Artist Sean Chen on writing his first comic about a man becoming the Grim Reaper’s Wingman

Credit: Sean Chen

The current pandemic has affected the comic book industry, and one of the biggest news was DC cutting ties with Diamond Comic Distributors, the comic book distribution giant in North America. Physical comics aren’t going anywhere yet, and NextChapter was created during this time to bring artists and fans together by featuring content and giving back to the community through digital art, virtual events, and other opportunities.

One of the artists on board is Sean Chen, who has worked on Iron Man, Wolverine, Elektra, X-O Manowar, Bloodshot, Harbinger, Rai, and more. He has been working as an artist for decades, and now he is working on his writing chops with his latest project, Wingman, which follows a man trying to delay the inevitable by becoming the Grim Reaper’s wingman. NextChapter will be releasing his work as a softcover 64-page book which is now available to pre-order. We had the chance to chat with Chen about the collaboration and the project. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Credit: NextChapter/Sean Chen

Nerd Reactor: Can you tell us about the origin of Wingman?

Sean Chen: Originally, it was primarily just for my Instagram and just to dabble in writing. The responses were very positive, and I think the people were calling for a print version of it. So I met NextChapter founder Carl Choi at some point, and he decided that this would be a good first project for his new business venture, which is a graphic media publishing company.

What I liked about his idea is that he’s not trying to make a huge killing so much as put out a project to help us reach a wider audience. And also to build a community where it’s connected to fans in addition to having just a reprint of the entire thing.

NextChapter has a secondary mission to educate and let everyone in on the creative process so they can see how this is done. He wants to inspire them to create on whatever level they create. There are many people out there who want to try their hands at doing a comic, for whatever reason. So this helps people along, and it’s very informative, and I can explain my creative process with tips on how to do stuff. So that’s why I chose them as a publisher since they wanted to inform, educate and inspire people and do a deep dive into the process.

What’s Wingman about?

In general, it’s about a man who has an existential crisis and is in serious need of some answers to life’s biggest questions. But then he encounters the Grim Reaper and he desperately tries to delay the inevitable, and you find that he can do that by becoming the Grim Reaper’s wingman. So that allows him to stall for time while he desperately finds the closure he needs before his time is up. The subject matter is both bleak and very uplifting at the same time. There’s a lot of really funny moments, but also some very serious ones.

So it’s kind of hard to categorize as a project, but I think when people read it, they’ll understand it completely and will be along for the ride. It is quite an experience. It’s hard to describe because it doesn’t really fit any type of category, but it’s an unusual project and people really enjoy reading it from what I found.

What was the idea behind the story?

Well, it’s really experimental. I was working in advertising and kind of really missing drawing comics. So a lot of comic book artists have a big story in their head that kind of never really gets going because it’s usually some big, epic, sci-fi thriller, and it’s so big that it never really gets rolling because they’ve got other things to do. Writing is very hard, especially on a project so big like that. A lot of years past, and I realized I was in danger of never really writing anything.

So I tried to do something a lot smaller, keep it to 50 pages, and make sure that I finish it no matter what. I said, “To hell with all the barriers in terms of what’s the best format and the most marketable subject matter? Since none of that really mattered, I was just going to draw whatever I felt like drawing and writing about what I felt like writing about. I just put it out there and kept it going as long as people were really into it on Instagram. So there was really no sacrifice on my part, and I just drew it. Luckily, I was able to finish all 50 pages, and the response was good enough that it looks like it deserved the printed version.

So yeah, it was basically born out of just drawing whatever I felt like drawing without any client in mind, which gave me a lot of insight into what type of person I am. I’ve been drawing comics professionally for years, doing stories that belong to Marvel or DC and written by other writers. I never really knew what type of story I would come up with if I was courageous to create on my own. And the result was really surprising to me because I thought it would be a science fiction thriller.

I mean, I didn’t think that humor was really in my wheelhouse. I didn’t really even think that a man going through an existential crisis and the subject matter from this movie from the 1950s from another country will even make its way into anything that I drew comics wise. But I found it to be very engaging and creatively satisfying to do. And I think it shows in the work, and so I’m glad that NextChapter saw that there was value, and actually putting it to the next level.

So you never dabbled in writing before?

It’s completely new to me. There’s a little bit about the dangers of an artist having a huge project. The danger here is that you’ll wake up and you’re an old man, and then never really got any writing done because you’re looking to make a perfect project that beats everything you’ve done before because, for the first time, it’s your own baby. So you really have to put all that aside and just create. There are parts of the process like can you write dialogue? Do you know how to make word balloons? Do you know anything about the publishing partner or promoting it? You never get past step one. So this project was like, “Let’s get past step one.” Because we can answer all those questions in a project like this, and that could maybe one day lead to something bigger. So it’s an important experiment that way.

And it really succeeded beyond my expectations. It’s a story that never would have seen the light of day if I had to convince a company. It’s an odd type of story, and you get it when you need it, but it’s hard to convince someone to back it. It’s kind of like Star Wars where it’s hard to pitch it to someone. We just have to do it and people will see the value in it later.

Where you worried about adding product placement in Wingman?

It was one of those things where I didn’t pay any mind to any legal aspects. I mean, I don’t even own these characters, and those product placements are definitely not sponsored. It has these very old world characters in the modern world, and nothing’s more modern in the modern world than just having store signs everywhere and pop culture-type places they go to. I think there’s a little bit of comedy in that. And there was the freedom to put anything I want in there because it wasn’t open to any type of top editing. It’s still in the book as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know all the legal aspects, but this is one of those things where I’m going to create without any boundaries. This book was printed in Heavy Metal, just the first 10 pages that they put in color. They did take out some of the product placement stuff. It’s on ComiXology with some of the product placements removed. And I think that’s for legal reasons. It’s just my quirky vision of the world and what I thought would be funny. It’s a mix of very classical things and very modern, millennial things.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

I’m currently drawing Batman Beyond for DC Comics. And that’s the same corporate-type stuff that I’ve been doing the past 25 years, but the landscape is changing out there. These companies don’t have the same power that they used to. Even though you might give up something by doing something creator-owned, sometimes you only need a fraction of the audience. The creative satisfaction you get doing these types of things makes up for anything else. So I definitely want to do something else. I have no idea what form it would be. I mean, I think tackling that big, epic sci-fi thriller is something that I feel capable of now. It’s not as daunting as it used to be, and this is a project to work and dip my feet in and find out that I can write dialogue and I can make nice word balloons. People have been complimenting my lettering, which I never knew I could do.

You can pre-order The Wingman: Compendium of an Artist’s First Writing Experience at the Pre-Order Link.

Machi X, a group of artists and patrons curating and collecting digital art, has teamed up with NextChaper and will be hosting a Machi X gallery. You can check out the NextChapter x Machi X DAO Art Gallery Event Pages for more info.

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