Tim Stout, Jason Week, and the Curse of the Crawling Brain

CCS alumni Tim Stout and Jason Week‘s Danger and Doom: Brainless Brother is an young reader’s story packed with intrigue, chase scenes, puns, and goo of various origins. The cover of Stout's weighty tome

It’s a rollicking adventure that, had it been released when this reporter was a lad, would have quickly displaced that month’s Goosebumps title as his favorite book. Stout and Week have released Brainless Brother as an extremely affordable ebook–and plan to release more as time goes on. I got in touch with the boys via email last month to talk about their new work.

Carl Antonowicz: Tim, you’ve been focusing on writing and plot structure for a long time. How did those studies inform your work on this project?

Tim Stout: Great question. In short, my time studying storytelling devices like plot structure had a huge influence on the final product of Danger & Doom: Brainless
Brother. But to tell you why, I need to take a step back and say that Danger & Doom: Brainless Brother did not start out as prose. It started out as a script for an eight-page comic.
When I had written the script, along with a few others starring Danger & Doom, I knew Jason Week would be a perfect fit as the artist. We’re classmates and friends from The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), and thanks to school projects I knew how well we worked together. But Jason’s sooo talented that he was starting to get professional illustration work and, in good conscience, I couldn’t ask him to devote the time it would take to get Danger & Doom off the ground. So I adapted the story into prose with the intent of asking Jason to do just a few spot illustrations, and as luck would have it the adaptation process brought so much more out of the simple little story that I didn’t realize was there. The premise is still the same—Danger loses his mind, literally, and Doom has to chase it down before there’s a test at school—and the final line of dialogue is the same, but almost everything else has been changed for the better. And a lot of those improvements came about because of my understanding of story structure.
Eight pages of comics is really not a lot of space (especially since they were pages of four panels each). The story was really just a set up, a punch line, and a few little jokes in between. So when I started adapting the story for prose, I analyzed it for common checkpoints in traditional plot structure and realized I only had half of a second act, a third act that was almost devoid of conflict, and a main character that really had more substance to him than I was originally presenting. Because I knew story structure, I was able to target these weak points and flesh them out.
Also, scene-by-scene, I used a system based on a presentation I gave at the CCS Summer Workshop about story structure in four-panel comic strips (see my blog post about it here). Much like the structure of a comic strip, every scene in Brainless Brother has its own Context, Premise, Death of the Premise, and Resolution. If a scene was meandering, or if I lost track of what the characters were doing and why, I returned to this framework and brainstormed for solutions.
Overall, I am an active proponent of using plot structure as a tool for organizing a story and for brainstorming. Just like a page or a strip of comics, a story must be designed for rhythm and flow in order to satisfy the reader, and providing yourself the constraints of story structure can actually enable you, as an artist, to come up with some really great solutions to gaps in your story and to edit down to what’s essential.

CA: Jason, your art provides a really wonderful addition to the text. Were the illos in the book difficult for you? Did you have to change your style or work in a different method than is normal for you?

Jason Week: Well, like Tim said, we had been bouncing the characters around for a while, so I had a decent breakdown of the character construction and a few example pieces to work from to keep the twins consistent. That helped a lot. That was where the difficulty in the illustration process collected, not in the final pieces. Especially since I was trying to inject a little bit of Paul Coker Jr. into them, and he’s an absolutely brilliant illustrator, and works far looser than I have in the past. I don’t know how much of that shows through, but it was certainly a lot of fun getting there. All the inking is digital—which I’m doing a lot of these days—but I wanted it to look as much like paper inking as possible. If I had the time I’d love to tackle future illustrations of D&D with a brush and nib.

Week's initial illo from Danger and Doom

CA: You’re charging a mere $0.99 for the ebook edition of this piece. Do you have plans to release a print edition?

TS: Yes, there are plans for a print edition once there are a few more stories to collect into a volume (I’m currently working on the second book). The price for a print-on-demand version of short fiction is a little more than I would be willing to pay, and I want readers to feel like they are getting a good deal. So, I’m glad you said “mere $0.99”. I, too, think it’s a good deal! Right now, the going rate for self-published short fiction on Amazon is $0.99-2.99, and since Brainless Brother is new to the market, I wanted to make it an easy, impulse purchase for moms and dads who want to encourage their kids to read.

CA: Why did you choose to release a short work like Brainless Brother on its own?

TS: We released Brainless Brother on its own because we didn’t have to wait until we had five or six stories written, edited and illustrated to start building an audience and getting feedback from readers.Writing short fiction is so advantageous for creators—as a way to develop a voice and a relationship with an audience—but there’s been very little financial incentive to produce them. But now, that’s different. Unlike traditional publishing, digital self-publishing provides just as much “shelf space” to novellas and short stories as it does for novels. So, a short story has just as much of an opportunity to succeed. Short fiction has been down on its luck for decades. Unless you’re John Updike or Stephen King, your short story has little chance of being published in print. But through ebooks, shorter works have a shot at being seen, read, loved, and actually make some money. This goes for comics, too. I’m very excited to see what happens with Comixology Submit and Kindle Comics Creator. What do you think about the future of digital self-publishing, Jason?

JW: I think self-publishing is a mixed bag (digitally or otherwise) because there’s just so much noise out there that getting noticed is extremely difficult. It can be really demoralizing. But the creative freedom is intoxicating, and I think that if you keep putting good work out there and continually improve, eventually you start to make headway. Regardless of length or subject matter, the most important thing is being seen. I did a webcomic for a few years with very little growth, but it did lead to quite a few jobs for me. It gave me somewhere to point to that said I could finish projects, and that I was improving as an artist. But digital self-publishing is (and probably always will be) hamstrung by a creator’s ability to drive people to the things they create. You either have to be very patient and diligent, or find someone (or in the case with CCS alum like all of us, a community) with a pre-existing audience to give you a boost. Preferably both.

CA: Brainless Brother seems like a story that uses characters the reader is already familiar with—like an episode of an animated series. What made you choose to do it that way?

TS: Yeah, there’s not a lot of setup to introduce Danger & Doom before the adventure begins. But I’m a big believer in learning who a character is through their actions and dialogue, not through the author’s narration. I’ve read so many books where the author provides the character’s entire life story in the first few pages and it has nothing to do with what’s actually going on during the moment at hand!
One of the things I love about newspaper comic strips is that, due to the limited space, there’s room for only what is absolutely essential to tell the story. The artist does not have the benefit of a lengthy character introduction everyday, and yet readers are capable of understanding a character immediately through their words and actions. That’s what I was attempting to do with Brainless Brother, and  according to feedback from kid readers they have had no trouble “getting” the characters. Of course, part of why kid readers have had no trouble “getting” the characters is because Jason hit the tone, style and energy right on the head with the illustrations. A picture is worth a thousand words and in Jason’s case that’s definitely true. Jason, I was relying on you a good deal so there wouldn’t have to be a lengthy introduction. Was it difficult to be in that position? How did you handle the sparse amount of information provided in the text?

JW: I didn’t find the information in the text particularly sparse. I just picked out the moments from the story that I thought would be fun to draw, but also important to the pacing and rhythm of the plot. In a short piece like this, there are very clearly defined places that an illustration will fit. And with you and I, Tim, part of the reason we work well together is that we have almost opposite approaches to how we create. You’re very focused on clarity and editing, and I’m in love with visual density and “chicken fat.” We balance each other out, and we know it.

TS: That’s very true.


CA: There aren’t very many ebooks for kids out there. Why do you think that is?

TS: Yeah, there aren’t a lot… yet. But there will be. There are more every day. Pulp-y ebooks for adults (romance and thrillers) took off first because e-readers were a clunky $200+ toy that made financial sense for people who regularly read $25 hardback books or who traveled frequently and hated the weight and bulk of books in their bag. Now, e-readers are thinner, lighter, less expensive, and some play movies and video games as well, all of which are big draws for parents who want to keep their kids entertained. But you don’t actually need an e-reader to read ebooks. While promoting Brainless Brother I’ve found that people don’t realize they can read ebooks through apps on their PCs, Macs, iPhones and iPads, and Android smartphones.

So parents, who don’t want to shell out $100+ for an e-reader that their kid may enjoy for 10 minutes and never pick up again, could be getting affordable ebooks for their kids on devices they already own and use, but they just don’t know. Lastly, smartphones are gradually becoming commonplace. I live in New York City, and I constantly see 8-10 year old kids on their parents’ smartphones, if not their own. So once e-readers and e-reading apps become more dominant in kid culture, there will be more of a demand for titles. And we’ll be there as that happens.

CA: The backmatter states that there are more Danger & Doom stories to come: When can fans expect the next edition? Will it also be accompanied by Jason’s illustrations?

TS: I intend to have the title I’m currently working on available for Christmas, if not earlier. But I prefer quality to quantity so, like Brainless Brother, I’ll only publish when it’s ready to satisfy readers. If you want to be the first to know when it’s released, please join the Danger & Doom email list at www.DangerAndDoom.com and you’ll get an automatic email when the next Danger & Doom story is available. And I would love to continue collaborating with Jason if he can make the time! But first I’ve got to write something he could illustrate.

JW: Yeah, I couldn’t imagine not contributing to these stories as long as I have the time to do so. I like working with Tim, and I do think we bring out the best in each other. And I want to continue to refine the look of these characters and their world.

CA: Anything else you’d like to add?

TS: Thanks for letting us share about our work here on the Schultz blog. It’s
great to be back in the CCS blogosphere. To all you readers, if your child, grandchild, or a child you know wants a fun reading experience, please get Danger & Doom: Brainless Brother for your Kindle, Nook, or Kobo for $0.99. An excerpt from the book is also available in the “Book Description” section.

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