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Behemoth’s New Monster

Steve Ekstrom

A little bit of full disclosure to start: I’ve known Steve Ekstrom for years. He served with me on the Best Shots team at Newsarama, and wrote for my ShotgunReviews.com. I joined him when he spearheaded the Imminent Press Kickstarter for Terminal. He lettered part of Sparkshooter. In a way, that makes me an ideal interviewer rather than a conflicted one, because I know where the bodies are buried; I helped bury some myself. But now, Steve, who has worked in and around comics for years, is back with a new title, a new job, and a new mission. He’s the new Editorial Director for up-and-coming publisher Behemoth Comics. And like that name might imply, there’s here to do some damage.

Graphic Policy: Some people might remember you writing for Newsarama many moons ago. I’ve talked to a lot of other people about this, so here goes: in what way was working in comics journalism a help, and in what ways was it a hindrance, when it came to breaking into comics? Would you do that differently now?

Steve Ekstrom: Wow, big guns first, I still like the cut of your journalistic jib after all this years, my friend.

I think being a journalist in comics for nearly a decade taught me a lot of valuable lessons in professionalism like “Don’t go into business for yourself while you’re working on projects for other people or publishers” or “This is the proper decorum for interacting with established creators” or “Try not to ruin your own career by writing really negative reviews full of hyperbole that attack the creators ability to make a paycheck.”

Those are all lessons I had to learn through experience. I feel like a cat that’s missing three or four lives now but I’m still out here trying to tell stories and make comics. [laughs]

I will admit that journalism did open doors for me in that it gave me a degree of notoriety and the ability to guarantee smaller publishers at least one interview to cover their content because, contrary to popular belief, most major websites do NOT adequately cover lesser-known indie creators who are just starting out. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of needing all your articles to drive clicks and/ or the need to be first with major news items for trending moments on social media.

In terms of doing things differently, I would have played less World of Warcraft when I was still just starting out. I would have tried to save more money to pay professionals to get things done faster. I was very fortunate to get to work with artists and colorists who were starting out just like me and we were all hungry and working for free. We needed small amounts of content to create a body of work to show competency so that’s what we did. Did I offer to pay in exposure? Sure, a little bit. If you’re just starting out and you put the right squad together magic can happen.

Graphic Policy: I think that Matt Brady is an underappreciated figure in comics in the 2000s. What impact did he have on you?

Steve Ekstrom: Let’s be honest here: You gave me my first invite to the party. You saw that I had some writing talent on MySpace of all places way back in the middle of 2006. You offered me a spot in the Best Shots squad. I didn’t even KNOW how big Newsarama was until I spoke to my old college friend, Adam Tracey, who was the Managing Editor of Toyfare Magazine at the time.

Matt Brady gave me my first paycheck as a journalist in the comics industry. He gave me the confidence to be the work horse I wanted to become in my first year at Newsarama and he let me earn my spot. I will always be forever indebted to the two of you.

In all seriousness, I want to see Matt write a Power of the Atom book at DC. He pitched it to me one time when we were heading to a mixer for DC Comics in San Diego and it was glorious. I’ve also had the pleasure of editing some of Matt’s work a couple of years ago; he’s incredibly talented.

Make some more damn pamphlets, Matt.

Graphic Policy: Tell us about your experience with DC’s old ZUDA program.

Steve Ekstrom: It was eye-opening to say the least. I learned so much about actually “making” comics in that time period. The 4:3 format was unique and frustrating because it changed the way you tackled a page and the “grid”.

I also learned a lot about marketing a project for a competition. So much hustling is needed! It was kind of the same sort of month long sprint you make with a crowd-sourcing campaign. This was also way back before everyone and their mother was online every single day for 12 hours a day on their phones. And I totally sucked at Twitter back then…and, well, I still do.

Mostly, I learned a valuable lesson regarding “word economy” in sequential storytelling. I shoehorned a ton of information into our 8 page submission thinking, “Oh, yeah, if they can get past the heavy lifting in the intro, they’ll get action-packed explosions and wrestling with albino crocodiles in the next 8 page segment.” Not so much. We came in third for the month with over 60,000 views for “The Ares Imperative”. [laughs]

Graphic Policy: You’ve been on the positive and the negative side of crowdfunding experiences. What did you learn from both outcomes? And what do you think of the ways the crowdfunding is being used today?

Steve Ekstrom: I know that I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded but that’s just part of the process. You’re not living your life if you’re not failing upward at times.

Truthfully, there’s a lot of nuance to it. Knowing which month to campaign or which extras to add or how to get estimates on everything connected to your funding goals and still hitting a reasonable over-funded benchmark for the project you’re presenting. All of it. It’s a LOT. The goal also has to make sense in regard to what you’re offering. I totally messed up on my first Kickstarter because I had no concept of scope. We were trying to raise $20K and we didn’t even have stories in the can yet. If you’ve never tried to crowd-source a book: DON’T DO THAT. Have stuff to show potential backers.

When we funded on our second outing, I learned how to be a small publisher. I learned how to package an entire book from concept to marketing to printing and distributing it out of my house. It was absolutely exhaustive but I loved every minute of it.

I want to see crowd-sourced comics continue to flourish and I want platforms like Kickstarter to keep creating opportunities for creators to make new comics that don’t have the luxury of bigger publishers’ bank rolls. I think there are murky lines being crossed when bigger companies have the scratch to make their own books without sourcing but I also understand that crowd-sourcing is just pre-ordering with extra steps most of the time. I could talk about the merits of these sorts of scenarios all day with the right group of creators.

Graphic Policy: In addition to writing, you also developed your lettering talents and began picking up work. What motivated you to do that, and is that something you plan to continue?

Steve Ekstrom:
Honestly? I made the same mistake most eager new creators and I devalued paid letterers by trying to learn how to do it cheaply on my own thinking that it would be “easy”. I was incredibly wrong.

Looking back, I got lucky because I have a touch of OCD so I would pour myself over my lettering until it looked professional on my first published story but it was still nowhere near the perfect digital stuff done by Nate Piekos or Richard Starking. I have learned to love the craft of lettering and typography.

The most important lesson I can impart on new creators: PAY THE LETTERER. You’re going to think that lettering is the least important aspect of the book. You’re wrong. Your story is the least important, writer person. The technical aspects of the book can easily carry a shitty story. Lettering is the least important part of production when new creators are considering what’s important. However, bad lettering is the FIRST aspect of a book to take a reader out of their experience reading your project if it’s done poorly.

I’d been lettering my own projects for roughly a decade before I felt comfortable enough to charge money for my services. Now, I offer to edit as I letter and it works really well with well-conceived projects that need minor polishing. They get both services for one low rate.

Going forward, I will be lettering for my limited number of clients as well as on most of the projects I will be writing or editing because it allows me to have tighter control over the production of the overall work. Now that I’m joining up with Behemoth, I may even start lettering some of their books I’m not connected to directly. I’m not allergic to money and I love making comics professionally. Let’s make this bread!

Graphic Policy: How did you first become involved with Behemoth?

Steve Ekstrom:
Mark Bertolini approached me to letter a project called “Feeder” with artist Darryl Knickrehm. Mark worked on Terminal Pulp Anthology with me and I absolutely loved Darryl’s style when I saw his work on The Argus at Action Labs. I jumped at the opportunity to have my name on the cover of this project.

Mark introduced me to Nathan [Yocum] and we got on the phone and talked for like 3 hours. He reminds me of a much more gigantic version of my best friend, Mark. He and I just live on this crazy wavelength made out of frenetic ambition, late night taco bell runs, horror movies and content strategy regarding making comics. He’s a soul brother, for sure.

Graphic Policy: You’ve just been named Editorial Director; can you outline what that job IS and what it DOES?

Steve Ekstrom: For me, I think one of the most important things a small publisher needs is brand identity. The comic industry has a sea of hobbyists and amateur creators who want to make comics so there is a massive body of work you have to swim through to get to the surface, to be seen and sell your products.

Having a clear cut vision for the direction of the creator-owned books is important. Understanding the marketplace and what sorts of books you want representing your brand is so crucial to competing in a large marketplace that has a diminishing number of brick and mortar stores with budgets and fickle readers. We’re all fighting for the same $20 every week. And you know what I’m going to say next…

$20 is $20.

Joking aside, I bring a wealth of practical business experience as a journalist and indie creator to the table. Behemoth was just a natural fit. They approached me about having a role at the company and said, “What would you like to do?” so I told them I wanted to help them create a monolithic brand and I wanted to have my hands on as many projects as a guy with two hands and a Doc Ock harness could handle. I love this industry and I would happily spend the rest of my life making these damn pamphlets.

As for my major role, I am going to be handling a new imprint of direct-to-digital projects called D2D. We’re still relatively small as a brand so investing in up-and-coming creators is a little risky in that we have a narrow margin for error if we pick up a project that doesn’t end up selling as well to retailers as our sales forecasts project. So, we want to create a space for creators who have projects that may not be quite ready for “prime time” but still could use an opportunity for growth and experience through our digital storefront on Comixology. It’s a win-win situation when you consider the outcome.

Rising stars can have a recognizable brand on their product while they learn to market on a smaller scale with less risk of having to worry about print thresholds in a competitive marketplace. In the event that we discover a sleeper hit digitally, we can turn around and produce a print run of a project or collect a trade with minimal overhead costs.

Graphic Policy: You’ve already expressed an interest in assembling unknown talent. Can you speak on why that’s important to you?

Steve Ekstrom:
This is where I guess I should also mention I’m also going to be the editor of a direct-to-digital anthology project that we’re calling PRIMER. One of my first projects was published in an old anthology series called NEGATIVE BURN from Desperado Studios back in 2008. At the time, Negative Burn was the BEST place to find tomorrow’s creators and a lot of big names today got their first big breaks in that anthology.

I want to do the same thing with PRIMER. I know how hard it is to make comics and have them reach the right people so that you can develop yourself professionally. This is my chance to remember where I came from, to honor the people who gave me my first opportunities and to “pay it forward” by helping young creators who have the drive to persevere and the hunger to want to make polished, professional looking products. Again, it creates more opportunities for me to make comics. It doesn’t get any better than that but…

Making comics isn’t easy. Like at all.

The people who make it to the top of this industry are 1% of 1% of 1% of a body of people who all want to tell stories and all want to compete for the same five bucks. If you aren’t competitive and you aren’t constantly growing or developing your skills, you’re probably not going to get to write Spider-Man or Batman if that’s what you aim to do. Most of us have to earn that right with hard work and quantifiable sales figures. Hell, I’m still trying to get to that point in my career, too. [laughs]

All that said, there’s still going to be fairly strict submission process for D2D and PRIMER. I am going to be working with Nathan as well as our other Senior Editor, Kevin Roditeli, to iron out clear cut guidelines for our entire brand.

Graphic Policy: You’ve already worked on an anthology yourself with Terminal Pulp Anthology. What makes for a good collection, and how do you make Behemoth’s stand out?

Steve Ekstrom:
Ironically, the best advice I’ve ever heard about an anthology is this: “Your anthology can only be as good as the worst story” and, let me tell you, that advice is painfully accurate. I have spent a lot of time collecting all the popular anthologies that have come out over the past 20 years. All of them have a range of stories but the one factor that I remember seeing most? Technical proficiency.

As I said earlier, the least important part of a comic is the story and that’s coming from a guy who went to school to be a writer. It’s incredibly humbling to accept this as a truth. Good art, exceptional coloring, technically polished lettering can all elevate a mediocre story. So, yeah, be a good writer and know your craft but this entire medium is still visually based. Bring the quality with the visual elements so that those elements in turn elevate your story.

I plan to curate the line initially by privately approaching folks who are on the cusp of breaking into the big leagues. I want well-constructed shorts so I can set the bar for people who want to submit so they can, in turn, set the bar for themselves.

In 2008, I had my first submission packet put together for a project. It was drawn by a guy who was local to me, my cousin who had experience as a graphic designer helped me flat color the sample art and letter all of it with, yep, you guessed it, Comic Sans and it was atrocious. But I didn’t know any better. I had romanticized my efforts. I was ready to submit this turd straight to Image because I was “ready”.

I was working for Newsarama in San Diego at Comic-Con International and I showed my submission to CB Cebulski who was, at the time, promoting his project called “Wanderlust” at Image. He gave me the best advice of my career when he kindly didn’t rip my heart out of my chest and show it to me after looking at my atrocious submission.

He said, “Okay, I want you to look at your submission packet and look at this copy of my comic. Imagine that you had $5 and you walked into the comic shop and you saw your project sitting next to my project. Not knowing anything about either of these projects, based on your eye for quality as a fan of comics, which one of these two books would you buy based on the quality alone.”

I sat quietly for a short moment as dread built at the base of my stomach because I knew the answer instantly. I pointed at his book. He patted me on the arm and he said, “Look at the books that make it to the shelf. That’s what you’re competing against. Your project has to be as good as all of the other books that make it onto the shelves.”

It was an incredibly humbling lesson and probably the roughest one to learn first but it put me into a frame of mind where I knew I had to make every effort my best effort. I hope to impart that on others through the production of quality content.

Soko

Graphic Policy: Tell us about SOKO.

Steve Ekstrom: Soko is a really awesome police procedural/ crime project in a similar vein to that of Criminal or the movie The Departed and it is set in Serbia. I’m working on it with up-and-coming Serbian writer, Vanja Miskovic, as well as Italian artist Antonio Fuso who is on a hot streak right now with his project Wyrd being developed for television over at Dark Horse and Stargazer finishing up a healthy run at Mad Cave. We also have Antonio’s studio-mate Stefano Simeone on colors; he’s the artist for a Mega Man Fully Charged at BOOM!. We’re also sporting this ridiculously awesome cover on the first issue by one of my all-time favorites, Serbian artist, RM Guera who most folks will remember for his epic run on Scalped at Vertigo.

This book is stacked with talent. Vanja and I both are very proud of what we’ve put together and we can’t wait for it to hit shelves in the late fall.

Without giving too much away because the solicits are coming soon, Soko focuses on systemic corruption in law enforcement while exploring modern dilemmas in that region of the world that are connected to human trafficking as well as fuel smuggling.

Graphic Policy: What other Behemoth books should people be checking out RIGHT NOW, and why? What makes a “Behemoth book”?

You Promised Me Darkness is absolutely chewing up the market right now as it keeps breaking these crazy sales records as a black and white horror comic in a marketplace where four-color comics reign supreme. I am absolutely loving all the excitement looming for this series as it hits shelves over the summer. There are some really exciting licensed books that we’ll be announcing soon enough that will probably turn some heads, too. We’ll have to wait and see! I don’t want to spoil anything just yet.

Also, check out Kevin Roditeli’s Happy Tank imprint. This guy is an absolute animal whose energy is contagious. He’s at the helm of our MFKZ project that I think is going to be big deal book this year.

Graphic Policy: It’s no secret that comics is a volatile field. Behemoth is making important deals with the likes of Simon & Schuster and Netflix. How critical is that to the ongoing success of a young company, and how to those alliances impact the development of new titles?

Steve Ekstrom: I think the most important thing we can do is continue to provide top-notch content. I know that seems like such a generic answer, but when you think about it, quality is really all it boils down to when you’re in a market where two companies hold 90-ish% of the sales figures.

We just have to keep making solid choices on the content we’re going to produce. Nathan and Ryan have some really fantastic concepts for marketable products coming down the pipeline that I would have never conceived on my own. I can’t wait to talk more about this stuff as it comes to fruition.

Other than quality, we just need to keep finding hungry talent with projects that fit our mold. This is a savvy brand that, while we may have sort of an outlier’s sensibility, we’re also determined to put out technically competent, well-crafted comics and graphic novels as well as innovative cross-promotional materials like miniatures, shirts and even records. We’ve got vinyl, man! How cool is that?

Graphic Policy: Last words: what do you personally want the world to know about you and the work you’re about to do?

Steve Ekstrom: I’m an ambidextrous Scorpio with a penchant for 70’s R&B and enchiladas? Nah, that’s pretty much common knowledge…

Right now, I am connected to seven or eight ridiculously amazing projects as either a writer, a letterer, an editor or some amalgamation of those three roles and I cannot wait to share these stories with the world.

I’ve spent my entire life loving comics as a fan. I grew up and went to school to learn how to write because I was a storyteller as a kid. I entered this industry as a guy who wanted to bring reader response criticism from the classroom to book reviews and I knew I wasn’t discovering fire or anything but I wanted to put butts in seats and I did it. I care about this business and I want to give back to it after a lifetime plus some of entertainment and joy.

I get to curate my own line of comics. I want to work with anyone that is hungry and motivated like me. I want to give a platform to new creators who understand how to make professional looking comics. This is a business first and foremost. We have to walk a line between commercially viable products, fine art and counter culture that surfs the edges of the cultural zeitgeist.

Keep your eyes on the Behemoth website and our social media for announcements concerning submission guidelines for D2D and PRIMER as well as other news about shows we will be attending later in the year and the release dates for all of our upcoming projects.

We’ve got content scheduled all the way out until the middle of 2022.

And we’re really just getting warmed up. All hail Behemoth!

Almost American