Smash Pages Q&A: Helm’s Hasan and Caballero break out with Eisner nomination

Last June, the high fantasy series Helm launched through Crookshaw Creative’s website. Less than a year later, it has been nominated for a prestigious Eisner Award in the digital comics category alongside industry luminaries such as Colleen Coover and Chris Roberson. (See the full list of Eisner nominations.)

Writer Jehanzeb Hasan and illustrator Mauricio Caballero’s enthusiasm for their work is infectious. We talked about creating a high fantasy world that mixes steampunk, the comic’s video game origins, the animation-style look and feel of Helm, and plans for a print edition. We also talked about coffee as inspiration and Scarlett Johansson.

Congratulations on the Eisner nomination! How did you both find out? What were your first thoughts?

Jehanzeb Hasan: Honestly, I was caught by surprise. I found out via e-mail. Just maybe a week or two prior, I had come across some photo on my Facebook feed from a comic shop, I think it was, that showed an actual letter from Comic-Con International (CCI) announcing their nomination. It was sent via snail mail… so naturally, that day and the next, I checked my mail, as well… and alas, nothing. So, after a week or more had passed, I figured we didn’t get a nomination… especially considering they were supposed to be announced to creators sometime in April. I found out on May 1st.

But, yeah. It was surreal. I don’t want to say “not in my wildest dreams” … because in my wildest dreams, I’m President of the United States, and brokering Middle East peace, and winning NBA MVP awards, and I’m a multi-platinum recording artist, and so on, and so on. Ha ha! But, seriously, I had put the Eisners out of my mind. I didn’t think the comic was good enough. That we got a nomination… especially, when looking back on the first several chapters, there’s so many things that could be improved, that I would do very differently.

Mauricio Caballero: Well, my first reaction was to drop my jaw and open my eyes really wide. It was extremely hard for me not to tell my friends about it, and I literally jumped out of excitement for some minutes, and my imagination started running wild. I saw myself in the Eisner Awards ceremony, surrounded by writers, editors, and artists, and totally unrealistic scenarios — like me, walking the red carpet alongside Scarlett Johansson.

I got to go to the Eisner Awards dinner one year and I can confirm Scarlett Johansson escorts every nominee down the red carpet. For those just discovering Helm, tell us about Eldrick, Luna and the rest of the cast.

Jehanzeb Hasan: Sure! Eldrick is a sort of a bumbling college dropout, a former art student, who’s on his way home from Elderbury College when he meets up with Gwyn, a young woman at the top of her class and the captain of the school’s archery club. Neither of them know it yet but Eldrick is actually the Harbinger, a long prophesied figure who is believed to be the Great Wizard of a new age, and the key to unlocking the secret resting place of the long slumbering Bastard King.

So, there’s a lot of people looking for Eldrick. One of them is Luna Lumere, a “witch” wanted for all sorts of alleged crimes against the Commonwealth.

Because the prophecy claims that once risen, the Bastard King overthrows the Lord Helm and crowns a new, rightful leader in his place… this means the person or group that controls Eldrick finds the Bastard King. And who finds the Bastard King, well, they’re in a position of great influence.

Mauricio Caballero: I love all the characters because they have a distinct and well defined personality. The interaction between Eldrick and Gwyn is especially golden.

True to high fantasy, the world of Helm and its history and political structure are extensively developed. What is the setting of Helm, and how does its current state affect these characters?

Jehanzeb Hasan: Yeah, the first thing I did when I began working on Helm, was I put this massive spreadsheet together that charted key figures in the history of the world and major events that took place. I’d say most of the characters in that spreadsheet exist hundreds and hundreds of years before Eldrick, Luna, or any of the other characters you see in the comic show up on the scene.

The setting is your traditional fantasy world — think Lord of the Rings, Dragon Age, Neverwinter — except it’s undergone an industrial revolution in the last 200 or 300 years. Magick is outlawed, its practitioners (like Luna) are hunted, and the elves have pretty much been eradicated within the last hundred years or so. Racism, riots, civil unrest. It’s a dark time in the world… although you can’t really tell this immediately because the story initially unfolds around Eldrick and Gwyn, a couple of privileged, mostly well-off characters in this world.

I know Helm was originally intended as a video game. Did changing mediums change the extensive mythology you’d created?

Jehanzeb Hasan: Not at all, actually. It’s a great question though. I’d say one of the things that changed was the amount of time and detail I could afford on a lot of the different scenes. In the game, the way I was designing it, you could walk around the Midlands Express and interact with a lot of the different passengers, examine artifacts in each of the train cars, get Eldrick’s thoughts on them, talk to minor characters, etc. For example, there was a long and important exchange planned with the orc attendant, and also a gnome in the dining car. When I transitioned the story over to sequential art, I needed to be a lot more selective about what to focus on. There’s constraints like number of pages, panels, words per page, etc. that I didn’t have to worry about when I was developing the story as a non-linear game script.

Also, because the game was an interactive story, what I essentially ended up doing was picking one of the many choices I was going to offer the player at different moments, and making that the singular path we’d follow along in the comic series.

Mauricio, how did you end up getting involved?

Mauricio Caballero: Well, at the beginning, I was looking to make some extra earnings. I usually make storyboards or concept art for animation. So, I looked around in some comic forums, and this job post caught my eye, since it said the work involved making a fantasy steampunk comic, and because Jehanzeb had experience in video games. For some reason, I had a very good feeling about it, and I was right. I even told Jehanzeb once, that this was the kind of comic that I would like to buy. He asked me to take a test, and I was so enthusiastic about it, that I did my first test page in a matter of five hours! Ha, ha! It’s been a lot of fun ever since.

I really enjoy the tone of the series. It’s a great fantasy story with genuine stakes for the characters, and you also leave room for comedy. It somewhat reminds me both in tone and visually to classic Don Bluth animated films. What were some of your influences as far as the voice and tone, and the artistic style?

Jehanzeb Hasan: That’s really cool. As far as art style goes, I’ll let Mauricio talk a bit more about his influences. I’ll just say that when I was looking for an artist for this project, I wanted someone who could emulate a sort of Disney aesthetic… but different, slightly a bit more realistic. For example, one of the artists I was pointing people to, for reference, was Patrick Schoenmaker, who I had initially come across due to his Indiana Jones fan art. Really amazing work. When it came to colors, my goal was to make sure our panels looked like they could be stills, pulled from an animated feature… so your reference to Don Bluth makes me happy, haha.

As far as voice and tone goes, with Helm, I had set out to create something fun and light-hearted, but a classic, globe-trotting, fantasy adventure at the same time. Something sort of like a Saturday morning cartoon serial that I would’ve grown up with… but treated in such a way that the adult me would still enjoy it. Star Wars comes to mind. Biggest influence on me, by far, when it comes down to it. I think that sort of fits the bill of what you described, too — serious, very real stakes, but moments of comedy sprinkled in here and there.

Mauricio Caballero: I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities that may bring the combinations of styles together in order to create new styles. In this case, my favorite styles are Disney, Anime, European, so I tried to make a light, clean, eye-catching, and easy-to-read style… but not making the style too “cartoonish” to suit the tone of the story.

My influences are several — from Moebius, Frezzato, Madureira, Humberto Ramos, Hiroaki Samura, Hirohiko Araki, Eichiro Oda, and Sebastian (Bachan) Carrillo, which I do admire a lot.

In terms of the use of comedy, the scene with Eldrick trying to get rid of the frozen coffee was a highlight for me. It was a really great premise for comedy executed wonderfully. Can you tell me what went into putting that scene together for each of you?

Mauricio Caballero: For me, I had in mind making the scene as clear as possible for the reader. Making the cup of coffee just in the middle of the train compartment, making it uncomfortable to hide it, and trying to push their expressions as far as possible for both characters, especially Eldrick, because he’s in the presence of his crush. I’ve been through a similar embarrassing moment like that, in the past, in front of a crush, so I empathize with Eldrick.

Jehanzeb Hasan: Honestly, it’s been so long, I can’t remember how I came up with the idea for that scene. I knew I wanted a reveal — a moment where Eldrick’s latent powers are revealed — and I think I came up with coffee because it’s… such an integral part of my day-to-day, haha. The rest, the comedy scene — I just needed a way to highlight that this was powerful magick at work, that Eldrick didn’t have control of his powers… but most importantly, I needed a crisis. A point of no return that would force Eldrick and Gwyn on this journey. The comedy came naturally… it’s just how the sort of bumbling, awkward character of Eldrick would tackle that situation.

Of course, there are still dramatic elements to the story. I think the only character I really trust is Eldrick himself. Am I paranoid, or might there be some hidden agendas at play?

Jehanzeb Hasan: No comment.

Great, now I’m paranoid and think there are hidden agendas. The coloring is wonderful. What is your coloring process like?

Mauricio Caballero: I usually make some key color panels. I choose a panel with the most information as possible — something with a large background and as many different characters as possible — so I can start making a test. I always try to make a good balance between the backgrounds and the characters, so it may look like a Disney/Anime style. For the characters, I usually start with the base colors, then I duplicate it. One layer will be for light, and the other for shadows. On top of each layer, I apply a solid color of influence. For example, in a sunset scene, I would apply a yellowish color in “add” mode for the light layer… and a purple or blue color in “multiply” mode for the shadows. Last, I use a “mask” layer in the light layer to create the light and shadow shapes. It’s an easy but effective way for coloring animation-styled comics.

Jehanzeb Hasan: As far as process goes, we’ve handled it differently at times. In the beginning, we worked on getting all the line art done for a chapter, before handing off those pages to be colored. When Mauricio took over coloring duties from Chapter 2 to 4, we completed lines and colors for each individual page, before moving on to the next page. We’re working on Chapter 5 right now, and for that, we’ve sort of reverted to the old approach — Mauricio finishes all the lines, colors a few key panels, and a colorist takes over to handle the rest.

Jehanzeb, you have an interesting spin on destiny and fatalism when Luna talks to Eldrick about the prophecy and how it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s safe. Can you talk more about that?

Jehanzeb Hasan: Prophecies can be so cliche in the fantasy genre. When I was writing, I thought to myself, if I was in Eldrick’s shoes, what would there be to stop me from doing whatever it is I wanted to do? If this prophecy was real, and I believed it, then I’m safe, right? There’s no danger, no risk. And you need that in order to tell a good story, an engaging story.

Mauricio, your environments are so fleshed out, including extensive props. It feels like you have a set dresser planting interesting objects into each scene. Can you talk about your design work, particularly that scene where we first meet Eldrick and he’s sitting in the train with all of his belongings?

Mauricio Caballero: I love to make backgrounds because this is what places the reader into another world. The script was very clear and nicely written, so it was no problem for me to place all those things around Eldrick. After all, he’s worried, sad, and at that moment, he felt alone and his thoughts are disorganized. Besides, it’s so much fun to imagine what kinds of stuff does Eldrick have in his backpack, and let the reader guess the story or function of every little thing in the background.

Jehanzeb Hasan: Yeah, I encourage readers to read into that stuff — study the details. Sometimes, it’s stuff Mauricio has come up with to help populate the scene; other times, the objects you see are specifically mentioned in the script. For example, just recently we published a page where Eldrick, Rusty, and Gwyn sneak into the old Spellsong home. There’s a lot of objects scattered about, one of which is a dog food bowl. It’s a hint of an important reveal that comes a couple pages later.

In general though, I love a lot of clutter and detail in panels. It tells stories, helps build the world, makes it feel “lived-in”. My favorite graphic novel of all time is Watchmen… and I love how Moore and Gibbons include all these little details in their panels that complement the story, the mood, the dialogue, the themes, and so on. In Helm, we don’t do half of what they do, but I think that’s what some of the greatest sequential art out there does — it strikes a balance, a relationship, between the text and the image in every panel. Both complement each other and communicate a unified message.

It’s been interesting to see the comments evolve as an audience finds their way to you page-by-page. How has it been to have that scrutiny?

Jehanzeb Hasan: I love it! I wish more people would comment. I mean, I know a lot of people are reading. I can see that in Google Analytics, haha, but I wish there was more engagement. Honestly, it’s kind of why I do this, why I write. It’s not as much fun telling a story if there’s no one to listen to it (or, in this case, read it) and chime in, ask questions, opine, and speculate. So, I appreciate it.

Mauricio Caballero: The people in the comments are very smart, and sometimes they point out every little detail that I make — even the little mistakes that not many people would notice. I also find a lot of funny comments.

Each chapter seems set to 25 pages. Did you consciously decide to make each chapter a pre-set number of pages? Are there any plans to print each chapter as a comic book issue?

Jehanzeb Hasan: Yes, I wanted to make sure we had a consistent number of pages per chapter. In hindsight, I probably would have gone with 24 or 26 pages, just so we can have that final reveal after the last page turn. I guess that sort of touches on your second question too, haha. Yes, the intention is to go to print at some point after the end of Chapter 5, which constitutes the end of Book 1. I haven’t approached any publishers yet. Haven’t quite decided whether I want to work with one, or self-publish.

Last October, in speaking with David Lee Andrews, you compared writing comics to poetry as far as writing within a form and structure. I thought that was such a great analogy. I know you have a background as an English professor. How much did you study poetry? Have you ever written it yourself?

Jehanzeb Hasan: So, I taught at a university while I was studying for a Ph.D., but I wasn’t technically a professor. I was… what was called, in those days, a teaching associate. I’m actually a Ph.D. dropout, haha. I did complete my M.A. though, many years ago… and yes, indeed, I did write my fair share of poetry while I was an undergrad focusing on creative writing. As a grad student, I adjusted course a bit and found my calling in African American literature.

Lastly, Helm launched just last Summer. Most of the other nominees in your category have been running for 3-5 years by now and have other comics under their belt. How does it feel to be the up-and-comers getting this kind of recognition?

Jehanzeb Hasan: Extremely gratifying, and very humbling. I think the setting is interesting, the concept of the comic is interesting, but I sort of feel like I’m riding the strength of Mauricio’s visuals, haha. Maybe it’s the inner critic in me — I always struggle with that guy — but I feel like I’ve learned so much over the course of writing this comic. I know I mentioned this before, but there’s so many things I’d do differently if I were starting over again. I think you’ll see that, as the story progresses, it gets better.

I’ve already begun applying the lessons I’ve learned to the other series I’m developing now, so I think I’ll be looking back at Helm, as sort of a public record of my evolution as a comic writer. That said, the story of Helm is not over. There’s still a long way to go.

Mauricio Caballero: I still can’t believe it. For me, being nominated is already an honor. If I knew better, I would have put more attention to some details. And, of course, this will encourage me to keep improving my skills to make great comics like Helm.

Helm updates Tuesdays and Thursdays at Crookshaw.com.

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