I first met Donathin Frye online through the #ComicBookHour community. I found him to be nice, personable, and full of solid, realistic advice about pursuing a career in webcomics. Don is one of the co-founders of StART Faire Magazine, an online zine helping promote artists and their comics. I had the personal honor of being selected among an assortment of writers, artists, and critics to take part in the zine’s annual Excellence in Webcomics award ceremony.
Don is also the writer of I, Necromancer, a fantasy webcomic with elements of family drama, gothic and cosmic horror, and morality so gray that it can only be rivaled by American politics. I sat down with Frye, and over the course of several hours he gave brilliant insight to his background, the creation of I, Necromancer, and how he time manages his busy schedule.
Q: First off, let’s learn about you. Tell us a little about yourself.
A: I go by Don. There are a lot of Dons in my family, to the point where it’s actually pretty weird. Let’s see … I was a smart kid, I suppose Very academically minded. But I was lucky enough to have a dad who was really into fun things like comic books and D&D and fantasy and science fiction. And I was equally lucky that his mom, my grandmother, loved the theater and introduced me to great plays at a really young age. So by the time I hit adulthood, I had pretty much rebelled against traditional academia, and had devoted my studies and schooling entirely to theater: acting, writing, directing. And then after college, I toured the country and worked as a traveling actor for about ten years. But over the past couple of years, I’ve taken some time away from performing on stage to pursue my other storytelling passions in writing for comics and games. It’s been a rollercoaster of failures and success, but I’d say that I’m right about where most freelancing creatives are: trying to figure out what it all means, trying to reach a bigger audience, and trying to survive doing just what we love.
Q: Always great to have a creative background like that! Well, what happened with the switch to comics and games, especially comics?
A: Game design is something that I’ve done as a hobby since I was a kid. A few of the projects that I’d created after college had generated some buzz, and that led to me getting offered my first commercial gig: designing a sci-fi RPG system for a client. It was something that I was able to do while still working for my theater company at the time, so I put the money aside. When the project was over, I finally had a bank to invest in hiring an artist to work with me on a webcomic, which had been something I’d along wanted to do, but had always lacked the finances. So we created an issue’s worth of a webcomic. Like most new creators in comics, my first attempts were rough around the edges. I did a lot of reading, a lot of learning, a lot of being really honest with myself about what was working and what wasn’t. Getting involved with the online community of independent comic creators has helped make that learning curve a lot gentler, and thankfully I’m still getting better with each outing.
Q: Can you think of any major works that inspired you? Writers? Artists?
A: It’s definitely changed over the years. I grew up buying Marvel and DC floppies at the grocery store with my lunch money. I got to experience first-hand the market (and, maybe, creative) fall from grace that those publishers had. So while I grew up loving the X-Men, Spider-Man and Moon Knight (and plenty of others), a string of bad storylines eventually moved me to start reading creator-owned and indie comics. From my childhood, though, the giant Age of Apocalypse alternate universe storyline is probably my favorite. To this day, the runs and writers that I still go back to read again and again include Kurt Busiek for his amazing run on Dark Horse’s Conan, Jonathan Hickman for East of West (and now, The Black Monday Murders), Warren Ellis for pretty much everything ever, and Jeff Lemire for pretty much everything else ever. I could go on forever about the authors that I love. Outside of comics, the list goes on forever too. If I had to pick a singular writer that I feel always resonates with me … I’d say Damon Lindelof, who is best known for writing for television and movies. He’s currently working on HBO’s adaptation of The Watchmen, which has me very excited.
Q: Your current project is I, Necromancer. I immediately became a fan of it due to the gothic, cosmic horror overtones. Those aren’t elements you see in many fantasy comics right now. Tell me about the history of the project. How did it come to be?
A: I grew up reading a lot of classic genre fiction: Tolkien, Lovecraft, Stephen King, George RR Martin, Alfred Bester, Robert E. Howard. Howard’s dark and adventurous world of Conan the Cimmerian was always my favorite: I even love the Arnold Schwarzenegger films. But the best adaptation of Conan is Dark Horse’s comic run back in the early 2000s, particularly the first half a dozen volumes or so. The incredible art, the unabashedly vivid prose, the ugly honesty of its characters — it’s my favorite series in comic form to this day. I wanted to write something like that, but also inspired by gothic horror, another favorite genre. The idea with I, NECROMANCER always to start with tropes, easily recognizable characters and moments, and then work hard to slowly subvert the reader’s expectations. I wanted to balance a narrative that gave equal consideration to its villain as it did its so-called heroes. But I, NECROMANCER came to be when I became friends with the artist of the first two chapters of the comic. Lukasz loves the same inspirations that I do, and he was willing to work at an extremely reasonable rate — which was good, because that’s exactly what I could afford. We’ve since moved to new artists, and Lukasz has moved on to being an awesome Dad, but he’s entirely the reason why the series was possible.
Q: That’s amazing you give so much credit to Lukasz. In fact, before we go into anything else about the story, tell me about Lukasz and MHarz’s contributions to the book. What do you think these two distinct artists brought to visuals of the series?
A: Lukasz has a very distinct style. He’s from Poland, where he is an architect. As an illustrator, Lukasz leans heavily towards horror and grimdark fantasy, and his specific approach is sketchy, abstract. He’s less concerned about proportion and more concerned about evoking emotion. That allowed us to create some unique and very unsettling pages in the early run of the series, and bringing on my friend Derik Diaz in issue #2 helped a lot when Lukasz’s schedule became less manageable with a newborn on the way. Schedules changed, though, and we relaunched with a new team with issue #3. Our current illustrator, Mharz, is a fantastic artist, but is very much inspired by anime, without a background in horror. What I love about the current team is that Mharz brings really polished linework, but is not bound at all by what a lot of fantasy comic artists would consider the “right way” to draw fantasy. So though the art is less abstract, it’s still very unique. And Chris Snowdon, our colorist, is doing phenomenal work to give it a sort of 80s dark fantasy cartoon aesthetic. Mharz and Snowdon are both a joy to work with, and incredibly talented. They do an awful lot to elevate the story. I think a lot of comics look the same, and I’m proud that we’re creating something just a little different, a little experimental.
Q: Let’s go back to the premise. You talk about I, Necromancer as a way to subvert tropes. Varion Knightwood seems like quite the subversion. Usually, warlocks like him in high fantasy don’t have much motivation beyond pure villainy. However, he seems more like Walter White than Sauruman. In fact, that’s true of all the characters. Good or evil, they have reasonable motivations for their actions. Tell me about the writing process for Knightwood and the cast. How did you craft these morally gray characters?
A: Vanion is a character that has knocked around in my brain for a long time. He was a character that I created and played in Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager, and still sometimes play. He started off as this goodly bard, very much a trope of elvish fantasy. His story in the comic is refined, but elements of it originated from improvisation and rolling dice with friends. The older I became, though, I became more compelled by darker characters with complicated internal conflict and flaws and motives. Part of that change was influenced by the evolution of more complex television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, LOST, Breaking Bad, etc. But another part of that evolution in preference came from dealing with darker, complicated experiences in my own life. Those characters are personal reflections in a way. In I, NECROMANCER, each character is a way to explore another glimpse into the gray. Ireena explores the idea that blind religion and self-righteousness can be dangerous even committed by a “good” person. Piotr explores the terror of what happens to an outcast when they are pushed too far. Raphael exists to remind the reader that silent complicity is still complicity. And, Vanion and Mischaelna are sort of reflections on the cyclical, generational nature of victimization and violence.
Q: Vanion and Mischaelna’s relationship is probably the most toxic, in my opinion. There is an undercurrent of resentment and control. Mischaelna was forced into the life of necromancy, and she seems to act out in ways just to make Vanion mad. And he responds with wild jealousy that lead to controlling her life. It’s all very unsettling, like a parent stalking their child who goes on a date. You say it’s an exploration of the cycical nature of victimization and violence. How do you explore that through the lens of a family drama? And, if you don’t mind me asking, how do you use your own personal experience? Not just with Vanion and Mischaelna, but the entire cast?
A: Incredibly toxic! In a lot of ways, that relationship is the core horror of the story. You can’t rationalize what he does to her throughout her life, or even begin to justify it. But you want your villains to believe they are doing the right thing. So where the reader sees his physical and mental abuse, he believes that he’s making her stronger and more wary, so that she can survive in a world where the majority of people (humans) are her enemy. That’s a very real relationship, but in gothic melodrama fashion, our story takes it to its most terrifying extremes. In my life, I’ve experienced a lot of things that are all too common. Violence, different kinds of abuse, abandonment, religious zealotry, bullying, addiction, and a lot of complex things. And I’ve experienced these things as observer, participant, victim, and instigator at different points in my life. Acting and writing, fantasy and metaphor — these are outlets that I use to process the guilt and pain and joy and confusion that comes along with being a flawed human being living in a flawed world.
Q: Those are incredible answers and I love them. I agree with how fantasy is a great metaphorically storytelling device, and in your case it sounds like horror helps process a lot of personal pain. You noted your literary influences that have you go with the darker elements of the story, but do you have any more insight to the use of horror, the occult, and so on for the story? How do you hope to stick out of so many fantasy series out there that also dabble in darkness?
A: You know, that’s a good question! If I were better at marketing, that would be something, wouldn’t it? The one thing that I’ve done that has helped is to look for the right audience. Originally, I was trying to reach out to a very manga-influenced audience through webcomic platforms like Tapas, and that gave me mixed results. Right now, I’m working on building an audience by partnering with EncounterRoleplay, who publishes RPG and entertainment live streams. They are heavily focused on Dungeons & Dragons, and dark fantasy, and so there’s a good deal of shared interests there. In terms of what we’re doing that’s different, well, I mentioned the art. Mharz and Snowdon are both bringing very polished and distinct styles that don’t follow the norms of dark fantasy, but are still entirely honest to the story. In terms of writing, I’ve created a framework for each chapter that I hope lets us build the world organically. Each chapter continues the central story around Vanion, but uses flashbacks to explore one of the other main characters. In that way, we’re telling the story of the past and present at the same time, and each chapter manages to strike a slightly different tone. Horror can look a lot of ways. In Chapter One, we see literal eldritch horrors, but we also see a more personal horror in Vanion’s abuse of his daughter. In Chapter Two, the core horror is what Mischaelna became as a result of her father’s actions. In Chapter Three, we meet Mischaelna’s eventual partner, Piotr — and Piotr’s horror becomes focused on being bullied, living in constant anxiety, and not feeling like he fits in with society. As a writer, the elements of fantasy and occult, the nods to Lovecraft and D&D, are like palette for a colorist or familiar chords for a musician. For a genre fan, they establish atmosphere and setting quickly. That’s very helpful when you’re creating a webcomic on a shoe-string budget that only releases one page per week!
Q: Yet another fantastic answer. Let’s talk more the professional side. Explain to me your writing process. How do you prepare to write a story? How long do you write per day?
A: It varies depending on the project and how many projects I have. When I have a significant amount of writing to do, I usually need to commit at least 4-5 hours to it for me to make any meaningful progress. In terms of comics, I start with a scene-be-scene outline, then move into a very loose page-by-page outline. From there, it’s all about figuring out the pacing and major beats. Even if I’m working with an illustrator who likes to find the layout themselves, I start with doing a round of thumbnails and layouts myself. Since I usually need to act as art editor in addition to author, that helps me be ready with alternate ideas when the art hits a roadblock and needs to change directions. Then I start the script. I have a more descriptive style than the average comic writer, and I pay a lot of attention to the acting and emotions of the characters in a scene. That’s probably because of my background in theater! This rough draft phase is also when I take a look at my “reference boards”. I’m constantly finding music, prose, art, and other aesthetics that inspire me — and when I put them onto online boards so that when I’m writing, I can invoke them. I usually write 3-4 drafts of a comic script before I’m fully satisfied. And then, when I letter (or give lettering notes when I’m lucky enough to not have to letter my own comics), it’s not unusual for me to do one more edit of the dialogue once I see the final layout of the art and I put them onto online tools like Padlet so that I can invoke them when I’m writing.
Q: That is a lot of work you put into the comic! How do you seek out your artists? How do you evaluate an artist that might fit your book and how do you approach hiring them?
A: I think a lot of my approach to collaboration is based on a blend of gut, social circle and necessity. Through the Twitter community, I’ve been able to get to know a lot of artists, enough so to be aware of the volume of their output, their range and style, and their likely disposition. That’s great! The other half of the equation is cost. I work with a very limited budget, and my comics are funded by the modest support I receive through Patreon. Without my supporters, I wouldn’t be able to do comics at all! That’s because I feel compelled to pay artists for their work. But my budget does limit my options and my medium. There are folks with the financial means to invest in hiring a team to create a monthly book: pencils, inks, colors, letters, editing, marketing. Being able to do so can definitely expedite your growth in the industry. But since that’s not an option for me, I’ve settled on webcomics, which are less demanding on both my time and my wallet. To produce a monthly 22-30 page comic can cost anywhere between $1,000 on the very low end and $6,000 or more on the higher end. Releasing 3-4 pages a month of a webcomic is much more affordable than that, obviously. When I approach someone I want to collaborate with, I keep it simple. I’m 1) friendly, 2) specific in what I need, 3) honest about my budget, 4) acknowledge what I like about their art, and 5) keep it short. Artists are busy people that have to deal with a lot of less-than-ideal employers, and so I try to be considerate of their time. Once we are working together, I hyperlink my scripts to references, keep my emails short, and make sure expectations are stated clearly and concisely.
Q: How do you time management all that responsibility among the many other things you do? Give us your wisdom, time lord!
A: I have about a dozen projects juggling at any one time, and half of them big ongoing projects. While that is obviously crazy and you shouldn’t do what I do, I (almost) manage it by being aggressively organized with my schedule; every hour of every day is scheduled. I’m also willing to not have much money or certain luxuries, and I don’t have kids or pets. And then, finally, I’m willing to work months on end without taking a day off. The biggest real advice I can give about managing your schedule is simple: start by actually creating a schedule, and then force yourself to be accountable for meeting your own goals. Don’t let yourself off the hook (often)! It takes three weeks to create a new habit for yourself, so those first three weeks of meeting your own deadlines are the hardest. Finally, don’t be like me: be willing to say no to projects (and yourself)! And if you aren’t happy, then don’t be afraid to make changes to your schedule and responsibilities. The idea that artists and writers must be unhappy, struggling people is simply a lie. Whenever possible, choose joy.
Q: Yet another spectacular answer. Let’s start wrapping things up. Since you’re giving advice now, do you have any further advice for writers and artists? How about reading recommendations for comics?
A: Be honest with yourself about what your goals are! Do you want to break into the industry? Then teach yourself how people with similar resources to you have been able to do that. Do you want to create niche, but personally meaningful stories? Then put time and energy into finding the right collaborators. If you are clear about your goals, then you’ll find yourself a lot less frustrated and lost later on. Finally, please remember that your health has to come first. Creative people aren’t always the best at taking care of their well-being, mentally or physically. Get rest, eat well, get sunshine, go for walks, take breaks every hour to get away from your screen, and focus on your personal goals without comparing your work and your success to others. Like I said earlier, it only takes about three weeks for the human brain to form good habits. As for recommendations! I could name a hundred comics in print or digital format. I’ve already named a few! I’ll stick with just one, though, because it’s a fascinating read: the webcomic VOIDCHILD. VOIDCHILD is a super-natural drama with a hint of horror. It’s a very engaging story with strong characters, but the really cool thing about reading it is seeing how much the art has grown over time. The creator was not originally an artist, but has learned through a true trial by fire because that’s the only way they could share their story. The art is constantly improving, sometimes week-to-week! VOIDCHILD also has a kind and supportive community, so it’s the perfect place to look if you’re thinking about taking the dive into creating comics for the first time. And its creator is just a great guy. You can read the comic here: http://thevoidchildproject.com
Q: What do you hope for in the future? For comics? For your own projects?
A: I, NECROMANCER and my upcoming graphic novel are both projects of the heart. I’ll finish them and make them available for anyone who wants to read them. But I also believe that there is a timer on how long I’ll continue to work as a freelancer beyond my current projects. Ultimately, I want to show that I’m capable and reliable, and find a writing job that allows me to work for a company that will value me, my work ethic, and my storytelling sensibilities. I’d love to get those 100 hour weeks down to 50-60, and have health care and some of the other things that you need as you get older and your body hurts more. But bottom line, I just want to keep finding fun and compelling ways to tell stories that let me reflect on myself and the world around me. And do all of that while being a joyful person who helps other people find joy, too. Easy … right?