Sandbox Spotlight: JOHN LEES, Comic Book Writer

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THE CONVENTION COLLECTIVE: Thank you for joining us in the Sandbox Spotlight, John! How did you get into comics and why did you want to become a creator?

JOHN LEES: Ever since I was a little kid, two things have been true: 1) I love comics, and 2) I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. And yet, for some reason, it never really occurred to me to pair the two together. Even though as a kid I certainly went through phases of creating my own superheroes and drawing my own crude comics starring them, it wasn’t something I seriously thought about pursuing. I’d always thought about writing novels, or writing screenplays. But then, a little after graduating from University, a good friend of mine, who was also into comics, asked if I’d be willing to write a comic script for them to draw.

In the process of studying how comics are written, I found myself falling in love with the mechanics of it. I actually liked the restrictions of the medium, operating within a limited space or trying to find ways to convey movement in static images, and the creativity required to come up with solutions. And while I never did end up doing a comic with that friend, that’s what gave me the bug, and I’ve been writing comics ever since.

TCC: What was the first work you completed, where you stepped back and thought, “Yes, y’know what, I can do this for a living!”?

John: I don’t know if I’ve ever been fully convinced that I can do this for a living! But I definitely got that feeling of satisfaction that I could be a comic writer upon finishing THE STANDARD, my first ever comic project. Following on from that above story about my artist friend encouraging me to try writing a comic, literally the first comic script I ever wrote was the first draft of THE STANDARD #1.

Why You Should Be Reading: The Standard – Broken Frontier

Over the next couple of years, I wrote the rest of that series, working with the guidance of editor Steven Forbes, and I think by the end of that series, I’d got to the point where I felt like I knew what I was doing, like the process of writing this had taught me how to write comics. And then actually getting the comic made, completed and published would take several more years, and taught me a whole other bunch of lessons in the process!

TCC: Which creatives inspire you? And they don’t have to be in the medium you work in, either…

John: This is one of these questions where I’d likely have a different answer depending on what mood I’m in when you ask me! In the world of comics, Grant Morrison has long been an inspiration. Not even in terms of “I want to write comics like them,” as they’re operating on a whole other level and do stories quite different to mine, but just in terms of their boundless creativity and crafting stuff that feels utterly their own. Junji Ito is incredible, the King of Comics Horror, and I feel like I’ve spent much of my career chasing the heights in the genre he has reached, striving to freak readers out even a fraction of the level that UZUMAKI freaked me out when I first encountered it.

More recently, I’ve become a huge fan of Naoki Urasawa, who I think may be the best pure storyteller in all of comics, and I really want to take some lessons from him in how to craft a narrative and build characters. Outside of comics, Stephen King is a writer who inspires me so much, his ability to hone in on the human dimension of horror is something I aspire to. And there are certain filmmakers I view as big inspirations too: David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, Ben Wheatley, John Carpenter, Akira Kurosawa, probably a good few more.

TCC: Can you tell us your greatest fan moment, interacting with a personal hero of yours where you may have gone a little weak at the knees?

John: My friend’s mum knows Neil Gaiman, and knowing what a big fan of THE SANDMAN I am, she invited me to go with her to see his live show in Edinburgh. I went, had a great time, and afterwards, we were able to go to the backstage VIP area to mingle. My friend’s mum introduced me to Neil Gaiman when he showed up, and I was already blown away and starstruck, then Neil is like, “Oh, John, you write comics, you must know… Grant Morrison!” And Grant Morrison was also there seeing the show and was standing behind me and said hello and then my brain shut down.

TCC: What is your favourite fandom? Who is your favourite comic book character/movie/TV character?

John: Honestly, I have some pretty conflicted feelings about fandom. I have fond memories of fan communities back in the message board days, but especially in the social media era, I feel like fandoms often breed a lot of toxicity. I do a lot of reading of comics fandom and wrestling fandom and there is so much division and in-fighting over petty stuff, some real ugly behaviour and people taking what should be entertainment way too seriously. I guess I like horror fandom the best, that community has largely struck me as pretty chill!

As for favourite characters… it may be a basic answer, but I think I’m always going to default to Batman and Spider-Man. They were such major stalwarts of my childhood that have carried over into adulthood, and I’ve followed them across multiple mediums: comics, films, cartoons, toys, video games. And even in 2022, the two films I’m most excited about are a new Batman film and a new Spider-Man film!

TCC: What genre do you like writing the most?

John: Horror is my favourite genre. I’ve had fun writing in the realm of crime, action-adventure and even romantic comedy, but horror is the genre closest to my heart. It’s where I gravitate as a fan, so it’s perhaps natural it’s also what I’m most fascinated in exploring as a writer.

TCC: Outside of the ones you create for a living, what characters/stories do you like drawing the most in your spare time?

John: I don’t draw much these days, though I did like drawing a lot as a kid! But I do have a little notebook that I sometimes do doodles in. Lately, I’ve been drawing a lot of wrestlers!

TCC: What’s your working routine? Do you work regular set hours and days, keeping certain days free for personal time, or do you find you create any time the muse takes you?

John: It doesn’t always work out, but I do like to set a regular schedule. Get up earlyish, be sitting at the desk in my home office by a certain time, and tackle the daily to-do list and treat it like a working day as much as I can. When I was younger, I’d have a habit of writing and writing on into the late hours of the night and even early hours of the following morning, then immediately crash in bed when I couldn’t write anymore, but now I very much try to create boundaries, a certain point at night when I’m done, I turn off the computer and step away, and I specifically do something else before bed, like watching a movie, or doing yoga. And in recent years, as much as possible, I try to give myself a clean break for a couple of weeks over Christmas time and into the New Year, to allow my batteries to recharge.

TCC: When you’re creating, what do you use for background noise? Some artists use music or podcasts, some use a TV show that they just can listen to in the background. What do you use?

John: Honestly, I’m not really that big on background noise. I’ve tried putting on music or playing podcasts, but too often I find my attention honing in on it too much, meaning it takes away from my focus on the writing. So, save for occasions where I’ll play specific music (often film scores and the like) to get me in the mood for a certain story or scene, for the most part, I just write in silence.

TCC: What was the first comic con that you remember attending? And, indeed, what was the last?

John: Not including the various memorabilia fares and the like that would come to Glasgow, the first proper COMIC CON that I attended was the big one, San Diego Comic-Con, back in 2009. That year, I had no holidays planned, my summer was free, and I had a little money, and I thought, “If I could do anything, what would I do?” And I thought about how every year I read about San-Diego Comic-Con and yearned to attend. And it made me think… “What’s stopping me?” That was the first time I’d travelled abroad alone, not with family or friends or on a school trip, so it was quite daunting! But I did meet friends over there, my first ever experience of meeting Internet friends in real life, and I ended up having a great time, and went back in 2010.

Every year since 2011, I’ve been attending conventions as an exhibitor, or more recently, as a guest. So, I’m glad that I had those couple of years going to San Diego where I got to just be a fan and have the full fan experience. I cosplayed, I went to signings, I went to panels, I queued for ages to get into Hall H and did a full day marathon there. The kind of stuff you don’t get to do so much when you’re there to work. As far as the last con I attended, that was Thought Bubble 2021 – it was my first con back after near two years away thanks to the pandemic and was quite an emotional experience. But it ended up being a really successful show, and a positive experience.

TCC: How has your approach to attending conventions changed since that first one? And what’s the one big piece of advice you would give to someone tabling at a convention for the first time?

John: I guess the advice I’d give would be to give yourself a break. It’s very easy to put pressure on yourself, especially if like me you’re travelling to the US from abroad for a show and it’s a major trip for you. I’ve had times where I’ve gone in thinking “Oh I need to sell out of all my comics and make a bunch of contacts and successfully pitch all the comics I’m developing on the show floor and come home with publishers attached.” And then when all that doesn’t happen (to this day, I’ve never successfully pitched a comic on a convention floor), I’m beating myself up and thinking of how the show was a waste. And when you think like this, it makes you lose sight of all the cool things that DID happen.

And so, nowadays, I try to go into shows without wild expectations. I want to have a good time. I want to catch up with friends. I want to be able to share my books with new readers. Just being at a table that has books with your name on them is an achievement in itself, take a moment to recognise that. Obviously, we all want our comics to sell well and for us to be able to go back home with lighter suitcases. But if you approach a convention with the mindset that even if you don’t sell a thing or pitch a single book you can still have enough fun for the weekend to be a success and worthwhile, you’ll be a lot happier. And hey, without all that pressure, you might even find that you relax and sell better!

TCC: What’s your favourite element of a comic convention? And which bits could you easily leave behind?

John: My favourite element of a comic convention is, without a doubt, the people. That includes other creators, whose talent inspires and energises me, new readers, who I get to see discover my work for the first time, and established readers, people who I met at a previous show who loved my work so much back then that they wanted to come back and talk about it.

Worst part of a convention tends to be the toilets!

TCC: Yup, we’ve had that answer before!! At a convention, when you’re not behind your table or doing the things you have to do at a con, which corner of the show would we find you in?

John: Certainly in Artist Alley, whether it be visiting with friends or taking a look at what exciting new comics are on offer.

TCC: During pandemic, due to the lack of conventions, a lot of artists took to taking commissions online and mailing them out to people – was this something you did or did you find an alternate revenue stream to keep you going?

John: Conventions shutting down over the pandemic, and Thought Bubble running a Digital Artist Alley in 2020, prompted me to do something I’ve been meaning to get round to for some time. And so, I opened up an online shop over at johnleescomics.bigcartel.com. Thus far, the response to it has been great!

TCC: Also during lockdown, as the convention took that moment of pause, a lot of creatives are also took to crowdfunding – such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo – to supplement income and keep the interest flowing in their work. What’re your thoughts on that avenue?

John: I have a long history with Kickstarter. Though I’ve never run a campaign entirely on my own – and I don’t know how well I’d cope with that, given how much work is involved, especially on the fulfilment end of things – I’ve participated in several campaigns over the years with publisher ComixTribe. In particular, my comic series SINK really built up the foundation of its readership through its origins on Kickstarter before heading to the direct market. We still go to Kickstarter to fund the collected editions, and in fact are back on Kickstarter now for DIG, the latest SINK tale.

TCC: The conventions are slowly but surely coming back, thank goodness! Have you attended one yet, do you intend to get back out behind a table soon? What’s your next convention or, if you’re holding off for a while longer, what’s your thoughts on cons right now?

John: As I’d mentioned, my first con back was Thought Bubble in November. As for what’s next? I’m not sure. I don’t have any more conventions nailed down for certain on my calendar at the moment. And with us still very much in the middle of an ever-evolving pandemic, there’s a question mark over any potential plans. But if all goes well and it ends up being possible and safe to do so, I’d love to make my return to the US in October 2022 for New York Comic Con.

TCC: But let’s get back to the important stuff: your work! What projects have you recently finished, what are you working on at the moment, what projects are coming up that you can talk about?

John: It’s been a busy month for me! In addition to DIG currently running on Kickstarter, with artist Alex Cormack and letterer Shawn Lee, I had two new titles launch in comic shops worldwide, both published by AWA Upshot. The first was HOTELL Vol. 2, the return of my horror anthology series set in Pierrot Courts, an old roadside hotel off Route 66 that is home to all manner of nightmares. On that one, I’m working with artist Dalibor Talajić, colourist Lee Loughridge, and letterer Sal Cipriano. The second was THE CRIMSON CAGE, a retelling of William Shakespeare’s MACBETH, set against the backdrop of 1980s territory pro wrestling. On that one, I’m working with artist Alex Cormack, colourist Ashley Cormack and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou.

TCC: How do you stay connected with fans? Do you use a mailing list or newsletters, are you active on social media?

John: I have a weekly newsletter that goes out every Friday, where each edition has a feature essay, paired with the latest news from my upcoming projects and the world of comics, film and TV in general. You can join the mailing list for that at deep-ender.johnleescomics.com. I’m also on Patreon at patreon.com/johnlees, sharing original short stories, behind-the-scenes looks at my comics projects and more. And you can find me on Twitter at @johnlees927.

TCC: Where can people see an example of your art online and find out about your rates?

John: My online shop is at johnleescomics.bigcartel.com.

TCC: Thanks for your time!

John: Cheers. Thanks for all the good questions!

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