On comics and motivation
Juston McKee is a cartoonist in San Diego. He is the creator of Uppermind Ink, his own imprint where he edits and publishes a comic anthology called Restless Minds. I met up with Juston earlier this month at Sheldon’s Service Station in La Mesa, California to talk comics, process, and motivation.
Juston: When I did my short comic for this project, it was one sentence. I was driving and I had one sentence in mind. The overall theme for this book is imagination, so I was trying to think “what do I want to write on?” and this sentence came to mind. I built my whole story based off a sentence.
It was something to do with keys. So I was like oh, I’ve got to build this story off of that.
Did you already have the idea for the imagination issue of Restless Minds?
Well, the first one was 2014, and it was “Anxiety.” I was still at SDSU. I was taking their first ever graphic novel writing class. One of those projects for the final was to team up with another student or write your own comic, so I came up with this awesome idea called “Ink.” It was about this guy who traveled around with this tattoo gun, and that’s pretty much what his powers were. He would tattoo something on himself and he would use that…and the whole story was like him on a train trying to transport this one girl from one area to another area and people were hunting him down… but I was so anxious. I had so much anxiety from it that I was like “oh my god, I should do something with anxiety.” So I decided to do the anthology. So yeah, there’s my “restless mind”—I called the anthology “Restless Minds,” and it went from there.
How did you gather the comics for the anthology?
I’ve wanted to publish comics since I was a kid, and I always had a lot of anxiety. I had a lot of opportunities and I never took them. It’s kind of weird, I had a lot of people who would hit me up at Comic-Con—I started going to Comic-Con when I was 12, and I started talking to people like “I’m a comic artist!” as little pudgy-ass kid. And when I got older, I went to San Francisco a couple times and had some opportunities to draw things, but I was just so insecure about it. I just didn’t want to put anything out there because I didn’t think it was good enough.
And so, my first thought when doing the thing was “well, I can do a whole comic myself, or why don’t I seek out my friends who are also going through the same thing as me?”
They’re the same way, they want to do comics and art but no one ever wants to put it out there. So I was like “okay, I’m gonna publish a book, I’m gonna do it under my own imprint; if you want to be in it, here’s the prompt. It’s ‘anxiety,’. I don’t care if it’s an illustration or a comic, just don’t make it pornographic, and don’t make it obsessively violent. Think like a PG-13 rating. Or try to make it all ages.”
It was a way to put my stuff out there, and it’s nice because I was kind of able to watch my own art career by moving past my anxiety. And a lot of it was that I was surrounded by my friends, so it was definitely a very comforting book. It did okay, the first one was only 28 pages, really short, and it was all out of pocket. I was working at the VA at the time, it was like my first “adult job,” so I used all my money to print the book and give people copies. I couldn’t pay anybody so I just gave free copies to every person who was in it.
Was this the first thing that you published?
I guess it was the first big independent publish. I’ve been doing zines since I was like 16. I was going to APE (Alternative Press Expo), and I used to go to my mom’s work and I’d use their copy machine and just make a bunch of fold-and-staples. And I did that for years.
What kind of books do you think you started reading that kind of inspired you, and what are some of the books that you read now?
I was really into Spider-man and Aquaman, but the first series I ever collected was a comic called Young Justice, by an artist called Todd Nauck. I used to get on my bike and I’d ride to the comic book shop and pick up an issue with my allowance.
Did you go just for that?
Yeah. And I was weird because I guess no kids would go in there. It was a very dark and a hole-in-the-wall shop. No kid wants to go into a comic book shop that doesn’t look inviting. But it was the only comic book shop that was within bike range.
You’d think comics would have gotten me into comics, but it was more cartoons. I watched a lot of cartoons growing up. I just wanted to draw. I’d just like doodling and creating characters. I didn’t think about getting into animation, but because of animation I thought about getting into comics. it’s kind of backwards.
Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, or a comic book artist, or…?
I consider myself a cartoonist. My style’s definitely very cartoony. Very vibrant colors. Though I use a lot of muted colors. I like greys in my colors. I like greyed-out purples and greyed-out greens. But I think it just fits—you know who is a great colorist is Mike Mignola, who did Hellboy. It’s that heavy ink and those very muted but bright tones he uses. I remember seeing that when I was growing ups and thinking “that is awesome”.
The shadows and stuff?
His palate. His way of using colors and the way he muted them, so they mean something to the story and the panel, but they don’t overpower everything. Even the red of Hellboy isn’t this bright red, it’s this very greyed-out red. So obviously Hellboy stands out because he’s a demon, but he doesn’t overtake the story or what’s going on. You still have focus on him if you need it but it’s not overbearing. Where some stuff growing up, especially in superhero comics, was just so bright it takes you out of it.
Like super dynamic colors—
—right. Or I’d get, you know, old Superman comics where it’s just such a bright blue and red that it’s just off-putting. To me.
Because they were trying to advertise more to kids or something?
Yeah. It’s like they wanted to be like “ooh shiny holographic, come pick this up!”
There’s a sort of weirdness of what people think sells versus what people are connected to in books, and I wonder how much of that is because it’s trying to market to young boys, specifically, or even just men. There’s the myth that there are no women reading comics.
Growing up it’s like that. It’s like “we’re gonna target boys. 10 to 15. And not just any boy… white boys…”
white males, 10 to 15, but the thing is like…
And then it became “only white males 10 to 15 buy comics which kind of marketed everyone out of the industry for a while.
Yeah! Which is weird because even then 10 year olds 10-15 year olds weren’t buying comics. It was all these people in there twenties, 30s and older because kids couldn’t afford it. even back then $2.99 for me…I got $5 a week and that’s if I was good and cleaned my room. so I was lucky if I got $5 every other week you know. Maybe $5 a month. and you’re thinking ok well this is something that I still get pissed off to this day. If you own a comic shop, yes, bag and board it, but have a display copy because if you get an amazing cover artist, and you have a shitty interior artist, oh my god.
That’s the most disappointing
Going back to your question, just in the last couple years just the rise of independent comics, the rise of just difference in voice and creators and just like…I mean the stuff in the last five years that women have created [has] just like been fucking amazing and it’s nice to see.
Thats sort of the conundrum I think in any sort of publishing endeavor is like the difference between what people are actually connected to and what publishers are willing to sell because it’s a hedged bet.
So what it means is that there are people doing what you’re doing or people who are you know stealing copies at the VA and putting out really interesting cool things you know regardless of what they look like or who they are. That are really cool because of who they are and it’s just hard to find. So if it’s hard to find, then statistically, it will sell less and then it keeps being hard to find because they’re like “well these things don’t sell.. here’s the statistics.”
Yeah. The greatest thing that I learned early on was to find communities and niches. The best thing that happened to me was still being young enough and being thrown into the whole indie comics scene. because I was only exposed to like I said, the big two. I mean, I started to seek out things as I got older and started learning. My favorite comics now, they’re all published by image. its all independent stuff. That’s all that I pick up. That’s all creator owned stuff. It probably wouldn’t have been the same for me if I wasn’t thrown into that scene so early. its interesting because its more acceptable now to seek out indie comics. And its funny cuz the big two keeps on doing the same shit. Back then they were like, “ok we can market to 30 year old white men.” Or we’re trying to get children. Now days it’s like, we know that’s not gonna sell, so they’re like, “ok let’s add…” it’s not for the story, and I hate that. it’s just for “I wanna make money so…”
Here are the stories that make money.
Yeah “lets make this character african american just because I know it’s gonna sell,” you know.
Like the new Iron Man?
Yeah, exactly. That’s great! You’re changing with the times, but don’t put a face on it saying that you’re gonna do it because it’s gonna serve the story. like, be honest, you’re doing it because you wanna sell copies and that’s the way that the world and society is shifting
The shifts that are happening right now are indicative of the power of indie comics right? to shift…a change like that … to acknowledge that people might want to see a black iron man…that’s an interesting way to shift things, but it’s weird how it’s happening because it’s still looking for a hedged bet. Like I wanna make a change but I wanna make a change that people who grew up on 40 years of this aren’t gonna be like, “your wrecked it!” which has gotta be a difficult thing to do as a giant publisher with a lot of money at stake. In some ways there’s a freedom in independent comics that they can make something really cool, even though it would have been nice if they had a little bit more money to do the things they’re doing.
Yeah! I mean I learned that early: do what you wanna fucking do. I mean I look at statistics. I was looking at how my book was selling and stuff, but the thing is, if you have a story, tell it. Don’t change it just because of a certain audience you know, because you’re gonna find audiences. tell the stories that you wanna tell and do it for the right reasons. Let’s be honest, art doesn’t make money. I have to have a day job. I mean until you fucking find something that’s gonna pay your bills, it’s really hard. I mean, it’s a struggle, but it’s nice to see that there is kinda, there’s a shift. Maybe your stuff is not gonna be big and maybe it’s not advertised but you put it out there, and that’s the great thing about the internet. You could post it anywhere. For me, as long as I have one person reading it, it changes everything. If I can make one fan out of my stuff, it’s totally worth it. I also believe in that thing: create to create and do it because you love it.
It ultimately produces better, more honest work, and people want to buy [that].
Yeah! But also take yourself out of your comfort zones. Obviously, my two stories were about me, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t wanna explore other characters. I wanna see change, I wanna see new things. And that’s what you should always strive for. It’s nice ‘cause a guy that prints a comic at home, if it’s a good story, can throw it on the internet and make it just as big as any other comic and that’s something awesome. that’s the stuff I like to see. that’s why I always go to artist alley when I go to conventions. I wanna see what’s out there. because you get the best stories.
Did you always know you would self-publish [Restless Minds], or did you ever think about trying to get it at Image or whatever?
I want to be published by Image, one of these days—but, yeah. I said I always wanted to do it self published, just because I didn’t know who i’d shop it around to, but one thing Idid know was that i wanted it to be a step up from a zine. i didn’t want to just go print some color copies and staple and do the normal thing. i was like let’s get something together, finally make a nice, decent book.
I created Uppermind Ink when i was like 12. and i never did anything with it. I created some characters and I kind of put it away. and then I went through all these shifts, and like two years ago I just brought it back up and said “let’s try to reboot this”.
And so far it worked out. the second [book] I decided to Kickstart, and i covered all the costs and I was able to pay artists and it’s double the size of the first book.
And it looks great.
And that’s something too. I was given a chance to be invited to all these places and do cool things, so i always knew when i published something, I wanted to do the same thing. My favorite artists are my friends. And so that’s what I want to do. I reached out to my favorite artists.
Are you thinking it’s going to be more and more issues?
I’m actually trying to do the third one right now, I was gonna take a break from the series, just ‘cause people wanted to see more of my own stuff. I have a couple things I’m working on, I just don’t want to stop the momentum of the series. Especially because this was the first book that got reviewed. And people are saying good stuff about it.
But my favorite thing was I got to see artists in different aspects of their mind, so I want to kind of keep with that. The first one’s Anxiety, so it’s kind of personal. It was more about getting out of your shell to put something in a book. This one’s about Imagination. People went wild with it. Some people went dark with their stories. Like their imagination is a scary thing to them.
I think what people want to see is like a full comics anthology. And obviously, like I said, I want to publish what I want to publish, but at the same time, if there’s a community out there that’s already liking the book and they’re like “I can see this going this way,” why not test it out?
The kind of “five year plan” when I created this was I wanted to create the first one, do a second one, a third one, and then i wanted to collect them all together. into a kind of first volume kind of thing.
It all connects.
And that’s the thing too, I’m really passionate about this, and I really want this to be what I do, and it’s always hard working with friends. So I approached it differently. I said “this has nothing to do with our friendship. But this is the due date. If you don’t give it to me by then, your’e just not gonna be in it. It doens’t mean I’m not gonna be your friend. I just have to get this done.” And it’s worked! It’s just like “here’s the due date, submit like everybody else.”
In this volume, and in the first volume too. I wanted to give people opportunities like I was given opportunities. It’s kind of like being in a book of all the people I think are rad.
Do you think because it was a passion project, kind of, that that helped people submit on time? Because they could see how important it was to you, or like, it was important to them, so they wanted to?
Yeah, and I think a lot of it was getting past their own anxieties, if they didn’t want to do stuff on their own. And I think it helped that I got on people. I said I wouldn’t, but there were some people where I was like “hey, I know you want to be in this. You’ve talked to me about it. The due date is coming up, just do it!” Don’t do what I did when I was a teenager and be like “well fuck this I’m not gonna be in it.” Just do it! It’s free! It’s going to be published, and you’re gonna get stuff from it. It’s gonna be sent out to places.
In the first volume people could submit up to four pages, in this one they could do up to six, and for the next one I want them to be able to submit up to eight page comics. Because I still want them to be short stories. I never want them to be long form, but I definitely want to give people more and more wiggle room. Now my goal for each book is I want there to be an increase. The first one was 20 [pages], this one was 40-something, 48 pages, so it’s double. And so, why not have a 60-to-80-page book for the next one? If I could keep going up 20 pages—ultimately what I would love is to come out with a book that’s like 120 pages, thick, nice comic anthology, and even if it comes to the point where it gets that big, then I wouldn’t have to do it yearly. I could work on it every two years or something, and work on my own stuff.
Part two of this interview will be available soon! In the meantime, find Juston’s work at http://uppermindink.com/.