Smash Pages Q&A: Ben Sears

The creator of Plus Man and Hank discusses his latest book, ‘House of the Black Spot,’ working with Annie Koyama, designing covers and more.

Comics creator Ben Sears is known for his brilliant use of design, color and composition. His Double+ series of graphic novels feature all-ages adventures about two characters, Plus Man and Hank, and their various escapades as treasure hunters, breaking into haunted houses and old tombs.

His new book House of the Black Spot from Koyama Press is something of a departure for Sears. The wild adventures take a backseat as Hank’s uncle, who raised him, has died under mysterious circumstances, and the two go back to Hank’s hometown to try and solve the mystery. The art in this book manages to be as exciting and dynamic as anything Sears has made.

While the story is a lot quieter than his previous books, Sears makes it as engaging and intense an experience as his previous narratives. It’s his best work to date, and I was thrilled to talk with Sears about how his work has changed, Patreon and working with Annie Koyama.

The question I always start with is, how did you come to comics?

Far Side Gallery and Calvin & Hobbes collections, and Foxtrot/Hagar/Garfield in the newspaper as a kid. I mostly stopped reading them around elementary or middle school, save for the occasional Batman or X-Men comic. I didn’t really consciously get into comics until 2011. I got sucked into one of those big superhero reboot schemes, but quickly discovered they didn’t do anything for me. Around 2012-13 I started finding cartoonists I liked on Tumblr, so I’ll say that was my actual entry into the comics scene I’m in.

For people who don’t know, who are the characters of Plus Man and Hank, and where did they come from?

Plus Man started out as a sketchbook drawing. Same with Hank. I didn’t even name them for the first two books. I would’ve continued to do so, but my publisher said they should probably have names. I think they were just the first ones that popped into my head that didn’t sound like I was trying too hard. It’s hard to pinpoint where their personalities came from. When I was a kid I’d watch The Three Stooges, Star Warsand The Simpsons endlessly, so they can probably be traced back to that.

What is House of the Black Spot?

The name I came up with for a story that was already finished. I guess I tend to avoid naming things until the last minute. I’d named most of my other books after songs I liked, but decided it was time to grow up and not potentially piss off the bands who had already gone through the trouble of coming up with cool names. I think House of the Black Spot covers the general vibe of the book, even if there’s no literal black spot that shows up in the house.

How do you describe Bolt City?

A city in the distant future, on the tail end of some sort of mild apocalyptic event. There’s robots and cars capable of flight, but they aren’t the focus of the story. There’s still a housing crisis, climate change, rampant white collar crime, and horrible cops.

I’m sure there are people who will look at this and go, “It’s a kid in a helmet and a robot and it’s a mystery story about gentrification and this all fits together how?” How does it fit together for you? And what’s the key to making it fit together, because once you read it, it clearly does.

When I started working on this series back in 2014, I’d write mostly tame stories about adventure or treasure hunting. As I got more comfortable writing, the stories started veering into personal frustrations. That was convenient, because it let Plus Man and Hank grow organically, while having to reckon with the destruction they’d caused when I wasn’t as good of a writer. I’m not very well read when it comes to politics and social issues, and I’m fortunate to not be on the receiving end of the worst parts of gun violence, gentrification, and police brutality. I try to approach those things from the perspective I have in real life. I don’t presume to speak for anyone who goes through that stuff, but I guess there is sort of a wish fulfillment angle in Plus Man being able to beat up far-right militia goons, or fight back against corrupt cops.

The seeds of House of the Black Spot came about as I became more aware of how unattainable affordable housing is becoming where I live. The city has no real reason to be this expensive. Despite the capitalist programming in my brain, I tried to come up with a place where there was sort of a collective ownership over the housing and industry, and how that would play out in the world I’d already established in the books.

I filtered that through the lens of the trope of the wealthy deceased relative who calls their heirs in for the reading of the will. The specific example that got my brain working was The Cat & The Canary, which is an old Bob Hope movie where he and a bunch of other people have to survive the night in an old mansion to get the inheritance. It’s hard to say exactly how I fit all the pieces together, but the plots of old movies can be mined for inspiration once you shift the focus from rich white people.

I think writing honestly about the situation in House of the Black Spot, as outlandish as it is, makes it easier to read. I’m not struggling to pay my rent, and I have help if I ever need it. Even with those advantages, I still feel like I’ll be throwing money at a landlord forever. How can someone save up money for a down payment on a house, much less one that isn’t ridden with black mold, foundation damage, or lack of access to grocery stores and parks? I tried not to speak about the frustrations of people who have less than me, but instead on how I would help them if I could.

I feel like reading the series I’ve watched you grow as a writer. This book is a more complicated and subtle and character based.

Night Air, the first book I did with Koyama, was the second comic I ever did. It’s kinda rough looking back on it, but also nice because there’s something to compare the new books to. I don’t think I’m a particularly talented writer, but I have been doing it full time for the last four years so I’ve figured out what my strengths are. I’ve also lost several family members, had some health scares, and grown apart from friends in that time period, so I’ve been given a good lesson in mortality. I guess constant practice, coupled with the intense fear of dying young gave me some clarity in regards to what I want to say.

I did want to ask you about your covers because they are incredibly striking, and you’ve made a lot of posters and other work that’s similar. Can you talk a little about design and thinking about this kind of work?

I have a degree in graphic design, and as much as I’d like to attribute the design strengths to that, most of what I do comes from being bored or grossed out by everything else that’s out there. Coming up with a good cover isn’t rocket science, but it does require time. Most covers on the shelf in a comic/bookstore seem like an afterthought. The book’s already done, and the artist has to come up with a cover real quick to get it to the printer.

I pull pretty heavily from 70s movie posters, specifically Italian action/westerns. I love the medley of information that’s packed into posters from that era. I don’t settle on final cover artwork until I can come up with a title treatment that works in tandem with the art. If I can work the title into the architecture of the drawing (like Volcano Trash or The Ideal Copy) then I’m 100% satisfied. With House of the Black Spot, I had a title that was too long to efficiently work into the drawing. I still hand lettered it though, because just slapping a font on the bottom would be pretty jarring.

You’ve had a few books published by Koyama in this series, and you seem to like this size and length for telling a story. What is it about this length that works for you?

I think the publisher asked for a book that length, and it fit in with the single issue story that I prefer to work with. I don’t really care for drawn out narratives that focus on just characters. Partially because I don’t enjoy reading stuff like that, but also I don’t feel like I have enough life experience to make something that works. I tend to be alone most of the time, which makes it easier to come up with stories that are plot driven. The comics/books/movies I enjoy are all emphasis on plot, and the characters either reveal themselves in the allotted time, or remain ambiguous.

You live in Louisville and I’m curious about the city and its effect on your and your work.

I love it here, but it’s an increasingly disappointing city. Like any other urban area in the country, everyone’s getting priced out. I was hoping maybe it’d skip over Louisville, but unfortunately people here seem to be placated by breweries, third wave coffee shops and succulent stores, while elected officials sell us all out to try and be Amazon HQ2. The current climate is certainly giving me enough to write and draw about, but it’d be a disservice to ignore the good things. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 14. When I was growing up, Louisville was uniquely isolated from the major cultural hubs around us, but not totally out of touch with what was going on. Big bands never really came through, so there wasn’t the constant influx of musical trends, or investment in our bands from any kind of labels or anything. We tried to copy what the older Louisville bands were doing. The city doesn’t have much of a comics scene for me to emulate, but I think the spirit of isolation and self-production from music helps me with working on comics.

You also have a Patreon. Do you want to say a little about what you’re using it for?

Right now I’m serializing my comic Young Shadow over there. I’ve done some other comics there before, but it’s also a lot of concept work for characters, sketchbook pages, etc. I try to post a few times a month.

For people who don’t know, what is Young Shadow?

Young Shadow is a detective/crime comic I do that runs alongside the main Double+ comics. It was initially going to be a bootleg Robin thing, but the way the character developed in my head lent itself to another side of the Double+ stuff. There were certain plot points that I didn’t get to explore in the main books that I can delve into with Young Shadow. I think once I wrap up this story line, it’ll compliment the last three Koyama books nicely.

The Double+ series has been published by Koyama and you’re one of the creators I associate with them. Annie announced that she’s shuttering the publishing company, and I just wonder if you could say a little about what she and the company have meant to you?

I wouldn’t be doing what I am today without Annie’s support, both as a publisher and a friend. She took a big chance on me, publishing an artist who had no real experience. She’s not a typical publisher for a lot of reasons, but I can’t think of another small press publisher that throws themselves completely behind their artists, regardless of their skill level. I’m grateful for everything her, Ed Kanerva, and the rest of the staff have done for me.

So what’s next for you? More with Plus Man and Hank? Other things? What are you interested in doing and exploring next?

I’m finishing up the Young Shadow story I started three years ago, which runs parallel to the Double+ stories I’ve been doing. I’ve got some ideas fermenting in my brain for the next book, I just have to find the right publisher to pick it up.

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