Thursday, December 26, 2013

Creative Insights: Interview with Max West

Creative Insights is a regular feature that take a closer look at authors, artists, developers, and inventors who inspire with their works through interviews and/or investigative profiles. 

Our first Creative Insights subject is the author/artist of Sunnyville Stories, a graphic novel that has been featured here at the blog as a subject of review as well as on sale at our companion retail site (  We hope you enjoy this closer look into the life and work of a bright new talent in the comic industry!

We would like to welcome Max West to Great Stories.  Here is a little background on Max and his beginnings!

Max West was born and raised in New York City. He spent much of his youth making visits to his local library (starting a lifelong love of books) and watching much television - both cartoons of the 1980s on broadcast TV and a variety of movies and specials on cable TV. Earning a degree in creative writing from Baruch College in 2003 and taking night classes in art at the nearby School of Visual Arts, he created Sunnyville Stories in 2009 and completed his first adventure with Rusty Duncan and Samantha Macgregor in spring of 2010.

He currently resides in the Southern USA, where he works full time as a freelancer.

GS: First off, congratulations on your book distribution deals with Ingram and Baker & Taylor.  We also understand that your work can be found at Amazon, Alibris, and even in many public libraries throughout the nation!

MW: Well, I wouldn't say "many" - but so far, I've landed my work in four public libraries, the library of the School of Visual Arts, and the library division of Alibris.  Anyway, the distributor I've landed has been very helpful.  They've sold copies of my book to some independent booksellers as well as the chain Books-A-Million, the second largest bookstore chain in the country after Barnes & Noble.  I also got my book listed on IndieBound, which can make Sunnyville Stories Volume 1 available through many independent bookstores across the country.

GS:  In your own blog at, you mention that Sunnyville Stories was inspired by an old Japanese Anime named Maple Town and your own move from New York City to rural North Carolina also served as the breeding ground for this invention.  What was it specifically about the old series and your change in scenery that moved you to create Sunnyville Stories?

MW:  Yes, it was.  Maple Town (which is hard to find in the USA since there's been no DVD release and videocassettes are long since out-of-print) fascinated me as a child and as an adult.  The setting of the series was a remote area where time seemed to stand still.  For an anime made and supposedly set in the 1980s, I was amazed at how the characters and towns seemed to be without video games, personal computers, or popular music in the era of "I Want My MTV".  In a way, that helped make the series timeless and give it a particular charm.

This unique setting in Maple Town was one that I sympathized with.  At the end of the 1980s (the end of an era for me), I left New York City for a rural town in North Carolina.  It was a jarring change going from one of the largest cities in the world to a town that was small and spread out.  Whereas everything I needed was within walking distance or accessible through mass transit (in New York), the small town was a contrast in that you needed a car to get everywhere and I didn't have many of the things I took for granted in NYC like movie theatres, shopping malls, video arcades, and so on.  This is reflected with Rusty, the star of Sunnyville Stories, as in the first episode and even as time goes along, he remarks how different the town feels and how he doesn't have everything that he had in his former home city.

GS:  Do you think that your change in environment was a necessary component of Sunnyville Stories origination?  Would this idea have been found had you not uprooted yourself from the city?

MW:  It definitely was.  I may have eventually created Sunnyville sooner or later as I found inspiration from the Maple Town anime.  However, had I not moved, it may have lacked the unique perspective I had in moving into a completely different environment.

GS:  It sounds as if the main character in Sunnyville Stories, Rusty, could be an extension of you, Max West.  But Sunnyville Stories is chock full of other characters in an ensemble supporting cast.  Are these characters manifestations of your own life experience and reflections of people you know and have met?  Or are they loose interpretations of a variety of expected personality archetypes that reflect a world exclusive to Sunnyville? 

MW:  Many of the characters that make up the world of Sunnyville were inspired by the characters from Maple Town.  When I first started putting the world together in 2009, the supporting cast were indistinguishable from many of the Maple Town characters.  But for obvious reasons of originality and copyright, I started individuating the characters, changing their names, and giving them short histories.  I want to drive home the fact that these characters are not simply drawings on paper.  They are living, breathing creatures with birthplaces, childhoods, goals, and life-shaping experiences.  I've always felt that Sunnyville and its inhabitants are very real.  That's probably why the work is so strong and has much potential among the reading public. 

GS:  Can you give us any insight as to what other adventures may be in store for Rusty, Samantha, and the gang?

MW:  We're going to be delving more into the world of Sunnyville, meeting even more characters, learning about the character backgrounds, and more wild stories.  I have a grand total of fifty stories planned to be spread over a total of ten trade paperbacks.  While many of these stories will be slice-of-life, I'll occasionally delve into the realms of the fantastic.  I have notes for a ghost story, an incident where an energy-based lifeform is accidentally created, and even a time travel episode!

GS:  Switching gears, you attended the School of Visual Arts in New York.  Can you share your feelings on this experience?  And would you consider such formal training and learning to be a necessary step for aspiring artists today, both from an artistic and business perspective?

MW:  I wasn't a degree student at SVA.  I went at night to take continuing education classes.  I specifically took classes that I felt would help my work rather than the full range that a degree student would have had.  I not only took classes in making comics, but also in other skills like painting, perspective and life drawing.  That's when I really started to come alive.  I felt an awakening that I hadn't felt before and I had a supportive environment that embraced my ideas rather than scorn them.

As for art school being a necessity, I can't give a straight answer of "yes" or "no".  While art school and an art degree can give you skills and connections, it's no guarantee that you can get any paying work in comics, illustration or any branch of commercial art.  It all depends on your goals, your educational options, and ultimately, you.

GS:  Can you speak of your artistic influences (not necessarily limited to your own trade as a writer and illustrator)?

MW:  My influences are many.  I've done a lot of reading, I've traveled a lot, and I've taken much in during the course of my life.  I've taken much influence from the 1980s, the decade of the my childhood, and I like reflecting this retro-style universe in Sunnyville.  As for artistic influences, newspaper comic strips were the very first and foremost thing that affected my work.  While I read superhero comics and manga, I was exposed first to newspaper comic strips since my parents bought copies of the New York Post and the New York Daily News.  The first thing I turned to was the comics pages to read up on what was happening to Garfield, Peanuts, etc.  Charles Schulz was (and still is) the biggest influence on my drawing.  Like him, my own work is simple and relies on its writing to carry everything.  To a lesser extent, the work of Jim Davis (Garfield), Gary Larson (the Far Side), and Bill Keane (the Family Circus) also was an inspiration to me.  I've looked to the world of illustration for inspiration; Marc Brown (Arthur) and Richard Scarry (Busytown) have given me many ideas from what to work with.

I also have a relevant theme that recurs in my work and that is isolation.  In some of my past work and with Sunnyville, I've dealt with characters who are isolated somehow or setting that are the same way.

GS:  What do you find interesting in the world of pop culture, including movies, TV, music, and literature?

MW:  What I find most interesting are the older works, mainly from the later half of the 20th century.  Most contemporary music and TV shows don't appeal to me much.  In fact, the theme of isolation is tied in part to the constant fluctuations of modern pop culture.  The world, the latest fashions, the hot ticket at the moment, etc. is always changing month to month, week to week, and day to day.  Whatever pop singer or trend was popular one day may transform into yesterday's news another day.  This rapid change is one I find overwhelming and with Sunnyville, I deliberately try to make things stand still in that setting in an attempt to bring order to the chaos.  I want to make sense of the constantly changing world.

GS:  I'd like to take a moment to talk about your future projects.  You have mentioned on your blog that you are preparing a horror-themed book called Von Herling, Vampire Hunter as something you are preparing for a 2014 release.  Does this project bare any relation to Sunnyville Stories?  What can we expect from this project?  And when can we expect the Sunnyville Stories Volume 2 release?  Are there other surprises fans of your work can look forward to?

MW:  Von Herling is a completely original graphic novel that's in a different setting from Sunnyville; don't expect any crossovers.  While Sunnyville is more of a general audiences title, Von Herling is intended for older readers; there's some blood in there as well as profanity.  This work is more of a classic vampire tale and Gothic horror.  I was influenced by the original Dracula text by Bram Stoker along with Hammer Films (maker of the 1958 classic, Horror of Dracula).  August Von Herling is a protagonist that, like Rusty Duncan, is a fish out of water.  He's a precocious teenager who's arrived in rural Tennessee in pursuit of a vampire he's chased all the way from Europe.  His accent, his precise way of speaking, and his dress immediately set him apart from the close knit community that he settles down in.  Anyway, I feel that I've achieved a real feel of Gothic horror that missing from contemporary horror works that rely on buckets of gore and gruesome deaths.

As for Sunnyville volume 2, that's on schedule for March 2014.  I'm sure fans will like it because it continues to reveal more of the world of Sunnyville and more of the characters.  I introduce the older brother of Sam Macgregor as well as a little of the seaside town, Solton, that he lives in.  Rusty continues to settle into Sunnyville and gets involved in local activities.  And I continue to find my voice and develop my style.  There will be even more surprises in 2016, when the third volume will hit stores.

GS:  Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!

If you are interested in buying Sunnyville Stories Volume 1, please visit this link.........
Happy New Year Everyone!
Chris (for the Great Stories team)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Honor Roll: Best Christmas Films/Specials Part Two

The Honor Roll is a Great Stories feature column that gives you the best in class movies, books, and multimedia from the Great Stories team.  This month Jim and Chris make their top six picks for the best Christmas features of all time!  A total of twelve films/specials you should consider watching in preparation for jolly old St. Nick sliding down your chimney.  

Here are Chris' Picks!

The Year Without a Santa Claus
No tag line

No Christmas is complete without the TV specials we grew up watching as children.  Among them, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  All are staples of a youth that part of me will never let go.  My favorite of those TV specials, however, is the The Year Without a Santa Claus.  Featuring some of the most memorable supporting characters, Heat Miser and Cold Miser, their very own "Mother" Nature, and tow of Santa's helpers, Jingle and Jangle Bells.  Is the Christmas spirit alive in our world?  That is the question and the characters mission is to find it so Santa can continue his mission of joy for all the world.  Try not falling in love with this one!
Jim's Comment:  Worth it just for the Snow Miser/Heat Miser alone. A classic.

A Christmas Story
"Sometimes Christmas is about getting what you really want."

What can be said of a movie that boasts such a following that it is aired for 24 hours a day in some media markets?  This is no mistake.  Pure dysfunction never appeared so palatable on the big or small screen as this!  From the neighborhood dogs rampaging through the kitchen to steal Christmas dinner, Flick's infamous tongue scene, the Red Ryder B.B. Gun, and so many more classic scenes that make this one a must-see film this holiday season!
Jim's Comment:  See last blog entry

"Cute.  Clever.  Mischievous.  Intelligent.  Dangerous."

Joe Dante created a masterpiece with 1984's holiday horror.  Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, and Corey Feldman all part of a great cast.  A boy brings home a neat and cute little creature of unknown origin and makes some very unfortunate pet care errors (ah, those kids....responsibility not their strong suit!).  The result is an army of terrible little demons whose path of destruction and mayhem leave a town changed forever.  Dick Miller is particularly great as the grizzled veteran who has a history with the little monsters.  The bar and movie scenes are awesome and under the direction of Joe Dante (who gave us diverse projects such as The Howling and Small Soldiers), you have a decidedly more sinister Christmas movie that stands the test of time!
Jim's Comment:
Gremlins 2: The New Batch is even better. Two of the wittiest movies ever made. Favorite scenes: the pool smoking and roiling after Stripe dives into it and the whole scene at the movie theater. Christmas movies don’t get much darker than the scene where Phoebe Cates explains why she hates Christmas. This scene was then expertly parodied in Gremlins 2. 

Scrooge (1951)
No tag line

For me, this is the ultimate version of probably the most re-told literary Christmas tales.  And there are many great ones to choose from.  My compatriot Jim chose the musical Albert Finney version from 1970.  Then there is the most recent digitally animated A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey providing the voice to Ebeneezer which is arguably a modern day classic.  But in the end, I have to go with the most haunting of all the versions, and the Alistair Sim version is most certainly the apex of the considerable list.  The image above announces the full color enhancement version, but I think what made the film even more effective was the original black and white presentation.  I recommend taking in Charles Dickens brilliant work in this original black and white form for the best experience.  Alistair Sim was made for this role and he absolutely owns it.
Jim's Comment:   
Widely considered the best filmic version of A Christmas Carol with the esteemed Alastair Sim as Scrooge. I tend to favor the Albert Finney musical, mainly for the color and the music, but the ’51 version is brilliantly acted, spooky and memorable. Also one of the most emotionally resonant versions, particularly at the end.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra:  The Ghosts of Christmas Eve
No tag line

Christmas boasts probably the most popular and beloved music associated with any holiday.  And as a fan of rock music, I was taken the very first time I ever heard a Trans-Siberian Orchestra tune.  Each album tells a story, and the TV special that Paul O'Neill and company produced back in 1999 spins a yarn about a young runaway girl and her eventual reunion with her family.  A tragic story that turns to joyful celebration.  Performances from Michael Crawford and Jewel Kilchner among others help to bring the flawless instrumental performances to a new level of greatness.  Ossie Davis narrates the story, and just one view may get you buying tickets to see their live shows year after year (just like your humble blogger).  
Jim's Comment:  
Basically a series of videos. I wouldn’t call myself a passionate fan of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but I do think that their music sounds good.

The Polar Express
"Journey beyond your imagination!"

Robert Zemeckis brought us the first all digital capture film.  As a one of its kind (at the time) movie with the vocal talent as well as digital visage of Tom Hanks, the movie was a pretty big hit in the box office and has now for the past half dozen years been a staple of my household's Christmas playlist.  A doubting boy boards a train bound for Santa's home in search of faith and belief.  The message is powerful and the presentation was entirely innovative, spawning a new era in movie animation.  You won't find a much better holiday movie that will be so enjoyed by a universal audience making it a great pick for your whole family.
Jim's Comment:
Robert Zemeckis is a master of visual filmmaking. This movie is a feast for the eyes from beginning to end and I look forward to seeing it every year with my daughter. The one big reservation that I have with it is that it’s a movie populated by characters that are not live action, but not animation either. This was the first attempt at a full-length “motion capture” feature and I don’t think they had quite worked the bugs out of it yet (I think that it was more successful in Zemeckis’s version of A Christmas Carol 5 years later). Some of the characters, particularly the children, look, well, a little creepy. I think that this awkward look gives it a kind of coldness that stunts the movie emotionally. I do think that some of Tom Hanks’ wonderful personality does come through in the character of the conductor, though.

That concludes our Christmas film/special honor roll.  We hope all of our readers have a joyous Christmas! When we return we will have a new book review for you all, as well as another comic pick of the week.  Further, we hope to have an interview with the writer/creator of Sunnyville Stories for you sometime soon.  All this and more at Great Stories!

-Chris & Jim (for the Great Stories team)

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Honor Roll: Best Christmas Films/Specials Part One

The Honor Roll is a Great Stories feature column that gives you the best in class movies, books, and multimedia from the Great Stories team.  This month Jim and Chris make their top six picks for the best Christmas features of all time!  A total of twelve films/specials you should consider watching in preparation for jolly old St. Nick sliding down your chimney.  

Here is part one of the list with Jim's picks!

"This holiday, discover your inner elf!"

The most recent Christmas flick on the list, this was Will Ferrell’s first starring role after Saturday Night Live. He’s at his best here in a role that’s tailor-made for his man-child persona. This is a sweet movie that doesn’t become icky-sweet, with just enough cynicism for the Scrooges among us. A great supporting cast consisting of James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, the appealing Zooey Deschanel and Peter Dinklage (who makes a classic out of his one scene). And look for a cameo from Peter Billingsley, star of my next entry!
Chris' Comment:  I remember heading out to see this one with my family after Thanksgiving dinner and having a great time.  A hit with the whole family in fact.  I had not been familiar with Will Ferrel's man child brand of acting and comedic delivery at that time (not having been a view of SNL for some years) so his great performance came as a pleasant surprise.  

A Christmas Story
"Sometimes Christmas is about getting what you really want."

Well, what can you say about this one? Middling box office when it was released 30 years ago, eventually becoming so popular through television viewings that some stations run it non-stop on Christmas Day. The merchandising, the Broadway show. Watch the face of anyone that you mention this movie to break into a grin. “You’ll shoot your eye out!” “Ralphie just lay there like a slug.” “I triple –dog-dare-ya!” My favorite scene: the visit with the department store Santa. HO HO HO!!!
Chris' Comment:  See Part Two of this blog (appearing tomorrow)

Scrooge (1970)
No tagline

Colorful musical version of A Christmas Carol, with a memorable performance by Albert Finney, Alec Guinness as the best Marley ever, and with a rousing rendition of “Thank You Very Much.” I usually save this one to play on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Chris' Comment:  I chose another version of Dicken's tale to present on my top list, but this one is a fine choice and almost won out.  You can't go wrong with this musical version, or Albert Finney's Ebeneezer! 

The Shop Around the Corner
No tagline

Expertly played by a talented ensemble (James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan,  Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart and William Tracy stand out), Ernst Lubitsch’s gentle classic has made way for several remakes (even a Broadway play), but it’s still by far the best version. What’s more, it’s a Christmas movie that doesn’t keep hitting you over the head that it’s a Christmas movie.
Chris' Comment:  I have to say this is an odd choice for a best Christmas movie list.  Is it a good movie?  Sure, it's OK.  It did spawn a remake of sorts in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan "You've Got Mail".   James Stewart is widely recognized as one of the greatest leading men in Hollywood lore, but man does he offer up one of the weakest tough guy shoves in movie history in the movie's most confrontational scene.  As occupational rivals, Margaret Sullivan and Stewart are entertaining in their roles in a movie that is certainly telegraphing its plot twist from the very start.  Ah, the innocence and simplicity of Hollywood in the 1950's!  Yes, the thoughts of a jaded movie-goer who feels he has seen it all.  Once was enough for this guy.

The Bishop's Wife
No tagline 

Forget the dull remake, 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel  Washington and Whitney Houston. This is the one to watch for good old-fashioned holiday cheer. With the deft Cary Grant as the angel who might not be 100% angelic and the luminous Loretta Young. Add to that an effective performance by David Niven, one of the best supporting casts ever assembled (Monty Woolley and Elsa Lanchester included) and Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography. The filmic equivalent of a glass of egg nog and a plate of Christmas cookies (and much less fattening!). 
Chris' Comment:  Bravo Jim!  Cary Grant playing God's dutiful angel who is tempted to leave his work for the love of a woman.  A fine Christmas selection that weaves a tale of heartfelt life lessons and the dangers of temptation.  With an ending full of redemption and restoration of balance, it makes for a satisfying cinematic experience.  

March of the Wooden Soldiers
No tagline

Like many of the choices on my list, this may be extremely corny and old-fashioned to some.  However, I think that we have to lament the fact that movies such as these have been passed over in recent years in favor of those containing vulgarity and cynicism. It might aid your enjoyment of this movie to transport yourself to 1934 to forgive some of the broad acting and the dated special effects (although please feel free to skip past the dreadful singing duets between Bo Peep and Tom Tom). With the great Laurel and Hardy, wonderful (non-digital!) sets and a general feeling that a storybook has just come to life right in front of you. 
Chris' Comment:  This movie makes me wish I picked Jingle All the Way (yeah, I liked that one...laugh all you want) as a measure of "corny" revenge on my good friend Jim.  I had not seen this movie and so borrowed it from his collection.  My wife and I were saddened by how bad this one was.  I know it is not in the Christmas spirit to say this,  but "Bah Humbug to this utter trash".  Remember folks, just because it's old does not make it a classic.  Maybe I just don't get Laurel and Hardy.  I like to think of myself as having a sense of humor and wonder, but this Babes in Toyland story makes Robin Williams' Toys look like a fine cinematic triumph.  

Happy Holidays!-Jim

Stay tuned for the second half of our honor roll blog celebrating our favorite Christmas movies later in the weekend!