ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21ST CENTURY – An Interview with Matt Dursin

In the Spring of 2011, I went to my first comics convention in years, the Boston Comic Con, and, while at the Convention (ok, not there, exactly; rather, it was the pub down the street), I struck up conversation with Matt Dursin, the co-host of the LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN podcast, and, through virtue of staying in contact through the years, I was lucky enough to be a guest on the LEAGUE podcast to promote the release of the first WHIZ!BAM!POW! books and COMICSTORYWORLD.

Now I get to turn the interviewer-interviewee tables on him, as Matt debuts his first comics series, ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21st CENTURY, a reinvention of the ROBIN HOOD legend for the 21st century that blends heists and high adventure amid a ripped-from-the-headlines backdrop. In the interest of full disclosure, I did a bit of transmedia consultation on the ROBIN HOOD comic last year.

Without further verbiage, here’s my interview with Matt, in which we chat about ROBIN HOOD, the state of independent comics, pitches, and Kickstarter.

Tell me the story of your new vision of ROBIN HOOD.

ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21ST CENTURY is a modern take on the Robin Hood legend, where Robin and his merry men steal medicine and give it to those in need, such as people who can’t afford them or people who don’t have health insurance. That’s the quick synopsis, but the plan is for the story to go in different directions as Robin sinks deeper into a world of crime. Not every story will focus on him robbing a pharmacy.The first issue was written by me, with art by Mark Vuycankiat, lettered by L. Jamal Walton and colored by Tamra Bonvillain, who is coloring the SLEEPY HOLLOW comic right now. Also, the cover is by Jason Baroody and Mark McKenna, who have worked all over the industry.

How did your version of ROBIN HOOD come about?

I had the idea years ago, and originally it was going to be a movie screenplay. I pecked away at it for years, but never had any clue how it would end. Then in 2009, I took an online Comics Experience writing class, and the first night we were put on the spot to pitch the instructor (former Marvel & IDW editor Andy Schmidt) an idea for a 5-page comic story. After much deliberation, I pitched the modern-day Robin Hood story that I had rattling in my head for years. And years later, the five page story I wrote for the class became the first five pages of the very first issue.

One of the difficulties in working with a story where an issue is so front and center, in this case, the exorbitant cost of health care and the sad state of medical affairs in this country, is that the story is overshadowed by the message, but ROBIN HOOD manages to deliver a great story with great characters (elements like delivering meds in pizza boxes) AND deliver a clear message about the inaccessibility of health care, the chasm of income equality, and treatment of veterans. How did you walk that razor’s edge?

I tried very carefully not to be too preachy, especially with the dialogue. One strategy I attempted, which is hard for me, is to take a “less-is-more” approach with it. There’s no need to over-state your point, because hopefully, if you do your job right, your characters will bring your ideas to the forefront. Plus in a comic book script, you have to leave room for the artwork, so if a whole panel is a giant word balloon with a character rambling on and on, it kind of ruins it.

Also, I think infusing some humor helped me not hammer the reader over the head with the message. You don’t want to put too much in, but the Robin Hood of some of the folklore is often portrayed as an imp, so it does work.

You’ve said in other interviews that one of the inspirations behind the series was the BBC’s stellar reinvention of Sherlock Holmes in SHERLOCK. What is it about characters like Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood (and Superman, and Batman, etc.) that make for seemingly endless interpretations of character across time periods?

I think certain characters are timeless and can work in any era. BBC’s SHERLOCK helped me see that it can be done and done well. Originally, before Robin Hood, I was trying to write a story about a modern-day Billy the Kid, but that character was not coming to life as I’d hoped, and I think part of the reason is because Billy didn’t have that mission, that raison d’etre, so to speak, like Robin Hood. The “robbing from the rich to give to the poor” paradigm is something a lot of people can understand and get behind.

Your love of comics is apparent in every page of ROBIN HOOD and in all of our chats. What was it about comics that hooked you? First to start a podcast, THE LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN,  dedicated to them and then to create your own?

I’ve been a comic book fan since I was about nine years-old. I honestly think it was probably watching Spider-Man cartoons and reruns of the Adam West Batman that made me start reading them, because I wanted to devour as much of that stuff as I could. And then I started reading Marvel’s G.I.JOE and TRANSFORMERS books because I liked the toys, and all that eventually bled into reading all kinds of super-hero books. The best thing is they were .65 or .75 cents back then, so even for a kid, it was easy to just read as much as you wanted. But I think mostly what drew me in was the colorful characters and the basic, solid stories. “Spidey saves the city from The Hobgoblin.” What more does a nine year-old kid need? And honestly, I don’t think my sensibilities have changed that much.

You and I both became comics fans at around the same age. Do you think that a kid, nine or ten years old, would have as easy a time getting in to comics today as we did back in the days of yore? What’s stopping them? 

It’s hard to say, really. On the one hand, if a kid has access to the internet or a tablet, there are a lot of cheap or free comics out there, and Marvel even has that Unlimited membership deal for $9.99, which they would have to get from their parents, I guess. And there are a lot of animated shows and the movies to help raise awareness. But at the same time, there’s a lot of competition for kid’s attention these days, and for a nine year-old to be a regular reader of something like AMAZING SPIDER-MAN every month would cost him a lot more than it did when we were kids. So, it’s probably easy to get into comics these days, but harder to stay into them.

You talked about being put on the spot to pitch in your online Comics Experience writing class. What did you learn about pitching an editor from that class, and, to you, goes in to a great pitch? 

The class required a beginning, middle and end for a five-page comic story, so that was hard, but I think, in general, that really means a clear vision for your story. Editors can differ in what they are looking for, but I think they can all agree that they want a clear, comprehensible, and probably marketable, idea.

While digital distribution channels have opened up near-infinite means of getting your work in front of eyes, what are the challenges of independently producing a comic these days?

??????????????????There are challenges I couldn’t have even imagined, and part of the challenge was my own ignorance about some of the technology. As the writer, I knew just enough to find an artist, a letterer and a colorist, but I didn’t know much about the actual production. As far as digital distribution, I drove myself crazy because Amazon needs the files in one format, while Comixology needed them saved a completely different way, and the printer needed an even different way. Plus, I had two different versions to send to my Kickstarter donors who chose a digital book as a reward, depending on which format they wanted. I have so many versions of the first issue saved on my computer that it’s insane.

Beyond just the technical stuff, the fact that there are so many avenues makes it harder to separate yourself from the pack, because anyone with the drive and the know-how can produce their own comic these days, just like anyone can make their own movie or record their own album. The hard part is making people want to buy yours when there are so many options for their entertainment dollar.

With the first batch I printed, I even tried a sort of Radiohead technique, where I printed no cover price and asked people to pay what they wanted. Granted a few people just took the book and ran off, but most people understood what I was trying to do and paid for it, some even paid more than regular comic book price.

As a writer, what lessons did you learn from putting together that first issue?

I learned that the writer is an important, but also pretty small, part of the process. Despite the fact that it was my concept and my script, comics is a visual medium, so the art, the lettering and the coloring (even for a black-and-white comic) are obviously essential. But they are all part of the whole. All the elements have to come together to make the issue a reality.

You ran a successful Kickstarter campaign last year. Can you talk a bit about the experience of that? Obviously since it was successful, I don’t know if you’d do anything differently, but is there anything you would have done differently?

It was a really great experience for me, because you get to see what kind of friends you have and you get to see that there are good people out there. It’s a great feeling to get donations from strangers or people you haven’t seen or talked to in years. It’s also a little scary because I was about $1000 away from my goal with about a day left, and I thought I had exhausted every avenue, but a lot of people came through in that last day, and that was really cool.

If I could do it over again, I would change the reward structure a little bit because I ended up having to send out a couple hundred reward packages and that ended up being more work than actually making the comic. Obviously, I was grateful to have made my goal, but that was a crazy few days of sending out a lot of comics.

Why did you want to include transmedia elements with ROBIN HOOD?

Going along with that previous answer a bit, I feel that using different transmedia elements helps get as many eyeballs on your work as possible, because there is so much out there. I could print a comic and try to sell it at conventions, but literally hundreds of people are trying to do the same thing. So, if they see my book at a convention, and they say, “I’ve heard of this book because I saw something about it on Youtube,” or whatever, they may be more likely to buy it.

But beyond marketing, it opens up a lot of fun, creative avenues for someone like me. I get to step out from behind the keyboard, so to speak, and play with some of the other toys in my toybox.

What are the plans for the series? Will it be an ongoing, serialized story, or will it have some episodic, done-in-one tales, a la DC’s JONAH HEX or Warren Ellis’s FELL?

Panel from ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21st CENTURY Issue Two.
Panel from ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21st CENTURY Issue Two.

I would like for it to go as long as it can, or as long as I can. I think there are a lot of possibilities with a story like this, and I don’t see the health care system improving anytime soon, so I would like to keep writing them until the well runs dry. As far as the kinds of stories, I think there will definitely be some done-in-one tales thrown in, because I really enjoy what those can say about your characters. I’ve been inspired by BREAKING BAD a lot, like the episode where Walt chased a fly around his lab for the entire hour. I would definitely like to get to tell those kinds of stories at some point.

Elevator pitch: why should people buy ROBIN HOOD?

If you enjoy comics that feature some action with a side of social commentary, and enjoy stories set in the real world, with no powers or capes or cross-overs or anything like that, then this may be the one for you. And if you enjoy helping out independent creators, then give it a try. Think of yourself as a modern-day Robin Hood, helping the poor.

You can purchase the first issue of ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21ST CENTURY, written by Matt, with art by Mark Vuycankiat, lettered by L. Jamal Walton, colored by Tamra Bonvillain, and featuring a cover by Jason Baroody and Mark McKenna, in digital and print editions, from:  DIRECT | INDYPLANET | AMAZON | COMIXOLOGY