Bad Ink Studios wants to make comics weird and accessible

Bad Ink Studios are very much an outfit of comics’ present day. But their story goes back a little further than that.

“I got into comics kind of late, I think, in high school from an art exhibit,” said cofounder Lydia Roberts. Meanwhile, her partner, Evan Schultz, was “already reading a bunch of comics.”

As teens growing up in the early to mid-2000s in New Mexico, both Roberts and Schultz clung to their creative expressions. But more than half-hearted tenures at the school newspaper, they both fell hard into independent comics and music.

“We have the same taste,” said Schultz. “Even as teenagers, we liked the same kind of music. I remember one time Lydia gave me a ride somewhere and you were playing that band The Sword. We both happened to like Ray Bradbury short stories. And the series Transmetropolitan, which I don’t want to give too much of a shout out to Warren Ellis right now.”

Disappointing heroes aside, the pair also bonded over the work of Charles Burns, specifically the iconic Black Hole, which signified a distinct shift in their dynamic.

“So when we were teenagers, that was one of the series I remember that Lydia really latched onto,” said Schultz. The pair eventually saw a random show with Burns’ art, with Schulzt adding, “How did two art students who were in New Mexico manage to somehow end up at an exhibit with original Charles Burns [pieces]?”

It was then that Schultz knew they’d create something together, adding, “If we were going to make a comic together, I’m going to trust your taste and your art.”

Given all of that history and context, and a deep love of outsider art, it only makes sense that Bad Ink is trying to change the way consumers behave as well as their ongoing relationships with comics creators.

“We’re retraining people,” said Schultz. “If we force people to wait long enough, they’ll re-read it a couple of times and hopefully get a lot more out of it. The way you [Roberts] did re-watching Brazil on VHS as a kid, you know? I feel like a lot of people at this point, we’ve had products shoved down our throat. But at some point you’re like, it’s not always better because it’s cheap.”

But everything to come started way back in New Mexico, with one comic made in high school and another short from their college days. As you might expect from a couple of passionate but otherwise untested newbies, the results weren’t exactly groundbreaking.

“They’re definitely high school art,” said Schultz. “At the time I thought they were like amazing — just so cutting-edge. We entered for the Xeric Grant and thought we were going to win. We’re 15.”

He added, “I actually think, frankly, the most cringe thing about it from the current perspective is the writing. It’s very edgy in that teenage angst way. It’s also the product of 2002 and I think it’s important to remember the biggest films in the world were Matrix Reloaded and Blade: Trinity. Everything was just kind of over the top and cringe.”

But to this day, Schultz remains enthusiastic about Roberts’ contributions to their early efforts.

“The story and the dialogue is pretty bad, but I have to say Lydia’s art is really good,” he said. “It’s very impressive that you’re a teenager and you’re able to draw the same characters from different angles and also take advantage of the storytelling of body language and how body language can tell you somebody’s mood. There’s some pretty sophisticated decisions going on there, even though we’re still kids.”

@badinkstudios “Red Rats” was how this all started. If nothing else it’s definitive proof that @Lydia Roberts has been absolutely carrying my scripts for decades. #comics #manga #artist ♬ Lo-Fi chill beat(886457) – 平松誠

But just like kids, the pair eventually moved on with their lives. However, Roberts said that the pair “kept roughly in touch over the years.” So then, just a few years ago, Roberts decided to randomly text her old friend and collaborator.

“I thought Evan was still living on the West Coast when I texted him and I was like, ‘Hey, do you want to do a comic for no money and no purpose?,” said Roberts. “And then he’s like, ‘I just moved back to New York with my wife.’ We were able to connect, although ironically we still text more than we’d met up in person when we were in the same city. But then we started collaborating on this and working on Interdimensional #1.

Bad Ink Studios, though, isn’t just a place for a great comic (more on that a little later). Both Roberts and Schultz see it as a kind of one-stop shop for their comics-centric interests and ideas. Of course, on the one hand, going at it on their own was a way to insulate themselves from the chaos of the modern comics industry.

“I think part of the motivation was that a lot of companies don’t accept unsolicited submissions,” said Schultz.

But while a publisher could one day be the goal — Roberts said self-publishing proves that “something has been printed and copyrighted” and that’s often enough to build up one’s credibility — there’s other concerns were they ever to go that route.

“If Image [Comics] picks this up, are we going to have to do this every month for 10 months,” said Schultz. “Like, are you kidding me?”

Added Roberts, “I sort of had to accept that I probably wasn’t going to be able to even sit in that rat race. There’s other jobs where you can have those same hours and maybe get paid more.”

But there’s also the way their own studio, even in just the name, speaks to something more essential about how Roberts and Schultz have chosen to do business.

“Like, if we do our own thing, we don’t have anybody telling us whether this is good or bad, so they could be very bad,” said Schultz. “Like, we could have very bad taste…so we’ll just call it Bad Ink Studios. And then that way, if it turns out that we made something bad, we can say, ‘See we told you.’ We’ll own it.’”

Even the actual name connects back to that very idea/notion.

“There was a really bad reality tattoo show from, like, 2006 called Bad Ink,” said Schultz. “So we also had to add something onto it so that whatever trademarked wouldn’t be taken already.”

It’s not just about self-deprecation, though; that idea about accepting what you can do when you can get it out runs counterintuitive to much of how comics operates as a whole.

“A lot of people, they’re trying to make money. It’s their day job,” said Roberts. “The faster you can turn something out, the more money you can make. I know some of my favorite books don’t necessarily get made in a month. Jim Woodring, he takes forever on his Frank pages. The art is more than the novelty of, ‘We made it in a month kind of thing.’ But I think Hollywood’s also experiencing that a little bit — just devouring media — and it’s easy to forget how much it takes to make it and appreciate it.”

Courtesy of Bad Ink Studios.

Added Roberts, “It’s kind of like with the actor’s strike and the writer’s strike, where they’re all just pushed to produce stuff because streaming is just so instantaneous. And don’t get me wrong, I binge-watch stuff. But it definitely is that reminder of, ‘Oh, yeah, someone’s got to think about this and make this.’ It’s surreal enough with a comic knowing how much time goes into it and then someone reads it in like 15 minutes.”

Schultz, meanwhile, thinks there’s a much larger issue at work, and something that’s rather elemental to comics (and which may not have to be the case anymore).

“I do think that comics have suffered really badly from a mentality that seems as old as World War II, because the newsstand publishing industry back then wasn’t considered art,” said Schultz. “Like, you had to meet monthly or bi-weekly deadlines to get on stands. And for whatever reason, comics have come really far, but that original attitude has never been shaken.”

He added, “As much as Michael Chabon with [his] Kavalier & Clay stuff romanticized the early creations of [comics], it’s like a lot of stuff in our era,” said Schultz. “It exploits the passions of people and they’re like, ‘Oh, we found out quick: you guys will just make this regardless of if we pay you well or not.’”

And, if nothing else, this whole “two against the world” approach is a way to make sure they have the kind of creative partnership that works for their lives and long-term visions.

“We’re both realistic about the same aspects of making comics or just the work-life balance stuff,” said Roberts. “It took a while for that first issue, as far as chipping away at the pencils and inks, cause we weren’t in a rush at all. We were just squeezing it in between side jobs and stuff.”

Ultimately, it’s about trusting each other and the skills they’ve each cultivated over the years.

“I think we lean more towards the Alejandro Jodorowsky ethic versus the [Stanley] Kubrick ethic,” said Roberts. “There’s that Dune documentary where Jodorowsky is talking about his spirit warriors. And one of the guys was the spaceship designer for Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey. He was way more regimented and he was just like, ‘Yeah, I can’t work with Kubrick, he’s a maniac. He has his vision and like everyone else is just going along with the flow.’ Versus where Jodorowsky said, ‘I’m looking for people to do their independent thing and we’re all going to work together.’ And that team he put together, they went on to make Alien.”

That often means letting the other make certain decisions, or to push things beyond their original design.

“He’s going to send me a cool script, or whatever suggestions he gives me at different phases,” said Roberts of her collaboration with Schultz. “We’ve always just pinged stuff off one another. It’s always about trust. I joke, but it’s not like we’re on a monthly schedule anyways. But I said, ‘You’re going to kill me, but what about adding more pages?’”

Courtesy of Bad Ink Studios.

Added Schultz, “I know that if Lydia adds a bunch of stuff to the page when you’re drawing it, and it’s not in the original script, then it’s going to be better. I’m never going to be like, ‘Excuse me, we need to talk about this.’ Like, ‘That’s way better than I even imagined when I wrote that script.’ It is still really rad to get those texts, though.”

There’s no denying the success of their process so far — and not just how the creative fulfillment. The first two issues of Interdimensional are genuinely compelling stuff, the sort of weird, utterly passionate take on sci-fi that feels like a shot in the arm without ever declaring such lofty aspirations. Be it tales of humans stranded on alien worlds, or psychic motorbike eco-terrorists, the work in Interdimensional feels utterly familiar and profoundly novel. They’re stories trapped in the ember of imagination, and spaces we’ve all accessed from time to time.

“A lot of our influences are actually much older than I think people would expect,” said Schultz when asked about why the opted for the anthology approach with Interdimensional. “And the anthology was much more common back then. Like, the original Twilight Zone or EC Comics. Or Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories; we’re really influenced by that. I really like old radio. Nobody will know about it, but there’s a series called X Minus One, which were adaptations of stories that were being published in a magazine called Galaxy, which was the place that published the first Philip K. Dick stories. So it also was natural to do an anthology because that was a lot of what we were consuming.”

Roberts had similar praise for anthologies, which are a regular attraction in the realm of comics.

“Whether I realized it or not, looking back there was a lot of variety — these sampler platters,” said Roberts. “The Filth is such a great standalone thing because it’s like, you know, like the garbage men of the universe.”

But, as seems to be the case with a lot of Bad Ink’s decisions, their fondness for anthologized storytelling goes deeper still.

“Like, the best Twilight Zone episodes can be and have been adapted as feature length films,” said Schiltz. “You know, there’s more substance there. They’re dropping you into a moment that’s 22 minutes or something. But there’s enough idea and there’s enough exposition to get a sense of a world building that’s much larger.”

He added, “They feel very weighty. And that’s definitely how our comics are. Because we have enough ideas that if we wanted to make any of our single issues [into] a six-issue mini-series and it could absolutely hold it. But I think we do a good job of putting it all in one, but hinting at some of the other things that are going on in the world.”

It’s a novel idea — more with less — that’s been ingrained in Schultz’s brain for most of his life.

“At my most formative years — I’m sure for you too, Lydia — at 11 or 12 years old, the Star Wars prequels come out,” said Schultz. “Even then, I remember being like, ‘What is? I do not like this.’ And I remember that being extremely foundational to everything I’ve done. I’ve internalized the idea that if you spend too long on something and you don’t leave people wanting more, you lose this legendary status. You know what I mean? Like, all of my favorite things ever have been extremely limited or got canceled after 12 episodes.”

It’s an idea essential to Interdimensional as a larger story project.

Interdimensional #1 has a time jump — it’s not said how long it is, but it’s implied that it’s years,” said Schultz. “And I think that’s a terrifying prospect to start to imagine what must have happened. And I think that’s far better than if it was a six-issue mini series, and two of those issues covered that time period. I like high concept ideas that can be told simply. I think that’s exactly the right bullseye.”

(Writer’s Note: We ran out of time during the interview, but Schultz also recorded a soundtrack for both issues. To see him talk about that, check out this TikTok).

But it’s not just about making cool stories, either. In keeping with a lot of Bad Ink’s grander ideas, it’s about further retraining people to let go of certain habits.

“It’s sort of freeing to be able to say we can put that in the next issue or to give space to each idea,” said Roberts. “I’m guilty of that, too — just loving a character and just wanting to get more. Like with the Avatar animated series.”

The issue isn’t loving something — it’s battling back against this irksome tendency to keep doing the same thing over and over again.

“I heard another reason behind the addiction to sequentialization and franchises and why everything seems to be a ripoff of a comic book or rehashing a movie that was already made,” said Roberts. “It’s because most executives just either don’t want to or aren’t even allowed to gamble on something new. They just want something that’s been done and it’s proven to make money. Like, ‘We’re going to keep Fast and the Furious saga going.’ And they’ll say, ‘Do you know how much money we have to spend on this? Like my job’s on the line. I don’t want to get axed.’ And that comes back to being an independent. That’s why we are very, very aware of the luxury of being independent and absolutely nobody has to greenlight this.”

But where relaxed release schedules and specific stories can only go so far, the duo have another tool in their arsenal of “reshaping” comics: social media. Whereas some creators struggle online with proper engagement, you could argue that it’s how Bad Ink has made their name so far. On the one hand, it’s just a smart thing to do when you have to wait a year between comics releases.

“I can make content all day that just keeps the account warm until we’re actually ready for the book to drop,” said Schultz. “It’s sort of a weird new way of thinking about it by accident. But I do think people are embracing it more.”

However, it once more is about something even larger. Schultz is the de facto face of their TikTok account, which has some 187,000 followers. It’s a place for Schultz to provide lessons and insights into the ins and outs of creating comics, be it how to express love and frustration with word bubbles (Schultz handles lettering thus far for Interdimensional) to bigger trends and events in the comics industry at-large.

“Most of what I’m doing is just regurgitating basic color theory that we were taught in watercolor and just bringing it to the digital space,” said Schultz.

And while her partner’s a little more cavalier about what they do online, Roberts is quick to point out that his work his really vital.

“It’s like skateboarding videos — you don’t see them eat it,” said Roberts. “You just see that magical jump and it looks so easy and perfect. You don’t necessarily see all that other lead up and stuff. I’ve been trying to garden. I’m not very successful and pretty terrible. But just even that is like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so much work to get this one tomato. How do they fill a grocery store full of this?’”

Which is just a roundabout way of saying that, when it comes to comics especially, people need to see the mistakes and struggles in putting your work out into the world.

“People don’t realize before the computer erase tool, they use white ink and gouache,” said Roberts. “Will Eisner used white ink as snow all the time. And I think a lot of it is that people are, with the whole whiteout thing, just afraid to make mistakes. I’ve noticed that with every art job I’ve ever done, even when I did decorative painting — we’d have fine art painters in…and they’d just make something and leave it in. And it’s fine that you made a mistake but fix it. You can make mistakes; no one cares. they’re just looking at the end product.”

For the most part, the pair have gotten some rather positive feedback about their TikToks and what it means for the grander work of Bad Ink.

“TikTok, it almost reminds me of early Tumblr, and that’s somewhat refreshing,” said Schultz. “I was going to say the people who are actually most positive are the younger people, because I think they do grow up in a world where everything is easily consumable. So if they’re still young, they still have the brain of somebody who wants to learn. I think the most universal thing that’s true is that young people are programmed to be interested in absorbing information. Like, that’s the time in your life when you want to learn.”

Added Schultz, “They’re the ones in the comments who are like, ‘I’ve been reading comics my whole life.’ They’re, like, 13, but they’ll say that, which is funny. So they say that and then go, ‘I never knew so much thought went into this or that this is how it was done.’ Young people are the ones who are actually the most excited to learn about it. So that’s been very pleasant to see.”

Of course, it’s also the internet, and they’ve gotten just enough trolls and hatred in their comments section. Like when they released a video about the Ames guide, a distinctly old-school tool used primarily in drafting.

“On TikTok, if you tap a video and it opens, there’s automatically a search bar in the top and it shows what TikTok believes is the category for it,” said Schultz. “So some of our videos you tap and it pulls it up and the search bar is auto-filled in ‘graphic design’ or ‘manga artist’ or ‘comic making,’ right? The Ames guide video actually says ‘Ames guide.’ The people who care about Ames guides first are all ex-draftsmen and ex-engineers and ex-architects. And I think that we have a bit of a blase presentation for their tastes, where I’m saying, ‘Here’s like a fun, cool thing from the past.’ And they’re like, ‘This is an art form.’”

@badinkstudios Hand lettering is still one of the coolest artforms in comic books. #comics #manga #graphicdesign ♬ Lofi Hip Hop Lofi(858787) – Enokido

For the most part, Roberts believes that her partner has expertly handled the occasional deluge of awful internet goblins.

“You can’t fight trolls, and sometimes responding to them feeds them,” said Roberts. “A lot of the responses Evan does give, I think, are the correct tone where it’s like you’re not ruffled. Or, it’s, ‘Whatever, I’m doing my stuff. Like that’s great.’”

Schultz agreed: anger only seems to add fuel to the fire.

“And I think it’s interesting to start to examine why somebody would react in that way,” said Schultz. “And it’s also just for our mental health as people who have to read the comments. If you respond more angrily, you just get more angry. I think we learned that lesson the hard way. There’s some early videos where we’re like, ‘I’m going to dunk on this person in front of everybody with the comment reply feature that TikTok lets me do. All that does is get a bunch of people in the comments being like, ‘Well, you were overly harsh. You’re a jerk.’”

That’s why he likes to use TikTok so often; the platform as a whole helps with sharing information in a very specific manner.

“The interface of TikTok is very interestingly designed, and I don’t think an American social media company would have created it this way,” said Schultz. “But with the interface, TikTok has created a new type of culture online that did not exist before. You can reply directly to a comment and then tap that comment and go to see that comment and then see the context in which it was posted so you can see where they’re actually being crazy. Like, I’m looking at their original comment while watching the original video and I’m determining that. And then I can look at their other videos and see if they make art. So if I respond to a comment, our audience can see a lot of backstory and a lot of context. And that’s very different than the way the internet was when we were a little bit younger. You can see that they’re being irrational.”

And that approach — engagement for the sake of more positive interactions — extends to the rest of Bad Ink’s online presence.

“I think the best part of Kickstarter is the updates,” said Schultz. “Like as a device, and the fact that Kickstarter thought to add that as a feature, that once you’re funded, you can send out something like, ‘Hey, it’s been a month. You’ve probably been thinking about what have I been doing for a month.’ Or, ‘Where’s my thing? Where’s my money going?’ Like, here’s a photo of me visiting the injection mold factory where I approved things. I’ve backed things that are not comics and I get like really cool updates where they had to design a circuit board and they tried to solder a bunch of them and the solder broke.”

Added Schultz, “That’s why I do so much making-of. It’s partly to be like, ‘Let’s do a deep dive just into this one decision that’s in one panel once.’ And then it helps you understand when you see enough of those making-ofs that we release. Like, ‘No wonder it’s taken them like a year to make Interdimensional #3.’”

Of course, a little humor every once in a while also doesn’t exactly hurt.

“Next time, I’m going to hold a nib upside down and tag it ‘calligraphy,’” said Roberts.

@badinkstudios Replying to @Alryda probably the most elaborate lettering video yet. So many techniques in one. #comics #manga #graphicdesign ♬ original sound – Bad Ink Studios

Still, the TikTok stuff has been another valuable lesson for the heads of Bad Ink: you can’t win over everyone.

“There was someone who joked one time like, ‘I wouldn’t buy them. You’ll never have an audience.’ And we were like, ‘You’re not our audience,’” said Schultz. “It seems like we have an audience. You don’t have to be in it.’ We realize that 10 out of 10 people aren’t going to buy it, but there’s a chunk of those 10 who are going to be into it and we’re making comics for those people.”

And that’s especially important as they continue work on Interdimensional #3. While it’s without a set release date — Roberts said that, as of late September 2023, they’re wrapping up inks before Schultz gets to coloring — the issue is something that Schultz and Roberts hope kicks down some doors given their overarching intentions.

“In this last issue [#3], we’ve been leaning on manga stuff a lot,” said Schultz. “And it’s been fun doing like all backgrounds and weird spirals and stuff. We are making absolutely ridiculous decisions in the third one. If I tried to pitch them to any kind of executive or publisher, they’d be like, ‘We’re not going do that. That’s a deviation from your audience.’”

Added Roberts, “Evan’s joked with clients that he’s had [in his other work] when they say, ‘We want something extreme.’ And he’s like, ‘How about this.’ And they’re like, ‘That’s too extreme.’”

It’s not just being edgy for the sake of it, though. The pair are acutely aware of how they’re perceived and what that means as they try and push their craft forward.

“But I do worry that people have followed us for a novelty or for one particular type of video that went viral and then we’re going to drop the next issue and they’re ging be like, ‘What is this? This is so weird,’” said Schultz. “I don’t even know if Lydia knows this, but I am actually somewhat uncomfortable with the follower numbers we’re at now because I really don’t know that there are that many people who actually are weird enough to be fans of ours. Maybe I’m not giving people credit, and I don’t want to come off sounding like I’m arrogant or something.”

It’s an event that has Schultz reconsidering, even partially, just how much they would want to grow as an outfit and online content creators.

“Like, I almost would feel, and this is probably just my own insecurity, more comfortable if we were stuck at 40,000 followers,” said Schultz. “To me, that’s a lot of people. Out of those 40,000 people, enough people would fund [our Kickstarter] every time. It makes me feel like we’re open to people just not getting what we’re doing and criticizing us through a misunderstanding or something.”

It’s especially relevant considering the stakes and opportunities for indie creators like themselves.

“So when we do launch the Kickstarter, hopefully that’s rewarded in the form of like, ‘Wow, I’ve really been waiting. You’ve been putting so much work into this, Bad Ink Studios, now I’m going give you $10,’” said Schultz.

Art from the forthcoming Interdimensional #3. Courtesy of Lydia Roberts and Evan Schultz.

But there’s at least one aspect or development that could convince Bad Ink that things may be changing. This idea that, while they’ve spent their years working on the periphery, there could be a sea change happening that’s been building for some time.

“What happened is that the internet caught up to that a little bit, and now everybody thinks that stuff is so cool,” said Roberts of indie books/films/comics/etc. “And so what I learned from that was if you’re in early and you just stick to your guns, you sort of gain the respect and the audience that you eventually can deserve.”

Schultz’s seen it to, adding that if the Dune series “can do well, then there’s hope for weirdos.” And that’s maybe it: all their work and effort, all the minor victories and troll battles, can be worth it for a truly important cause. Not just to make cool comics, but stories that push the medium forward in noticeable ways. It’s taken 20-ish years to get here, but it’s certainly has been worth the cramped hands and asinine TikTok trends.

“For whatever reason, we have become champions — in this era where apparently manga is always against American comics — of Cowboy Bebop and Spider-Man, or Junji Ito and Savage Sword of Conan,” said Schultz.

Schultz added, “We’re trying to get people to realize that it’s all comics. And I think that what I’m really excited about — Interdimensional #3 is like quite literally the intersection. Like if you give Lydia the brief of Conan and Junji Ito, what comes out is extremely cool and simultaneously a remix of everything all at once and something brand new. I think that that’s maybe where the future of comics is going as we sort of all start to see fans grow up and find new things. So hopefully we can be at the forefront of that.”

For more on Bad Ink Studios, check out their official website.

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