Interviews with Creators of Dreamland
At the beginning of October, I went to New York ComicCon and met quite a few authors and writers. While there, a rumor about me interviewing authors and writers was started at one booth, and I decided to lean into it. Interviewing other writers and authors could never hurt. I left my information with the writers and authors I met and emailed them after I got home from ComicCon. I was emailed the writer of Dreamland, Jason Miller the very next day. He helped me set up an interview with him and his artist, James Hill. I sent him the interview questions which he forwarded to Mr. Hill. Then they separately sent me their answers by the deadline I set up forward. Now, the interview I'm posting here is what I've posted together of their answers.
Kaylyn Gabbert: First, can you tell us who you are?
Jason Miller: I’m a native New Yorker - born in Brooklyn and raised in Staten Island. I attended Emerson College in Boston as a film major, and graduated in 1998, at which point I moved to Los Angeles, having secured my first job in the entertainment industry, working as an assistant to two-time Best Picture Oscar nominated film producer Barry Mendel (RUSHMORE, THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, MUNICH, BRIDESMAIDS, THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND.)
James Guy Hill: My name is James Guy Hill and I’m the artist and co-creator of Dreamland. I was born in California, but have lived in Portland Oregon my entire adult life.
KG: How did you two meet?
JM: Jim and I met at San Diego’s Comic-Con in 2002. At night after the convention is over, everyone heads out to the various restaurants and bars to network and schmooze. Jim spotted the tattoo I have on my right arm of the logo for the band Rocket from the Crypt. An instant friendship was formed. We struck up a bond based on mutual love of music, movies, and comic books and were friends for a few years before I had the idea for Dreamland and asked Jim if he’d want to dive into creating the book with me.
JGH: That’s right, we bonded over being huge fans of the band Rocket From The Crypt and we had lots of similar interests, music, comics, pop culture stuff. I believe we talked at great length about the Sopranos. We’d met at San Diego Comic Con after my first series Caffeine had ended. I had been developing some new projects on my own but was also interested in working with writers, as I had mostly written my own stories up until that point. When he sent me the pitch for the series, I wanted to do it right away.
KG: I had a wonderful time reading your note at the very beginning of Dreamland, Mr. Miller. I remember at New York ComicCon, I remember you telling people lines from that note almost word for word. Were the beginning words advice to others or more of words you and Mr. Hill live by?
JM: Jim and I are very much influenced by the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos of the punk rock scene. I remember watching a clip from the fantastic documentary AMERICAN HARDCORE, which chronicles the American punk rock scene from around 1980-84, in which Ian MacKaye (founder of Dischord Records, lead singer of Minor Threat and Fugazi) described how he’d make all the 7” record sleeves for Minor Threat’s first singles by hand to send out in the mail to people who’d bought them. That level of dedication spoke to me on a very real level. When you engage in any sort of creative endeavor – music, film, comics – the level of passion and commitment that you put into it will be evident to the audience. If Jim and I don’t seem to care about our book, or our company Working Class Press, then why should the readers?
Then of course, there’s the very simple American notion that our jobs are our identities. What you do for a living becomes who you are. But I’ve never been very comfortable with that notion. I am far more than simply what I do for a living.
JGH: The nature of work and how that is tied to our identities is changing and constantly evolving. The whole dynamic of publishing and self-publishing in particular has thankfully gotten easier over the years. I think Jason will be with me on this one, but I feel great being part of the entire creative process of our books.
Yet we both have careers and families to consider and only so much time in the day to work on personal creative pursuits. To keep with the punk rock analogy, I really dig the band the Descendents, and in particular their story. Their singer Milo has this career separate from the band and takes long breaks from the band to pursue other interests, but he always ends up returning to the band. I feel the same way about comics. I’ve worked as a graphic designer and production artist at museums and in education and all kinds of different fields, but I keep coming back to comics.
KG: I heard you guys were supposed to have “Dreamland”’s original debut, which was supposed to be at 2020’s NYCC. Did you guys move the debut to this year’s convention or just on a smaller scale last year?
JM: Last year was obviously very difficult for many people on many levels. Dreamland, Volume One had already been released online and was available for sale through our webstore, but NYCC 2020 was supposed to be our big “Coming Out” on the scene as indie comic book creators and publishers. It was our chance to finally meet fans in person, to meet our peers in the world of comics, and to see in real time if what we have to offer will connect with an audience. When the 2020 convention was cancelled due to COVID-19, it was a huge disappointment. Rather than wallow in that situation, however, we resolved to make the most of the time we had to get ready for 2021. To that end, we hired a web designer and completely refurbished the Working Class Press website, which was in dire need of an upgrade.
JGH: This has been a rough time. 2020 thumped us like everyone else. All of our plans shifted. Jason and I decided to take a step back for a moment, then regrouped early 2021 and got everything rolling again. We gave the website a much needed overhaul and moved forward.
The pandemic did impact our launch though. In particular, I was unable to attend NYCC in 2021. I plan on doing some conventions in 2022 though. Possibly Emerald City. We’re very excited for the opportunity to get our books into the hands of readers and reach a wider audience.
KG: Speaking of “Dreamland”, what is it about?
JM: Dreamland is set at Area 51, the top-secret research facility located in the Nevada Desert. For decades urban legends have persisted that Area 51 is where the United States government stores and conceals evidence of extraterrestrial life and visitation to Earth. The truth and history of the place is shrouded in conspiracy and rumors, and it struck me that exploring the lives of the people who live and work at the base would make an excellent idea for a comic book.
JGH: From the stylistic approach, Dreamland is lifting the rock and viewing what’s underneath the infamous Area 51, the light and the shadow underneath. The settings and the characters are friendly at first, almost to a fault, but there’s a darkness that lies beneath the shiny veneer. Everyone has a secret or something to hide and it's an interesting dynamic to play with. I try to be very expressive with the character’s faces during tense moments of the series. There are lots of dark corners of the base that have yet to be unearthed which has been exciting to work on.
KG: Do you have a favorite character you have written, Mr. Miller?
JM: Oh man, I don’t know if I could pick. It’s a bit of a writer’s cliché to say that all my characters are to some degree and extension of me. There’s also quite a bit in there that I use from my family and friends – different incidents that may have happened or personality traits that I borrow and apply to my characters. Agent Hill is so blunt and to the point, which is always fun to write. There’s Dr. Armstrong’s extreme confidence in all situations and his superior attitude. Julie being a teenage girl who’s also a genius certainly makes her a challenge to write – capturing her voice while also making sure the scientific jargon she spouts sounds believable and realistic. Then of course, there’s the alien characters, who behave in ways that are completely out of the human realm of experience. Those are especially gratifying to write because it’s when my imagination can really let loose and go in whatever direction it wants.
KG: What was your favorite character to draw, Mr. Hill?
JGH: I actually really enjoy drawing my namesake Agent Hill. He’s got this kind of grizzled face and this whole “I’ve seen things” attitude that is just fun, and all the wrinkles and laugh lines and everything. He looks like he fell out of an issue of 100 Bullets. The aliens are fun, it’s challenging to come up with fresh ideas while still remaining inspired by classic science fiction tropes. There’s a large cast of characters with a variety of styles and personalities to play with, which I appreciate.
KG: How did you two publish your comic? Is it traditionally published, or did you go through indie publishing?
JM: When we first had the idea for the book, we created a 28-page “preview issue” that we used to pitch it to various independent comic book publishers. For some reason, Image Comics never got back to us. Once it became evident that we’d have to publish on our own, that’s what we did. Individual issues of Dreamland can be purchased on ComiXology, or through our webstore. When we’d published enough of the individual issues, we collected them into Dreamland, Volume One, which collects issues one through five of the series, along with that preview issue we came up with all those years ago. Everything we do is self-financed, from the printing costs for our books, to the merchandise we’ve made (stickers, patches, pins, T-shirts), to the cost of redesigning our website, to the costs related to having a booth at NYCC 2021. If you want something done right, do it yourself!
JGH: It’s important for us to be in the driver's seat, not only for creative reasons but also because it’s an ethic we both really believe in. So we do as much as we can ourselves. We’ve learned so much along the way. I feel like each issue we create is better than the last.
KG: Last question, have you two always wanted to write and draw for comics? If not, what did you want to be before this? Or what were you before this?
JM: I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve been reading comic book pretty much my entire life – I bought my first one when I was eight and haven’t stopped since. I’m now 45. I don’t know that I’d have ever thought about writing a comic book if I hadn’t met Jim. I have no artistic ability whatsoever. Can’t even draw a straight line without a ruler, and even then, it can be problematic. Before I met Jim, I wrote screenplays and short stories, that sort of thing. Learning how to write for comics was one of the major challenges when we started this whole thing. It’s one thing to write in a screenplay “So and so runs across the room and jumps out the window.” It’s another thing to convey that sort of action in a comic book, which tells its story sequentially in panels. You need to decide how to break that action down for the artist who’s going to draw it over a series of panels. One of the great thrills of working with Jim on Dreamland is seeing the art that comes back after he’s started working on a new script.
As to what I was “before this” – I make my living as a NYC public school teacher. I’m a special education teacher for District 75. District 75 is a citywide school district that crosses all five boroughs of New York City. We teach the most at-risk severely disabled student population in the city. Our students have multiple disabilities such as Cerebral Palsy, Downs Syndrome, Eehlers Danlos Syndrome, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. I teach what’s known as a self-contained class. I have six students who are on the Autism Spectrum and experience pronounced difficulties as a result. Most don’t speak and face challenges navigating and understanding social and emotional situations. It’s very difficult work that requires a lot of patience, but it is also extremely rewarding. I love getting to spend eight hours a day, forty days a week with my kids.
Before teaching, as I previously mentioned, I worked in the film industry. First as an assistant to Barry Mendel, and then in 2001 I was hired by Kevin Feige to work at Marvel Studios. This was around the time that Sam Raimi was in post-production on the first SPIDER-MAN film starring Tobey Maguire. I worked there until 2006, around the time that they were putting together the financial deal that would lead to them producing and financing their own films, such as IRON MAN, which lead to the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
JGH: I’ve always been interested in comics since I was a lad. I’ve always enjoyed drawing and creating stores. I created Caffeine, my first comic series right out of high school and concentrated on comics for years before I branched out into doing graphic design.
It’s always something I come back to wanting to do, but I do have to balance my comics work and being a freelance graphic designer. Comics can be very time consuming to create. It’s a tricky balance but we seem to make it work out pretty well.
What I really enjoy about comics is the intimacy between writer, artist and reader. I love working within a team, but what’s so cool about comics is you can be one person and create a comic. You don’t need many resources, a pencil, paper and some ink. Maybe a tablet, these days. Some ideas, and boom… comics. I love ‘em!