Build Your Own Mountain: A Conversation with a DIY Comics Writer-Publisher

REMNANTS, Zachary Clemente, Arielle Soutar & Kelsi Ricks

Review copies are nice, but review copies that you’d be excited to buy are better.  Zachary Clemente sent me two comics that he self-published, with Arielle Soutar on lettering, and Kelsi Ricks (Remnants) and Ricardo Lopez Ortiz (Immolation) putting image to page. I wanted to know more about the connections between these two books, and, lucky me! It’s my job to be able to ask.IMMOLATION, Zachary Clemente, Arielle Soutar & Ricardo Lopez Ortiz

CN: So are these comics connected? They feel connected, in an Island sort of way.

ZC: Yeah, they’re part of a single universe, so I’d say they’re more like Spera or Prophet instead of Island. The comics follow a vague timeline for a larger story that I’d like to do called The Mountain Queen. It’s too big for me to do out of the gate — I don’t have the chops to do it right just yet.

CN: I think that I have misinterpreted Island, then, but no matter! The point is, they ARE connected and I CAN tell. Which is interesting, don’t you think? Because on the surface of it there’s nothing to suggest that the worlds are shared. One book is about active warfare, operatic and high-stakes, with a rusty landscape and very noisy visual aspects, pig men, a lady knight. The other is much, much quieter, despite being about sound, and has a far more grounded focus. One raggedy man, soft-spoken message exchanges, no apparent war or airships or pig officers. It’s the delivery of the stories, I think; the way that the worldbuilding is background work, not the force of the narrative. You don’t sit me down and list off which kingdom ruled the land from when and how many times the minister’s been challenged, or give me any facts. But facts, or atmosphere and environment, are delivered by, haha, the fact of them. Both books have a ruined aspect to their landscapes, both are about people who look a little worn, but the art is very different and that serves the books very well. You provide the script for both, and Arielle Soutar does both books’ lettering, which provides a nice cohesion while the more literal dimensions of the story are mapped out by different artists. Tell me about the thinking behind that? How did you match art to script, how did the artist change the story you germinated, how similar are either or both to your imagined visuals for The Mountain Queen?

IMMOLATION, Zachary Clemente, Arielle Soutar & Ricardo Lopez Ortiz
REMNANTS, Zachary Clemente, Arielle Soutar & Kelsi Ricks

ZC: Dang, you’ve described both of them better than I could when I was pitching them to Ricardo or Kelsi but yeah, their internal stories are quite different but are cut from the same cloth. Remnants was one of the first shorts I wrote and it sat around, unrefined, for a while. Immolation came later with the image of something large getting hewn in two by a colossal sword hefted by a human-sized warrior — it wasn’t until I saw Ricardo’s art did that mental image and reality feel in tune.

IMMOLATION, Zachary Clemente, Arielle Soutar & Ricardo Lopez Ortiz

Immolation ended up happening first because I met Ricardo first and was desperate to work with him. We’re both into manga so I wanted to play to the pacing and visual styles more typical of something from the pages of Toriyama or Otomo, to call out direct inspirations for some of it. There’s a careful freneticism in Ricardo’s lines that really pushed the story into the vibe it needed. Remnants ended up being rewritten only a bit when Kelsi agreed to work on it. Her inks perfectly evoke nuanced emotion and atmosphere so there wasn’t much I needed to do other than make the script easier to work off of.

REMNANTS, Zachary Clemente, Arielle Soutar & Kelsi Ricks

The “plan” for The Mountain Queen is make a some interconnected vignettes each with a different artist that take place somewhere on my rough timeline featuring at most secondary characters. I’d say that a lot of what I want to see in The Mountain Queen was laid out at the same time as Immolation, which falls somewhere 2/3rds into the timeline I’m not exactly sure when Remnants takes place but now I know who’s involved and how they feel about each other.

My biggest fear going in is being inexperienced when collaborating on comics and having too blank of a page starting out — these vignettes are a way of stacking the deck in my favor while making some pretty bomb comics at the same time. It’ll also be nice to have them in hand when I approach a publisher with this plan. There’s the nice cyclical effect where the foundations laid by the shorts feed into The Mountain Queen, which then serves as an incubator for more vignettes.

The Mountain Queen doesn’t have a specific visual style yet but ideally everyone who ends up working on these shorts will have a place in it; I’ve promised as such from the outset, so I had better hold to it, ha ha. The closest thing to a unification in style is Arielle’s lettering and design. She has a background in calligraphy and letters everything by hand (check out a process breakdown here), which is one of the reasons why the narration and dialogue in them is so sparse. On top of that she designs the cover title and the stamps which appear in each of the printed copies. Lastly, having Arielle on the projects helps me figure who I’m trying to write for when making these stories up.

CN: But that’s great, right? That I, having seen the finished products, pinpointed what you wanted to get to before you made them. The addition of the right artist really developed into magic. Arielle’s work, her aesthetic overlay, is a great thing to have on connected stories I think. That she works your scripts into DIRECT visuals, that she literally makes your words visible, is a really interesting partnership to have over a series of comics. You say that her hand working everything keeps your words sparse; do you find that a benefit, like the 140 count on twitter? Does it change your stories very much, do you think?

I’m a big believer in visuals commanding the narrative; verbose dialogue is something I’m still learning to trust myself with. It definitely affects the way I approach the story and which artists I want to work with because action and expression become key.

ZC: It’s kind of a tradition at this point, the way Arielle and I work. We became friends back in high school where I was a 16-year-old manic motormouth who spoke way too fast. Arielle in many ways helped me figure out how to communicate and that, in a way, continues to this day except now I’m paying her for services rendered!

I think limiting the narration in the script has only been a net gain, at least with these vignettes. I’m a big believer in visuals commanding the narrative; verbose dialogue is something I’m still learning to trust myself with. It definitely affects the way I approach the story and which artists I want to work with because action and expression become key. Recently I’ve been thinking about where complexity needs to be employed in comics to keep things interesting while still accessible and treating these vignettes as “foundational” has helped me keep what I like being simple simple. There’s a ton of background noise from what I want do with The Mountain Queen that threatens to overpower the actual scenarios of the vignettes so one way to tip the scales is keeping the wordcount down.

CN: Oh that’s cool! I didn’t know it was a creative partnership grown out of friendship, rather than the other way around. I’m seeing a Billy & Trini situation in my mind’s eye. “What Zachary means is…” That’s cute.

But you say that you’re paying her, and that you’re treating these books as foundational. Can we talk about economics for a sec?  How do you look at the monetary aspects of making these comics? How did that work?

ZC: I don’t think I would ever stake the claim of having the fashion sense of our bespeckled boy-in-blue. She can tell you herself, but I’d say that Arielle’s day-to-day vernacular is more technical than mine; I’m not what you’d call a precise person.

Sure let’s talk econ. I aim to become a writer that people want to work with or publish, and to do that I need to build up some good credit. I guess that’s a way of saying that these books aren’t just foundational, they’re investments in myself, my collaborators I work with, and this larger story I want to make. I’ve been very fortunate to work in a field that pays pretty well so I’m able to self-publish about two short comics a year. I negotiate a rate for the work with the artists at the outset, pay for the printing, then provide them with copies to sell at shows or through online stores gratis. I wish I could produce more but this is the best way I can figure out how to promote myself as a writer while proving myself to be a worthwhile collaborator.

CN: Would you say that you give your writer self payment for his work on the book? If you pay Arielle, and you paid Kelsi and Ricardo, and Business-Zachary is putting money into printing and shipping and comp copies, is the investment of experience all that writer-Zachary receives? And a second question: how do you market these books?

ZC: I’ve haven’t made a real attempt to divide the the “business” me from the “writer” me so it’s safe to say that yeah — writer-me isn’t really getting a fair deal. I tend to think of the business responsibilities I have to do to get a comic from idea to product as being a function of being an independent writer in the creative comics climate. I don’t believe that this is necessary for someone to succeed and get noticed as a writer in comics, but for me it’s something I’ve committed to trying out with this project specifically. I don’t keep all my eggs in this basket though — the other projects I’m trying to get off the ground are mostly going through an agent so that mitigates a lot of the business-y bits.

REMNANTS, Zachary Clemente, Arielle Soutar & Kelsi Ricks

As for marketing, I feel like I’m bupkis at it. I post new releases all over social media to the best of my ability and get digital copies on ComiXology Submit and Gumroad, but at the end of the day I don’t run what you’d ever call a “campaign.” I let my collaborators determine how they want to sell the physical copies I comp them so long as only I sell digital; so far it’s been shows and online stores. I have physical copies to give to editors, friends, creators, and whomever at shows, but I have no real insight to how much that helps as “marketing.” Ultimately, so long as I mostly stick to a proverbial sense of “hustle” I feel like my head’s above water and the next checkpoint is in sight.

CN: Let’s talk about “the next”, then — not the next checkpoint, but the next book. You mentioned to me elsewhere that your third book is almost ready, that you and Arielle are just putting the finishing touches on it. What’s it about? How does it relate, or not, to the previous two? And who’s on the illustration this time?

ZC: The next book is called Petrichor and yeah, it fits in the Mountain Queen timeline. Somewhere pretty early on maybe — I don’t really know yet. It relates to the other shorts by means of serving to directly explain a part of their shared universe moreso than previously done. This is the first short I’ve written after that universe started to be an established “thing” instead of a creation in parallel so we’ll see how it goes. The artist this time is Grim Wilkins who is flat-out magic with ink washes and beautifully loose panelling. I can’t wait to show it off in print, it’s gonna pop. It features the last surviving being on a dying planet and her attempts to rescue it. Kind of straight-forward, but so are the others if we’re going by their synopses.

Grim Wilkins for Zachary Clemente
An unlettered page from Petrichor, Zachary Clemente and Arielle Soutar’s upcoming collaboration with Grim Wilkins

CN: Having seen the previews of this new book, I have one last question:

All three of these comics also have a visual continuity that comes from the strong, strong orange each artist uses. Did that come from your suggestion? Did your collaborators read your previous book/s before beginning work on creating their volume?

ZC: I can’t say for certain who it originally came from but I can tell you that the orange/blue thing is a color combo a love no matter how overused it is, especially in movie posters. Since both Immolation and Remnants featured wasteland/desert landscapes, a burnt orange seems like an obvious choice.
I’d like to think that Kelsi and Grim were riffing off of Ricardo’s colors as they constructed the palette but who can say for certain other than them. I absolutely gave them copies of the previous shorts so I guess whatever visual continuity that could exist most certainly has to, because you’re seeing it.
Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at and give me lots of money