Matthew Ritter On Writing 8-Bit Comics

Posted by February 17, 2014 Comment


Richard Caldwell writes,

Matthew Ritter is the writer and (with artist Adam Elbahtimy) co-creator for Nova Phase, a new limited series halfway to completion, published by Slave Labor Graphics and available digitally via Comixology. Nova Phase is a sci-fi Western as rendered entirely in 8-bit pixel glory. Like old school video games. Only in funny book form.

Richard Caldwell: Matthew, was there ever a specific moment where you realized you wanted to cross the great divide from comics fan to comics creator?

Matthew Ritter: This is an answer that might seem a little hokey, but there never was a divide. I have always wanted to make comics. When I was very small, very small, my dad read to me a lot. He’s a comic fan, he read me all sorts of stuff, Mark Twain, Heinlein, Jules Verne, but also comics. Batman and the like. He also bought me an audio tape comic collection so I could listen and try and read along. I couldn’t read or write yet.

In this same space, I did draw little bubble stick figures. I came up with my own superhero Super Zap, with the power of electricity! I drew panels and bubble people and I would tell my grandma what the captions and word bubbles should say.

So, I was both creating comics, and a fan of comics, well before I could read or write. There was never a point in time in my life when I didn’t want to make comics and was not a fan of the medium. It’s very much a part of who I am, and what has always sparked my creative interests. I find something about sequential art fascinating. The things you can do with it you can’t do with any other kind of storytelling, and the things that are just different even when done the same. I love it.

RC: So where exactly did Nova Phase come from? Were you a space cowboy in a past life?

MR: I wish. Nova Phase is a lot of things. Of course the initial inspirations are fairly obvious. Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, Trigun, Farscape, Firefly, Space: Above and Beyond. The roots of my own feelings on space go back further, growing up in the land of Zaxxon and Escape Velocity. Space was this place where adventures happened. Where you could go and see things no one had seen. Which is the whole appeal of a Space Western. The ever expanding frontier. Star Trek is in many ways a Space Western.

More directly it came from me and the artist working together on another project, which was taking way too long and going very slowly. One I’ve at least for now put on the back burner, but would love to finish. I was interning over at Dark Horse and I wanted to make a pitch while I was actually physically talking to some people that worked there. So I threw the idea of a pixel art comic at the artist, Adam Elbahtimy, as his pixel art which you can see is phenomenal.

He was good with it, and we threw some ideas back and forth. He threw some, I threw some, and eventually I came up with wanting to do a Space Western. At first the idea was much more gamey, with more video game references and more using the medium of pixel art as part of the story. I decided to let those elements drop though, because I love pixel art. I think it’s a valid art style, that can be evocative of a time and a place and a tone without needing to be pigeon-holed into a specific kind of storytelling.

So, with the setting in mind, I wrote a short story, ran it by the artist, he liked it, and we started working on the pitch while I wrote out the whole six issue arc. That’s where Nova Phase came from!

RC: The sense of humor you convey in the story is really fun, very lively without the slightest trace of smarminess and without things falling head over heels into tongue in cheek territory. Is that just a natural knack for you, or was it necessary to keep things balanced for what you have in mind plot-wise?

MR: Does it? Well that’s good to hear. Though I’m sure not everyone thinks so. Comedy is hard, yet I’ve always felt vital to the proper control of the mood to a story. If you can amuse someone, make them smile, or make them laugh, you can release tension. They feel better, someone who’s laughing, and it isn’t a nervous sort of laugh, feels good. They’re happy. This has so many uses in storytelling. Being able to control when people relax is a skill that helps build pacing. Especially in a longer story.

As for the tone I’m trying to capture, a lot of the fiction that inspired Nova Phase is like that. A space western is in many ways, by its very nature, a parody. Not to say that Nova Phase and other Space Westerns are parodies, but the idea of taking a genre that’s steeped in so many iconographical (not a word, but I rarely let that stop me) tropes and transferring into another genre.

There was a time back when serial sci-fi magazines and books were popular, and sci fi stories were written constantly. Space Western was considered one of the lowest and least interesting genres, as generally it’d just be a western story (also popular at the time) written with a ray gun instead of a six shooter.

It’s a very self-aware genre. It’s hard for sort of silly things to creep in, like how in Firefly all of the guns use bullets, but also make laser sounds when they’re cocked and aimed. There’s a long tradition of a ‘fun’ vibe. It’s a rare person that thinks they want to write a space western to tell some grim/dark story of pain and suffering. I guess you could, but generally you write a Space Western because you really like westerns, and you like space, and you want to imagine a time and a place where that sense of lawlessness might exist in the future. The Space Western is in many ways about nostalgia. Nostalgia for a time that never really existed, and a way of life and exploration that was created by dimestore novelists.

Well, I kind of went off there. Back to the initial question, I’m glad that you found it ‘fun’. That’s exactly what is intended. Trying to imbue the story with a quality of ‘oh what a fun adventure we’re on’. Not that bad things can’t happen, and not that the characters themselves would necessarily agree, but hopefully the readers would. So, it’s a balance I’m trying to strike for the tone I want. This isn’t a story about some deep philosophical truth, and I doubt it’ll make the list of anyone’s ‘top ten stories that changed the way I thought about the world’, but…

If when it’s done, most people close it and they think to themselves. “That was fun. I enjoyed that.” That’s where I’m aiming. So, that would be a great place to hit.

RC: Yours is one of the rare comics with a built-in soundtrack (again with the incessant fun!). How did that come about exactly? Is there any collaboration on your part, or do you leave it up to your chosen bard? And for that matter, as the comic’s presentation is so influenced by games, could you ever see Nova Phase crossover into any additional media beyond music, or does it being a comic book carry a particular weight for you?

MR: Same exact way as with the artist. The coming about of it and all. I was working with him on another project, and he’s actually pretty popular these days. I just think he does great bit tunes stuff. As for the input, well, I linked him to a bunch of music I found inspiring and like what I would want, but I’m not much of a musician. I have a tin ear and I can’t keep a beat. So, I trust him. I am the same with art really- I flunked out of at least two art schools. I know what the vanishing point is, foreshortening and things like that, but really I’m not much of an artist myself.

I actually make games as well, and I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Nova Phase as some other medium. Though, I don’t think the hindrance to that would be me blocking it. I’m probably unlikely to say, make a game of Nova Phase just on my own, that’s way too much work. Making the comic is tons of work! But if someone came to me and was like “Here is exactly one giant bag of money.” I would be like “Go, make whatever you want with Nova Phase. I’ll help.” Who doesn’t like a giant bag of money? I think that’s quite unlikely though.

RC: Wait, you make games as well? For fun, or for vocation?

MR: One begets the other. I do pixel art freelance sometimes for some people. My first game I’m planning to actually sell, Boon Hill, should be done soon. It’s a super artsy game about looking around a graveyard. You can check out more info here, already funded through kickstarter.

RC:  You mentioned that Nova Phase is to be a six-issue limited series, but will you be ending things on an irrevocable beat, or might these characters come back to life down the road?

MR: Maybe. I’d love to, but also, there’s so many other things I want to do. It probably really depends on if anyone reads and likes the first six installments. It’s very much a ‘Well I hope I make it through this’ before thinking about the whole ‘I wonder what happens to these characters next’. Assuming they don’t all die horribly.It would appear that most if not all of your creative ideas are attempts at filling voids, in doing things as originally as possible. 8-bit comic covers have been very popular the last couple of years, but nobody else seems to have thought to take that to the next logical exploration. And your Boon Hill game sounds like the most unique video game I’ve heard of since my hours of obsessing over the original Solstice game for the NES. Is thinking outside of the proverbial box so necessary nowadays, to be heard among the thunderous waves of talented folks, or is there something more uniquely philosophical about originality for you yourself?

I wish I was original. I forget who said it, probably lots of people, and lately this has been in reference to video games. “If you don’t like something, it’s a gimmick, if you do, it’s a feature, or a paradigm shift.” That’s kind of how it is in everything. Also, depending on how you look at it either everything has already been done, or there are no old ideas.Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was, especially in the comic world, hailed as something that was wholly new and original in an interesting way. Yet, if I remember right, it was originally mostly two drunk guys having fun writing a Daredevil parody comic.I’ve often heard it said that Superman, the first superhero, was a new idea, one we haven’t seen before that has changed the landscape of modern fiction. A demigod that comes down to us, with powers we can’t deal with to help face foes and challenges on our behalf? Often having to face other alien creatures that wish to do harm to humans. It’s fun, but that’s an old story. An OLD story. The outsider with powers we can’t imagine. The angel warrior, the half god, who lives among us, but is never one of us and even falls in love with humans. That is an old story.

Being original or new is almost impossible. We’re all creative so often that it isn’t about trying to come up with some new idea. It’s about throwing yourself out there, throwing your personal work into the public and hoping people care about it. That’s all any of us can do. It’s scary and it doesn’t always work out.

I’m glad some of my stuff feels original, but it isn’t. Games that have no real win scenario have been around for a long time. Pixel art comics? That used to be the internet’s jam. They were all over the place, they still exist but not quite in those numbers. Not just comics based on games, but pixel art comics exist in all sorts of forms out there if you really look.

So, I’m just tossing my stuff out there, and hoping people like it. What else can I do?

RC: I suppose you can also continue gazing to the stars, as the results have been pretty rad thus far. Best of luck to you, Adam and the folks at Slave Labor Graphics. But it doesn’t look like you need it.

MR: Oh we’ll need it. I haven’t seen the sales data, so maybe the only people who have read it so far are reviewers!

Thanks for taking the time for this interview. It’s always nice for someone to care enough to ask questions. I would like to just mention a few things, I didn’t talk about Adam all that much, the artist, and he’s amazing. He manages to capture so much in such a ‘low rez’ style of art. If there was any less skill on his part I don’t think the entire project would work at all.

Also, as for SLG, they’re amazing. Dan Vado was the only guy in the comic industry willing to give Nova Phase a chance, and trust me, I was showing it to everyone I could. I hope that he gets rewarded for his belief in the project. Also, for Jef Bambas, the editor, who works very hard to make sure I don’t write something that’s going to embarrass myself, which I try to do any chance I get. He has made the project stronger for his involvement and he is a hero of the highest caliber.

For more Nova Phase, scope out their Blogger, Facebook, and/or Tumblr. And of course, read the comics right now on Comixology.



I’m suffering a horribly weak broadband connection these days so cannot upload/download myself, but here is a link-list of approved images, for the first two covers as well as a nifty promo piece:

(Last Updated February 17, 2014 3:56 pm )