Self-Publishing, Collected Editions, Epilepsy And Aztecs: Sam Humphries Talks ‘Sacrifice’ [INTERVIEW]


Last week, Dark Horse Comics released the hardcover collected edition of Sam Humphries and Dalton Rose’s ’Sacrifice’, the six issue series that received rave reviews when it premiered in late 2011, and became a grassroots sensation by bypassing the traditional comic book distribution channels: not just self-publishing each issue, but releasing them to the public through a select network of independent retailers.  We recently spoke to Humphries about ’Sacrifice’, his inspirations for the story, his pioneering method of distribution, and how the series found a new home at Dark Horse – and our friends at Dark Horse sent along a five-page preview of the book and some exclusive behind-the-scenes concept art to share with our MTV Geek readers!

MTV Geek: ’Sacrifice’ takes a bunch of disparate elements (time travel, Joy Division, Aztecs, Southern California, epilepsy) that wouldn’t necessarily seem to have much in common, but you and Dalton make them work together beautifully.  What inspired you to combine all these things for this story?

Sam Humphries: I’m epileptic, but one of the lucky ones. Thankfully, my seizure disorder is controlled by a minimum of medication. But millions of epileptics aren’t so lucky. And there’s very little about being an epileptic that is cool. Lots of stories about epileptics, like Ian Curtis from Joy Division, end tragically. But many ancient societies saw epilepsy as a spiritual condition. If you were epileptic, you were automatically their shaman, priest, and so forth. You were recognized with someone who could travel between dimensions, travel time, or travel to the underworld. I just wanted to make one story where epilepsy helped the protagonist — where epilepsy was (at least sometimes) a cool thing for the hero.

Geek: Dalton’s blend of Euro comics influences, psychedelic bravado, and strong design work make him the perfect artist for this story. Was there a lot of back-and-forth when determining the look and feel of the Aztec empire?  Did you provide him with reference material?

Humphries: I couldn’t imagine anyone but Dalton drawing this book… So much of this book was redefined and elevated by his hand. For example, it was crucial to make the Aztec Empire as immersive as possible. Dalton’s got a great instinct for this kind of thing, and you can feel it in his breathtaking environments, particularly the widescreen panels during the battle. I sent him reference material, lots of books with an emphasis on visuals. One book in particular I think had a big impact on both of us — the Codex Borgia, which is an Aztec manuscript, but restored and printed from the original source, much like IDW’s Artists Editions. The Aztecs were a very visual culture, much like ours. They would have loved comic books.

Geek: Did the story change much in the telling, as you started to see Dalton’s art rolling in?  Did you expand or focus on some elements that you weren’t initially expecting?

Humphries: Well, I was particularly nervous about having any artist draw a seizure from Hector [the main protagonist]’s perspective. It’s easily the most intense thing I’ve personally experienced. But when Dalton turned in a full page spread of Hector in the throes of a psychedelic seizure, it really hit home for me. He did an amazing job capturing that experience, it was a huge relief for me to know that such ineffable and personal experience was in good hands. It gave the freedom to lean heavily into the psychedelic aspects in later chapters.

Geek: You initially took the initiative (and put up the cash) to not only self-publish, but self-distribute Sacrifice.  Why did you decide to go that route?

Humphries: Because I got sick of waiting for a publisher to pick it up. Instead, I gave myself permission to make SACRIFICE outside of the traditional publishing and distribution system, which is really the only thing anyone needs to make a comic.

Geek: And why did you decide to team with Dark Horse for the collected edition?

Humphries: They’ve got a rich history of beautiful publications, and they did an incredible job with SACRIFICE. And their reach — if I was going to move away from self-publishing, I wanted a partner who could get the book in front of a larger amount of people than I could on my own.

Geek: How much, and what kind of research did you do for this book?

Humphries: The short answer is: a ton. I’ve been obsessed with Aztecs for about a decade now. I’ve got a stack of books about as tall as my knees. I’ve studied their military tactics, their poetry — even an Aztec cooking class. SACRIFICE came out of the research, not the other way around. There’s three or four other Aztec-related graphic novels I’d like to do at some point in the future.

Geek: So…why? Why did you become obsessed with Aztecs and not, say, the Romans?

Humphries: Their culture, their empire, their beliefs are completely divorced from our modern, global culture. The Aztecs are like a science fiction civilization on Earth. Game of Thrones has more similarities to life in 2013 than the Aztecs do. But to recognize their humanity, to recognize ourselves in such a strange and beautiful civilization is breathtaking. The Aztecs embraced so many dichotomies between violence and beauty — it’s almost as if the contradictions are what fueled them to build such a massive empire. When Cortes arrived in the capital city of Tenochtitlan, it was the third largest city in the world, created by a society with no connections to Europe or Asia. It would be like discovering an alien city the size of Singapore on the dark side of the moon. But now it’s all gone. It’s heartbreaking. There’s very few people left to speak for them, but they still have a lot to say to us.

Geek: And beyond research, what were your particular influences in crafting this story?

Humphries: Most portrayals of the Aztecs, including non-academic history books, are willfully ignorant about the vast amounts of knowledge we’ve accrued about the Aztecs in the past four decades. They usually parrot the corrupt account of history spun by the Spanish and other colonial powers. I tended to stay away from representations of Aztecs that stem from that tradition. You have to really search out the rich history of the Aztecs untainted by European perspective, which is part of the reason I wanted to make SACRIFICE. There is currently no easily accessible media that paints an unslanted portrait of the Aztec Empire.

Geek: Pete Toms’ colors fit beautifully with Dalton’s artwork. How did you decide to go in such a distinctive direction?

Humphries: I was a fan of PAWS, his webcomic, which he colored himself. There was something dazzling about his color work. It seemed to come from a place that was instinctual but also rooted in not giving a fuck what any other comic looked like. On a story level, we had so many different “spaces” in SACRIFICE — the modern day, the Aztec Empire, the psychedelic realm, visions, flashbacks, etc. I thought one way to make them feel different yet part of the same fabric was to put the pages in the hands of the same madman. Pete was the perfect madman for the job.

Geek: And Dylan Todd, your art director, did a phenomenal job on the overall package. Most self-published books don’t even have an art director. Why was this important to you?

Humphries: Design is important, for a lot of reasons. It’s the “first impression” you can never amend or correct. It informs the perception people create about your book before they even pick it up. Especially on the internet — far more people will interact with your book’s cover and design than they will with the actual story. I really wanted the graphic design to be an integral part of SACRIFICE from the ground up. If people hear about the book, if they remember nothing else about it, they’ll remember “Aztec.” How could we communicate a modern energy and sensibility while still being true to a story which is largely a period piece? Dylan nailed it. He gave SACRIFICE its identity out in the world.

Geek: This hardcover collection by Dark Horse is truly a deluxe edition, with extras like the variant covers by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Cliff Chiang, and Emma Ríos, as well as sketchbook material by Dalton. What part of the special features were you most excited to show off?

Humphries: Well, we were very lucky to have a collection of artist ballers do covers for the book. I love those covers so much. On a sentimental level, I love that we included some of the earliest art Dalton ever did for the book, including an original page one that we scrapped and redid. This was back when we had a seven page sample we were showing to publishers under the name FLOWERS, FEATHERS, AND BLOOD. A lot changed since that initial artwork and the publication of the first issue, but I think I’m most glad we changed the title, haha.

Geek: And what’s next for you? How is your massive Marvel workload?

Humphries: UNCANNY X-FORCE and AVENGERS A.I. are both coming out regularly from Marvel Comics. Aside from that, I’ve been hammering away on a batch of original ideas, just by myself. It’s nice to kick things around in isolation. I’ll figure out what to do with them, one day.

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