Erj Forward: When the Sun Falls in Ty Dunitz and Jenn Lee’s ‘Rising Sand’ [Webcomic Q&A]
What do you do when the sky is falling and all hope seems lost? You call your representatives. But what do you do when the sky is falling and you live in the webcomic world of Rising Sand? You steal from bandits, amass vast quantities of material wealth, and beat the gastric juices out of a nomad with your mecha-templar suit, that's what. In the chaotic and complex world of Erj, anything goes.
ComicsAlliance spoke with Rising Sand creators Ty Dunitz and Jenn Lee to discuss costume design, transforming a tabletop game into a webcomic, and what to do when the sun starts falling out of the sky.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for Rising Sand? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Ty Dunitz: My approach to worldbuilding has traditionally been top-down, beginning with grand concepts — planets, civilizations, cultures — and drilling down to smaller details. Rising Sand was in fact initially a concept for a tabletop roleplaying game! I wanted to offer a well-crafted sandbox and provide interesting conceptual tools with which people could tell their own stories. As such, much of Erj as a functional world was already established well before the idea of a comic was even considered.
At some point, I came to like the idea of challenging myself to try building bottom-up for a change, beginning with a single person and zooming out. My first thought was to write a book, because frankly, as a career cover artist, sequential narrative frightens me. I like telling a story in a single image. However, luckily for our readers, Jenn was looking for a new comic project — and now, here we are, creating what if held at gunpoint and made to play the comparison game I might be inclined to liken as much to Samurai Champloo as the Super Mario Brothers movie.
CA: What’s it about?
TD: Death. I'm terrified to die, and all the ennui and cynicism that comes with recognizing life's shrinking cage is very much in RS's DNA. Erj is a world with what would seem an insurmountable problem — the sun is literally falling out of the sky — and the story we're looking to tell is not only about whether our heroes can save it, but also how to come to terms with the very real possibility that, perhaps, they can't.
CA: In a more practical sense, how would you introduce the comic to new readers?
JL: Rising Sand's tagline is "Die trying." That is the story at its core. The comic is about a group of ill-prepared people and what they do to simply not roll over and die when, like Ty said, the sun is falling. There's struggle and humor, adventure and sadness, connections and disaster; everything real life throws at us while we just try to do something meaningful with the time we have.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
TD: I want Rising Sand to, for the most part, remain an all-ages experience, and I say that with an enormous asterisk for the fact that our dialog remains fully curse-free, yet even the first dozen pages feature a man with his organs on the outside.
For most of us, I hope, extreme violence is not commonplace. When — indeed if — such an act occurs, it's sudden, and shocking, and hopefully, brief. And then it's over, and you try your best to carry on, because the rest of the world will. Violence doesn't wait for permission or forgiveness. The best we can do is tag those few and far-between pages NSFW, so you aren't accidentally fired.
CA: You say that it’s for the most part an all-ages experience, but the comic’s "About" page states that it’s for "mature readers only," denoting "extreme graphic violence and the occasional boob." In Rising Sand's case, do you see "mature" as being a relatively age-free concept?
TD: Definitely! To say Rising Sand is for mature readers "only" is, I suppose, a little intense — it's more of a courtesy than an instruction. There will be periodic things in Rising Sand you could call "18+," but each reader must decide for themselves if they feel equipped to handle what they might encounter. Some may be ready before others. It's our responsibility to inform readers up front that, however seldom, a head may go flying, or a wild nipple may appear.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
Jenn Lee: I learned how to do a lot of the comic creating process on my own during other projects. It wasn't always right! Or even efficient. But I worked to the best of my limited knowledge and picked up new tricks and habits along the way. Everything after writing was in my hands for a long time, and it took me a long while to let go enough for someone to share my workload!
Working alongside another artist with a super strong illustrative background has helped me break bad habits and to learn how to balance my strengths to better assist my weaknesses. For example; reeling in the excessive tiny details that I might've used back then to mask wonky perspective. Now our mantra is just, "Get good."
It's mostly in my "Do it all, or I failed." mentality that my creative approach has changed. Rising Sand doesn't exist without our pieces of the process being so entwined.
TD: Every time we make a breakthrough in the pace of our workflow, we seem to just fill that extra time improving the overall visual fidelity. Our efficiency still leaves much to be desired. Get good.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
JL: I adore comics. I truly love the communities built around them. Online comic creators and readers are some of the most passionate and fiercely loyal people I've ever met. We both root so hard for those who genuinely bust their butts to tell their stories.
I have some experience doing webcomics in the past, and it was always so neat to create with so few restrictions and to be so accessible for readers to follow along at their own pace. Physical books are wonderful, and I just love the feel of a book in my hands, but that anticipation for a webcomic's next update and to watch theories form is so delicious!
Rising Sand's site, just for the time being, is hosted on Tumblr. There's some super nice webcomic-friendly themes that make our lives a little easier. There are definite plans to move to a real site of its own down the road! We're also on Tapastic, though we post pages a week later there. The ability for readers to comment and interact with each other there is really nice. It's been a lot of fun seeing speculation finally forming!
CA: What’s your process like?
JL: Our process is very much a mixed bag!
TD: Writing Rising Sand begins and ends with a lot of dejectedly gazing through myself in the bathroom mirror. In between, there's a particular rock in the dog park next to our building I like to sit on, writing the script from my phone. I clean up and format the words for Jenn later on a PC, but I prefer to actually write on a phone. All Rising Sand content to date, both comic and game, has been written on the same Note II. Also, these interview answers.
JL: Next we put ClipStudio Paint up on the TV in the living room so we can work out thumbnails together. It's just easier to bounce ideas for panel layouts off each other while staring at the open thumbnails. Usually we'll knock out designs for NPCs or supporting cast and specific setting pieces around this time as well. We put extra care into the background elements and characters just so that everything on our pages looks like it has purpose and fits naturally into the world!
I'm still totally a caveman in that I traditionally pencil everything on comic boards at my drawing table. I go through red and blue pencil lead like they're cans of Pringles. You're all out and staring at an empty container before you realize what's happened. Once we're happy with the finished pencils, Ty scans it all in and inks it in CSP, making needed adjustments and any necessary changes to the lineart along the way. His magic with colors and hand-lettering follows. His lighting direction is a whole process of its own.
TD: The Rising Sand coloring process is magic. Don't worry about it.
JL: Sprinkled in during all this is us wandering into each others' work spaces or shouting to each other from the other room to bang out story ideas and specific plot points. We're still refining our process! It's a never-ending learning experience to not only create a comic, but to do so as a team.
CA: There is a lot of visual detail in Rising Sand — complex costume and jewelry design (especially on Qebrus), speech bubbles denoted with color tabs to indicate language changes, a rich use of lighting, intricate city backgrounds, etc. What are your favorite design elements to work and play around with?
JL: I love the costumes. I'm someone who struggles to dress herself like a person every day — that promo image of Ty and I RS-ified is accurate in how many different colors and patterns I'm usually wearing at the same time. Designing characters' clothing has been so much fun! Ty has specific ideas in mind for Erj's population and their clothing. I get to run wild with it. I have a go-to sketch dump of mix-n-matchable costume elements for most NPCs, and more significant characters get a brainstorming session or two to nail down their costume designs.
Dal's collar is the one design that consistently gives me a hard time. Massive crowd scenes --- no big deal. Bonkers perspective? I'll just get good and figure it out! Dal's collar- not going down on the board without a fight ever.
TD: Dal's collar is truly alien geometry. Jenn and I are both illustrators who drive ourselves to misery working out finicky details in our work, often to the detriment of our timetables. Working together, we're able to keep one another largely in check, but we still tend to go a little wholer hog than perhaps we need to.
Many of the character and object details in Rising Sand are much like the lore passages, adding context to the state of the world and its people. Qeb's cuffs, for instance, offer insight into the beliefs and myths of his order — and while it's not necessary to know that for now, it will be extra satisfying for readers to make the connection by the time we get to it in the narrative proper. I love those little 'aha' moments, when you notice something that was there all along.
Speaking of which, there are a few other "games" we're playing in the page details that I get a kick out of as well. The most obvious is the inclusion of characters from other comics, repurposed as extras in scenes that call for them; another is the written erjan language. All of page 33's signs are readable. But there are two more (or three, depending) minigames going on week by week that require a particularly exhaustive eye for detail.
So far, exactly one reader has caught on to exactly one of them. I want to say more, but it's so much more fun for readers to solve these kinds of things on their own. Just ...don't forget the skull.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
TD: Jenn and I are not expeditious craftspersons, and from what I understand, publisher comics run on very fast clocks. While we don't f--- around in making our deadlines, producing a free comic that looks like Rising Sand does, while simultaneously living our lives, require a schedule I think few publishers would be enthusiastic to provide. That said, if you know anyone...
CA: Every comic page features an end-stop with a healthy explanation of the world’s lore. Would you say these passages are mandatory, or just supplemental to following the story?
TD: Ideally they're optional, just fun bits of flavour text for readers who are interested in learning more about the things that go on in Erj. While most of the concepts expounded upon in the end-stops are things I've worked out previously, I don't write the passages until the very minute we go to post the week's page, in order to keep from creating my own reliance on it to explain the story outright. That would be quite a problem in the event we did a print version!
I do suggest, though, that readers take the time to check out the lore bits. While they may not be entirely necessary, some are very relevant to future developments in the story...
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
TD: This is a difficult question, and one over which both Jenn and I — and I suspect many others — agonize every time we're asked. A fledgling online comic's survival all but requires the support of the community, and as such you tend to make an enormous number of allies very quickly — allies who want (and deserve!) your public endorsement as much as you theirs.
So it's always painful to whittle down to one or two shoutouts without arousing the ire of your other friends. All of our colleagues work hard and deserve to be seen, but listing them all here would require its own article. So I'll kindly ask people check out the links page on the RS site that will totally exist by the time you post this interview. In the meantime, check these out.
Those following me on Twitter know how impressed I am with the cyberpunk dark comedy Drugs and Wires, but this is the first I've had a mountain top from which to shout. Co-creators Cryoclaire and Io Black had me fully convinced of the world the characters inhabit even before the end of the first issue, and for me, there is little higher to aspire to. I love it. And I don't even like cyberpunk.
I'd also like to take the opportunity to shine a light on Mermaid Comics by Neil Lalonde. What began as witty single-page gags and an excuse to draw boobs has begun to evolve very quickly into a clever serial comedy with straight up some of the most inventive mermaid costume designs you've ever seen. Also there's a mermaid gorilla. You can't lose.
JL: Above The Clouds has such a floaty and endearing storybook feel to it. I love the split storylines and the clever separation of the "real world" and the story being told in it.
Everblue is one of my favorite adventure comics. It's so animated and the world-building is so involved, but it's integrated perfectly into the storytelling without feeling too wordy by dragging the reader along by the hand.
If you have a webcomic you’d like to suggest for an upcoming Webcomic Q&A, send a tip to jonerikchristianson[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line “Webcomic Q&A.”