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Earlier this month, writer Vito Delsante and artist David Bednarski launched their new webcomic Prisoner of None. I was intrigued by a project that is partially inspired by the true story of Shoichi Yokoi, a sergeant in the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II who was found in 1972, hiding in the jungles of Guam, more than a quarter century after the United States had retaken the territory. In their fictionalized reinterpretation, Delsante and Bednarski set out to portray “a Japanese hero, Fantomudoragon (the “Phantom Dragon”), and his struggle to adjust to the changes in his country and the world after a 70-year absence.” In addition to Fantomudoragon, it also details several other characters with superpowers.
Tim O’Shea: How long had you known about Shoichi Yokoi‘s unique post-World War II life up to 1972 before realizing it was inspiration for a story?
Vito Delsante: It was roughly (and I say this after looking up the first email I sent to David) around Feb. 26, 2012. It was literally a few days after David replied to an email I sent “soliciting” him to do a comic. That’s the best way to put it, right? My wife, Michelle … she was obsessed with this site, OMG Facts, and … she knows I’m a World War II nut, and she read this article out loud and I said to myself, “THIS is a comic!” David emailed me back, and on the 27th, I sent him that article and Yokoi’s Wikipedia page. So, it was literally within 72 hours or so.
David Bednarski: I remember Vito saying that he had a vague idea for a story based on Shoichi Yokoi and the next thing I know we were firing ideas back an forth.
David, how hard is it to juggle the demands of producing a webcomic in your free time (when not at your day job as a scientist)?
Bednarski: It hasn’t been too difficult, so far.
I do research for a biotech company during the day and spend time with my family in the evenings. After the kids are in bed, when my wife and I relax on the couch I almost always have a drawing pad or laptop with art software running. I’m always multitasking. Before Prisoner of None I was working on my own things, following whatever idea I had to get out of my head or working on various pieces for art threads in forums around the Internet.
I already had the time blocked out to work on a project, provided the project could move at a slower pace. I’ve never done anything like this before so I have been playing around with methods and techniques to streamline my output to produce something like this. I’m getting more efficient with every page. Wow, that sounded technical.
Simply put, I like to draw comics and I’m getting faster at making them in my limited free time.
When did the two of you realize it was important to do the 14-part origin series of posts prior to launching the webcomic?
Delsante: I don’t know how we decided to do it, honestly. I know my motivation was to really get folks to understand what was going on, who did what, etc., before the comic started because … it’s incredibly hard to launch a new comic these days, whether it’s online or in shops. And all I wanted to do was have reader recognition. I didn’t want anyone to say, “I’m not going to read this because I don’t know who these characters are.” There’s no excuse. I think you can read the story without the origins, but they certainly help.
Bednarski: From our end, it was great way to get to know the characters before we got to the actual story itself. I saw it as a way to immerse ourselves in their world to figure out how it worked and what it looked like. I hope that readers take away something similar.
With the pace that Vito and I are working at and the length of the story, it was also a good way to jump into the action quicker without having to stop and explain who’s who.
In some background on Origin Part 1, you admit this project has demanded a great deal of patience. Also in the past year, Vito, you became a dad. Would you say non-creative commitments (such as family) have forced you to become more organized in terms of your creative pursuits (question for you both)?
Delsante: We both have families, and David has a day job. I’m currently lettering and editing one book, Liberator for Black Mask Studios, and writing somewhere in the area of eight projects. I think we both really wanted to do the book, but we were realistic. Having Sadie, my daughter, has been an incredible experience, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it’s cramped a lot of my creative time. Thankfully, she’s at an age where she just sleeps for most of the day.
I’ll illustrate it another way. I took my time writing the first installment. Mostly because I was trying to catch up to my workload. But in the back of my head, I kept saying, “David WANTS to take this slow, so just take your time, and do it right.” I’m on Page 6 of Chapter 2. Normally, if this were a deadlined job, I’d have the whole thing done by now. But thankfully, I can really take my time to explore a lot of the internal characterizations and motivations. Because of how slow and steady we’re being. My intended beat for Page 5 moved to Page 6. It’s flowing in it’s own way, so yeah, you have to take your time.
Bednarski: My science-y day job and family (wife and two small kids) pretty much make my life relatively organized. Art has always been my creative outlet, now I can focus that into creating a comic.
I’ve been a comics fan since I was kid, and have always wanted to make my own. Vito is giving me that chance with Prisoner of None. I like that he was willing to work on something at a slower pace and really give me time with my first comic, as I am happily doing all of the art with a limited schedule.
Vito, how long had you been following David’s work before realizing you wanted to collaborate with him. David, what interested you in working with Vito?
Delsante: For me? I saw him in the first 30 Characters Challenge I participated in, which was either 2009 or 2010. Before then, our paths never crossed, but during the contest…I hate using hyperbole too heavily because, in our industry, it really leaves a person open to criticism or ridicule. But during the challenge, I saw someone with an imagination that I just couldn’t keep up with. I swear, to me, David represents everything I love about comics, everything I love about art. The person I personally compare him to is Kirby. He’s just … unbridled. I don’t think David has ever wasted a line. So, to answer, it took me less than 30 days!
Bednarski: You flatter me. Kirby is The King!
And for the record, the 30 Characters in 30 Days Challenge is pretty grueling. Granted I may have made it harder for myself by trying to tell a story of sorts over 30 days with as many characters. This past year I enlisted my three-year-old son to help me create enough characters.
Delsante: Honestly, this last 30 Characters Challenge was one of your best ideas. Everyone should seek out David’s two runs, but this last one … I’d read those characters!
It is a finite series, but is there any chance that as things go along you might find ways to extend the finite?
Delsante: There’s a chance. I’m leaving a lot of pockets and … I hesitate to call them plot holes, but intentional blanks. I have an idea to extend the life of the series, but it’s still early. I would love for the story to be told by someone other than us. To build something that inspires people to take the ball and run. The idea, in my head, is to put the characters in the creative commons, but, like I said, it’s too early to talk about. David and I have to really figure it out. I’m not willing to do a lot of work and let someone else get the credit for it. I’m also not willing to let David’s work be in vain. So, if we can figure out how to do that, we will. Like I said, I’m all for adding to the community and the greater public work to create a narrative that stands for years to come, even without me, but … it’s not a conversation I’m ready to have other than to let folks in the industry know, “I’m thinking about it.”
Bednarski: I like the idea of “intentional blanks,” nothing to detract from the story, but points of interest to be explored later or what happens after the dust settles.
I thought it interesting that you opened the series with black-and-white archival footage. Creatively did either of you see that as a risk (given some people’s inexplicable aversion for black and white storytelling)?
Delsante: I don’t think I ever considered it. I wanted to set the piece firmly, give it a time stamp, and that Truman speech does that. And it’s in black and white. It’s just … that had to be the opening.
Of the U.S. characters, Ethan Charles/Sgt. Agent fascinates me the most. You hint at racial relations/strife with his origin. Is that something you both want to explore more?
Delsante: There are … wow, I don’t know how to answer this. (Laughs) I want to explore anything and everything these characters tell me. It’s their story; we’re just telling the readers on their behalf. I am certainly more interested in something that is uncomfortable than something cliche, especially if it moves the story. With Ethan, there’s a bit of Tuskegee and some other awfulness in American history. His story is quite … I really love his character arc. He and Fantomudoragon, our main character, have an amazing scene in the first chapter that will be key to the whole series, in terms of those two characters and in terms of the overall theme of the story.
Which of you came up with the idea of Homerun Hercules sporting the number 12 on his jersey?
Bednarski: That would have been me. When I created the character a number on his back was obvious and when I think of Hercules the only number I think of is 12, as in his Twelve Labors.
Am I correct in thinking that you two feed off of each other’s ideas when brainstorming? That is a storytelling asset, particularly given that does not happen with all creators?
Delsante: That’s hard to answer, because … this is going to sound funny … we bounce ideas back and forth, yes, but sometimes we’re better off when we just do the job and come back to the other guy with something we’re proud of. Does that make sense? What do you think, David?
Bednarski: That sums it up pretty well. We do bounce ideas off each other, but when it comes to writing I trust Vito and I think that Vito trusts what I’ll put together visually.
Delsante: Implicitly. I keep saying it, but David doesn’t need (emphasis mine) me to tell a good story; he can do it on his own (and he has). I’m very lucky to know him and to have his trust.
With the advent of digital comics, would you say it is easier or harder to market a webcomic these days?
Delsante: Well, if you have no talent or aptitude for it, it’s harder. If you do, it’s less about the making of it, and yeah, all about the marketing and trying to get the work out there. You never truly know who’s reading or who’s enjoying it. Thank God for Twitter, because I get feedback from a few folks there. Facebook is a good tool, too. I find making the comic easy, but I swear I drive myself crazy because I have no idea if I’m just doing it for myself or for some hypothetical audience.
Look, let’s be honest. I’ve tried to do two webcomics (Stuck and FCHS) and both were … I’d never call them failures, but no one really noticed them beyond a small niche. This is the first time I’m doing superheroes on the web, and I think that lends itself better to … let’s call it “casual browsing” as if the internet were one big retailer of comics (’cause it is). I’m learning. Slowly, but I’m learning.