Above the Grave (Graphic Novel) + Exclusive Blog Q&A with the artists/authors Mitchell Hall and Andrew de Zilva

Rick Mastertine is having a bad first day on the job. He’s getting grief from his “customers”, staff and boss. His place of employment? He’s the new chief warden of Mako, the world’s super villain prison, located deep in the Namibian desert and converted from an old diamond mine.

Can Rick uncover the true secret of Mako, while preventing an ingenious jailbreak by the likes of the shape-shifting Mister Twister, luck manipulating Russian Roulette, sentient tree Davine and brilliant crocodile-man hybrid Crocitis?

Image from: Above the Grave

Blog Q&A Exclusive with artists/authors – Mitchell Hall and Andrew de Zilva…

When did you both decide to co-write your comic book “Above the Grave” and how did you come to this decision?

M: I mentioned it to Andrew and at that stage had it as an issued comic mini-series. Andrew liked the idea of the story and expanded out the story and wrote it out in a Screenplay format.

A: This would have started about ten years ago. Mitchell has oodles of story ideas but there was something about this concept that really grabbed me, plus I thought the characters were fun and distinctive. It goes deeper than that though, as Mitchell established some themes that resonated with me. For example, at the time I was a supervisor and on one level Rick, as the warden, is a middle manager so I could identify with his issues working at Mako! The tone was also right up my alley, it’s really a big, brash action-comedy. I stayed true to those aspects while expanding the story with among other things Rick’s redemption arc and I introduced a few more characters to drive the expanded plot.

How do you structure the content, for example, does one write while the other illustrates and do you go through several drafts of writing and illustrations before you get to your finished product?

A: With the story, there was a baton passing from Mitchell to myself. Once I took the baton, I ensured I kept Mitchell’s authorial voice throughout the many subsequent drafts. Only once I thought the story was nailed down did I begin drawing because I knew it would be a lot of effort to redraw pages. However, I ended up redrawing about 40% of the panels anyway because this was the first comic I ever drew and I learned many lessons about comic storytelling as I went along! This, by the way, was only possible because I drew it digitally.

It looks like a lot of work went into “Above the Grave” was this a long journey just to put content together for publication?

M: Oh it was a LONG Journey. From concept to writing and Andrew learning on the job and drawing it at the same time took many years.

A: To be honest, at first I was too scared to want to draw it myself. I had always liked drawing but to bring this story to fruition, I was only too aware it meant I would have to draw many things I had never drawn before and the volume of drawings needed was going to be huge, something in the order of 500 panels. But thanks to Mitchell’s encouragement (and prodding), I took the plunge. It was really intimidating sitting with that first blank page in front of me on the drawing table knowing I had 136 pages to do. In fact, I might have even said to myself I’ll just do the first 20 then we’ll get someone else to do the rest. But you know what they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

After I finished drawing there was still the lettering to do! Not a glamorous part of creating comics, I can tell you.

Now that’s it’s done, we couldn’t be prouder.

What was the inspiration for the characters you use and the storyline in “Above the Grave”?

M: Inspiration came from seeing a prison line up of Villains in a Spiderman cartoon and hearing a radio news broadcast many years ago about the South African Government considering building an underground prison.

A: I’ve always liked reading the news and I know Mitchell is an avid book reader. Mitchell came up with some really bold concepts for characters and I filled in their back stories from things that floated around in my head. The references to Russia and North Korea for example. But they’re from years ago, it’s just that those countries have stayed topical. It’s true afterall that the more things change the more things stay the same. As for the character designs, that was nothing but hard work, lots of google picture searches and constant iteration. Especially Da Vine, I swear I will never draw another plant/human hybrid for the rest of my life!

What else do you have in the pipeline that us comic geeks can keep an eye out for? Is this a series by any chance?
M: While we have ideas for upcoming projects the focus right now is just letting people know about Above The Grave from conventions to getting the book into stores.

A: I’m going to work on some fan art of other popular properties to try to attract attention at cons. It’s hard trying to sell an original story.

Some illustrators really don’t enjoy drawing – especially as scenes can get repetitive, did you really enjoy writing/illustrating this comic book?

A: This is what I would say to people who are thinking of drawing a comic: If you do 100-odd pages you will find out just how much you really like drawing! Seriously, drawing a comic is nothing like drawing a pin-up or even other kinds of picture books. It’s fun but it is certainly repetitive and there are times when it feels like a horrible grind. The only thing that keeps you going is that promise of the finished product and getting your story out there. The other process I adhered to that made it easier for me to reach the finish line is that I made sure to keep up momentum and do all the pages, even if the art was terrible to begin with. Then I went back and improved them A LOT. Working that way, I knew I could have quit at any time and still had at least something in hand. As it turned out, I never quit because I saw constant improvement in myself that drove me to cut no corners and do every page to a high standard. I see no reason to be modest about this lol.

If you stumbled into writer’s block (or illustrator’s block) how did you overcome it?

M: For myself and very luckily never had an issue with writer’s block. Just going forward and focus on the next part of the story without getting too far ahead.

A: Luckily that was not an issue with this project. It was a miracle how it came together. Sometimes your brain’s neurons just work!

For those who are thinking to branch out into publishing comic books, what would your best piece of advice be?

M: It’s a hard journey, break things into small areas that you have to complete. I know for myself that it would of been such a harder journey if it didn’t find such a great collaborative partner. If i don’t cross paths with Andrew. Above the Grave doesn’t happen. PERIOD.

A: I would definitely advise any aspiring creators not to do 136 pages! The most important thing is to FINISH. If you just finish you will be ahead of 99.9% of other people. We all know about the proverbial screenplay sitting in a drawer. So choose a manageable story!

Getting to know you….

When you’re not writing/illustrating, what would you be doing?
M: Plotting ideas, playing guitar, game and watching television.

A: I was illustrating in most of my spare time for the duration of this project so I listened to a lot of podcasts. When I had forced breaks because I needed to recharge my drawing tablet I spent the time reading stories about all kinds of things online. Because the internet is random! You never know what will give you an idea later on down the line.

Who are your role models when it comes to your writing/illustrating journey?
M: Paul Hogan, John Cornell, Matthew Reilly and Kevin Smith.

A: Jim Lee for drawing. His longevity in the comics industry is astounding as well.

What are your favourite comic books? (graphic novels or manga included in this question)
M: Watchmen, Superman: Red Son, Guardian Devil (Daredevil)

A: For me it all began with Asterix and Tintin. (I actually homage the artist of Asterix, Albert Uderzo, with a character named after him in ATG.) Then in high school I loved the X-Men. Y: The Last Man opened my eyes to what’s possible in the medium as it’s not a humour or superhero story. I like Red Son as well.

Besides comic books, what is your favourite genre to read?
M: Music Biographies, True Crime, Horror, Self Help.

A: I don’t read many books these day but I like to read long-form journalism and sites like io9 for nerds. I used to read action adventure novels like James Bond and Jurassic Park. But I read more fact than fiction overall.

Where is your ultimate holiday destination?
M: San Diego during Comic con.

A: Disney World when the Star Wars hotel is completed in 2021!

If you had the power to adapt “Above the Grave” to a TV show, Stage Show or Movie, which would you choose and why?
M: …. Let’s go the movie! Let’s go HUGE! Lol

A: …. $200 million major motion picture! Actually, ATG began as a comic, then it was written as a screenplay for a reason that I forget, then it became a comic again. That’s why it’s 136 pages, it’s very cinematic for a comic.

Special thanks to Mitchell and Andrew for taking the time for our Blog Q&A and for also attending as our special guests for the Read3r’z Re-Vu Comics Day Exclusive… It’s so exciting to meet friends with hidden talents and amazing achievements!!! Hope to see more from you both in the future!!!

-Q&A and content compiled by Annie

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