As regular downthetubes readers know, we’ve given a couple of mentions to the digital comics platform Tapastic here, highlighting some of the great strips featured. One of these is the intriguing Gateway City, a crime noir/ SF mash up by Portsmouth-based American artist Russell Mark Olson. On a trip south recently I caught up with Russell, to find out more about the strip and his work.
Russell Mark Olson hails from eastern Missouri in the US, but moved to the UK in 2008. He’s been a freelance illustrator since 2010 but has been working on comics since 2005 with an aim for a career in the industry. He’s been publishing the webcomic Gateway City since May 2016. He lives in Portsmouth with his ever-patient wife, Emily.
downthetubes: What are you currently working on and where can people see it?
Russell Mark Olson: I’m currently working on a webcomic called Gateway City, updated every Sunday on Tapastic.
Russell: It’s a noir/sci-fi comic (which I didn’t realize was already a genre when I began, but go figure!) about a subversive alien invasion in Saint Louis, Missouri in the 1920s. The main character, a private eye named Lundy Lundqvist, initially fights back against the aliens to solve a murder, but discovers the invasion has something to do with his past. It’s got all the usual tropes – bootleggers, crooked politicians, car chases, as well as a not-too-thinly veiled comment about the road to fascism.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so they say, and although I love my new adopted home (I’m in love with England, truth be told. It’s an exciting and beautiful place to live. Also, Eton Mess is probably the best food ever), I will always have a soft spot for Saint Louis and its surroundings. A few years ago I picked up a book called Egan’s Rats by Daniel Waugh, about the organized crime in the city during the first part of the Twentieth Century. Until reading about the Egans, Hogans and Russos, I had never known that the city had such a prominent gangland history.
I wanted to do a kind of Dick Tracy strip but with and even uglier rogue’s gallery. Aliens seemed to be the most obvious answer to the task of making uglier mugs than Pruneface or Persuasion. Add a sprinkling of Dashiell Hammett’s swagger and presto: Gateway City.
downthetubes: What are you are your plans for the strip and how long is the first story?
Russell: At the moment, I’m mainly doing the series to develop skills and set myself challenges… and most importantly, to amuse myself. That said, I did put together three proto-issues of Gateway City which remain unpublished, but inspired me to start back at square one and re-develop it into something I would be proud to publish. I’m telling the story in traditional 22 page issues and the first story arc should be complete after three issues, but the comic is long-form, so another story arc will start to bubble up well before the end of Issue Three.
It would be lovely to see the book in print one day. At the moment, I’m planning on trying to crowdfund a trade paperback, after 60+ pages to collect the first story arc.
downthetubes: Have there been any changes in the telling? For example, as you’ve planned the story out, has reaction to certain characters from readers prompted you to consider changing their role?
Russell: Not that anyone would notice, really. I did share the proto-issues with a few friends and took on board their suggestions. The first incarnation jumped around a bit in the timeline, whereas the new story, although starting with a past-tense voice-over, picks up from the first bit of action and carries on linearly.
I’ve also changed a few of the characters from the first version. Most noticeably, Pete, the dive bartender. He was originally a street vendor informant, but I felt he was a bit of a pastiche and a wasted opportunity. Race has played a prominent role in the shaping of the city and its culture from the 1917 race riots to more recently the Black Lives Matters movement (responding to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson). Pete will become just as important to the story as Lundy, and will hopefully give me an opportunity to explore another side of the city. My aim is to steer clear of the literary stock character, the Magical Negro, and to give Pete his own motivations and goals and keep him from becoming a Deus Ex Machina.
downthetubes: How do you plan your day as a creator? (Do you plan your day?)
Russell: I usually get up pretty early in the morning, 5:30-6ish, and put the coffee on. I give myself 30 minutes to catch up on news and shake off the cobwebs. After that, I get back to work where I left off the day before. I like to use every available hour to work, so in an effort to be more social, I’ve adopted materials and tools that allow me to work both at the drawing table and away from it. I did suffer from some painful RSI a few years ago, so I make sure to take breaks and pay attention to my body. Very important.
downthetubes: What’s the best thing about being a comics creator?
Russell: It’s a joy to draw, to compose images, create backdrops and fill them with characters and drama. Comics allow you to do this 4-6 times a page over and over again. It’s getting to be the most anal-retentive director, knowing that the cameraperson, actors and set-builders can’t complain while you tell your narrative.
downthetubes: And the worst?
Russell: Time. It takes a lot of time to make comics, and sometimes there just isn’t enough in the day to do it, especially when friends and family want and deserve your attention, too.
downthetubes: What most distracts you from getting your work done?
Russell: My phone…not talking or texting, but checking news, reading Twitter, getting sucked into the Wikipedia rabbit hole. Some days I manage it better than others. Deadlines usually help with that!
downthetubes: What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in the comics industry?
Russell: I’m a bit unqualified to answer this, as although I’m a professional illustrator, I’ve yet to have any comic work published professionally. That said, I’ve made some great contacts in the industry (including your good self) and will get there eventually.
The driving force that keeps me sanguine and busy is tenacity. You have to be fearless and tenacious in equal measure. It’s contrived, but not cliché: Failure is your friend. It makes you stronger and hurts less every time. Go out there and fail until you can’t help but succeed. I’d give every penny I have to go back in time and tell my 12 year-old self that.
downthetubes: What’s your favourite comic right now and where can people get it?
Russell: Anything Mark Waid and Chris Samnee are working on. I love that pairing. I’m also really digging The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Obviously, people can pick up copies online or at their comic shop, but I like to support my local, Room 237 in Southsea.
downthetubes: Russell, thanks very much for your time and the very best of luck with Gateway City.
• Follow Russell Mark Olson on Twitter @russell_m_olson