Comic Book Author Rod Van Blake and his journey into ‘Ancient Illumination’
I met Rod Van Blake — twice. First at a comic con in Washington, D.C., and later in Richmond, Va. So this is actually my second interview with Mr. Van Blake, as I accidentally erased our first interaction. Rod was nice enough to let me ask him my questions again, and talk about the process of transforming his fantasy novels — “Ancient Illumination” — into comic books.
So, here’s my second interview with the very generous Rod Van Blake. We talked about what it took for him to get started in comics, and
INDIE COMICS ZONE: What inspired you to become a comic book creator, and how did you get started?
ROD VAN BLAKE: It wasn’t really the result of an inspiration but more a repeated request from multiple potential readers who saw the art and heard the pitch for my stories. I ignored all that until it became evident that a significant number of people expressed wanting to see my stories in that format.
The main obstacle was finding an artist to make that a reality. While at a smaller convention my wife actually found a young Maryland Institute College of Art alumnus who had a really interesting art style that she thought would mesh well with my stories. She was right! The next steps were for Jordan Jackson and I to meet up later to discuss his pricing, negotiating what he wanted as well as what I could realistically pay ensuring both of us were satisfied.
Once that was done we drew up a contract and we began to activate our wonder twins power. When the pandemic shut everything down we used Kickstarter to help spread the word and sell some copies since there would be no events at which to offer our new graphic novel. Having paid upfront for the first volume Kickstarter also provided a way to get the second volume produced. I continue to write the literary works while commissioning Jordan and other artists to create character concepts in between projects to further the illustrated world building. My newest series Nyumbani Chronicles” now has both comics and novels similar to “Ancient Illumination.” We begin working on issue two next month.
INDIE COMICS ZONE: How do you approach the creative process for your stories, from initial idea to finished product?
ROD VAN BLAKE: As far as my creative process I always start out with an outline. Break that up into smaller segments and write each one out until it’s done. I may have an idea of the end game but things may evolve as characters grow through their experiences. When that happens the outline and overall story is tweaked as I go along. For “Ancient Illumination,” I started with a “what if” scenario. What if there were sentient beings of pure light that came to Earth thousands of years in the past?
Once I began teasing out more details of specifically when this takes place as well as how that initial interactions would go the story began to evolve and solidify. Instead of starting with a protagonist I initiated the beginnings of who would become the main antagonist. One of the ancient aliens gets himself exiled by experimenting on mankind simply because they believe we aren’t worth the effort. I did a little bit of historical research and digging up legends. Mix that all up with us getting technology and mutant races making the exiled one the focal point for all the conflicts over differences and fights over resources.
After a while things begin to blossom and I am just sort of there along for the ride. When I get stuck I go back to the outline and come up with cool scenes or fights and figure out where they would fit into the overall story hoping that exercise will put me back in a place to continue the main story. There’s always progress to be made.
INDIE COMICS ZONE: What has been your biggest challenge as an independent comic book creator, and how have you overcome it?
ROD VAN BLAKE: The biggest obstacle for any indie creator in my opinion will always be funds. Whether it’s printing or other production costs or money to promote and market your stuff, you fight an uphill battle when larger companies have mountains of cash compared to whatever your budget is.
Think about how many books Marvel and DC have released in this calendar year alone. Then compare that to me who released one literary novel and one comic with the second issue coming before years end.
It doesn’t mean that I can’t be just as good, but it does mean that I will obviously be much slower bringing new projects to readers and their marketing dollars will ensure a vastly larger audience will hear and see them. There are a ton of awesome indie producers out there! It just takes a mighty effort to be seen and heard over the big boys. It’s like screaming into a void.
INDIE COMICS ZONE: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out as an indie creator?
ROD VAN BLAKE: My advice to anyone starting out is to get started as soon as you can, and don’t give up! I know my last answer may have painted a bleak picture but it’s possible to succeed, and I really wish I would have started earlier. While it’s never too late I can only imagine where I would be had I started young.
You have to have thick skin when you put your creative works out for the public to see. I think my second podcast title is “Your idea sucks to somebody, but that’s ok”.
Always strive for perfection but understand that nothing is perfect. Your job is to find the readers that vibe and relate to the stories you want to tell. I call it finding your tribe. I started writing out of curiosity after falling down the rabbit hole of sci-fi and fantasy books wondering if I could emulate what I was enjoying so much.
Then I went about creating something wholly my own because trying to create in someone else’s established playground was a dead end. You have to get started first, then go about honing your craft and improving as you simultaneously seek out those that you know would geek out over the same things you do. They’re out there but you have to find them and present your stuff to them.
INDIE COMICS ZONE: How do you balance the creative and business aspects of creating comics, such as marketing, promotion, and distribution?
ROD VAN BLAKE: Finding this balance is one of the difficult things about being a creative. Most of the creatives I know only want to create, write, draw, compose and abhor the business aspects because that rarely brings joy. Basically once the creative process is over, the work begins. The key is to think ahead which I believe a vast majority of us do not (myself included). Promotion should begin before the book is finished. Tease out bits of story or interesting character concepts and ask people for opinions. If these gain traction with potential readers then they may follow you hoping for more tidbits.
They’ll ask “Hey, when does this release?” You should always be promoting and I know that can get tiresome especially if that’s not your thing. Annoying but true and I am guilty of under-promoting. Distribution is another thing that should be heavily researched before the project is finished. I feel like indie creators need to be even more efficient because of the resource disparity they have compared to the mainstream producers as they likely have huge distribution chains with wholesale pricing that would boggle our minds simply from the sheer volume they print which can in some cases lower the per item cost astronomically.
Personally, I have been avoiding printing in China as I worried about quality, customs obstacles and the time it may take my books to get to me. Plus with some of the companies I looked at there were minimums that I simply couldn’t afford at the time. Honestly that will likely change soon.
I would love to get 500 to 1,000 copies making my book cost me $1.90 or lower to print, but because I don’t have $1,100 to over 2K up front to get that per unit pricing I may have to go with 25 to 30 copies for a total of $180.
The problem is I want to keep my book reasonably priced and with shipping I really only make a couple dollars on each copy if that. It’s an ever changing puzzle I am looking forward to finding a remedy for. Luckily I have other things going that help keep me afloat while we figure it out.
INDIE COMICS ZONE: How do you engage with your fans and build a community around your work?
ROD VAN BLAKE: In-Person events have been the most effective with regards to community building along with social media. Online advertising has been OK but interacting with readers in person and talking about my creations, hearing their feedback and finding that connection when folks heavy into other fandoms for one reason or another gravitate to my stuff is the best feeling. Continuing those conversations online have been great as well.
When we have released new images there’s usually a good amount of likes and comments about them. Like I stated previously, I need to be more active online. Maybe I’m just old — lol.
INDIE COMICS ZONE: How do you see the comics industry evolving in the future, and what role do you see indie creators playing in that change?
ROD VAN BLAKE: I am hoping indie creators will continue to grow, giving new stories to readers around the world. We are all nobody until we become somebody so eventually some of us will break through. I think every time it becomes apparent an indie can legitimately challenge the mainline establishments they in turn try to buy them. I don’t think this is done out of the kindness of their hearts but because they see an opportunity when someone else has created something that could possibly shift the paradigm.
Then the industry basically begins to mimic that to ride the trend until something else comes along. When that doesn’t happen they revert to the old faithful. Which is why we get so many retellings or reboots. Most companies are so risk averse these days. That’s where the power of indies acan shine through. Most of us are passionate about the stories we want to tell, and that’s where authentic stories come from. Are there those of us who aspire to make huge money and who ride trends in an attempt to do so?
Of course, but for the most part we are not swimming in money and this is an expensive endeavor. Just look at the slew of crowdfunding campaigns running any given month. A lot of them do the campaigns because that’s the only way to get the books produced and out to the public. There’s been debate as to whether its fair for big companies to use crowdfunding at all when they actually have the resources to produce comics, toys, or basically anything they want related to their IP.
Either way, indies aren’t going anywhere. There will always be a place for stories that don’t quite fit the mold, and more than likely those are going to come from indies who aren’t afraid that nobody will buy them.
INDIE COMICS ZONE: How do you stay motivated and inspired to create new work, even in the face of challenges or setbacks?
ROD VAN BLAKE: The reactions from readers will keep me motivated to continue doing what I do. In addition some of my motivation is internal. I love creating and some of the interactions with the folks I’ve been working with have stoked the flames of that motivation from time to time. The back and forths I have with my main illustrator Jordan has led to fine tuning the stories to “elevate the content” as he said to me once.
Jocelyn Short, another concept artist who I have begun working with, had a litany of questions about a group of portal custodians she was doing for me. The line of questioning may have given birth to more stories within my fantasy series that I had not previously thought about. Also wanted to note that these kind of interactions won’t some from an AI where I just input some prompts and have images spit out. Which for me is the main reason why I’ll always use an actual artist.
My wife is also a source of motivation. I published the first novel in 2016, and we took that book to Baltimore ComicCon in 2017. This was our first event as vendors and she was telling everyone Book 2 would be out the next year.
I laughed and asked “Why do you keep saying that? Who is writing this book?”
She told me that each event we come to the following year you have to have something new, especially if you’ve been to the event the previous year. The thing is she’s right. If I only had that one book, how many times could I expect people to buy that book? Twice maybe if they get the physical copy and also pick up the digital version but when they see me the following year, I’d hear a chorus of “Oh, I have that.”
Currently I have a book number in mind for both series and with 5 total novels out there’s plenty of illustrated works to keep us busy for the foreseeable future. It will be a long while before we are done.
INDIE COMICS ZONE: What are some of the projects you’re currently working on, and what can fans expect to see from you in the future?
ROD VAN BLAKE: After our second successful Kickstarter at the end of 2022 we got “Nyumbani Chronicles Genesis of a Chaos Master” produced which is the first comic issue for the fantasy series.
In July of 2023, Jordan will begin working on the second issue, and I hope to get that to KS backers by the end of 2023.
I’ll also be putting my science fiction hat back on and begin writing the fourth “Ancient Illumination” novel, tentatively subtitled “Exodus”. We have at least one event per month throughout the rest of the year. Some months have two events and the schedule is up on my author’s website.
Eventually I want to get games produced. Perhaps a first or third person shooter for the science fiction series and a TTRPG for the fantasy series. TV or film adaptations would be nice but until that opportunity arises we will continue creating what we can. I plan to do crowdfunding campaigns biannually to give me time to expand the content so that the tiers can be filled with the multiple mediums giving the backers more choices as to how they get my stories.