that others have put into their craft?

STH: Honestly, it hasn't. I've been an artist for years and I grew up as the son of a professional artist (a potter and Chinese brush painter). As well, I've followed comics creatives for years on Twitter and I listen to them with an empathetic ear. I understand the struggle of working on something for two years and having someone plow through it in an hour. Or less.

So dipping my toe in that adventure didn't really change anything in my perspective. Maybe it did bring home a little just how hungry fresh creators might be for positive feedback to their work. When Greg Burgas (of Comics Should Be Good) covered Golden Rules favourably, I kind of probably jumped around the room and dig a jig with my wife. When Gene Yang said he said several positive things about the book and added one very constructive critique, it was hard not to feel that sting (even though almost everything he said was positive). When you put so much effort into something, it's natural to want people to appreciate that work.

My email inbox is filled with indie creators offering me their book to review. I take them up on it sometimes but I have such a large review queue that I can't possibly take them all on. I think I'd like to find a better way to serve young creators than simply ignoring their emails when I don't have time for them. We all need a little encouragement along the way, I think, in order to bring out our best work. (Man, that sounds like such inspirational-poster hoo-hah.)

SUR: This year you attended Small Press Expo 2014 in a different capacity. You’ve written a great post about it at your site. Do you have plans for further comics work or was your time as a creator something more temporary and spontaneous?

STH: I definitely have more plans. It's all just a matter of balancing all the projects I'm involved in. It's not easy at all, really. I'm in bed by 2am and up by 7:00. I have two hours with the kids after I get home from work, but otherwise nearly every minute is spent on some project or another. I'm grateful to have a wife who very much supports all this (as a teacher, she also stays up late grading and prepping for class, so we're both Busy People).

After Golden Rules, I did a twelve-page Valentine's minicomic about a manatee looking for love in all the wrong places. Just a couple days ago, I did a 31-panel mystery comic (each day in October would reveal one panel as part of this year's #inktober celebration). Right now, I'm drawing a six-page back-up story for a graphic novel I can't talk about. And after that I'll be drawing a project that's very important to me, a children's picture book/graphic novel called Monkess the Homunculus. And I've got a long-form graphic novel idea I've been mulling over for a few months (I've done a few interviews in order to fill out my picture of the protagonist's profession). And I guess there's always that graphic novel script I wrote seven years ago. 

So yes, definitely. I am planning to keep doing comics. Though I plan to remain pretty firmly in the indie side of things since those tend to be the stories that most resonate with me.

SUR: The last thing I want to talk about is Kickstarter. I’ve had a bad experience with Kickstarter and I’ve also had two good experiences. As someone who created a campaign, how would you rate the experience? Do you consider this to be a viable way for small press creators to get their comics printed and into the hands of the public? Would you use it to create another campaign in the future?

STH: I came to Kickstarter as an after-thought. I had finished Golden Rules and was selling it as a PDF, but I wanted print copies for SPX. I started shopping around printers in my area and was horrified at the cost of printing. For a twenty-page, full-colour book, I was getting prices between five and ten dollars apiece. I had wanted to sell copies for $5 but at the cost of printing, I'd lose money for every sale. I was heartbroken.

A friend (who had run two successful Kickstarters) suggested crowd-funding. I was skeptical but thought I'd give it a shot. The first thing I absolutely wanted to make certain of before starting a campaign was that I'd be able to fulfill anything I promised. We've all read about (or been backers of) campaigns that couldn't deliver. It was essential that I give backers the experience they expected.

It helped that the only thing I was asking to cover was print costs. As the book was already finished and prepped for print, there was really no risk at all (I mean, unless I died in a scooter accident or something). I would never run a campaign that was something like Support Me While I Do The Art For This Book. Too many moving parts and ways to fail with other people's money. That would wreck me as well as my reputation.

There were of course unforeseen bits and pieces to the campaign. Like how much international shipping would be. Like how much time actually running the campaign would take. Like how making a stretch goal that rewarded all backers with a small bit of custom art would actually stop me from working on anything else for a long while. I still fulfilled my promises and projected ship dates, so I'd say everything went really, really well.

Essential to running my campaign were people who wanted to support me and were willing to post links to my campaign on social media. Nearly 50% of my eighty-two backers were strangers. Two of my four big-number backers were strangers (my mom was one of the other two). Starting with a modest goal was also important to me. I wanted to cover a print-run of 500 copies, but I posted a goal of $1200 (which would let me print 300 if I chipped in a bit myself). In the end I reached 156% of my goal, allowing for a print run of 400 copies. Hitting my goal was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my creative life. It was this wild cocktail of relief, excitement, and this feeling of validation, like people really wanted to see something I made with my own hands. It was amazing.

I plan to Kickstart my children's book in the same way once I have all the art print-ready. I can see why both creators and backers remain leery of crowd-funding campaigns, but I wouldn't have a printed book if it wasn't for Kickstarter and all the people like you who wanted to back my project.

Thanks again for answering my questions. I look forward to seeing more reviews or comics by you as I’ve enjoyed both so far. You can see more of Seth’s work at The Art of Seth T. Hahne.

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