In our first of a series of interviews leading up to TCAF, Sequential had the chance to catch up with Benjamin Rivers. His Xeric-winning publication is Snow, and it just arrived from the printer a few days ago to be ready in time for TCAF.
Snow is very much of its time and place as the main character, Dana, navigates a changing Queen Street West in Toronto and tries to come to terms with her surroundings.
In this interview, Rivers shares his thoughts about about Queen West changing and, as a video game developer and designer, shares his thoughts on the changing role that technology has in making, distributing and thinking about comics.
Your book Snow captures a specific time and place in a changing Queen Street West. What did you find interesting about this setting?
I’ve lived with my wife on Queen Street West for many years, and I consider this my neighbourhood now. It didn’t so much choose Queen Street West as I noticed it—stores closing, buildings being torn down or erected (or burned by fire). The street has changed so much, even since I started Snow, it’s like an organism. It just seemed natural to document this, in my own way.
The main character in Snow, Dana, is anxious about the gentrification of Queen West and other Toronto neighbourhoods and in particular what it means to her bookstore. In light of the Silver Snail’s announcement that it will move, how did you become psychic and how do you feel about the move?
The funny thing about this is that Snow actually predicted the closure of Pages—which is the real-world version of Dana’s workplace, Abberline Books. A few days after Snow #2 came out, in which this plot point is revealed, Pages shut its doors. I actually felt really bad about that—how egotistical, I suppose, to think that, but the timing was truly bizarre.
As for the Snail, George (the manager) mentioned as much and while I am happy that he will own the shop, and that it will potentially be moving to a friendlier neighbourhood, I am going to miss it being on my street, sure. When I take morning or evening walks, it’s a beacon of nerdy hope in a sea of clothing chain stores.
In spite of the anxiety of change in Snow, you embrace it when it comes to distributing your content by making it available through various formats (PDF, iPad, Kindle, dead tree and video game). What have you learned from this experimentation and what directions do you want to explore some more?
If Dana has learned one thing from her time on Queen West, it’s that change is inevitable, and I feel the same about comics. The only paper books I continue to buy are comics and graphic novels—I’ve mostly moved on to eBooks on my Kobo and borrowing physical books from the library—so it makes sense for me to put out my work the way I’d like to see it. There is a huge potential for comics in digital format, I think—specifically for indie and self-published authors. Unfortunately I think a lot of folks in the industry are a bit technophobic, but as an option, I feel it’s essential. Content has long escaped the confines of single mediums; we are a culture that wants to embrace content wherever we are—in print, on our phones, iPads, etc. The trick that I’ve learned is that you have to keep paying attention; there will always be new ways to get your work in people’s hands.
In addition to self-publishing your comics, you also design video games and websites. I was wondering how thinking about these various mediums– how and why people process them– complements one another. Do you borrow ideas from one field and see how it applies to the other?
Absolutely. I’m mostly self-taught in everything I do, and part of the fun of not following any one particular dogma is that you get to mix and match. (I’m like the Bruce Lee of comics, except not actually cool.) My first long-form comic, Empty Words, was initially published online—it was a hybrid of comics, design, online publishing and the learning and experience I got from all of that. I think there’s a lot that, say, the web and games can teach us—like non-linearity and user agency—that cracks the door wide open for comics and storytelling. Most people who have played the Snow game enjoy the book more because of it, and that’s just a really simple example. Now because of the games that I create, I think of stories differently, which reflects in my comic work now as well.
You seem really attentive to the experience of the reader in comics or user in your other work. What kind of feedback do you get from your readers and how do you incorporate it? Does it vary from what medium they first see your work in?
My design background means I’m used to a two-way relationship, so it’s difficult habit to break, even with comics. I actually get my single issues test-read by a few people before I commit to them, because there’s always something I miss or something that’s not clear. Some authors may sneer at that, but my work has taught me that what’s in my head might not make as much sense to somebody else. When readers give me feedback (after a comic’s already published), I note everything and remember it for the next issue or next story. In some cases I’ve reprinted some issues to correct mistakes people have told me about or make things clearer—Snow #1 was done like this, in fact. In general, though, I use feedback to confirm where I’m straying off course and as a point of reference to try to improve. I love hearing back from people—with Empty Words, I got great responses for years from readers, and it was their stories and reactions that kept me going.
Independent comics and video games are both small fractions of their more commercial counterparts. What similar challenges do these two fields have for indies? What challenges are unique to comics?
I think there is a major difference between being and indie game designer and being an indie comics author: with the former, you can still make an iPhone game in your living room and potentially do really well. With the latter, distribution is much more difficult. There is a larger and more visible market for indie games, but with comics, you have to fight with a 30-year-old way of doing business. Webcomics allow indie creators to get seen and, in some cases, make a living, but in most cases the only comics that people pay attention to and discuss are the ones on the shelves of their local shop. Being an independent comics author makes it very difficult to get on those shelves, especially in situations where you may not know the store or its staff. Video games can obviously be distributed dozens of ways, but with comics, most people still want to walk into a shop and pick up a book. (Although obviously I’m hoping that with iPads, eReaders and the like, this won’t always be the case.)
You received a Xeric Grant and were nominated for the Gene Day award at the Joe Shusters. What does the availability of these awards mean to you as a self-publisher? Does their significance change with the ease of distribution through the Internet and otherplatforms?
The Gene Day Award is one of the only visible ways indie comics creators get to cut through the noise and get a bit of stage time, so to speak, and for that I’m very grateful. The Xeric Foundation grant is similar; the downside of free and open publishing is that it can be difficult to find the good stuff, and these two awards at least give readers a starting point. I’ve been self-publishing comics for over ten years, so things like the Xeric grant are a huge boon, and I think they let creators put out even better work, because they’re temporarily unfettered by financial constraints. Even with digital distribution, the visibility these awards provides can be critical, since the majority of readers will not necessarily find your book any other way.
Lastly, what comics are you hoping to pick up at TCAF?
I just saw Eric Skillman’s Liar’s Kiss on the TCAF website and that description alone has me sold. I’m also hoping to find a copy of David Collier’s Chimo; I got into his work through a mutual friend years and years ago and he’s been an inspiration ever since.