By: Nicole D’Andria
Russell Mark Olson brings his sixth Kickstarter to life, this time featuring his Jazz Age alien invasion comic Gateway City, Volume #2. Karl Kesel (Harley Quinn) called the series: “A little Alex Toth, a little Dick Tracy, a ton of fun!” So, Olson is giving us a film noir-esque picture of Gateway City through this in-depth interview.
The events of Gateway City take place in St. Louis during the prohibition era, 1925. There has been an alien invasion with the most wicked of beings from around the galaxy taking part in the high-stakes gambling of human bloodsport. In the first volume, Lundy Lundqvist, a private detective, investigates the death of Special Prosecutor Wolf Schrier and tries to figure out how to send the aliens packing with the help of humans and aliens alike.
The series is entirely the creation of Russell Mark Olson, who worked on everything from the writing to the art to the letters. He has been releasing Gateway City as a webcomic on his Patreon. His editor on the series is John Freeman, a veteran of Marvel UK and Titan Magazines who is also part of the annual Lakes International Comic Art Festival.
This collection of his sci-fi noir comic is 52 pages long, and it only costs £3 (about $5) for a digital copy and £8 (about $11) for a physical copy. A pin-up gallery is also being added to the back of the book since it has already blown past three stretch goals on Kickstarter, annihilating its original goal of £2500 ($3,412). A variety of other special rewards will be available on the Kickstarter page until the campaign ends on August 31, 2021, at 6:59 AM EDT.
Without further ado, I spoke with creator Russell Mark Olson to get a feel for this unique comic book world and his multi-talented approach to it.
Me: For people who didn’t read the first volume of Gateway City, how would you describe the events to get them caught up to this second volume?
Olson: The story begins like a detective novel: Lundy Lundqvist, a private eye, is investigating a homicide. Before he can report to his employer, special mob prosecutor Wolf Schrier, Lundy, and several gangsters are abducted. Lundy and the mobsters are forced to fight for their lives inside a colosseum for the amusement of thousands of aliens. Ex-gangster Senator Whelan is playing host to these criminal aliens and using their muscle to get rid of anyone he sees as a threat…including Wolf Schrier.
By the finale of Volume 1, Wolf is dead and the cops have pinned the murder on Lundy. A mysterious alien law-enforcer recruits Lundy, Wolf’s daughter-in-law, a drunk newspaper reporter, a gin joint operator, an indestructible alien bug, and a talking bear to help him boot the aliens back to the other side of the galaxy.
Me: Gateway City combines a lot of topics that don’t often appear together in this “Jazz Age alien invasion comic.” What inspired you to bring together these subjects and why do you feel they work so well with each other here?
Olson: There are two answers here. The first one is that I love hardboiled crime novels (someday I’d love to adapt The Continental Op stories), film noir, Dick Tracy, and 50s-60s sci-fi. I thought it would be fun to draw something entirely for my own amusement that brought these pleasures together.
The second one is, the era we’re currently living through is often compared to the late 20s and 30s of the previous era and I wanted a platform to write about that. WWI changed the psyche of the Western world: the thrill of seeing man leave the ground in flying machines was replaced by the horror of industrial warfare. You still put butter on bread with a butter knife, but out there, just beyond the kitchen window, something new and alien was prowling. People had novel and competing visions of how to shape the modern world, money of unfathomable scale was being amassed without a bead of sweat, science was describing things of gargantuan proportions—for the everyman/woman your strings were being pulled by an unseeable future. While I don’t necessarily agree with the comparison of then and now, the preceding description certainly fits.
Think back to a few months ago with the NFT bubble: one morning, social media accounts were talking about this thing as though it had always existed. An alien had invaded and some of the population were trying to take it to their leader, others weren’t so certain of the purported altruistic intentions, and most were so confused they were avoiding the subject like a kid at bedtime. It was sinister, and it revealed something about the human character. I think that’s why “Jazz Age alien invasion” works so well. It’s us but in fancy dress. And boy what dress! We’ve never had such elan.
Me: Your bio on Kickstarter mentions that you also get your “inspiration from the EC bullpen of the 1950s, Milton Caniff, Alex Toth and black & white cinema.” What is it about each of these things that inspire your work?
Olson: I can’t remember when I stumbled upon Harvey Kurtzman, but it was sometime in the late 2000s—probably 2007 or 08—and his work knocked me out. From him, I started hunting out EC stuff and discovered Jack Davis, Will Elder, Bernard Krigstein, you know, the whole raft of virtuosic comic makers who thrilled readers and scared conservative America in the 50s. From there, I dove deeper into the decades before and after.
I love the medium of comics and I love the mediums that make them. For me, I like comics that look like comics, lines that celebrate their making. I look at someone like the (criminally departed) John Paul Leon and how he confidently made marks that made no apologies for not being the “real thing.” A lot of work from the Big Two from the early 2000s to now leaves me cold. I can’t abide work that sacrifices energy for accuracy, expression for realism, or storytelling for pride.
I don’t want to make it sound like I only like bygone work. There are some wonderful artists working right now, people like Lucy Sullivan, Martin Simmonds, Dan Panosian, my fellow SKRAWLLORDZ—people who use every corner of the medium to tell a story and something about themselves. Have you seen the zines of Matt Simmons? Christ! This guy is making some of the best work in Comics right now and he barely knows how to turn on a PC.
As for black and white cinema, it’s easier for my eye to pick out composition—steal composition, study staging, acting, beats. There’s an affinity to the stage in pre-70s film that lends itself to the type of storytelling I like. I love a long, un-cut shot—again, the medium. Film is—or was—a single strip of celluloid exposed to light. It’s not black and white, but Hitchcock’s Rope reaches tension unlike anything else because the film never blinks. We’ve got these tools to make things, and the tools are really good storytellers too. Any piece of work that tries to mask the tools with which it was made points to a creator who is hiding something—something which is probably far more interesting than the thing they’re presenting.
Me: Using one sentence per character, what can you tell us about Private detective Lundy Lundqvist and the other key characters in this story?
Olson: Lundy — His natural suspiciousness makes him the perfect detective. His sarcastic wit makes him the perfect lightning rod for trouble.
Olson: Martha Schrier — A diamond-tipped mind, she suffers no fools. If your argument isn’t water-tight, expect her to sink it.
Olson: Sam — He may be invulnerable, but he’s just as sensitive. This diminutive little hard-nose was once the bodyguard to a powerful family but now he’s just guarded.
Olson: Pete — Running an illegal gin-joint gives him access to the sloppy secrets of the city. But the truth he’s looking for always seems just out of reach.
Olson: “Papers” Machier — A journalist whose talent for a scoop is shackled to the bottle. Prohibition should have been the making of him.
Olson: Senator Whelan — His bootstrap attitude gives him an entitled attitude towards power, but he prefers not to get his own hands dirty.
Olson: Bumper Donati — A sociopath with a life debt to a ghost. He’ll spill as much blood as is necessary to wash away his guilt.
Olson: The Old Man — A shadowy alien figure determined to kick out the invaders…but at what cost?
Me: You’ve previously released this story as a webcomic on Patreon. Why did you take this initial approach to publish it and how will this version differ?
Olson: After Volume 1 came out, I started getting approached by peers and publishers to collaborate. I’d been doing illustration and design freelance and the opportunity to make comics for money was just too good to be true. But deadlines meant that I had to sideline Gateway. Every couple of months I’d get an email from someone asking about the next installment. I knew that people’s patience wasn’t something I wanted to toy with, so I looked at what people like Roger Langridge were doing with Patreon and thought it would be a good fit for Gateway. Doing one page a week was entirely doable around my paid work. The support on Patreon is incredible, and I love having the supporters in my virtual studio. Sharing my process with them has not only made me think more directly about how and why I do things but it’s made me a better comic maker.
The differences people who’ve read the first volume will probably notice is that my skills have improved over the last few years. Some of the characters have had a bit of a facelift, too. I’ve tried to keep the spirit of the original the same. The other difference is that I’ve been publishing them first on Patreon, and then as tabloid-sized quarterlies. Recently, I’ve been using the tabloid ratio to draw, so this volume will be closer to a European/Bandes Dessineés album instead of US comic format.
Me: Several stretch goals have already been unlocked for your very successful Kickstarter, which include a variety of pin-ups. Can you tell us a bit about each of the artists who did these illustrations and how they represent Gateway City?
Olson: With glee! First off is mi hermano and fellow SKRAWLLORD, Gustaffo Vargas. Gustaffo makes wonderful Peruvian-cyberpunk comics and has a lyrical yet frenetic style of drawing. His images pulse with action and emotion. He’s got that kind of immediacy with his drawing that I try to achieve with Gateway. It seemed a natural fit to have him do one of the pin-ups. And while I’d like to think he did it as a mate, it was his wife, Tintin, who told him to do it. I’m lucky in that she’s a fan of the comic, so getting him to play in that sandbox was probably all her doing.
Next is another ex-pat, Jordan Collver…sorry, actually thinking about it, the first three are all ex-pats. Gustaffo from Peru. Jordan from Canada, and Owen from America…like me. Anyway, Jordan Collver has this classic, ligne clear cartoon style which reminds me of 1930s animation. Check out his work on Hocus Pocus. He knows the art of comic storytelling backwards and forwards. There is a classic quality to his art that I thought would be perfect for Gateway. He’s done a lovely homage to Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One work. He’s one of these artists who I have no idea why he isn’t already a mega-star. He will be, though. Glad to catch him now while I can afford him.
Owen Sherwood has done the third pin-up. Owen is an expert draftsperson. An accomplished illustrator in the world of editorials, he’s recently been teasing folks with his comics work. He’s been making a series called Tony Featherneck and I think it’s going to quickly find a fanbase. He’s got this edgy, electric style of drawing and he’s turned in a masterful portrait of Bumper, showing his internal and external scars. A real look-you-in-the-eye kind of portrait.
Me: You’ve pulled off an impressive feat with Gateway City, doing the writing, drawing, coloring, lettering, and formatting all by yourself. What was your favorite part of the process and why?
Olson: Oh boy. I’m not sure. Inking maybe? Yeah, probably inking. Every stage takes a lot of focus and attention, but at the inking stage, you get to see all of the reference, sketching, shape, volume, light, and character come to life. It’s cathartic. And as mentioned above, the medium is really satisfying. Ink on paper is so pleasing. Brushes and pens all doing different things—communicate different things—and it’s thrilling making decisions on the page as to how best to articulate action, emotion, and tone through line and texture. I love inking.
Me: What’s the number one reason why someone should pledge money to your project?
Olson: It’s indie comics, innit? In this post-modern world, we’re never going to be free from remakes, adaptations, and created-by-committee/focus group art. Crowdfunded work is one area where independent voices have a chance to tell stories in ways that don’t adhere to formulas or profit forecasts. So, that’s one of the reasons.
The other is that I think it’s a good story. I wouldn’t be telling it if I didn’t. And I think it’s unlike other stories that are currently being told. I’ve thrown out the three-act model. I’m using the medium of comics to tell the story how it wants to be told: panel by panel, page by page. I don’t have an industry deal telling me to cram the narrative into six issues. I can take as much space as I want. Gateway City isn’t just about one character, it’s about the city of St. Louis and everyone in its boundaries. It’s an ensemble piece. A Robert Altman comic if Robert Altman made Comics. I think that’s unusual nowadays.
Me: What inspirational words do you have for aspiring comic book writers and artists?
Olson: Making a living at comics has probably never been harder, there’s no denying that. But, the medium is still so young and the potential for great storytelling remains largely untapped. It’s one of the few art forms where you can retain as much control over the narrative as you’d like. And with crowdfunding still going strong, you can find an audience, get your book made, connect with peers, and see your stories grow and flourish. I would say get ready to work, though. Don’t shy away from making mistakes and don’t succumb to the temptation to feel entitled. No one owes you readership, a book deal, a convention table. You’ve got to do the work. I’d also like to encourage marginalized voices to get out there and tell your stories. Our artform needs that diversity.
I’d also add: Get an editor. When I was formatting the first volume of Gateway City, I started to notice a few loose threads and realized that I was just too close to the work. I needed a critical eye to look at the whole work and pick up on the holes. John Freeman, veteran of the industry, was gracious enough to take my pages and knock them into shape. He brought his 30+ years of experience to the narrative and gave it a good kicking. It wouldn’t be the story it is without him. He keeps me in check and makes sure that I don’t leave readers in the dark. When you’re neck-deep in script and ink, it’s easy to lose yourself—to think that you’ve been crystal clear and that every reader is going to pick up on the subtle hints and subtext you’ve been so cleverly dropping here and there. But your audience doesn’t have access to your sketchbook. And sometimes that subtle hint you thought of didn’t actually make it to the finished page. You cut it because you wanted to give more room to that splash panel. An editor (a good one, at least) will find these weak links and give you suggestions for how to fix them. Get an editor. Get an editor. Get an editor.
Me: Promote yourself! What else are you currently working on that we have to look forward to in the future?
Olson: I’ve got a book coming out with Warploque Miniatures in September. I finally got the chance to work with writer Mike Garley. It was a treat to work in a fantasy genre piece. I’m also editing the next issue of SKRAWL with the SKRAWLLORDZ and special guests. We’ll be bringing that to Kickstarter sometime in the autumn. Some amazing work is already in the can. Absolutely beautiful work. And the Patreon is still going strong. Volume one of the Gateway City Quarterly is nearly finished and the second volume will kick off in November. It’s a real treat to work in such a large format.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk shop. I really hope you all enjoy the book. It’s been a pleasure to make.
Me: Thank YOU for taking the time to share your world with us! Readers can check out the second volume of Gateway City on Kickstarter!
Do you have a crowdfunding project? Want to be interviewed about it and have the project featured on “Kickstart/IndieGogo/GoFundMe the Week?” Let me know in the comments below or message me on my website. Also check out the official Kickstart the Week: Interviews with Comic Book Kickstarter Creators Volume 1 on Kindle.
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