On the shelf they stand there, lined up like toy soldiers with their glossy covers, quality paper, exotic inks (go with it, I’m trying to make a point) and a heaping dollop of imagination. These things combine to make not just comic books, but a pathway to adventure (too much?), but we sometimes forget how much effort goes into creating them.
Brian Winkeler and Robert Wilson IV came up from the streets of South Boston together (I’m lying) where they were raised up by a tough former boxer named Shamus O’Shea Gibson. Punished by the Gods for hot dogging it in the ring, Shamus had only one eye, but because of that, he taught Brian and Robert a lesson about the value of a dollar, the salve that is a blues song and the devil’s nectar that is Strawberry wine. Lessons that they would put into practice while working on the rail line as porters by day and card counters in the club car by night (again, these are lies). Tossed out of a moving train one too many times, the guys decided to settle down in Baton Rouge, run a saloon for left handed Americans and slowly work to tell their story in the pages of a comic book.
Knuckleheads is not that comic book, but it is pretty damn good and these guys have brought this tale about a slacker, his friends, a pair of alien made brass knuckles and a giant lizard that feels ripped off by the early death of [REDACTED] in Godzilla (and now I’m just projecting) from a self-published print book to the digital realm with Monkeybrain Comics and now to IDW for the release of Knuckleheads: Fist Contact, a trade paperback that earned raves from our own Leo Johnson and had one sexy critic compare it sexily to Shaun of the Dead in terms of its humorous tone.
That critic? Me, and now I have an interview with Brian and Robert where they talk a little bit about their actual origin story, moving the book to IDW, the faith that they have in their readers, the sacrifices that come with creating a comic and turning a couch potato into a hero… which is something that should appeal to all of us, because (removes shoe and bangs it on the table for effect) Ich bin ein Trevinski!
Read the damn interview!
How did these characters and the Knuckleheads story come into existence? Had versions of these characters been in any other projects that you had toyed with over the years?
Brian Winkeler: Honestly, it all sprang up quickly and organically once Robert and I met. Robert’s gorgeous portfolio work at the time was pretty heavy content-wise but he’s so engaging and funny in person that I wanted to see if we could capture that with character-based comedy.
How did Fist Contact and your relationship with IDW come into existence?
Brian: I attended a couple of back-to-back IDW panels at SDCC 2013 and un-subtly mentioned during a Q&A that I was writing a MonkeyBrain book. I met with their VP of Digital Jeff Webber after the panels and they expressed interest in a collection pretty quickly. I think having been vetted by Chris (Roberson) and Allison (Baker) was a big contributing factor in the ease of the pitch. And they’ve been gloriously wonderful to work with throughout the process. Thanks to our editor Justin Eisinger, I’m pretty sure we’ll be the first comic with a spot-varnished slice of pizza on the cover.
What is it about this collection that you feel will both appeal to new readers and fans who have been with this story from the start?
Brian: I hope that new readers will enjoy that it’s first and foremost a comedy, and though it’s in comic book form, there’s really nothing inside baseball about it. Anyone who likes the movies and TV we like will hopefully click with the book. For fans of the digital series, we’ve got an exclusive new short story drawn by our pal Joe Hunter, as well as some stunning process pages that show all the work Robert puts into his beautiful layouts.
Brian, I know you have two kids and another career outside of comic books. Talk me through how you balance that life with the life of a comic book creator with all of the less than glamorous time sucks that one has to endure to make it. Tell me about what it takes to keep an indie book in people’s minds — how much time do you spend going to conventions, reaching out to people on social media, doing interviews, and soliciting reviews?
Brian: I own my own branding/advertising agency so I do most of my work on nights and weekends once my sons (11 and 6) are in bed. Because it takes a lot less time for me to write 12 pages than it does for Robert to draw them, I’ve spent the bulk of my time getting the book to sites and blogs for review (I sent preview copies to over 100 reviewers when issue #3 was released last year). We know it’s a tough sell so I try to stay engaged with both critics who dig the book and our passionate fans who are anxious for more.
What is it about the overall experience that makes it worth any sacrifices that you encounter?
Brian: Every reader who totally gets what we want to do and who says they laugh out loud reading it. Every critic who comments about how comfortable the work feels from the creative team. I’m definitely not in this for the money (though some is always great ; ) so it’s really an ego boost to know there are some folks out there who will see my name and know they’ll get a story that will give them a good time with characters they’ll enjoy getting to know.
Let’s talk a little bit about the look of the book. Robert, what pushed you away from the more cartoonish style that you ever-so briefly entertained when first discussing Knuckleheads with Brian?
Robert Wilson IV: It was mostly a matter of what’s natural for me. I have a semi-cartoonish style naturally but when I tried to really exaggerate the anatomy and stylization it came off as kind of hamming it up. It felt kind of disingenuous to me and was also harder in way because I had to constantly think about style. Whereas now, I don’t really think about style at all.
What was the biggest design challenge that you encountered while working on these first 8 chapters?
Robert: For me, it was probably designing some alien characters that appear later in the book. I’ve never really designed aliens that had to function like a human character before. Add to that, that I needed to design multiple races that were visually different from each other but also exist in society’s that function along side each other. It was a bit of a complex challenge, but those kinds of challenges can also be some of the most rewarding parts of the process. Visual invention and design is one of the things that gets me really excited about comics.
Care to point out any well hidden Easter eggs that even the most astute readers might have missed upon their first read?
Brian: You know, I don’t know if we’ve really hidden anything – Robert included a couple of Morning Glories references for our pal Joe Eisma (who drew Robert eating Alpha-Bits in an issue) and added some other friends to chapter four’s restroom graffiti. I’d say the one main thing that’s a reference only those who read our self-published issue will get is that, at the end of that story, Emma vomits on Trev and passes out, so the opposite happening in chapter three is a direct homage to that original story.
Moving on to the story, in issue number 1, you sort of jump right in. Looking back, what were the benefits and the challenges that came from fleshing these characters out while on the run and what is it about these characters and this story that allowed you to have faith that your readers would invest themselves in Trev, Lance, Pizza Guy, and Emma without knowing a lot about them?
Brian: For me it’s always been about character. I try to subscribe to the ‘trapped in a closet’ theorem that, if you create strong enough characters, you can put them anywhere and a story can be found. And I suppose I enjoy jumping right in to create a certain amount of mystery that we can reveal piece by piece throughout the story, rather than start at square one.
Talk to me about the relationships between these characters, how important their chemistry is to the story, and how vital humor is to that chemistry.
Brian: Our goal has always been to create three-dimensional characters. I know a few critics didn’t really click with how pop culture-saturated their dialogue can get but that’s how I talk with my friends, so I guess I essentially am doing the ‘write what you know’ approach. We want every character to have a reason to want to be there and every character possesses their own personality quirks. That’s where I find not only the comedy but also the drama – Robert really wanted to ‘Claremont up’ the third act of the story so I hope readers feel like the serious shift that hits is true to the characters and the spirit of the book. I’ve told Robert that every time he sends me pages it’s like seeing new pictures of old friends. I consider these characters my friends and I really enjoy them telling me where they want to go.
Spoiler Alert — I want you to leave this tab open, run (DO NOT DRIVE) and go buy the book, read it and blog or tumbl about it before continuing
Was the intention to always make Lance the intended recipient of the crystal fist?
Brian: From day one, yeah. When we originally pitched the story to readers we were very obvious about it being ‘what if Hal Jordan’s fat, lazy roommate got the power ring instead?’ But we eventually realized it would be a much more powerful reveal if we didn’t spoil it, so we kept it quiet, though we definitely planned to show Lance as being the more naturally heroic protagonist throughout.
Obviously, after finishing Knuckleheads: Fist Contact, your readers are going to feel as if there is a bit of unfinished business. Where does this story go from here, how far out have you planned, and what can fans do to make sure that they get to see more of Trev and his friends?
Brian: Buy the book! Tell your friends to buy the book! We invested a lot in the making of Fist Contact, financially and especially our time (especially Robert’s). We have a pretty good idea of where we’re going from here, and we do want to continue their adventures if Knuckleheads can find a strong enough audience to justify its continuation, but I do think the break we’re going to take will be good for us to work on some different stuff so that when we return to the gang we’ll be full of momentum to make the next chapter even stronger than this one.
Knuckleheads: Fist Contact is available now. Pester your local comic book shop to order you a copy.