INTERVIEW: Unlikely Heroes Studios, Navigating Choppy Indie Waters

Laurie Foster, Erek Foster and John Pence make up the staff of Unlikely Heroes Studios, an independent comic book company that has put out the critically loved series SUPER!, the post apocalyptic western The Surgeon and the successful Kickstarter anthology Elsewhere. They sat down with Bleeding Cool for an interview about their work and their journey.
 
BC: Please tell us the uncanny origin story of Unlikely Heroes Studios, and why comics fans should know who you are!
INTERVIEW: Unlikely Heroes Studios, Navigating Choppy Indie WatersLF: Well, UHS started a while ago with Zack Dolan and Justin Piatt. They were friends in high school and reconvened years down the line, deciding to put together a company and publish Zack's dream comic, SUPER!
It's undergone a few evolutions since then, added a few crew members, and lost some, but the heart and soul of the company are still the same; making indie comics that feature unlikely heroes and conform to incredibly high quality art and writing standards to be a cut above the rest.
INTERVIEW: Unlikely Heroes Studios, Navigating Choppy Indie WatersBC: Laurie, you're kind of an all-purpose creative person. You cosplay, you ink, you do production work. How did you develop such a varied skill set?
LF: I think my skillset probably comes from the fact that I combat stress by learning new things or taking up new hobbies. It's a blessing and a curse? Hah. Also, though, with running Unlikely Heroes, I often find myself trying to help or fill the voids the company needs and working on whatever is important at the time. When I started off, just inking, I never imagined I'd be editing, running Kickstarters, designing ads, cosplaying our characters, and so on. But I love it all; the challenge and the variety.
JP: Yeah, this lady takes charge; if a thing needs doing, it's gonna happen with her around.
BC: Useful to have in a company!
LF: I designed our LLC operating agreement, write many of our contracts, as well as do our bookkeeping, so I'm part lawyer and accountant in my spare time as well.
BC: Making a note here, "Laurie … has … Madrox … powers."
EF: She also throws a mean green shell, so…
LF: HAH. This is a high honor, thank you.
 
BC: Ooh. Okay … John, you're newer to the mix. How did you get involved with Unlikely Heroes Studios and what sorts of tools do you bring to the table?
JP: Years ago, I had the Surgeon scripts all ready to go, and I found Zack as a penciler. He always said that if I hired him, he really wanted me to bring on this whole other posse that he worked with — an inker, a colorist, a letterer — and it turns out they were a pretty legit company called Unlikely Heroes Studios. It took a while for all the pieces to fall into place, but that was how it all came together for Surgeon #1.
Skills-wise, I'm a writer and an editor. I wrote the Surgeon series and the latest piece, Up from the Skies. Laurie and I were the editing team for Elsewhere.
BC: Erek, we know that Laurie can do it all, but with you around, she doesn't have to. Please tell us about your role in the company.
EF: I pretty much just watch Laurie do everything and then nitpick to make myself feel involved; it's exhausting, yet rewarding, let me tell you.
We tend to approach the company as a team and make decisions together in a way that we feel will best represent us while maintaining the high standard that UHS is known for.
As far as specifics are concerned, I've been lettering for us since The Surgeon, which involves some minor editing; I prepare the books for print and digital distribution, as well as some graphic design or assembling of ads; I also put together our crowdfunding videos, including music production.
BC: You talked about Zack Dolan, a relentlessly talented creator who is unfortunately no longer with us. Could you tell us what Zack brought to the table and how Unlikely Heroes will carry on in his memory?

INTERVIEW: Unlikely Heroes Studios, Navigating Choppy Indie WatersLF:
Zack was an unstoppable force of talent. He brought EVERYTHING to the table. Erek and I struggled for a while trying to decide if we could even continue the company without his influence and art.
In the long run, though, we decided he would want us to do it. We will be attempting to move on with a WWZD (what would Zack do?) mentality and make sure our comics fall under his high quality standards and also ensure that any artists and writers we hire will mirror his passion for the craft. Unlikely Heroes will hopefully remain a beacon of indie comics for EVERYONE for a long time to come.
JP: God, I mean he kinda WAS UHS, at least the yang side of the yin/yang. He had this huge social mission going on all the time, for one thing. He was a voice and a power. But his art was the other thing. When he was firing on all cylinders, I've never seen higher quality pencils coming faster.
He also did a good job of reeling me in when I got ADD in an interview and wanted to give away all the spoilers in my first answer.

INTERVIEW: Unlikely Heroes Studios, Navigating Choppy Indie WatersEF:
Zack was an incredible talent and a good friend. He was instrumental in every facet of the company, not just writing and illustrative works–it was his direction that produced the Kickstarter video for SUPER! #7, including how he wanted me to compose the music for it. I think that speaks volumes as to how creative Zack was.
BC: For the benefit of our readers who may not have had the joy of knowing Zack, how did we lose such a vital voice in the creative community?
EF: Zack passed away in his sleep due to complications from congenital heart disease. It's not something he had made public, and very few of his friends knew. I expect him to show up at our front door and hit me for even bringing it up.
LF: Yeah. To add, Zack worked tirelessly and told very few people about his health issues. He never complained or slowed down. He wouldn't want us to talk much about this, but I think people should know that he really is a hero. He stood strong for Unlikely Heroes and for the fans until he suddenly couldn't and it was such a blow to the community.
BC: Well, one thing that will stand the test of time is the work done on the title Super!, a surrealistic superhero tale. What can you tell readers about this series, and will we ever see any more of it?
INTERVIEW: Unlikely Heroes Studios, Navigating Choppy Indie WatersLF: So, SUPER! follows a ragtag team of amateur heroes as they struggle to make a name for themselves in a universe dominated by more popular, established teams. It's basically a loving homage to the genre that knows when to laugh at itself and isn't afraid to poke fun at comic tropes along the way.
EF: Oh man, SUPER! is a masterstroke, isn't it? That one is Zack's baby and I don't think it's something we would feel right continuing without him. With that said, we have been toying with some ideas to keep the series alive by proxy. We have a lot of characters, even outside the main group, and a universe full of adventure waiting to be explored.
So … this is the first anyone's hearing of this stuff, but I think you're going to see SUPER! again in some capacity, albeit not a continuation of the core story. And don't tell anyone, but we're polishing up SUPER! and are planning a 'Zack Dolan's SUPER!' masterwork edition, compiling all seven issues and a LOT of extra goodies.
JP: That's awesome. I knew about the new collection, but I love hearing that y'all are going to keep it alive.
BC: Well, that's something we definitely wanna keep readers informed about. So, let's switch over to The Surgeon. What can you tell us about it?
INTERVIEW: Unlikely Heroes Studios, Navigating Choppy Indie WatersJP: It was such a punch in the gut to lose Zack, and the timing with our chapter three was rough. We were just about to really take off.
BC: Well, what can you tell fans about taxi-ing to the runway?
JP: In the interim, I worked to put out Up from the Skies, but while we kinda gathered our wits, we found a new penciler.
Stan Yak has been doing some good indie stuff, and I think his work will make for a smooth transition.
Zack took all the details in the script and took our worldbuilding to the next level, it was glorious. We had this "fifteen years after the apocalypse" vibe, a little Western, a little cyberpunk, a little samurai film … it's basically a "man with no name" spaghetti western with The Surgeon in that role. She's a doctor who makes a living in the postapocalyptic frontier. She trades services for socks and undies, distilled spirits, that kind of thing. She finds herself at a fort that wants her to stay on as the doc, but she's kinda damaged. She's probably better at killing than healing now, and that kinda messes with her head.
BC: Intriguing! We'd theorize you have plenty of stories in this fictional universe to tell, right?
JP: So far we have two chapters done, and they are part of a six-issue arc that comes to a pretty satisfying conclusion.
I think our fans dig it and are enthusiastic, but by the time chapter three comes out, we're really gonna set the hook.
BC: That sounds amazing. All right, UHS also has the Elsewhere anthology series. Could you tell us how that came to be, what fans can find in those pages, and what's next?
INTERVIEW: Unlikely Heroes Studios, Navigating Choppy Indie WatersLF: Elsewhere came into existence from a few places. First, I talked to a few fellow female comic artists about creating something to be published, and they were extremely excited about it. That really pushed me to see if John would be interested in helping me on this project and finding other teams to work on it, since he's had so much experience editing anthologies and zines. Then, Zack actually came up with the idea of "Elsewhere …" being used as a method of jumping between stories and making it easy to switch between so many genres and styles without having to explain anything! Stay tuned for Volume Two in 2020!
JP: I used to edit a submissions-based literary 'zine back in the day when there was such a thing as a zine. I always loved the way a bunch of submissions come in and shape themselves into a coherent whole.
We decided to do that with short comics stories: no theme, very few requirements, no genres forbidden, and see what happened. and it was awesome.
The first volume came out — when? this winter? It's like 120 pages of really wildly different stories that kinda shift one into the next. some make concrete sense, some are kinda out there. they're all pretty and smart. they all take us "elsewhere."
That's where the name came from. after each story, there's a little caption at the start of the next that says, "elsewhere …" and it's like, "yeah, while this mafia boss is dismantling an enemy in a meat locker, at the same time, somewhere else, there's a steampunk lady jumping across the steeples of abandoned cathedrals … or dinosaurs … or robots."
BC: Okay, well, the elephant in the room is the global pandemic that's shutting down conventions, bars, and every public gathering. Of course we mean The Masked Singer … hang on, that's not right! Sorry! COVID-19, that's it. With convention appearances becoming more rare than coronavirus tests, what is UHS doing to weather this storm?
JP: if you'd asked 10 days ago, I would have laughed at the idea. but now we have a Kickstarter on deck for Surgeon Chapter Three, and how does that timing work?
I don't really rely on comics as my primary job. I have a 40-hour a week gig doing physical therapy, but I do like to go to cons and expand the readership, meet the fans, sell a few books to pay for beer. What do we do indeed?!
It's definitely an elephant in the room, and i think everybody is still kinda trying to figure out how having an elephant in the room is going to affect us.
cons definitely seem to be off until when? Summer? Fall? Until then, I guess we sell books online? My local shop is changing their hours and only letting in five people at a time.
LF: Yeah, the current plan is to pretty much stay home and keep making comics! We may postpone our current planned Kickstarter for The Surgeon #3, depending on how things are going. But people can always get on board the UHS train while they're isolating at home, and order our books from our webstore!
JP: I guess the good thing for me is my day job slowed way down and I'll have more time to write and get in trouble.
EF: We may have to resort to temporarily joining up with an eco-terrorist group to sabotage a mako reactor. You know … for the money.
BC: Well, that's a strategy … please tell fans where they can connect with each of you on social media?
LF: For all of us, it's @UHStudios on Twitter, Unlikely Heroes Studios on Facebook, and @uhstudiosofficial on Instagram. For me, it's @LAFInker on Twitter and @lafmodel on Instagram.
JP: I'm @bubbasattva on instie. That's a good way to see the important stuff and pics of my dogs.
EF: I think I'm the only Erek Foster on the planet, so I'm pretty easy to find. Otherwise, I'm @erekrules on Twitter and Instagram  You can also find me as Iron Minstrel on things like Youtube.
With the apocalypse looming, it might behoove people to check out The Surgeon. You might pick up some useful tidbits to help prepare.
BC: Solid advice indeed! Thanks, everyone!

About Hannibal Tabu

Hannibal Tabu is a writer, journalist, DJ, poet and designer living in south Los Angeles with his wife and children. He's a winner of the 2012 Top Cow Talent Hunt, winner of the 2018-2019 Cultural Trailblazer award from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, his weekly comic book review column THE BUY PILE can be found on iHeartRadio's Nerd-O-Rama podcast, his reviews can be found on BleedingCool.com, and more information can be found at his website, www.hannibaltabu.com.
Plus, get free weekly web comics on the Operative Network at http://bit.ly/combatshaman.

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