WonderCon 2011, the third day: Will I ever find the Foglios?

Will I find the elusive Phil and Kaja Foglio before WonderCon ends?

Ever since before WonderCon, I had been hoping to talk with Kaja and Phil Foglio.  They are the creative team that produces the long-running graphic novel series Girl Genius.

When I told a friend about my new project, she suggested I find them at WonderCon and talk with them.  Later, the same friend loaned me her copy of the first omnibus edition of  Girl Genius to read.

And then on Friday at WonderCon, another friend I ran into, who really likes Steampunk, also told me to talk with them.  Well, that proved more difficult than I at first imagined.

The Exhibit hall was huge.  Did I mention HUGE?  And nowhere in the map were the Foglios listed.  Same for Girl Genius.  I looked and looked over that brochure each day.  At night, I searched online and discovered their umbrella name for all their projects is Airship Entertainment.  So I looked for that.  No good.  It wasn’t listed either.

So on Sunday, finding them was one of my top priorities.

As I came into the hall, I was distracted by dinosaurs.  No.  Really.  On the cover of a book.  It’s very easy to distract me with dinosaurs.  Big hint: if you want me to see your movie or read your comic, put a dinosaur in it.  I mean, of course dinosaurs are not always appropriate.  I really can’t see wedging one into Sense and Sensibility, for example, but they’re always fun.

Anyway…

I have questions, and James Walker II at Flesk Publications has answers!

I had stumbled upon the booth of Flesk Publications, and the enormously helpful James Walker II.  While I was lingering over some dinosaur book, he asked if I had any questions.  I told him a million, but I didn’t know if he’d have the answers.  He ventured to try.  I asked him where was a booth for Phil and Kaja Foglio, and he knew – it was just two aisles over, along the same open walkway.

Next I asked him about printers, for self-publishing.  I think he said they use Paramount Printing, in Hong Kong.  He also mentioned Brand Studio Press, and James thought perhaps they had a sliding scale.  I’ve looked over their site, and they mostly seem to publish art books and sketch books by various well-known artists.  In their catalog I didn’t see any graphic novels at all.  The descriptions of the printing and binding of the books sound wonderful:  primarily hardcover, with sewn pages: my favorite kind.

James Walker II told me that Diamond Comic Distributors was a big distributor for comics and graphic novels, and suggested that I could comb their catalog to find big name publishers.  I could look at what they’re already publishing and try to find a good match.  James briefly mentioned that Marvel and DC don’t take on newbies, and I quickly assured him that I had no intention of trying to get them to publish my story.  As little as I know about this whole comic-graphic novel universe, I know that they primarily publish superhero comic stuff, and my story isn’t remotely like that.  Although I believe my story will make a great graphic novel, just of a different sort.

James also told me about SCB Distributors, located in Southern California.  He said their catalog would be better for locating boutique publishers.

In addition, James Walker II advised me to check out The Anthology Project, which has published 2 volumes so far, with up to 21 different artists and their various stories in each one.  He mentioned there was a blog about their publishing, run by Joy Ang.  Their blog does have some really cool animations of the process of some of the artists, showing the art in various stages.  I think it may be worth checking out to see all the different styles and stories.  I think James was thinking I might try to be included in a future volume, or I might learn from their adventure in bringing it to print.

James said that Flesk Publications wasn’t accepting any new projects to publish for about the next 4-5 years.  I guess they must have so many good ones in the queue they don’t have room for more.

When I asked if there were any publishers in the hall that he could recommend, James Walker II pointed to the banner for Archaia.  They looked too big for me, and I told James as much.  He assured me they were a small publisher, even though they had a big presence here at WonderCon.  He really thought I should give them a try, so that became my new goal, after finding Phil and Kaja Foglio.

I thanked James tremendously for all his terrific help, and followed his directions toward their booth.

At last – Kaja Foglio!

When I reached the Girl Genius outpost, Kaja was in the middle of describing her wedding dress to a friend.  Seeing me, she graciously offered to interrupt this to talk with me.  Instead, I encouraged her to continue, as I love costuming, and this sounded beautiful: it was an art nouveau confection, inspired by Mucha, complete with an “Ozma hat,” as Kaja described it, meaning a big flower on each side of her head, as featured in several Mucha paintings.  In the case of Ozma, they look like poppies.  And there was beaded draping on each side of her head in this headdress.  It sounds fantastic.  I wish I could have seen it.  I mentioned a friend of mine had a recreation made for herself of a Mucha gown – to dress as the green fairy.

As with everyone else in this quest, Kaja Foglio was amazingly helpful.  She’s very enthusiastic about self-publishing.  They put out a new page of Girl Genius three times a week on their website, and then they also have printed book versions for sale.

She said they give away everything for free in their webcomic, which horrifies some other writers, but she’s very happy with it.  They have plenty of hard-copy sales (and ancillary artifacts for sale as well).  Kaja said that people say things all the time  like:  “I read it online all through college, and now that I can afford it, I want to buy the books.”  I saw several sales at their booth while I was talking with her.  At one point, Phil put some books in front of her to sign, and Kaja said: “I’m only Italian by marriage; I can’t sign these now; I’m talking.”  (And using her hands quite a bit for that.)

They use Courier Corporation for printing, this is the company that owns Dover Publications.  (I am completely mad for Dover.  I love them, love them, love them, but perhaps I ought to rave more about them on another day.)  Kaja said she really likes working with Courier, because they have good communication, and they notice mistakes.  They really seem to care about the quality and appearance of the books.  It sounded very impressive to me.

Kaja Foglio advised caution in size of print runs.  She said a printer will want to run more copies, because the per-unit cost is lower, of course, so they’ll offer you a better unit price for 1,000 copies than for 600, but she said, if you don’t sell those extra books, they’re tying up money you could use for other things and taking up space in your basement.  Good advice, to be sure.

As far as distribution goes, Kaja said Diamond Comics Distributors is the only game in town for comics.

In terms of the quickest way to get the story out there, Kaja Foglio proposed distributing on the web, as they do.  She said Alexa was a website that ranks websites, so I could find out which ones are popular, and which ones might be best to host my own site.   She mentioned Shutterfly is a good site that is geared toward photography, where you can “create your own free photo and video sharing website with a personalized web address. ”  Kaja said it should be easy to find a place where I can do a starter website, perhaps at Google.  Usually the basic one is free, and they you pay for upgrades.

With the idea of generating additional revenue streams, as it were, Kaja said if I had popular characters, I could use Cafe Press to sell customized coffee mugs and tee shirts and the like.

For marketing, Kaja Foglio recommended Facebook, because she said you can get lots of “likes,” which can show that your work has broad appeal.  She said you can use Facebook to direct people to your website, and to mirror blog posts, so that you can get double duty out of any posts and traffic.

I thanked Kaja so much for all her help and suggestions.  When I asked if it was okay to blog about our conversation, she said of course, and said that links are always appreciated.  So that is what spurred me to learn how to create links here at WordPress.

Kaja likes the freedom of self-publishing, she said no one is going to tell you to use certain characters more, so they can sell more toys.  Kaja was really gung ho about self-publishing, but she admitted that’s because that’s what she does.   And it really works for them.

ARCHAIA wants stories, and at least they’re easy to find.

After talking with Kaja, I strode directly to the Archaia booth.  They were really easy to find, because they were in the same general area, and they had a big logo banner hanging above their booth.

At this point, it was less than half an hour before the end of WonderCon, so I didn’t have much time left.   I looked around the Archaia  booth, scoping out various books.  I had a couple in my hands, when Josh Trujillo approached me to ask if I wanted help.  I explained to him that I want to adapt one of my screenplays into a graphic novel and that I’m potentially looking for a publisher and that someone had suggested Archaia might be interested.

Josh seemed very  enthusiastic about new stories.

He said they are looking for:

Crime.  All-ages Fiction.  Historical Fiction.  Horror.  High-Concept Science Fiction.  He said most of all they’re looking for good stories, and they’re not that attached to particular genres.

In fact, he said they had been talking, and their dream project right now would be a good, all-ages fantasy – a pure fantasy that is the classic, medieval, sword and sorcery style that could appeal to both children and adults.

Josh Trujillo said the submission guidelines were on their website, and that they accept open submissions.  He said to send a .pdf file of 5-10 completed pages, showing the tone and storytelling of my piece.  Of course I was very excited by his enthusiasm and the prospect that they would look at my submission.

Archaia was running a special: buy 2 books and get 3 free.  I thought that was an amazing deal, and I asked Josh’s help in selecting five books that would give me a good idea of Archaia’s range: what they do, and what they might be looking for.

Here are the five he chose for me: Mouse Guard Fall 1152, by David Petersen.  Josh Trujillo said it’s one of their most popular (and I love it).  I had already picked up Artesia, and Josh said that was a really good one to get, because it is by Mark Smylie, who founded Archaia to print his own work and that of others.  Next Josh picked up The Killer, volumes one and two, by Matz and Luc Jacamon, translated from French.  Josh said there was an incredible character arc between the two books, so that the guy at the end of Volume two is completely different from his character in the first volume, but that the change is believable and beautifully arced.  I took both of those books, but Josh suggested I put back Volume two and go for more variety to start with.  I agreed, and Josh perused the books, seeking other good choices for me.

Josh Trujillo  showed me Some New Kind of Slaughter, by mpMann and A. David Lewis; several versions of great flood stories from diverse cultures.  It was especially interesting because I like mythology, and because it was in a different format than most of the other graphic novels.  This one was wide and short, like a film frame.  But on the whole, Josh recommended instead Inanna’s Tears, written by Rob Vollmar, illustrated by mpMann, because it showed their historical fiction, and  mpMann was on the other side of the booth, signing, and Josh said I could get him to sign it for me.  For my last book, Josh chose Moon Lake, an anthology created by Dan Fogler.

Of course, I thanked Josh for his help, and then I checked out.  For $50. I walked away with 5 beautiful hardcover graphic novels: almost a steal.

I went around the booth and found mpMann, who signed my copy of Inanna’s Tears and made a little drawing of a pyramid and a man’s head with a Sumerian-style hat.  I asked him if the 5 for 2 book deal was an end-of-the show special, so they wouldn’t have to pack and transport back so many books, but he told me they had been running that deal for the entire show.  I was impressed, and he said it helps expose people to more of their titles and encourages people to try new stories.  I was really grateful, since it let me go home with a good beginning selection of Archaia’s stories.

Archaia’s books are gorgeous.  Solid hardcovers with lush colors on thick shiny pages.  I will be unbelievably fortunate if  they say yes to my proposal and publish my story.  According to various bits I’ve read about them now on the web, they might go for it.  In their own words from their submissions page:

“One of Archaia’s core missions is to constantly seek out new and exciting creator-owned projects in the adventure, fantasy, horror, pulp noir and science fiction genres that test the boundaries of the comic book medium.”

I just hope they like my proposal when they see it.  I would be beyond thrilled to publish with them.

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Book Review: Girl Genius, Omnibus Edition, Volume 1

Book Review of Girl Genius, Omnibus Edition, Volume 1, by Phil and Kaja Foglio.

This volume contains the first three Girl Genius stories: The Beetleburg Clank, The Airship City, and The Monster Engine.  Online there are 11 stories in the series, 10 complete, and the 11th one in progress.  Online, each story is called a volume.

Sparks and Clanks and Constructs, Oh My!

These stories are zany tales set in a steampunk world (Kaja’s own term for the stories is Gaslamp Fantasies) where everyone is obsessed with building machines, but only those possessing the magical quality of the “spark” can create any that work.  A person who has the spark can also be referred to as a Spark.  In this particular universe, Sparks are very rare.

Probably my favorite thing about the book is the alternate language developed for this world, Sparks being one example, clank being another, which means an automaton.   In this universe, clanks often have a sort of spirit of their own, an almost independent will.

I also love the names for things and people.  For example, there are fierce, human-ish mercenaries called Jagermonsters.  They have rows of pointy fangs for teeth and a strong attraction to action, violence, and pain.  A “construct” is a human-like creature that has been constructed (much like Frankenstein’s monster), but lives and acts like a human being.

There is a fabled clan, the Heterodynes, who had many adventures, but have disappeared, and now are merely the stuff of legend and children’s stories.

Agatha Clay, heroine extraordinaire!

In these stories, our young heroine is  Agatha Clay, who attends Transylvania Polygnostic University (motto: “Know enough to be afraid”) and desperately wants to build machines, but can never seem to get anything to work.  At first she’s under the protection of the mayor of Beetleburg, but after an unfortunate accident, she’s on her own and gets swept away to the giant airship castle of Baron Wulfenbach, who rules the land and obsessively studies anything “sparky.”  There Agatha is stowed with some other youngsters being held as diplomatic hostages.  Agatha develops a friendship with the Baron’s son, Gilgamesh Wulfenbach (again with the fun names).  General wackiness (salted with danger) ensues.

Fun facts about Agatha: She seems to sleep-build machines in her underwear.  She’s quite brilliant at working with machinery, as when she fixes Gilgamesh’s flying machine while it plummets to Earth, improving the engine design and pulling them out of a crash path with the planet (potentially ouchy).

Extra! Extra!  Read it for free online!

The entire Girl Genius series is available online for free at Girl Genius Online.com.  Hard copy versions are also available (along with lots of other nifty stuff) at their store.

The Art of the Madcap Adventure.

Overall, I would describe the art style as toward the comic book end of the spectrum, with a simplified and exaggerated style.    Not hyper-realistic, like some super hero comics, but also not simplified and caricatured to the point of many newspaper comic strips.  My experience in this whole field is very limited, so I hope you’ll be patient with my developing knowledge.

The entire book is in black and white, but the style shifts after the first story, The Beetleburg Clank, which is drawn in plain, solid black on white.  The next two stories are shaded and more three-dimensional, as if they were done with some computer rendering program.  I found the 3-D pictures much easier to grasp.  Online, the whole thing has been colored, and is much easier for me to comprehend quickly.  Plus the color is very vivid, very fun.

In studying this artform, I’m studying various ways to signal different modes of consciousness, such as memory and dream.

Agatha’s first dream (found in The Beetleburg Clank) is simply introduced with a caption: Elsewhere, Agatha Dreams.  It is only one page, and the drawing style seems to be the same as for depicting waking consciousness.  There is one panel that has a strange, unreal, geometric pattern as the background.  At the lower right edge of the page is a large head of Agatha, waking up.

Agatha’s second dream (found in The Airship City and described as a flashback {even though she clearly goes to sleep before it happens}) is introduced with another caption: Long ago and far away.  The first and last panels of the dream have a cumulus-like rounded edge on one corner, and they’re the only ones in the book that have that.  The drawing style within the dream seems slightly simplified.  The texture of the backgrounds is not as detailed as it is in the waking reality of the story.  Online, the last panel of Agatha’s first dream seems to lose color on its right half, becoming a sepia-ish gray on gray, quite unlike the normally intense colors of the series.

Agatha’s third dream (found in The Monster Engine) is also signaled by a a caption: Agatha is dreaming…  It is a single page depicting Agatha standing in front of and gazing at a gigantic, vivid clockwork (shaped like a skeleton-key hole)  integrated with the moon and sun and stars.  I don’t perceive any particular difference in the drawing style, except perhaps that the surfaces of the clockwork are mostly solid color, and not textured like a lot of the other objects and backgrounds in the rest of the stories.

Glancing through the book, I can see that it adheres to Eric Shanower’s assessment that 7 panels is usually the maximum for an American graphic novel.  Several pages have 1-5 panels, but generally the maximum is 7.  When there are more than 7 panels on a page, usually there are several smaller panels or some insets, or both.  The shapes and proportions of the panels vary nicely for great impact, from horizontal to vertical, predominantly rectangular, with just a couple of curves thrown in.  There’s very nice use of smaller inset panels for close-ups and transitional moments between larger panels.

I find that the panel shapes that are square or rectangular lend an over-all settled feeling to my experience.  Panels shaped with diagonal borders tend to set me on edge a bit.  I can use that when designing my own work.

Frequent use of diagonals in the panel shapes also adds to the energy conveyed on the pages.  And there is a lot of energy in the stories.  Things and people zing about from here to there.  Strange creatures and machines appear almost out of nowhere.  Partly because of the varied panel shapes, the art really has a lot of verve, which matches so well the dialogue and characters, who seem to shout a lot.  There’s just a frenetic, over-the-top feeling about the whole enterprise, which befits their catchphrase: “Adventure, Romance and Mad Science.”

Disclosure, and props to Kaja Foglio!

Thanks so much to Phil and Kaja Foglio for having Girl Genius online.  It’s great to be able to illustrate what I’m describing.

For disclosure purposes: I got to speak with Kaja Foglio at WonderCon, and she was super-helpful, taking a lot of time to talk with me and share information.  In fact, it is due to her that I figured out how to insert links into my blog posts, because she mentioned that links were always most welcome, and I wanted to oblige.

And now, as your prize for getting to the end of this review: Here are some fun pix in a  Girl Genius Costumes group on Flickr.