Black Mask Studios Founders Talk Creator Rights, Punk Ethics and a Very Busy 2015

Comics Features

Black Mask Studios is getting bold this year. The company has been growing steadily since its founding in 2012, first publishing the Kickstarter-funded Occupy Comics anthology, but 2015 will see the nascent publisher swell from a handful of books to fifteen new series. The leadership certainly has the track record to back it up: Steve Niles has consistently been a driving force in horror comics, creating franchises like 30 Days of Night and Criminal Macabre; Brett Gurewitz is best known as the songwriter and guitarist behind punk icons Bad Religion; and Matt Pizzolo is the mastermind behind the movie/comic/novel multimedia experiment Godkiller and the controversial 2006 film Threat.

The studio’s expansion isn’t limited to the printed page, either: Niles and Christopher Mitten’s May-launching The Disciples, an eerie, atmospheric sci-fi/ horror story in the terrifying tradition of the original Alien, is set to make the jump to television under the wing of horror godfather Wes Craven. Co-founder Matt Pizzolo has also helped Black Mask develop what they’re calling “tubecomics,” a guided viewing video experience hosted on YouTube as an alternative way to introduce new readers (or, rather, viewers) to Black Mask properties.


Paste spoke with Pizzolo, Niles and Gurewitz in a conference call to discuss Black Mask Studios’ rapid growth, its punk-rock roots and keeping the focus on creators.

Paste: Is it fair to say the unifying theme behind Black Mask Studios is putting a punk rock attitude back into comic publishing?
Brett Gurewitz: I would love it if we could introduce punk rock values to comics. As someone who grew a company on the basis of being artist-friendly or creator-friendly, it’s a lot of fun to do and it’s really the only way I like to do things. I think Matt and Steve feel the same way.

Matt Pizzolo: Certainly, that’s one of the awesome sensibilities that Brett and Steve both bring. We’re all from various punk scenes. Steve was in Gray Matter and, you know, Brett’s history precedes him. There’s a long history of comics being really involved in the counter culture. Maybe [those creators] wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves punk, but there were a lot of values before that aren’t reflected in the current market. I feel that in bringing punk values to comics, we’re certainly trying to pay tribute to underground comics and all the radical counter-culture comics that precede us.


Paste: You’ve done a number of political comics since, including Critical Hit,Toe Tag Riot and the forthcoming Our Work Fills The Pews. How important is politically engaged content to your vision for the line?
Pizzolo: I’m going to quote Steve even though he’s on the line. [Laughs] One of the things he said when we were thinking about [forming Black Mask Studios] was that, if V for Vendetta were created today, there would be no publisher for it. And that really resonated with us—wanting to be that publisher. There’s not a mandate that things need to be overtly political, but we want to be publishing the kinds of books that aren’t being published elsewhere. There are not a lot of overtly political comics coming out, at least not in the sort of radically punk way that is exciting to us.

Steve Niles: It’s just not something that other people are doing, and that alone makes it something that I’d want to see out there. I think a lot of people shy away from things like that because it could be controversial or cut into sales, or whatever the case may be. But I love the fact that we have books like Liberator out there. I think it’s important.

Paste: You’re debuting 15 new series this year. What made 2015 the right time to break out such a large slate of titles?
Pizzolo: It was an organic part of the growth. We started the company with only four titles, three new ones really, because Occupy Comics preceded the company and partly inspired it. We really wanted to see if the community would support these types of books, because they’re not the traditional type of books being published. We didn’t want to come out guns blazing like, “We’re bringing this new universe!” We wanted to feel things out. We have a very boutique sensibility where we’re trying to get as much attention as we can because we want to be supporting creators. We took our time with the first slate and it was successful enough and there was enough support—a surprising amount of support from retailers—that we felt comfortable expanding.

The Disciples Cover Art by Christopher Mitten

Paste: Will any of these titles be ongoing, or is your method for the foreseeable future to do installments and mini-series?
Niles: At least with my title, The Disciples, what we’re planning on doing with it, since there’s a character in it that we might want to carry on with, is to just do 4-issue series for right now.

Pizzolo: Yeah, there are a few things that are sort of arc-driven, so there’ll be four or six issues and then a break, then they’ll continue for another arc. That seems to be a really popular style right now among creators and retailers and readers, so that’s mainly the model we’re leaning toward.

Paste: How big are you now behind the scenes, with editors and other support staff?
Pizzolo: We are very small. [Laughs] We just have a couple of employees. It’s a very bootstrap company. We’re able to take advantage of support from Brett’s company and my previous company, so that enables us to be a lot more productive, but as a publishing company, we’re very small.

Paste: Aside from the titles that you guys write, what goes into curating the line? How are you seeking out new creators and what makes a project right or not right for Black Mask?
Pizzolo: It’s pretty clear right away when we look at something if it matches the sensibility of the company, because it just wouldn’t make sense anywhere else and it’s the type of subject matter we feel passionate about it. Sometimes people will reach out to us, like Matt Miner reached out to Steve with Liberator, and I imagine it was an instant thing; there wasn’t a conference about it.

Niles: Well yeah, he comes to me with an animal liberator superhero, there weren’t many other places I was going to recommend it. It really seemed like it was a perfect fit for Black Mask.

Pizzolo: I think it’s an interesting time in comics, where every publisher has a very clear voice, so it’s not the kind of thing where each publisher feels like they are putting out the same books as a different publisher. They all have a unique sensibility. So for us, we know right away when something fits.

The Disciples Interior Art by Christopher Mitten

Paste: You look to be debuting a lot of artists, and hosting a lot of writers who are either new to the medium or who have been doing their own thing outside of mainstream publishing. Do you hope to bring other established creators under the Black Mask banner, or is the line more focused on breaking in new voices?
Niles: The answer is very simple: it’s yes. We want more established creators. There are a lot of creators out there who we think might fit, or have a book that will fit, at Black Mask, so it’s not just looking for new talent. We do want to get more established talent like Grant Morrison and guys like that.

Pizzolo: There’re not a lot of places for new creators to break in, but it’s not really about if it’s an established creator or a brand new creator; it’s about it being the type of project that we can get behind and we can all be passionate about. So whether it’s someone who’s got multiple Eisners under their belt, or it’s someone who has just been struggling for a long time and hasn’t broken out yet, if the story that they’re telling is the kind of thing that we’re passionate about, then we want to support them.

Paste: You caught a lot of people’s attention with the announcement that you’ll be publishing Grant Morrison’s long-gestating Sinatoro. How did that project finally find a home with you, and how did artist Vanesa R. Del Rey get attached?
Pizzolo: I’ve been talking to Grant about Sinatoro literally for years, and it’s something that’s very personal to him. Any time in the last five years, he could have set it up at any publisher, but he has been very protective of it. He wants to work with a partner who understands the nuances of it, and really supports it, but also he has ideas about expanding it out into a story world that grows across media. That was really important to him as well, so I’ve been working with him for a while on sort of strategizing something where it can grow organically. He’s really creating a world here. It’s been a really exciting process to work with him because he’s such a genius madman. He’s creating this world in his head and it’s so real, it becomes real to everyone around him, and it’s so exciting.

The Disciples Interior Art by Christopher Mitten

Vanesa came in pretty recently. That was a suggestion that we had because we really love her work and we thought they would make a really good fit. It’s like suggesting something that’s so obvious, but just wasn’t stated yet because they are tremendously inspired by one another. It was a really cool thing that came together and we were able to make the stars align.

Paste: How important is the multimedia aspect of Black Mask? It’s definitely a large part of Godkiller’s journey.
Pizzolo: It’s not a situation where we look at a story and there’s a mandate that it has to be expandable into other media, but it’s certainly something we see as being an important way for creators to bring their stories to new audiences, and to explore them in different ways. It’s something that’s unique about our company, because we’re able to provide those opportunities and work with them. Not everything needs to be a digital series or a TV show, but if it’s the right project, we can certainly work with those creators to help them navigate all of that so that their stories can unfold in as many formats as possible.

I first learned of Spider-Man on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends the cartoon. I didn’t run into a comic store and just pick it up off the shelf. These are ways that people can discover your stories and your characters. I don’t think there’s anything cynical about it. I think it’s important to make it available to people so they can learn about these things. And we are a publisher who really just wants to support creators.

Paste: You have a unique connection to Five Ghosts from Image Comics, in that you’re helping produce it for TV. Is that a relationship model you’re looking at for other properties not published by Black Mask?
Pizzolo: We are very much in favor of the most aggressive creator rights possible, and of not taking advantage of creators. One way the negative side of that manifests is by taking rights away, but another way it manifests is by just not helping creators. So in a lot of cases, creators have their own rights, but they don’t know what to do with them. And a less-than-genuine quote-unquote producer will give them deals that are very negative to the creators. Without the support of a publisher who’s on their side, I’ve seen them sign really terrible, awful contracts that I feel bad about when they show them to me and ask me for advice.

In a case like Five Ghosts, I’ve been friends with Frank [Barbiere] since even before Five Ghosts came out and before we started Black Mask. Years ago, I shared my Comic-Con table with him when he was just trying to set up a Kickstarter for Five Ghosts. When he was fielding offers from Hollywood, he needed advice on it. I know that he’s been really happy with us being able to assist him and help him through the process, and navigate it in a way that’s as creator-friendly as possible. In some ways, the deal that he wound up with is literally unprecedented. He’s been really happy and there have certainly been a lot of creators who control their rights who’ve come to us for help since.

Young Terrorist Cover Art by Amancay Nahuelpan

Paste: Brett, you have a long and deeply respected history in the punk music scene. How did you find yourself involved with Black Mask?
Gurewitz: Me and Matt met each other through our wives and kids, who were friends. You know when families get together, the dads kind of gravitate toward the other dads who they have something in common with. I’m basically a grizzled old punk rocker and Matt’s a hardcore kid. Well, I’m not really a punk rocker anymore, but those are my roots.

Pizzolo: And I’m not really a kid anymore. [Laughs]

Gurewitz: We had similar taste in films and books and comics, and we became friendly. Then it turned out that I was able to help Matt do fulfillment for Occupy Comics, which was a nonprofit comic that was sort of the genesis of Black Mask. The Kickstarter was very successful and he was seeking the most economical way to deliver the books to backers. I have this direct-to-customer company that we use for selling vinyl and t-shirts and stuff, so we connected doing that. One day we were on the phone together and I said to him, “You know, this Occupy Comics thing was great. Why can’t we do one that’s not a charity? Why can’t we do this for real?” And he said, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t, let’s try it!” [Laughs]

Paste: Brett, you’re the only one out of the three of you who doesn’t have an announced book coming out. Are you going to try your hand at writing?
Gurewitz: No, I’m a reader. I come up with good ideas all the time, but I don’t think I’m a writer. I love being creative and I love supporting creators, but I don’t think so. Thanks for asking! [Laughs]

Paste: Let’s talk about some of the books you have coming up. Steve, you have a few longtime publishers out there, but you’re bringing The Disciples, your next book with Christopher Mitten, to Black Mask. What can you tell us about it?
Niles: It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, which is do a science fiction and horror mix. It’s really an old-fashioned detective story that just happens to take place on Ganymede, one of the moons of Jupiter. It involves cultists and kidnapped daughters and all these things you see in old noir stories, except we’ve set it against a science fiction background. We have the first issue art from Chris and the colors from Jay Fotos and it’s really starting to come together. It’s been a long time developing, so I’m really happy to see it coming.

Young Terrorist Interior Art by Amancay Nahuelpan

Paste: Matt, your next new title, Young Terrorists, has a debut artist and is launching with an 84-page first issue. The premise sounds very you. What should we expect?
Pizzolo: It’s an exciting experiment to start it out as a graphic novella and roll straight into issues from there. The artist is a new guy, Amancay Nahuelpan. I actually met him because he did a piece in Occupy Comics. We are both likeminded in terms of punk politics, street politics and it’s sort of in that vein, but more of a conspiracy adventure. It’s a team of misfits taking on an elite government cabal in a really fun way. Amancay has been knocking it out of the park, really blowing me away with the work he’s been doing, so I’m really excited to get it into the light of day.

Paste: Space Riders by Fabian Rangel Jr. and Alexis Ziritt seems a little different from the rest of your line, in that most of your books seem to have one foot in the real world and this one is pure Kirby-on-drugs space insanity.
Pizzolo: It is exactly as insane as it looks. I would say it is our most insane book. Fabian we’ve worked with before, he did a back-up—well, I don’t call them back-ups, they are extended universe stories [Laughs]—in Liberator. I don’t know if you saw the Liberator trade, but a lot of Black Mask creators did stories in the back that take place in the Liberator world, or world-view, either with the characters or just about animals and animal rights. Fabian did a great story in there with Jonathan Brandon Sawyer, who then became the artist on Critical Hit. Fabian is someone I’m really fond of. His Doc Unknown series is fantastic, and Alexis is just amazing. We’ve been dying to work with him. When they brought us this project, it was just crazy enough to work.

Young Terrorist Interior Art by Amancay Nahuelpan

Paste: Despite a lot of comic creators being really passionate about music, it’s historically pretty tough to put on the page. What are Holly Interlandi and Zoe Chevat bringing to the table with Last Song?
Pizzolo: I think that they have a really interesting approach and sensibility to it. It’s more about their relationship with the music. For lack of a better comparison, it has like a very Velvet Goldmine vibe to it, which I don’t think I’ve seen too much of in comics. They just blew me away with their pitch and the approach they want to take with it, which is a really personal story that happens to take place among a band. The character relationships and the nuances to the personalities are really unique.

Paste: Our Work Fills the Pews has a really striking photo cover and some of the first long-form work from Yasmin Liang, an artist who’s done a good amount of work online. What excited you about that book?
Pizzolo: I thought that book was just amazing. It’s like Blade Runner but intensely political with a really, really smart, intellectual take on a genre story. Yasmin’s work is beautiful, of course, and Matthew Rosenberg, who we actually worked with on 12 Reasons to Die, and Vita A., the way that they present it, they’re just both so smart. They’re really tapping into the kinds of stories that haven’t been told that much in comics, with non-traditional or diverse characters. I think it’s a story that’s really going to blow people away and hit them hard.

Our Work Fills The Pews Cover Art by Yasmin Liang

Paste: There are two other titles debuting in the next month, Mayday and . What can you tell us about those?
Pizzolo: We Can Never Home is incidentally also written by Matthew Rosenberg, but his co-writer on that is Patrick Kindlon. It’s kind of like Badlands with superpowers? It’s the closest we get to a superhero book because it’s not really about that, it’s about the relationship between these misfits teens trying to survive and not being able to control their powers, which is very much a metaphor for adolescence. It also taps really deeply into music culture. It takes place in 1989 and the plot is structured around a mixtape that one of the characters gives to the other one with all the great indie rock and punk bands of that era. It’s a really interesting cultural moment, and really interesting characters that aren’t being tackled in comics. And it’s also really fun. They did a bunch of variant covers where it’s a take on the Bad Brains album cover, and one that’s the Big Black cover. It’s really fun to tap into that history that we all share.

Mayday is a really interesting one. I don’t know if you’ve read Curt Pires’ Theremin or Pop—they’re both really smart, really ahead of their time. Ten years from now, everyone is going to be trying to compare themselves to him, and his kind of visionary outlook on story. He’s an interesting guy, man. When he was telling me about the pitch, you kind of have to take his word for it a little bit? His ideas are so out there. When he sent me the PDF, I was like, okay… [Laughs] I was really nervous. And I popped it open and he blew my mind. He killed it so hard. I am so excited to get this book to people. It’s not anything you can be prepared for because he’s totally changing the way people use storytelling in comics.

Paste: After this big spring and summer for Black Mask, what’s next on the horizon?
Pizzolo: Oh man, we’ve got to get through this. [Laughs]

Gurewitz: Surviving.

Pizzolo: We’re going to eat and sleep. There are constantly new creators coming to us. When you’re an up-and-coming writer or an established writer, and you’re putting together a pitch, you’re thinking about what publishers are out there and what they’re looking for. You know what all of these guys want and you’re catering to these sensibilities. So if you have a story that is not your typical adventure hero that is usually in comics, or doesn’t fit nicely with these different sensibilities, you might not put a pitch together.

What I’m finding with the pitches that are coming in and the people reaching out to us, is that they feel empowered to work on different types of stories. Every day, someone tells me something that blows my mind, so I can’t imagine what’s going to be coming to us in the next few months or when we’re through this slate. I think it’s just a really good time and I’m really excited to see all of the great stories that are coming our way.

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