David Petersen: Alex, fans of Mouse Guard may not be as familiar with your name as some of the other creators on Legends of the Guard. Let’s correct that. Tell us about yourself and your work.
Alex Kain: By day I'm a video game designer and writer for Venan Entertainment, Inc, a small studio in Connecticut. Since I joined up with Venan, I've helped design over a dozen games ranging from NBA LIVE and Monopoly on the iPhone to Ninjatown on the Nintendo DS. Recently, I served as a designer and lead writer for the iPhone game "Space Miner: Space Ore Bust".
By night, I'm usually working on comic-related side projects. I wrote a lot of standard novel-format stories in high school and college, but nothing has ever been quite so rewarding as seeing those stories come to life in comic book form.
David: Alex, with background is in video game design. In what ways do your game designer skills coincide with writing a 10 page comic story?
Alex: I was actually pretty surprised when I found out there were quite a few similarities between comic writing and game design! Most of the material I write for Venan has to fit comfortably on very tiny screens, so that's taught me to keep things short. Altogether a pretty handy frame of mind to be in when you're writing a script for equally-restrictive comic panels. Whether it's comparing comic panels to tiny tutorial pop-ups or page counts to memory limitations, comics and games require creativity in how we approach these restrictions. Another thing I brought over from my design work is that I try not to get too attached to anything I write - things are constantly changing and improving, and the story has to move quickly to keep up with the rest of the production.
David: Sean, tell us about yourself. You are known for your work on Redwall, but tell us more. Where did you go to school? How did you ‘break in’ to illustration?
Sean: Well, I had planned on going to art school for most of my childhood, but when I started talking to illustration professors, many of them thought that my interests were too diverse for me to be a happy conservatory student. After a series of unlikely events, I wound up studying archeology at Princeton. I realized pretty quickly that my interests were also too diverse for me to be a happy investment banker or lawyer, so I just took the most interesting courses I could find and kept drawing.
I actually started illustrating when I was a teenager, after I showed Brian Jacques some of my art at a book signing. He asked me to send art to his website and I contributed there pro-bono until some opportunities opened up with his audio books. Before then, I drew characters from books because it was just something I liked to do; that someone would hire me to do this seemed like a miracle. Brian and I stayed in touch, and whenever I'd see his publishers at events, I'd half-jokingly ask when they were going to give me more projects. Later, when Penguin needed a new Redwall illustrator, I was asked to take over from David Elliot.
David: Sean, with your connection to the mouse property-Redwall. Did you have any nervousness or hesitation to work on a Mouse Guard story since there seems to be a silly stigma of there being room for only 1 mouse-with-swords property?
Sean: That's a good question. I think a lot of people would be surprised to see a Redwall artist doing Mouse Guard on the assumption that we're competing. I admit I don't see it that way, probably because I came to both Redwall and Mouse Guard as a reader first. In that sense, I'm just an incredibly fortunate fan who's been blessed with the opportunity to work in two properties I enjoy and admire. If anything, I hope this collaboration will expose more Redwall fans to Mouse Guard and vice-versa.
David: How did you guys meet?
Alex: Well, I was a freshman in college at the time and I had this crazy idea to design a Redwall video game. This was back before I knew much of anything about proper game design, but I dove into the idea headlong regardless. Eventually I needed an artist to do concept material. Sean and I were introduced on a Redwall internet fan board completely by coincidence and, hearing he was an artist, I asked if he was interested in doing concept artwork for my Redwall game pitch. "He's not that kind of an artist," I was told. Fortunately, that didn't stop Sean from getting involved in the project.
Sean: Don't agree to draw for people you meet on the Internet, kids.
David: What was the process for the creation of your story? Did you collaborate on the concept? Or were the duties divided up where Alex concerned himself with concept, story, and words, and Sean focused on the artwork?
Sean: The concept is definitely Alex, although I might have snuck in on a few of the lines. Originally Alex sent me this moving script, part of which was a voice over. That was fine, except next to every line of voice over was the phrase, in parentheses, "Mouse battles beast." Then, on the last line of the speech, I see, "Mouse kills beast." I referred Alex to this Sidney Harris cartoon: LINK
Alex: Yes, well, the first and last part of the equation in that cartoon look very wordy (or number-y, I suppose), while the missing part in the middle looks like it might do better with an artist's touch. Sean would refer to that cartoon, then I'd refer to how Michael Bay's screenwriters would just write "action scene" in the scripts for his movies, and then Bay would fill in the gaps with explosions. Writing pages of very specific action cues never really feels right to me. I feel like I'm restricting the artist in a scene where they really should be absolutely free to do whatever they want.
The actual creation process for the story itself was pretty straightforward, actually. I wrote up three very different stories, and we picked the one we liked the most. The first two were pretty low-key dramatic pieces, not a whole lot of action to them at all. The third one was coincidentally the one with the huge "Shadow of the Colossus"-esque action sequence. We went with that!
David: Where did your story (about a very small town, bravery, dedication, and mentoring) come from? Was it personal?
Alex: The story's themes of bravery, dedication, and mentoring were less personal and more about analyzing what makes the Mouse Guard world interesting from a storytelling perspective - here is a group of mice trying to hold together this fraying society while a large chunk of the population is oblivious to what's going on outside their borders. It's a perfect world in which to write flawed heroes and naive apprentices.
Sean: I liked the story immediately. Looking back this might be because I'm a high school teacher. The first thing you can hope for as a teacher is that you set a good example, but the best thing you hope for is that your example will be followed. Other than that, "potential" might well be the theme of Alex and my friendship. We were kids when we met each other, but we kept working together because we saw potential in each other and in what we were doing.
David: Was the story developed to include things you both feel you do well? Were there scenes or dialogue bits that leaned towards Alex’s strengths? And were there settings or things that were included because they are Sean’s forte?
Sean: We had a joke about making a checklist of things I like to draw before we started. It sounds silly, but I think a lot of artists work this way. For example, I love drawing books and architecture, so we decided to represent Barkhamsted through a library. Certain items or settings may also look a bit Redwally, and that may or may not be on purpose.
Alex: I do recall that checklist! "Need rope, need a library, needs to take place around the wintertime, etc." It wasn't a bad checklist by any stretch - trying to include everything was a fun little challenge.
When I wrote up the three story ideas, each one represented a type of story that I like to write. This being one of the best opportunities I've ever had to write a short story, I wanted to make sure I focused on characters I was familiar with and a plot that was simple enough to withstand the twisting and compression that accompanies turning a script into comic panels. Sean gave me a lot of leeway in the writing process, and I gave him a lot of leeway in the drawing process, so we could focus on our individual strengths.
David: At one point in the thumbnailing process, you encountered a problem where the story needed to spill on to another page (which recently happened to me on the Mouse Guard FCBD story). Unfortunately, the rest of the issue’s page counts were locked in and couldn't be adjusted. So talk about how frustrating that was (or wasn't) and how you tackled getting the story to fit.
Alex: Well, it's certainly something I'm familiar with in the gaming industry - some text won't fit in a box or a conversation goes on for too long, stuff like that. When it's just me going into a text file and editing things, that's easy. But introducing the whole "artist" side into the equation really made things interesting. Sean and I worked for quite a bit on condensing the action, re-writing the ending, trying to fit an 11 or 12 page story into 10 pages.
Sean: Originally we had an extra page in the beginning to create more anticipation with the action. Between pulling a page of waiting and pulling a page of action, we decided to pull a page of waiting. This gave us more room to reveal the beast gradually, and to concentrate on a visual conceit that we really liked. We decided early on that a mouse would never be able to see the entire form of a much larger animal at close distance. I started thinking of Christopher Nolan's cinematography for Batman Begins--by keeping the camera very close to the combat, you get the crook's perspective of not knowing what's beating the tar out of him. In our case, the mouse can't see the entire beast and the beast is too large to interact with the mouse, so there's a confusion that goes both ways.
David: Alex, how do you approach dialogue? How do you ensure that characters have unique voices or that the speech reads clearly and naturally?
Alex: Whenever I write a scene with characters, I'm usually just improvising the dialog, letting the scene play out in my head and hoping my typing fingers can keep up with my brain. After that, I go through and break the scene down, I try to add witticisms and appropriate banter where possible, and then act the scene out. I acted quite a bit in high school, lots of plays and musicals and whatnot. I think that's very important in any medium where you're trying to portray dialog between fictitious individuals.
When it comes to actually creating those individuals, I draw inspiration from people I know - childhood friends, mentors, bullies, etc - and use them to round out the characters' motivations. Every character I write has a backstory and a motivation - I like to know them, even if they're fictitious. It's like I'm preparing to act as them in a play - it helps me improvise dialog for them in their voice, and that really helps the dialog flow naturally.
David: Sean, Talk about how you draw, what tools do you use? And how do you color you work?
Sean: I use 0.3 mm graphite on Strathmore 400 drawing paper, which I like because it scans with a nice, creamy color. I draw object or character outlines first and shade them by cross hatching. Hatching is extremely time consuming, but I love the look it gives you. I've tried other techniques but I always come back to it. After that, the scanned drawings are colored in Photoshop, using semi-transparent layers to tint the pencil lines. I have a really research-heavy process, which for this project meant rambling in the woods during a weekend in Pennsylvania. I also contacted the Princeton Plasma Physics lab about shrinking me down to mouse-size, but they haven't returned my calls or emails.
David: Well thank you both very much for your story and taking time to share about the process! Where can fans find more about each of you and your work?
Alex: Thank you, David! Working with you and your world has been an enlightening and altogether spectacular experience. I just started a new blog recently at alexkain.blogspot.com. It's fairly new, but people can check it out for posts on this project, as well as others I'm working on. Folks can also follow me on Twitter (@tdcpresents).
Sean: Thank you, David! Working in your Mouse Guard universe has been an honor. I keep a blog at seanrubin.blogspot.com, right now it's an even mix of art posts and thoughts on teaching. I'm also on twitter (@seanrubin).
Sean & Alex's story 'Potential' appears in Legends of the Guard issue 2 in stores June 23rd.