James R. Tramontana

How To Win Friends and Influence People 19 Oct 2017

...with Comic Books, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Space Truckers

Recently I was asked to speak to a local university’s comic book club about my journey through the topsy-turvy world of comic book creation and beyond. The president of the club was familiar with much of my work and specifically interested in my niche of combining music and comics in unique packages.

I agreed but prefaced the presentation by stating I would focus on some key things I was most proud of, not to toot my own horn, but to illustrate how every cool thing I’ve made was the result of a ton of effort and has lead to something even cooler down the road. In the current environment of rampant immediate satisfaction, I wanted to stress that all my meager successes were the result of tremendous amounts of research, work, trial and error. I wanted to show a clear progression from clumsy neophyte to proficient dilettante, using all of my talents and passions to create immersive multi-media stories.

The presentation went well, so I thought I would expand on it a little for you fine folks who weren’t lucky enough to be at the presentation.

Just a Lad

One of my earliest childhood memories is seeing Spider-Man and Captain America at a mall. It was some sort of promotional live-action show and it was amazing. I still have the flyer from the show. It hangs framed on a wall in my studio and reminds of where my comic mania started.

As a kid, I watched every cartoon and live-action superhero show I could get my eyeballs on and bought comics from the local Magic Mart with my meager allowance. When I was about 8-years-old an older friend took me to a truly magical place: a comic book store. I had never seen so many comics in one place at one time! I was accustomed to the skimpy offerings of the local stop-and-rob’s spinner rack. This was truly something else. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling comic books! Needless to say, I was hooked and was a total comic book crackhead until I was about 16-years-old when I started getting into girls and playing in bands — totally unrelated, by the way. But fear not, true believers. My time as a musician is directly responsible for turning me into a comic creator.

For the Benefit of Evil

My band, Red Hot Rebellion, released our debut album with a tie-in comic book telling the story of a beat down work-a-day slob who becomes a bona fide Rock ‘n’ Roll monster thanks to a handy deal with the Devil. We hit the road, playing crappy bars and listening rooms across the U.S. We were building a regional fan base, slugging it out in the seedy underbelly of the underground rock scene, sometimes playing to just 10 people (the dudes in the other bands on the bill that night). It’s a common story that you’ve heard a million times: a small band paying its dues, blah, blah, blah.

But then something magical happened. I started exhibiting at comic book conventions.

Instead of spending my nights shouting over blaring guitars at half-inebriated would-be fans, I was able to have real in-depth conversations in an environment where you can cut the excitement with bloody adamantium claws! Additionally, there’s one important thing that sets comic con attendees apart from the casual beer-swilling bar gig rocker: they are there to buy!

At my first convention, I sold at least double the amount of merchandise the band usually sells at a bar show. And I didn’t have to stay out until 4 AM to do it. What a concept! Needless to say, I was hooked.

Melt the Sky

Fast forward to a spring day where I find myself sitting at an airport bar, awaiting a flight for my day job (yes, I need to work day job – my band is not the Foo Fighters and I sure ain’t Robert Kirkman).

As I wiled away the time, slowing draining a pint of Guinness, I watched some flavor-of-the-week musical fluff on the bar TV. I began lamenting the current state of popular music and how weak it had become. After a few pints, it hit me. What if aliens from the other side of the galaxy listening to our music were just as appalled as I was? What if they consider balls-out Rock ‘n’ Roll to be the highest form of musical expression? What if it was the one thing that separates lesser species from the more evolved? What if a thriving rock scene was a prerequisite to joining a great Galactic Union of advanced worlds? What would those aliens do to steer us back on the right path? Why, they would send a band to Earth to set things right, that’s what!

So, while on the flight to Philadelphia, I scrawled out a basic outline that would later become a 60-page graphic novel and a 13-song concept album about a band of aliens who come to Earth to save the world with the power of Rock ‘n’ Roll!

Creating that comic book and album would eat up all my free time and most of my sanity over the next year and a half.

Making Comic Books is Hard

It’s a miracle that any comics are ever made because there are soooo many moving parts. The first Red Hot Rebellion comic was small and basically just an extension of what would go into a normal album’s worth of artwork. The story I wrote for the little 10-page comic was an afterthought. Just something interesting to package with the album. But what I wanted to do with the second album was MASSIVE.

I teamed up with a local comic book studio that worked like a bigger production house. One guy does the pencils, another inks, another colors, another letters, etc. etc. I wrote up a detailed outline for the story (not a full script because the penciler was used to working from his own interpretation rather than a scripted panel by panel description). Then, I met with the studio to come up with a budget.

Making Comic Books is Expensive

Unless you are someone who can do it all yourself, you have to hire other people to help with the creation. I’m a writer. I can’t draw for shit.

(But keep this notion of doing it all yourself in mind, as it will come up again when I tie all this craziness together).

This project was a battle on two fronts: a full album and comic book. I had to cover recording costs AND comic artwork costs. Plus the printing and pressing of both. After meeting with the comic studio and the recording studio, I decided to do a Kickstarter to fund the damn thing.

At the time, I had backed exactly one Kickstarter campaign and was familiar with the basics. However, in order to run one myself, I needed more information. I absorbed all I could on Kickstarter’s own Kickstarter School, watched YouTube videos, read blogs, checked out Kickstarter For Dummies from my local library and reached out to a friend who had run two successful campaigns. I watched countless Kickstarter project videos, noting what worked, what didn’t, what annoyed me, etc. I analyzed backer rewards, created several, ran them by trusted sources, and edited them down.

Next, I wrote a script for our very own Kickstarter video, created a storyboard, shot the video with my super talented bandmates — we each took turns playing the roles of onscreen talent, lighting tech, videographer and sound engineer. I edited the video myself (having spent the past several months dabbling with Adobe Premier to the point where I was now reasonably barely competent) and began amassing lists of bloggers, friends, family, and acquaintances.

After we were satisfied with the video, I began building the Kickstarter campaign page and reached out to comic and music bloggers. Connections were made. Friendships established. The excitement was building and people were ready to spread the word the moment we launched.

3,2,1 Blast Off

Within three days of launching, we had posts on more than 30 different blogs, our campaign video had thousands of views across several different sites, we got hundreds of shares and tweets on Facebook and Twitter and were 25% funded. By the end of the week, we climbed to 40% funded. Then progress slowed. We were prepared for this to happen, as conventional wisdom said that most campaigns experience a slowdown in middle. However, our slowdown turned into a complete halt when Kickstarter announced they’d been hacked.

As it turned out, luckily, the hacking incident did not torpedo the campaign. It succeeded and was 104% funded! But, the hacking of Kickstarter was just one in a string of problems that crept up. Shit was about to get hairy.

When Life Gives You Lemons, Ask Why it Didn’t Give You Money Instead

The comic book studio went through THREE different colorists because they kept flaking out. Also, the comic book ballooned from 24 pages to 60 because the pencil artist couldn’t cram the story I outlined into 24 pages. More pages meant more cost for art and printing. All of this took months to sort out and we were past due for delivery of the products. Enter more stress, more hemming and hawing.

Thankfully all the backers were cool and no one complained. I think they all understood this was a MASSIVE undertaking. I was managing the production of a 13-song concept album (the writing of the songs based on the story I wrote, the recording, the mixing, the pressing) PLUS the comic book side of things. Long story, short: it all worked out and came out awesome. Yet, in addition to being late, it went over budget and I had to foot several hundred dollars out of pocket. Not so cool.

More Comics, More Comics

Red Hot Rebellion: The Mission” was released and instantly heralded across the galaxy as a triumph! Fans of music and comics alike ate it up. This leads me to exhibit at more comic conventions, allowed me to meet more fans and interface with more comic creators. Which all lead me to want to create MORE COMICS.

Since “The Mission,” I’ve released four more comics and had one of my stories appear in a horror anthology produced by Rus Wooton, the letterer of the Walking Dead(and just about every other super cool comic Image Comics puts out). I’ve attended numerous comic conventions and played dozens of rock shows with bands large and small. And I was not going to slow down anytime soon.

Space Truckin’

The initial idea for Ace Tucker Space Trucker came to me at, guess what, a comic convention. I was brainstorming some ideas for new comics and I was telling a younger artist friend that all the trucker movies in the 70’s and 80’s — at least the good ones — had chimpanzee or orangutan sidekicks to the main character. Why the shit not? Monkeys are funny, right?

I thought it would be fun to have a story about a trucker in outer space who had a cyborg chimp as a sidekick — more on that in a minute. About that time I had completed ANOTHER successful Kickstarter. Again, it was a giant pain in the ass and there were several production problems that I won’t bore you with here. Although the campaign was a success, it left me feeling frustrated that so many things were outside of my control when it came to comic book creation. Remember, I’m a writer. I can’t draw.

I just couldn’t shake the idea that Ace Tucker Space Trucker needed to be told. The more I brainstormed, the most it screamed to be brought into the world. It had been churning around in my head for weeks before I up and decided, “You know what? I’m going to do this damn thing myself. I’m going to write it this thing as a novel!”

The only problem was, even though I possessed a bachelor degree in creative writing, I had no idea how to actually write a novel.

I took a writing class with James Patterson and watched a ton of YouTube videos, read books, listened to podcasts, etc. And then started writing the novel. Then scrapped it and started it again. Then scrapped it again and started a third time. I continued to study and hone my craft. Eventually, over the next year and a half, I finally wrote the damn thing. And without sounding like too much of a pompous ass, I must say it is 280 glorious pages of sheer awesomeness.

Once the Ace Tucker Space Trucker novel was finished I unleashed it on a few strangers to get some unbiased feedback. All them told me, “Dude. Go find a publisher for this, now!” (O.K. I’m paraphrasing, but that was honestly the sentiment from my beta readers).

Traditional Publishing is a Fickle Mistress

I began the lengthy and arduous process of querying literary agents, which ate up about another 6 months. The feedback I received was largely positive. Most loved it but felt it was too weird for them. I should point out here that I was going after major literary agents and publishers.

Fiction is not selling particularly well these days unless it’s geared towards a young adult audience and has magic or sparkly mermaids, or some shit. The advice I kept hearing was, “This is cool but it’s too bizarre for the major publishers. For them to even look at this, you need to focus on building an online platform where you can cultivate a significant fan base to prove that this is something people actually like.”

I saw a lot of writers doing YouTube videos and blogging about the craft of writing and the meatgrinder that is the traditional publishing industry. I saw there was a glut of advice on writing and editing and publishing. I felt there was nothing new I could add to the conversation. Plus, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to TELL my story while building an online “platform.”

Power Records to the Rescue!

I’m not 100% sure when I got the idea to tell Ace Tucker Space Trucker as an audio drama but I can tell you I’ve always been a fan of that kind of storytelling. I’m going to date myself here, but when I was a kid, I had a few Power Records LPs featuring Spider-Man and Batman. Each side of the record told a full story like an old-timey radio play with sound effects, voice acting, music, etc. I loved them. I played them so much, I wore them out. I guess it stuck with me because I’ve always loved the combination of the audio and the visual to tell stories (hence all the albums I’ve released that came with comics). But instead of the music being the focus this time, I wanted the STORY to be the showpiece. I wanted it to be complete theatre of the mind. With the success of podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale, The Message, Life/After, Black Tapes, Tales from the Magic Tavern, etc. and a huge tradition of audio drama across the pond in England slowly trickling over to the United States, I thought, “Why the hell not?”

More Cowbell

I have been in recording studios most of my life. I know how to use ProTools. I have a studio in my basement. I’m a decent actor and even if the acting is horrible, that could be funny too. Why not try to do it all myself and make an old timey radio play-style show with Ace Tucker Space Trucker?

I took the first few chapters of the Ace Tucker Space Trucker novel and rewrote them as a single 20-minute audio drama script. Then recorded it, just to see 1) if I actually could do it all myself and 2) if it was cool. And lo and behold. It kicked a lot of ass. Next, I got feedback from some trusted sources who all told me it was amazing. I spent the next month cutting up the novel into 17 separate episodes all running about 20 minutes each.

DIY till I Die

The Ace Tucker Space Trucker serial sci-fi comedy podcast turned out to be a total comic book for your ears. Additionally, it is something I can do entirely myself. It is the confluence of all my skills and passions in one package. Storytelling, music, sound design, sound effects, recording, editing. It’s the apex what I’ve been building towards through years of other creative projects. It takes me anywhere from 15 – 30 hours to create each episode. Since any good modern production needs background music, I use music from all my bands past and present. I also do custom scoring and use a sparse amount of creative commons free library music. I write, record, edit, score and perform all the characters. It launched in June and has been gaining listeners all over the world. It’s not yet a giant behemoth like Serial or Welcome to Night Vale, but the downloads keep going up and more importantly it is a hell of a lot of fun to make.

Ace Tucker Space Trucker Novel (Update)

The novel is now out and burning up the sales charts. Grab a copy for yourself at any fine book retailer. Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Novel, etc. etc. etc. If your local book shop doesn't have it, they can order it. Here's a few links:

Amazon ebook

Amazon physical book

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