Ch05En: Grizz–Interview with Superhero author William Dickstein
I think the best way to introduce William Dickstein and the very long interview I had with him is thusly: He’s a fan of Neil Gaiman. I mean, yeah, I should detail his superhero series called Ch05En–which is based on genetics and the idea that literally everyone on planet Earth could just turn into a superhero should the right or wrong thing happen–but Neil Gaiman is awesome and anyone who likes him is probably awesome too. Transitive property hard at work here.
But if that doesn’t sell you, here’s what you’ll be getting into should you pursue Mr. Dickstein’s vast collection of novellas and short stories, which have been ongoing since early 2014:
A latent Ch05En gene destines someone for greatness. Maybe you’ll be a rock star, or CEO of a Fortune 500. You might save somebody’s life, or give birth to the greatest supporting actress of all time.
Maybe you’ll be a superhero.
Those with powers often join the Global Society of Superheroes, known more commonly as the GSS. These people become Capes. They are our protectors in a world of infinite possibilities.
A world where the terrorist organization known as The Aggregate lives to instill fear in the masses.
Welcome to the world of Ch05En.
Where we’re one suddenly-activated Fate Gene away from total salvation…
Or complete annihilation.
Does that sound cool? If so, you’ll be happy to know that Mr. Dickstein is releasing his first comic book in this universe of his titled Ch05En: Grizz. It releases May 1st, 2016 and is currently available for preorder on Amazon.
Now on to the show.
WeTheNerdy: I don’t want to be that, “Where do you get your ideas?” guy, but how did you come up with the Ch05En gene as a concept, and more importantly, what made you want to make it global (where literally everyone has the gene)?
William Dickstein: So, I started playing with the idea in early 2013, and it sort of built itself. I liked the idea that there could be this Fate Gene, and that even if you had it, it might not do anything for you if it wasn’t active.
Eventually I decided that if this Fate Gene existed, people with an active Ch05En gene would probably be labeled something eventually. And if the gene were given the markers of Ch05En, it’d probably only take a day for someone, the media or whoever, to decide that people with the active gene would be called Chosen.
I guess part of it is also my personal opinion on destiny. People with a latent Ch05En gene are destined for greatness, but their gene might never become active. Some people are born with active genes, but a lot of people have their Ch05En gene activate after they’re born, normally in a life or death scenario. And there are people in this universe with no Ch05En gene at all, which I touch on in the novellas.
Part of the whole thing too is, with all of the works in this universe, you’re getting stories told in first person from the perspective of the character. There’s an underlying truth to their universe that many of them are only partially aware of, just like in real life. The characters sound confident when they tell their stories that things happened the way they’re describing, but people who read Episodes 1-5 and then hop over to the Origins Anthology (MegaTech, Jane, Ripsaw) will find pretty quickly that the change in perspective paints a wholly different picture in some areas.
WTN: Your blurb mentions that the Ch05En gene can do more for a person than give him/her superpowers; there’s fame and fortune too. I’ve looked through your catalogue and am wondering if you plan on exploring those aspects of the gene as well. Being the world’s greatest supporting actress is a bit less glamorous than saving the world, but only a bit!
WD: This is a great question! I sort of have already done this, though not in the way that you’re getting at. The main character in Ch05En: Episode 3 is, for the most part, a regular guy. His story ties into Ch05En: Jane, and I don’t want to spoil anything too huge for people who haven’t read either of them, but his gene doesn’t give him powers in the traditional sense. Whether or not something is coming where the main character is completely removed from all of that remains to be seen, I guess. I don’t have anything planned for someone like that in the near future, but don’t rule it out!
WTN: When doing a bit of research, I came across your Reddit thread searching for artists. Care to elaborate on that experience a bit more? What’s it like using social media to find talented people to collaborate with? Because dang, I love the artwork in Ch05En: Grizz. It’s got a ton of style.
WD: Thank you for the compliment! Turning to Reddit and r/comicbookcollabs wasn’t my first choice–I had been trying to get some comics off the ground for almost two years with no luck. When I want to get something done, though, that’s it: I’m going to figure it out.
The big thing right now as far as I can tell, and I’m sure you’re already aware of this, is to get enough money set aside to get a few pages done and then try to fundraise for the rest. It’s so common that Kickstarter has a separate comics category in their Discover section of their site. I didn’t want to do that for a whole bunch of reasons, the biggest one being that I have no idea how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign. After familiarizing myself with industry rates, I decided I was just going to save up enough to pay for it all myself.
Using social media to find talented people to collaborate with is really, really fun. There’s a lot of different places you can go to look for artists. I had a forty minute conversation over Facebook Messenger with a friend of a friend when I was still looking for artists, and he gave me a ton of links. The big fear was that I’d start working with someone, get halfway through the project, and they’d disappear. That actually ended up being a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it’s almost exactly what happened! I had started working with an artist I found on Reddit, got some great concept art and pencils, and then they disappeared completely.
When I had decided to go with Reddit, though, it was because it let me be completely open about the project. I didn’t hold anything back in the original post, and I received a ton of offers from a lot of really great artists. So once that first artist didn’t work out, I just went back to the list of people who had reached out to me. After some googling, I saw that Lukasz actually happened to be working with other people in Las Vegas, and I reached out to them as a way to sort of check his references. They gave him a glowing review, and I liked the work that he and Kamil were putting out, so it was a pretty easy decision after that.
I honestly couldn’t be happier with the end result, regardless of the speed bumps I hit along the way.
WTN: It’s early in 2016 and I can’t help but think superheroes are bigger than ever. What’s it like being a part of that? Where do you want to see superheroes go next?
WD: Man, this is a tough question! To speak to the first part, I’ve always loved superheroes. I think a lot of people born in the late 80’s and early 90’s can say the same, with the old X-Men and Spiderman cartoons, etc. It’s been really fun, even just with the tiny portion of the market I’ve developed for myself so far.
A lot of people who like superhero stuff don’t necessarily read superhero literature, so getting to introduce the genre to people is very exciting. Overall though, I’m having a great time.
Regarding where I’d like to see things go next–I’m really enjoying how quickly on-demand video services like Netflix and Hulu can get content out. I’d like to start seeing some of the Image or Darkhorse titles get their own shows. I thought the Hellboy movies were pretty great, and The Walking Dead is huge. An Invincible show would be really fun, I think. Or, bringing it over to Vertigo, an Astro City show would be great too. I love Astro City because of how often the focus shifts, and as a show I almost think it could operate sort of like a Black Mirror or Twilight Zone format, where each episode is an hour and focuses on something completely different. But instead of being creepy, it’s about superheroes or the people around them.
WTN: You’ve tackled short stories, novellas, and now comic books. What’s your favorite of the three, and do you ever plan on doing a full-on Ch05En novel?
WD: If I’m trying to emulate anybody, it’s Neil Gaiman. Absolutely my favorite thing to do is write shorter works. I’ve only done the one volume of comics, though, so that might change. Right now I’m having a lot of fun with the monthly flash fiction in the Ch05En Newsletter.
I’m actually working on the full-length Ch05En novel now! I’m on track to have the first draft done by the end of March.
WTN: I absolutely adore Neil Gaiman! Self serving question, but do you think a comic series will ever top Sandman?
WD: That Sandman question is a tough one, and I think there are a lot of ways to approach it. Just to give you some background on where I’m coming from: I read a modest amount of comics per week–upwards of 20 to 30, most of them DC and Image titles. I’m a big DC/Vertigo fan though; I have a Green Lantern tattoo (take that for what it’s worth). I also didn’t start reading comics until I was about 21, which was six years ago. I actually got into Gaiman’s novels before I ever even knew Sandman existed, having picked up Neverwhere on a whim when I lived in Reno, and then immediately reading American Gods. I finally got around to reading Sandman after a few months of the New 52, which was my jumping off point for getting into reading comics regularly.
Eventually I was going back and reading the older storylines, hitting all of the greats like The Killing Joke, Blackest Night, and all of that, and I worked my way around to Sandman. For someone whose point of reference was current artwork in 2010, it was a big shift to start reading something that was from the year I was born. It was a little hard for me to look at for the first few pages, and tough for me to stay engaged. But I’d say that opinion pretty much faded away towards the end of the first issue–maybe even after just a few pages. And then, like everybody else, I found myself forty or fifty issues in, telling everyone I knew about how cool it was when Dream had his battle with Choronzon, desperately waiting for another instance of Morpheus meeting up with the man in the bar because what a COOL concept, right?
I guess it’s tough to say if I think there will ever be a series that tops Sandman. Probably not in the ways that we want it to, but maybe in others we didn’t know we were looking for.
WTN: In terms of actually writing/designing a story, what’s it like to go from purely written to written with pictures? Did your artists end up influencing your story’s direction at all?
WD: Going from purely written to written with pictures was sort of a challenge. The bigger challenge was getting used to formatting a comic book outline. I’m still not quite used to it; I don’t have any kind of screenwriting or film background, so there was a bit of a learning curve there. I guess my answer to your first question sort of ties into your second because I really tried my best to make sure that I only included key details where I thought they were necessary. I wanted to give whatever artist(s) I ended up working with creative license to own the material with their own style and flavor.
One thing I was striving for was to find somebody who was going to be passionate about the project even though I was going to be paying them. I think passion as a fuel behind any kind of art is important. So, in a way, Kamil and Lukasz had a pretty big influence on the story’s direction because I gave them plenty of creative license with regards to how things looked and, in the case of Kush especially, how the characters were designed.
In the original character notes I had written up, there was nothing about Kush wearing a tuxedo or having a bow tie. They just drew him that way, and I really liked it. The bigger points in the story were otherwise fixed, since I wrote all of the outlines before production actually began. Some designs were fixed because a lot of the characters in the comics had already appeared in novellas, like Grizz and Hunter and Ripsaw. They actually drew a version of Ripsaw with a really cool sword, and I couldn’t let them run with it because he’s got an entire novella all to himself without a single sword in it.
But there are plenty of details like Kush’s bow tie that weren’t present until Lukasz and Kamil started drawing the comics that I think have a big impact on how the comics are perceived overall. I certainly think the two of them managed to seriously enhance the outlines I had written, and I’m hoping other people feel the same way that I do.
WTN: I’m kind of surprised about Kush’s design. He’s got this 007 vibe to him and I really figured that was your doing. I’m curious what you envisioned him to look like then, especially since his design was way more monster than man for most of the comic. Not sure his fate gene blessed him at all in that regard.
WD: I definitely wanted him to be more octopus than person, and that was in the character notes. I was really only firm on the extra arms, the suckers, and the possibility for a beak behind his lips, because I thought that visual could be really fun and gross. I liked the idea of him having darker skin, and I wanted to play around with incorporating other little octopus things for him to do, but a lot of them didn’t make it in.
Ultimately, the character model that we went with wasn’t completely different than what I had written, it’s just that I hadn’t said to put him in the tuxedo and bow tie. But when that’s what he was wearing, it really felt right for his character.
You’re certainly right about Kush’s gene, though. And that’s the way it is for some people. There are a lot of people in the Ch05En universe whose lives were basically ruined after their gene activated, as readers of the novellas will find. There are all kinds of local and online support groups available for people who are having trouble coping with the sudden changes to their body or lifestyle.
Some people’s gene activates and their fingernails won’t stop growing, or every piece of bread they touch turns to metal and, dang it, they’ve just ruined another Sunday dinner. A latent Ch05En gene destines someone for greatness, but even an active gene doesn’t guarantee a happy life. Hopefully that shines through a bit for Kush, and readers of the comic can maybe relate to him a little. As much as you can relate to an octopus person, anyway.
WTN: Alright, I gotta ask. What’s up with the numbers and capitals in the name? I don’t imagine any of it is random.
WD: You are correct! So, I started with the idea that in this universe, people have a special gene that destines them for greatness. And when I knew that was the idea I wanted to run with, I had to learn a little bit about gene nomenclature. There’s a lot to learn there, as you can imagine, but the big takeaway was that depending on a ton of factors, genes normally end up being named a combination of letters and numbers. Actually naming them can get pretty complicated in the real world, but if you were to look at a list of gene names, I think the letter and number combinations are definitely a primary takeaway.
Once I knew that, the novelty of giving this Fate Gene the markers of Ch05En just kind of felt right.
I ended up sticking with the idea after googling around a bit as well. Before I started writing Episode 1, I knew I wanted to take whatever I was going to work on and pursue self-publishing. In 2013, if you typed Ch05En into Google, you were met with widely varied results. It wasn’t a very strong keyword for anything in particular, and I knew that I could take over the organic results pretty quickly. I had to make sure that whatever I named my brand, I wasn’t going to get lost in the search results, so Ch05En ended up being an easy choice.
WTN: You have an impressive catalogue on Amazon, and it looks like a nice following of readers. Any parting tips for writers/illustrators hoping to hit the world of Amazon self publishing?
WD: Thank you for saying that! I’ve got a few nuggets of wisdom that have helped me so far: Set goals that are realistic and then do what you have to so that you hit them. Always be working to improve and learn from criticism. Not everyone is going to like your work, and that’s okay.
Those are my biggest takeaways, and I think it’s good to remember them.
And one last friendly reminder that Ch05En: Grizz releases May 1st, 2016 and is currently available for preorder on Amazon. Keep tuned to WTN for our review of the comic, which will drop sometime in late April.