Bart Thompson: The Icing on the Cake
Posted: Wednesday, April 20, 2005
By: Darren Schroeder
The founder and main writer of Approbation Comics contacted me a while ago to let me know they had some books hitting the shelves. The range of material on their website grabbed my eye so we started chatting about the wild ride that is publishing your own comics. You might remember him from appearances such as his regular contributions to SBC's own The Panel. When I asked him for a self portrait he replied I've never drawn myself... I'd much rather focus on more interesting subjects!. I'm sure that after reading our interview you will agree with me that he was selling himself short....
Darren Schroeder: What is your full name?
My name is Bart Alexander Thompson, which probably explains why I'm such a headstrong and determined S.O.B. Bart is Hebrew translating to something like 'Warrior's Son' and Alexander is Greek for 'Leader of men.' Thompson is one of the (13 if I remember correctly) surnames of the Pilgrims that landed on Plymouth Rock... no relation there, I'm sure.
BAT: 27... I'm a Virgo/Libra cusp. Cusp people rule.
DS: Where did the inspiration for Approbation comics come from?
BAT: Being a kid with an overactive imagination and moving around a lot. I've always made friends easily, but with so much moving I didn't get to keep those friends for long so I learned to make my own in a way. I've been a writer and artist all my life and creating stories was something I could always count on to keep me occupied.
DS: Why did you decide to call the comics company Approbation?
BAT: It sounded cool and started with an "A". Hehehe. That was the main reason, but it means "approval", and in a way that is one of the big things that I want. I want people to read the books and really enjoy them.
DS: What does the term small press mean to you?
BAT: A book created by companies/studios/people not under the "Big Two" is the first definition that comes to mind. It depends what you're talking about exactly. In some situations Image or Dark Horse could be considered "small press," and in other situations not.
DS: Where do you live?
BAT: I've lived in Louisville, KY for about a decade and holds the record for being the city I've lived the longest. To this day I still can't say the city's name like the natives (they say something like "Looo-vahll" and I still say "Louis-ville").
DS: Is there much of a local comic scene there?
BAT: It's pretty small, but it's growing somewhat. Robert Kirkman still lives in Lexington, but I think Tony Moore has moved to a more popular city/state. Greg Land is from the area also, but he moved when he joined Crossgen.
DS: Approbation Comics seems to have a strong Goth/Vampire theme, what's so appealing to you about those sorts of stories?
BAT: Not everything Approbation related, just the Vampires Unlimited books. The ChiSai series is an action book and Chaos Campus is a lighthearted comedy series. If I ever go back to the Alpha universe you'll see how I see superheroes, but in the past 5 years my vision has become commonplace, so doing the Alpha stuff may not be needed. We'll see.
But in my books there are always two common themes: Strong women and monsters. Both subjects have always been appealing to me since as long as I can remember. I blame hormones for my basic interest in females, but I've been around a lot of strong women in my life and the problems they face and rise above are really awe inspiring. Monsters come from just liking the dark side of humanity and morbid type things, but on the other hand I like approaching things that are misunderstood. Sometimes something can be scary on the surface, but if you look you can discover layers underneath you never thought possible. That whole "you can't judge a book by its cover" adage. So separate or combined I have tons of material to visit within strong women and monsters.
DS: Describe each of the books you are working on at the moment & what gap in the market are these books aimed at?
BAT: ChiSai fills the need for serious/intelligent action and fighting in comics. There isn't really any Bourne Identity type comics, so that's what I'm shooting for. Also there wasn't a strong Black single mother in comics before, so this angle is a first.
Chaos Campus is simply a parody book on horror and pop culture in general. Sort of a smart mixture of Scream, Scary Movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawn of the Dead, and VH1's Best Week Ever all rolled in one. Sure everybody and their momma seems to be coming out with a zombie book lately, but this one will really surprise people.
Lethal Enforcer/Instinct is an action/police drama book with a supernatural edge. We need a werewolf cop in comics!
Vampires Unlimited is an urban horror series. Probably the darkest and grittiest of all my properties, but also the one you'd probably find the most food for thought within. Some people may only see the violence or the harsh language on the surface, but VU is a social commentary. Many times it deals with extreme people and situations and some things can't be sugar coated for public consumption- some things you have to take raw. I never expected VU to really become a mainstream hit like the other books- it's sort of an elitist book like the DC Vertigo stuff. Those who take the time to read it will get it.
Phantasy Warriors is an action/sci-fi Manga influenced series. The most cosmic and futuristic of the books. Mix Dragon Ball Z with Ghost in the Shell and Star Wars and you'll kinda get an idea of what Phantasy Warriors will be.
DS: So you write most of the Approbation titles?
BAT: Yah, the core titles all stem from me- Vampires Unlimited, ChiSai, and Chaos Campus (Metamutoids too once I'm able to get back to it). Once we get a bit larger we'll be able to have other titles from other creators... we'll have to wait and see what the future holds.
DS: With the women in the images you sent, it seems that strength is equated with long legs and big breasts. Are you worried about the criticism this sort of depiction of women can bring?
BAT: Not worried about the criticism... if someone wants to criticize, they can find faults within whatever subject in question no matter what the situation or case. My female characters are very diverse in style, build, race, and temperament so for someone looking for variety and quality, they will notice that fact. Doll from Vampires Unlimited happens to have large breasts, but nothing unusually large. What separates her from other women in comics is her alternative style and nature. She has aspirations to be a singer and actress, but from circumstances and events she ended up owning her own nightclub. What you will learn from the Last Resort and Lazarus Factor stories is how she took control of her life at an early age and escaped from physical, mental, and sexual abuse to become the woman she becomes.
Shy from ChiSai is pretty much the opposite from the "standard" comic female I could imagine. One thing I constantly have to fight with the artists about who draw her is that Shy has small breasts- around a 34B bust line. They're used to drawing large breasts out of habit and I send the art back with a solid no and to change it. Not all women have ample bosoms, and Shy is one of those women. She doesn't apologize for it or want to be different- they suit her fine and she is just as beautiful. Plus larger breasts would get in the way of her acrobatics and agility as she is a character always on the move. She is a Black woman which is pretty rare in comics and that she is a Black woman who has "natural hair". What I mean by natural hair is that she doesn't perm her hair to straighten it- she has naturally curly hair during her downtime and she has her hair in simple braids when it's time for action. Shy's adventures and mentality is very aggressive and straightforward, which is usually the "man's role" in comics. Not to mention her body is covered in tattoos which is an expression of her personality, not to mention that tattoos are rare on comics of either gender unless some cheap gimmick (like it's where they get their powers or signifies them using powers).
The Chaos Campus trio is the only place you can get me with going with clichès, but those were done on purpose. Chaos Campus is a parody of pop culture and in horror movies you have the "lead", the "loner/survivalist", and the "ditz/comic relief", so on the surface that's what you have with Paige, Jamie, and Brittany. As the series progresses you'll find out that there is more to them than their looks and their roles in the story... but all in all, the whole thing is tongue in cheek humor. It won't be for everyone and actually from its conception I figured it would cause controversy from more "conservative" types. Sometime you just have to sit back, poke fun, and laugh at things, you know?
DS: How long have your been writing stories?
BAT: All my life in general, but writing as a serious career choice I'd say about a decade. I started a novel around 1994 that led into what became the Vampires Unlimited series (that novel I've now split into two mini series called The Last Resort and The Lazarus Factor which will probably be published sometime next year). I stopped halfway through that when I realized I wanted to do comics as my serious career choice and Vampires Unlimited: Shades of Things to Come #1 was the first comic script I ever wrote (you can probably tell that pretty easily, too...).
DS: What sort of process do you have when working with artists; do you give them a complete script or work through the ideas with them?
BAT: Starting off when I approach an artist I already have everything together- the completed full scripts, character sketches, clothing/costume designs, reference photos, etc. I live by the idea that it's better to have too much to work from than not enough. I really try to immerse my artist in as much information as possible from the start so they can really understand what I had envisioned in my brain and the effects I'm trying to achieve. There are some things I leave to interpretation, but a lot of times I'm very particular with my details. It sounds worse here than it really is... most of my artists complement me often about how well thought out everything is and how I give them enough to work with. Being a fellow artist I also know how it is being on the other side of the script, so I write with visuals in mind and many artists appreciate that.
DS: Have you published any of your own artwork?
BAT: Back in the mid-90's when I first started Approbation Comics I published my own artwork all the time. I did "mini comics"- you know the ones. All self publishers started with the "mini comics"... you'd draw your stuff and take the finished pages to Kinkos and make comics out of folded 8.5" x 11" paper. I got really good at the art of folding and stapling those little buggers, too. Heh. But yeah, I did two Vampires Unlimited mini comics first, and then I did a series of nine or ten New York Creatures (the name of the heroes of the Metamutoids... I changed the series' name about a few years ago) mini comics. My art really improved leaps and bounds during those issues. I stopped drawing when I realized it took far too much out of me to do finished work and even that wasn't to my standards of what would go well in the industry. I did my soul searching, realized my main love was writing, and from there I focused on writing.
I mostly did my own stuff, but I did a few pin ups here and there (for established or other characters). If you can find a copy of Nira X: Cyber Angel #2 by Entity Comics you can see an example of my artwork back then. It isn't that bad, but it's not knock your socks off great either. I may or may not have a pin up for Discount Stories printed within Myriad... we'll see how things go.
DS: If you can draw, why work with other artists?
BAT: In this business you have to not only really love your craft of choice but you also have to be exceptionally good at it. The key is that I "can draw". But do I love drawing that I'm willing to pour my heart and soul into one page for 9 to 12 hours a day? No. Do I have a 10th of the talent, say, Jim Lee, Greg Horn, Terry Moore, or Daniel Schaffer have? Not a chance. I love writing. I love every aspect of taking an idea, molding it, developing it, and bringing it to fruition. Drawing has always just been another tool in my arsenal to help move my stories along. I enjoy drawing in small bursts, but not enough to do it full time.
So in short I work with artists because I'm more of a writer than an artist. I can draw, but I don't have the love, desire, or talent to do full finished work. Plus I like working with my artists! In the end it works out pretty well. If I need to explain something visually, being able to draw is a nice tool to call upon, but that's pretty much it.
DS: Are the artists co-creating the characters with you?
BAT: Nah, I'm too picky for that. By the time the artist is introduced to my projects I have tons of scripts ready, the characters fully developed, costume/clothing design prepared, heights, builds, weights... and a lot of times I even do those front, back, side character template things for each character.
DS: We need a punchline: "How many small press comic creators does it take to change a lightbulb?"
BAT: I'd say two- one to write/direct and one to conceive/draw it!
DS: What are key aspects for you in a successful story?
BAT: I try to find a balance between entertaining the reader and giving them a bit of food for thought. I'm a thinker... I really like analyzing things, figuring out how things work, or discovering why people do the things they do or feel the way they do in different situations. I really try to use that to my advantage in my storytelling and we'll see later on this year how well I've done my job.
DS: What novel/comic/film has had the biggest effect on your own creative work?
BAT: One of the biggest things that sticks out in my mind is James Cameron's 1986 Aliens. My favorite movie of all time. I get the same childlike wonder each and every time I watch it and in the back of my mind, though I don't always realize it, I'm comparing everything I ever write to that movie. Aliens had it all- great pacing, fluid storytelling, amazing characterization, snappy dialogue, powerful emotion, dramatic environments, so on and on. The total package.
DS: What did you think of the later sequels?
BAT: Meh. Not so excited about those. Alien 3 was a major letdown, but now that I have the director's cut it isn't as bad as the theatrical version. It still pales in comparison to Alien and Aliens, but it's a decent enough movie. Alien Resurrection is like a Marvel What If.. type deal. It's a fun movie but in my mind in no way does it come from the same "real" timeline/world/storyline as the Alien and Aliens movies. Alien vs. Predator (Alien 5/Predator 3) was also a disappointment. It could have been so much better. Nice ideas all the way through it just needed to be fleshed out more, longer, and gorier. Hollywood's little love affair with making everything PG-13 lately is really pissing me off. Some things actually need a solid R rating.
DS: How do you react to claims that violence in fiction is a bad thing, hence should be censored?
BAT: It aggravates me. Hollywood is doing that currently with the horror movies, and this is how we're getting crap like Cursed (which was a studio choice... it was so bad Wes Craven wanted his name removed). Remember Hellraiser? Remember Alien and Aliens? Violence in fiction is like everything else- an outlet and an interpretation. War is a reality- currently we have a war on crime and a war or terror. Do you think they are like the old GI Joe cartoon shooting cute little beams of light and no one gets hurt? You can't pull the wool over people's eyes and try to make everything "safe" and muted. Ignorance is NOT bliss. Take the Catholic school girl clichè... do you think they'd be as interested in sex if it wasn't so taboo and hidden from them? Facing facts, sex and violence are a part of life. In some degrees either can be good and in other degrees they are bad. It is all about interpretation and it's all about personal opinion. But it is there. If you would like to choose not to know about it, it's your right to avoid it. But don't step on someone else's rights to have the option to see it and find out more.
Facing facts, stories are about having obstacles and overcoming them. Not every story can be about super villains with plots to take over the world, capturing the hero, telling them their plans, and the hero stopping the villain with no one getting hurt. Sometimes you have to put your hero through some serious crap for the victory to be that much sweeter and satisfying, and sometimes to tell those stories you will need some sex or violence.
DS: Do you handle the production side of the comics?
BAT: Some of it. What I don't handle mostly is the pre-press that sends the comic to the printer- that part is handled by the talented Chris Tsuda- artist, web site upkeeper, pre-press dude, and an invaluable "all around Joe". So yeah, I do a lot, but I owe that man my first born child! *grins*
DS: What sort of print runs are you doing for your comics?
BAT: We're still waiting on the pre-orders for Myriad #1, but the Approbation print average is pretty much three thousand copies per issue. That's not a lot when you compare to the big guys, but we get by. Hopefully after Myriad our readership will increase and we can do a lot more and reach more people. Only time will tell.
DS: What sort of market research, if any, did you do before publishing your comics?
BAT: Hahaha! Tons and tons. I still do market research. I've always devoured all and any new industry information I come across. It's pretty much second nature. I couldn't tell you were the market research ends and my personal need for information begins.
DS: So what is your take on the state of the comics market at the moment?
BAT: It's rough... if you're not Marvel or DC (or an employee of Marvel or DC), doing comics will be a constant uphill struggle. Doing comics or any entertainment type career is not for the faint of heart. Lots of long hours and hard work needs to be put in, and your family, friends, and significant others may or may not be as supportive of your endeavors as you'd like. It takes a TON of money to do this from conception to promotion to distribution to physical product (not in that order, but you get the idea). You have your real life bills and your career bills, and both of them constantly build up and weigh on your mind while you also need to use brainpower to create.
Back to the market itself, comics are slowly dying. We get a boost here and there from the comic based movies, but the public at large still think we're for kids, we're lower than other forms of entertainment, or they still don't know we exist. The new creators are people who have only read comics and are just recycling material that they've read giving us inferior product and only hurting us more. Our regular readers are getting older, but there are no new readers to take over the mantle when we're all old and gone. Tobacco companies call the next generation "replacement smokers". We keep preaching new concepts to the already converted- we need to go out there and recruit new people into our medium and industry. It seems like I harp on Marvel and DC a lot, and I love them, but they are the big guys. They hold the keys to the kingdom and they have the pockets with money. Only they can go out and actually donate huge amounts of comics to children's' hospitals all over the country. THAT would be the best place to grab new readers right there! A child sitting with a broken arm or leg with nothing else to do, that is the time to catch their attention! They need to start donating to school and public libraries across the country, too.
So yeah, the market is at a scary place... but there is so much potential. What we do within the next five or ten years can either jumpstart a comic industry utopia or a comic industry demise.
DS: What sort of feedback do you get from the readers?
BAT:*laughs* Until Myriad hits the shelves mostly the feedback I have been getting has been Vampires Unlimited related. They loved the series and want more. Hopefully later this year, loyal readers. For now, check out Myriad- I really think you'll like that, too.
Chaos Campus... woah... people love the concept. I really hope to really blow people away with it. I'm surprised at how much the humor just kept pouring out of me for that series and I think the readers will be pretty surprised at how good the series will be.
DS: Describe the Approbation Comics Office? Are we talking someone's living room, studio space, inner city office?
BAT: In the past 10 years the Approbation Office has been each and every one of those. The best incarnation was when a spare bedroom was the office, but currently the main core of Approbation is half of the master bedroom. Pretty much everything is done by computer be it e-mails, scans, reference, typing, research, etc.
DS: Are you having to finance the publishing all yourself?
BAT: At the moment, yes... if the titles would be picked up by Image, Dark Horse, Alias or someone, that'd be great. Anywhere where I could have my books published, but I'd retain all my rights it'd be great. But until then, I'll continue "paying my dues" and pushing my way up the comic book food chain, but still doing it on my terms and telling the stories I have always wanted to tell. That is worth still living in an apartment, driving a not so new car, and eating Ramen noodles... *laughs*
DS: How supportive have people been in regards to your publishing endeavor?
BAT: Pretty good so far! We've had a very good local and online buzz and hopefully word of mouth will carry us further and further!
DS: What makes telling stories rewarding for you?
BAT: Good question... I don't have an answer for that one. It's something I have always done and something that always kept me occupied... something I have always enjoyed. I love the process of coming up with ideas, using logic to go through different outcomes, and just bringing the story to fruition. Having people read them and give feedback is the icing on the cake and only makes me want to create more.
My thanks to Bart for taking the time to chat with me.
Art and artists:
ChiSai: Duality cover- Daniel "Dogwitch" Schaffer
Angel Doll- Jesus Garcia
ChiSai (blood background)- Matt "Vampirella" Haley
Doll (CGI)- Ulf Lundgren
Chaos Campus (cover)- Christian Duce (series artist)
Chaos Campus (page 1)- Christian Duce (series artist)
If you want to see more of the Approbation catalogue check out the website:
PO Box 70244
Louisville, KY 40270-0244
If you have a comment or question about Small Press then feel free to contact me