Monday, 9 November 2015

Oni Press present first title from open submissions: 'Space Battle Lunchtime' by Natalie Riess [exclusive]

Oni Press have announced the first project to be green-lit from their open submissions earlier this year: Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Riess. An 8-issue mini-series scheduled to begin publication in May 2016, Space Battle Lunchtime is the story of a subject close to many peoples hearts: food! And to be enticingly more precise: food in the context of the simmerings and tensions of an intergalactic cooking show, as an amateur pastry chef Peony ends up as the sole Earthling contestant on a popular televised cooking competition. Space Battle Lunchtime is Riess' first published, print work; she is also the author of fantasy, monster web-comic Snarlbear. Comics & Cola is pleased to present an exclusive look at some preliminary pitch pages and character designs from Space Battle Lunchtime, alongside an interview with Oni Press and book editor, Robin Herrera, discussing the submission process in further detail, and a chat with cartoonist Natalie Riess.

There was quite a bit of interest and curiosity when you opened submissions. What was the process like overall? 

Robin Herrera: As we were planning out the logistics, we talked a bit internally about how many pitches we thought we’d get. We really had no idea what to expect, but figured that 1000 would be a lot for us to get through. So you can imagine our surprise (and small amount of panic) when the Submissions window had closed and we’d gotten 2500 submissions.

So, it was a lot of work. As many submitters probably already know, we had to change our response time from 1 month to 2 months, and then from 2 months to an additional 6-8 weeks.
The process was pretty fluid - Fridays were our scheduled submission review days, since they tend to be a bit more relaxed. I actually had a very busy May, going first to Savannah for SCAD’s Editor’s Day, and then to Denver Comic Con, so I missed out on going through some of the early submissions.

If any submission got two “no” votes from any two editors, it was considered rejected. A “no” and a “yes” vote would require a third editor to step in and be the tiebreaker. So any given submission was read by at least two editors. In rare cases, a single editor could read a piece and escalate it so that all of Editorial had to read it, and we’d vote on it from there.

How many submissions did you receive, and how many got shortlisted?
RH: We received over 2500 submissions, though this includes a few repeat submissions. This also includes people submitting just as writers, or as writers with an artist, or as just artists, or as colorists. Of the artist and colorist submissions, we shortlisted 53 of those. Of the full pitches (someone actually pitching a comic), we shortlisted 42. Space Battle Lunchtime is the first contracted book from our submissions, though we are talking with other people about their books still. I can’t comment on how many people we’re talking to since we’re not quite done, but we plan to make an announcement of everything picked up from Submissions.

As an editor, can you talk us through how you would review a submission- what you are/n't looking for?
RH: First I’d open up the submission. In art submissions, I take everything in all at once and form my first opinion. Sometimes, a submission will fail right there. Anything that’s just pencils (we asked for final inks), or does not have a clear grasp of comics yet (panels not planned out or badly rendered) gets an immediate pass.

On second look, I’ll concentrate on a number of things: is the storytelling clear from one panel to the other? Is the submission composed mainly of one type of shot? Are there backgrounds, or is it all talking heads? Does every panel work to make the story stronger? Does the character anatomy make sense? And lots of other smaller things.

Some pitches would have all the technical stuff down, but the art would still need work. And some pitches had a gorgeous art style, but didn’t have the storytelling chops. For pitches, either with or without art, I’d skim the cover letter, looking for a little bit about the person who sent us the pitch and whether they’d been published before. Sometimes people would put a line or two in about their pitch, which I appreciated because it’d give me some context for what I was about to read. The cover letter really is your first chance to make a great first impression, and yes, we DO read them.

Next up: the title. Technically, that’s the first thing I read, I suppose. For the most part I wouldn’t make judgements based on the title, even if a title seemed like something that wasn’t going to be in our wheelhouse. Once I hit the logline, though - that’s where the judging starts. :)

In a logline, I’m looking for something short, sweet, and ideally with a little personality. It should tell me about the main character and the stakes, as well as the genre, and that’s it. I know it’s hard to fit into one line, but this is one of the most important parts of the pitch. It tells me whether someone can follow directions and how well they can boil their pitch down to a single line.

Next up is the summary and outline. This is where I can find out if this is really something that would fit in at Oni Press. I’m looking for story beats, character development, rising action, and a great climax and resolution. I’m not looking for extensive asides about characters - including character’s backstory isn’t going to make them automatically compelling. That should be done by telling us what the character wants and what is stopping them from getting what they want.

Finally, there’s the script. If the outline’s not working for me or I think it’s not something we’d be able to make work, I’ll still skim the script. But if everything’s working out, I’ll read through the script more closely. What I’m looking for in the script is pretty simple: dialogue that doesn’t sound forced, clear panel breakdowns, and a good balance of panels per page. I’m also looking to make sure there’s not too much action in too little panels.

Sometimes there’s art included with the pitches. Sometimes it’s a deal breaker. Bad art can definitely kill a good pitch. However, a bad pitch can’t be saved by good art. Both have to work well together.

Have there been any issues that you've felt you're going to address in November?
RH: Actually, yes! We had a couple of odd bugs in our submissions guidelines, so we’ll be fixing those. (They originally asked people to include a synopsis in two different places, which was unnecessary.) There’s also the time commitment - now that we know what to expect, we can let people know up front how long it will take to respond to their submissions. We’d probably need at least an extra 30 days of response time for every 500 submissions. We’ve talked internally about ways to streamline the pitching process, too - a way that would make things easier for us to read and easier for people to put together. The current submission guidelines work very well if we like everything about a pitch, but definitely don’t work as well when we see something that we know right away isn’t thematically for us.

We won't be doing Open Submissions again until sometime next year - it's probably gonna be an annual thing for us, not twice a year like we'd first thought.

Does Oni publish from submissions and an exiting pool of contacts only, or do you keep a lookout for anything that catches your eye and approach people as well?
RH: From our open submissions, we do plan to publish some of the pitches, and we do have contacts who pitch us regularly (or maybe not-so-regularly, depending on the person!). But we are always on the lookout for anything that catches our eye.

I read a lot of comics in my free time, so I keep an eye out for potential creators that way. I also meet people at conventions, either by walking by their tables or because they approach me. And I’ll occasionally come across someone either on twitter or on Tumblr whom I’ll approach. (Only if they’ve got a link somewhere to their sequential samples, though!)

Are there any other submissions -apart from Natalie's- that have been successful, or you may be considering?
RH: There are! I can’t announce any yet, as Natalie’s is the first that’s actually been contracted, and there are some that are still going through an editorial process before they’re moved up the ladder.

What was it about Natalie's submission that made it appealing/stand out?
RH: Natalie’s submission would be one to study for sure. I’d declared, in an interview early on (and maybe even on our submission site?) that I would love to get a cooking competition book. We were pitched quite a few, and a couple were even shortlisted, but Natalie’s was the most cohesive, by far. I also really liked Natalie’s logline - I felt like it had been written just for me! “Space Battle Lunchtime is a comic about a young pastry chef from Earth who enters an intergalactic TV cooking competition. Think of it as a delicious combo of goofy science fiction, shoujo manga and food network.”

While we don’t get the stakes until the outline, we get the genre, the basic plot, and the general tone of the comic. (ALSO: the words “goofy,” “shoujo manga,” “intergalactic,” and “food network” are like crack to me.)

The first thing that caught my eye was actually the art. One of our summer interns, Bess (who is now working as an Editorial Assistant here), was actually the first to spot Natalie’s submission, and she immediately sent it my way and told me to look at it. So of course I just immediately scrolled to the pages so I could make a snap judgement. :) But Natalie had, in her pages, exactly the kind of thing we were looking for. Her art is accessible and gorgeous, she had great storytelling, her shots were varied without being distracting - even her colors sang. We’d told people on tumblr that it was a better idea to just submit inks for art, and not to worry about colors or letters, but Natalie did both and she did them both beautifully.

So I suppose it stood out mainly because it was the submission I’d been waiting for. The perfect blend of food, comics, excitement, and fantastic art. Looking back over Natalie’s submission, I also think she did a great job of being concise and not murdering us with too much text. She put in exactly what we asked for. She didn’t waste our time over-explaining things, she just let the piece speak for itself. Sometimes, that's the best thing you can do!

Natalie- congratulations on your new book! How far along was the book competed when you pitched it to Oni?
Natalie Riess: Not very far- When I had the idea and decided I wanted to make it a comic, I was thinking of pitching it to Hiveworks. It was too short for what they wanted, so SBL became a side project that I thought I might pitch to a print company eventually, but didn’t put a lot of effort into getting finished. I had a small stack of character drawings, a rough outline and list of cute jokes when Oni put out the call for submissions. When I submitted the pitch, I had a solid plot outline, some test pages and a much bigger stack of character drawings.

What was it about Oni that made it a good fit for Space Battle Lunchtime?
NR: I originally intended SBL to be a short graphic novel instead of a miniseries, and I knew Oni from the GNs they publish. I’d also seen a few webcomics folks do work for/with them, and I work in webcomics, so I thought it would be a good place to show my work. Fitting the story into exactly 22-page installments has taught me a lot about pacing and writing that I didn't really have to worry about before. The story hasn't changed at all, but I feel like this format helps me be a lot more organized than I have been in the past.

How long after you pitched did you find out Oni were interested in publishing your book?
NR: It was a couple of months, at least. I was expecting to get rejected, but when Robin emailed me saying they were interested in publishing my comic it was kind of like a miracle. Hearing that a publisher whose comics heavily influenced me as a teen liked and wanted to publish my work was really exciting!

Did you have any special method in continually thinking up new and wondrous food concoctions for Peony and the others to cook (especially as its beyond the realms of 'human' food)?
NR: I picked out a sort of theme for each character’s cooking and tend to stick with that (cute desserts, steaks, artsy presentation, etc. etc.). To make it more otherworldly I add cool-looking made up ingredients and shapes to them (alien eyeballs are a personal favorite for this, haha). I’m not a food expert and I’m still learning, but so far I think I’ve made up some good-looking stuff.

Lots of people in the UK and beyond were gripped by the Great British Bakeoff this year- are there any particular cooking shows you enjoy watching?
NR: Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen are fun, and I started watching Cupcake Wars as research for this comic and that’s also pretty cute.
Robin Herrera: One of my favorite cooking shows is this show called Sweet Genius. It's the weirdest cooking battle show on TV. I think it's cancelled, sadly, but it involved a very strange chef with a sweet tooth judging people's confections. Good stuff.

What was the most fun part in creating Space Battle Lunchtime?
NR: Hmmmm. Just drawing it is a lot of fun. I really like the characters I’ve made up for this story- they’re cute and fun to draw and fun to write. I used to worry a lot about my work being hammy or silly but on this project I’m just going for it. There’s betrayal, there’s secrets, there’s love triangles, there’s gratuitous motorcycle chases. It’s going to be good and I hope everyone else enjoys looking at it as much as I have been enjoying making it.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats to Natalie! This looks like a cool book and I love the character designs esp Jacques. But that said...

    This does seem like a very... um... *conservative* choice for an open submissions winner. Little risk was taken. SPL could've been submitted by an agent through regular channels; obviously Natalie has the chops for that.

    I can't blame Oni for taking such a finished product and a talented writer/artist. But I'm hoping there are some more adventurous picks to come.

    No, I did not have a pitch submitted :)