With the second and third issues of his debut comic book title, Atomic Victory Squad, now out in the world for all to see, we caught up with the ever-engaging Lowell Dean to discuss the experience of bringing childhood creations AVS to life, the continuation of the team’s origin, his ultimate endgame for this group of misfit superheroes, the differences between funding a movie and funding a comic book, what could be next for him, and even the possibility of a WolfCop animated series.
STARBURST: With AVS #2 and #3 having been successfully funded on Indiegogo, is the current plan still to push forward and round this origin story out as a five-issue tale?
Lowell Dean: I think it’s a good entry into comic books for me. I like to have a milestone that I can work towards. Obviously these characters have more life in them and more story, but the origin itself is five issues. I think once I get those five done, I can stop, I can assess, I can say, “Do I wanna do more comics? Do I wanna try something different? Is there even a great enough response to these? Do I need to find a new way to push these characters into the world?” It’s completely a huge learning curve. Every time you enter a new medium, it’s a learning curve. For me, being such a small little group, I’m just trying to figure out making a comic. If I do the five, I might be able to turn my attention to selling the comic or having it on shelves.
When I finish five, then I can take that break because I feel that’s a nice, natural point. Even with film, when you finish the film you promote the film. That’s the natural cycle of things. It feels almost a little weird for me to even promote Atomic Victory Squad when there’s just the three issues – it’s kind of like promoting the rough cut of a film. I’ve got to break that mentality.
How have you found the crowdfunding route for this project, and what about the differences between financing a movie compared to comics - it’s two very different budgets, but how’s the comparison been?
It’s been interesting. I would say there’s some very immediate pros and cons both ways. With film, the crowdfunding is never going to actually finance the project itself, at least at the budget levels I’m trying to work at. The crowdfunding aspect for film is more for marketing and promotion. The things I’ve done it for, like WolfCop there was already a built-in fanbase. With comics, it’s weirdly more stressful because it’s like, “Hey, if you don’t support this, we can’t make it!” Also, the bar is so much lower that if we do hit our reasonable ask, we can have a whole comic made – which is really cool. If I could finance a feature as quickly as you can crowdfund a comic, I’d have made 20 films by now. It’s been nice and it’s been really heartening to see that we’ve hit our goal both times. We’ve done two crowdfunding runs, and I don’t think I’m going to do another one as now I think it’s time to take off the training wheels, just do issues 4 and 5 and sell them at fan expos and comic shops. The training wheels we did get from our support system has been really cool, and what’s really interesting, for me at least, is the difference between the first and the second crowdfunding campaign. The first was mostly friends – it was all people who were like, “Oh god, Lowell’s asking for money, we better help.” By the second campaign, a lot of my friends had bowed out and were just, “Save me an issue, you owe me.” There were so many people, as I was stuffing envelopes and shipping them off, I didn’t recognise half of the names that I was sending them off to. It was crazy but really cool.
No matter how confident you are, there’s always that risk that you might not hit your target, so what are the nerves like when doing a crowdfunding campaign?
You have to be a certain kind of delusional, I think. You can psyche yourself up, but it’s unpredictable and you have to be some level of lunatic. Ignorance is bliss, right? I put the first one out and I remember being, “Okay, deep breath. The universe will tell you if you should even take this on.” Within a week, we made our money. I was just, “Oh my god, we did it.” It was almost like I’d done it on a dare, before the realisation hit that we actually had to make this now – we really had to make a comic. I’m really good at protecting my excitement levels and people always tease me for not getting too excited, but on the second one it was the opposite and I was maybe a little too cocky. I was like, “Oh, we’ll make our money in a couple of weeks…” but we didn’t make our goal until the last day. That was way more stressful. I spent three weeks or a month, every day online just being all, “C’mon, people, we need you!”
There’s the prospect of a knock to your confidence if something doesn’t get funded…
For sure! I talked to the team before and we had basically all agreed, even if we don’t hit our goal – with Indiegogo versus some other platforms, you get whatever money you make anyway – myself and Emerson basically said that even if we don’t make our goal, we’ll make up the difference and we’ll finance it. That said, if we don’t hit our goal, maybe I’ll abridge or abbreviate the story and have the origin wrap up in three issues as a condensed version. I never wanted that, so I’m happy now that the gamble we’re going to do on ourselves will be on issues 4 and 5, and we’ll get to tell the origins in a non-rushed way.
How have you found trying to balance the core group of characters and giving each of them adequate ‘panel time’?
It’s been fun, it’s been exciting. It’s easy to fall into your old habits, so very often when I’m writing or talking to the artist, I’m, “Oh no, let’s do this, let’s do that.” Javier [Martin Caba] is very talented and sometimes will offer up an alternative. I’ll have five panels to do something, then he’ll say, “Y’know, you can do this in two.” He’ll do a mock-up and I’ll have a bonus three panels to do something else interesting. I would say definitely issue 1 was just a race to get done, and I was cramming in probably way too much, but by the time we hit #2 and #3 it was a fun experiment for me. Even when we had an outline, I would go back and balance the panel time and say, “Man, Zoozanna hasn’t appeared for six pages. I think I wanna steal a couple of panels away from Invincibull.” It became a really fun compromise because, for me, the more I even think about filmmaking, when you go to a movie you can love a movie and appreciate it, but in reality movies are kind of like a dream. You don’t remember every moment, and a week later you might only remember three or four shots. So I’ve tried to do comics in a way that’s more liberating. I can literally have a whole scene that plays out in one square if it’s the right square.
How important has Javier and his experience been in helping you get your footing and offering advice throughout the process?
Oh, he’s been crucial. I don’t think the comic would’ve turned out or maybe even happened without Javier. It was finding that person that had the right style, that right experience level, and I would 100% say he did guide me. I would say, “This is what I want, but you’re the one who has to physically do it, so what do you think is the best?” Nine times out of ten, if he said to do it a certain way, I’d say let’s do it. Honestly, my hard work is the writing and coming up with what I think should happened in the panels, then the editing after the fact and making sure I didn’t do anything too stupid, but with him it’s just like Christmas. When I send him a script, then it’s just every week I get to see some awesome art. My notes are only ever practical things, like, “This character wouldn’t smile, or this character should be in this spot, or this character should be bigger or smaller.” His choices are always just perfect.
From reading the most recent issues, is that yourself and Emersen Ziffle popping up as cameos in AVS #3?
Yeah, you caught us. That's funny. That was actually Javier. I didn't ask him to put us in, but I asked him to put himself in. So he actually appears on that same page, as a journalist, and then he took it upon himself to put the rest of our team in – there's his colouring assistant, there's a letterer, there’s Emersen and myself. That was kind of fun, because we already were doing Indiegogo cameos anyway and there was just one extra panel around.
In addition to cameos from backers, there are also several, err, ‘dog people’ throughout AVS. We have to ask, were those dogs based on family pets or was it just a cool idea for this skewed setting?
That is Indiegogo crowdfunding. In the first issue, I had X amount of characters that we were going to do for Indiegogo, and it never even occurred to me that someone would say, “I'm going to buy a cameo for my cat.” So I just thought like, “Okay, so this will be this person”. And you know, I was flexible on is it a male or a female, but yeah, on issue 1 someone said, “Can I make the secret agent my cat instead of me?” I thought about it, and I almost was going to say no, but then I remembered one of the biggest inspirations for this is BoJack Horseman. And you know what, one of the main characters in AVS is already an alien, male cow - I shouldn't be too strenuous with the rules, right? So I said, “Sure.” That just opened the floodgates, and by the time the second crowdfunding came along, honestly, like a third of the people were like, “I'm going to buy this cameo for my dog.” It’s basically informed this universe now, and because of the kinds of people supporting us who love their pets, this world in now full of talking, walking pets.
You mentioned the alien, male cow Invincibull there. Given that he’s such an eye-catching character and essentially this world’s Batman and Superman, did you have to make a conscious effort to pull back on him a little and not focus on him more than the rest of the AVS team?
Yeah, I would say he is my probably my favourite character, at least visually. I'm not a very good artist, but he's my favourite one to draw, hands down. Being the Batman and Superman, he seems like the go-to for every situation. But no, I think it kind of became a conscious effort to make it a team comic. And then I try to think, “Okay, well, I know what he offers us – the moral compass and the disdain for humanity.” Once I started figuring out the attributes of each character and putting them in a nutshell, then it becomes actually really easy whenever I enter a new situation in the story to know who should be there, you know, because you never want the person who's perfect for the situation. If they're entering a situation that requires tact or saying something in a very precise way, I'm like, “Well, Bubble Myers should be here, because he says the worst thing every time, or Gary the Mime because he doesn’t speak, period.” That kind of becomes my approach moving forward – what does the situation need, and then what character or what partnership is wrong for it.
One interesting thing that we see in issue 2 is that these characters become contracted, paid heroes – and then they instantly spend all of this cash partying too hard or making silly purchases. Had you always planned for these heroes to collect a paycheck?
I would say ever since I was first hoping to make this comic as a kid, I always thought that if you really were so important and you can protect the planet, I imagine the government would want to lock you down so that you fought for them. Then it gets into the whole thing of what country do you really represent, whose justice really is justice, and if they were going to lock you down then they have to pay you a shit-ton of money. Even when I was a teen, it seemed like a really interesting approach to being a superhero. You know, Batman, they kind of just solved the problem by saying he's rich. He doesn't have any powers, but like they say in the Justice League movie, his power is that he's rich – basically, all bad situations can be solved by that! That rationalises all the fantasy of it, but I just love the idea of the carte blanche of having all that money and what it actually means and what it could mean for the worse.
You’ve talked about how you first created these characters back when you were a child. Is there any of the more prominent characters in the comic that were maybe a little more recent of a creation?
I would say the actual character who is the newest addition is Zoozanna. She's actually only a few years old, because originally I had a character called Mysteria - she was one of the original team members who actually died in the first few pages [of issue 1] – but when I was adapting these childhood characters to something a little more mature, she didn't offer enough uniqueness to me. She was actually very similar to Gary the Mime, because she created illusions. She was also kind of like Mysterio – one letter away from Mysterio, in fact – and her power was very similar to him. That's what happens when you make up superheroes when you’re a kid, right? Half the time you're like, “How about his name is Wolveroon… ?” I had a new mandate that the characters actually be original, and so she didn't make the cut. I gave her a cool cameo, killing her, and then said, “Okay, what is missing from this team? What was Mysteria meant to represent?” I really wanted to do a split personality character, and so the animal kingdom is perfect for that.
From the first three issues, Gary the Mime quickly became a personal favourite for us…
What's really been fun is seeing who likes which characters. We've done a few fan expos, and I've had people tell me they hated Invincibull, but then they read the issues and understood him. That was really fun – that their first reaction was literally discrimination, and then they really liked him. I've had someone tell me they were going to do cosplay as She-Girl, which I thought was really cool. The number one thing is that most people tell me they like Gary and Triangle Master, which I find really fun because those characters felt like almost ripped-off to me in the first issue. The fact that now people are coming up to me saying like, “By far, Triangle Master’s my favourite, and I love Gary’s powers.” It’s so cool that people are starting to see them like that.
Have you experienced anybody doing AVS cosplay yet, or is it still a little too early for that?
I don't think it's at that stage yet. It would blow my mind if I saw someone do cosplay at this point. Well, other than Emersen. Emersen really wants to make an Invincibull costume. But that’s my long-term goal, maybe in two years from now, once I’ve actually got the graphic novel done, maybe pushing it out there as an animated series, if I could walk into a fan expo and see somebody dressed as one of these characters. I would be blown away.
There have been a fair few people dressed up as another one of your creations, WolfCop, over the past few years. That must be a little weird but so, so cool?
Yeah, it’s both weird and cool. Every time I see someone dressed as WolfCop or some WolfCop fan art, it blows my mind that it’s still happening to this day. That first movie is more than five years ago now. It’s literally nothing but positive when I see that, as it means I’ve connected with people and it gives me hope. It’s easy to get down when you’re an “artist” making stuff, it’s hard to get the word out, it’s hard to get people to buy in, so when you make something and see that kind of reaction it makes you think, “Maybe I’m not crazy, maybe I can do this.”
You’ve talked about the endgame being to take AVS to an animated series. Have you thought about that approach for WolfCop?
Oh, I would love to do a WolfCop animated series. It’s kind of lying dormant right now as we figure out what the next stage can possibly be for the character. I would love to see more animated WolfCop as a cartoon or as a comic book. I think it would really unleash the character in an interesting way. I did love making the films, but you definitely felt constricted. I felt like I had such big ideas in my head, and then I was given a little bit of money and 17 days to turn it into reality. It's hard not to feel like you're never quite hitting the mark, because you don't have the resources.
With WolfCop, it’s such a recognisable character and such a unique premise that people will always call back to it. Has it got to the point yet where it’s a little bit of a hindrance, that people will refer to you as the guy behind WolfCop, or is that always going to be something you embrace?
I go back and forth. I think it's a hindrance sometimes when I'm trying to do something new and different. Maybe some people just want to make the same movie over and over again, but I'm at the stage now where I'd love to do a serious horror film or a drama or straight comedy. And it drives me crazy when people pigeonhole you and immediately say, “Well, it's not silly. Can you do this?” Humans are more than one thing. It's not like I just walk around angry all the time or laughing all the time. If you've made any kind of movie, it shows that you've got the fortitude or stupidity to follow through on something – so I think you should be given the opportunity to test other waters, right? But that said, all that bitching aside, I love that I made something that connected to people in a certain way and I love that I got to make a sequel to something. I hope all that really shows is that I am capable of finding an audience, and I'd love to try it in different mediums and styles, too.
You’ve recently made the big move to Toronto as you look to immerse yourself in one of the industry’s busiest locations. Is there a particular dream project out there that you have in mind?
I would just like to be working in film and TV. I've got a handful of projects that have spent the last year or two developing, so I would love to move those up the mountain a bit further. I'd love to partner with other people and just start working in TV. I feel like indie film has been a long, punishing road. I’ve still got more scripts that are ready to go, so my hope is that in the next six months I'm directing a film that I wrote last year that we're working on right now. I really hope that happens. It's looking optimistic. Beyond that, I’d like to start getting experience in television because that's where I hope to end up soon with an Atomic Victory Squad animated series or something else.
With the TV side of things, is there a preference where you’d rather get into writing or directing television?
It's a tough one. I think the dilemma I'm dealing with right now, coming from indie film is, I'm used to doing both – and I know that in TV, sometimes it's going to be more of one over the other. So I'm just kind of walking in open, seeing what experience I can get. I think directing comes very natural to me, but that said, half of what I love about doing anything is the idea part. One of my favourite things is sitting in a room and brainstorming, so I would love to actually try being in a writers room where you really develop a show, but I would direct in a heartbeat, too. I want to do it all.
TV definitely seems like a more collective process these days, with showrunners, writers, and directors all having a key part to play in creating a certain vision.
Yeah, it’s a team sport. I've been so solo for so long, I think I'd love to try being a team player. It's just figuring out where I would fit best. If it's something that's high concept genre, I think I would have a lot to offer in terms of storytelling and writing. If it’s something more conventional or out of my wheelhouse, I would maybe love to try directing it. One of my biggest joys in life is being on a set and working with actors, the rush of making your day, finding the cool little accidents that happen on set. It's so fun. It’s like a drug.
Even better is how much money is invested into TV these days and how stories are allowed to breathe in that formant – particularly in the world of genre television.
I think that's why I want to get into it, because that's where the risks and stronger storytelling are happening. There are still good movies in the theatre, but the things that are bouncing around in my head are things like The Boys and Russian Doll. They approach things from a conventional genre trope, where you're like, “This is high concept and you know where we're going”, but then they go much deeper and richer, and sometimes darker and weirder, where I'm just, “I can't believe I'm getting to watch this.”
It might be a tough ask, but do you see a precise show as being the one to kickstart the change that we’ve been seeing?
I think most people will have the usual list of suspects. For me, it happened slower and it kind of crept up on me. I've always been obsessed with film and cinema and going to the theatre, but honestly the first milestone for me was The Sopranos. It was interesting to me, as that show kind of came out while I was in film school. So I was learning at the time and devouring books about structure, how this is how you tell a story, and these are the rules. I just really remember in the day researching and studying and obsessing over how to write a story, but then watching The Sopranos, which basically broke every rule. They’d set up Tony's mission for the “episode”, he'd accomplish it in the first ten minutes, and there'd be five minutes of him watching TV, almost sad, you know? In a movie, you'd cut that scene because it's not doing anything for the plot. But the show was so much more about character, and character mattered more than plot. I just never forgot that. I remember my fun game was I would watch The Sopranos and pause it occasionally just to see where we're at in the episode – like, “Okay, these five things have happened and we're only six minutes in, and I've got another 45 minutes left.” I just would be blown away by that.
To circle back to Atomic Victory Squad, then, when can fans expect to see issues 4 and 5?
We did issues 2 and 3 kind of back-to-back, and I think that worked really well. Javier’s on another title right now, so I'm hoping that before the year is done we'll have finished issue 4. Then we can be finished with issue 5 in early 2020. My dream would be that before the spring of 2020 we've got all five issues and a nice graphic novel package ready to start going out to the spring fan expos and say, “Here's the complete origin story!”
With this being your first time making a comic, how have you found the overall experience and will you be looking to do it again once the five-issue AVS origin is finished?
100%! So many of my ideas for pilots and TV shows are genre or high concept, so my brain is already doing the thing where I'm taking pilots that I haven't pitched or sold yet and thinking, “Hmm, what would this look like as a graphic novel?” Obviously you have to figure out how to finance it, but again, it's not as hard as financing a feature. So yeah, I would love to do more comic books. And I think it's just so much easier to sell people on an idea. If you give someone a five-paragraph synopsis for a show, they're like, “Okay, cool”, but I think if you put a comic down in front of them, they're more like, “Alright, what is this?!”
And what about the non-AVS projects that you’re working on right now. Is there anything you can tell us about those, or is it all a little hush-hush still on what you can say?
It’s kind of all hush-hush now. I've got three TV pilots that I’ve spent the last year developing that I'm now just ready to start going out and looking for partners on. As for the features, one already has some financing in place, so hopefully we'll be shooting in the next few months. The other two, we'll see, but they're all variations of my wheelhouse. But what's been fun is mixing and matching. I have one that's very much in the tone of the first WolfCop – that’s a straight horror – and one that's not even that genre at all. So it's been really fun to explore different shades.
Now that you’ve made the move from Saskatchewan, what are the chances of maybe seeing a Leo Fafard, Amy Matysio or Jonathan Cherry making an appearance in one of these projects?
I think it would be weird if they didn't show up somewhere. So never say never. I don't know to what level they'll show up in upcoming projects, but I would I would love to have them play roles or cameos in the next few things I do, for sure. They're my family.