Shadowbinders is a webcomic from creators Kambrea and Thomas Pratt. Having previously worked for Disney, the duo decided to take their latest idea to the internet, where it’s spent the last four years building up an impressive fanbase – and a vast, magical world, filled with monsters and floating ships and myths and legends. Focusing on the adventures of a girl called Mia and a charismatic showboat called Crimson Rhen, the series enjoyed a successful Kickstarter campaign for a first volume to come to print.
The second Kickstarter campaign from the team was caught by the Kick-Trolling phenomenon which had affected some Kickstarter campaigns recently. This is when people pledge at the highest level for a project – then pull out just before the final date. Why do they do that? Well… nobody’s really particularly sure of that. But undeterred by Kick-Trolling, Kam and Thom have returned for a new Kickstarter launch this month.
Already fully pledged, and a roaring success, I spoke to the two about their Kickstarter, the experience of Kick-Trolling, and the process of making and maintaining a successful webcomic.
Steve: Shadowbinders has been running for almost four years online, now. What first prompted you to start the series?
Kam: I have always wanted to tell a story of some kind and when I saw how great a medium comics are and I wanted to use it. I had an idea for a story involving a girl from our world, a magic ring, and a young male mage. I wanted to include steampunk elements and I remembered Thom’s art and story ideas for the original incarnation of Shadowbinders–then called Shadowbinder (singular). After I talked him into the idea, we combined elements of both stories and here we are.
Thom: Kam really did lead the charge in putting the comic online. There was a lot of arm-twisting involved to get me to do it!
Steve: It’s a heavily character-driven story, led by the two leads Mia and Crimson Rhen. How did you develop the characters? Did you map out your plan with them from the start, or have you slowly built them up as you’ve built up the rest of the story?
Kam: Originally Mia was the lead, but as it progressed we realized that Rhen had really come into his own and he became another leading character.
The story is mapped out for the most part. We know the major plot points and the ending. The fun part is getting to those important events, and we can be more open and have fun with it. Usually we start by saying something like “Okay, in this chapter we know we need to get to this point. You know what would be fun, what if we did____”
As for character development of Rhen and Mia, we knew how we wanted each character to change. I think a good story has flawed characters that grow and evolve as the tale progresses. Our characters will have paths that lead to changes.
Thom: Character development is such an important part of the story. We get feedback from readers that are like “Why is Mia such a doormat? Why is Rhen so selfish?” They’ll grow and evolve – it’ll just be a slow growth.
I always tell people that reading long-form webcomics is a little like watching Star Wars in 30 second increments over the course of many years.
Steve: Anything and everything happens in Shadowbinders. Is it difficult to balance the fantasy, juggle monsters, magic, and more – and keep a focus on your characters?
Thom: Our story is very character driven. Really, the monsters and magic are just window dressing. While we do some basic world-building, we also play loose with things so we can invent environments and situations on the fly if need be to propel the characters forward. We don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner by figuring everything out in advance.
Steve: Have there been any points while making the story where you’ve taken advantage of the webcomic format to go on a tangent from the original planned story? Do you follow tangents as they appear to you, or prefer to tell a single focused story?
Kam: I admit that we go off on tangents from time to time! We do try to tie it all into the main storyline in some way, but we do like a detour every now and again. We also use these to spend more time with a character, so the readers can learn more about them.
Thom: Creating material for the web isn’t the same thing as serializing a graphic novel online. We try to plan all of our pages to end on a “beat” to keep readers coming back for the next update. But you don’t want the collected editions to read like a series of one-page strips either. It’s a definitely a balancing act. We’ve gotten better at it lately, though. I think.
Steve: Being, you know, married to each other – that likely adds an interesting dimension to the creative process! How do you find working together?
Kam: Mostly it is great. We have our differences now and again, but who doesn’t? It is also fun because our relationship shows in our work. Thom bases a lot of Mia’s, uh… expressiveness… on me. I base Rhen’s snark on him.
Thom: We could probably write a book on the discussions behind the scenes. Usually Kam wins out. Usually! Haha. But yeah, the comic really is us. Our sensibilities — for better or worse.
Steve: What is it about each other’s work which most appeals to you as a creator? Do you think over time your styles as a writer and as an artist have started to mesh, or do you still maintain different approaches to making comics?
Kam: I think we both know each other well enough to know what our strengths and weaknesses are. I think we compliment each other quite well! In areas I am weak, he is stronger and vice versa. We still have different approaches, but we have found a happy medium.
Thom: Yeah, again I don’t think this would work if it were either one of us working with hired help. We’ve been together as a couple and creative partners for over 12 years now. You get to know someone pretty well in that span of time!
As far as our approaches, Kam has a much better sense of what would appeal to a mass audience outside of the comic shop. She didn’t read comics growing up, but rather draws from books, movies, television. Me, I ate, slept and breathed comics as a kid and a teenager. So the trick has always been to tell stories with mass appeal using the comics medium.
The kinds of stories we like to tell could probably be told in any medium, really — a novel, a TV show, a movie — but we’re using sequential art to tell them.
Steve: How do you feel your work has changed over the years? Looking back at the start and now to your current work, do you see a development in style, tone, voice?
Kam: I think it’s much better now. I never wrote anything like this before and it is a learning process. Growth is inevitable. I have learned so much and I applied a lot of it this story and other projects we are hoping to launch down the road.
Thom: When we started out, we really were winging a lot of it. Obviously, if we were starting over today, some things would definitely change. And there’s always that temptation to go back and rework the early stuff, but you run the risk of never moving forward if you keep tinkering with past works.
As far as the art is concerned, the early stuff was hand-drawn in pencil and often hastily put together due to my busy day job. If I regret anything, it’s the early artwork more than the story.
The best way to get better at making comics is to make comics. If you wait until your work is “perfect,” you’ll never make anything.
Steve: This Kickstarter is for the second volume of Shadowbinders, following a prior success funding volume one. How have you found your experiences on Kickstarter, as a whole?
Thom: Overall, I do think Kickstarter is a great thing. It’s been a game-changer for small press, and getting your work published has never been easier. Seriously, between crowdfunding and being able to instantly publish your stuff on the web, there’s never been a better time to be an independent comics creator.
Steve: Your second Kickstarter was affected by this ‘Kicktrolling’ thing which seems to have become a very notable problem for the company. What was your experience? How did the Kicktrolling affect your project?
Thom: Our experience with “kicktrolling” happened a few weeks after another rash of trolling incidents in which other comics folks had credit card charges disputed. In our case, a dubious backer came in and pledged $10,000 to our campaign, and gradually pulled it out over the course of a few days… making our campaign funding amount go backwards daily, and looking really suspect all the way around.
Thankfully, he was banned before he could run off with any merchandise, but the damage was done. Given the media attention the fiasco got, we cancelled funding about a week early to prevent any other would-be trollers from pulling a similar stunt at the 11th hour.
If there’s one negative for Kickstarter, it’s this. The trolling is giving the company a very public black eye and they really do need some safeties put in place to try and put a halt to it. At the very least, they could publicly acknowledge that it’s happening.
Steve: Is there anything that can be done to stop this from happening? Is it just a case of keeping pressure on Kickstarter to up their awareness of the issue, do you think?
Thom: I’ve heard it through the grapevine that Kickstarter is working on a way to identify scammers early on, but as far as I know they’ve never gone on record as acknowledging that this could happen, or that Kickstarter projects can be “gamed” so very easily. But their silence can be mistaken for apathy. It has happened several times in the past few months, and it will undoubtedly happen again.
On the project creator level, my advice would be to monitor your backer list very carefully. If you have someone pledge at a high level, do yourself a favor and check their backer history. If you’re still uneasy, write them a private message addressing your concerns. And if that doesn’t get anywhere, then try to contact someone at Kickstarter.
Giving project creators the ability to cancel a suspicious backer’s pledge would be very helpful. Hopefully Kickstarter will implement something like that soon.
Steve: Kicktrolling aside, how has the response been from your readers? Have you felt a notable readership and fanbase build up over the years?
Kam: The response is mostly positive. Our readers come in regularly. We do have several regulars that comment and interact with us.
Thom: That’s one of the perks of posting comics online as you create them — you’re not toiling away in some void for months or years until it’s time to release your next book.
Steve: There’s been quite the fan response to Crimson Rhen, in particular, and I notice one of your stretch goals would allow for you to make a prequel story for the character. What can fans expect from the story, should it be funded?
Thom: We’d love to tell the ‘Crimson Rhen of the True North’ story someday. If this campaign does well enough, maybe it’ll free up the time for us to do it and we can add it as a stretch goal.
We came at Rhen from a different angle than Shadowbinders, in that it’s meant to be a graphic novel read in one sitting. Even though its set in the same universe, it’s got a different flavor to it than Shadowbinders. The easiest way we can describe it is “The Goonies. On an airship.”
What can readers expect? A lot of answers to questions raised in Shadowbinders. It’s Rhen’s origin story. But the story stands on its own apart from Shadowbinders. Readers of one comic don’t necessarily have to be readers of the other. It’s a “middle grade” story, but it’s not kid’s stuff.
Kam really knocked this one of out of the park, and I hope we can get it done someday, somehow. We’re just not in a position to be able to offer it up as another free webcomic.
Steve: What else do you have planned for the future? Where can we find you online?
Kam: Right now we have this series and, hopefully, Crimson Rhen. I’m working on another short story that we hope to launch later this year.
Thom: I’ll be drawing all of the above, and I’ve been doing some other freelancing I’m not at liberty to talk about just yet. You can find us online at www.shadowbinders.com
Many thanks to both Kam and Thom for their time! You can find Shadowbinders on Kickstarter right here!