The Wheel Turns – Writing, Worldbuilding, And Editing With Sebastian Girner

by Noah Sharma

This past year marked Sebastian Girner’s first journey into writing comics. A longtime editor with a focus on creator-owned work, Girner made his writing debut co-writing Shirtless Bear Fighter and launching Scales & Scoundrels in late 2017. For the next year, Scales distinguished itself as one of my personal favorite sleeper hits and demolished the often cynical expectations of what an all-ages comic could be. Sadly the series came to an end this September and I knew that if I wanted to talk to Girner about this series, New York Comic Con was my opportunity.
Mr. Girner was exceptionally generous with his time and we covered topics as broad as worldbuilding, publishing strategies, and whether fans can hope to see more of the gorgeous adventures of Lu the Scoundrel. He also shared insights into the comics industry and his role as the editor of some of a truly astonishing number of Image Comics’ biggest hits. So whether you’re a tried and true Scoundrel, have never heard of Girner’s work, or are just a fan of books like Southern Bastards or Low, read on!

Interior art from Scales & Scoundrels #1 by Galaad

Noah Sharma: Scales & Scoundrels is a book that doesn’t quite feel like any thing else out there today. What were some of your inspirations for the series?

Sebastian Girner: When Galaad, the series artist, and I started talking about doing a book together I had seen his style and his art super spoke to me. It was something that I kind of felt like I was missing, even in my own creative life as an editor working with some amazing artists. But there’s something really- I don’t want to say childlike – but something that really moved me, almost like this rush of nostalgia overcame me and I thought that this is actually something that’s missing, in general, in comics. And we wanted to find a great story to kind of be a showcase for him as a new artist. And he gave me a couple of ideas of what he liked to draw and fantasy was a big one. It’s his favorite genre and I’m a huge fantasy fan and then we talked about what kind of fantasy. There’s a lot of fantasy going on right now, there’s a lot of realistic, grim and gritty, all that stuff. And he was like, “I don’t really wanna do that.” And then we talked about our reading fantasy growing up, and I think we both kind of ended on the point where we both prefer The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings.

And when that clicked, we were like, “Oh, yeah, no, that makes sense.” Like we’re on the same wavelength because, as lovely as Lord of the Rings is, it’s a little self-serious. It’s wonderful world-building, and an amazing story, and I love it to death, but The Hobbit is just this really fun adventure, first and foremost. It’s just about a guy who goes on an adventure with a bunch of dwarves, and there’s a wizard. It was before Tolkien had to spend the rest of his life building Middle Earth, so, in a way, when you think about it, Lord of the Rings is actually the gritty reboot of The Hobbit.

But, out of that, we established a tone. First and foremost we wanted the fun and the adventure and the mystery to stand on its own, and then layer a really deep and hopefully gripping story about real things, about loss and life and drama and sacrifice and all that stuff. But the first thing we point at is ‘this is really fun’. You’re just gonna have a good time reading this.

Interior art from Scales & Scoundrels #6 by Galaad

NS: So you already hit my next point, which is that Galaad is a first time comic artist, despite how incredible the series looks. What was it like working with someone who has this very distinct style but has not worked in comics?

SG: I’ve been working in comics as an editor, like I said, for a number of years and obviously you see a ton of art. And you’re always kind of looking for new artists. And becoming an artist, especially a professional comic book artist, is a really long path. It takes a long time, it takes a lot of training, it takes a lot of repetition and schooling, so it’s very rare that you just find an artist who just out of the blue… It’s like a unicorn, literally.

NS: Right.

SG: And Galaad reached out to me. He’s an animator and storyboard artist by trade, which is, I think, very evident when you see his [work]- especially his palette, but also his sense of storytelling, of how he does action, how he does emotion. He’s a fully-formed artist.

We were working on a style a little bit at the start, just to kind of get him to adhere to certain comic book norms. Like let’s do thumbnails and then pencils and then inks and then add color later. And once he got that he immediately caught on. But it is a rare thing. Like I don’t know if in my lifetime, hopefully my long career as a comic book writer, I’ll ever have another opportunity to just find an artist that no one knows about, but is such a revelation. People see it and their eyes are just like, “Oh man, this is like a comic book!”

Interior art from Scales & Scoundrels #1 by Galaad

NS: Yeah, the sense of motion in Scales & Scoundrels is really incredible, which, of course, kind of makes for this one-two punch ’cause the color and the joy in it immediately sucks you in.

The other thing about Scales & Scoundrels, that we kind of touched on, is just  that it’s an all-ages series. I think all-ages is kind of a buzzword in the industry, but I think, more than a very large number of them, Scales & Scoundrels really does hit that balance. I feel like I could absolutely give this to a young relative or someone who just wants to get a first comic, but I didn’t feel for a moment like it was simplistic or not addressing… actually some really heavy, heavy stuff.

SG: Yeah, I know!

Well, thank you for saying that, first of all.

NS: Oh, of course.

SG: Because it’s something that I didn’t know- I knew Galaad could do it. Setting out to do an all-ages fantasy adventure, I bit off a lot more than I thought I could chew. But it’s nice to notice now, it really has ended up becoming something where I’m really excited when readers come up to me, obviously, and they genuinely are of all ages. I’ve had older, younger, kids, but I really like it when parents come up to me who are comic book readers with children, who are like, “Oh, I can read this with my kid” or “My kid is learning to read with this.”

And again, I’m not someone who thought ‘how am I gonna write this for children?’ I was just like, I’m just gonna write it and leave the gratuity off-panel. Like there is stuff that happens in it that, if I put the camera right on it, it might be not all-ages anymore, but just by being creative – and that’s what’s so great to work with an animator who knows how to just stage scenes when we get scary or darker or there’s a little action or there’s loss or grief – there’s a way to stage that where it’s not exploitative, where it’s not violent and that really helps you circumnavigate a lot of that… just unpleasantness that is in a lot of comics. And once I started doing that, it was very refreshing to start thinking of stories like that ’cause then I didn’t feel hemmed in anymore. It was like, ‘no, we can make the book exactly what we want. We can have these characters go through all the trials and all the ordeals that we want them to in order to make them strong characters’.

That was our goal. We started talking about all-ages and I kind of explained that that has a connotation in America. He’s French and I’m German, so we kind of grew up in a different comic book culture. A little bit. But we call it all-readers, because we genuinely feel like, hopefully, really if you can read, there’ll be something in this book that, hopefully, strikes your fancy.

NS: So, I went back, I looked at it all again, and really, particularly in the second trade stories, it seems like a lot of the stories are about what is and what used to be and how the characters are navigating that. And it occurs to me that that’s something that is kind of inherently tied up in fantasy.

SG: Yeah!

NS: It’s [a genre that is ]very much stuck in what was and so I was curious if you had any thoughts in writing the series about how what is reflects what was and how the characters react to history.

SG: Yeah, that’s well-observed ‘cause one of our core themes was to do a fantasy book, but- we wanted to use a lot of the tropes of fantasy – established races and a little bit of that D&D flavor – but to do something new and unique with it. Or, at the very least, do something that we hadn’t really seen done in a fantasy world of this kind, which is talk about how even in a world where you have elves and goblins and dwarves and some of these races are really long-aged or hundreds of years old and you have these immortal-seeming dragons, things still change, nations still rise and fall, cultures will be different. And that we kind of started our story in an era that is between. There’s this cataclysmic shift has kind of already happened, but, at the end of the day, people still need to bake their bread and feed their children and sweep the rooms, like just some little bit of mundanity in there that actually gives a lot of the more magical, fantastic stuff more weight. I wanted it to make it feel like this is a world that’s lived in.

If you go to the Pyramids, for example, they’re five thousand years old. That is, to me, like a fantasy moment. Five thousand years ago people raised these monuments out of the ground. And then, when I think about it in those terms, that’s the kind of fantasy I wanted to create.

But also power structures change. Children start straying from the paths that their parents might want them to be on. And those are kind of themes that I’m both interested in and that are universal. So all of our main characters that we meet in the first arc are in some way on a journey that they have kind of been put on by forces outside of their control, be it their parents or their species or their ancestors or their duty or their honor or what have you. And all of them are kind of learning how to walk their own path and that they might not be on the road that they want to be, for whatever reason, and struggle with that. So that was something that we wanted to establish from issue #1 and have it carry through every single issue we do.

Two very different partings from Scales & Scoundrels #6, art by Galaad

NS: Yeah, I love that you guys picked, “the wheel turns” as your [blessing] because it has this cool kind of double meaning of things change, but also come back around-

SG: Yeah, exactly.

NS: Things don’t change necessarily unless you make them.

SG: Yeah, yeah. Things go through their motions, go through the seasons. And that can be a person’s life, a year, that could be the destiny of a nation, or the fate of an entire species or planet. And I think that there’s a kindness to that thought. There’s the sun will always rise and set, but there’s also, going to the darker side, there’s a grim fatalism there that, I think, we didn’t really get a chance to pick at.

Interior art from Scales & Scoundrels #11 by Galaad

But if you read about Dorma – she’s the Dwarven character – she is afraid of the dark. It was more than just a funny kind of thing- of course it’s funny, there’s a dwarf that’s afraid of the dark – but we really wanted to dive into some deeper lore with that, about the crushing finality of that wheel as well and how you can stem yourself against those kind of thoughts. When things get dark, that can be really crushing. You have to lift yourself out of that. So there’s a lot of that in issues #11 and #12, which were kind of the last issues of our first year and are now the, for at least the foreseeable future, gonna be the last issues of Scales & Scoundrels.

But we really wanted to talk a little bit more about that. Again, that’s what I’m saying is that, if you read those issues as a kid, it’s just a fun adventure about a dwarf who’s lost in a cave and finds the way out with her friends. But then as an adult human reading that, I’m hoping that you’ll scratch the surface on something a little bit deeper.

NS: So, as you said, Scales & Scoundrels is over for the moment. But these characters are extremely well-defined and beloved and I’m sure people would love to see more. And, in fact, there’s quite a number of things, not least of all some of Dorma’s fear of the dark and who exactly our lawman in the beginning was and came from. There’s a lot of questions that I hope we’ll see. Is there anything that fans can do to help see more of the series?

Cover to Scales & Scoundrels volume 2: Treasurehearts by Galaad

SG: So, as of this recording at New York Comic Con 2018, I’ve been here for four days and I’ve moved a lot of trades. I’m not saying that to boast, but, honestly, I’m really heartened by the reception right now in trade form. I kind of had an inkling when we started out that monthly comics in the direct market may not have been the ideal format, without going into further detail. And it’s no one’s fault. No one is at fault. It’s just the way the market works. Certain books do a certain way. But we set out to really do a monthly comic. We published twelve issues in twelve months and we have two trades out right now. And these trades are finding their way into libraries, they’re finding their way into YA sections and fantasy sections. And I think that that’s where the audience lives. And, like I said, parents are starting to kind of get around, like, ‘oh no, this is something that my kids can read, that I can read.’ I’m hearing from retailers that they have a really easy time suggesting this to parents who come to comic stores and are kind of looking for something that they can share with their children. So if people are hearing this and are interested in checking it out, getting the trades would be an immense help, of course. They can always, y’know, hit us up on social- We have a Twitter for the characters.

But what I was saying is that I have a feeling that we might be able to pursue the book in trade form. Issue #12 may have been the last, but issue #13 is actually completed, colored and lettered. Uh, we made a choice not to release that in any format because it was really going to be the first issue of the second year of the book. And in it we open [an] absolute whirlwind of threads, of plots, of lore, of diving into the whole wheel myth. Like it was gonna be big and it ends on a cliffhanger. I think fans of the series will know I do enjoy my cliffhangers. And, uh, that one was gonna end on a doozy. So rather than put that out and then not have any conceivable hope that readers may find out what happens next, we decided that with issue #12 you get some closure that has a nice roundness to it. It was always going to be the ending of the first year.

So right now the thing we’re looking at is that hopefully we’ll be able to finish issues #14 and #15, both of which are written and done and just need to find a way to get Galaad to do them. And hopefully have a trade paperback out, maybe in early 2019. I think that that’s something that I can’t promise at this point and I want to be careful about getting anyone’s hopes up, but speaking for myself and Galaad and Jeff Powell, our letterer and designer, like, we’re not done with Scales by a longshot.

NS: Awesome.

So you’ve finished up Scales just recently and you had another book at Image called Shirtless Bear-Fighter.

SG: That’s right.

NS: That was done…a few months ago, right?

SG: Shirtless wrapped last year. We put that out in the summer of 2017 and the trade came out in January.

NS: Okay, that’s right. So with both of those projects done – they were your first comic writing work – do you have hopes and/or plans to do more [writing] in the future?

SG: Yeah, absolutely. Right now, just the week before New York Comic Con, I got the last page in for a new pitch with Galaad actually. We’re looking to work together again. So, I have not pitched that to anyone yet, but I have really high hopes that it’ll get picked up somewhere. And then I’m working on one more pitch, also with an artist I’ve worked with before on a series I’ve edited. But we’re doing something, trying something a little bit new with one of my favorite genres or in general just kind of like samurai horror.

NS: Cool!

SG: So I don’t want to promise too much there, but hopefully those are two pitches that I can clean up and get out and hopefully those might be books that people can read in 2019.

NS: So for most of your career and all the time you’re not a writer, you are an editor.

SG: That’s right.

NS: Who’s worked on obviously a huge number of books. Right now you have, what, Southern Bastards, Black Science

Low #3 cover by Greg Tocchini

SG: Southern Bastards, Dead– Well, I can go from the top. It’s Rick Remender’s books, which are right now still Black Science; Deadly Class; Low, which is finally returning; Seven to Eternity; Death or Glory, all of which are currently ongoing. There’s a bit of a hiatus with Rick’s books because he’s been so busy filming the Deadly Class TV show, which is coming out on SyFy, premiering January 16th. And Southern Bastards and The Goddamned, both books written by Jason Aaron with Jason Latour and R.M. Guéra[, respectively] And those are the current-

NS: Is VS done?

SG: VS is done.

NS: Okay.

SG: That’s been collected and…it’s done for now. I’m assuming. There might be [more], the way most comics are written these days you do five and then you might do five more.

Those are all the books that I’m editing right now that I can speak about. But there’s more stuff coming along.

NS: So what you’re saying is you could do more…

[*Note: At this point Mr. Girner had to step away for a moment.]

SG: You’ll have to jog my memory a bit.

NS: That okay. I think I was just joking that you have quite an impressive workload as an editor right now.

Southern Bastards #13, cover by Jason Latour

SG: Oh, yeah, I could do more! I, as most freelancers, have a very difficult time saying no to work, but the last couple of months – especially with the ending of Scales, once we were aware that the book would have to end in it’s monthly form – I kind of pulled back a little bit. Obviously because it’s a little bit of a blow. I’ve been an editor for ten years and I’ve worked on books before that have had to end before the creative team ideally had wanted them to end. And it’s always something that you kind of have to deal with. As a writer of your own book, of course, it feels a little different. But I’m feeling really energized. I’m really excited. So, yeah, as the end of 2018, 2019 looms I’m gonna be looking for a little bit more work, hopefully. And I would love for that to be writing work. So, that’s why I’m puttin’ in the time now.

NS: Is there anything, particularly as an editor, that informs what projects you choose to take on or is it like a little- as you say, it’s hard to say no to work, but-

SG: Yeah you have to be pretty mercenary about it, but, I do- I mean, I’m also very fortunate, obviously, that I get to… not pick my projects, but people come to me with projects and then I can gauge a little bit whether it’s something. But usually, for the most part, I do want everything I work on, even as an editor, to be something I feel passionate about or have an idea. Like it’s not just something that I’m just doing to tick boxes ideally. I mean if the rent’s due…. But right now I’m very fortunate in that I genuinely love all the books that I work on. I think all the books I’ve edited in the last couple of years there’s always something, even if they’re weird or they’re not necessarily up my alley, like you talk with the creators and you try to understand why it is that they want to tell that story. Why it is that these characters speak to them, they want to speak through them. And that’s my job as an editor is to kind of get that spark. And then help fan the flames. That’s something I never get tired of. And, even though I’m obviously trying to do more writing ’cause I love it a lot, I don’t think editing is ever gonna be something that I want to give up completely.

Interior art from Scales & Scoundrels #1 by Galaad

NS: So you’ve been working with Image for a good while now. And Image is kind of special in that it is really completely creator-owned comics. And you are a freelance editor.

The industry is kind of been built, in the past, on the assumption that the editor is someone that works for the publisher. How is being a freelance editor different and what advantages and disadvantages have you found?

Main cover to Black Science #35 by Matteo Scalera

SG: The founders of Image were famously creators who left, who made their bones at Marvel and DC and then left. At this point it’s almost become like self-founding legend, but, a reason that they quoted at the time and still do was that they were kind of done with editorial interference into their work. And that is ingrained in the DNA of Image to this day. When I started working as an editor, freelance – I was an editor at Marvel, and then I left after about four years there – right around that time is when the Image…kind of resurgence of creator owned comics started. And both Rick Remender and Jason Aaron and a few others that I had worked with during my time at Marvel had a good rapport, reached out to me and were like ‘that thing you did at Marvel, we kind of need that or would like that at Image’ because, aside from just that they apparently enjoyed working with me creatively, there’s also a lot of just production stuff that editors do that creators who work for Marvel and DC and write superhero comics…It’s a service you kind of get used to. Like formatting and proofing and just having a second set of eyes on things, and invoicing and file format and all the stuff that an editor does that, as a writer especially, you don’t necessarily spend that much time thinking about.

I think it’s becoming more common now as creator-owned comics are becoming more of a thing that is now within the reach of so many more creators, as opposed to just [the] top five or six. I’m really happy to see that freelance editors are also becoming more prevalent. I know a lot of friends of mine, ex-editors, have started doing some freelance editing. And I’m seeing like young editors, up-and-comers, like, yknow, who are starting now as freelance editors as opposed to doing what old granddaddy did, which is go to Marvel first and learn how to do it.

As to how it’s different, obviously at Marvel and DC the editor is an employee of the publisher. Meaning that they are beholden to certain corporate interests, of course. But also what you shouldn’t forget is that the editor is the spokesperson for the talent to the publisher. Meaning the editor is pretty often on the front lines between the artistic desire and the editor rides the line between creating something that- the tug of war between art and commerce, which is what comics are always, have always been. Comics were not made to be artful, they were made to sell kids comics because that’s what kids were into.

The creators of comics, we made it art because it is; it’s nothing but art. But, to this day, a good editor will always fight for his talent – or their talent obviously – making sure that creators can tell their stories in the way that they want, make it the most exciting thing they can. And that’s what I still do as a freelance editor. It’s just that the… almost the power structure is just different. At the end of the day, all I can do as a freelance editor on a creator-owned comic is try to put the writer and the creators in a position where they know what they’re doing. To try to clarify their own creative choices back at them. Of being like, ‘alright, this is what you’re trying to do.’ I have to try to understand what they’re trying to do and then make sure that that’s how it gets on paper.

And of course there’s gonna be instances where we might disagree on things. I think that’s always a good sign actually. You talk it out, you do what you can with the time you have, the ever-shrinking resource. And then that’s pretty much it. It’s a really fun and endlessly creative profession. But, at the end of the day, I’m also hired to just keep the trains running. And get deadlines in because a lot of creatives work better when they have deadlines.

NS: Now that you have had this experience of being both a comic writer and a comic editor, has that given you perspective on those positions that have been helpful or that you think other creators could benefit from…?

SG: Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, I don’t know if I could have been a writer of comics if I hadn’t been an editor first, just in my own case, where for the longest period of my life I never felt like I had anything to add. I never had anything. I couldn’t create anything worthwhile. Clinical depression runs through the creative community like water through the ocean. But in general, just working with creatives and working with writers of all different stripes over the course of ten years really filled me with, first of all a confidence, because I enjoyed working with these people and they enjoyed working with me. As you do that over a certain period of years you just start feeling better about things.

I do think that even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool writer of comics or writer of any medium, working as an editor on something could teach you a lot. Primarily because the editor still has a vested interest in the creative purity and the artistic integrity of a piece. They’re just not in a position to directly affect it all the time. It’s all about working with people. It’s all about communication. It’s all about obviously, yes, schedules and timing, all that stuff. But project management is a really important skill. I think not just in comic books or any creative field but for life, as a person in the modern world. So, I think that, in the same way that any writer should try to draw a comic once, I actually think everyone who’s interested in comics should try to edit a comic, try to work with a creative team, a writer, artists, colorists, letterers, designers, and try to fulfill the vision of that creative team as the editor. I think that that’s a really, really good skill to have.

NS: Well, thank you so much.

SG: Thanks so much.

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