Mind Meld With Jon Lock of AfterLife Inc./Big Punch Studios!

1. Hello there and welcome back to the Mind Meld, Jon! When Neil last sat down to speak with you on all things ‘Afterlife Inc.’, you had been running a Kickstarter for the third volume of your series. And now, a couple years later, you’re back at it again with a new Kickstarter for the 5th volume. How’s that feel for you?

Its Jon!

Hello! It’s good to be back. Honestly, I can’t believe how much time has passed since that first Kickstarter project. When I turned to crowdfunding to make Afterlife Inc. Volume 3 a reality back in 2012 it felt like uncharted territory. I really had no idea what I was doing, and even though the project was successful, looking back I can definitely see where I made mistakes. Fast forward a few years and now I’m something of a Kickstarter veteran – even it never gets any less stressful!

Thankfully, we were incredibly fortunate this time around to hit our funding goal in 60 hours, which has taken some of the pressure off. I’m immensely grateful to everyone who backed the project for their incredible support in getting us this far. Comics are nothing if not collaborative and that’s never truer than when you’re trying to get something like this off the ground!

2. In each storyline we see the stakes get just a bit higher, along with some clues here and there as to what happened prior to Jack Fortune’s arrival and change up of the Afterlife, was this always the plan from the beginning? Or something that developed over time?

Incredibly, despite all evidence to the contrary, this is all part of the masterplan. I’ve always known how Afterlife Inc. would end. Way back in 2007 when I first had the idea for the series, I plotted out a structure that would have begun with our hero Jack dying and discovering the afterlife. Much has changed since then, not least the format, as I’d always imagined it as classic ‘monthly’ comic, perhaps with a big publisher. Doing things independently has brought its own advantages and challenges, and the story has changed over the years to best suit my publishing schedule. The trick with telling a long-form story such as this is to look after yourself! It’s a marathon not a sprint, and I want to make sure that we continue to make epic, high quality content right up until the end.

While the plan is still in place, it’s become more of a guideline than a strict roadmap. The mystery is still in place – I’ve been sowing the seeds of a greater plotline since book one – but the characters are changing and growing in ways I could never have predicted. The latest book, Volume 5, is a classic example of this. In many ways it’s the most ‘lore heavy’ installment in the series, with big clues and ominous tidings of things to come, but at the same time it’s about broken, tired people coming to terms with recent events. Our heroes are finding some space to breathe and reassess, while around them a conspiracy is developing unseen!

3. Another long running mystery of the 8 year run of ‘Afterlife Inc.‘ is the mystery of Jack’s death and that crazy tie of his. But it seems Elizabeth is close to uncovering at least one of those secrets where he’s concerned. Will that be something readers will see more of as the next storyline begins? Along with how that tie of his has the special attributes it has?

Would you hate me if I told you that Jack’s tie just looks like that because I thought it was cool? Well, that’s only partially (mostly) true. We’ve touched on some of the truth behind Jack’s tie before, but only in stories that might not fully be in canon. My favourite explanation is that your appearance in the afterlife is linked very closely to your perception of self at the point of death. So, for example, if Jack’s death had something to do with his tie floating upwards, that might explain why it now twists and moves through the air of its own accord…

Elizabeth and the Akashic Records!

As to the truth behind Jack’s death, that’s definitely one of the greater mysteries that will be revealed in time. Having discovered the Akashic Records, an ancient device that contains a records of the lives of everyone who ever died, Elizabeth can now step directly into Jack’s past in search of answers. We’re definitely going to be seeing more of the life of Jack Fortune. The only question is how much of that links directly to the events playing out in the afterlife.

4. As I was reading to the end of the last page for the fifth volume via the website, it seemed we may have lost App and one other individual. Is that the case or are both hopefully safe and sound?

I’m afraid I really can’t comment, other than to say that the end of Volume 5 was physically and emotionally one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. App was only ever intended as a joke – a one-off character to be discarded when the novelty wore off – and yet something about him struck a chord. He was strong, kind, fearless and noble. He embodied the best of Afterlife Inc. and it absolutely breaks my heart to lose him. I hope we’ll see him again but that’s the hope of anyone who’s lost someone they care about. At its core, Afterlife Inc. is about people trying to make sense of a world in which death is no longer an issue. How do you go on when you know you’ll go on forever? How do you make sense of a world in which there’s no fear, no challenge, and nothing to inspire you to act before it’s too late? Afterlife Inc. had to know loss in order to find something to fight for.

And sadly, as much as I’d like to think otherwise, this story is not going to last forever.

Yay for Parades!

5. If I remember what I read correctly recently, the crossover story with ‘7String‘ ended up causing a new Publisher to form from that event, how’s that experience been so far for you personally?

I’m not sure I have the words for it! Back when Nich Angell and I made our crossover, The Heavenly Chord, between the worlds of Afterlife Inc. and 7STRING, I don’t think either of us could have anticipated how it would change our lives. Off the back of that book we formed Big Punch Studios, our publishing company, along with our partners Lucy and Ali. Since then, we’ve been an incredibly tight team – we even lived together for a few years, and we now live just a few minutes apart, making our plans for world domination.

Some 7String action!

Together, we make comics, podcasts and games, including Sandwich Masters, which was ‘Project of the Day‘ on Kickstarter back in September 2015. Our biggest achievement was publishing Extraversal, a quarterly magazine of shared stories from the Big Punch Multiverse. This culminated in 2018 with a year-long crossover, featuring over 40 characters, including the casts of 7STRING and Afterlife Inc. Even bigger than the plot of Afterlife Inc. is the development of a threat that spans worlds and comics. We’ve been working on this in secret for years, and even though it will take many more years to complete this is our mission on earth. We’re in it for the long haul now!

6. I’ve noticed there’s been quite a bit of ‘show but don’t tell’ in the world of ‘Afterlife Inc.‘, which definitely leads to readers like myself being totally surprised when things happen that you weren’t expecting at all. Making one wonder if they might have previously missed something while reading. What made you decide to go with such a route?

It’s a symptom of the comics I grew up reading. I cut my teeth on series by Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis – books like Planetary, JLA, Doom Patrol… all long-form works with an overarching plot simmering in the background. I love that sort of world-building… balancing multiple plots and secrets until the moment it all comes together. The trick is to stick the landing. You’ll have to check back in with me in a few years to see if I actually manage it!

One of the potential problems of indie publishing, however, is the rate at which you can get content made. With Afterlife Inc. I’ve been telling one continuous story over 600 pages and eight years, and when a plot thread makes reference to something that happened way back in Volume 2 it can be easy for the reader to forget what happened. It’s my job to keep the flame alive and, if we’re doing call-backs, to at least inspire the reader to dig out their old books and appreciate the series as a whole. Hopefully, when the series is complete, people will read it all in one sitting and go ‘ah, of course! It all makes sense!’ The challenge in the interim is to be consistently entertaining and to focus on the heart of the characters. If you care about the people you’re reading about, I think you’re more willing to accept the uncertainty they face.

Ultimately, Afterlife Inc. is here to entertain people, and if it’s a long journey it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s an enjoyable one.

App!

7. Sometimes characters not meant for much can end up being a big favourite, either for the creator, the fans, or both. It’s wild how that can happen. You mentioned earlier that you realized you had made some mistakes with the Kickstarter for the third volume, willing to share a little on that?

Oh absolutely. The short answer is that I really had no idea what I was doing! Kickstarter had only just launched in the UK and a lot of my friends were talking about running projects. Somehow, despite following their lead, I ended up being one the first to go live! My biggest mistake was how I structured the rewards. For example, in my head I thought it made perfect sense for a badge to be worth less than a bookmark, which was in turn worth less than a t-shirt and then the book itself, and so on… Too late I realised that I’d inadvertently made it so that you couldn’t get a copy of the book for less than £30! Thankfully, my backers were very understanding and patient while I tried to fix the problems post-launch that I’d foolishly created.

Arjun the Competition!

Additionally, while it wasn’t a mistake as such, I’ve definitely found that Kickstarter projects where I’m attempting to fund both the production and print costs are much harder than those where the book is all ready to go and you’re just trying to fund the printing. Finding the money to pay all the artists is obviously a bigger expense – plus it’s all about the perception of risk. A project that’s complete and just needs printing is obviously much more likely to be completed than one where you don’t yet have a finished project ready to go.

8. What advice would you give to those who are new to running a Kickstarter?

Structure your rewards accordingly – don’t make the same mistakes I did! Start by working out the retail price of your book – what would you sell it fir – then factor in postage and packaging costs and work backwards from there. If your book would sell for £10, make this the main reward tier around which all others are structured. People are going to want to grab a copy of your book, after all. Then add some smaller, cheaper rewards, such as digital copies or a ‘thank you’ in the book, for those who would like to pledge a little less, and bigger, fancier rewards for those who’d like to pledge more. Come up with a fair pricing system that’s inviting to backers and rewards their generosity fairly.

Beyond that, my biggest advice would be to leverage your existing fan base, or to build a community around your comic before turning to Kickstarter. Kickstarter is less of a platform for discovery than it used to be, and unless your book has a killer hook that’s going to appeal to a greater audience, you’re going to need to bring your fans with you. Get them hyped before launch day; spread the word as best you can. It’s not enough to just tell a good story. If you don’t have a USP, you’re going to have to find a way to stand out from the crowd.

Metatron!

9. How much story is left in you where Afterlife Inc., and Jack Fortune are concerned? Since as you mentioned earlier, you know it’s not gonna last forever. Which… Is a little saddening to be honest!

Yeah, it is sad, but I think that’s fitting for a story about the afterlife. I’d rather go out on a high than gradually fade away. Afterlife Inc. has always been a little bittersweet – I think that’s just the way my mind works. We find some gold and joy along the way, but the journey has to end eventually. At present, the plan is for Afterlife Inc. to span eight books or so. Nine would be fitting – three trilogies! – but I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I’d love to do what they did with Sandman: complete the series and then return for a special one-off, featuring stories based around each of the main characters. It depends how efficiently I can wrap up the main storyline, while doing justice to the characters and plot threads. This is definitely the beginning of the end, however!

10. Considering the nature of the comic, that being the Afterlife, it being modernized and turned into a business of sorts, and a Biblical theme here and there in relation, how often have you come under fire from those of a Religious nature? Or would you say that’s been a non-issue?

I think I’m lucky in that it’s never been interpreted as controversial – particularly, as it was never really intended as such. While we draw on some Judaic mythology for the names of locations in the Empyrean, the afterlife of the series, I think the world is distinctly weird enough in its own right to not fall into any classical depiction of the afterlife. It’s not the heaven of any major world religion, nor is it a hell. It’s just a baffling, colourful, mixed-up realm in which people from all time periods, faiths and world-views have ended up together – all equally confused and trying to make the best of it. I’m not a religious person but coming to terms with death is a fairly universal experience, so I’m about as qualified as anyone else to tell stories about the great beyond.

11. With Volume 5 having considerably upped the stakes by the end, can readers expect things to get worse? A weapon that cause one to die again even in the Afterlife is a scary notion for certain and is it safe to say we’ll see that again?

Again, at the risk of spoilers, I don’t want to say too much, but yes, things aren’t going to get any easier for Jack and Co. Compared to the twisting plotlines of Volume 5, the next book, The Great Gig in the Sky, is going to be much more straightforward – and with pretty devastating consequences. The gun and the mysterious assassin in black will definitely return. We’re long overdue a confrontation…

Rich Fire’s on the job!

12. Who would you personally fan cast for each role in a live adaptation of Afterlife Inc.?

Jack Fortune – Matthew Goode
Mr Ochroid – Doug Jones
Lux – Emily Blunt
Nuriel – John DiMaggio (voice)
Elizabeth – Tessa Thompson
Anahel – Idris Elba (voice)
Temperance Jones – Danny DeVito (voice)
App – Chris Evens (voice)
Rich Fire – Charlie Cox

Failing that, I would just say Morgan Freeman in every role and leave it at that!

13. Speaking of live adaptations, has there been anyone knocking on your door where that sort of thing is concerned? Even for animation?

Sadly no! But hey, my door is always open should any directors be interested!

14. Aside from Afterlife Inc., is there anything you’d like to plug that you have a hand in or are just passionate about in general?

We like to keep busy at Big Punch Studios, so we’ve always got several projects on the go. We’re currently producing two regular podcasts, A Show Called Hate and Cuckoos: First Flight, which I’m particularly proud of. A Show Called Hate is classic podcast stupidity, where each week we pick a topic of love and hate for discussion, before deciding which one won out. Think of it as therapy or just an opportunity to moan. Cuckoos: First Flight is a continuation of our comic Extraversal, where we play and develop a new RPG system set in the Big Punch Multiverse. We’re updating the rules as we go, and the sourcebook is available via our Patreon. You can find pretty much everything we do on the Big Punch studios website. I’m biased, admittedly, but I think they’re pretty good!

The Man, the Myth, Morgan Freeman!

15. And for my final question, what advice would you give to those looking to get into making comics or are just starting out?

I would tell any aspiring creator to be wary of the traditional power structures in comics. If you’re anything like me, you went into comics with some pre-conceived notions of how things worked – the idea that it was impossible to make a comic without a publisher, or that the only comics that mattered were the monthlies you found in your local comic book shop. This is the age of ‘do it yourself’ and the real success stories are those people who found a way to do amazing things outside the system. Given the power of crowdfunding and readily available design software, it’s now possible to make a ‘professional’ comic entirely off your own back, or as part of a small team. That’s not to say that there isn’t still a place for the larger publishers or the traditional comics model, but just consider your options before diving in. You may have more choices than you immediately realise.

Oh, and finally: start small! Wanting to tell the ‘100-issue epic’ is admirable but comics are hard work and costly. Start with manageable stories – one-offs, eight-pagers, whatever. Hone your craft on smaller projects and learn what you like or dislike. Learn how you tell a story and what your strengths and weaknesses are. What’s more, comics are ultimately a medium of restrictions – of working to deadlines and page counts. Learning to tell a story concisely, over the minimum number of pages required, will always serve you well, regardless of whether you’re telling a two-page story or the next saga. It’s good to have talent, but discipline will take you further.

Huge thanks to Jon for taking part in this interview! And currently, Afterlife Inc. Volume 5: Glory Days is at 3,451 dollars of its 2,512 dollar goal with 7 days left in the campaign. So be sure to get involved and donate today! One of the tiers even features all the current volumes (with the 7String Crossover and Volume 5 as well) in print!

Interview by: Rob Wrecks

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