Smash Pages Q&A: Sebastian Girner

The editor-in-chief of TKO Studios discusses their approach to making comics, their second year of publishing and the ‘relentless hopelessness’ of his own writing.

Sebastian Girner is the editor-in-chief of TKO Studios, where he’s overseen the publisher’s launch, its approach to publishing, and its diverse lineup of talents and approaches that we’ve seen over the past few years.

Previously Girner worked at Marvel Comics and has edited various creator-owned comics. He’s also written comics, including two projects that came out this year. The Devil’s Red Bride is a miniseries coming out from Vault Comics, and The Father Of All Things is one of the books in TKO’s inaugural line of TKO Shorts.

We spoke recently about his eventful year, about the tone that unites these two different projects, and how he uses the supernatural.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I learned to read with comics. I was born in Germany, and my family moved to the states when I was three. The first comic I was really drawn to was Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, an amazing first comic. My dad had been a fan of adventure comics back in the day, which I later discovered were classics like Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan and Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. Comics were always there. My dad would go to Germany for business, and he brought back comics that he thought were German but were really Franco-Belgian – Asterix and Obelix, Tintin, Gaston. 

Then in the mid-1990s, we moved back to Germany and that was when manga started blowing up. Anime VHS tapes were being shared in school. I studied Japanese after high school, lived in Japan for a year. After that I sent out resumes and was offered a job as an assistant editor at Marvel in 2008. I moved back to America and that was the start of me working in comics.

What was your interest in editing?

I really had no idea what comic book editors did when I showed up for work my first day. It’s something I grew into. I was excited about getting to learn what it is. What ultimately drew me to it is that it’s a lot of making communications processes work between people. Working with a writer and their idea and making sure that translates in the script. Translating that so the artist can read it. And of course working with the artist to make sure they translate that back to the characters and emotions. There’s magic in that collaboration. I say magic, because there’s an alchemy to it that feels surreal, but it’s also craft. 

Once you get the opportunity to work like that and at a place like Marvel, you just churn out monthly books that if you take a liking to it – which I did – it’s an amazing feeling and you learn so much about this wonderful medium very quickly, because you have to. But then I moved away from the gristmill of monthly comics and towards editing creator-owned work, where you have a little more time. You can spend more time on the creative mindfulness of it. Not to talk down to monthly comics, but there’s a production rhythm to it that is definitely a younger man’s game. I believe all art is defined by its limitations, and I think for monthly comics, that limitation is always going to be time. I like working with creators and figuring out what it is they want to do and then trying my best to be the invisible hand to get them there. Reading the story for the first time and having a conversation with the writer where you’re trying to dissect a writer’s intentions. Not to insert yourself and wield some unjust creative control, but telling a story is this very personal act of creation. I like stories, I like hearing what people think about the world, and as an editor, you can help not only identify great talent and make sure great writers work with great artists, but the artistic part of it is exciting.

I remember Bob Schreck once talked about how the ideal editor is like a house inspector, where you kick the struts.

Exactly. Poking holes, asking questions, proposing solutions. Especially right now when there’s such a wealth of different kinds of comics. You get to identify what you want to give a push, what voices or art styles you want to push or explore more. You’re trying to showcase the medium in a new light and making sure it’s as diverse as possible. There’s so many facets of an editor’s job if they’re fortunate to be a position where they can indulge them. A big part of my path to editing work-for-hire to creator-owned to what I do at TKO as editor-in-chief is bumping up against all the different things an editor does and trying to create a position for myself where I can do everything. [laughs] Which might be my downfall and a tragic mistake.

TKO is very different from working at Marvel or DC, where a lot of what editors do is make the trains run on time. At TKO, you have to find people, and engage with a mixture of styles and approaches and people. There is no set way to work.

We wanted to eliminate the time crunch. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have a schedule, it’s just a little more forgiving. I work more personally with every creator. This year has been the death knell of the deadline. But I never wanted to be in a spot where when you make a creative decision, you’re forced to take the first exit out of problem town. That works in a monthly comics where people come for the characters. I think the specific kind of editing at a place like Marvel of DC is really unique. I’ve structured TKO so that it’s a little more relaxed. Or maybe it’s just how I feel I can be the best editor and be able to impart that. I have an assistant and I have high hopes for her to start taking on editing tasks of her own soon. What TKO needs to do – and what a lot of non-superhero comics need to do – is just wow people with quality and the full package and the longevity of their themes and characters. 

Part of the new wave is these shorts. Whose idea was it to make what are essentially minicomics?

TKO is Tze Chun, who’s our publisher; Salvatore Simeone, who’s our CEO; and myself as the editor-in-chief. We set up the original concept of TKO – the binge release model, releasing it in different formats, being our own distributor. After the first two waves, we thought it would be cool to be able to do something that allows us to work with more talent on less time-consuming projects. One of the shorts, Seeds of Eden, is written by Liana Kangas and Joe Corallo and drawn by Paul Azaceta, who’s an exceptional artist. It’s also colored by Paul, which is something he usually doesn’t get to do, probably for schedule reasons. But it looks amazing. If we had wanted to do that for 150 pages, Paul’s schedule may not have made that possible.

It’s also an opportunity for me as an editor to work with talent that maybe doesn’t have as much experience yet. It gives us the opportunity to work with more people on more concepts. On the other end of the spectrum, from a marketing perspective, it allows us to bundle the stories in different ways. We ended up with the idea of putting them out three at a time. From a creative perspective, the short story is kind of a high water mark for a writer and artist. As a reader, I really like anthologies. I’m excited that we’re trying things, because why not? We have the opportunity and we like to do the work and the reception of the first wave of shorts has been really great for us.

The production is fabulous, as one would expect. Jared K. Fletcher does the design work and continues to do a great job.

Jared’s amazing. I’d worked with him before on logos, but recently comic book design is more important. In the last couple years there are designers that comics fans could now name, Jared among them, and that is being taken more into account. As opposed to the old superhero days where as long as you have Wolverine on the cover, no one really cares what the book looks like. It was exciting to let Jared loose on the entire line and for him as an artist and designer to show everything he can do.

I would imagine that the shorts are also a way to reach out to stores. And when things shut down this year, TKO said, “Tell us what comic store you go to, and we’ll cut them a check as if you bought the book from the store.

I’m so proud of that. In our second year we were tested like every other publisher because of COVID, but because we decided to do something different from the start, that came together relatively quickly. Within the first couple months we cut checks to hundreds of stores. It shows that people are super loyal to their stores and they love going there. We didn’t want stores to suffer. We wanted to show that change is possible.

The shorts are another way. If you’re on the site and purchase over $50 you get free U.S. shipping and a free behind-the-scenes sketchbook. To grow our offerings in a way so we’re not flooding our own market. TKO is a controlled burst of output but showing that quality is applicable to longer format stories and clean one-and-done shorts and apply the TKO philosophy to different kinds of formats.

You’re publishing many kinds of stories and are not known for one genre or style. What is a TKO story to you? How do you think about it?

I think that if you look at the now, we have three waves out and if you put them all on a shelf it’s not a bad variety of books. We like to say we’re looking for new takes on established genres. Take Sara, our World War II story. There are plenty of those, but I’d never seen one from the perspective of women in combat. So when Garth pitched us that story, we jumped on it. The same with Goodnight, Paradise, which I know that Josh Dysart had been talking about for years. I was very proud that TKO was the publisher of that story. It was a really subversive take on a classic whodunit. Same with The 7 Deadly Sins.

If you look at it from that perspective, we’re always trying to find a new way into a genre that people have a lot of love and appreciation for. We also try to put out books that in some ways speak clearly about the world we live in. To have some modern sensibility. Ultimately there might come a day when TKO is known for one book because it became such a huge hit. That’s not something you can count on or work towards. There are very few publishers in comics known for anything other than a superhero character. I think The Walking Dead is as big an independent comic as you’ll ever find, but I don’t know if people who like the show can tell you what publisher put it out.

I’m hoping that across the board TKO becomes a brand for high quality. People will say, “I’ve never read a Western before, but I’ve read the other books and they’re good, so I’ll give it a shot.” That’s the identity I strive for.

You wrote one of the shorts,The Father of All Things. Where did this idea start?

Spoiler alert!  “War is the father of all things” is a quote by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. It’s something I’ve heard in German, probably as a kid, and it stuck with me. It sounds much more intimidating in German, I’m sure. It’s intensely fatalistic and there’s this sense of dread and just a promise of doom. Very catchy. 

Sometimes when you have an idea for a story, you have a fully fleshed out story and sometimes it’s just an image or a line. I always thought World War I was under-served as a backdrop and a canvas for the human condition. I’m a huge fan of Jacques Tardi’s work and he was always able to carve out the painful human realizations in this war. I wanted to play in that arena for a couple of pages. 

I also loved the idea of these trenches as carved into the ground like a monster takes his claws and rips it across the earth. You have this descent into something dark and twisted through the eyes of a young German soldier. When we started throwing ideas around for shorts, I asked, “Can I write one?” Baldemar Rivas was an artist I’d always wanted to work with. 

Again, an artist we caught at a great time. He’s doing an Image book with Cullen Bunn, but we were able to get him for 14 pages. I just wrote it. I didn’t really know where it was going. That was the first time I did that as a writer, and I knew that this would test me. It was something that flew together. I didn’t have a story but I had a mood and a tone that I wanted to convey and hopefully did that. Very much thanks to Baldemar, who’s an exceptional artist.

How does that compare with your writing process for Devil’s Red Bride?

They’re both dipping more than a toe into a kind of tone that I’m partial to, which is very, very bleak. Relentless hopelessness. [laughs] But maybe there’s a tea light in there somewhere. Devil’s Red Bride is something that I cooked up with John Bivens, the artist. I’m a huge fan and lover of Japanese history and there’s something about the era of warring states that I think is as close to a feudal apocalypse as you can get. If you read material form the time, people genuinely thought the world was ending, that these wars would never end and humanity was devouring itself. Which is a frame of mind that I can sympathize with. 

With Devil’s Red Bride I had a lot clearer sight of where I was going and what I wanted to do on the way. And I was excited to have found an artist in John who was up for it, and willing to draw all the weird, horrible stuff I was going to send him. I worked with him when I edited the book Spread, which he did with Justin Jordan, which was also very gory. So I knew John had the stomach for it, but he’s also an incredible storyteller and has a great sense of humor and real comedic timing. 

That was a story that had everything I wanted. I really wanted to do something super mega violent, super mega bleak and just see if anyone wants to read that and put themselves through that to get to the tealight at the end, even if it just gets snuffed out. 

I wanted to give it a shot. I didn’t see anyone else doing something like that. 

I love samurai fiction and there’s not much out there. I’m also a huge fan of Berserk by the great Kentaro Miura. Which I never expect to see completed in my lifetime. There he takes a clear love of Western fantasy but also a pretty solid understanding of European history and just mashes it all together with his philosophy about “Is mankind good or bad?” With half an eye, I wanted to try something like that, inhabit that darkness. And I discovered that there were some things I wanted to write about in that very bleak and horrific space, and I’m very proud of how it turned out. In every issue I wanted to top both what John had to draw and what we would submit the reader to. And on top that philosophy of fatalism and bleakness, to see how low we could take someone, how black can I make it, without turning out the lights completely, if that makes sense.

It does. Of course you have plenty of blood so it visually doesn’t look dark.

It’s funny because comics are so violent in general. I remember Maximum Carnage or the Spider-Man where Carnage kills someone on the page, and I was like, “Oh my god, this has never happened before!” And then I started reading Battle Angel Alita like the next day and I was like, “Holy crap!” The envelope just keeps getting pushed.

I’m not saying ultra-violence is fantastic because it desensitizes, but for this I really really wanted to do it, and still make it feel like life has value. That life is precious, even if you’re just splattering it all over the wallpaper. I wanted to cut loose and see if I could still shock anyone with violence. And people are saying, “This is a really violent and horrific book.” So maybe that goes to show that we’re not as desensitized as I thought, which is great to know.

It’s also about the kind of violence. Without guns, violence is very different and has to be much more personal and involved.

The great samurai sword fights are not about the sword fighting, but about the context. There’s always an argument or a philosophical debate behind the sword fighting. That’s something I wanted to bring to Devil’s Red Bride in the duels. There are still some surprises that I hope people will dig. As it came out and I started reading impressions from people, I hope people will be surprised by the time they get to the end. I don’t think we showed our hand as clearly as we could have about what kind of story this will be.

Both Devils Red Bride and The Father of All Things are violent stories about war and fantasy, but the supernatural elements don’t cause the horror, people cause the horror all on their own

Yes. That’s why I have such a huge respect for Garth Ennis’ work. He’s known as the writer of Preacher and The Boys, but he writes war comics and horror comics and he always tells a story about “us.” Even if it’s weird and quirky and horrific and there are angels and demons, they’re stories about us at our best and us at our worst. 

I love a good genre tale, but I want to see some reflection of the writer in the story, I want to see some reflection of the artist in their art. Because we spend so much time making these stories, I want people to walk away realizing that there’s a reason we do this. We want to tell other people about ourselves and how we see the world and we want to read how other people see the world. Telling and retelling stories is something humans do and is such an integral part of us. I think everyone should be drawing comics or making music or writing poetry or whatever. It’s so primal. I just happened to choose super violent devil samurai comics to participate in this wonderful human ritual. [laughs]

So what is it about war that interests you? And characters who are not ordinary people pushed to extremes, they’re already extreme in some way?

It’s interesting that you say that because the protagonists in The Father of All Things and Devil’s Red Bride both made the decision to go to war. They were somehow coerced or allured into the promise of what war promises – glory, meaning, significance. And they were horribly punished for believing that. Well, with Ketsuko we’re not sure, because that hasn’t ended yet.

War is something that I think about a lot. I’m German. I know my country’s history. There’s a reckoning that happens, or should happen, growing up and understanding that the country you are born into and from which you derive a lot of your understanding of yourself and your heritage has committed the greatest crime in human history. It’s not something anyone likes thinking about, but it’s imperative that we do.

I think everyone knows this, or it sounds so mundane that it doesn’t warrant repeating, over and over and over again: war is the worst thing that we can do to each other and ourselves. 

And there is something within us, like a demon, that can tease us into this fervor where violence and war seem like really good ideas, the way forward. And that impulse can be weaponized and utilized against us by people who profit from it all the time throughout history. And still we mythologize it because, I don’t know, it’s like a darker kind of gravity. It pulls us towards it and we need to fight back against it all the time. I don’t think there can be enough stories to make that clear.

Maybe it’s just something I was born into thinking about. It’s something that I’m fascinated and terrified by,  which makes me want to write about it. We write about what scares us or concerns us. 

Writing Father of All Things and The Devil’s Red Bride in the same year…clearly my head was in a state. Hopefully I got some of it out on paper.

So we’ve had a year like no other and I know that you can’t talk about anything you’re writing or the fourth wave, but after this year and what it’s meant and creatively such a big year, what are you thinking about or looking ahead to?

I wrote about this a little on Twitter around Thanksgiving, but I genuinely feel like I got through this year because I work on comics. I can compartmentalize. I was already tired coming into this year, and then being faced with COVID and what that does to you in your head. Thinking about how grand of a change this is. Almost like a war in that regard. Everything is changed for everyone. No one is untouched by this. So, being able to put off worrying about tomorrow or next week, and just focusing on this script, this page, this panel, like a mantra or a heartbeat – that has helped me immensely to keep moderately sane in 2020.

Being able to put out wave three with TKO and Devil’s Red Bride with Vault Comics was such an exhalation of this year. I was able to get something out of this year. I’m really proud of the work we did. It was hard. It’s hard to push people towards a deadline when everyone is worried about their family.

For me comics are about collaboration. If I was able to write and draw and color and design comics by myself, I probably would do it, but I want to work with other people. To find moments of joy and levity and that spark. 

For 2021 I’m excited for TKO for a lot of reasons. We’re in a really great spot. Wave four and a couple other projects are far along. We’re coming out of this year really strong, which I’m so thankful for. I’m so thankful to our team and our readers who gave us a shot. I’m heartened by the fact that this year we got through. If we got through this year, hopefully next year will be a little easier. [laughs] Or something like that. 

On a personal note, I am writing a new thing right now which tonally I conceived before COVID, but is very “How could you not be affected by what you’ve lived through?” Luckily it is a project that, if I get it written the right way, slingshots out of that primordial darkness I apparently insist on writing about and goes towards a really hopeful place. But we’ll see how that goes. [laughs]

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