Smash Pages Q&A: Zack Soto kickstarts ‘The Secret Voice’

‘This is me pouring all my love of adventure and fantasy narratives, artcomics, manga, and eurocomics into one misshapen container.’

Zack Soto has been making and publishing comics for years. People might know him best as the Editor in Chief and Publisher of Study Group Comics, which has published great comics and minicomics from Farel Dalrymple, Aidan Koch, Sam Alden, Jennifer Parks and others. Soto was also one of the co-founders of Linework NW, the comics festival in Portland that ended in 2016.

Soto has also been making his own comics like Power Button, but perhaps his best known work is The Secret Voice. The comic is epic fantasy, but it takes the rough outline of that genre and incorporates elements of superhero and art comics, martial arts, mysticism and psychedelia. The result is both epic fantasy and part of an unclassifiable genre that is familiar to readers of Farel Dalrymple, Michel Fiffe and many other comics creators.

Soto has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to publish a collection of the first volume of The Secret Voice, and I reached out to ask him about the book and his work.

Zack, we’ve met a few times over the years and I was reading you before then, but what’s your origin story? How did you come to comics?

I’ve been reading comics as long as I can remember. I started with stuff like X-Men, Captain America, (Byrne’s) Superman, Spider-Man, Crisis, etc. I devoured Who’s Who and The Marvel Handbooks equally, and eventually I found indy comics and The Comics Journal at a pretty young age. I was a big fan of stuff like Scout, Grendel, Yummy Fur, and Love & Rockets when they all seemed to be part of the same scene to my young eyes. I went from tracing pictures of Booster Gold and the Goblin Queen to reaching for relevance with pathetic teenaged attempts at absorbing Jaime Hernandez, Peter Bagge & Julie Doucet’s chops in just a few years. I’ve almost always had a pretty catholic taste in comics, I guess. I like a lot of different kinds of comics.

For people who don’t know, what is The Secret Voice?

The main protagonist of The Secret Voice is Dr. Galapagos–a goggled, bandaged mystery man who is just one of many agents of the ineffable Red College that we meet in the pages of The Secret Voice. Doctor Galapagos is our hero, our mystic battle man on the spot. He seems wildly capable of facing any and all hand to hand combatants. But Dr.G isn’t just battling hundreds of angry trolls or brigands all at once, he’s also fighting an unseen, unknown, psychic menace. He’s finding his grip on reality becoming more and more tenuous, just when he needs it the most.

The tyrannical warlord known as The Smog Emperor has made his way through the previously impassable mountain range known as the Great Mountain Shelf.  His forces pass like wildfire through a mostly peaceful region, subjugating the people and laying ecological waste to the lands he conquers. Can the Red College and the allied forces of the land turn the tide? Can Dr. Galapagos keep his cool, stay true to himself, hold on to his love, and defeat the Smog Emperor all at once?

The Secret Voice is my own personal version of an epic fantasy saga. Because I’m me, it’s a trippy, sometimes discursive affair that’s just as focused on the sense of space and atmosphere as it is on the big picture plot stuff. This is me pouring all my love of adventure and fantasy narratives, artcomics, manga, and eurocomics into one misshapen container. It’s about a big old-fashioned land war driven by the invasion of a despot; it’s about a bunch of weird psychic warrior monks; it’s about wild kung fu magic battles; it’s about monsters and supernatural beings. But it’s also about someone in over their head and not being honest with themselves or the people they love, and figuring out how to own their mistakes.

Before we go further, as a Leonard Cohen fan I have to ask, is the secret voice the accompaniment to the “secret chord” referenced in the song Hallelujah?

While I totally love Cohen (I’m Your Man came out when I was 13 or so and I listened to it on repeat for months), I regret to say that that’s not the genesis of the name. It’s far less interesting: When I was in my late teens/early 20s or so I was poring through a copy of the Overstreet Price Guide and saw a postage-stamp sized reproduction of some weird Golden Age comic called The Secret Voice that only had one issue. I thought it was a great name and held on to it for years.

Fair enough! The Secret Voice has been a webcomic, and you’ve published individual comics. What is in this collection?

The Secret Voice Volume One is all the Dr. Galapagos stories from issues 1-3 of the print comics (which were slightly remastered versions of the webcomics) with an additional 30+ pages of brand new comics in there. It’s essentially what would have been issue 4. Plus there’s pin-ups from other radical cartoonists and at least one extra short story, sketchbook stuff and other supplemental materials to round out the collection.

This is your take on epic fantasy. What were the fantasy books and comics that you really loved when you were younger, what were the ones you think really influenced The Secret Voice?

That’s an interesting question. I think Fantasy is a genre that comics sort of has a hard time with. At least straight up, “Capital F” Fantasy. As a kid I read a lot of stuff like D&D/Dragonlance type comics, Conan, stuff that might pop up in Heavy Metal magazine, the Myth Adventures comics, things like that. The Elflord issues that Dale Keown inked had something going on. The 80s and early 90s were great for a lot of B&W explosion fantasy comics with 1-5 issues. Stuff like Guy Davis’s first comic The Realm, which was a weird mish mash of the D&D cartoon plot with 80’s anime aesthetic. Honestly, I mainly read a crap-ton of mostly not super great Fantasy novels as a kid, repeatedly watched Beastmaster and things like that. Lots of comics that are not-quite Fantasy made an impact, like Corben’s DEN & Mutant World. There’s no doubt going to be stuff that I’m forgetting and will slap my forehead over when this goes up. Most modern Fantasy comics drive me crazy with how generic they seem.

Probably my number one influence when it comes to the way I think about Fantasy (and in some ways, about panel to panel storytelling) is technically a sort of Fantasy/Science Fiction hybrid: Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa. I got the very first issue of that when Viz started serializing it, and was immediately swept up into the world and the way it was presented. I’ve read that comic as many times as any of my favorite books. The other big one is Dungeon, the sprawling series of European Bandes Dessinee by Trondheim, Sfar & Blain. I almost forgot to mention them, but that series was a huge revelation to me, even from before I read my first volume. Bart Beatty wrote an article about the series in TCJ and I must have read the article multiple times, not unlike when I was a little kid reading the Marvel Handbook or whatever. I can’t remember if NBM got some floppy B&W comics of it out before or after I went to Spain and picked up a bunch in Spanish. The casual-casual worldbuilding, wandering wooly narratives, and epic scope of Dungeon were a true North Star for me at a certain time. I’m still sort of sad they stopped making them.

Part of the extra material in the book are pinups from some great people including Farel Dalrymple and Michel Fiffe, and you three aren’t the only ones in this camp, but there are a lot of cartoonists our age who grew up reading superheroes and fantasy and manga and European albums and art comics and the work is very much an unclassifiable melding of these genres.

Yeah! All the pin-up artists are people with whom I feel a kinship in that way. We’re all pretty omnivorous comics readers, or have been at various times. Even Sammy had his time in the genre trenches–we used to talk about B.P.R.D. comics at shows in between gossiping about art comics stuff. I spent a long long time beating myself up trying to learn from artists without showing it, you know? It’s always kind of funny when you can tell someone is REALLY REALLY going through a CF or Mike Mignola phase. Like I’m glad I didn’t publish anything from when I was trying to be Paul Pope, stuff like that. But I’ve sort of stopped trying to think about that, ironically at a point where I feel like I haven’t been taking in too many new influences for a few years. So there’s probably still echoes of specific artistic influences in my comics, maybe? But faint. Like I try not to just copy Dungeon. But I’m also not trying to hide that I love BD or manga or superhero comics–in fact I’m actually embracing my general influences more than ever, in some ways.

For those of us who are excited about seeing a collection of this work, you’re calling this volume one and I’m guessing you already have a good chunk of a second volume completed? How big is this story all told?

This is the first of three. I’ve actually got 110 pages of the next book penciled, and it’s all written as well (I think it’s going to end up being a little longer than book one). So that’s a nice feeling, knowing I’ve got another one in the chamber, ready to go. I’m tired of having all this lag time between chapters. I want these books to live outside my head, see what people think. The third book, that’s a little more nebulous. I know what happens and the general arc of it, but I’ll have the time I work on Volume Two to figure out some of the specifics of Three.

So final elevator pitch. Why should people get this book? How will it improve and enhance their lives?

If you want to support weird indy fantasy adventure comics, that’s cool. That’s like, an ethical/political reason. If you want to hopefully be taken to a place not quite like any other “Fantasy World,” I like to flatter myself in thinking that The Secret Voice is pretty idiosyncratic. You’re not going to get this comic if you pull something out of Central Casting, or the slush piles of “Actually I’m a TV pitch disguised as a comic” comics. The book itself is going to be a really nice package, and it’ll be fun to read! Maybe it’ll make you cry? I don’t know. Probably not cry. Plus, this book has been literal YEARS in the making, and what better feeling is there than helping someone realize a long-frustrated dream?

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