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INTERVIEW WITH OWEN RUSSELL OF PENSTRIKE

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Owen Russell (Penstrike Publishing) MAY 2016.

Owen Russell is a writer and co-founder of Penstrike, based in Calgary, Canada. He is also involved in a number of comic book projects and an upcoming anthology. We spoke to Owen over the phone while he was at his studio.

Tom Merke: For readers not familiar with Penstrike, could you describe what is it and when was it formed?

Owen Russell: Penstrike Publishing was formed in November of 2014 and while the business strategy by which we operate has changed over the course of a year and a half, our most important commitment and clear foundation that we have built the company on, has been to exist with the purpose of enabling emerging artists of all mediums and by encouraging collaborations between artists of all skill levels, experience and mediums. One thing we cannot stress enough is that we are not interested in resumes, we are interested in the integrity of an artist’s work.

We are aiming to build Penstrike, and are having success doing so, into a community for artists to access services that can help them grow creatively as well as promote themselves and market their work. We want artists to have access to other artists and collaborate, to create projects and to know that simply by networking and building relationships, that we will promote their work for them. We will offer a spot for an audience to view their work, and finally an outlet to sell their work where consumers who come to view, connect with, and purchase a variety of art will find it.

TM: What is Penstrike’s mission?

OR: I’m sure everyone has heard the old adage that, “as an artist, prepare not to make any money for a long time.” or the “every artist begins as a starving artist” and there is this vision that for some reason there is an intrinsic aspect to their skill set and expertise that will require artists to struggle financially. That does not seem right, and the mission statement for Penstrike reflects how we want to combat that type of thinking. Our mission statement is built on the principle of discouraging that sentiment, we aim to actively promote writers, visual artists, musicians and more creative individuals by providing a bridge that crosses the gap from complete or relative obscurity to a point of recognition for their work. There are many ways we go about that – featuring artist profiles on our website, showcasing them alongside the interviews we hold with established talent, having their work displayed in collaborative works we curate and also by accepting submissions for publication. Remember where I said we aren’t interested in resumes, but merely in the work itself? That is 100% true. Our first collaborative work was a literary and arts journal that displayed poetry, prose, short stories, photography, illustrations, paintings and sequential art from individuals that had never been published before to professionals with 20 years of experience in their chosen field.

Personally, I have been a writer for many years in a variety of different formats from poetry to prose to short fiction and most recently, sequential art. The other side to my own resume has been that of working within business and financial services for many years and having the large portion of my friends working in either business or finance or as musicians, writers, visual artists and more – I had to finally question this line of thinking. Sure, there is this idea that you will begin as a starving artist, and it almost always seems to be the case – however is this due to how the system which offers recognition and pay to artists must operate, or is it an accepted model of compensation because of the face that it is repeated again and again ad nausea?

I looked towards all of my friends and acquaintances who were artists that all went through the initial experience from companies and individuals looking to hire them that their hard work will initially be paid in “exposure.” The artistic community is nearly the only one that experiences this type of unfair business practice to the point where it is simply commonly expected. Would you ask the new restaurant that opened down the street from you to give out free meals for the first year they were open for simply to get their name out to the public? Would you expect that from a carpenter? A financial service professional? Absolutely not. That had always touched a raw nerve with me and had discouraged me from pursuing my own writing from time to time and finally I just had to tell myself, “You know what the problem is” and then ask myself “What is the solution? How can I contribute to solving this problem?”

That is what Penstrike is all about, creating an atmosphere and community to uplift artists, giving them opportunities when they are undiscovered and don’t have anyone in their corner fighting battles for them that they may not know exist, or may not know how to handle them. Our resources are limited even now but building all the time, especially with a fan base that has expressed an extremely fond appreciation for what we are doing and have contacted us directly about seeing more products put out for purchase. We have a small screw at the moment but hope to expand in the near future. We want individuals invested in the mission statement of Penstrike that can help us take the company to another level.

TM: How Penstrike is helping emerging writers and artists?

OR: Essentially we are helping writers, visual artists and artists of other mediums by following our mission statement and our guiding principles in dispelling the mindset that artists must settle for anything less than what they are worth. Currently we have focused on a few methods which as described have been portfolios of artist’s work on our website, interviews and allowing open submissions for inclusion in anthologies and collaborations with more senior and established talent. We still have many plans of opening up additional venues for artists to become involved in the Penstrike community that will roll out this year.

We have just opened our shop up to allow the products of emerging artists to be sold alongside Penstrike. For some artists it is a struggle to get online traffic for their work and is difficult to produce sales, so we are stepping in to assist. These can be products that either the artist has already created tangible copies of or would like to simply put out a digital version. The possibility of web comics in the near future is a very real possibility. There are many more projects and resources artists will be able to tap into and as such, products and free content for fans to enjoy, but we are keeping some closer to the chest than others.

Essentially however, we are helping artists by allowing them to focus on being artists – and to tackle the aspects of becoming successful that they may not have expertise in; promoting them as an artist, marketing their individual art, offering a platform for selling their work and driving an effective sales pipeline by directing traffic from several sources to them. An individual living in the UK who is interested in supporting emerging artists can discover some via us, look towards purchasing literature and find a graphic novel made by someone in Canada or an artist who contributed work to an anthology of ours who lives in the Philippines. It is the idea of connecting creators from across the globe and allowing consumers to access all of their work to enable their success that we continue to work towards by delivering on our original mission statement and working towards offering more points of interest for consumers and artists.

TM: What kind of submissions are you looking for?

OR: We are looking for submissions of all types in terms of genre, theme, artistic styles and collaborative methods. While we encourage a very liberal approach to creating art and we are looking forward to publishing, we do have some limits. Art that promotes hate speech and crimes, pornographic material and overtly graphic violence is what we are staying clear from. However, context plays a huge factor in deciding what to publish as censorship is the furthest thing from my mind. If someone has a work to submit that contains hate speech and uses it as a tool to illustrate a larger vision, a social commentary with a message – then that is a completely different matter entirely.

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TM: What is your long term plan vision with Penstrike?

OR: The long term plan for Penstrike has a lot of components to it, however in simple terms we simply want to evolve as a publisher that also acts as a community for artists where they can receive support in their creative journey and an access point for consumers to recognize and become exposed to the incredible and diverse amount of talent that lies undiscovered.

TM: Do you remember how it all started? When did you start writing?

OR: To be honest I have been writing for as long as I can remember. When I entered grade school I started a co-venture with my best friend named “O&J Comics”, aptly named after its founders – Owen and John. I had a binder full of characters I had created, most notably my Wolverine/Blade hybrid named “Robot Warrior.” He looked like Wolverine, was a mutant/cyborg who hunted evil robots. Being that my foray into collecting comics began with Thor at the age of 7 and my love of writing, it wasn’t a stretch to think that I would be trying to create my own. My writing has evolved since then however unfortunately my illustrative abilities hardly have. It wasn’t long until I was writing short stories on a continuous basis, preferring to listen to music when I did so. When I was in Grade 6 my favourite bands were Radiohead and Nirvana, which were incredibly odd in the eyes of most adults, for someone my age – however it helped me write and that was all that mattered.

When I entered Junior High School I began writing poetry non-stop, crafting at least one if not several poems a day, and my journals filled up quickly. My early twenties saw me really dedicate myself to creating focused, short works of prose that I would sometimes pair with photographs and some illustrations when they worked much more with metaphors than direct exposition. Other times I would challenge myself with writing strong narratives that walked a thin line between prose and poetry. A few years ago I began writing novels, reading books on refining the craft and completing the NaNoWriMo challenge over the course of a few years. Last year I finished it with what I believed was finally a solid and large portion of a finished novel, and received positive reviews from friends and acquaintances who have been published however found myself dedicated to Penstrike – so that is currently on hold but I hope to pick it up and finish it this year.

I always wanted to write comics, that desire had not left me since I had stopped in grade school however I was plagued with the usual thoughts many writers in my position were. Wondering how to translate my thoughts onto a page in that medium. What should a script look like? How exactly do you “break into the business”? It wasn’t until after I began Penstrike and had interviewed some individuals in the industry and artists I was trying to help answer those exact same questions that I decided to take the plunge and write comics once again. Under my pen name I’ve worked as a freelance writer and have had my work included in some journals and anthologies. I am looking towards creating a story for the Creators for Creators grant and while I have been writing, I have a few artists in mind that I will approach over the course of this month once I have more work to show them.

TM: Is there a specific genre you are focusing on?

OR: Absolutely not. I write as ideas come to me and while genre and theme play a role in developing a plot and overall story I usually do not even find myself setting out to write a specific one, it evolves a bit more organically. I tend to focus on the story and world I am creating, the protagonist and the initial plot before anything else. Genre grows from that. That is not to say that I never write with a certain genre in mind, in fact I am writing a story right now that originated from a genre specific idea, but for the most part I don’t focus on my writing in that manner.

TM: Who were your inspirations for you?

OR: Inspirations? Wow, that is one loaded question. It is something I’ve asked many artists and I really don’t believe I’ve understood how large and complex a notion it is to wrap your head around. I can begin with some mentors I had in school. Both my Drama and Art teachers in High School – Mr. Sawdonik and Ms. Pennell, respectively. Sawdonik was a visionary, a free thinker with a purpose and he infected every student that was open to learn with his passion. I could talk about him for hours, all I’ll say is that in every creative outlet I have become involved in from writing to acting to Penstrike itself, there is an essence of his guidance I have to thank for getting me there.

Ms. Pennell was fearless. She defended our art and creative vision. When we had our presentation nights where parents, family members and people from the community would come to view our art she wouldn’t censor what we had available. I created some risky works, a lot of painting and mixed media and I intended to push buttons. I’m sure partially because I was young and overly confident but also I wanted to be the person that made others question the status quo or an ideal the public believed to be of moral value, even if I believed in the idea itself. Forcing people to think was my intent and she would ask me why I created certain pieces, she had high expectations for me and I defended my work for her. Once she saw I was comfortable doing so and why I could, then she would go to bat for me, even if it meant comments from unhappy parents. It was all about context, she just wanted to know there was a reason, that if I wanted others to think that I should be doing the same. She also gave me my first copy of “Understanding Comics” by Scott McLeoud. For any artist or writer, read this book. Even if you don’t plan on creating sequential art – this book is a commentary on the creative process itself and I truly believe it can help any artist in any medium refine their talent and skill.

As far as inspirations these days? Well when it comes to classic literature I always champion Hemingway’s work. Of course that sounds cliché but I don’t mind. Something that I believe he was a master of was creating people so real that you could envision yourself as them, or knowing them whether you loved, hated or even felt a bit apathetic towards them. This approach of making it so you could understand a character even if you didn’t care for them is what I believe is a hugely underrated ability. The first thing that comes to mind when a writer creates a character is that to identify with them you should be able to love or hate them, but with Hemingway there are people that just enter your life, and are real, even if they have little importance. He was a master of crafting the most basic and most unavoidable tragedies in life. It’s that thought that ordinary life can be very complex stuff. I love Jean-Paul Sartre for his horrific accounts of the fragility of the human condition, Lermontov’s stripped down approach to illuminating human beings as full of flaw and fault and still being able to be full of strength and inspiration – but Hemingway’s work slays me.

I had better move onto sequential art since that seems to be my gig at the moment. Bill Sienkiewicz. That man is as much an inspiration as Hemingway. I just attended an online lecture with him via the Illustration Academy and it blew me away. The evolution of his work is phenomenal, his visual art and his writing exist with a purpose. I read his work from the perspective of a fan, then I go back as an observer to try and analyze and truly pick up what I missed. All I can say is that if I was given the opportunity to collaborate with one individual only and never return to sequential art – after I stopped sobbing from knowing I only had one story to tell, I would choose Bill in an instant. Other visual artists and writers include David Mack, Brian K Vaughn, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Kieron Gillen, Frank Miller, Jonathan Hickman, Ben Templesmith, Esad Ribic, Eric Stephenson, Walt Simonson, Mark Millar, hometown champs Fiona Staples and Riley Rossmo and all four founding members of Studio Ghibli – Yasuyoshi Tokuma, Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki.

TM: Besides Penstrike, what are projects currently you’re working on?

OR: Projects I am currently working on. There is my novel although it is partially shelved for the moment, I always keep a running concept journal for it so I can revisit those ideas later on. There are two sequential art short scripts I just completed to be illustrated by some fantastic artists and included in anthologies, I’ve written half of a six-issue mini-series that myself and an incredible artist are working on but I’ll stay a bit hush hush on that project. As soon as I wrap up the writing for that this month I am turning my attention towards the Creators For Creators grant.

At the beginning of last year, I co-created and have been co-writing a comic with a good friend of 15+ years. It’s pretty intense, a 12 issue mini-series followed by a 24 issue maxi series and combines elements of contemporary sequential art in terms of visual style as well as themes, yet grounded with an uncommon realism paired with super abilities and a healthy social commentary. It’s an ambitious project that we are taking our time on as without proper pacing and plot advancement the level of reader engagement may as well be like walking through quicksand. We were working very hard on it late last year but have stepped back, allowed it to breathe a little and have given me time to work on Penstrike.

I’m always writing something, I’ll be up late at night listening to music and some lyric will inspire a picture or scene in my head and I need to run and get some paper, storyboard a few pages and write the script. It may lay dormant for a little while but will inspire something later, or turn into a full-fledged story on its own. A lot of my dreams inspire stories like that as well. So far it is going to be a busy year and I can’t even imagine how many more stories are waiting to be told.

Make sure to check out Penstrike’s latest issue and the creator forum!
http://www.penstrikepublishing.com/

NOIR SHORT COMIC COMING NEXT MONTH

A short noir comic featuring corrupt cops and a drug dealer coming next month. Shady people and high-rise never mix well. Stay tuned for updates.
By Matthew Blair & Tom Merke

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