Interview with Brian Koscienski
and Chris Pisano,
The Drunken Comic Book Monkeys

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

There’s a scene in This Is Spinal Tap when Nigel Tufnel shows director Marty DiBergi his guitar collection. The exchange is:

Nigel: Look— still has the old tag on, never even played it.
Marty: You’ve never played…?
Nigel: Don’t touch it!
Marty: Well I wasn’t going to touch it. I was just pointing at it.
Nigel: Well, don’t point! It can’t be played.
Marty: Don’t point, okay. Can I look at it?
Nigel: No. No. That’s it. You’ve seen enough of that one.

The first time I encountered a true comic geek was in my dorm room in college. Brian Koscienski was dating my roommate and he brought over a prized comic. I can’t remember why. He insisted it be handled in a certain way. We should set it on some kind of clean, natural cloth. We use tweezers or tongs to turn the pages, if we must turn the pages. That we not breathe on it too much or speak when looking at it for fear that we might get a drop of spit on a page. We shouldn’t even look at it too much or expose it to light. As I sat with the comic on a pillow and turned the pages with a Kleenex, I realized he was the Nigel Tufnel of comics.

His obsession paid off. Today he and his writing partner Chris Pisano are successful independent comic book writers and publishers. They also churn out a print literary journal that has gotten some very good reviews. Fifteen years after he accompanied me to my first comic book store, Brian and Chris were kind enough (or intoxicated enough) to grant a joint interview to Toasted Cheese about comic writing, collaboration, editing, publishing and drinking. Mostly drinking.

The Drunken Comic Book Monkeys

TC: What do you write individually?

BRIAN: Not much, any more.

CHRIS: He won’t let me.

B: Actually, it’s more like we just don’t have time.

C: Yeah, that’s it. He makes me write haiku against my will.

TC: How did you decide to collaborate on the comics?

B: Well, that’s an interesting story.

C: Actually, it really isn’t.

B: Yeah, you’re right. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible. About five years ago, we decided to collaborate on a novel. Until that point, we’ve known each other for about ten years, but didn’t know either of us were writers.

C: We’re men. We share feelings as often as Britney Spears wears underwear.

B: Exactly! Well, I started reading comics when I was six, but stopped during the nineties. But three years ago, I happened to pick one up for the heck of it (Alias #1) and saw how far they had come along since the last time I read one. I then went to Marvel’s website to find out more about the series and stumbled upon one of their imprints called Epic, which put out a call for writers. So, I discussed it with Chris…

C: He threatened to put limes in my beer

B: …and we decided to write some scripts for them. Epic folded, but we decided to start writing scripts with our own stories and characters.

C: I thought you said you were going to make it painless?

B: Fine, smart guy! You get the next question.

TC: Tell us a little about how your collaborative process works. Like do you write separately and combine or do you write together from word one?

B: This isn’t going to go well.

C: Well, it depends on the project. If it’s a short story, we discuss some loose ideas, then one person writes it while the other fills in the holes. If it’s a comic book script, one person usually handles it, but with a ton of input from the person. If it’s a novel, he’ll bang out 1500 words, put the characters in an impossible situation, hand it to me and say, “Your turn.”

B: Oh, I’ve only done that once!

C: Yeah, once per chapter!

TC: How does the other guy respond to criticism?

B: Very well. That’s one good thing about knowing each other for so long; we know what to say to each other and how to say it.

C: Translation—I make him cry. A lot. But, all in all, we both want to put the best story out there, so we know that we each need to make concessions for that to happen.

TC: Are your styles different or similar? How do you think that affects the process and the final product?

C: Our styles are very different, but very complimentary. I’m a student of gothic literature while Brian has a more straightforward business approach.

B: Chris is by far the better writer, but I’m the better storyteller. We just focus on our strengths and everyone’s happy. Okay, next question before I start singing Partridge Family tunes.

C: He’s the Dean Koontz to my Henry James…

B: If only we were that good.

C: True.

TC: Tell us a little about your comics (the stories, the backstories of the ideas, where they go next).

C: We have about 14 or so in various stages of completion, so I guess we should just stick with a couple we have in Fortress Presents #1?

B: Yeah, unless you want to be the one to type the 100,000 word epic saga.

C: I think I’ll pass. Probably the most popular of the book is “Gladiatrix.” As one would guess by the title, it’s about female gladiators. However, instead of taking a sleazy T&A approach…

B: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

C: …we decided to do a lot of research and make it historically accurate. One of the things that caught our interest was the fact that when women stepped into the arena, they did so of their own free will. We wanted to really explore that type of personality. Our main protagonist, Leona, participates in the games hoping to some day win the freedom of her brother, who is also a gladiator.

One of the other stories in FP #1, one that we broke out into its own publication, is “Thought & Control.” We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback from this story, especially by “non-comic book” people. Basically, it’s a story about siblings, Jason and Jessica. Jason is telekinetic and Jessica is telepathic. Instead of putting them in spandex and having them fight crime, we put them in the real world. They aren’t hyper-righteous, determined to rid the world of evil. Nor are they evil themselves. They’re simply using their abilities to better their own lives.

B: Of course, once word leaks out about them, there are quite a few people interested in exploiting them. Lots of action and guns. Of course, the best way to learn about the stories from Fortress Presents #1 is to pick up a copy at fortresspublishinginc.com.

TC: How do you find artists for your books?

B & C: AAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!

B: We pretty much have to make ritual sacrifices and regular deals with Satan. Actually, finding artists is no problem; the Internet makes that very easy. However, finding ones willing to work for the pay we can offer is quite a challenge. That’s one huge downside to being small press—we have no money and can’t afford anything.

C: So, if there are any artists reading this and would like to submit something to us, you can at iliveforcomics at yahoo.com. As stated, we can’t offer a lot of money, but we’re fun to work with and we do work hard.

TC: When you write a comic, do you write what you want the art to be for a certain panel or do you give the artist complete freedom?

B: We write in full script format. We give the number of panels per page and detail the action in each panel.

C: However, we trust the artist’s vision. If he/she sees something different, then they have a lot of freedom to implement those ideas.

TC: When it comes to writing comics, did you learn by doing or did you have a teacher of some kind (for example, a course in comic book writing or books on comic writing)?

C: We’ve both taken writing classes in school. General stuff, mostly short stories and whatnot.

B: And I go to a monthly writing group, which helps for receiving feedback.

C: And I’m just blessed with natural talent.

B: Is that what it’s called? I thought it was bad enchiladas. Anyway, comic books are just like any other medium—you need to learn story telling, plot, characters, etc… first before you can really start.

C: And, it doesn’t hurt to have been reading comics for 30+ years either, old man. Or an addiction so bad that you buy at least ten titles each week.

B: True. As for script style, I happened to find a sample script online and just adopted that style of formatting.

TC: Could you give us an idea of the process of creating a comic?

B & C: Alcohol!

B: It’s like anything else; you do what you’re comfortable with. If you like to go freeform, then just come up with a general idea and start typing. For me, I like to outline the whole issue first. For comics, it’s pretty easy to do that, since each issue is typically twenty-two pages long.

C: Nope. For me it’s alcohol. And trips to Hooters.

TC: Tell us about your upcoming anthology project.

C: What project?

B: It’s still in the embryonic stages. We’ve recently had the pleasure of working with a group of editors who have done a similar anthology and approached them about doing one for Fortress.

C: We did?

B: Right now the working title is Cry Havoc and it will be a collection of short stories.

C: When did this happen?

B: The basic premise is man vs. machine vs. monster. We will definitely keep everyone posted on its progress.

C: Except, apparently, me!

TC: Tell us about Blue Line Star, your book, including how to pronounce “blue line” ;).

B: Well, this is really my fault.

C: So is the deteriorating ozone layer, thanks to your penchant for Taco Bell and Corona.

B: We stumbled upon a short story contest, the typical “write a story about this picture” kind. Well, the picture was a girl sitting on a robot. As a side note—my muse is a total insufferable witch, with a capital “B”! The type that wakes me up in the middle of the night demanding me to write, or making me start another project as I’m waist deep in others. So, Blue Line (pronounced Bluh-leen) is a sci-fi story about my muse. I have no idea how I came up with the name or title. Like I said, it’s all about my muse. However, I have noticed that now I’ve written a story about her, she lets me get some sleep.

C: However, his muse now keeps me awake at night, wondering what insane plan she’s coming up with next!

TC: You guys write a lot of weekly columns, for Silver Bullet Comics, Comic Avalanche, Absolute Write. Where else?

C: There have been a few others like Fi-Sci.com and Pandora’s Gate. Even more, but unfortunately the websites have folded.

TC: Do you also keep a blog?

B: My muse won’t allow us.

TC: How did you get involved with writing all these columns?

C: It started with just chronicling our experiences of starting our own publishing company. We were rather surprised that there were no good, all-inclusive resources. There are a few books about self-publishing, but nothing truly personal from people who have done it. We just wanted to fill that gap.

B: It just snowballed from there.

TC: On to your journal, Trail of Indiscretion. How did you get the name? Why did you decide to start a journal?

B & C: Alcohol!

C: Sadly, that’s not an inaccurate statement.

B: And I still can’t spell “indiscretion” without spell-check.

C: Well, we were at our Happy Place, the one place where the pure esthetics brings out our most creative nature—that place being Hooters—and we just brain-stormed over a pitcher or two or five of beer and came up with Trail of Indiscretion.

B: That seems a bit anticlimactic, I know.

TC: What do you publish?

B: Well— if it’s a story about a 13-year-old girl named Mary coping with the change to womanhood while poignantly reflecting on the recent passing of her favorite aunt Gertrude, we don’t want it! Now, if Mary is the 13-year-old daughter of a vampire cowboy who stumbles upon a government conspiracy involving aliens and unicorns while investigating, hard-boiled style, the grisly murder of her favorite aunt Gertrude, then we’ll take a look at it.

TC: What are your plans for the journal?

B: We recently upgraded the printing, so it’s a square-bound book now.

C: Within a year, we hope to push it into an 8.5 x 11 format, as well.

B: And we are applying for an ISSN number. Hopefully, we can incorporate a barcode, too.

C: Then we can begin to infiltrate the world!

TC: Why did you decide to create Fortress Publishing, Inc. and how did it get its name?

B: I did a great deal of research on the various types of businesses out there and a corporation seemed most suitable to us.

C: He was worried about being sued!

B: Who isn’t?

C: As for the name—Marvel Comics is commonly referred to as “The House of Ideas.” Well, after getting another story idea rejected by them, Brian in a drunken fit blurted out, “If they’re the House of Ideas, then we’re the Fortress of Ideas!” And the name “Fortress” just stuck with us.

B: I drink. A lot.

TC: Tell us about your logo and who created the art.

C: I’ve done work before with the standard coat of arms and thought that would look cool. Unfortunately for the world at large, I was encouraged.

B: I’ve always been fascinated with heraldry and was sort of thinking along the same lines anyway.One of our artist friends agreed that they work really well.

C: And Dirk said he’d do it.

B: There is that. One of the artists we work with regularly, Dirk Shearer, who drew our comic book covers and did the interior art for “Gladiatrix,” among other pieces, worked up the logo for us. We loved it! He sketched it on a napkin for us. He was talking about making changes when I gave Chris the signal.

C: Which is when I snatched up the napkin and ran for the door. Dirk’s fast for an artist, but when he caught me I chastised him for not finishing his beer, so after distracting him, I made a clean get away. We’ve used the original piece ever since.

TC: What’s next for Fortress Publishing?

C: World domination, of course!

B: Well, once we get the anthology ready and revamp our magazine again, then hopefully we can get a distributor and start getting merchandise on the bookshelves of America.

C: I’m thinking our future will probably hold more beer and hot wings.

TC: Who are your favorite comic and graphic novel writers and artists? How do you discover new or new-to-you comics?

B: My favorite writers are Brian Michael Bendis and Brian K. Vaughan. And I like them for more reasons than just having a great first name!

C: I’m not entirely sure I have a favorite, but I do enjoy some of Vaughan’s work. As far as discovering new comics, I just let Brian do that.

B: Yeah, if there’s something new on the shelves, I’m addicted enough to pick it up and try it out.

TC: As comics and graphic novels have become more mainstream, have you noticed a change (for better or worse) in the quality of the work?

B: Absolutely. I think once the cover price moved away from what kids with $10 a week allowances could afford, comic publishers realized only adults could afford them, so the story telling is geared more for adults. Spider-Man is not for children anymore.

C: Not only that, but technology as given more creators access to each other as well as the means to produce some very nice works. I mean, if schlubs like us can do it, anyone can!

TC: I hear that you’re minor deities in the comic world, or so it seemed at the Pittsburgh Comicon last month (there was a line at the table). Are you always that popular at cons?

B & C: AAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

C: I didn’t know having one customer raised our status to “deity” level.

B: We have a good time at cons. We go to meet people and have fun. We’re excited about our work and I think people see that, which gets them interested in what we have to offer.

C: Plus, we have haiku for a nickel. Seriously, who can resist that?

TC: How many cons a year do you attend and how far from home do you travel for a con? What is the con experience like on your side of the table?

C: For 2007, we have five lined up. Not only the Pittsburgh Comicon, [which was] in April, but we’ll be at the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention in May, another one in Pittsburgh called Confluence in July and then back to Baltimore in September and October for The Baltimore Comic book Convention and The Small Press Expo. We’re hoping to attend more in 2008, maybe hit ones in Ohio and Jersey.

B: We did go out to the San Diego Comicon last year. Had a blast and discovered our new favorite city—Tijuana.

TC: What is your most cherished comic? You know, the one you store in a museum sleeve and handle with white cotton gloves and special tongs.

C: Well, Fortress Presents #1, of course, because I’m one of the writers of it. I have no shame. I should, but I don’t.

B: From a collector’s stand point, I’d say Tales to Astonish #44—the first appearance of the Wasp. From a reader’s view, I’d say the 1985 miniseries Squadron Supreme, which really laid the groundwork for some of today’s storytelling, by putting real word sensibilities in with the super heroes. And Avengers #158 for nostalgia purposes—my first.

TC: Can you be bribed by aspiring writers and/or fans? If so, with what?

C: Pffft! Oh, hell yeah!

B: Well, not when it comes to magazine submissions. We accept stories based solely on the quality of the story. However, the turnaround time and level of detail in the response we give can be swayed.

TC: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to start a journal, comic or small press publishing company?

B: You need three Ps—planning, perseverance and patience. Even if you describe yourself as a person who crashes through life with reckless abandon, you need to plan. Plan what to do, plan contingencies, then plan for everything else. And make sure you have a plan for when all those plans blow up in your face. It’s tough and that’s why you need perseverance. Things will go wrong. You need to buckle down and fight your way through the tough times. And success doesn’t come overnight. The lottery does but the Fates are the ones who determine which blessed few win. Odds are, it ain’t you. Stick with it, and be patient. Come up with plans for this, year, the next year and the year after. Just because you don’t need a college degree to be a writer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it as a job. And, of course, have fun with it.

Final Poll Results

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