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Doug Ernst’s Interview – Indie Comics, Writing & Career Influences

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Note to our readers: This Interview was originally posted to our Animated Apparel Company site. Since we have shut that site down, the interview was added here for you all to enjoy!

Image of Douglas Ernst
Douglas Ernst

If modern comics in the mainstream are not doing it for you, there is a very good chance that the indie market has something for you. This has been the reasoning for many indie comic book creators in recent years, to provide an alternative to what the likes of Marvel, and DC are offering and thus providing a richer and more varied industry.

In that regard, you have the case of writer Doug Ernst. Doug started out a few years ago with his own property, Soulfinder, which is about a combat veteran who has become a priest and who fights the very demonic forces of evil. Sounds cool, right? Well, complement that with the great work in the art by Timothy Lim and Matt Weldon and you have a high quality comic.

Doug was kind enough to answer some questions for this interview and we talked about indie comics, writing, his influences, among many other things. I hope you enjoy it!

Kevin: It’s great to have you here, Doug. I hope you’re doing well. How are things going with you during this whole virus situation?

Doug: Thanks for taking the time to interview me about Soulfinder. I really appreciate it! I can’t complain. I have my health and I was able to keep my job during the pandemic. Any inconveniences that I had over the past year pale in comparison to those who lost loved ones or had to overcome serious financial hardship.

How much of an impact did the COVID situation have on your work as an indie creator?

It’s hard to quantify exactly how much the pandemic affected the release of Soulfinder: Black Tide, but there’s no doubt that it did. Everyone’s regular schedule was altered and people had to budget differently. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to putting out a book, so massive lockdowns definitely threw timelines off a bit. We try our best to factor in unforeseen obstacles popping up, which helped out. On some weird level, however, I think the delay was a blessing in disguise. It gave me more time to plan out our hardcovers with API Print Productions.

Soulfinder Book Cover, by Douglas Ernst
The cover of the first Soulfinder book, Demon’s Match.

For those readers that might not be familiar with your work, what can you tell them about yourself?

The Soulfinder series is a clear example of “write what you know.” I may not be a combat veteran-turned-priest, but I did spend time in the military as a young man and I am a practicing Catholic. I try to tell interesting and thought-provoking tales that simultaneously honor the military and make a strong case for living a virtuous life.

How did you get into comics when you were younger?

My oldest brother used to read Spider-Man and Iron Man comics to me when I could barely walk. I literally learned to read on Marvel Comics. All of us would get a small allowance for doing household chores and I would use mine to buy comic books once a month or whenever I could convince my mother to drive us to the comic shop about 10 miles away.

Who were your biggest influences as a comic book writer?

Roger Stern, Tom DeFalco, David, Michelinie, and Bob Layton all come to mind as serious influences. I never really thought about it in-depth, so a lot of it is probably happening on a subconscious level. Someone could probably dissect Soulfinder and find those influences, but I’ve never sat down and tried to tease them out.

I think the late 70s and the 80s had some insanely talented writers working at Marvel. Men and women who truly loved the craft of storytelling were doing their thing and readers were treated to a very special era.

Souldfinder Black Tide Book Cover
The cover of the second Soulfinder book, Black Tide.

What do you think makes comic books great?

There are so many different directions one could go in with that question! Where do I start? Ha! I think the best comics have a sense of childlike wonder to them. My memories of The Amazing Spider-Man include reading issues over … and over … and over again on the carpet or curling up with a good tale before bed with a nightlight on.

A good comic has all the visual flair of a great movie plus the storytelling prowess someone might find in a regular novel — yet it’s very much its own thing. The experience of reading a good comic is unique. People wrote me after Soulfinder: Demon’s Match was shipped out and said they loved the smell of the ink, for example. A good comic book affects the reader on multiple levels.

One of the cool things about the reception to Soulfinder is that people have been impressed by the craftsmanship of API Print Productions, the artwork of Timothy Lim and Matt Weldon, the color work of Brett R. Smith and Wes Hartman, and my writing. It’s been a true team effort and the feedback has shown that people understand what I’m trying to accomplish on a broader level.

What prompted you to become an indie creator?

I’m a writer by vocation. I’ve been blogging, working for a newspaper, and writing scripts for YouTube videos for a long time. My first love, however, has always been creative writing. I wasn’t happy with what the mainstream industry was offering, and after years of people telling me to put my money where my mouth is, an opportunity came up after meeting Timothy Lim and Brett R. Smith.

The role of “critic” is incredibly important for any industry (we’re talking about constructive criticism), but a man who truly believes he can do better than the object of his critiques should probably give it a go. Step into the arena. Show others how it’s done in a humble way. Be an inspiring example for others — particularly young people.

Readers will ultimately decide on the merits of Soulfinder: Demon’s Match and Soulfinder: Black Tide, but I think I can objectively say that both books offer a viable blueprint for growing readership.

Man being severely burned, page of Soulfinder's Demon's Match.
A page of Soulfinder’s Demon’s Match.

Don’t cut corners. Treat readers with respect. Raise the bar. Always be your harshest critic. Surround yourself with men and women who will make you a better version of yourself. Be a man of your word. Be organized. Work hard and never take your supporters for granted. If a creator consistently does those things, then the probability of success (however the team defines it) is high.

What are the biggest lessons you have learned as an indie creator?

That’s another question where it’s hard to know where to begin. I think young people should take stock of just how many hats they need to wear during the creative process. People don’t like to focus on budgeting, but number-crunching is important. It’s boring and it’s arduous to do all the math regarding the fulfillment process, but not taking it seriously can lead to financial disaster.

Similarly, social media and modern technology are great for getting word about a product out there but, at the same time, a creator needs to figure out how to rise above the white noise of 10,000 things competing for attention. Writers and artists who are putting out books need to also wear a marketing hat, and if they’re not good at that then they need to figure out how to delegate tasks to smart people who could do it for them.

A lot of people think, “It would be fun to put out a comic book,” but they don’t realize how many steps are involved in bringing a good book to fruition. They get in over their head, and before you know it they’re drowning. They’re losing money. The book is late. They’re fighting with teammates on social media. They’re arguing with angry customers and they totally lost track of the fact that you only have one shot to make a good first impression.

I could write a novel about this question, so I’ll cut it short. The final point I’d make would be to learn how to be a team player if you’re not, because if you want to be a little Napoleon on an indie book, then you’re going to burn bridges in a hurry. A creator could play that game once, but if he wants to have any sort of longevity then it behooves him to learn how to make principled compromises in an efficient manner. Putting out an indie book is already difficult; having or honing the managerial skills to get everyone giving 110% is a huge benefit.

Boy being pulled into the sea by green creature. Page of Soulfinder's Black Tide
A page of Soulfinder’s Black Tide.

Of course, Soulfinder is your own comic book and the project that has gained a lot of plaudits. How did you come up with the concept for the book?

I was sick and tired of seeing classic heroes turn into unlikable men and women who often times were no different than their villainous counterparts. I wanted to see Good versus Evil, and one way to do that is by pitting a hero up against a demon. Once I decided to have evil incarnate as my foils, then I decided on having combat veterans-turned-Catholic priests as the protagonists.

One thing that was bizarre to me about comics over the years is that exorcists tended to not be Catholic priests. The characters were often people who were into the occult. That’s like telling a diabetic to see Ronald McDonald, Colonel Sanders, and Cookie Monster for advice on getting his condition under control.

Retter, Crane, and Chua are flawed men who try their best to live up to their God-given potential. My “good guys” really are trying to be men of integrity and there’s no mistaking them for an anti-hero or a villain who just so happens to do something heroic once-in-awhile.

Walk me through the writing process for the first Soulfinder book, Demon’s Match.

The overall story for Demon’s Match came to me shortly after creating Fr. Patrick Retter. I needed to figure out how this Catholic priest would be introduced into a major order of exorcists, and one way was through a series of connected death in the fictional town of Steepleton, Maryland.

Long story short: I mapped out everything in my head while continuing to read books related to exorcists, possession, etc. I wanted the demon Blackfire to have orchestrated a number of events aimed at destroying the faith of Fr. Retter. The immortal creator, which is far more intelligent and perceptive than humans, knows that if Fr. Retter continues on a certain faith-trajectory, then he (acting out God’s will) will steal many souls from Satan.

Writing typically begins when I have most of the major scenes figured out. I could spend eight hours typing one page, or perhaps one page an hour. There really is no predicting how things will flow because every line of dialogue needs to be there for a reason. There are no “throw-away” lines.

There are times when the most logical thing a character would say in a given situation changes the direction of the story to a certain degree. I can’t let things get wildly off track but, at the same time, I need to accept what the characters would organically say in a scene and let that play out.

Some of the themes I thought I would explore in Soulfinder: Infinite Ascent got pushed to the background based upon how the heroes reacted to their trials and tribulations. Our third installment went from a story about materialism’s effect on our culture to one about the fear of death and the importance of forgiveness.

Regardless, with Demon’s Match, I sent the script to some trusted friends after it was done. They gave me feedback, tweaks were made, and then Timothy Lim got to work and did a great job.

How is your relationship with your artists? Do you tend to be very detailed on your scripts or you give them freedom to express themselves as storytellers?

I have great relationships with both Timothy Lim and Matt Weldon. Demon’s Match was done by Tim, but he definitely helped with logistics on getting Black Tide to our readers. I’ll be hanging out with him and writer Mark Pellegrini down at Bell County Comic Con this August in Texas and can’t wait. I’m also excited to hang out again with Bill Williams who did a great job lettering Black Tide.

My scripts do tend to be rather detailed but, at the same time, I’ve always told both guys that if they can visually tell the story I want on a given page in fewer panels, then great. They have plenty of creative wiggle room to do their thing as long as it works with the dialogue.

I’ve been blessed in that both Tim and Matt have very good instincts. They can translate my scripts onto the page in a way that’s rather eerie in terms of matching what I saw in my head during the writing process.

Hard Cover version of Soulfinder's Black Tide
Hard cover version of Soulfinder’s Black Tide, drawn by Matt Weldon.

I’m not sure if that answers your question, but the main point is that I need to be able to make principled compromises with my team. I want my artist or my colorist on any given book to be excited about what they’re doing because that enthusiasm will jump off the page. If I’m trying to control everyone with an iron fist during the creative process, it’s going to show in the finished product. It’s going to hurt the project and keep it from realizing its full potential. If I’m not showing true leadership as a project manager, then I should look in the mirror and feel embarrassed. I need everyone on the team to know that I have their best creative interests in mind, that I value their talents, and that I will do my best to release a book worthy of their time and efforts.

Are you a long term thinker when it comes to this comic book? Do you have storylines in mind for the future or you write as you go along?

I do have multiple Soulfinder stories taking shape that will get me through 2024 as long as Matt Weldon is on board. The first six stories all basically build toward a climax for one character in particular. I’ll be able to tell those stories, God willing. The good thing about this series, however, is that each book is a self-contained tale. It’s not necessary to read from the start, but it’s highly recommended.

What can you tell us about the second book, Black Tide?

Black Tide is an action/adventure tale that expands the world established in Demon’s Match. The military background of the Soulfinders comes into play regarding a former nuclear submarine commander who embraced the occult and turned Navy SEALs. Given that spiritual warfare is not relegated to the civilian world, I wanted to explore what would happen if a small group of America’s most elite warriors becomes possessed by Blackfire and his minions.

The book takes Fr. Retter and Fr. Crane into “The Abyss,” which represents hopelessness and despair. I wanted readers to know that that there is always an escape from “The Abyss” in real life and to never lose hope as they navigate life’s rough waters.

What do you think of the reception that you have gotten for these books in recent years?

The feedback for both books has been humbling and amazing. The readers have given both books legs by sharing images on Twitter, doing unboxing videos and reviews on YouTube, and sharing promo clips on Instagram. I don’t have an insanely large social media account so the grassroots support for Demon’s Match and Black Tide has been huge in terms of building momentum.

It was the strong support for Demon’s Match that helped me make the decision to avoid crowdfunding on Black Tide and go straight to ICONIC Comics. The readers sent a clear message that they don’t care how they get the books as long as the quality is there.

I’ve heard people say that I’ve left “money on the table” by avoiding Indiegogo and Kickstarter this time around, and that might be true if we’re only talking about the short term. I think that a tipping point will be reached where people realize that ICONIC has a lot of cool books under one roof and they might as well stop in on a regular basis to see what’s new. The data that I’m looking at says not to worry about taking a calculated risk when it comes to ICONIC.

I’m not opposed to crowdfunding, but I’d rather not give Indiegogo or Kickstarter a cut of my sales if possible. I’d rather give money to ICONIC, which continues to find ways to become more efficient with product fulfillment.

Social media and the internet as a whole have become instrumental for promotion of indie comics. What are the strategies that have worked the most for you?

Using social media can be a double-edged sword because one wrong tweet or one bad day on YouTube can destroy a lot of goodwill that’s been built up over time. I’ve tried to identify the strengths of each platform, play to those in a way that maximizes Soulfinder’s exposure, and avoid various pitfalls (e.g., needlessly arguing with people who have no intention of having a conversation in good faith).

One of the cool things about social media is that I can interact with readers one-on-one via direct messages. I can invest the time necessary to answer all inquiries, and I can do so in a way where the reader is excited about the future of the series. There are trusted readers who have seen pencils, inks, and covers well in advance and they’ve never leaked a thing. They get to see what the artists are working on, and then when the book finally launches they’re happy to promote it because they know I’m offering a strong product.

There are multiple ways to build trust with readers, and if you leverage social media to build trust then good things will happen. A little bit of trust goes a long way.

Are you 100% focused on Soulfinder or are you thinking in other projects?

I do have two other properties that I would love to introduce to the Soulfinder audience, but the bulk of my time in the short term will be devoted to Fr. Retter and his friends. It’s tough with my normal job to really do more than one book per year, although there may come a time when I opt to write indie comics full-time.

I’m in an odd position because my normal job allowed me to walk away from crowdfunding, yet it also prevents me from taking these other stories off the back burner. My guess is that many questions as to what I want to do will be answered after Soulfinder: Infinite Ascent is released.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Doug. I appreciate it. Any last words for our readers? Where can we follow you on social media and buy your stuff?

Besides thanking you again for the interview, I’d like to thank your readers for considering Soulfinder. If they’re looking for solid storytelling and great art at a fair price, then they can head on over to ICONIC Comics. If they have any questions for me, I’m available on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and via email at [email protected]

Our international friends can email me if they’d like a book and I will get back to them in a timely manner.

Again, I really appreciate your time. It means a lot to me that you reached out. Thank you.

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