Three Minute Max is a new web comic by father/son team Bob and Max Forward. The series is about a man who can stop his heart for three minutes, and what happens when fate connects him with a magnanimous group of geniuses and scientists that have cracked the code on teleportation. Doing this interview was a true honor for me as I have been a fan of Bob Forward's previous work on shows like Beast Wars (which has been mentioned on Great Work Review before) as well as the fact that I think Three Minute Max is, hands down, one of the most exiting web comic offerings out there today.
Three Minute Max is primarily an action comic, but it has enough humor and sci-fi depth to keep it from ever feeling shallow. In preparation for this post I re-read the two issues that are currently out, and I was struck again by how polished the art and dialogue are. The way the premise is laid out is fascinating, starting with seemingly unrelated events that come together to form a complete vision. If you have not already done so, I recommend reading at least the first issue (which should only take a few minutes) before continuing on to the interview below, where Max and Bob give some fascinating insight into the comic and the creative process in general. Happy reading!
GWR: How would you like to be introduced?
MAX: You probably don't need to say much to introduce me, other than that I'm Bob's son. I have a blog I do to discuss my storyboarding day job, and that's at digitalstoryboards.com. It includes a useful bio. This is my first real comic book project.
BOB: I've had a lot of jobs, primarily in animation. Started as a storyboard artist (though never close to Max’s skill) and moved into writing because I discovered it was a lot easier writing things like: "Ten thousand warriors come charging over the horizon on horseback waving weapons as flames rise behind them and a tidal wave approaches from the east" than it was to have to draw it. Then, during a period when I was writing on a series called Beast Wars, I wheedled the production company into letting me direct [an episode]. I liked the experience so much that I started trying to do short movies (ed. note, such as the surprisingly entertaining Agent 12 films), which led to the creation of Detonation Films. It started as a hobby, then eventually became an actual job. It’s primarily pyrotechnic effects, but I try to keep focused on creative projects. When Max suggested doing a comic book, it was like he was speaking to my soul.
GWR: When/How did you originally get the idea for Three Minute Max?
MAX: To my memory, Bob conceived of it during one of our Sunday Breakfasts, our weekly get-together, where the topic of discussion is usually centered on how much the world has changed since the week before. It was in late '06 or early '07, we had just finished Kabumei, and were brainstorming new ideas for our next video project. Bob produces these projects through Detonation Films and they basically serve as fun showcases for the special effects that he sells. So the projects are kind of built around the need for action and special effects. And it’s a lot of fun to make movies together.
BOB: Since action is kind of my thing, the idea was to come up with a concept that would allow us to jump right into the cool battles, but it had to be something we could pull off on a limited budget. I also wanted to give our protagonist some heavy limitations on time and weaponry, since overcoming obstacles is part of what makes a hero. And I wanted to throw in some weirdness, because weirdness.
MAX: So Bob was staring off into space and listing off criteria- "Gotta be real hard hitting action. Boom, guy shows up, kills everyone in hand to hand combat, then gone. Brutal. Violent. Gotta be short too. About three minutes, max." Pause. "Actually, I like the sound of that. Three Minute Max.' And there you have it, the moment of conception. The fact that my name is Max is a funny coincidence, but at the time, it fit, since we were trying to think of an action project that I could star in. The next week, Google bought YouTube, Hulu was invented, and Netflix started streaming movies, and it became clear that short-form video projects were not going to be dominating the Internet, as we were thinking they would. So 3MM got shelved, and we moved onto other things. About a year later, I had established myself in the field of commercial storyboarding and was doing well, but found I had a lot of downtime and wanted a project I could work on when things were slow. I emailed Bob and asked if he would mind if I developed 3MM into a comic book project. He responded the next morning with the screenplay for what is now episode one. I liked it and told him so, but I had pictured another approach, and asked if I could do a different story. He responded almost instantly with the script for episode two. Which I loved. We’ve been working on it ever since.
BOB: That's basically it. And when we realized that we could add real effects to the artwork, the cross-promotional aspect became with Detonation Films became obvious. Three Minute Max was underway.
GWR: What made you decide to make this series as a web comic as opposed to going through a comic publisher?
MAX: I don't have a great answer- I mean Bob pretty much handles what happens to the comic once I draw it. I would love to see it on store shelves but is that realistic, especially today? It just seems so inefficient compared to the web options. In 2009, I attended the San Diego Comic Con, and I had the first issue/episode of 3MM all nicely printed up in a big portfolio and I was convinced that we would be able to get somebody to see it and say "Awesome! Here's a check for a million dollars." But I went to the review panels and was disappointed with the whole setup. Sitting around waiting for somebody to call your number, and turn you down. The body language in that place was depressing. So I didn't stick around. It reminded me of when I was trying to get into storyboarding animation- I would drop my portfolio off at a studio, and watch as the receptionist tossed it into a huge bin so full that mine would slide off the top and fall onto another pile that had accumulated around the base. So we've concentrated our efforts online instead, and it's worked out well. We both have experience in developing web-based businesses, and so it's kind of natural for us to find our own way around the hurdles.
BOB: Heh. If a publisher becomes interested, they know where to find us. In the meantime, there was no reason to wait around. I'm going to be blunt here – if Detonation Films taught me anything, it's that if you want to do something, just face the fact that you're mostly going to be doing it yourself. Yes, you're going to have to learn new things. And it will probably cost money, so keep your day job. But the technology exists now to do a lot of things on your desktop that would have taken a whole studio a few years ago. So you really can follow your dreams. Max and I both love the various projects we do for other people, but we also wanted to have something we could point to and say: “See that? That's ours.”
GWR: The art is realistic in many ways, but it is also very stylized, both in how the faces are drawn and how the pages are colored. How did you develop that style? What do you like most about the style you’ve achieved here?
MAX: My style is cobbled together from various artistic influences that I admire, mostly from, believe it or not, American manga artists, and a splash of Will Eisner. I like to keep my faces pretty simple and concentrate on expression and acting. I'm primarily a freelance commercial storyboard artist, and have been for almost 10 years. That work experience has molded my style to concentrate on rapidly executed, powerful, simple visual statements. I talk about that extensively in my digitalstoryboards blog. For now, lets just say that I use the exact same drawing techniques for storyboarding and comics. There's a lot of overlap between the two fields, so that shouldn't be surprising. But I was delighted to see that I didn't have to reinvent my style for this new medium- it actually looks like a cool, fresh comic book style, and I'm glad I went for it, instead of directly mimicking the look of other comic book artists I admire, like Ryan Ottley (Invincible). And it's interesting that I've been able to take some things I've learned from the comic, and apply that back to storyboarding. Both have benefitted- that's what I like most.
GWR: What is the hardest part about illustrating/coloring the comic? What would you like to improve on the most as an artist for the series?
MAX: The hardest part is in the panel-by-panel storytelling, and making that worth reading. That's the real art of comics, and unfortunately I think even amazing artists struggle with this. Sitting down with the script and really seeing the story unfold, capturing it, and telling that story visually in the allotted time frame (or page allotment) is mentally taxing. It's the same in storyboarding… once you have your roughs plotted out, the rest is a real breeze, assuming you know how to draw/render. Rendering is monkey work, it really is. It won't impress anybody to know that I'm usually drinking or worse when I'm drawing this comic, but it's true. You don't need to be cognizant render. But those first couple days, thinking about the story, finding powerful visuals, and balancing it all is what takes the most mental and emotional effort. As far as the illustrating/coloring, I have a very efficient system that I use, all digital. It's a lot like a one-man assembly line, and it's scalable to whatever project I apply it to, and I can pause it and pick it up whenever it suits me. I admit my color theory is very weak and I'm looking to strengthen that as we go on. I don't have much formal artistic training so I kind of just wing it and experiment a great deal. Hopefully as things progress and I get more practice in, I will get a little more committed to certain design elements- for instance, I currently draw Max's armor a little differently every time, as well as the Strike Gate. Those designs are still a little nebulous and I'd love for them to reach a definitive state.
GWR: So far you have filled your story with a variety of characters, geeks, ex-military, serious scientists, and corporate spies among others, where do you get the ideas for these characters, and how do you decide which ones go in the story? What do you like most about the writing you’ve achieved here?
BOB: I was never in the military, but while trying to learn more about pyrotechnics for effects purposes, I spent some time working for a company that did hyper-real training for the Army. While living and working on base, staging realistic war games for real soldiers, I learned to appreciate how impressive a well-trained professional soldier can be in a battle situation. The new recruits we could "kill" in droves. But when we took on Rangers, they would mop the floor with us. Maxwell Harcourt Reaper is basically a conglomeration of several staff sergeants I encountered during that period, with some of our namesake artist's personality added on top. As for the other characters, my father was a scientist and I'm actually a board member on a space technology firm (Tethers Unlimited) he helped found. Madison is derived from a person or two I know, both there and elsewhere. Marissa also. Toy companies (with whom I dealt heavily during animation projects) are extremely security-conscious. They are constantly worried about competitors bringing out something that undercuts their market in a certain product line. Industrial espionage is quite common, and it wasn't unknown for companies to actually create and develop entire lines of toys they had no intention of ever marketing, just so they could mislead the competition into spending vast sums in the wrong area. So when they found a mole on staff, it was occasionally more useful to keep them around, even buy them off as doubles, than it was to get rid of them. So that’s Dr. Sharma – though I confess his actual personality is based heavily on John Nobel’s Dr. Bishop and Iron Man’s Dr. Yinsen. Now, Cicerone – he’s a decent guy, but obsessed and a touch Machiavellian. All my favorites traits to play with.
GWR: What is the hardest part about writing the comic? What would you like to improve on the most as a writer for the series?
BOB: There's a definite learning curve. I quickly found out it wasn't like writing for animation. You can have several conversations going on at once; you can have a certain amount of exposition without slowing the pace, and things that you've never dealt with before – like word balloon size and placement – suddenly become extremely important. Now I'll do all the rough lettering and word balloons myself, on the rough artwork, just because Max will have drawn something that I didn't anticipate in the script, and I want to play it up with new dialogue interchanges. Also, this lets him know where NOT to spend time drawing elaborate background machinery, since it will just have a word balloon covering it anyway. As far as improvements go – I just hope we keep having fun!
GWR: Describe your process when making an issue of 3MM. Are there benefits to working as a father/son team? Drawbacks?
MAX: I have very little direct input into the script writing, basically none, and that’s fine with me. Bob (Dad) conceived of the concept, characters, and all plots and dialogue. He writes the scripts in screenplay format, which works well for both of us, although I might guess that is uncommon in the comic book industry. As I read the script, I see it in my head. Then I re-read and go through it slowly, and think of all the angles that might help tell the story. I draw very tiny thumbnails directly in the margins of the script. This is where the magic happens. Then I re-sketch the good thumbnails and edit them down to what can fit on a comic book page, and that’s like putting puzzle together. Then I reference that as I start drawing on my Cintiq, using a program called Corel Painter to make roughs, at which point I show Bob for approval, and he’s been very nice about approving pretty much everything. So then I ink them, and color them, and then submit them to Bob, who approves, and then he adds Detonation Films brand Special FX, and maybe tweaks the dialogue using the artwork as inspiration. Then he passes it back to me, and I give everything a final unifying pass, final touches, tightening up word balloons, etc. Then it's ready for Comicpress. That's the production process. As far as what it's like to work with my Dad, it's really a blast. We have a lot in common, creatively. Growing up, most of the comic books I read were titles that he introduced me to. We watched a lot of 80's action flicks together and I really think that comes through in the comic. I watched all the cartoons he wrote for, and many of those where adaptations from comic or video games. When I was thirteen/fourteen I was crazy about Image Comics and coincidentally Dad was writing on the cartoon series WildCATs, and we had stacks of every single WildCATS comic and spinoff series, and that's mind-blowing for a kid, and so I just read and drew comics nonstop. I remember touring WildStorm Studios and meeting Jim Lee when I was 14; going to SDCC and watching my Dad talk in panels, it was awesome. My friends were insanely jealous growing up. And so now, working together as we are, it's really a blast, because it flows so easily. We don't have a lot of “fixes” or disagreements. Basically no notes as we pass it back and forth. That's really efficient and probably not possible for most partnerships. But we make it work, and father/son stuff aside, that's very likely due to my respect for his writing and his respect for my artwork.
BOB: For me, the great thing about all this is being able to work with Max. During his formative years, I mainly had an office job, and we couldn't do much together other than those things he mentions. His younger brother John was born seven years later, so there was something of a gap between them. During John's formative years I had made the transition to freelancing so my schedule was more flexible, and John and I got to spend a lot of time doing things together, including the eventual creation of Detonation Films. Max was in his early twenties at that point, and working as a video editor when he wasn't, say, passed out face down in an alley during a rainstorm, as is typical of that age. (See all this gray hair I have?) But he managed to survive, and so did I, and now I finally get a chance to have fun working on a creative project with him. So that's my real blessing. I will add that when I have co-story-edited on animated series with writers such as Larry DiTillio or Greg Johnson, we had a mutual understanding that you could "veto, but not change." If they were thinking of doing an episode which would entirely ruin something you were doing in another episode, you could ask them not to do it, but you couldn’t piss in their pool. We kept track of each other's work, and we'd take each other's ideas and run with them, but there was mutual respect for the boundaries. Working that way actually forced us to be more creative. We'd constantly be blindsided by something the other was doing, but it kept us nimble, figuring out how to make it work with our own plans. I now actually prefer working that way. Max may draw something I didn't expect, but I know he had a reason for it, and if it looks cool, I'd rather figure out how to capitalize on it rather than just demand he change it. The comic is ultimately better for it.
GWR: 3MM belongs to a company called Detonation Films, is that correct? What exactly is DF, and what is your involvement with it?
MAX: The money to produce 3MM comes from DetFilms (I actually get paid to draw this, which is awesome). I have worked on other DetFilms projects as editor and storyboard artist, and occasionally acted. As far as owning it, I’m not too sure. I believe we are partners, with Bob having a controlling interest. It's in writing somewhere.
BOB: Detonation Films started on July 4, 2001, when John and I made a short film involving a mechanical dinosaur and fireworks and toys being set on fire. We had such fun we decided to do more. They got increasingly elaborate, and it quickly became apparent that fireworks were not the way to go. They were loud and dangerous and didn’t photograph well. I needed to learn how to do my own effects. Well, you can learn anything on the internet these days. Before long, I started making better, safer effects, but I was still working with kids. It was then that Max, who was working for a wedding video place at the time, showed me how you could shoot an explosion against a colored backdrop and add it into a shot later via computer. We began doing this, and people turned out to be interested in using those effects shots in their own films. They wanted us to do more. And better. Detonation Films (and its subsidiary DetFilmsHD) actually became an official company in 2006, and while it has never been large (we call it the “donut shop” because it’s open 24 hours, we make all the product ourselves, and it makes donut shop money) it gets by, and it has allowed us to explore a lot of new venues, including 3MM. On the advice of a friend, Max and I (over one of our Sunday breakfasts) drew up a simple, one-page contract spelling out page rates, who owns what, and what percentages. You don't have to get complicated about these things, but it is important that each party know what they are responsible for and what their rights are as regards the project. That way no one feels taken advantage of.
GWR: How much of the story/characters did you both have planned before beginning 3MM? Do things ever change from what you had planned?
MAX: I can't speak for Bob, but I don't know what’s coming any more than the readers. I take it a script at a time.
BOB: Right now, we have scripted and roughed out the drawings for the next two years of story. I don’t want to get further ahead than that because for all I know people will all be wearing Google Glass or something by that time and we'll just have to change everything. But I have plans beyond that; they'll just be adjusted as regards the world in 2015.
GWR: Is this meant to be an on-going series for sometime, or do you already know how and when everything will end? Or would you prefer not to say?
MAX: I personally hate it when comic books series stop abruptly, or worse, carry on well past their prime. So I think we can carry on for a few more episodes before we wrap it up. I think we had discussed doing at least 6 episodes, but who knows.
BOB: I'm a writer. Stories from now until doomsday are no problem, but I also have an ending planned if and when we decide we need it. It's important to have an exit strategy; just keep it flexible.
GWR: What would you like to see happen with 3MM in the future?
MAX: It's sounds sappy, but I'm already very happy with what we've achieved, so whatever good happens from here on out is just icing on the cake. I do want to eventually have the episodes available for purchase online, maybe via Comixology or some such service. The original comic pages are insanely high resolution and detailed, and I've made a version to view on an iPad 4, and it's stunning. So I want to see that available for purchase someday. I know fans of the series will see the worth in that. And I definitely want to have some printed versions available, even if it’s just a limited run. Movies, TV shows, video games, toys- those would be nice I’m sure, but that's up to Bob.
BOB: One step at a time. As Max said, we wanted to do this just because we wanted to see if we could, and we did, so we're already good there as far as personal satisfaction. There's no question that there will be a print version of the first three episodes in graphic novel form – I've already resigned myself to the fact that I'm going to now have to learn Pagemaker, and I'm looking into the best options for printing. So yes, that will be happening, because we can do that ourselves. Certainly open to other options as they may come up, but that one at least I can say is coming!
GWR: Closing remarks?
MAX: With episodes 1 and 2, we've setup the premise and introduced all the main characters. Now we are on episode 3, which is probably the most action-packed comic you will read anywhere, and I guarantee you will be riveted. If you like the series, or have fan mail or questions, we're trying to do all that through the Facebook page and "likes," so I encourage everyone to "like" us and spread the word. It's still a pretty new comic and we are really trying to build readership to ensure that we can continue with this awesome project. So tell all your friends to check it out and tune in for our weekly updates! And thank you for the interview!
BOB: I'm just really happy that we're doing this at all, and I'm absolutely giddy about what we have planned for the future. Thanks so much for having us!
PS. Last night I went to check on Super Mega Comics to see if a new one had been posted, and look which comic was being advertized in the side bar:
Three Minute Max! Spooky, right?