Warmoth on Webcomics: Cameron Stewart

[Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of some of my favorite webcomics creator interviews that previously ran on WizardUniverse.com and were a part of the site’s archives that are no longer hosted there. Cameron Stewart, of Sin Titulo and Seaguy fame for me is still one of the most interesting and versatile creators working in comics right now, and the Transmission-X project he put together with his fellow creators is one of the best examples I’ve seen of how to put an ongoing webcomics anthology together. This interview was originally posted on November 9, 2007.]

Cameron Stewart is already a respected and Eisner-nominated name in comic book artwork coming out of his Vertigo series Other Side. He’s also worked with A-list names like Grant Morrison and Brian Azzarello. Stewart has further aspirations, however. Right now, he’s writing and drawing his own webcomic serial Sin Titulo as part of his Toronto based collective Transmission-X with Karl Kerschl and Ramón Pérez.

Sin Titulo follows a main character searching for answers about his grandfather’s death after he goes to visit the nursing home and discovers that no one notified him that his grandpa died. The story takes some screeching and unsettling turns as Stewart has honed his scripting talents, which as I found out speaking with him, dealt with some issues very close to home.

I caught him in the middle of the day at his Canadian studio and asked him about his writing aspirations, as well as where autobiography helped shape Sin Titulo, and he was remarkably forthcoming.

BRIAN WARMOTH: How’s stuff going at the studio right now? Is everyone still on schedule?

STEWART: Amazingly, yes. We set it up so that everyone has a week to do one page. We want one update a week from everybody, and everybody’s stuck to it so far. We have a little informal penalty system. Every week, we all go for brunch on Saturday, and whoever fails to update their strip has to buy brunch for everybody—and there’s eight people, so that’s going to be expensive. That’s kept everybody motivated.

It’s a bold endeavor putting that many people together for a webcomic project. Virtually no one can publish for a year without missing a single deadline. But with that many creators together, there’s a lot of inter-reliance. 

STEWART: When you’re doing it alone there’s no sense of consequence if you fail. If nothing else, even if we didn’t buy each other brunch we’d just mock each other terribly if anyone failed to do it. We’ve been up since July, and no one’s missed a day yet, though. There have been some close calls, but everyone’s managed to—like Indiana Jones pulling his cap as the stone wall’s coming down—just make it.

Have you burned the midnight oil finishing any Sin Titulo strips?

STEWART: A couple of times. I try to get mine done the day before it’s scheduled to go up so that I don’t have to worry about staying up in a mad panic.

Do you work on paper first? Or do you go directly to digital?

STEWART: I do both. As you’ve seen I have the same layout every week—the same 4-by-2 grid. I do my initial layouts in Photoshop with a tablet, and then I do the lettering and I print off my layouts in a light blue. Then I ink those. The final artwork is on paper.

So you start out on the computer and move to paper later?

STEWART: Exactly. Then I scan it back in, and the coloring is added in Photoshop afterwards.

How did you come up with that process? Is that something standard or that you’d done before?

STEWART: That’s my process. If I don’t do the layouts digitally, I do rough thumbnails on a piece of paper and scan them in, convert it to a blue line and then print it off. It’s a process that I figured out a while ago, and it’s been pretty good. It allows me to tweak the layouts as much as I want before going to the final artwork. I tend to do most of my drawing in ink and keep the layouts as loose as possible, just for composition and pacing. I do a very minimal amount of black penciling.

With your eight-panel format, have you developed a sense of phrasing or rhythm that you think in?

STEWART: Definitely. There’s always a sort of rhythm that you want to maintain. That’s the challenge of doing it week to week. I wanted to keep it to eight panels because it’s such a short installment every week, I want to make sure that the audience is getting eight panels’ worth of story, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but a lot of other webcomics are three panels. I wanted to make sure there was some substance week to week, but it’s pretty satisfying to get a chunk of story into eight panels and end it on a note that is interesting and memorable to the reader and hooks them to make them want to come back.

Your storytelling style is very visual. You use a lot of super close-ups and first-person shots. It’s almost cinematic in a lot of ways. Do you think in terms of cameras or perspectives you’ve seen in film?

STEWART: Yeah, I definitely do. I’m hugely influenced by movies, and most of my storytelling is influenced by movies. Whenever I’m laying out a scene—not only for Sin Titulo, but for any of the comics I’m doing—I think of it as “If this were a movie, how would it look?” I’m always watching movies and paying attention to pacing and editing, camera moves and composition. I’m not trying to do a storyboard for a movie.

Right. But I think it’s interesting that it’s an intentional thing for you.

STEWART: I try to take the cinematic things that I’ve seen and translate them into comics.

Where do you think your sensibilities in Sin Titulo came from?

STEWART: I don’t know about any of the particular shots or angles, but in terms of tone I’m really influenced by David Lynch.

I can see that, especially in terms of cuts you make in some of the dream sequences.

STEWART: I had seen Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” and it blew me away. I’m a big Lynch fan, but that film knocked me for a loop. One of the things that really interested me about it was that it was largely improvisational. Lynch kind of wrote it on the fly. As he was shooting it, he would show up on the day with new script pages for everybody. He shot it with a digital camera, and a lot of it is made up as he went along and allowed his subconscious to dictate where the story was going to go. When it came time to doing a webcomic, that was the approach that I wanted to take. I had originally started doing a different story, and I was trying to write it ahead of time. I was like, “I’m going to write the script, and then I’m going to draw it.” I found that I was getting bogged down and intimidated by having to think about how every scene is going to pay off later and the structure of it. I’m an amateur at writing, and I found that it was getting a little too big and intimidating—and not fun. The mandate for all of this when were working on [Transmission-X] was that we wanted to do something that was enjoyable and not a chore. The stuff we do for a publisher is our job, and we wanted this to be the fun stuff. So I thought, “What can I do that would be fun?” and I wanted to do something where I had the freedom to make it up as I went, allowing my subconscious to take to it wherever it was going to go.

I have a basic structure for it and I know vaguely where the story is going, but it’s completely open for me so that when I sit down to do it, if I have a new idea that I want to throw in, I will. Hopefully, at some point down the line it will coalesce.

I can see how that works with some of your transitions. They can appear like nonsequiturs at first, but as you read along, the context develops.

STEWART: Sure. I was experimenting with having these leaps forward in time where the beginning of the next strip didn’t necessarily connect with the last panel of the previous one, so there’s a lacuna there—a gap in time that the reader will be able to fill in. That was a deliberate thing. It also adds to the dreamlike atmosphere that I’m going for, and because each strip is coming out once a week, if you’re reading it on the Web, the act of reading it gives that sensation of time passing with each page, so when you come back to it after a week there’s time that has passed.

Let me ask you about the title. Where did you get the title from?

STEWART: It actually just means “no title.” I saw it as the title of a painting years ago, and I liked the way it looks, because you have that s-i-n. It sounds cool. It looks cool. It doesn’t necessarily have a lot of meaning yet, because I came up with the title before I began writing the story.

On that note, given its meaning, I wanted to ask you how you would defend it as a non-copout title if somebody were to accuse you of such?

STEWART: [Laughs] I figured out a way to work it into the story, and it will pop up in the story, so hopefully when that happens people will go, “Oh, that’s what it means.”

Were you working on Sin Titulo in any way, shape or form before you guys formed Transmission-X? Or was it something that came up after the brainstorming sessions?

STEWART: Yep. As I said, I was doing something else for it, and I’m not abandoning that other project, but I’m putting it on the shelf until the time is right to do it. Also, [Sin Titulo] isn’t entirely autobiographical, but there is some autobiography in it.

On that note, have you had bad experiences with nursing homes? Because you offer a pretty bleak view of them in Sin Titulo.

STEWART: The inciting incident of the story, which is the main character’s grandfather dying and him not realizing that he’s dead. That happened to me. So I used that as the start of the story. I don’t know if you’ve read the most recent week’s installment, but he’s telling a story from his childhood about this thing that he saw in his room as a kid. That’s a true story. It’s becoming almost like a diary. The thing about my grandfather dying happened while I was working on this other story.

So you found out about his death after the fact?

STEWART: Yeah. I actually called my mother and said, “Hey, we should go to the nursing home and visit my granddad.” We called, and they said, “Oh, he died a month ago.”

And you hadn’t been notified?

STEWART: No, we hadn’t been notified.

How does that happen?

STEWART: I don’t know. And my character asks the very question. It was really upsetting, and I felt horrible. So part of this is me working through whatever complex feelings of guilt that I have for not being more a part of his life that I didn’t even know this had happened. They notified part of the family, but that part of the family that they notified didn’t tell us.

My bleak view of the nursing home is very much based on my experience when I was there, which was that it was one of the most awful places I’ve ever been to. It was very uncomfortable and upsetting for me to be there. So that colors how I’m portraying it in the story.

You recently added a new comic at Transmission-X. How did you come into contact with Claudia, and where did Luz come from?

STEWART: Claudia is married to Mike Cho. This is her first comic. She’s worked in children’s books for a long time. She’s a pretty successful children’s book illustrator, and I guess through Mike doing comics she got interested in it, and she’s quite passionate about environmental issues. She self-published a comic called Spoiled, and this is a companion piece to that. She’s done about 11 installments of it, and she’d been running it on her own site. We had a group of guys, and one of the things that we were really aware of and concerned about was having too masculine a site. We want to appeal to as many people as we can. It sounds calculated, buy we really wanted to have a feminine hand in there, so the natural thing was since we already had Mike on board to say, “Hey, what about your wife? Would she like to do something?”

What else are you working on these days?

STEWART: A ton of stuff. I’m working on my graphic novel for Oni Press, The Apocalipstix, with my friend Ray Fawkes, who’s the writer. That’s coming, but I don’t know when it’s coming. It’s one of these things where I’m working on it, and when it’s done it’s done, but hopefully it will be out soon. I’m inking Vinyl Underground for DC/Vertigo and some other things that I probably shouldn’t say yet.

Where does the comic fit into the scheme of all that other stuff for you right now?

STEWART: My goal in doing the comic is that I would eventually like to not only be an illustrator. I would like to be able to write my own stories as well, and this is a way for me to practice writing and have a reason to do it.

Did you have much writing experience coming into Sin Titulo?

STEWART: Not really. I’ve just written things for myself, and even when I’m writing—not fiction, but stories for myself or letters to people—I’m always quite particular about how I’m phrasing stuff. I’ve never written a fictional story before—or at least, not a long-form one. As much as I love collaborating with writers, because I do, and I’ve been really fortunate to work with a lot of amazing writers. I want to get to a stage in my career where I can be like a Frank Miller, someone that writes and draws his own material. This gives me a framework where I can play and experiment.

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