Mind Meld With Band of Bards Co-Founders Chris Benamati and Tim Stolinski!

In 2021, Chris Benamati and Tim Stolinski joined forces to create the Little Engine That Could in Indie Comics Publishing. Better known as Band of Bards and today, these two most awesome of dudes join me for the latest Mind Meld!

1. Hello there! And welcome to the Mind Meld here at IndieComiX! For those who may not be aware of you two and what it is you do, could you tell us a bit about yourselves?

Its Chris!

CB: Hi! My name is Chris and I guess I’m now the Chief Creative Officer and Publisher at Band of Bards! I’m also the co-founder. I need some caffeine.

TS: Hi Everybody. – I’m the President and CFO of Band of Bards. My job is to handle the finances of BoB, the purchasing, and logistics. More of the boring side of comics but finance and logistics have their own hyper-devout nerds too!

2. The two of you founded Band of Bards together in 2021, what led to the two of you deciding to do this joint venture together?

CB: We did! 2021 was crazy. Tim can explain the story of Band of Bards better than me. He is a Veteran, and the original idea was to collect oral histories and stories from Vets… You know, the stories that don’t get feature films… The tough stuff that the mainstream doesn’t want to handle, and then turn those stories into graphic novels and books. The whole idea goes back about five or six years before we incorporated actually, but life happened and we didn’t really get a real kick at the can until 2021 during the pandemic.

We realized then that the idea of what Band of Bards was needed to be applied to a much larger community for us to create some real needed change. The rest is history!

Its Tim!

TS: Chris and I had been kicking around the general idea since 2015. Took us some time for it to evolve into something workable and like a lot of people we got that time during the Pandemic. We grew up together, played hockey together, and skanked in the same pit at local punk shows together. Now we make comics together!

3. Given you guys are a small Indie Publisher, what sort of difficulties have you faced and overcome?

CB: Difficulties… It’s been mostly money and man-power related… Some of it is personalities (we won’t get too deep into that). There is never enough money, and with only two dudes doing all the work… Well it all kind of moves slower than we’d all like… And some people are more patient than others. It’s been just the two of us for so long, but when Megan Marsden was brought on to help us navigate into the Direct Market… Ugh, she has been a huge help and we couldn’t have done it without her… And then Joey Galvez who has helped us with Kickstarter and social media management… We’d be lost without that help.

TS: How much time we got? I think the biggest challenge to a new publisher is market access. We were fortunate to get on board with Diamond after a year of operation. The Direct Market has its foibles and cannot sustain a small publisher by itself, but it is critically important. Funding a company starting up and in its first years is always a challenge. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or an asshole.

4. In the short amount of time BoB has been in operation, you guys have managed to amass quite a catalog with 15 titles (and no doubt more to come), a light novel, several anthologies, and currently a Kickstarter for Coins of Judas, what would you two say helped in this growth?

CB: Lots of caffeine.

TS: Biggest thing is creators putting trust in us to publish their work. We had to follow through on that and prove ourselves, but without the first Bards taking a jump with us we wouldn’t be where we are now. You have to keep proving yourself every single day though. It’s not something you do once and forever have credibility. Publishers who take that trust for granted eventually get exposed.

5. Each title in the BoB catalogue is essentially in their own self contained universes, was this done intentionally instead of doing a shared universe?

CB: I think for me being a creator it’s been less important developing a “universe”, than to give others creators and opportunity and a voice. To me it was very intentional to let each of these creator-owned titles exist on their own, and allow those creative teams to do what they want without a requirement to live inside a specific universe. Not to say that we don’t have plans for a shared universe or two coming up in the near future.

TS: Shared universes are sometimes viewed as a silver bullet or something every publisher needs to do, kinda like Power Ballads in Hair Metal. Problem is there’s a big quality difference between “Home Sweet Home” and whatever the hell Winger did. Doing that well requires a lot of resources and planning capacity, so to do one would probably suck up all of our juice. I’d rather keep doing our own damn thing while blasting “Dinosaurs Will Die”.

6. Running a small Indie Publisher and as well as creating can no doubt be rough mentally, physically, and emotionally, how do you each deal with that and any potential burn out?

CB: I think this past year was a true test when it comes to the grind of the Direct Market. I can tell you that there were exactly 5 times in 2023 where I almost quit. You have to recognize your limits… Even if others don’t. We don’t need people to acknowledge us, or pat us on the back for us to know we’re doing good in the community… But there is a very loud minority of people who make it their duty to tear you down regardless of the good you’re trying to do in their secret discord servers and group chats. It’s a bummer to think about what these people could do if they put their energy into positive stuff.

TS: I don’t get out fly fishing as much as I’d like to, but standing in a 40 degree creek with no other humans around for miles does wonders. You absolutely need a strong support system around you. Chris and I have been there for each other and we are now joined by new owners in our co-op that really energize the room. Getting outside to do something physical and not look at social media is huge, but can be tough during our winters. I started learning to play bass. I’m terrible at it but it helps my fidgety hands.

7. Any jingles in the air in regards to any on screen adaptations for BoB titles?

CB: There are a couple things brewing, but nothing I can comment on at this time. Truth be told we’re not really focused on that. It’s the story and creative team… And the COMICS we’re focused on. The stories are good… And the other stuff will come once more people read them.

TS: We have some interest in some adaptations but it’s too early to talk about them.

8. When it comes to submissions for new titles, are there any specifics you guys are looking for when it comes to adding new titles to the BoB catalogue?

CB: We still want to work with teams that love the medium, love their projects, and who are good people. Usually when you put those things together the story they are trying to tell is exactly what we want, regardless of anything else.

TS: First and foremost is always ‘does this serve our mission’? Objectively, if the story or team does not support advancing Representation, Inclusion, and Diversity in comics then it’s immediately tossed. After that we have to determine if we already have a similar title/story published. So before you even get to the subjective matters of quality of story and art those are two things people should be considering before sending us their pitch.

9. Y’alls stance on AI?

CB: I think AI could have its uses if it was being applied thoughtfully and morally… The sad truth is that it’s not. At this point it’s just used to grift and for fucking theft, and I’m never going to support it as is.

TS: Complex question with some simple answers. AI generated art, in any form, is trash. Creative works are the domain of the living. This is a technology that will become a fact of life though, just like the Internet has. So is this going to be something used to take care of the mundane stuff that drains us, or the hyper complex stuff that would take humans years to accomplish what an advanced AI could compute in seconds? Or will AI be used to replace as much labor as possible because of MBAs viewing the world as a giant Mini/Max problem?

It sure feels like we are on a track for Utopia or Dystopia because of AI, no middle ground. I don’t believe the hype though.

10. Where do you each hope to see BoB in the next few years?

CB: Hopefully in the black… Hahaha.

TS: Better foothold into the traditional book market and stronger cross over into the local creative scene here in Buffalo. Opening up our own retail space to feature a unique blend of indie comics, zines, and off the wall books is going to be a big step forward for us. We’re hoping to continue to smartly grow the number of worker-owners in both administrative and creative areas. Building a strong marketing & sales team as well as bringing more creators in-house to work on BoB original titles is something we hope to do soon.

11. What’s a dream project for each of you?

CB: My dream project would be having the financial stability to do this full time and take care of my family doing something I love. I think that’s it, right? I have my own ideas and stories I want to tell, but that’s always on the back burner. What I love is bringing new creators into the light, so others have a chance to tell their stories and hopefully experience success. That’s really what’s kept me going.

Eventually I’ll get to my own ideas… Or die tryin’. We’ll see.

TS: Learning to play the bass part to “The Decline”. We have a long list of ideas for original titles and there’s a few on there that I really want to get moving on. Our IN YOUR SERVICE concept, what Band of Bards originally grew out of, is something that I personally have a priority to move on. This would be where we interview Military Vets and turn their oral histories into Graphic Novel Anthologies. What popular media portrays of the military is about 1% of the reality. Democracies need to have healthy relationships between their Military and Civilian populations.

Post-Vietnam the DoD really retracted within itself, kind of like how comics did after establishing the Direct Market. So now there is this big divide in those two segments of America. Storytelling is how we share experiences and build empathy, so this is really important to me as an Army Vet.

12. Given its looking like a success for the Coins of Judas KS, will BoB fans be seeing more Kickstarters to come in the future? And if so, what will be up next?

CB: Part of our plan for 2024 and 2025 is to really break into and utilize Kickstarter more. If mainstream pubs can why can’t we right? After this campaign we’re taking another shot at the ‘Amongst the Stars‘ anthology that unfortunately fell short last year… And then in the Fall we’re bringing back Devin Arscott’s ‘Magni the Mighty‘ for another go round with new issues, and hopefully that will fund and we’ll see the book hit the Direct Market and shops in 2025.

TS: You bet! Amongst The Stars has gone through some improvements and will launch again around May/June, and we’ve got the next installment of Devin Arscott’s Magni the Mighty coming in August. We had hoped to do many more one shots through Kickstarter but had to admit we were biting off more than we could chew. We’re talking about what we’ll bring to KS in 2025 now and having Joey on board as Head of Kickstarter Operations will help us bring more order to how we serve the KS market. 

13. And for my final question, what advice would you guys give for those looking to get into the Industry?

CB: Have patience… Especially right now. Also, stay off Social Media.

TS: (Thorton Mellon voice) Don’t do it! In all seriousness, start by defining your goals and what success would look like to you. After that, dig into the economics and logistics. That can be dry and difficult material for a lot of creative types, it’s just not their bag. So if that’s the case find a partner who loves that shit (like me!). Those are the practical things you need to figure out first, otherwise you can end up with a lot of problems. Anyone involved in publishing at any level should read A People’s Guide to Publishing by Joe Biel from Microcosm Publishing.

That’s our Bible. Also, shout out to all the mental health books Microcosm publishes. How to Not Kill Yourself (Microcosm) is probably also required reading.

Editor’s Note: Huge thanks to Chris and Tim for taking part in this interview! Coins of Judas currently has 66 hours left its Kickstarter campaign, so if you have yet to do so, pledge today!

Interview by: Rob Wrecks