EXCLUSIVE! Interview with ‘Awake’s’ Susan Beneville & Brian Hess

I had a chance recently to sit down with the creators behind Action Lab’s “Awake,” Susan Beneville and Brian Hess. We get some insight on them, indie comics and more. Please enjoy the interview.

  1. How did the concept of Awake come about?

Brian Hess {B}:  I wanted to do a comic that was all-ages and I wanted it to look like an animated feature.  I was really inspired by the Disney films of the 90s and early 2000s.  I think stories built around girls are more interesting.  It felt like the right direction to go in – comics have always been so saturated with stories about guys.  In terms of the feel, I wanted something kind of neo-steampunk with action, adventure, and character-building.

Susan Beneville {S}: So, originally we started with Brian’s first seven pages and the initial concept of a girl and her brother who traveled the universe and could wake up planets.  We talked for 3 or 4 hours about what the overall themes, plots, characters, and general direction would be.  Then, I developed a 20 page written treatment laying out my initial idea for the first eight issues (as you can imagine, this has changed quite a bit).  That treatment included some new characters, so Brian started working on the design for those and I started writing the scripts.



2. Since Regn will be dealing with consciousness of planets, will we see an array of different planets with different personalities.

Absolutely.  That’s the really fun part.

3. With Regn being able to talk to the consciousness of planets, does that mean that each planet will have a distinct character?

S:  Yes!  The cool thing about Awake is that world-building and character development are the same thing.  Regn and Picar (and other Dola… hint hint) will travel to many planets and each will have a distinct look and a distinct personality.  Planets, like people, come in all different shapes and sizes, and ages and levels of maturity.  We want to play with them as much as possible. In fact, without giving too much away, we have already created a new planet for Issue Zero (which may be coming out next May for Free Comic Book Day) that is totally different from Gremon.  (For a sneak peek, check out our Facebook page.)

4. How did you solidify the cast for Awake? Were Operi and Bashi part of the original concept?

B:  Operi and Bashi have always been part of my original vision of the book.  In fact, the core characters – Regn, Picar, Chay, Bashi and Operi – have all been there since the beginning.  They may not all have had names, but they have all been on the page from the start and they are the backbone of the series.  Once we had them we just had to come up with the “bad” guys.  They were fun to develop conceptually, so it didn’t take us very long to pin them down.  Probably the Baron was the last character we really nailed.

S:  I think Gremon was the hardest character to for me to develop in terms of personality, although visually, it seemed like Brian was very able to tap into what I was thinking when I first described it.


5. Operi definitely seems like the sage of this crew. Without many spoilers, what can you tell us of his background?

S:  Obviously, Operi is Regn’s Tor, which is kind of like a guide and teacher.  Operi is not Dola.  In fact, none of the Tors are Dola.  I think his backstory will be eased out in the third arc.  I can say this, he comes from an emotionally, but not technologically, advanced planet.  And, he is VERY old.


6. How would you describe Regn?

B:  “Nervously confident?”  The way I draw her now is different from how I first drew her.  Originally, Regn was like a doll.  Now, she is a much fuller character.  She worries a lot, because she has a lot of responsibility.  She’s very patient.  Wise beyond her years.

S:  I think she knows she has these amazing powers.  I don’t think using the powers makes her nervous, I think when she’s nervous about other things or situations she has a hard time using them.  I guess what I am saying is that she doesn’t have a lot of experience with life.  This is her first mission.  Up until now, she has lived a very isolated, controlled life.  To me, she is very brave because she doesn’t let her fear stop her.
-We open with her kind of lost … and she still seems a bit out of sorts with her role during the first issue. We will find more as to how and why she placed in that role right away or over time?

B:  Yes.  (Right?)

S:  Yes.


7. Susan and Brian, how did the two of you start collaborating?

S:  I hired Brian to work on a custom comic for a resort in the Bahamas.  I actually hired someone else before him and it wasn’t a good fit.  It was a great comic book.  For reasons that have nothing to do with us or the book, the project didn’t last very long.  But, it was awesome because that’s how we met.  From the beginning, we just worked really well together.

B:  At the same time, I had been playing around with the characters and this story.  After working with Susan, I thought it would be really fun to work with her on it.


8. How does your creative process go when working on Awake?

S:  In terms of our collaborative process, we give each other a lot of room.  So, I pretty much write the story and then Brian draws it.  We don’t spend a lot of time working over every detail of every story.  I feel like Brian is always there for me if I get stuck while I am writing, and I try to do the same for him.  Mostly, we just give each other the bare essentials in terms of feedback or commentary.  We will give each other teasers every now and then, but for the most part we work separately.  And, it’s weird, but I feel like we are always on the same page.  I don’t usually see the art until the issue is completely colored.  When I finally get to look at it, it always, always blows me away.  Every time.  It is what I imagined, but so much better.

B:  Basically, I read the scripts and draw exactly what Susan says to draw.  Not really.  Actually, I read the script, thumbnail all of the pages.  Then, I start penciling.  I usually pencil several pages and then ink them, then pencil and ink a few more until I have plowed all the way through them.  As pages get inked, I scan them and send them to Darné Lang.  Darné is our awesome flatter.


9. What brought you both to Action Lab Entertainment for Awake?

B:  Right after we self-published the original Issue No. 1 of Awake, we met Dave Dwonch at the APE convention in San Francisco.  I gave him a copy of the book and a little while later he emailed us and said Action Lab was interested in publishing Awake.

S:  It was actually that easy.


10. We met Regn’s brother briefly in the first issue. It definitely seems he has powers of his own. Without many spoilers, what can you say about him.

S:  Picar is very different from Regn.  He is very outgoing, he loves fun and adventure.  He takes risks.  He is also kind of mouthy and that gets him into a lot of trouble.  A LOT OF TROUBLE.   He has some very good qualities, but being responsible isn’t one of them. In terms of his powers, well… wait and see.


11. Susan, what made you want to be a writer? Brian, what made you want to be an artist?

B:  I just took to drawing.  Reading the Sunday comics at a young age – Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes – the Hanna-Barbera cartoons – and then Disney.  As I got older, Marvel, DC, and Image had a huge impact, but my art is still strongly influenced by animation.  Originally, I wanted to make movies, but I kept moving toward drawing.  It was a way for me to be creative by myself – to be able to get my ideas across visually.

S: I have always written and I have always been a strong writer.  When I was younger I would write a lot of fun stories for myself.  I secretly wanted to be “a writer” but I was put off by how difficult it is to be a writer in real life so I chose a different profession when I was younger.  This is actually my third career.  But, both of my previous paths relied heavily on story-telling and writing.  I just finally decided to take the leap into comics and screenwriting.  This just makes me so happy.


12. What kind of antagonists will we see besides the ones you seen in the first issue?

S:  The primary antagonists in the first arc are Baron Korup and Gurk.  Gurk is the gangster looking guy that seems to be connected to Gen. It is hard talking about him without giving anything away.  He’s pretty ruthless and he has a good reason to be angry.  The Baron is driven by greed and ego.  He wants everyone to pay tribute to him and he needs to control everything.  Down the road, in the second arc, we introduce the Captain of the Guard who is tough as nails.

13. I definitely noticed a lack of space ships in this first issue. Does the way Regn & Operi travel tied to her powers or something else?


S:  Both.  The Dola can use their powers for planetary travel.  But, for inter-planetary travel they use space craft.


B:  In Issue Zero, I finally got to draw some space ships!!


14. What do you want people to take away from Awake # 1? From the series in general.

B:  Honestly, I just want them to enjoy it.  I want them to have fun and love the characters as much as we do.

S:  Going back to Brian’s point about the focus on a girl – this girl, Regn, who is so young and so brave and how she overcomes her fear and apprehension to do something so great and powerful.  I guess I want readers to come away with the possibility of that for themselves.  For the series generally, wow, I think I want people to come away with a comforting sense of the inter-connectedness of peoples and places.  Or, something like that.  And fun.


15. What would you want to say to any aspiring creators out there about going into comics?

B:  What we realized two years ago – keep moving forward.  Don’t nitpick every little detail.  Go page-by-page and don’t look back.

S:  You will make mistakes.  You will write yourself into a corner.  And, you will write yourself back out again.  I think the other thing I would say is that comics are a collaborative art.  Find someone you like, someone you respect, someone you trust, someone who works hard, and, obviously, someone who is super-talented.  Then lock him or her in a closet and don’t feed them until they finish the project.