My job takes me to a bunch of conventions all over the place. One of the coolest things about that is the awesome, creative people I get to meet. In 2008 I was lucky enough to meet the guys from PLB Comics: Mathew Shockley, Josh Shockley and James Dufendach. PLB is an independent comic publisher from the Eastern Shore area of Maryland which got started in 2006 and published their first title the same year. A couple of their best-known titles are The Fall and Gideon & Sebastian: Predators & Prey, and they are regulars at cons in the area. On top of all that they’ve been great friends. (James even did the map for Feralia: Revised Edition.)
At the time of writing, they were hard at work on the first ever Ocean City Comic Con (which was quite a success!), and took some time out of their busy schedules to answer some questions and share some creative insight…
Clint: What kind of stuff were you guys into as kids and young adults? Stuff that fueled your imagination, perhaps even becoming an early creative influence?
James: I really liked 80’s action films. To the point that I used to play sick so I could stay home from school to watch movies like Commando, Cobra, Jake Speed and American Ninja that my Dad had taped off of HBO. (Go to school kids, seriously look how I turned out! Lol). As far as comics Spidey and TMNT were my entry into them. From there I really latched onto Grell’s run on Green Arrow, and a lot of Dark Horse’s output, like DHP, the Aliens and Predator books, The Grendel reprints, stuff like that.
Josh: Action movies and TV shows of the 80’s. I was very fortunate to grow up in that time, I feel we had the best movies, music and comic books. I knew when I was about 7 that I wanted to be a comic book artist someday, so I really spent most of my youth drawing as much as possible. I was always a big comic fan, but it wasn’t until I read the first issue of the Daredevil Man Without Fear miniseries by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. that I really fully understood the profound affect comic books can have on people and the wide open road of possibilities of storytelling. Eastman and Laird’s Turtle books were also a big influence- they are basically the most successful independent comic book creators of all time I’d say.
Mat: Josh and I grew up on a large family farm, down a half-mile dirt road and relatively far from any type of “city life.” We also didn’t have cable or satellite TV; we really only had one channel that came through clear on the television. And we definitely didn’t have video games. So most of our younger years were spent outside, playing around the farm or back in the forest behind our house. We created different forts, realms, bases, superhero teams, battles, etc. back in the woods. I feel like the lack of pop cultural input forced us to rely on our creativity and imagination.
Comic books were still a big impact; I usually just read whatever Josh was reading. There was a lot of your standard American mainstream stuff; Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman, Superman, etc. I was particularly into Thor (cuz he had long blonde hair, and so did I) and Iron Man (cuz that suit is badass). But we also got to read the original TMNT comics, which was a neat taste of the independent comic scene.
Saturday morning cartoons were the little television we did watch, but we were fortunate enough to watch TMNT and some Garfield. Other shows we watched on VHS if Mom was able to buy them (Transformers, DinoRiders), or our aunt that lived in Pennsylvania would record shows and send us the VHS.
What are some of your all-time favorite comic books and characters?
James: Grendel, Green Arrow, an 80’s black and white title called The Puma Blues, Archer & Armstrong, both in its original run and in its current run, Batman, because, well he’s freakin’ Batman, there are a lot, it’s hard to play favorites.
Josh: Batman is my all-time favorite character. He’s endured for decades and is still cool, which is saying something, I feel like out of all the characters out there- he is the most admirable, if you take away his millions of dollars, his life is absolutely terrible, but he never gives up, and he’s the toughest bastard there is. Wolverine and Daredevil would be close seconds, Hal Jordan and the TMNT, Spiderman, Frank Miller’s Sin City characters, Rorschach from Watchmen and the original Firestorm.
Mat: Growing up I was a big fan of Thor, but as an adult I don’t really see the attraction. I had long hair as a kid and so did he, so I think in my young eyes it made him cool. I was and still am a big fan of Iron Man; the “Demon in a Bottle” story arc back in the day is an amazing bit of storytelling. TMNT are awesome, of course. Batman just gets more badass as time goes on. And the Transformers are a huge favorite of mine; Ultra Magnus in particular is a great (and underrated) character.
In recent years, I’ve gotten in manga, so I need to add that to the favorite list. I love Bleach; I feel like it’s an amazing title with fantastic art and a riveting story line.
Are you enjoying any ongoing comic series?
James: Right now I’m really enjoying Black Hammer, 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank, and Spread.
Josh: Unfortunately I really don’t have any time to read anything much these days, when we started making books back in 2006 I quickly realized I had no more free time. I try and pick up a copy of our friends’ self-published books when I can at conventions, but that’s about it. I did manage to finally read Frank Miller’s 3rd Dark Knight Book, The Master Race, I had wanted to wait until they put it out in a trade. It was really good.
Mat: I’m currently not reading any western comic titles; I’m too poor to afford them, have no time to sit down and read them, and I have no room to store physical comics anymore. But honestly, the bigger reason is that I’m so out of touch with what is currently going on that it’s way easier to just give up trying to follow it. The Marvel and DC universes have been rebooted so many times in the past ten years… bleh. Makes me the worst comic fanboy ever! I do try to jump online and read one manga title at a time. I just recently followed Bleach and Fairytail all the way to completion, and now I’m trying to go back and catch up on Naruto.
You guys obviously have a passion for creating. What is it about making comics that you like the most?
James: Really, for me, the fact that we can sort of exercise our creativity in a way that others enjoy is fantastic. I would be doing this even if no one ever saw it, but the fact that others are digging it just blows me away, it’s super humbling.
Josh: I love that it’s a great team project. To be able to work on books with talented people that you like and trust, is an awesome thing. I don’t necessarily know if I would be making comics if my brother hadn’t decided to make them along with me all those years ago, and I don’t know if we would have necessarily kept on making them, if we hadn’t met Jimmy years ago. It’s a hard side gig to have and having a team helps to keep everybody moving forward I think. To be able to tell a story in a printed medium that will hopefully be around for years after we’re dead and gone, it’s a nice way of feeling like maybe you’ve left something positive behind that someone somewhere will enjoy reading and maybe make their day a little better.
Mat: The ability to create your own world. Josh and I started creating our own characters and stories when we were quite young (he was 7, I was 4). I always felt that the artists and writers that came up with the iconic heroes and villains that I loved must have so much fun crafting these dynamic stories, and I wanted to be a part of that. I had ideas, so why not put them to paper?
There’s a great amount of personal satisfaction and pride in being able to hand someone a book that I helped draw/write/create. To make something from scratch, to create, and then share that creation with others… that’s pretty damn cool.
Clint: Do you ever have writer’s (or artist’s) block? If so, how do you deal with it?
James: So this is going to be long winded. For me it doesn’t exist. I can dislike what I am doing, I can be unhappy with it, but I’m never blocked from working. When I get into the funk, and can’t seem to get anything down that I am happy with I try powering through first, then going back and fixing what I don’t like. And if that doesn’t work I just step away from it for a little while, let my brain reset a bit. I think that creative block is a dangerous myth. It makes creatives get caught into a feedback loop where they stress about “creative block” as if it’s a tangible thing, and because of it they can’t focus, can’t get stuff done. Creating is work, sometimes very hard work. And at times you just have to buckle down and keep hammering at it until you get the result you want. Alternatively, sometimes you just need to know when to step away and let yourself recharge. Take a walk, watch a movie, read a book, just take a break. But don’t stress, the work will come.
Josh: Here is my long winded and brutally honest answer. I don’t believe it exists. Honestly I see that kind of stuff more of a mindset than anything else, so I just choose not to believe in it. If you believe in it, you will get it, it’s like catching a mental cold or flu in your head. If I get stumped on writing, I just plot. If I get stumped on that, I draw. If I get stumped on drawing, I ink. If I can’t do any of that stuff, I don’t sweat it. I exercise, drink coffee or drink booze and don’t beat my head against the wall, and just push thru it. Not every page is gonna be a grand slam, sometimes you just have to get the book or the commission piece done. If I’m on a deadline crunch, I’ll stop every hour and do pushups- it shifts your focus for a few minutes and gets the adrenaline going. My Dad has worked 3-4 jobs at any given time during my entire life, I’ve tried to base my approach to making comics around that mindset- there is always SOMETHING that can be worked on.
Mat: Yes, and it fucking sucks. Writers block is never any fun. When I start writing, I agonize over how to begin. Because there’s this pressure to grab folks attention immediately, so I get bogged down in all the possibilities, and then my brain just shuts down. I usually just have to step back from it for a while. If Josh and I are working on plotting a story out together, we usually drink beers and whiskey; that gets the creative brain juices flowing.
Artists block is different, and I feel like it’s easier to deal with than writer’s block. If I’m at a loss for ideas, I cruise Google Images for a while until I find inspiration. What’s worse that a lack of ideas are the times when nothing seems to turn out right. It’s not so much a mental/creativity block, but more of a physical one. It’s like my hands just don’t want to work correctly, and nothing looks right, and proportions are fucked, and I just keep erasing and erasing. That’s insanely aggravating, and it usually just gets solved by taking a break.
As a writer I’m pretty much on my own creatively. What’s it like working as a creative team? Any challenges? Advantages?
James: The challenges are same same as any collaborative process, you just don’t always agree with the folks you are working with, and at times that can be stressful. That said I feel like we have a great system, and the three of us gel really well, so we don’t have much in that way of that problem. As far as advantages, I think having other people to bust your balls a little is super helpful. Just having those outside eyes to critique you can really serve to make you better. Also having others to work through things with is great. When I’m having trouble with something I know I can just reach out and talk it through with Josh or Mat. They see stuff from a different angle than I do, and it gives me great perspective on the work.
Josh: It’s sometimes easier, sometimes harder. It depends. We all get along pretty good. Occasionally we’ll get into a few scuffles but we try to always vote on anything. I feel very fortunate in the fact that most of the time, we all three end up collectively thinking along the same paths anyways. It helps to work with people who are like you, I wouldn’t advise trying to write with a team of people you don’t get along with.
I usually write a lot on my own and then I bring stuff to Mat and he’ll add to it, then we’ll get together with Jimmy and discuss it all and then Jimmy will edit the script and cut it down a bit. Then we draw it and he finds out we haven’t left him enough room to letter it and he’ll cut it down a little more. Because we all have full time day jobs, time is an issue- many times we will plot out entire storylines while we’re on the road to a convention.
Mat: Working on a team is fun and effective for the creative process. Most importantly, it allows us to edit each others’ work, and bounce around ideas for plots, characters, book formats, financial questions, etc. Multiple perspectives are always a benefit. It also takes the workload and pressure off some. And you have folks to have fun with!
At the same time, sometimes it can be annoying, especially when there is a differing of opinions. But we work through it, cuz in the end we just want to create the best product we can.
If you’re someone that likes to have total control over a project, then the solo route would definitely be best. Personally, as an artist, I have a hard time letting others contributing to my visuals (letting others ink my pencils, or greyscale my pages). I’m working on relaxing a bit on that.
Besides making comics, what else do you guys enjoy?
James: Horror movies, reading comics of course, collecting figures, and drinking the beer that Mat brews.
Josh: Drinking beer and whiskey, working out, watching movies, (target) shooting guns, having bonfires, traveling when I can. Spending time with my girl, family and friends.
Mat: I brew beer for a living now, so I’m interested in the world of brewing. I don’t get much time to homebrew anymore, but I try to sneak it in occasionally. I also love to paint realistically and abstractly when I have time. I still work as a freelance graphic design illustrator for some local companies, creating labels and posters.
And any free time I have, to hang out with my wife and daughter is top priority. I really enjoy just hanging out on the farm and enjoying the backwoods lifestyle.
Any artists, writers, creators, etc. whose work you admire?
James: Tons! For comics, folks like Matt Wagner, Mike Grell, Bernie Wrightston, Walter and Louise Simonson and many more have influenced me greatly over the years. Some more current creators continue to move me with their work as well, Matthew Rosenberg, Justin Jordan, Rafer Roberts, I could really go on all day. Non-comics creators such as John Carpenter, Raymond Chandler, Issac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, 80’s TV in general, and so many more bleed into my creative process. I mean I’m a voracious consumer of pop culture so there is just so much that I enjoy.
Josh: Many. I’m a big movie buff and I’m heavily influenced by movies when it comes to comic book creating. Stallone is my favorite screenwriter, and I really like Tony and Ridley Scott’s films, as well as Michael Mann’s. For comic books I’ve been a longtime fan of Frank Miller, Jim Lee and Kevin Eastman, those three in particular have had a huge influence on me. Other great artists and writers that I grew up reading -Tim Sale, Jeph Loeb, Dave Gibbons, Doc Bright, Norm Breyfogle and John Byrne.
Mat: In no particular order:
Jim Lee & Scott Williams, Frank Miller, John Romita, John Romita Jr., John Byrne, MD “Doc” Bright, Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird, Brian Michael Bendis, Bob Layton, David Michelinie, Tite Kubo, Chris Claremont, Sal & John Buscema, Ron Frenz, Dan Jurgens
What is your favorite PLB title?
James: For me it’s Gideon and Sebastian. I love banter and dialogue, and it very much takes a front seat in that book. It’s just full of all those buddy cop action tropes that make me happy.
Josh: Tough question. I’d say the Halloween Special is the most fun (and easiest) book to work on. Also with Halloween we can feature The Fall characters, and Gideon and Sebastian characters, in a different sort of supernatural and spooky context. The Fall book is sometimes hard to do, and Gideon and Sebastian is definitely hard to do, each issue has a long string of behind the scenes production problems. We like to joke it’s cursed, which given its supernatural nature is sort of fitting I suppose.
Mat: We don’t have many to choose from! Lol.
It’s a tough decision. The Fall has always been our flagship title, and folks seem to gravitate to that more than anything we’ve ever done. When we first started printing our books back in 2006, we had five different stories we were running; over time, we picked the more popular titles and those are the ones we stuck with. I really enjoy The Fall, because I feel that he combines the best characteristics from Batman and The Punisher into one unstoppable force. But due to the nature of the character and the way we’ve designed him, we can’t reveal much about him, and therefore have to build his “personality” through the way his supporting cast interacts with him. As a writer, that can be challenging. As an artist, though, I love drawing him! That’s the whole reason he became a hero in the first place; he initially was supposed to be a throwaway villain. But I liked drawing him so much, we decided to change his character a tad.
So I guess The Fall is my favorite. I’m very excited for the story arc we’re getting ready to unleash; Josh, James, and I have got some crazy fun stuff planned for the finale!
The Fall ©PLB Comics
Who is your favorite PLB character?
James: John the Swamp Dude from the Halloween Specials. It’s the goofy horror/sci-fi/detective mash-up in that character and those stories that just speaks to all the stuff I like.
Josh: Another tough question. I love them all for different reasons. I’d say it’s either The Fall or John the Swamp Dude. John is definitely my favorite to draw (no buildings, cars or straight angles- he lives in a swamp!)
Mat: While The Fall is my favorite character to draw, Sebastian is my absolute favorite character to write. Writing Gideon and Sebastian, compared to everything else, is so very easy; the dialogue just flows. I love the dynamic that the two characters have; the buddy-cop-can’t-stand-you-but-you’re-my-friend thing is just so enjoyable to write. Sebastian is fun, laid-back, crazy, irreverent, and just giddy that he’s an immortal and in great shape. But, there’s also a terrible history behind our hero, and I enjoy touching on that occasionally to drop hints. More will be revealed as the plot progresses, but for now, Sebastian is a great character that provides the balance to Gideon’s ugly, melancholy world. He’s a great friend, and a goofy guy.
This great picture of Gideon & Sebastian can be formed by placing issues #1 & 2 side by side! ©PLB Comics
What are you currently working on, inside or outside the PLB universe?
James: A couple of things outside. I’m currently lettering Stargate Atlantis: Hearts & Minds for the fine folks over at American Mythology. We are all running the Ocean City Comic Con this year, so I’m putting in a ton of hours on that. Inside I am actually retooling The Fall #1 a bit. The beauty of being such a small indie publisher it that you have the power to go back and fix things in subsequent printings. As we’ve learned, and grown, there are things we wanted to go back and do better, and we are.
Josh: Jimmy, Mat and I are all currently working on the Ocean City Comic Con, which will be our first con we’ve run with just us. That’s sort of on the forefront at the moment. But we’re also going to be soon releasing a “new and improved” The Fall: Vengeance and Justice #1 very shortly. It features some long overdue edits and a brand new 8-page story by me, Mat and Jimmy. I’m also in the process of finishing up my John the Swamp Dude storyline that started back in Halloween Special #4. It’s going to be released in one a one shot volume called: “John the Swamp Dude: Who Killed Mobie Graye?” and it will reprint parts one and two of the Mobie Graye stories from the Halloween specials and have a new 18 page plus conclusion of the storyline. I’m slowly and surely working on the next Fall storyline but it’s going to be a while still, I want to release it all in one shot I think once it does get finished. And finally, we’ve got a brand new project we’re working on featuring Mat’s Justin Case character from the first issue of the Halloween Special as well as some brand new characters, the story will set in a very near future. I don’t want to give away too much but we’re all very excited about it and already working on the first issue.
Mat: Inside the PLB universe, we’re progressing toward major story arcs in both The Fall and Gideon & Sebastian. We want to provide our readers with some big action and great storytelling, so major events are about to go down in both titles.
We’ve also randomly kicked around the idea that after these major story arcs we give the characters a break. We all have so many ideas for other characters and stories, I think it would be therapeutic for us personally to make those see print. Manga titles like Bleach have been a major influence on my writing and drawing styles for the last few years, I’d love to tackle a book that embraces a more manga-esque flow.
Outside the PLB universe, I’m trying my best to work on comic, graphic design, and painting commissions. I’m also trying to build enough paintings together to have a solo show at one of the local galleries.
PLB is also hosting its first comic convention in Ocean City, MD this December 2017. We’ve assisted in running conventions in the past, but this is our first 100% in-charge show. We’re very excited for it!
What would you say to anyone who would like to draw or write, but has perhaps been holding back?
James: Don’t hold back, just do something, get it out there. If it sucks, don’t worry about it, you’ll get better, it comes with the territory. No one is perfect at things right out of the gate, hell no one is perfect period. But if you don’t start working and putting it out there you won’t get better. The whole “waiting until it’s perfect” thing is a trap, because if you are like me, it will never be perfect, just better as you work and grow.
Josh: Don’t wait, start now. Realize it’s not going to be perfect but do it anyway. Print that first book- because up until that point, it’s not tangible, it’s not real. After that first book, the ball really gets rolling. If you can’t do it all, find a good group of people that you can get along with and make a team. Also- do it because you love it, not because you’re hoping for fortune or glory, most likely unless you get really lucky, it won’t happen. But if you work hard, you can get your books into some hands of folks that really will love the stories and that’s a great thing.
Mat: DON’T HOLD BACK! Josh and I held back for a long time on publishing our original stories, because we had been led to believe that as long as we kept practicing, we’d eventually land a job drawing Spider-Man or Batman professionally. The chances of that happening are ludicrously slim.
If you have ideas, characters, stories, find a way to get them onto paper. The resources are out there, they’re available and many of them are free. Start creating, and share what you make with people. Creating can be such a personal and intimate process that it is sometimes hard to share it with others, but getting over that notion is important. Get feedback, get critiqued; that’s the sucky part, but definitely worthwhile.
And if you think you’re not good enough yet, and that’s holding you back, erase that thought from your mind and just go for it. You’ll get better by doing. I look back on our first book and cringe at my own drawing and writing ability. But you won’t evolve and get better as an artist and writer if you just sit around thinking about how your story is “not quite ready” or “I’m going to re-design this for the 15th time cuz I’m not 100% happy with it yet.” You’ll never be 100% happy with anything you make, and that’s good. That means you’ll constantly be trying to get better.
As long as you have the ideas and the determination, just dive in. Don’t waste time.
Thanks so much to the guys from PLB Comics for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, and for the creative advice! Don’t forget to check out their amazing work!