“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Anyone interested in a “DIY” approach to comics might want to consider the career of Jordan Alsaqa. Instead of standing outside the candy factory wishing someone would let him in, he set out to find artists and create his own comics one by one. Now multiple titles and successful Kickstarters later, Jordan’s established himself as a creator to watch, with his next venture a YA graphic novel trilogy from IDW.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer
Your home base: Seattle, WA
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? As a writer, what does this medium offer you that maybe others don’t?
Jordan Alsaqa: There’s two big things. The biggest is just collaboration — I really enjoy working in a collaborative medium, telling stories with other people. I started doing fan fiction like a lot of people my age, and I really liked the feedback nature of that. Even when I was in college … I went to college for creative writing and I did short stories, I did poetry, but it never felt like I fully clicked with it. And I honestly spent a lot of college not doing the work ‘cause I was 18, you know, 22, that range where you think you know what you want to do, but you’re not really thinking about it too hard. Um, but I just, uh, I really enjoyed comics.
The other aspect I enjoy about it is the brevity. I always got very stressed about short stories because of the detail you have to put in; you have to make sure every little detail is there because it’s all on you. I like the ability to talk to an artist and trust them to be able to fill in the gaps. It’s also a visual medium, so my script doesn’t have to be perfect. It helps hopefully to be good, but I don’t have to bear all the weight.
KS: I want to come back to that time in college, but let’s start at your growing up in North Carolina, before that path kind of took shape. What was your comics diet like early on?
JA: I liked newspaper strips a lot, but it started for me with the first comic I ever bought when I was maybe seven or eight: Sonic the Hedgehog from Archie Comics.
I think it was just at Waldenbooks in the mall on a spinner rack. I liked Sonic — first video game I ever played — and I’d love to see more of what’s happening in his world. I read that pretty religiously up until it got canceled. And then I read the IDW book even still, although now I can mostly read it in trades, like a lot of reading comics at this age.
KS: So, the video game was your gateway drug to that comic, which was your gateway drug to more titles?
JA: From there, I just stumbled more and more into comics. I started going to Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find, like a lot of people in Charlotte because they had Yu-Gi-Oh card night every week and I was big into playing [that]. I was the exact target demographic in the mid-2000s when Marvel had their Tsunami line, which was all of their manga-inspired Young Adult books. I read Runaways — that’s the big break-in book — but I also really loved Sean McKeever’s Sentinel. It wasn’t even the line specifically, I just remember being at a Borders and seeing, I think it was the sixth issue of Runaways and it was just, like, a teen girl, my age. It was intriguing. And that led to reading more Marvel stuff.
KS: Outside of bookstores, where were you finding this material?
JA: When I was in college, there were actually two shops right on the main college street called Foundation’s Edge and Capitol Comics, within maybe half a mile of each other. I was able to get a lot of exposure to more Marvel. And then really the big thing was the New 52. Again, I was kind of the target audience of someone who was interested in comics, but hadn’t read a lot of DC at that point.
KS: Did you gravitate more towards certain types of books than others? Or was it more about grabbing whatever looked interesting?
JA: It was a lot of that. I can remember a lot of books that were just experimenting and they didn’t always hit. One of the shops had back issues, but they didn’t have them necessarily in bags and boards all the time. They just had a huge selection of things, like the past five, 10 years that I could really go through and be like, “That looks interesting.” A lot of the 2000s books I read were because I just could pick it up and actually look at it, as opposed to having to sort of guess because it’s bagged and boarded. The only author that I really followed at that point was Brian K. Vaughan because of Runaways. I read Y the Last Man, I read Ex Machina, I read his Escapists mini-series. I was very into him as a writer, but I didn’t fully conceptualize following particular creators. At that point, it was more about characters.
KS: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. Thinking back on your time as a reader devouring all that new content, what was a comic story that really hit you at the right time at the right place?
JA: It really was Runaways. And even more specifically, the second arc of the run with “Teenage Wasteland,” where they’ve run away from home and they meet the vampire kid. Just all of the interpersonal dynamics. I think it did a really good job of capturing, not one to one, but a lot of the things you feel at that age. I think that’s why that book was so successful is that it actually did speak to an audience that wasn’t always served by Marvel Comics at that time, because so many of their heroes had grown up, which is not something I’m against — I actually love when Peter Parker gets to be an adult. But [Runaways] felt like those were the characters aimed at my generation. Same with Sentinel and the feeling like a loner, you know, having to find friends in acts of creation or things like that. That kind of spread to all the comics I read, just because I like a lot of the classics. I mean, doing creative writing in college, you read books [from the] 1800s, Jane Austen, all that stuff. And they’re well written and you can find things in them, but I liked the books that felt very much of the moment. It’s why I think it’s important to keep creating those new characters that aim at that younger generation. You need to be able to create new readers; the problem with the Big Two sometimes is they’re very focused on a diminishing older fanbase, but I think they’ve gotten better at doing that now.
KS: Many artistic kids — maybe even most — treat those pursuits as fun hobbies that eventually fall away as one “grows up.” Where did pursuing this as a career enter into your thinking? Did you ever have dreams of being an artist or was it always the writer’s calling?
JA: Well, when I was a kid, I would’ve said dentist. I was not an exciting kid. [laughter] I did debate in high school, which I enjoyed writing arguments for and whatnot. So, for a while I also thought lawyer, but that didn’t seem like it’d be a good fit for my personality type. I’d been writing just because I wanted to, for like seven years, by the time I got to senior year. Fan fiction. I did NaNoWriMo a few times when I was in high school and wrote very bad, full-draft novels. And I did a whole stick figure comic just for myself at school when I wasn’t paying attention, and probably should have been. I did [that] for, like, eight years; I would do daily scripts and I built a whole complex continuity.
KS: Asking as a fellow daily strip artist in my youth, who was the audience for that comic? Did you show it to family or friends?
JA: Mostly me. It was a creative exercise. The characters were all drawn from my friends, so I had a few friends that would read it. It started in eighth grade and it was just me drawing squares and very, very blatant pop culture references, but I would give it to like a friend in the morning — there’d be like 6, 7, 8 new squares that I’d drawn and they’d read them and they’d laugh. Then in high school, I had a few people that read it, but it was mostly for me, which is a good thing because it’s a very mid-2000s teenage boy idea of humor that I would not want to show to anybody.
KS: Coming back to senior year of high school, what was your mindset at that point about pursuing writing?
JA: I wanted to write. I didn’t necessarily know what that looked like; I should have because one of the things that convinced me to go to NC State was I went for a visit and one of the creative writing professors that met with me had the Y the Last Man trades, [which I] appreciated. It’s one of those trajectories that in retrospect seems very obvious, but on the way there, I was just kind of stumbling. I never wanted to grow up. I was never excited to be like, “Oh, I’m gonna be an adult now.” I was pretty happy just existing as a kid. How I got here was very much just a little “path of least resistance.” Although there’s certainly been struggling because that’s a creative career, it always seemed worth it to go through the part-time jobs and the retail positions and doing what I could find, because the thing that made me happiest was creating stuff.
KS: I can imagine parents suggesting creative writing as a college minor rather than a major. How was it at your house?
JA: It was split, but ultimately my mom, which is the parent I lived with, was supportive. She’s always wanted me to be realistic. And I mean, I took the classes you need to take to appease a parent, even without pressure. I took technical writing type classes … something that would be potentially more stable that I could fall back on. I was fortunate that I had that support. I’ve had the support of my partner as well. We’ve been together since high school, we went to college together, and even when I graduated, I still didn’t really have a grasp on what I wanted to do.
KS: What did that post-grad time look like?
JA: I spent a few months pursuing journalism, because I had been the first arts and entertainment and then the co-features editor [at the school newspaper] for my last year. I had some contacts; one of our student editors worked at the local paper. So, I poked around at that, did pitching, but again, around that same point is when I was working on the script for an anthology and that is what was drawing my actual interest. I ended up finding a job tutoring at a community college, so I had a stable job for a while until we started moving.
KS: There’s the anthology and we also have your first comic, Terminal Protocol. What kind of writing are you doing solely on your own as opposed to having an artistic collaborator in mind?
JA: Back then it was DeviantArt. My first artist, Rem [Broo], who’s in Germany, was looking at a DeviantArt forum. I got really lucky with him, because he had already done his first Image book at that point — The End Times of Bran and Ben — and he sent an email. There are a lot of artists you’ll hear from on there who are trying to lowball and trying to turn out art, which isn’t a judgment. I know that there’s a market for that, because there’s a lot of writers who are looking for that [too]. I was trying to find someone who would bring something to the book, and his first email came with a lot of ideas and sketch concepts just based on the small pitch we talked about. He already had a professional page rate, but he understood that I was starting out and we met in the middle on a page rate that was fair enough that I could do six pages for a Kickstarter. Looking back now, that’s still one of the biggest Kickstarters I’ve done, asking price-wise, because I had no frame of reference for how hard it might be. But that was also 2015; Kickstarter was just sort of taking off and wasn’t as flooded with projects at that point.
KS: You were also jumping into Kickstarter as a total unknown, at least in the comics field.
JA: I was very fortunate that I had a lot of friends and family who were excited to support. From there it became, “Now I have to build an actual audience.” I started being on Twitter more. I started following a lot of other artists and creators and writers. I made friends without realizing it. I met Marie Enger at Heroes Con, I guess that would’ve been 2016, and then I emailed months later and we started talking. We set a page rate. I was like, “I can do 14 pages. I can do a short and you can Kickstarter a print version.” Then, that book [Finding Peace] funded.
Marie was very kind describing me to people. I met other artists like Sally Cantirino. I met Ray Nadine, who I’m doing a book with now. I met Skylar Patridge on Twitter. I started networking again. I don’t know how, it just sort of naturally happens — you make a comment, find common ground. I think everyone at this point that I’ve worked with in the past five years is someone I met through Twitter.
KS: On that networking note, I don’t want to say that artists have an easy time, but an easier time. You can post samples on social media, you can take your portfolio to a con and show an editor. When you’re a writer, no one wants you to walk up and hand them a script, so how did you get your work out there?
JA: It really just came down to a willingness to put the financial commitment in and try to do things like anthologies. I met a lot of people just being like, “Hey, we’re both looking. We maybe want to talk and figure something out.” I was just very upfront that I want to work with artists who I think are at a skill level that I want to be at, but I want the books to look as good as they can. And I couldn’t [pay] a lot.
Terminal Protocol we Kickstarted. We Have to Go Back, Kickstarted. Finding Peace, Kickstarted. They were all very short because I was able to pay enough to do, like, five, six pages out the gate.
KS: Your personal model was to build up a run of “quick hitters.”
JA: They always say you should do shorts and one-offs first, and I think that is a good thing to follow. Done is better than your epic that you might get to do if you’re extremely lucky to pitch for the right person, then you negotiate forever and then it comes out in three, four years. You want to have things that are achievable. We Have to Go Back was 40 pages, but again, we kept it in black and white to keep costs down — and because it fit the mood of the story. Again, I was lucky to have even a part-time job doing tutoring that paid well enough that I could keep up with my own personal costs, then I put all the other money into, “Okay, this is what I can feasibly do for the next six months.”
It wasn’t until late 2017 that I started talking to Vivian Truong about Cooking With Monsters. We did pitch pages, and we pitched to a bunch of places. Then in December 2020, three years later, we finally got a bite. That’s what led to signing with IDW for that book.
KS: What did you learn along the way about building these relationships or partnerships with artists?
JA: I always think it’s hard because when you’re in writing, everything changes from five years ago. So, where I was starting is very different. Twitter is very different today. Kickstarter’s extremely different today. If you’re lucky, you can find someone who wants to work with you, if you’re friends with someone or you know an artist from college, and you can do something together casually. I also think you should respect page rates. I never try to haggle other than, you know, that very first book where I was just honest. I had nothing and I’d love to work with you, [so] we do it contingent on Kickstarter. Since then, if I want to work with an artist and they have a set rate, I will respect that rate. If you want it for purely selfish reasons, the way so many aspiring people treat artists, that will take you farther than a lot of things. That will make you a lot of friends.
KS: Is there anything you wish past Jordan had known at the time he first waded into Kickstarter, to make his life a little easier?
JA: The biggest thing would be to really get a good understanding of shipping, ‘cause that’s what’s gonna bite you. We got a pickup from Scout Comics — they wanted to get Terminal Protocol. I think it was right place, right time; they just started and they were looking for a bunch of content to bolster their line. I would’ve been in the red if they hadn’t taken on printing costs. I had definitely not properly budgeted that as much as I should have, but since then, I’ve fortunately always been in the black. If not always like crazy profitable, I’ve stayed within my means knowing how many copies to print, what to aim for. If you’re gonna do a Kickstarter, I think the best thing is to really understand international shipping, if you’re going to do it at all. I think you can get real sticker shock over international pricing, but the people ordering from France or Germany, they know that’s how much it costs. If they want, they’re used to that. I also think you want to avoid the headache, it’s not the worst thing to limit it. [So] that would be the biggest thing: You really want to understand shipping.
KS: You started pitching Cooking With Monsters in 2017, then get a bite in 2020. How do you keep going during that time? Does there come a point where you say, “Maybe the time isn’t right for this idea, I’m going put it away and try something else”?
JA: The biggest thing is always a case of, is the artist still into it? Because I don’t want someone to be shackled to something that they did on spec four years ago.
I gave Vivian an out. So, I was like, “Listen, we’ve pitched it here, here, and here. I don’t have any more contacts right now.” We can send it to the Dark Horse slush pile, we can try to do it as a webcomic. I’ve had pitches that I’ve put away, not even things that I wouldn’t necessarily go back to, if the opportunity arose where someone was like, “Do you have any ideas like X?” The things I continually pitched are the ones where there always felt like there was another door. In summer of 2020, we pitched [Cooking] to another publisher, they were interested, we went back and forth for a few months, but the deal they were looking for just didn’t match with what we needed. So, okay, back to the drawing board. It went through probably four drafts before it got to a publisher. Nowadays especially, I think a big thing is it takes that long sometimes.
If the artists involved are as passionate about the projects as I have been, or we want an excuse to keep working together, or we know that we haven’t exhausted every option. It’s “sticktuitiveness” I guess. Not wanting to give up on it, even if maybe it would’ve been logical. We can send it back out. We can send it somewhere new. [All] with the understanding that if we do get a pickup, maybe we’re not as available as we were. We’ll have to figure out the schedule. As long as it’s been a case of, I don’t have to pour a bunch more money into it, I try not to think of anything as dead.
KS: To get into some craft-specific items, are you more a morning writer or a nighttime writer?
JA: My fiancé is a veterinarian, and I try to keep my work days for her work days. She works like four or five days a week depending. Usually, it’s like we get up at 10, have breakfast, she goes to work. Then, I go to whatever tasks I put on my schedule for the day— I’m working on this outline, I have a meeting, I need to set up a Patreon post, or it’ll be pages.
KS: With no strict oversight, how do you set your working pace?
JA: My goal is typically basically I’ll take when’s the due date, what is the current date, and I’ll try to get an idea of how long it’s gonna be and break it up. I like to write six pages at least in a day. That’s working off of an outline that is very loose. Sometimes, it’ll be a lot more [than six] just because certain scenes are easier to write or they’re more fun to write. I’ll typically have an idea of where we need to end up, but I’m very much in favor of letting things happen as I write so that I don’t feel too beholden to a page by page breakdown — although I’ll still do those sometimes, especially for single issues where you only have 22 pages. If I had my druthers, everything would already be written and it’d be all rewriting because I prefer that process.
KS: I have yet to meet a writer who enjoys the first draft.
JA: Yeah, yeah. In doing contracted work, I’ve fortunately gotten a lot less precious with my first. I will happily put placeholder dialogue. I’ll happily skim over a scene if I know it’s gonna be a hard scene or if I’m not in the right headspace for it. I do write chronologically, so I can’t really jump around because I want to know specifically, here’s where the page turn is, here’s how many pages I’ve got left. I want the first draft to be good when I send it to editors, but I’ll also typically set aside time at the end of my deadline period where I can read back through it and do a cleanup. Another thing I’ll do is if, if I have an idea for what to change in the middle of a draft, I will just start writing as if that change is already implemented without going back to do it until I rewrite, so I have very messy first drafts where things sometimes just happen all of a sudden. I’m lucky I get to work the hours that [I do] currently; maybe that’ll change when I have a bigger workload. I hope I get a bigger workload as time goes on, but right now it balances pretty nicely.
KS: Do you have a trusted eyes that you show a script to, before it ever gets to an editor? While it’s still kind of not fully baked, maybe, but you want some kind of feedback?
JA: Usually the artist. When I started out, I wrote a lot. The first year I was writing, I was working two jobs, at the tutoring center and at a used game store, that I’m pretty sure broke certain labor laws ‘cause I was the only employee there and never had a break. [laughter] I was just there with a computer and I could say, “Screw it, I’m just gonna write on this computer cause we never get customers anyway.” And I could work at the tutoring center when I didn’t have clients. So, I just wrote like mini series after mini series and, you know, got my 10,000 bad pages out, as the saying goes. Nobody read those mostly. Since then, I very much like to go to an artist that I want to work with and pitch ideas. Then from there, the artist is really the first person that sees the script and, because I’ve worked with so many people that I’ve known for years, it’s a very collaborative process.
KS: It’s a co-development process?
JA: I’m usually the one doing the actual scripting, but it’s very much collaborative. It’s very much a co-writing process for plot and story ideas. For Raise Hell, Ray Nadine and I have a whole, we have a Discord where we throw up story ideas, throw up character art, interests, or objects we want to make. I’m not super precious about my scripts. I think I’m very amenable to ideas because I do think, as a writer, it can be very easy to get caught up in your own head and you know it so well because you thought of it, but it’s very easy to not realize you haven’t put things on the page that need to be there. I mean, I don’t roll over on everything. There are plenty of things I’ve been like, “This works for this reason.” I’m just happy to send it to the editor as soon as possible, because once I have those notes back and I can start rewriting, I know that I can make it a better script.
KS: Tell us about a hobby of yours that gets you away from the desk, away from the computer. Completely unrelated to comics or writing.
JA: [long pause] It’s been harder since… [laughter]
KS: Okay, you can still be at the computer, just not writing or comics.
JA: Then video games. Those still trail into writing, but video games, I would say that was my passion before comics. I can play a video game and not think about work at all.
KS: Finally, a comic or graphic novel from any era that you would hold up as the medium at its best.
JA: I think I’ll go with Chew. It’s one of the ones that in college got me in, and I think it’s a book that really shows how wild you can get in this medium. I don’t think every book has to; I think you can do realistic stuff, you can do serious, you can do drama. Chew I think has that, but it’s also wildly creative. It does zany, over-the-top stuff — I mean, it has cannibalism right out the gate! It feels like it celebrates what it is to make a comic. It feels like it’s reflecting on that past decade of comics and, because I was a kid when I started reading, it feels like a capstone to an era and the start of a new one.
KS: To finish up, let readers know what you’ve got out there, what you’ve got coming up, what people should be on the lookout for. I know you have certain things you can’t talk about, but feel free to tease whatever you like.
JA: I’m fortunately going to have a web store again by the time this comes out. We Have to Go Back is post-apocalyptic romance; Finding Peace and Party of Your Afterlife are horror; Raise Hell is horror comedy. I like to think I’ve done a little of everything.
Coming up, the biggest thing is Cooking With Monsters which is the first book in a trilogy of fantasy graphic novels about warrior chefs that comes out next fall.
Beyond that, I write the superhero comic Bullet for Altruist Comics, which is launching with its first four issues over the next couple of months. That’s classic, Silver Age-inspired superhero action. It was the first work for hire work I did; I’m very proud of what I was able to do.
I have a new one-shot that I’m working on with Marie Enger who I did Finding Peace with. We’ve been waiting, like, five years to work together again. Then, I’ve fortunately got one more signed book and then another one that — knock on wood — should be signed soon. So, I’m hoping that over the next couple of years, there’ll be a lot more coming out.
This interview was edited for length.