Having run the review of The Secret Protectors yesterday, I caught up with it’s two creators, Adam Wheeler and Ben Nunn in a follow up conversation after they very kindly responded to the draft review with some very interesting points.
They’ve been very accommodating and considerate, so I wanted to take a minute to give them a big thanx and wish them both well as they grow, and their comics grow with them.
The Secret Protectors Interview
ZL – What was the initial kernel of the idea for The Secret Protectors, that initial thought that made you start to build the whole story?
AW – The initial creation of The Secret Protectors characters and universe was a fair bit different to how Ben and I have it all structured at this point. These characters began, believe it or not, as Superheroes and Supervillains on the now defunct MMO ‘City Of Heroes’. I’ve always had a keen interest in sci-fi and fantasy. Playing that game as a young teen really allowed me to get my creative juices flowing. A fair amount of that ‘work’ still exists within these characters now. As time went on I started to imagine my own comic book universe where all my characters would take part in a grand narrative. As such, they’ve all ‘existed’ in my head for around a decade or so.
ZL – What are your backgrounds with comics?
BN – For me it all started when I was about 3 with watching the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons with my nan. It wasn’t long before we were watching the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, then the New Adventures show, then we branched out into the Marvel offerings. Every time my mum dragged me shopping she’d get me a Superman/Batman comic but the first comic I really remember is one I still have to this day. An issue of Spider-Man illustrated by John Romita Jr. That’s when I saw the potential for telling stories with uniquely stylised artwork.
AW – I’m bit older than Ben, so I can’t remember being 3yrs old! Ha!
But, growing up I always loved my cartoons, TMNT, Transformers, Batman TAS, X-Men, Spider-Man… the list of great cartoons is endless. As for comics a good friend of mine when we were growing up had a bunch of copies of older comics like ‘Journey into Mystery’, ‘Action Comics’ and some old Spider-Man comics. I wasn’t poor growing up, but I know money was tight for my parents and locally there wasn’t really anywhere to buy comics, so growing up they weren’t as big a part of my life as they became later on.
ZL – When did you start making comics and when did you start thinking about The Secret Protectors and the world you’ve built?
BN – I started off with some obscure webcomics in a kind of manga style but it wasn’t until meeting up with Adam that I decided to take it beyond a hobby.
AW – Hmm… I remember making a stick-man book when I was wasting classroom time at school but that’s about the limit of my artistic capability. I wouldn’t know exactly how to describe how bad my drawing is. With that said, making a comic alone is not something I’ve ever given any serious consideration to!
Although I had all the story written up for The Secret Protectors, I only began giving serious thought to it when I told my now fiancé (soon to be wife) Kate about my idea. She really got onboard with it and supported me in trying to get it actually made into a comic. It was not long after that I found Ben via a website. We met up soon after and began working on the project together.
ZL – Can you give us a few details about:-
- The first creator you ever remember recognising the work of?
- The first creator you remember copying or studying for hours to work out how they made things work?
- Creator you most wanted to be like when growing up?
BN – John Romita Jr was easily the first creator I remember recognising. His characteristic style is what made comics real to me. While most of what I’d seen before that was very silver age, ironically heavily influenced by the likes of Romita Sr. But Romita Jr showed me that it was possible to create something totally visually different. In the days of dialup I became obsessed with Dragon Ball Z and found myself recording episodes onto VHS and desperately trying to copy that distinctive Toriyama style. Needless to say the weird warping that happened when you paused a VHS certainly didn’t help. I wouldn’t say I wanted to be like Romita Jr or Toriyama. I’ve always just wanted to create the best art I could and tell some great stories.
AW – As the one here who cannot draw at all this is a tough one. I do actually love both Romita Sr and Jr! Add Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane and Alex Ross to that.
ZL – Are there any particular influences fuelling The Secret Protectors?
BN – When Adam approached me with the story we were in a Starbucks. Adam explained the premise then launched into an enthusiastic breakdown of the characters and their backstories, their world, and even the eventual endgame of the entire story.
I think Adam and his enthusiasm has been a driving force. His drive to get these stories we believe in out there and in front of people has inspired me in my work on TSP and other projects. We’ve been really happy to have kids and adults coming up to us at events thrilled to see a black protagonist. I don’t know how much thought Adam gave to creating a diverse cast, I think it just came naturally when you’re writing a story that spans the globe. Not every superhero has to be a 6’2” white American dude with black hair, blue eyes and a jaw that could cut glass, right?
AW – There are so many influences… Some are perhaps more obvious than others. The genre of Superheroes is clearly our playground (The 90’s X-Men cartoon for instance) but beyond that I have so much love for actual sci-fi, fantasy and maybe just as importantly iconic series like The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Fargo. These sorts of influences may not be apparent in an obvious sense, but I’ve always drawn great enjoyment from storytelling that makes you think, doesn’t spoon feed you, allows you to draw some of your own conclusions so to speak.
ZN – You’ve already made your goal on Kickstarter – that must feel pretty good! Was getting the money the main goal or were you hoping for something more out of Kickstarting your comic?
BN – We’ve been overwhelmed by the support. The idea that there are kids and teenagers out there that cared enough to contribute what they could means just as much as the people who were able to pledge on the higher end of things. I think the Kickstarter was about getting the audience excited and being able to offer them more bang for their buck. I probably can’t say too much about the statistics but we’ve had support from some very unexpected places.
What’s most exciting is that some young fans have already taken to drawing the characters even having only read issue 1 so we just want to be able to get it out there more and be able to thank people for their support in some cool and interesting ways. And, of course, how could we resist the opportunity to duct tape my phone to the wall for two hours while we tried to read a 2-minute script for the Kickstarter video!
AW – Having followed Tyler James (ComixLaunch) for a while I always thought that if we could find an initial audience that we could use Kickstarter as a platform for the project so that one day it could become self-sustaining. We’ve received amazing support on the campaign itself.
With that said, I’m not a businessman, if I was, I probably wouldn’t be doing this! Ha! The Secret Protectors is very much a passion project. I draw great meaning from it. My main hope was that we could begin to garner a larger audience of readers. Promoting the comic and getting eyes on it has always been the toughest side of the ‘business’. I’m not a natural salesman and especially with something that has so much of my heart in it. Ben and I both know rejection is part of the game though. We have both had cause to pick each other at some point in this process.
ZL – I’m hoping the review comes across as supportive and that I enjoyed it! Sometimes I think I sound terribly negative!
AW – Ha! I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve read it a few times and I’d like to thank you for your honest feedback. We know we aren’t perfect and we’re still at the beginning of both our creative journey and actual story. That’s our first review! Ever! That’s a huge deal to me.
Issue 1 pacing was always a concern we had but we wanted to show the ‘status quo’ of this world and set things up. We wanted the reader to be able to just spend a bit of time with Ben before he gets dragged into the main conflict. He’s a normal guy and by showing him with his family we hoped to show how tough the decision would be to make in issue 2, obviously you can be the judge of whether or not we pulled that off! Ben doesn’t know or understand his powers and that’s something we hope to explore with him as the story unfolds.
BN – Yeah, the most important thing is honesty and I’ve got to say your review was thorough and will no doubt help us continue improving in future issues.
ZL – Going back to your comment about this being your first review ever, I’m interested in picking apart the experience of getting copies out to reviewers, whether you’ve found positive responses, or it’s been more a wall of silence! What you did to find sites that would be useful for promoting your comic and Kickstarter in general and what your method of contact was?
Also, generally, how it felt to send things out, waiting for a response, what it felt like if people haven’t responded?
Also – what was your first gut reaction to receiving a review and whether that felt different/ was different to how you thought it would be?
AW – Having never run a Kickstarter before I can’t say that I truly prepared for everything it would require from me. Even though we’ve surpassed our target if I could go back and start over I would probably do so. I realise now that we could have done a fair bit more pre-launch. I sent copies to quite a few people, I won’t name names, but essentially it’s been a wall of silence. I’m not at all salty or complaining about that though. Time is precious and those who do this sort of thing, like yourself, on behalf of Indie Comics are providing a service. There are so many projects out there at any one time that, understandably, getting reviews actually done is a real tough task if you don’t perhaps already have a reputation. That’s something that as a creator you need to expect and plan for. The only advice I could really offer is cast a wide net. Contact anyone and everyone!
As for receiving your review (as our first)
I can honestly say it’s a very humbling experience. By that, I mean, actually having our work prodded, tested and pulled apart is awesome! It’s helped us evaluate our work and goes down as a real sign of the progress we’ve made so far. Reviews should, in my opinion, always be tough on whatever the product in question may be. Reviewers / critics should be the stress test, the mechanism by which they the consumer can make an informed decision whether or not to spend their hard-earned money.
ZL – I wondered a bit about your thoughts on Ben being more a cypher and whether that’s a part of the plan, or a product of focussing in on the plot?
AW – I would admit that Ben does suffer slightly as you point out as the ‘cypher’ but our take was also that; he is extremely unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time at the beginning of issue 1. Bad things unfold and as a twenty-one-year-old growing up in a world where the existence of super-powered beings isn’t common knowledge he was completely out of his depth; emotionally, mentally and physically. He was basically a passenger as he’s in over his head.
ZL – I guess there’s a fine line between being a cypher and feeling lost and out of your depth and my feeling is Ben is too much of an empty vessel, I kept wanting to know what he was, how he was thinking but at the moment he seems to be all anger and little of the implied gentle side of him is coming out. Put another way, I feel like I spend more time thinking about him and who he is than I do feeling what this is like for him – if that makes sense?!
AW – There’s a few things to unpack here… so, as much as Ben is a very important character to our series this is also an ensemble title. With that said, we made a conscious decision to not spoon feed the reader too much. I definitely did not want us beating the reader over the head with a stick but it’s a fair criticism. Ben in the first issue is still reeling over the loss of his father. We made that decision early on that Ben should not be laughing and joking (just yet) as I don’t know how natural that would be. There’s a lot to Ben too, but at this stage in his journey he’s at sea really. He doesn’t know what’s going on, who to trust, what to do. He’s a mess. Issue 1 and 2 take place within quite a small timeframe.
We have a number of characters who, over the course of the next few issues will be introduced but spending time with Ben is definitely something the reader can expect, and we’re excited for.
ZL – What are the longer-term plans for TSP? Is this intended as an ongoing series, a number of story arcs with a beginning and end to each, that also build to an overall story in sum? What kind of things can we expect to see dealt with in the series?
AW – Our plan, which may be naive given our experience, is for TSP to be a long running series. We know where we want to get to though and hopefully the reader sees that and enjoys it. Although on bare face value it’s a superhero comic we want to explore the notions of good and evil being relative. Other themes we want to explore are parenting and the duality of the human-psyche. It’s a tough one really because we don’t want to give too much away. This initial run, the first story arc, we envisage running at around 12 issues. These first 12 issues will really help develop and provide the reader context for the world. The characters all have lengthy backstories as to why they are the way they are which we’ll get the opportunity to explore more of in our future issues.
ZL – So, for me, this is interesting for the very reason that we’re talking themes and plots here and I wonder if it’s because they’re part of the big plan and less of the by issue planning? Anyway, that’s not actually a question sorry!
What plans have you got for dealing with the character of these individuals? Their relationships, the nature of who they are, how they behave? What I’m wondering is, for example, the scene in issue 2 where we see Mohammed and Mika. I thought that was a nicely handled way of showing the relationship and managed to put some flesh on the characters and on their relationship, so I’m wondering what sort of planning goes into that?
It felt very organic, was it planned in that way, or did it come to you from getting to know your characters?
AW – in my opinion the grand narrative of any story really should be shaped by the individual actions and motivations involved and that is something I believe we have achieved. Each of our characters, both good and bad, have their own way of thinking. Their own plans and schemes. Early on that may not be completely apparent but as things take shape the reader will notice things early on that we did that have affected the flow of events.
ZL – Are there any questions or points you had that you’d like to make?
AW – Firstly, the close-up on page 1 of issue 2 is actually of the mech, not the van, not sure if you wrote van by mistake or just thought it was the van / not the mech.
ZL – My bad! Sorry about that. Still is a beautiful panel though!!
And that brings up an interesting point? This is aimed at Ben more – what style of art do you normally create and what source and references, in terms of artists, are you pulling in to your work?
What is your input in the comic, do you share writing credits, are you working full script or sitting around and working it out together?
Does the style feel comfortable for you yet or do you find you’re still trying to figure it all out a lot?
One final one! What is your favourite moment/ drawing in the two comics and why?
AW – We were certainly trying to go for older ‘Adventure style’ comic sort of feel, as it’s set in the 80’s we wanted the art be similar to the styles employed in that era but obviously Ben has his own style on top of that. I’m a big fan of Claremont & Byrne’s long run on X-Men. We also thought that having the comic set in the past gives it the chance to have that, for lack of a better way of putting it, ‘nostalgia’ feel.
BN – Thanks! I suppose I like to draw from people like Ryan Ottley and Sara Pichelli. I’m not sure how much I specifically draw from either of them. Consciously I draw from Hirohiko Araki when it comes to faces, but with a bit more of a westernised slant. Occasionally I’ll work in a simpler style when I’m commissioned to do a light-hearted comic for a birthday or anniversary present. That’s apparently more reminiscent of Herge’s Adventures of Tintin which I apparently loved as a child, but truth be told I don’t have much of a memory of it.
It’s hard to nail down how much of a collaboration the writing was, especially early on. There was definitely a lot of back and forth and we still discuss scripts in detail. Then there are those times when I’ll cheekily just do something differently to how it was written and just see what happens. Sorry Adam!
I enjoy the style and I think it’s evolving as I do. I spend a few hours every day studying so that’s always going to reflect in my work. Hopefully that’ll be as noticeable between issues 2 and 3 as it was between 1 and 2.
My favourite moment was one that you mentioned in your review. The panel of Wildfire propelling himself forward on page 4 of issue 2. That page was one of the last to be completed after an 11th hour decision to punch up the fight a bit. I think that shows. I’m always tempted to go through a whole issue again to bring it up to the level that I’m at by the time we finish but I’ve fallen down that hole before. I’m reminded of a quote, though I’m not sure where it comes from: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”. Obviously, that could be taken as permission to half-arse things but I think of it as permission to let things go and keep moving forward, instead of getting trapped in an endless loop of building up and tearing down your own work and never showing anything to the world.
AW – To make this point easier I’ve just copied and pasted what you wrote:
“Just looking at things, we can also see that we’re dealing with a battle between diversity and racism/fascism/the shadow government”
So, just between us! As we get into spoiler territory that’s kind of it, but also kind of not. Now if it hits home that way then that’s our fault as the storyteller so I don’t take any fault with your description, the bad guys SCIMITAR, or Supreme Command for Incident Management and Initial Tactical Armed Response are obviously somewhat of a homage to Shield, or Hydra or any other clandestine organisation in comics, in a certain sense, however, we certainly weren’t going for them being viewed as fascist, is there a reason to you that that’s the case?
ZL – Well, partly, the Shadow Government is a form of fascism, but not of the race variety, (there are many forms of fascism as it’s essentially the belief that one group of people are superior to any others), it’s a form of free market fascism, where the possession of money and the associated power that comes with that, means you are worth more than poorer individuals. Also, though, there were the two thugs in the store with the Texas Flag, and one had a swastika, that sort of foreshadowed the presence of fascism and racism. The look of Mayhem Marauder is also quite fascistic and felt like a reference back to those thugs. I guess I’m saying, maybe my understanding of fascism is slightly different to others around the shadow government and that the character designs have sort of flagged a feeling about fascism being a part of the work’s themes.
Does that sound like a question even!!
Um – What are your thoughts on that?
AW – Gotcha! I see where you’re coming from now. Again, I’m careful to not go into spoiler territory. S.C.I.M.I.T.A.R have an agenda, but I can’t really go into that just yet, but they aren’t really drawing from a fascist playbook in my mind. The thugs in issue 1, we wanted individuals who were clearly detestable from the off. They were shaking down a shop for money. Ben, being a good guy (but naive) rushes in trying to do the ‘right’ thing and gets beaten down pretty quickly. As for Warren AKA Mayhem Marauder there’s a reason behind his appearance, something which again, will be explored later on in the series.
What we really wanted was to have a diverse set characters on both the good and bad side. This isn’t a tactical or political stand (we’re bombarded with more than enough of that in real life), it was more just a ‘why not?’. Why not have Ben be a black guy? Why not have Mika be Japanese? Why not have Mohammed be Asian? Instead of making our cast all white, black or any other ethnicity we wanted to have a diverse cast. But yeah, we certainly aren’t looking to go for anything racial at all. I’d love to know why you thought it?
ZL – The theme I picked up on was the use of a diverse cast, just generally, and sadly, nowadays that carries with it the weight of the current world political climate, with Islamophobia, institutionalised racism being highlighted by a highly racist American president and British ‘Johnny Foreigner’ scaremongering leading up to Brexit. There’s also the opposite side of the argument around why you’re writing in characters of colour when you’re not familiar with the culture or background.
So, I’m wondering from what you’ve said, whether you’ve had positive or negative or no feedback on any of those issues? Also, what have you done, in terms of research, to avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping characters by race and gender?
Essentially, it’s a very thorny area to walk in and I wonder how you’re planning on finding the safe path through?
BN – Speaking for myself I’m always wondering about that delicate balance. I think it comes down to doing your due diligence, but more than that, just treating characters like they’re human. Trump, Islamophobia, Brexit, they all come down to a basic lack of ability or willingness to empathise with people who are slightly different from you. I guess people just prefer to feel superior or succumb to fear (or both somehow) but at the core of being a good person, and at the core of good writing, is empathy and compassion.
AW – There’s certainly a minefield of different opinions out there on that subject. Personally, I don’t want The Secret Protectors to be a vehicle for my own personal politics. It’s a strange one really, I can see why politics often find their voice in comics, but I’ve always thought that if super-powered beings did exist then our way of politics would be completely different, if that makes any sense? There certainly comes a point where, logically, politics within the context of the story / world would need to be addressed but that doesn’t represent my own thoughts but rather reflects the story and the characters themselves.
I don’t want anyone to read our comic and feel like we’re preaching an agenda to them as that is not our prerogative. As for the diversity of our characters backgrounds I’ve always believed that good characters are written as individuals with their own mind, ambitions and problems. Their group identity should always be a secondary factor, that’s not to say it’s unimportant but I don’t think it should be the primary driver behind their actions.
The feedback so far, from readers, has been really great overall. I think, that with everything in life, if people can see you’re trying to put something good out into the world, even if it’s not their cup of tea, they do tend to get behind it. They can see its value and the love behind the project. I believe that the reason behind that is that, for the most part, we are more good than not.
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content copyright iestyn pettigrew 2019