Sunday, February 24, 2013

Blue Milk Special

Welcome back to another webcomic Conversation.   Joining me today is the wonderful married team behind Blue Milk Special Rod Hannah and Leanne Hannah!  Thank you for joining us today you two.

Leanne & Rod: Very honored to be invited!

Your header describes Blue Milk Special as a “Chronological Parody of the Star Wars Original Trilogy” though do you think that’s still a fair description?  With the side stories and the upcoming “Splinter of the Minds Eye” parody I think you’ve moved far beyond just the original trilogy.  

R: You might have a point there.  Perhaps our description needs a little tweaking given the evolution of the Blue Milk Special manifesto from a parody of the Original Trilogy to a parody of the vintage Star Wars universe.
L: So far we haven’t included any elements post 1997, although there was one brief Jar Jar cameo.  But he was dead, so maybe it doesn’t really count?

Hoth Patrol
With new fans entering the Star Wars fandom how often do you have to ask, “Why Blue Milk?”  I mean the second I heard the name of your comic I got it, but I’m not sure how new fans react to that kind of inside joke.  

R: We try not to become too obscure with our jokes, although when we do we try to balance it with visual humor or an enlightening blog entry.  Blue milk is obscure in many ways, but also familiar to the core readership, so it seems to be the perfect non trademarked name to associate with our brand of geeky parody.

L: I guess we aren’t too worried about the more mainstream Star Wars and sci-fi audience.  Long running gags like Vader’s coffee mug and Leia’s cigarette are a little more obvious, along with the plays on famous lines from the films, but we frequently delve into the obscure because that’s often where the most fun is for us as fans of Star Wars ourselves.

R: We’re definitely conscious of trying to remain accessible, but Biggs Darklighter would not be nearly as popular if our readers didn’t know who he was.

Speaking of inside jokes there are so many layers of jokes in your work that it takes pages of notes to understand them all!  Seriously how much background and behind the scenes information have you gathered to do this project?  

L: That's Rod's forte. He's great at coming up with all sorts of obscure information that we can incorporate into new strips. I didn't get into the original trilogy until I was in my late teens, but Rod grew up with it and had access to a lot of the material from an early age.

R: A lot of it is just useless geek knowledge that has been amassed over a lifetime of being a Star Wars fan.  I’ve been a fan of many things over my lifetime and probably allocated too much brain power to retaining useless information, but Star Wars is the earliest of my fascinations.  I grew up reading the books, buying the Technical Journals, finding myself fascinated with the obscure cantina aliens and basically being drawn into the depth and vastness of the fictional galaxy.  Nowadays, if I’m looking for really in-depth behind-the-scenes information I’ll turn to Rinzler’s Making of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Backs tomes (Return of the Jedi comes out late this year).  So far we have amassed 20 GB of data, most of it artwork we’ve created for the strip, but a lot of reference material that has been collected over the years.

With over 300+ strips planned out back in 2009 and over 450+ on the site currently you’ve certainly adapted and changed over the years!  How much of the change from your original vision is based off of fan reactions to all the little inside jokes you’ve created?  Blue Milk Special’s Biggs Darklighter (or “Super Biggs”) alone has to account for a couple dozen strips.  

R: Good question! Biggs is the most obvious example.  We planned Vader’s coffee mug to be a permanent part of our interpretation of the character, but reader response prompted us to do more with it.  You’re also bound to try new things with any popular character or gag to try and keep it amusing for yourself and the readers.  Repetition gets old, so we have to be careful.  I remember one reader who, very early on, cautioned us against making Biggs’ posthumous return to the strip a regular occurrence.  However, the outcry at my mention of dropping Biggs included readers making a Facebook group for the BMS version of the character with 189 members.  At that point we got a real sense that we were doing something right.  I love Biggs, but he doesn’t have the room in the parody at the moment to be much more than a one-trick pony.

L: But I will say it's pretty cool that we've been able to take a little-used character like Biggs and give him a life of his own that you wouldn't have been able to see outside of the Star Wars films or comics. We're really proud of that. Of course we always give things a crazy BMS twist...

Besides Biggs, my personal favorite BMS version of a known character is Grand Moff Tarkin.  Oh sure Leia, Vader, Yoda, and all the other leads have great BMS versions, but seeing Grand Moff Tarkin being all “major bad guy” with pink bunny slippers on is priceless.  Where do these versions of the characters come from?  The smoking Leia seems the most obvious but it seems every character has some deep inside jokes rolling around.  

R: I guess love of Star Wars, the characters and the actors involved.  Both Leanne and I are big Peter Cushing fans, which is one reason why we gave extra attention to Grand Moff Tarkin in our parody.  In fact, we are such big Peter Cushing fans that I own one of the very few copies of the children’s book he wrote and illustrated called The Boise Saga.

L: Which I bought for him as a Christmas present a few years ago. And it's one of the few copies signed by Mr. Cushing himself!

R: The fact about Cushing’s on set slippers was just one of those things I had known about for a while and felt would work well in the strip.  We also love Carrie Fisher.  She’s hilarious and has such a strong personality, which was the inspiration to let Leia loose in BMS.  I like being able to subtly comment on elements in Star Wars that are often overlooked.  Leia’s trauma (internalized, we presume) over the destruction of her world is one of those things.  In general, because there are so many parodies of Star Wars out there throughout pop culture over the last 30+ years, we have no choice but to try and think a little harder about how to be different.

Another one of the BMS jokes I’ve liked are the Milk Carton characters.  How did that come about?  

R: Thomas Gatto, one of our readers, is big into paper crafting and I suspect our comic’s name had something to do with it.  He came up with a range of free paper milk carton templates themed around the comic and characters and we were flattered and truly grateful to share them with fans.  It just shows the level of passion and creativity out there.  It really is a great feeling to know that our webcomic can inspire something like this.
Boba Fett’s Vacation
Besides Splinter of the Minds Eye are there any other currently planned side trips away from Return of the Jedi?   What happens when the final musical numbers play out in Jedi? (I can’t wait to see what you do with those!)

R: Yeah, the “nub nub song” or the replacement version…

L: Right now as we're putting the finishing touches on the last few Empire Strikes Back strips, we're also beginning to research Shadows of the Empire. The comic book version was the only one I'd read and that was back when I was in high school-- we're both pretty rusty on the details. But also, there are so many other merchandise tie-ins that flesh out the story with the video and card game characters and scenes, that there's a lot of information to piece together to tell the whole story. We're researching all of that right now and then we'll delve into that storyline for a little bit before jumping into Return of the Jedi. So yes, we do have plans to visit some of the expanded universe material. Exactly how much remains to be seen.

R: It’s hard to think ahead beyond Return of the Jedi.  Part of me wants to roll straight into ROTJ and not spend any time on Shadows of the Empire, but if we skip it, I will regret it.  There will be a sense of completion though, when we finish ROTJ.
Splinter of the Mind’s Eye – Part 11
Now how does your partnership work?  Do you both stick very much with your specialties or do you work together giving suggestions on art and writing to each other?  

L: Normally Rod comes up with the strip ideas and will run them by me. We'll make suggestions or tweak things and he'll further develop them from there. Once a strip is decided upon, we'll usually talk about how the strip should be laid out, which characters should be used and whether or not new art is needed. When we originally started BMS, I drew several different characters all at once in a sort of a 'paper doll' method with various arms and expressions depending on what each strip might call for. I was so tied up with other freelance projects that we knew this would be the only feasible way of putting BMS out on a consistent basis. We still stick to this method for the most part, but I also draw new characters and poses specific to each scene when necessary. Either Rod or myself will then color the artwork, and Rod does all the rest-- assembling and layout of the strips, adding word balloons, etc.  He has also illustrated a few of the obscure characters himself!

How did you two get into art in general?  When did you decide to go ahead and move forward on BMS?  

L: I've been drawing since I can remember and have always been drawn to comic books and comic art, so when I went to college I graduated with a degree in Illustration. I've since worked for a comic art studio and done freelance projects for various comic and toy companies like Image Comics, Hasbro, Scholastic, and Ardden Entertainment. Rod and I always wanted to collaborate on projects together but my freelance commitments kept getting in the way. BMS seemed like a great opportunity to do something for fun and put our work out online where we could share it with others. It's since taken on a life of its own!

R: I drew a lot right up to the end of high school and then began experimenting with digital art.  I’ve ridden Leanne’s artistic coattails and learned a lot of things.  I’ve even done some characters of my own for BMS, but Leanne still contributes a lot of original art to keep the polish from wearing off.

When Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars how big a deal was it for BMS?  I’ve noticed a large increase in the notices of “not for profit” and “fair use” warnings on the site, is the Mouse House that big a danger to your comic?  

L: It scared the hell out of me, to be honest. While Lucasfilm has a great reputation with fans and actively encourages fan creation and involvement in their properties, Disney does not. Maybe it's just us (or, well, me mostly) being paranoid. But the reputation of the Disney legal team looms large. I went through a period of being pretty depressed, wondering if we'd be sent a Cease & Desist by the end of the week. We don't make money off of BMS and it's just a fan project we do for fun, but who knows? In the end we decided we'd keep going until the day Mickey Mouse beats down our door to tell us to stop.

R: The disclaimers on our site and strips have been there from the beginning, back in 2009, long before Disney came into the picture.  I am conscious of copyright and infringement and see a lot of hit-and-run t-shirt companies cashing in on the Star Wars imagery without a license from LucasFilm.  So it was really important that we made it clear we weren’t one of those opportunists and that Blue Milk Special was clearly a free fan project.  The disclaimers are there to remind people that we don’t sell Blue Milk Special and that it’s just a free online comic for everyone to enjoy.

What is your reaction to the idea of “spin off” movies in the Star Wars universe?  The “Marvelization” of the Star Wars Universe seems like a logical progression to me, though the choice of Boba Fett has me scratching my head.  Thoughts?

L: Honestly, I was excited about the prospect of the Star Wars saga continuing under Disney. I'm not a fan of the prequel films and felt like the property might get a new lease on life under a new creative team. A clean start that would possibly be more in line with the original trilogy. I'm not quite as excited about the announced spin-off films, but I'm sure we'll see them. They could be done really well depending on how they're handled. The Boba Fett film announcement had me rolling my eyes, but in the eyes of most of the Star Wars fandom, the guy is hugely popular for whatever reason. It's not a character I would have chosen to focus on so soon, but it probably does make sense from Disney's point of view given how popular he is.

R: I’ve come to think of franchises as a bad thing.  That’s based on my experience and reaction to stories where character integrity is thrown out the window in favor of ever-changing creative teams and the recycled melodrama that never allows a character’s journey to be complete.  I’m a fan of the characters and story and the trouble with franchises is that the merchandise and business eventually sucks away from that.  One of the worst examples of what has become of the Star Wars universe is Darth Maul being resurrected from what was CERTAIN body-splitting death in the Phantom Menace, to being turned into a half-spider droid in the Clone Wars.  I thought Darth Maul was a great, if under-used villain, but that bringing him back like that, even bringing him back at all, makes Star Wars into a joke.  Good stories are about people and their journeys, not THINGS and eye-candy.  All journeys should have an end.  So, while I would love to see a young Han Solo movie, or possibly Boba Fett, I’m also kind of past that point as a fan.  Things can be over-milked at the expense of the quality and the magic that made something so compelling in the first place.  I’m not sure future Star Wars will be recognizable to me.  Having said that, I’m glad to hear Lawrence Kasdan is writing one of those spin-offs.  I’m hoping I will be pleasantly surprised.

You recently posted your frustration with all the haters out there who think your work is just copying other people’s work.  How hard is it to be a creative person when folks constantly berate your work?  Is that just a price of being successful/popular?  

R: Yeah, I think it is.  I think, the more readers you get, the more you have to try and disconnect from the fan interaction and focus on the work itself.  In the early days, hearing from anyone who likes what you are doing is a big deal.

L: I think lately Rod and I have really come to the realization now that as our little project has grown and gotten a much wider audience over the years, we're never going to escape the criticism. Someone will inevitably have issues with something, no matter how small, and they'll sure as hell tell you about it. It does wear on you at times, though, because we're making these strips in our spare time and putting them online for free. A lot of time and energy goes into making each strip we put up. So to see someone write in and trash our work or accuse us of petty and crazy things can kind of bring you down. I think the most ridiculous thing we've been accused of lately is that we "steal backgrounds from Family Guy." I mean, how does that even make sense?? In the end, you just have to ignore it because it will drive you crazy.

How do you keep doing what you’re doing?  What keeps you both creating in spite of financial hardships, trolls, and big media conglomerates?  

L: Rod might have another, more eloquent answer for this, but I enjoy doing it for the really great fans and friends we've met over the years. These people who have hung in there with us through it all, visited us at conventions or just said a few nice things on our site. It's a really satisfying thing knowing that there are so many people who enjoy what we do and actually look forward to those couple days a week when they know they'll have a new BMS strip to read. We've had people from all over the world write and tell us that they stumbled across the site and spent hours upon hours going through all of our strips. We've had soldiers overseas write and tell us they look forward to our strips, and people who said we've helped give them a smile during difficult times in their lives. That just amazing. Back when Rod and I first started this project, we never thought it would grow into what it has. It's also immensely satisfying seeing these different storyarcs come to a close and know that we've made it through another step. We've finished A New Hope, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, the Star Wars Holiday Special and now we're closing out Empire Strikes Back and venturing into new territory. It keeps things fresh and interesting.

R: I don’t think this is eloquent, but I think the world can be a really dark and miserable place.  Star Wars lets fans escape into another world.  Making the Blue Milk Special webcomic is an outlet for us as creative fans.  There have been a couple of occasions where we have seriously considered ending Blue Milk Special, but each time the thought of it no longer being there has pulled us back.  To leave the project unfinished when we had already come so far would be something I would always regret.  So, finishing the parody of the original trilogy provides a sense of direction and completeness, even when things get frustrating.  Being reminded that others share the sense of humor keeps us going.

Since BMS isn’t a “for profit” entity I don’t suppose we’re ever going to see a print compilation of the comic?  How do you keep a roof over your heads and produce the comic if the comic can’t earn you money?  

L: Rod and I both have regular ol' day jobs to keep us afloat, and I also do freelance art and illustration projects on the side. You do what you gotta do.

R: But we are known to a lot more people now and that is always a good thing for launching our original projects in the future.

Imperial Search Warrant
Obviously my blog is about Kickstarter so I had to slip one Kickstarter question in on you.  Have you ever considered doing an art book Kickstarter?  Or some other project that isn’t BMS that you could make some more money one?  

L: There are actually a couple of projects Rod and I have in the works that we may turn to Kickstarter for. Watch this space...

R: I think an art book, like you suggest, is a good idea!  As for our own projects, we’ll need all the help we can get from our fans!

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

L: Thank you for the invitation! And to those readers who have hung in there with us through this crazy BMS ride, another thank you! Even if you've never commented on the blog or have only visited the site a few times, it means a lot that you're checking out our work and hopefully enjoying it. It's been a lot of fun and there's much more to come!

R: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to parodying Return of the Jedi.  Let’s hope we make it through Shadows!

Thank you both for joining us today I hope everyone gets a chance to read Blue Milk Special.  Don’t just read one strip but read the details behind the jokes and really get into the depths of BMS!  

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