Swords, sorcery, and sarcasm. Those are the three pillars of Steve Conley's new GC series The Middle Age and also a sequence of fun words to say out loud if you want to sound like a snake.
But snakes aren't the name of the game in TMA. Conley's new strip blends high adventure with (occasionally) low humor to chronicle one aging knight's quest to reclaim his lost love with the reluctant aide of a talking cursed sword and a wizard out of his gourd. Steve, if read that the last sentence back, feel free to use it as lyrics in your debut The Middle Age mixtape.
What's it take to bring such an ambitious project to life? We have no idea! So we asked the source. Read on for Steve's insights into making The Middle Age suitably magical.
GC: You've been working on The Middle Age for just about a year. Have you been working from a pre-mapped outline or have you just been making it up as you go?
SC: Kind of both. Even though there's a big, mapped-out story, all my focus is on making the next strip as funny as I can. For me, trying to tell a 3,000-page epic adventure story is too daunting. On the other hand, if I try to make a single, really silly and engaging comic strip, and do that 3,000 times, I might just get there.
The biggest challenge at the moment is that the strip is only once-a-week. I feel the pressure to keep our hero on his mission and I try not to take too many detours in the story. If I were to start riffing about orcs or ducks for four strips, a whole month of real time will have gone by. If this were decades ago, I'd be rolling in lucrative (okay, livable) syndication money and the strip would be daily. Nowadays, The Middle Age is completely paid for by readers through Patreon and it takes time for that audience to grow. The good news is that each Patreon goal that's met will increase the number of episodes per week. I'm hoping that readership and support will continue to build and when there are more strips per week, we can have more fun with the smaller moments and Sir Quimp can still finish his quest and start the next one in my lifetime.
So, the waypoints in the journey are set but I get to make up the path along the way. How fast we get where we going depends on if enough people see the strip and as long as I'm doing work people enjoy enough to support.
GC: You changed the format of your comic from a stacked traditional print periodical page to a strip for GoComics. What was your thinking behind the change and how do you think it's suited your storytelling intentions?
SC: The Middle Age was designed to horizontal, newspaper strip proportions so we're now seeing it on GoComics as it was meant to be seen. That said, I made sure there's a gutter down the center allowing each strip to be stacked vertically for social media and mobile devices. That's how the strip appears on my own site and when I share it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I just want to reach the widest audience possible and future-proof the material as best I can.
GC: Maledicta, the Blade of Woe is a talking sword. When you came up with the blade, did you consider that its novelty might be a bit diminished in a post-Siri/Alexa/Cortana/Google Home world?
SC: Ha! I never thought of that. If I can get Siri to respond to the name Maledicta, I'll change it immediately.
The idea of an older knight and a sword that hates him really was the germ for the strip. The Middle Age is a collection of dumb ideas. I knew I wanted the strip to be action-oriented as I wanted fun things to draw. I knew I wanted it to be a combination gag and adventure strip. I knew that having a character talking to his sword means more room for dialogue on a shrinking comics page. I knew I wanted vessels for both the hopeful and overly critical sides of myself. Like I said, it’s a lot of dumb ideas.
GC: Speaking of swords, are you one of those dudes who owns a bunch of swords? Are you a verified sword collector? Do you cut watermelons with swords at picnics and stuff? I can't stop asking you about swords.
SC: I do own a suit of leather armor for wearing at Renaissance Festivals. It's got a chest piece, and shoulders, as well as gloves and a belt so I get the four-piece set bonus which grants me +4 to Nerd. There are photos of me in such garb which I will deny.
I have a really funny story about swords. I wish you had asked me about swords.
GC: Earlier this year you posted a drawing timelapse on your YouTube page showing your work on the iPad Pro using Procreate. What's your workflow like? Mostly digital?
SC: I use an iPad Pro and the Procreate app for almost everything. The best part is most of the drawing is done in a coffee shop.
The workflow might seem complicated but it's been streamlined over the past year to save me a little bit of time here and there. After 1,000 strips, if I can save five minutes per strip, that will save me 3.47222 days. Though I’ll probably just waste those days doing unnecessary math.
Here's the process boiled down: I start with a rough script and draw a simple version of the strip. I then tighten that sketch and send the image - via Dropbox or Airdrop - to my desktop computer where I add rough lettering. This is super important to me as I want the lettering and art to really fit together and not feel like an afterthought. I then send that lettering back to the iPad where I draw and 'ink' the strip. I then send that B&W linework back to my desktop computer where I 'flat' the colors. I then send those simple, flat colors back to my iPad and paint the colors in. When the colors are done, I send the file back to my desktop for the final time where I place the real lettering. I rewrite the dialogue a half dozen times along the way.
GC: On your website, you've mentioned that your art style is evolving as you work on the strip. What can readers expect as they continue reading?
SC: As I've become more familiar with the software AND more familiar with my characters, the linework has gotten bolder and the colors have become more vibrant. Here's an example of how Sir Quimp has changed in the last 10 months. The left shows our hero from the first episode. The right shows the same scene recreated as a promo image for GoComics.
I cringe at my work from six months ago and, fingers crossed, I hope to be cringing at my current work in six months. My future self apologizes for all the hack work my current self is very proud of.
GC: The Middle Age was nominated for an Eisner Award this year. What/who will you be wearing to the awards? I can't recommend slips with socks, but it's up to you.
SC: I'll be wearing a full suit of plate armor. If for some reason, TSA doesn't let me wear it on the plane, I'll make sure I have a sport coat on underneath as a backup.
GC: What are some comics that keep you inspired and motivated? What do you look at when you need some creative vibes?
SC: Calvin and Hobbes is a constant source of inspiration. The same goes for Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac. A couple of years back, I was the designer of The Art of Richard Thompson book and was inundated with Richard's work for most of a year. It was a master class in funny cartooning.
I also love, love, love Walt Kelly's Pogo. No other strip played with language and art as beautifully or as gracefully.
As for motivation, my patrons on Patreon keep me going. In June, July, and August, as a way of thanking my supporters, I'm mailing each one a hand-drawn sketch! I just dropped three more in the mailbox. I hope readers here consider signing up for it. We're about a third of the way toward the first goal which would let The Middle Age expand to two-times a week! If all goes well and support continues to grow, The Middle Age will be five days a week.