Taking Control: David F. Walker On Starting Solid Comix & His Current Projects

by Gary Catig

Comic Con Revolution is a fun show held right outside of Los Angeles. Though more a regional based con, they do attract some popular comic creators. This year, Comicon.com spoke with comic writer, David F. Walker discussing his background research into his titles, his approach for writing, and his projects. Learn a little bit about the Eisner nominated, Bitter Root, the breakout DC hit, Naomi, his new publishing company, Solid Comix, and more.

Gary Catig: What brings you out here to Comic Con Revolution?

David F. Walker: It was interesting. I got a random email from somebody involved with the show. Said would you be interested in coming? I needed to come to L.A. for business anyway. I looked to see who the guest list was. I saw that Ray-Anthony [Height] was one of the guests, DJ [Kirkbride] was one of the guests, and that Santa [Inoue] was going to be here. All creators that I either know or really wanted to get to talk to. Yeah, sign me up so I’m here. So far, it’s been a good show. Ontario, it’s a happening place. What can I say?

GC: You have been pretty busy recently. You have a few books out now, including a biography on Frederick Douglass. What attracted you to this influential historical figure that you wanted to tell his story?

DFW: It’s kind of interesting. I’ve been wanting to do a non-fiction book for a long time. I had about five or six subjects. I wanted to do biographical non-fiction and had five or six people I really wanted to do books on. Then I got approached by Ten Speed [Press], the publisher of the Frederick Douglass book. It was just a random email. They said, “Hey, we’d love to work with you. We’re thinking about doing a book on the life of Frederick Douglass”. Well Frederick Douglass wasn’t on that initial list, but I realized that here was an opportunity to branch out into something I wanted to do with someone whose life I found fascinating anyway. I just dove in and it turned out to be really good because it taught me a lot of the skills that I’m using now for a couple of other non-fiction books that are coming out over the course of the next two to three years.

GC: You have done a lot of historical research for Douglass. You have another period piece in Bitter Root, that takes place in the 1920’s during the Harlem Renaissance. When studying the history for these books, what was the most interesting thing you discovered in your research?

DFW: Oh, there was so much stuff. With Frederick Douglass, almost everything in his life was fascinating and it’s difficult to nail down what the most interesting thing was. The details of his first escape attempt were incredible. His actual escape from slavery was equally incredible. His relationship with Abraham Lincoln was painted one way by a lot of historians, but is far more complex when you get into it. It was really like every step of the way, everything about Frederick Douglass, even the stuff I knew, there was more to it. The whole thing was incredible.

With Bitter Root, it’s again, it’s one of those things where everything is a new revelation. You think you know a little bit about the Harlem Renaissance, but then you dig deeper. As we are world building, Chuck and I, especially as writers, Chuck Brown, my co-writer, we needed to think about what happened to this family before 1924, where the story starts. Even within the context of the story, we knew there were specific things tied to actual events here in U.S. history like the Red Summer of 1919 or the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Just digging deep into some of that stuff and finding out more information about it was fascinating.

Then it was also about studying the history of the transatlantic slave trade. The history of the Haitian Revolution. All these things, which are part of the world we’ve built even though they haven’t appeared in the story yet, some of that is coming up very soon. Some of it may never be in it because sometimes you uncover something that is really cool and you’re like “Wow, that’s great. I want to use that”, but the reader never gets to see it.  You’re limited by the number of pages you have but the information is still there. I think that sort of information enriches our lives because it lets us know who we are and where we came from.

GC: Speaking of Bitter Root, congratulations to you and the current creative team on the Eisner nomination. I feel it’s more than a comic because you have a curated section at the end of each issue providing more background on relevant things. Also, I don’t know if it was purposeful, you always have plenty of variants for each issue with art from cool artists, especially creators of color. How was it decided to incorporate all these other elements to make a better experience?

DFW: Well a lot of it, it feels like the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing sometimes. Sanford [Greene] lined up all the artists for the variant covers. Everybody did an amazing job and I love the covers. I had no say in that and half the time, I didn’t know who was doing a cover until I saw the cover. That just speaks about the communication we have as a team.

In terms of the back matter, I knew very early on that I wanted to have some crucial back matter. Something that was really relevant and reverent. I knew John Jennings was going to be the guy and so we reached out to him. John’s a good friend of mine and I talked about what I wanted to see. Chuck threw in his two cents; Sanford threw in his two cents. John, being a genius, talked about what he wanted to bring to it and all that began to take shape and come together.

GC: Just like in Bitter Root, you’ve co-written several series. With Chuck Brown. Superb with Dr. Sheena Howard. Naomi with Brian Michael Bendis. How is your approach to writing different when co-writing as opposed to by yourself? Do you find yourself adjusting how you work based off of your other collaborator?

DFW: When you’re co-writing, you’re doing a dance. Some are a little bit easier; some are a bit more difficult. With Superb, working with Sheena was an interesting experience. That was her first comic project. Whereas, Brian Bendis, I’m just happy to be working with someone who is a really good friend of mine but I’m also working with one of the best writers in the industry. I’m using it as an opportunity to learn. You approach each one different. In a way, you’re in a relationship. It’s not to say it’s a romantic relationship, but every relationship has different dynamics and different personalities.

Part of what I like working with Brian is it gives me an opportunity to become a better writer. It is almost like me being mentored by someone who is not also a good friend, but someone who has a lot more experience than I do. Whereas working on your own, you still might bounce your ideas off of somebody. Maybe you’re bouncing your ideas off of your artist, but it’s you and you alone at the end of the day who’s the writer. The thing is when you’re co-writing, you have to learn how to get your ego out of the equation even more so than when you do in comics. In comics, you’re co-writing no matter what. Your artist is your co-author. They’re translating the vast majority of what you’ve written into a visual language and a lot of times, they’ll get more credit than what you’ve written. Their visual translation will get more credit. That’s fine.

When you’re writing comics, nobody necessarily knows who wrote what. It’s interesting because I’ve talked to Chuck about this at times where an idea will change a little bit. Maybe he changes my idea or I change his idea and I tell him; nobody is going to know who wrote what. The same thing happens with Brian and I. The reader doesn’t know who wrote what. Maybe there’s a particular scene or a particular panel. I can look at Naomi and point out certain pages and say, “Yup, that’s 100% me. Nope, that’s 100% Brian”. The vast majority of every issue is a combination of the two of us. To me, the only thing that matters, is does the reader like what they’re reading. If the reader is enjoying it, if the reader is having a good time, then we have succeeded. If I’m getting caught up in, “Oh man, they laughed at Brian’s joke more than they did at my joke”. Life is too short to worry about that sort of stuff.

GC: With Naomi, it’s a very successful comic getting multiple printings with each issue. It’s not a typical superhero story. It’s more grounded and even though it’s an origin story, it’s kind of revealed in a way like it’s a mystery. How surprised were you with the success of it? It was labeled as a mini-series. Do we get to see more Naomi in the future?

DFW: Yes, I was incredibly surprised at the success. I’m happy. I never doubted that we were making a good book. In this volatile market, you don’t know what is going to be a hit or what is going to be a miss. Brian, Jamal [Campbell] and I, all three of us went in giving it a 110% but honestly, we didn’t foresee this coming and it’s a great thing. I couldn’t be happier. Yes, there will be more Naomi. I know she’s going to show up in some other books in the near future. We knew early on that there was going to be at the very minimum, a second story arc or second season, whatever they’re calling it these days. That is going to happen, it’s just a question of the timing. Based on the success that we’re seeing right now, we’re more likely to see it sooner rather than later.

GC: Cool. Finally, earlier this year, you announced you’re starting your own publishing company, Solid Comix. I guess you wanted a more grass roots engagement with people. Can you tell us more about it and about the titles you have announced? You’ve already successfully funded One Fall but you also have Black Santa’s Revenge and The Hated coming up.

DFW: It was really simple. I come from a self-publishing background so part of me has always wanted to go back to that. The way the comic industry is set up, sometimes it just makes more sense to do it yourself. Sometimes it makes more sense to do it with a publisher. I was in a situation in 2017, I knew how much work I had lined up for 2018 and it wasn’t much. I also knew what was coming out in 2019. I knew the last part of 2018 and early 2019 were going to be incredibly good for me in terms of work coming out. I didn’t know how it would be received but I knew that Bitter Root was coming. I knew that Naomi was coming. I knew The Life of Frederick Douglass was coming.

Everything leading up to that in 2018, I didn’t have much work. I was in danger of getting into this position, which can happen very quickly in comics, where you’re out of sight, out of mind. I knew 2018, I knew I got to take my life into my own hands. Take my destiny into my own hands. I needed to start creating work. If I’m not getting work through Marvel. If I’m not getting work through DC. If I’m not getting work through a company like Lion Forge or Boom or Dynamite or Dark Horse or any of them that will allow me to continue to have work out there.

There are always companies like Image, which is a great company to work with, but sometimes it doesn’t make sense to do a book through image. They have overheads and costs and all sorts of things that are much higher, that if you don’t meet that threshold, the book is a failure for them and therefore a failure to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it on your own. To give you an example, I can do a book like One Fall, and if I put it out through Image, and we only move 1,000 units, that book isn’t doing very well. It’s not making money for Image, which means it’s not making money for me. Everybody’s sort of in the hole and we’re operating in the red. If I want to sell the books at a convention, I gotta buy them from Image. That’s the way it works. Same thing if it were at Dark Horse or any other publisher. If I can find a way to put that book out myself, I still might only move 1,000 or 2,000 units, but that’s actually really successful. I should say it’s ok, but I’m doing better than a publisher would be doing.

I looked at it and thought, let me try this. The addition part to that conversation is there are some publishers who want to put your stuff out, but they want to control part of the intellectual property rights. They want to hold onto those rights or have the rights to shop them to studios whether it’s for film or television. Essentially, they want to make more money off of your labor than you make and it didn’t make any sense to me to do that. I should say, it didn’t make any sense for me to do that with certain projects.

That’s why I decided to start Solid Comix, which is just about me doing projects that I feel really passionately about. One Fall, The Hated, Black Santa’s Revenge. We already know that Black Santa’s Revenge might not be happening as soon as we thought. There’s an artist here at this show who I have to go talk to. I think we’re going to do a project together. It’s all about putting out quality comics that I’m either writing or co-writing with the artist and taking a little bit more control over my career.

You see all these panels, “Breaking into comics”. Once in a while you’ll see a panel on “Staying in Comics”. Right? People don’t understand how difficult it is to stay in comics if your goal is to keep working at Marvel, or keep working at DC, or keep working at Boom, or keep working at Dynamite. That is so difficult, but it isn’t that difficult to put out your own stuff. Yeah you got to find an artist and yeah, you got to raise the money. That’s what you gotta do. It’s not easy but you gotta do it.

We want to thank David for speaking with us. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram and his website.

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