Sebastian A. Jones, president of Stranger Comics, is the mastermind behind The Untamed: A Sinner’s Prayer, the dark fantasy comic which follows story of the Stranger and his bloody quest for revenge. We talked to Sebastian about his nerdy beginnings, independent comics publishing in a franchise-driven environment and his Kickstarter campaign to turn The Untamed into a hardcover graphic novel.
Tell me about your background. How did you get into comics?
Sebastian: The Incredible Hulk. When I was very young I discovered the jade giant both in comics and the TV show, which I watched without fail. In fact, when I was four years old, my family and I visited Los Angeles (I was born and raised in Surrey, England) and had the opportunity to meet my hero, which I can still recall very vividly. One of my Mum’s best friends was married to a movie legend so he had a hook up at Universal Studios. I got to hang with Lou Ferrigno who was in full makeup and wig, but at the time seemed so real, and larger than life. He was everything. As a scrawny mixed kid, and still to this day somewhat, I have always struggled with fear and rage: that furious release of anxiety. Being afraid of being jabbed at, being afraid of my father’s opinion and then being afraid of my own temper, which in the past had at times been far worse. The Hulk gave me someone to relate to. Learning to walk away from certain situations, not just personal or physical, but even in business, has been perhaps one of the toughest challenges. Like Bruce Banner/The Hulk I want to find that inner peace in the desert away from the horde, but instead I am here in the city among the sinners and costumed saints. My other favorites were Black Panther and X-Men, and specifically Wolverine and Storm. These characters for deeply rooted reasons of feeling like an outsider wherever I fit in became my heroes. I think I was always looking for escapism into another world. Superheroes, science fiction and fantasy were another home for me, whether it was through comics, novels, music or film.
Give me some background on how you got started with The Untamed. What was the impetus behind it?
Sebastian: I had been developing a fantasy world through playing table-top games and LARP with a great bunch of guys – first in the UK, but more so in Los Angeles (I ended up moving to L.A. when I was 18). I was running a record label, releasing jazz, blues and funky old soul like Maceo Parker, but the internet came along and my CD producing company was suddenly obsolete, so I turned my attention to my other great passions – comics and classic cinema. This was around the time my son was born.
I was rocking my newborn to sleep and dealing with a lot of inner demons and the following words came pouring out, “I am a bad man. I have seven days for seven souls…” and after ten minutes, I had a four-page synopsis about a man who needed to act out his guilty vengeance in order to find redemption. Essentially, I was cloaking some deep-rooted conflicts into a tale set in my fully baked fantasy world. Also, I was inspired by moviemakers Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa so the setting was to be a one-horse town. It would be gritty, savage and uncompromising, both in tone but also in story. I was always playing director as a dungeon master, so I really got my chance to show my vision when I started to work with Darrell May and Peter Bergting into releasing The Untamed as a comic book. Joshua Cozine had come from Top Cow comics and Stranger Comics was born.
You launched your first issue of The Untamed almost five years ago (spring 2010) and you were world building for nearly 20 years before that, correct? How have you seen the comics market changed in that time?
Sebastian: Yeah, going on 25 years of world building now… getting older. Yes and no. I think there is a separation of art versus industry that parallels other form of entertainment. Some of the mainstream titles are machines that pump out stuff for a deadline and a toy. I was very disheartened when I looked around one day and there was a rainbow of Hulks, and other landmark folks changing costumes and hairstyles for a cheap song. The flipside is: there are some brilliant creators that are releasing works of art. David Walker, Hannibal Tabu. I’m a huge fan of Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander’s masterpiece Concrete Park.
So I guess what I’m saying is that there are extremes in what is being put out and why. You can feel it when someone has poured their heart and soul into a piece of art or if it is for admiration or just to make the rent. Who am I to judge? But I can choose what to spend my dime on. Also, the biggest change is, we now have access to our consumers. They can tell me how pretentious my crap is and I can tell them they need a hug. Good times. Social media warriors are my friends. They tear me down and build me up.
Was it always your intention to publish The Untamed independently?
Sebastian: No, I was exhausted with the idea of running another company, and even far more independently than before, so originally I shopped it to a number of the top ten companies. Let’s just say, it was in the best interest of protecting the vision to create Stranger Comics. Here we are: blood, sweat, and tears, and the sacrifice of time for me, my team, and the loved ones. It was a huge risk on so many levels, but I think we are about to leave our stamp on the fantasy and comic landscape and see the fruits of our labor.
Why are you doing this Kickstarter campaign?
Sebastian: The book is finished and already available digitally. This is simply to print the book: 248 pages of Peter and Darrell’s brilliant art over my words, bonus extras, pin-ups, prose, interviews and original concepts. I wanted friends, family and fans to be the final part of this epic journey. It gives people an opportunity to really see us for who we are: some hardworking guys who have stuck it out and did their best. For those who want the book it allows them to pre-order the hardcover deluxe edition at a discount with a whole bunch of goodies and extras.
Who’s your favorite character in The Untamed?
Sebastian: Niobe Ayutami. She is the face of our world’s franchise. She is half-Elven, brown and beautiful. She is hope. She is redemption, flawed in her innocence against the rising tide that seeks to swallow us all. I’m lucky enough to be working with Amandla Stenberg (best known as Rue in The Hunger Games). Amandla and I are writing prose tales based on Niobe’s years after The Untamed and cover artist Hyoung Taek Nam (Last of Us) is illustrating. A real honor.
Did you make any attempts to publish a comic before The Untamed? If so, what was it about?
Sebastian: Yes, I worked with filmmakers The Polish Brothers. We published one issue of a comic book series titled Salvador for BOOM! Studios. Due to unfortunate circumstances it was held back indefinitely. It was a learning experience, and another reason I needed to start Stranger Comics. If I had let one of the other companies who held interest publish The Untamed, it would be a different book entirely.
You’ve been promoting The Untamed at conventions for a number of years. Do you find people are more accepting of indie comics these days?
Sebastian: I think people are far more accepting at the smaller conventions where they are looking for story driven content. The selection is thick with great narrative and dynamic art, and with everyone being an online critic the indie titles are more accessible, and at times not only accepted but appreciated. You know, I can never fault someone for parting with their hard earned cash from their staple diet of Spiderman and Batman. We, as independent creators, are always going to have to work that much harder and reach out that much further.
What are the pros and cons of indie publishing?
Sebastian: The pros: If it succeeds or fails it is on me (and my team). The cons: See above. Oh yeah, and the cost. That’s brutal – especially if you want the production to be at least as good as the top publishers. Fans expect that level of quality or they will spend the extra $5 on an app upgrade of Angry Birds.
How has been a black nerd/geek changed in the last 20 years?
Sebastian: A lot of it ties in with the aforementioned question. There has been very little in the way of hiring any creators of color, and therefore very few new hero of color creations at the “majors.” (Sidenote: I miss Night Thrasher). When I see a sudden “diverse” push among the big companies it feels forced, and it often coincides around the time of Black History Month, as if this isn’t a year-round issue. However, there is and always has been fantastic talent to draw from: Dani Dixon, Milton Davis, Christopher Priest, Sheldon Mitchell, Hannibal Tabu, Balogun Ojetade, Ashley Woods, Mschindo Kuumba, Robert Roach, Andre Owens, Afua Richardson, Jason Reeves, Kevin Grevioux, Damion Gonzales and John Jennings just to name a few. I could ramble on with this subject. Comics are expensive to make so when someone says, ‘we should just create new things ourselves,’ as much as I agree… it is not so easy. The profit in comics are minuscule, and there are not many willing to risk their family’s rent on a comic where internet warriors can slay from the jump because it didn’t have the quality of art they are used to seeing from Marvel. This is commercial programming, the opposite of the essence of the medium. Comics are a forum to be hip hop/punk rock before it becomes the modern day mainstream Super Bowl half-time show. You have to love the comic.
I do think the envelope is being pushed though because the demand is there. I don’t really care whether Johnny Storm or James Bond is black, but when everything is so clearly contrived it makes me shudder, much like when I turn on the radio and hear someone tell me the soul music I just listened to had any soul. I like Idris Elba as Luther; I just don’t need him as James Bond.
I have a comic book out online titled DUSU: Path of the Ancient. It is set in the same world as The Untamed (Niobe has ties to the book). The heroes are black. The villains are white. It is painted and hopefully resonates with good story and tradition. When I was kindly invited by John Jennings to the amazing show Black Comix Arts Festival, the feedback to our titles was overwhelming. Black folks seeing themselves as elves with dignity and power, it was humbling and exciting. Yet, online the enthusiasm is still met with skepticism, and a murmur of discontent and criticism often rumbles…and we have to get over that. Thankfully, to groups like Fire!, Comic Nerds of Color, and State of Black Science Fiction Society there are groups to discuss all of these topics and create some positive alliances.
What are you working on next?
Sebastian: Kids books with Garcelle Beauvais for our I Am Book Series, Erathune with Darrell and Sheldon Mitchell (The Darkness, Artifacts), The Untamed animated TV show over at Film Roman (The Simpsons)… and the aforementioned Niobe project with Amandla. We will also look to bind DUSU into a beautiful hardcover as well. Another shout out, at Stranger Comics, I’m publishing Hannibal Tabu’s prose WASO: Will to Power, which is set in Asunda and has released this month (March 3) on all digital formats. We have to build together.
There’s still time to support The Untamed Kickstarter campaign so support the production of this great product!