Comics craft

Portland is rife with comics writers and artists. Close your eyes and stick out your hand at Holocene and you’ll probably accidentally hit one of them, or at least someone who knows someone.

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Portland is rife with comics writers and artists. Close your eyes and stick out your hand at Holocene and you’ll probably accidentally hit one of them, or at least someone who knows someone.

They come in all varieties, from established cartoonists like Craig Thompson to crime-writing veterans like Greg Rucka. More creators are moving to Portland every year to be a part of the city’s burgeoning comics community.

Brandon Seifert is an up-and-coming Portland comics writer and former Portland State student who found success writing for big-name books based on the Doctor Who and Hellraiser franchises. He’s most known for Witch Doctor, a kind of magical medical procedural (think the TV show House mixed with Marvel Comics sorcerer Dr. Strange) that he created with artist Lukas Ketner.

The second volume of Witch Doctor, Mal Practice, has just finished its initial single-issue run and will be available in collected paperback format this summer.

The Vanguard sat down with Seifert to talk comics, fact-checking, the rise of digital and his time at PSU. This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Vanguard: Tell me how you got started in comics—your origin story.

Brandon Seifert: I’ve always liked comics, and I’ve always wanted to write comics, but I’m by nature kind of lazy and scared. So it took me a lot of wanting to write and not actually writing. And then in 2007 I met Lukas Ketner, who is my artist on Witch Doctor.

He was working as a freelance illustrator at the time, and he also wanted to do comics, so we decided we were going to team up and do basically a portfolio piece. It was going to be 16 pages, it was going to be really short, and it was just exclusively so we’d each have something in our portfolio that we [could] take and try to get other work through.

What ended up happening was that the idea that we came up with was Witch Doctor. Really quickly it was obvious to us that it would be stupid to just do 16 pages with it, because it was a viable concept in itself—we could actually get a publisher for it. So we did the issue, we shopped it around, we got a lot of interest from Dark Horse and IDW and some other publishers, and then [Robert Kirkman of Image Comics] made us the offer that we went with.

VG: What was the tipping point? What was the thing that got you to Image?

BS: The thing was, Lukas was a freelance professional illustrator. When you’re starting out in comics, frequently there is no money up front. They don’t actually pay you; you just get the lion’s share of the profits if the series ends up being profitable. [Lukas] was not going to be able to produce the book on what’s called “the back end,” exclusively for royalties, so we had to go with someone who would actually pay him a page rate.

We’d gotten two offers from the larger indie comics publishers, both of which would have been back-end deals, so we couldn’t take either of those. Kirkman was the one that was like, “All right, I’ll pay him money up front, I’ll pay him in advance,” and so that was the offer we couldn’t refuse.

VG: You were a fact-checker for the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. How [did] you get that job, and what was that like?

BS: There’s a website called the Marvel Unofficial Appendix, something like that. It’s sort of like the Official Handbook but for really obscure characters, and it’s really, really in-depth, like summarizing every appearance that they had.

I submitted some profiles for it, but it was so time-consuming that I really didn’t do too much of it. But then I ended up setting up a Yahoo group for the people who were doing it. When Marvel decided they were going to do the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe again, they just went to this website and hired all the guys from it, because they were already doing the job for free and were clearly detail-oriented.

The guy who was the head of the website became the editor on that project, so I got to proofread a bunch of different Marvel handbooks. Which meant I knew the endings of some Marvel events six or eight months before they happened—like I knew that Captain America was going to die the summer before it happened. I couldn’t talk to anybody about it.

VG: So you were looking at stuff going forward, you weren’t researching what’s in Journey into Mystery #182?

BS: No. I’ve always been a Marvel fan, and I have my specific corners of the Marvel universe, which I really like and I kind of exhaustively know about. Things like Power Pack and New Warriors and Cloak and Dagger. Anything pertaining to those, off the top of my head I can generally be like, “Oh, it’s not quite what it said in this random issue.”

It wasn’t fact-checking in the traditional journalistic sense, where I’m double-checking all of the things that it says. Part of it was proofreading and part of it was from my own knowledge of the subjects being covered, making sure it all seemed accurate.

VG: So you have your own original creation, Witch Doctor, for which your word is law, Lukas Ketner’s word is law. But then you have stuff like Hellraiser and Doctor Who, where you deal with these established characters with a lot of fans. Has your experience as a fact-checker affected how you attack franchise work?

BS: I came from a journalism background to begin with. I did freelance journalism, arts and culture journalism, for a couple years, which is what ended up introducing me to Lukas and getting us working on comics together. That was something I ended up applying a bunch of different places. I applied that with the fact-checking of the Marvel handbooks and…Doctor Who and Hellraiser.

My strength coming from a journalism background is that I know how to research shit. I know how to read things. That is something I used with Hellraiser. I go back a lot and read the book and watch the movies and try to make sure I’m getting things accurate.

But it’s also something I use in Witch Doctor, because Witch Doctor has a lot of medicine biology, and I try and get it right. Basically, if there’s anything that’s not accurate to how it works in the real world, that’s just choice on my part rather than me screwing up.

There’s a really large folklore and mythology component [to] it, too. If I can get the facts or the details right about these things that people believe in, or used to believe in, I would prefer to do that. It’s all just different ways of applying the same skill set.

VG: You’re only human, you can’t get everything right 100 percent of the time. How do you deal with those times that a fan or someone else points something out that’s wrong?

BS: There’s usually one moment where [I get it wrong and say], “Augh!” but most of it is stuff I can’t affect. There was one thing that I remember in my Doctor Who two-parter that I did.

I got really good reviews on it, but one of the reviews said, “Overall, this is really good, but there is one bit of dialogue where it’s clearly not British.” A character yells “Mommy!” instead of “Mummy!” and I was just like “Augh!” I can’t believe I didn’t get that. I screwed up one word.

VG: One letter of one word.

BS: That’s true. And if I’d had her yell “Mummy!” in a U.S. comic, I think people would have gotten confused anyway. It’s the same journalist thing of, I want to get the facts correct. And if I don’t, I kind of beat myself up over it.

VG: Witch Doctor originated, as you said, as a self-published one-shot online. Where do you see digital going in the future? Do you see it peacefully coexisting with retail, or will it consume paper products?

BS: I also did some other digital work. I did a two-parter called Spirit of the Law, which is another thing I created. And that’s for a digital-exclusive company called MonkeyBrain Comics, who are based here in town. It’s a writer named Chris Roberson and his wife Allison Baker, and that’s all through the ComiXology digital comics platform.

For me, there is this big question right now of whether digital comics are good for the industry or not good for the industry, or whether they’re going to decrease sales or increase sales. My personal feeling is that it’s gonna be good and that it is good, but that we’re still seeing how it’s going to play out. Some things may shift.

I don’t know whether single-issue comics are going to go away or not. It’s very hard to tell because publishing as a whole right now is still in so much flux.

Things like digital I think are very useful, and for us, like with Witch Doctor, part of the reason that the first miniseries sold so well was because we’d already put that first issue out there digitally. It was a small fan base, but it was a fan base and they were really interested in it and really wanted to see where it was going. And there were people all over the world.

If we were just printing comics, we couldn’t have gotten fans in Australia or Poland or South Africa or Malaysia like we have. We do a letters column, and we hear a lot from people in just completely random places that I would never think would be reading our comic, and most of them are reading it digitally.

While I do think that there is a danger of a decrease of new print sales because of digital, I for one am kind of tired of reading single-issue comics. Well, I like reading single-issue comics, but I don’t like
owning them. They just take up a lot of space, and they’re awkward to file.

I’m mostly switching over to reading digital single issues and buying trade paperbacks. Right there, that’s the thing that traditional comics retailers are scared of. Overall, I think it’s a great way to grow the medium and to grow the fan base. And there’s also lots of stuff you can do with digital that you can’t do with print comics, which I find really exciting.

VG: Do you feel like you would’ve gotten your foot in the door by now if, say, you wanted to get into comics 15 years ago?

BS: That’s a good question. The landscape has just changed so much in the industry, even within the last two or three years, let alone the last 10, 15 years. If I had tried to do this 15 years ago, I would’ve had to go about it a completely different way. We self-published our first issue in 2008. If we were doing that now, I would totally do a Kickstarter. But that wasn’t an option back then.

I think we probably would’ve figured out how to get in, one way or the other, because we were producing quality work that people liked. We were actually doing the legwork to talk to publishers and put them in front of fans and retailers and stuff. The way we would have got in with Witch Doctor definitely would have been different, but I think it still would have happened.

VG: You’re from Fairbanks, Alaska. How did you get all the way to Portland from there?

BS: Alaska is a great place to leave. It’s got a lot of things going for it. It’s very pretty, but it’s also extremely isolated and a really drastic climate. On winter solstice, the sun sets at 1:42 in the afternoon after being up for three hours, and I can’t do that. I did that for 26 winters, and then I had to get out.

I honestly know more Alaskans in Portland now than I knew Alaskans in Alaska. Portland is the place that young Alaskans tend to move to, and a lot of it is because there’s kind of a similar culture; it’s got kind of a small-town feel, and people talk to each other. And the climate is, you know, it’s not super crazy—and the landscape is not super different than what we’re used to, it’s not all palm trees or desert or whatever.

It’s kind of like a happy medium between living in Alaska and living anywhere else. I just came down because I liked it, and then [it] turned out that all my friends were moving here and that there was a huge comics community down here, which I hadn’t actually known about ahead of time.

VG: You were a teacher’s assistant for [Marvel Comics writer] Brian Michael Bendis at Portland State. How did that come about?

BS: When he was teaching at PSU, I [took] the first class that he offered, and I ended up helping out a lot. I set up the Google group for it and just tried to help because I was really interested and wanted to get the most of it [I could].

And at the end of it I asked if he needed a TA for the second class, and he was like, “Sure,” so I came back for the second installment of the class. I [had] met Brian briefly once or twice prior to the class, but he didn’t know me [and] I didn’t really know him. But that first class was spring 2010, which was right before we got the Witch Doctor publishing deal. I was about to be a published comics writer but I wasn’t quite [there yet].

VG: So Witch Doctor: Mal Practice just wrapped up—what’s coming up next for you?

BS: Clive Barker and I are co-writing Hellraiser: The Dark Watch series. Besides that, I’ve got several other projects that haven’t been announced, so unfortunately I can’t talk about them. But I’m doing another project for characters that somebody else came up with. And then I’ve got several other creator-owned books that are, you know, ideas that I came up with that I’m trying to get off the ground and [that] are all in varying stages of production.

That’s the thing that I would like to focus on, doing more things that I came up with, because I do feel that’s my strength.

VG: Does that mean continuing Witch Doctor, or continuing other things?

BS: Right now I want to get to some other stuff. The only things that I’ve created are Witch Doctor and Spirit of the Law, and Spirit of the Law is only 22 pages altogether. What recognition I have so far is mostly based on Witch Doctor, and unfortunately Witch Doctor is very difficult and time-consuming to produce; we can only do a miniseries basically every other year.

I can’t really build a career off that. Plus, I’ve got a bunch of other projects that I love just as much as that one that I want to get going. So right now my focus is on doing some new stuff.

VG: Power Pack, the 4-issue miniseries.

BS: Oh yes, exactly. Absolutely.