17. The Making of a Comic: 'ThoughtScape Comics' by Matt Mair Lowery
Sci-fi anthology creator talks shop and the future of crowdfunding
Howdy Brave Being,
Welcome back, dear readers to another edition of The Making of a Comic. This week we have writer and Kickstarter creator Matt Mair Lowery joining us to chat all things sci-fi and his latest news on ThoughtScape Comics, his science-fiction anthology comic book series. In the style of 2000 AD, Black Mirror, and the Twilight Zone, ThoughtScape Comics is an ambitious endeavor seeking funding on Kickstarter with recent success in the crowdfunding realm—ThoughtScape Comics #1 debuted on Kickstarter on March 29, 2021 and surpassed funding a month later. It’s also a comic that I proofread. Let’s hop to it!
Brittany Matter: Tell us a bit about ThoughtScape Comics.
Matt Mair Lowery: ThoughtScape Comics is a sci-fi anthology series with stories written by me and drawn by some of my favorite artists in (mostly) indie comics. The plan at this point is for each issue to feature installments of two different ongoing stories and two self-contained stories (or one longer self-contained story). All these stories take place in a very loosely shared world/universe, but continuity isn't really the point. The point is to make the best comics I can, with as few constraints on myself and the artists as possible. So, continuity only in a way that inspires, not limits.
BM: For the first issue with a cover by Jenna Cha, you wrote four stories, each fully realized by artists Dave Law, Tyrell Cannon, Lisa Naffziger, and Karl Slominski. Give us three-word descriptions of each of their stories, followed by one word describing what each of them brought to the story.
MML: Three words is a good challenge. Let's see...
ThoughtScape 2319: Deep space thriller. Dave brought: Beauty.
A Spy Without a Face: All-out action. Tyrell brought: Mayhem.
Adorable Orphans: Killer robot dolls. Lisa Brought: Tone.
Ex Post Facto: A Dash Varrick Misadventure: Mind-fucked Doctor Who.
Karl brought: Everything.
BM: What is a "ThoughtScape"?
MML: In the fictional world of TSC, The ThoughtScape is a fifth dimensional space where every thought that has ever been thought exists. In the real world, narratively, it's the wrapper and organizing principle for the entire series: each issue of TSC, and each story within it, is presented as the product of a division within LifeTech Corp (TSC's resident evil mega-corporation) that is tasked with mining the ThoughtScape dimension for stories and intellectual property.
The ThoughtScape is a fifth dimensional space where every thought that has ever been thought exists.
BM: For those that haven't had a chance to read ThoughtScape yet, there's a larger story being told between the comics through ads and archives from an in-world corporation, LifeTech. What can you tell us about this conglomerate and how you worked with the designer John Larsen who's helping bring it to life through these special snippets?
MML: Like most of the roots of ThoughtScape, LifeTech came about organically. It started out as a company within a single story, one of the very first short comics story I wrote a few years back. In this story LifeTech sort of ended up being this ever-present entity, looming the characters' lives, and ultimately, through their technology, changing their lives. That story has yet to be produced, but as I continued writing other stories and found that pretty much everything I was writing had this tech thread running through it, I continued to use LifeTech, or some LifeTech subsidiary (which means that I just picked a word and put "tech" after it - PatrioTech, TalkTech, etc.). As far as LifeTech in-world, it's modeled on the idea of Amazon and Google and the like, if they continued to move - terrifyingly - into absolutely every corner of our lives, and into realms like defense and policing and such. All of this with a nod and healthy dose of influence from Terminator's Cyberdyne Systems and Aliens' Weyland-Yutani Corporation, of course.
As far as working with John, he's one of my oldest friends, and his talent knows no bounds. Since the mid-90s we've worked together on everything from making and producing music to creating brand packages and websites for companies. As I was trying to figure out how to actually knit this first batch of stories together (and as LifeTech was emerging as an ever-present story element) I knew that while I could eventually arrive at a design myself that I would be okay with (I am a UX designer by day, so I spend all day in the design zone), I also knew that John would create something absolutely next level and beautiful that would blow whatever I could come up with away. So, I asked if he would be up for our usual split of duties when it comes to branding work, and he was. That means roughly that I present the concepts and he works his magic interpreting that information visually, picking fonts and colors, creating a bunch of assets: the logo, the bug, a bunch of cool masking templates, template page designs, and then I take those and do the layouts for the pages of the book.
John doesn't come from the comics world, he's a trained fine artist and graphic artist, so I think this lends the ThoughtScape and the LifeTech stuff (to your question), a different feeling than most of what you see in comics. There are some pretty obvious nods to Hickman and Tom Muller, too, those come from me loving what they did in House of X and Powers of X in particular, and giving that stuff to John as a reference point.
BM: What inspired this anthology series?
MML: As I mentioned earlier, it all kind of came about organically. As I was working on the second Lifeformed book for Dark Horse, I was trying to pitch stuff and just getting nowhere and getting frustrated. I felt like I needed to be making more comics in order to learn, to get better, and so I wrote up a couple short stories and saved up some money and hired some folks to work on those. After getting some art back from the likes of Tyrell and Lisa, I started to feel the benefit of working smaller (than full-length OGN) and became a bit addicted to the feeling of turning stories around quickly. These were those loosely LifeTech-connected first stories I mentioned earlier. Then, after hanging out with Dave after Rose City Comic Con in 2019 and realizing that I really wanted to work with him at some point, some ideas I'd been kicking around for a few years in those earlier pitches sort of morphed and coalesced into ThoughtScape 2319. I wrote the first 24 pages or so of that story over a weekend, specifically tailored to Dave, and as it came together, the story started to bring all these different threads and themes and companies together in a way that felt like it really worked...it was sort of the light bulb moment of "Oh, this is how I could put all these stories together, with 2319 as a tent pole, and it could present as a single package."
At this time I was also DEEP into discovering The Twilight Zone, which of course is a bunch of disparate stories loosely tied together, and 2000 AD, and I was also reading Dune and I loved the way he intro'd each chapter with some in-world bit of text artifact. So I just kind of threw all that into the mix, and kept taking notes on the world as they occurred to me and writing more stories within it. That is a long answer, so I guess the short answer is "frustration and necessity."
BM: The next iteration of the anthology series will be issues #2, #3 and #4, all seeking funding on Kickstarter in January 2022. What can readers expect to see in these forthcoming issues? Will we see some of the same characters introduced in issue #1?
For sure. ThoughtScape 2319 is the flagship story of the series, so we'll see its main character Odessa Query in every issue, and Dash Varrick is the other ongoing, so you'll get to continue to try and figure out what's going on with that madness along with me. Just kidding. I know what's going on there. Sort of. In addition to those stories continuing and the usual Matt mix of sci-fi and sadness, the standalone stories include one sort of romance/domestic tale, a satanic possession noir thriller, a culinary horror story, some pandemic-influenced horror...it should be a good, diverse set of stories, I think. With something for everyone that generally likes stuff with a sci-fi edge.
BM: I can’t wait to see Odessa again, the last issue left me hanging! Readers, be sure to click the button below to stay up to date with ThoughtScape.
Building Team ThoughtScape
BM: How did you go about finding your collaborators for this anthology series?
MML: It was kind of different for each person. Dave I met the first year I tabled at Rose City (2017), and I fell in love with his book The Space Odditorium (with writer Chris Calzia). Tyrell I think I cold-contacted after just following his work on Twitter and Instagram. I loved his classic style, and then I got to watch in real time as he unleashed this next-level approach to doing action the last couple years. Lisa I met through (Lifeformed co-creator) Cassie Anderson years back. Karl, similar to Tyrell, I just fell in love with the work he posted on the socials, and started writing a script for him, which thankfully he was interested in drawing.
BM: Who was the first person you worked with and what was the first piece of art that you received? How did it make you feel?
MML: For ThoughtScape, I ended up getting work back from Dave, Lisa and Tyrell sort of all in the same stretch. It made me feel great, actually, and that it was possible to truly get something new going. I'd only worked on Lifeformed for so long, which was wonderful, and Cassie is amazing, but it did make me sort of doubt if I myself knew how to do anything else, or at least how to get anything else done. Between Lifeformed and ThoughtScape I had a bit of a tough time locating and locking in with collaborators, or at least trying to find the right approach to doing so. When your first ever collaborator is someone as on-the-ball as Cassie is, it sets a pretty high bar. So, anyway, it was really great to find and have such a great, easy go of it working with Dave, Lisa and Tyrell all at the same time.
BM: How do you go about choosing a cover artist for each issue?
MML: As with the stories, I really want to have variety, a different feel for each cover. So that is the main criteria, does the artist have a distinctive/singular style, and/or will they come up with something with a great attitude.
BM: What have you found most surprising about working with all your collaborators in this series?
MML: I didn't have any idea just how fun it would be seeing a variety of artists bring stories that I wrote to life. Endlessly cool, endlessly fascinating seeing what decisions they make, what they include or leave out or emphasize, etc. And how working with each artist is such a different experience in terms of the best way to relay information in the script and so on.
BM: Who can we expect to see in the upcoming issues?
MML: In issues 2, 3 and 4, more Dave Law, Karl Slominski and Tyrell Cannon, plus Lane Lloyd, Jeremy Brooks with Marcus Cripps on colors, Jacob Edgar with Lesley Atlansky on colors, Luke Horsman, and Carly A-F.
The Future of Crowdfunding
BM: Why did you choose Kickstarter for ThoughtScape Comics?
MML: I was REALLY on the fence for a long time: just release it myself or Kickstart it. But when I looked at the numbers of the campaigns that were succeeding, not so much the money but the audience size, I think that's what put it over the top. I mean, getting a couple hundred guaranteed readers seemed wonderful, vs. the VERY SMALL number of sales that would come from just trying to sell off of my website (based on my experience with Lifeformed website-based sales). As I was putting TSC together and feeling like it was a pretty cool package, I felt my co-creators and I deserved as wide an audience as I could muster, and Kickstarter seemed like the most logical path to that.
BM: Your first ThoughtScape issue had over 400 backers and exceeded the goal amount. What would you attribute this success to?
MML: If there's a single thing, I don't know that I know what it was. I think tweeting a lot, so much so that I felt sick with myself (kind of kidding, kind of not) plus Kickstarter itself, just the platform is probably most responsible. I also saw the biggest surges from co-promotions with other campaigns, putting each other in our updates, etc. And of course being comics I think having amazing art had to have been a huge help.
BM: What is the best thing about crowdfunding that you didn't anticipate?
MML: I guess that 400 backers number, I did not anticipate it would be that many folks, so that was a nice surprise, which overall speaks to the nice sense of community. The backers, other folks running campaigns...it feels like a true way forward for actual indie comics. Coming from a somewhat dispirited place around 2019 personally, where I wasn't really sure how to succeed at finding community or any kind of audience, it's pretty nice.
BM: As a person who clearly thinks about the future of science and technology, how do you see Kickstarter fairing in the future? What would you like to see change about crowdfunding?
MML: I actually think crowdfunding is pretty okay. As I said, the community is pretty great. The money is better than I personally have experienced with indie publishers (not to say that there is real money yet, but you know, potentially). If I were to continue to successfully fund TSC for the next couple years, the potential to break even is actually there, vs. waiting 5-10 years for a check of any substance from an indie publisher. Again, everyone's money experience in comics seems to vary a bit, and it's not really about the money of course, but to actually be in full control of that side of things, to know the numbers, etc., is pretty compelling. I don't see any reason to NOT crowdfund an indie project at this time.
We definitely need a solution or two for keeping our comics a part of the larger conversation after the campaign, for getting folks to buy them after the fact, but the same is true for "published" indie comics. I would like to see coverage of Kickstarter comics increase in some way that suits the Kickstarter model. Like, where's the critical conversation around Kickstarter-funded indie comics? And by critical I do not mean rating or thumbs up or downing them, I mean more art critic nerd stuff. Maybe we don't even really have this in mainstream comics, with a few exceptions, and it's not a realistic expectation. Maybe we don't need one. But it would be great for there to be a more continuing conversation, I think, to create some sense of dialog between the books and make for a healthy/robust community in an art movement-y sort of way.
BM: What are your top three pieces of advice for first-time Kickstarter creators?
Create as many of your visual assets, and as much of your social post content, ahead of time as you can. Once the campaign starts you don't want that task sucking up time and mental energy. Any extra mental energy you have should be used to maintain your sanity.
Try to check in on the numbers less. Try to check in on social media less. Being realistic, you'll do it anyway, but try to just do it less than you want to. You already have to be posting relentlessly, you don't need to go refresh those tabs for no reason at all.
Co-promotion. Find folks with projects you dig and reach out to see if you can share an appearance in each other's backer updates or tweets.
Get the Scoop on Matt Mair Lowery
BM: Tell us a little bit about your background. Have you always been a writer?
MML: I think yes. When I was a kid I used to dictate my own fanfic-y A-Team scripts to my babysitter who would type them out on our old IBM typewriter. I made horribly-drawn comics as a kid, created comic universes and my own universe handbook a la the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, kept detailed notes on the storylines I had running for my G.I. Joe figures. In high school and beyond I did more songwriting, less fiction, but in college I did lots of creative writing, without much to actually say, though. Anyway, yes, I've always been writing something or another.
BM: Besides writing the stories in this anthology, you also lettered some of them. Tell us about lettering comics and how you got into it.
MML: Since I spend all day in design programs and designing pages and screens for a very long time it basically seemed at first like an easy way to save some money, and I felt like I had no excuse not to try it. Now I find I really groove on it. It's painful to a degree, because I am finding my way, and I am not fast, but I still enjoy it a lot and I like to learn new stuff, so it feeds that always wanting to be learning something side of things. And I am fascinated by it, by the decision making of someone like John Workman, whose lettering I love...it's endlessly interesting to wonder why he's taking a certain approach or how it works. Also, and not unimportant, lettering my own stuff means I can rewrite myself up to the last minute, which I LOVE. I can certainly let that go when I have someone else letter, but in the long run I could see doing this more for the control. And for the sake of not driving someone else crazy when I want to get in there and really fine tune.
BM: What is it that you love the most about science-fiction?
MML: I think I like the idea of people grappling with some big, weird situation on a human level. While the ThoughtScape conceit is pretty high concept I guess, I don't necessarily thrive on that part...I like the idea of an individual or a group within some big world or setup trying to get by or survive or understand their place, etc. The more human stories. People alone against a system. Sarah Connor, Ripley, Dale Cooper, the biologist in Annihilation (the book not the movie), the characters in Bradbury's Martian Chronicles...they exist in these big worlds but their stories are essentially very small and human. That's probably why all the LifeTech stuff in ThoughtScape is more background and less of the focus. I get pretty bored with straight-up world-building. It all has to be born out of the story itself.
BM: What sci-fi stories inspired you as a youth?
MML: The Martian Chronicles was huge. I was not a big book reader as a kid, I mostly only read comics, but that book floored me and still does. Terminator terrified me as a kid (I was 10 when I saw it). The idea of some guy just showing up at your door and shooting you because of your name...in the 80s it really seemed possible and scary. Anyway, it has since become pretty much my favorite movie/world (though when I say "world" I mean my personal trilogy of T1, T2 and the Sarah Connor Chronicles - everything else...meh). Star Wars, of course, was big, but it was big for everyone my age, as it was the first movie a lot of us probably ever saw and it was the 80s. A lot of Saturday syndicated TV like the Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon, the original Battlestar Galactica. Oh, and Road Warrior. Another one that unsettled me at the time but that now I adore.
BM: As a father of teenagers and a cat, how would you say this role has contributed to your growth as a writer?
MML: Well, I wouldn't have written Lifeformed if not for my kids, so that was big. Working through parenting and my kids themselves informed that story big time and were the inspiration behind it. It finally gave me some kind of purpose as a writer, and a desire to create and actually finish something in and put it out into the world in some form. I don't know that the cat has had a lot of influence on me yet, but I'm sure eventually it will find its way in somewhere.
BM: I’m hoping to see your cat! Thanks for chatting today, Matt, and dear readers, don’t forget to follow ThoughtScape at the button below! Matt’s a numbers guy and he’d love to hit 200 followers before November 1st, so hop on the ThoughtScape bandwagon and be a follower! You know you want to…