By Collin Kelley
Late last year, writer/musician James Willard and illustrator Patrick Beavers began releasing a digital version of their graphic novel, Penny Palabras. Published in six installments, the novel follows the 17-year-old eponymous character on her quest to banish The Straw Man, a malevolent entity drawn to Penny because of her connection to the paranormal.
As of this writing, there was only one chapter left to be published in Penny’s first adventure. The previous installments have received acclaim and glowing reviews on Amazon. A Kickstarter campaign to create a print version of Penny Palabras was realized in a matter of weeks by devoted fans.
The success of the graphic novel is a testament to Willard and Beavers’ online marketing and building a mystery around themselves as well. Willard, who is also known as the one-man electronic band brokenkites, and Beavers don’t sit for traditional photos, as evidenced in this feature. Even the way Willard and Beavers met is right out of the handbook for social media collaboration.
For this interview, I thought I might wrangle a face to face with Willard, a Decatur resident, but instead it was conducted through Facebook and a series of emails. Welcome to modern journalism.
How did you come up with the storyline for Penny Palabras? Did you always envision it as a graphic novel?
The original drafts were independent “chapters” without a defined end point, but once I’d written several chapters and the story started to grow in my mind, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to see happen with the story line and how I wanted it to unfold. I was interested in expressing what it feels like to be a person in Penny’s position – what’s going on in her head – as much as I am in telling a dark, spooky story.
After most of the story was planned out and the early version was complete, I thought it would be great to see it as a web series – a collection of short episodes that could be assembled as a movie in the end. I don’t have the connections or budget to put together a project that big – so I was really lucky to find Patrick Beavers. Patrick brought the story to life and instantly tapped into the imagery I envisioned for it.
There are some excellent graphic novels and comics out today. I really got hooked by the storyline in Y: The Last Man when I read it several years ago. It was more than just anecdotes and artwork, though the artwork’s great – it was the heart of the story. I’m currently reading Revival, a rural noir, and Saga, a sci-fi love story (kind of). I’ve also been keeping up with Deadpool, because the current writers are hilarious.
How did you meet Patrick? What was your collaboration process like?
I searched on Reddit for artists looking for work and found that there are a lot of talented people out there, but Patrick’s style clicked the most with me. His portfolio and digital illustrations had a unique and memorable style that I wanted for the novel. After some conversations about Penny Palabras and some initial sketches, he started working on the project. I rewrote the story in comic script format, describing scenes and panels, and Patrick would advise me about things that worked and didn’t work as we went along, bringing his experience and education into the equation. His first pages were amazing! It wasn’t long before we were on the same wavelength about how everything should look and the overall style of the novel. Patrick’s been exceptional to work with and has really done a great job on the project over the past year.
Penny has received some fantastic reviews online as a digital comic. What made you decide to do a print version? Can you speak a little about how eBooks and digital are changing the consumption of comics and graphic novels?
The reviews have been really encouraging, but the number one complaint that I’ve received about the work is that it’s hard for some people to deal with the steps involved in getting a digital copy to work on their device – that they’d prefer a physical copy in their hands. There are proprietary formats to overcome, and distribution through different outlets has been problematic and frustrating. The book doesn’t convert well into some formats because it’s composed entirely of image files instead of text – this also leads to large file sizes and delayed downloads on mobile networks. We decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to see if there was enough interest in the print version, and it’s done really well. The print version will be funded.
I don’t think digital format is ruining comic books – if anything, it’s making it easier to have access to new books that you might have overlooked if they were limited only to print. Sure, there are some titles that maybe shouldn’t be published. There’s a lot of noise to filter through in all digital media, not just in comics. I like that I can have a mobile library of digital titles that doesn’t take up much physical space. Minimalism is great. And there are some cool things happening with digital format – some of Marvel’s digitally exclusive titles make use of the technology to show event sequences and cool effects based on the way that you read them on your tablet.
Will there be another Penny series? Where might the story go?
I’ve got a much longer story planned out for Penny and a pretty solid idea of what I’d like to do in the second story arc, but it really depends on the response that the first arc gets in the future. Penny makes some decisions in the first arc that she’s not going to get away from long-term, and while she finds the best ways that she can to solve her immediate problems, there’s a lot of room for her to grow as a character. I don’t want to spoil too much for anyone who hasn’t read the story, but it’s safe to say that if the story goes on, Penny’s in for some more surprises – and has some surprises of her own for the readers. One of my favorite things in the development of the story so far has been reading people’s reactions online to the story reveals in Episode 5. That was a big one, and I love to see that kind of thing play out – where people go back and read previous issues to see that there have been hints present all along.
Find out more about James Willard’s brokenkites project and win a copy of the latest CD, Birds With Blackest Hearts, at this link.