Online comics creator course Comics Experience recently launched a new digital imprint to spread the word on books developed in the classes. This, coupled with a publishing agreement with IDW has gotten books on the shelves that otherwise may have gone unnoticed.
Today, creators Devon Wong and Ken Perry join us to talk Wretched Things, a comic about heroic vermin mice and spiders conquering their environment.
Devon Wong: Hi, Clay! Thanks for having us.
The original idea for Wretched Things struck me about a year before I discovered Comics Experience. At the time, I was living in this rather cavernous, windowless basement apartment, and it turned out to be infested with mice, cockroaches, centipedes, and most traumatizing of all, spiders. Before living in this apartment, I would not have believed a spider infestation could get so bad. I was killing dozens of spiders every day, and more kinds than I knew even lived in Toronto. I’d find huge nests of them that would just… explode with spiders when I tried to clear them out, and they’d web up the furniture, and they’d web up the bottoms of doors, and they’d dart around your feet whenever you had to go to the washroom at night. It felt like I was at war for a home that didn’t really feel like mine, which is a horrible feeling. It takes a kind of psychological toll.
It was the mice, though, that turned into the catalyst for the series. You could always hear them running around behind the walls and ceilings. So one night, about a week after I’d put out some poison food pellets, I got woken up by the sound of the mice shrieking as the poison did its work. I didn’t know that mice screamed like that, and I felt this pang of guilt for having done this horrible thing to them. After a few nights of screaming, it was over, and the apartment was silent in the evenings for the first time ever. And I kind of missed them in a strange way. I felt like a terrible person for not being able to just peacefully coexist with them. They’d been there before me, and so had the spiders, and even the cockroaches and centipedes. I realized that, perhaps from their perspective, I was invading their space and slaughtering them. I was like this evil colonizing force to them.
So that’s when I came up with the notion of a comic book series like a twisted version of a Pixar film where vermin decide to fight back against humans. The series deals with some pretty weighty issues like colonialism and radicalization, which given developments that came about after we started working on the series, namely Daesh, it’s… somewhat sensitive material.
I tried to get it off the ground a few times with a few different artists, but it never worked out. Then I discovered Comics Experience (CE) and re-developed the script for the first issue in one of the CE classes, where I was really able to tighten the story. I posted on the forums that I was looking for a collaborator, and that’s when Ken came on board. I’d actually admired Ken’s work from afar on the CE forums, so I was quite surprised when I found out he wanted to work with me. It was a perfect fit.
And we’re still workshopping the material for Wretched Things on the CE forums, which has made for a much stronger product. We’ve received a lot of great critiques from the community that have led to some very positive changes to the work. From big structural changes that really clarify character motivations and streamline the plot to more minor changes like moving panels around to get better page-turns and tweaking lines of dialogue.
Ken Perry: Also, we’ve mentioned Comics Experience a few times, but so you know what that is… Comics Experience is an online community that offers classes and guidance to help comic book creators hone their skills and gain the knowledge they need to make great comics. Recently they started publishing comics by members of the community, and Wretched Things is a part of their Digital Firsts imprint on Comixology.
We’re dealing with a kingdom of vermin. That is to say mice and spiders occupying the same space. Have you seen these two creatures going at it in the real world?
Devon: I know when I was a kid, being little sociopaths, friends and I would sometimes catch mantises and spiders and build them arenas to fight in. But uh… no, in terms of any inter-species conflicts in the series, we had to imagine that. Though I know mice do eat spiders.
Ken: I hadn’t really paid much attention to “vermin” before starting on Wretched Things. Now I notice all the spiders and critters when I’m out in the yard. There is also a surprising amount of videos and images on the web. There’s a whole channel on YouTube about insect wars. Different spiders and bugs fighting it out on camera as if they’re stepping into an octagon.
How did you meet our mutual friend John Hunt (League Podcast, Star Trek: Mission’s End, One Piece) for the colorist job?
Ken: Chris Sotomayor gave us a list of colorists, and each person had their own strengths that he thought would or could work for us. John’s sounded the most promising and looking at his work reinforced that. He has been a great collaborator. John’s style works real well against the line-work. He has a great grasp of color theory and has an instinct when to work up areas with a brushy texture to really make the fur or spiky legs pop off the page. His resume also puts me to shame but he takes direction well and puts up with our corrections.
Devon: We are eternally grateful to Chris for the hook-up and to John for enduring our nitpicking.
I don’t want to spoil too much but it seems as if both the Spiders and the Mice have a shared history that goes back a long time, with stories being passed to generations. I rather like that, will we hear more about Mice and Spiders of yore?
Devon: There is a lot of shared history between all of the different species in the series, and you’ll definitely be seeing some of it addressed. Next issue in particular we get into a bit of spider and centipede lore, and we’ll get a taste of the history between mice and rats a little later on.
I had mapped out a lot of lore and a lot of world-building with other species when planning the series, but sadly, there’s only so much you can do in four issues, so most of it got left on the cutting room floor. But we will be hinting at the larger world of the vermin throughout the series.
Ken has done a brilliant job at fleshing out the world on the page as well, going well beyond the panel descriptions to imagine what a world like this would look like.
Ken: I’m actually working on that sequence now for issue #2 that deals with some spider/centipede lore. One of my 1st questions to Devon after reading the script for #1 and the outline for the 4 issues was if we could ever do prequels or explore more of that backstory.
Devon has come up with some really great and twisted lore and I love building that world on the page.
Personifying creatures such as this can be challenging, giving them dialogue but also making sure they are true to their animal instincts. Did you do a ton of research?
Devon: I always do way more research than necessary before starting any project. It’s a big part of my process. So yes, I read a lot about spiders and mice, and some of the thematic content is coming out of my political and historical readings, particularly Frantz Fanon. Cambridge University Press has a great book on spider behaviour called… uh… Spider Behaviour, which gave me a lot of ideas.
Sometimes I willfully ignored some of my research. I mean, mice don’t live in nuclear families. But it was fun working in other little references to the behavioural quirks of the various species. In particular, because Impatience the spider is narrating the story, I really relied on the research to get her voice and world-view right, little details like comparisons and references she’d make while speaking.
As for the dialogue, the non-human dialogue in the series is very baroque and stylized, which is just how I imagine mice and spiders speaking, for whatever reason, and when you do finally get some human dialogue in the series, that will be much more naturalistic.
The art and colors are gorgeous as well, was it tough to find reference?
Ken: Thanks! It is always tough finding the right balance of details to add in to the black and white art. I looked up the species of each character online. Read up on their habits and traits along with lots of reference photos. Then it was just sketching variations to try and inject some emotion into their faces and forms. I try to use the gestures of the insects and the shapes of their eyes to convey their moods.
The mice and rats are drawn more human when they’re talking but as animals on all fours when they’re scurrying around. There is a lot of reference online: wikis, photos, videos, and it’s easy to get lost in the research. I’ve filled John’s mailbox with lots of reference photos.
If I told you that a certain colorist was actually fearful of spiders and had to have his wife check out the reference to make sure it was safe, would you be surprised?
Devon: This was news to me. John’s a real trooper, so he never complained about having to look at icky reference photos. Ha! A true professional. That said, knowing this now, I’m glad we had John’s wife on the team. Man, we need to find a way to credit her. Like… reference photo screener or something.
Ken: I almost feel bad now for sending him so many pictures of hairy spider legs and giant close-ups of fangs. When he was working on the pages with Impatience’s first appearance I remember sending so many reference photos of cellar spiders to try and get their translucent-looking bodies right.
How did you get chosen to be one of the Comics Experience digital launch titles? Are you happy with the new imprint?
Devon: Once we resubmitted the pitch with John’s colors, we were offered the digital deal from CE, which is just another thing that goes to show how important colorists are and how undervalued they are in the industry. John made the series viable.
As for the deal itself, it’s very creator-friendly. All of the CE titles are wholly creator-owned, and we receive 100% of the proceeds from the digital sales. We also have complete freedom to tell the story however we want. Wretched Things is a political talking-animal horror story. What crazy editor would green-light that? (Andy Schmidt, apparently.)
We also retain print rights, which is amazing, and it means that once we’ve finished the series, we’re hoping to Kickstart a trade paperback version of the collected issues.
Ken: Andy wanted us to be on the roster. He believed in us and the story being created. Once we got John on board and the finished pages came together CE gave us the green light.
As much as I believe in what we are doing, I can understand why a company would be hesitant signing on a book that is a mix of genres like this. Especially one based on animal characters. Thankfully, CE didn’t bat an eyelash.
How many issues can we expect of this run of Wretched Things? Are there any other books you all are working on?
Ken: Bran’s tale is only four issues, but there is a rich back story and potential for more. Creator owned work and back end deals certainly take their toll on the bank account though. It has been worth it all seeing the finished product we are putting out. That said I do have some sculpture work lined up for the spring time and a few commissions waiting patiently to be fulfilled. I’m also hoping to get back in to school or maybe study for the next promotional exam at my department. I would love to work on another book if the project and timing were right.
Devon: The deal is for a four-issue limited series, so the story of Bran the Devourer will conclude after four issues. I have plenty of other ideas and scripts I’m sitting on, both for Wretched Things and other projects, but as Ken says, whether or not they get off the ground depends on finances and timing. Right now all expenses are coming out of our day-job salaries. And the weak Canadian dollar certainly hasn’t helped me in terms of backend costs. While Ken’s off to school, I’ll probably be looking for collaborators for other projects. But if Ken’s ever free to work on this or any other project, I’d be thrilled. In the meantime, I’ve been writing a lot of short prose stories, and I’m pecking away at a novel, because prose fiction doesn’t cost money to write.
Lastly, where can we follow you on social media and find out more?