Thursday, December 16, 2010


Ali-Designer/Formatter, Writer, Artist

AP: Ali, ALL PULP really appreciates you taking a few minutes downtime to answer a few questions. First, can you introduce yourself, some personal background and such?

Ali: I could go with the classic Dr. Evil line, "The details of my life are quite inconsequential", but that's a heck of a spot to leave an interviewer in so let's see if I can cliff note it. By day I labor quietly at a wonderfully dead end job I'm going leave as soon as politicians quit playing football with the economy and people's lives; by night I'm a working graphic designer who happily gets a chance to do what he loves. If I'm really lucky I occasionally get paid at one profession or the other. So far the dead end day job's in the lead on stable payments, but I live in hope for the rest.

I've been fortunate to be a working designer for the better part of two decades, I've been involved in the print business for the better part of three and have a practical working knowledge of prepress and print related workflows. I've worn a few hats and if pressed can actually take a project from concept to design, to production and finishing before I have to turn it over to another set of hands. I'm basically a one man digital print shop and I'm also an illustrator to boot when I get a second to actually sit down at a drafting table and sketch. The only thing I don't have any major experience to be effective on is web work, building sites and whatnot; I'd kill, okay maybe maim, alright seriously annoy someone to get versed on that stuff.

I've freelanced and spent a decade doing event and convention graphics where I worked for practically every type of client imaginable. In case you're curious, worst convention/client/group? a tie between a convention of Christians and Catholics and the X Games; best convention/client/group? an international convention of Coroners. Coroners are some of the best people on the planet and given the nature of their jobs, they're pretty fun to be around. They have a great sense of humor as a group, bar none.

But I digress...

I usually pull off miracles of design and prepress in the wilder side of the San Francisco Bay Area, known to locals as Oakland, California, which is generally a nicer place to live than our press clippings would lead you to believe. At least once a month, usually while waiting for a bus headed home for a quiet weekend, someone tosses a bag over my head, tosses me onto the bus I was waiting for and insures I'm locked up in my own home for roughly three days to produce whatever Pro Se magazine is due on the stands. My only companion during those periods is Miles, their mighty watch cat. Apparently he's underpaid because Miles naps the bulk of the time and insists I feed him when he's not asleep. I think he's the waterboarding workaround. So during my captivity, they usually run DVDs to keep me from calling Amnesty International. I'm hoping for Inception this month, I missed that one at the movies…

…oh, and a note to my Pro Se abductors: could we get the Mint Milano cookies? I'd like some to dip in my milk, thanks.

Should I say that I tend to be pretty tongue in cheek, or is that obscured by my sparkling wit and obvious modesty?

Okay I'll try to be more serious from here on out, next question!

AP: As far as pulp is concerned, let’s talk about you as a fan first. Are you a fan of the pulp genre and, if so, what are your interests pulpwise and some of the bigger influences on you, both character and author wise?

Ali: Well I sort walked into pulp  at an early age and was a fan and didn't know it. I was encouraged to read at an early age and books were generally given to me more than toys so while other kids were struggling to get to the "See Dick run" stage I was reading the Gold Bug, Murders in the Rue Morgue, the Three Musketeers and Robin Hood. I was basically that strange quiet kid you'd find on the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits who has this spooky maturity thing going on who's reading Conan Doyle and understanding world news situations at the age of three. I was also a fan of golden age comic book characters and a huge Batman fan. It was a good time, you got the Justice Society teaming up with their modern day counterparts in the Justice League, Denny O'Neil, Irv Novick, Neal Adams and others were doing some fine work over in the Batman books and it was there that I first encountered Maxwell Grant's (or Walter Gibson's if you prefer) signature character, the Shadow. That was my first encounter with the character and it was a DC Comics interpretation so there was some modification on the character, but it was good enough to follow the guy over to his own book by O'Neil and the amazing work of Mike Kaluta and I was hooked on the Shadow.

At that same time I was reading Conan and Doc Savage and the Avenger over in Justice, Inc. but didn't even realize they were considered pulp fiction because they were all tied to comics I had been reading. I looked at Dash Hammett as mystery and crime fiction which is where the Shadow and the Avenger fell in my estimation. Doc and Conan were riding shotgun with the high adventure tales of guys like Jack London or Howard Pyle. For me, pulp was never really something that was concrete as a specific style of literature, it was just another form of fiction.

I can't say if I'm really influenced as much as an appreciative fan of certain writers. The older I get, the less purple the prose gets. I have a healthy love for science fiction, espionage and crime fiction and a great respect for the works of Raymond Chandler, Dash Hammett, Rex Stout, Ray Bradbury, Poe, Oscar Wilde, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Isaac Asimov, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Matt Wagner, Robert B. Parker, Rod Serling and Harlan Ellison to name more than a few.

I think because my inclination is more visual and the artists from the comics I grew up with, and graphic novels and such I still follow, I'm a fan of great artists from back in the day like Wally Wood, Alex Raymond, Gil Kane Alex Toth, Mike Kaluta, Marshall Rogers, Mac Raboy, Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan, Steranko, Frank Robbins, Ditko, Frazetta, Brent Anderson, Dave Stevens, Neal Adams, Will Eisner, Don Newton and Kirby and some of the modern guys who are bringing back the pulp style with their work like Darwyn Cooke, Michael Lark, Mitch Breitweiser, Francesco Francavilla, Keiron Dwyer, Paul Smith and Athena Voltaire's Steve Bryant.

I like the trend away from the whole anime/manga and fusion style. It's nice to see people that look like people and not some Sailor Moon variation. It would be nice to see art trend back into what it was before the cookie cutter anime era or the all flash gimmick days of Image where you had illustrators delivering solid storytelling which works in concert with strong writing as opposed to serving as an eye candy distraction. I know I sound like one of those crabby old guys who complain about change, but that's not it at all, I just want artists who strive to be unique in such a way that when you see their work you know the story's going to be that much stronger because the artist isn't riding their ego, they are practicing their craft and enjoying every minute of it. In an age where any bloke with a laptop and a drawing tablet can call themselves an artist, I'd like to see a person who really knows what they're doing and makes it work without a ton of fanfare.

I'm also an avid fan of audio dramas which started, oddly enough, with the Shadow and Sherlock Holmes. There was a great radio station that ran the old time radio shows on Saturdays and around the age of eleven, I noticed them as something other than background noise. My dad would occasionally listen to CBS Radio Mystery Theater in the 1970s, but I got hooked directly on a Shadow and Sherlock Holmes broadcast. The Shadow show was "the House that Death Built", involving a crazy hanging judge type who rigged his house with all these execution gimmicks and was killing people who either escaped him or turned against him. The Holmes show was probably one of the best of Conan Doyle's stories, the Speckled Band. It began a love affair with audio dramas that I have to this day and I follow the BBC regularly when I'm not sitting through a Johnny Dollar marathon or something...

AP: As far as your current involvement in Pulp, you are the designer/formatter/guru for Pro Se Productions. How did that association come to be?

Ali: Bus Stop. Bag over the head. I guess that's not enough? Okay, I guess I can expand my answer a bit. 

There was a fad online sometime ago called fan fiction, it's not as heavy as it once was but it allowed a lot of writers (good, bad and needs their hands chopped off) a forum to express themselves by writing adventures of their favorite characters that probably wouldn't have seen the light of day any other way. Among these groups was a little band called DC Futures headed by Erik Burnham. It was sort of DC Comics, the Next Generation, without the annoying android guy. At any rate it was there that I found a piece written by Tommy Hancock that dealt with the new generation of my Golden Age heroes and it was some really great writing. Somehow we got together in a conversation, I think I sent him an email praising him as the next best thing to sliced bread or something and we traded emails back and forth and found we had quite a bit in common. When he started a fan fic group of his own dealing specifically with those great old heroes, I pitched a couple of ideas and eventually did some very forgettable (in my humble opinion) writing on a few pieces. One of them, Gotham Knights, featuring Batman and other guys that were working Gotham City in the 30s and 40s was basically my War & Peace, and put the two of us on a path that's led to a great friendship and creative collaboration.

We trod through a few trenches creatively, mostly with Tommy starting with "I've got this idea…" or "Got a sec?" which usually means a few hours later we've hammered out points, brainstormed and refined things first thought he had and he runs off six to ten alternate thoughts in the process. Most guys get one, maybe two brilliant ideas a week, Tommy gets something like a dozen in about an hour, every hour, all day, every day. I've been pretty fortunate to watch the writer Tommy is develop from the writer Tommy was.  He was exceptional then and he's only gotten better since. So he and I have always had a venture on the backburner where he'd eventually get around to doing something where my contribution would be more in my field of design like a magazine or something.  During the fan fic days, I made the mistake of doing an ebook for one thing and it led to a sort of one off set of ebooks which didn't really go anywhere.  That might have been a good thing at the time, neither one of us were exactly where we needed to be in our respective skill sets.

As time went on, I'd do the occasional logo or comp together a piece of art for Tommy, but one day he came online in usual Tommy mode with "I've got this idea AND I want you to be a part of it." Since he altered the script, I asked what he needed and he laid out the concept for what is now Pro Se Productions. Initially I had a small part in the thing, he needed logos for what was to be a series of audio dramas so I said, "Sure, no problem." Confident he had me hooked, our hero moved on to the next phase of his plan which was a damn sight more ambitious, he springs on me that Pro Se is going to also have a print/publishing branch. So of course he asks, yours truly to lend a hand.

So of course with no guarantee of payment any time in my immediate future, and the knowledge that every month was going to be a grinder of pulling together all the disparate elements that make up the layout of an anthology book, I asked myself what any sane man would say to such a prospect…

…then I said yes anyway.

I'm a horrible businessman where my friends are concerned, so Pro Se's my pro bono gig. I don't take a check for it so the talent gets paid for their work. To be honest, Pro Se is the kind of seat of the pants design on the fly project that makes life fun, so I just enjoy the ride and add the credit to the resume. In another life I'd be Scotty on the Enterprise, doing wild things at the last minute just to see if I can pull it off before the Klingons blow us out of space…

AP: What exactly do you do as a formatter and designer? Walk us through the process of putting together one of the Pro Se magazines, if you would.

Ali: Well to be honest and in all seriousness, there's not really a good way to answer that one. 

I could be lightly technical and tell you that I use the Adobe Creative Suite software programs to get my job done. I work in Photoshop to process and format the images properly for what we do. some need to be tweaked more than others, occasionally I add something to an image or take it away, but it's basic image prep work and file conversion since my images show up in any form from a jpeg to multiple page pdfs I have to pull apart and make separate images. In Illustrator, I create logos, cover layouts, and set up most of the ads I create on the fly. The actual book layout is set up as a template in InDesign where I do all the typesetting for the stories sent to Tommy, add in the visual elements and plug up major white spaces with house ads if we don't have other folks plugging their products. We stir, say a few kind words and pray as I set up proof copies in pdf form for Tommy to review and note corrections, and we go back and forth until he says it's good.

I upload files to Tommy and voila it's soup!

We've gotten the process down from the first nightmare month where we actually ran through a few print houses and had to reformat files from an image based workflow to a pdf workflow. and the first month we did all three books together and it took weeks as we went back and forth with one printer then another and then we'd go somewhere else and have to redo the whole thing for those guys. I think during that whole challenge, Tommy and I were trying not to hang ourselves in an unspoken suicide pact, but it was a learning experience and there are things we know we wouldn't do the same way again.

Now it's a fairly quick process. The templates are streamlined, I redesigned the book so image placement is not as essential to the text and it made what used to take almost a week into a two day process.  If I have everything and no interruptions, I can knock out the entire book from unrelated elements to finished product in about 12 hours. I'm competing with myself though, so I'm always trying to beat my best time and make it look better than it did before.

AP: Is your design influenced by any particular style, either derived from pulp or outside of that genre?

Ali: Not intentionally. I like the art deco look and feel of things, probably more from watching Agatha Christie's Poirot than anything else. That look sort of played into the current direction of the Pro Se books house style. So much of the Pro Se look is supported by the way text is displayed that I'm in a constant state of refining things, so I try not to be married to anything because I may need to drop it down the road for something that might work better. There are some great font foundries out there like Nick Curtis, his fonts capture the look and feel of a bygone era while being a little more polished. He's got great work over at My Fonts and it's pretty reasonable. Of course my other go to font house is Nate Piekos and the wonderful folks over at Blambot, and their free fonts are so great that it makes typesetting and text design work a breeze. 

In other aspects of my work, I try not to work in any particular style, that's usually dictated by the client or the job. The more freedom I get on a project, the more I throw myself into it. Pro Se was a blank check design wise, so a lot of me is on each page.

When I'm doing my own art, I try not to follow any particular style but I'm getting back to studying artists Ilove and I'm hoping their work will continue to guide my own.

AP: Pulp seems to be having a resurgence currently. What are your thoughts on the reason for that and what part do you think design/format of material plays in that?

Ali: Everything comes back in style eventually, you just have to wait for it. I think in a world of global terrorism, political polarization and financial uncertainty we find ourselves pretty much in the same shoes as the generation who ushered in the pulp era. We're looking for a bit of escapism where problems are solved in relatively short order,  or someone plays the hero, or we enter world of high adventure that removes us from the overwhelming concerns of the world we actually live in for just a little while. Not necessarily a world of snap brim fedoras, or over the top heavies, but just something that starts out quietly enough before it hits you in the gut and catapults you to a "wow" finish. You leave feeling entertained and you want to come back for more later.

So what some are seeing as a rebirth of pulp is really just a recognition of what's been with us the whole time.  Sometimes we renamed it because the vehicle it was delivered in changed like, film noir, but pulp's influence is in a lot of our entertainment and literature.  There was pulp before pulp in penny dreadfuls and boys' own stories across the pond, Sherlock Holmes is basically Doc Savage with a drug habit and fewer friends, Dorian Gray preceded the weird tale with a built in object lesson and morality play, heck you could look at Shakespeare and make a serious argument that he wrote a number of murder stories that would lay the framework for everything this side of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. I realize that might offend pulp purists, but we are in a constant state of change and growth as we age, why should pulp be a static thing in a specific niche? In its heyday, pulp ran the gamut in its chosen subject matter and pretty much every category of fiction you look at in Borders or Barnes & Noble has been used in pulp magazines, so to look at it now and say "Pulp is…" and you push in your view then you eliminate the possibility of it evolving into something else. Cyberpunk? It's pulp. Steampunk? It's pulp.. Harry Potter? It's pulp. Twilight? Okay, maybe there are a few limits we should set, but the point is pulp fiction was simply an avenue to deliver entertainment to the masses relatively cheap and it encompassed a lot more than guys like the Shadow and Doc Savage.

It's a trend that's starting to return in comics where heroes are actually heroic. It's returning to film where we are starting to see more masked avengers, or wrong men who have to clear themselves, we've fantasy stuff like Avatar and sci-fi thrillers like Inception. Pulp's not just on the rise so is the concept of the heroic ideal. Some of these are executed well and you get novels like "It's Superman!" which is the closest we've ever gotten to a pulp Superman novel which is one part superhero, one part pulp novel with a healthy dose of John Steinbeck thrown in. Or it's executed awkwardly and you find an off beat version of Doc Savage or the Shadow falling short of its potential because you lose sight of the heart of the character. We don't need to reinvent the wheel, we need to put those babies on the car and see where the road takes us next.

AP: You are a writer as well with a background in fan fiction. Any plans to try your hand at published pulp fiction?

Ali: I've been away from writing for the better part of a decade. I'll see what happens when I shake the rust off my writer's cap and take a stab at a new tale or two.  Writing's something I enjoy, but it requires time and a certain amount of peace and quiet for me. My life has been on the move nonstop since the fan fic days, so fact I'm even considering authoring a new story much less actually executing same is extraordinary. I'm rusty and will probably give whoever edits me the biggest headache this side of California, but Tommy has this idea I should give it a shot and it's hard not to listen to that kind of coaxing.

I live by the motto of "Everything's possible", so I rule nothing out. 

AP: You are a renaissance man as well. Designer/formatter, writer…and artist. What pieces have you done for Pro Se’s magazines and has your art work appeared elsewhere?

Ali: I'm also a pretty decent tenor, no one ever brings up the singing, sigh…

What pieces have I done for Pro Se's magazines? You mean besides the magazines? This is a tough room! 

I've done the bulk of the house ads that are currently in the books. I pinch hit on a couple of art pieces Let's see in Fantasy and Fear (FnF) #1 I was lucky enough to get Ron Fortier's "Beast of the Mountains". It was a rush sketch, all pencil, that I had to complete in 20 minutes because we were on the absolute last day in our first month and were short one sketch. It never got inked but I played with it in Photoshop so it was close to the more finished art work we had for the other stories. In Masked Gun Mystery (MGM) #1, I got a piece of Tommy Hancock's "Murphy's Wake", which was fun because it was from an earlier idea Tommy had about a book where everything was presented as newspaper clippings and diary entries and such, so the story was laid out the reflect that using fonts that changed with the material being viewed. I think I did a photo of the burning house in a newspaper clipping and an idealized appearance of the hero that was supposed to invoke the imagery of a great series of comic book stories in the 1970s featuring a ghostly hero called the Spectre. Finally over in Peculiar Advenutres (PA) #2 I contributed a piece to a story by Sean Ellis, "The Sorceror's Ghost" which featured a scene from the story where I tried to capture this awesomely huge zeppelin in the skies over London. That was another fast sketch where inking, filters and lighting effects were done in Photoshop to cover up just how rough a piece it was.

I'm hoping to do some actual art that isn't required five minutes after I get a story on press day, y'know just for kicks…

AP: With the myriad of talents you have, does pulp appeal to you because it can utilize all of them or is there something more that draws you to throw yourself into this sort of work?

Ali: I'm an artist and designer, so I'm always up for a project where I can exhibit and refine my skills. Pro Se covers that need in me because it's an evolving work even with everything in place, I look at a piece and say to myself something can always be tightened or improved. The writer in me has sort of awakened cranky and hungry so I'm the process of completing a story for the first time in years which is really exciting because it's another way to be artistic. Pro Se is open to the ideas I have, so occasionally it's good to do favors, it opens up doors you didn't even realize were in the building of your life. I'm even getting back to sketching so Pro Se has sort of drawn me back to skills I've left dormant for too long. Creatively, it's a great place to be.

But really the appeal, the draw, the kick is to take up the challenge and see if you're going to pull it off. It's a rush that can't be beat by anything when I'm in the zone and everything is falling into place. Nothing is greater than just living in that moment where you're unstoppable and know you've nailed it.

AP: What about the future? What do you have in the works that might appeal to the ALL PULP audience?

Ali: Well I am constantly badgering Tommy to get some of my favorites in his bag of tricks (GIVE ME MY JOHNNY CRIMSON!) on the page…

…Oh, you mean from me specifically?

I've pitched a concept for Masked Gun Mystery using the magazine's title for the story which will hopefully spawn a series of stories under that umbrella. I won't spoil it at all other than to say it allows me to play in my favorite sandbox writing wise: crime, noir, espionage and detective fiction.  I'm hoping to get the first installment into MGM's next issue in February.

That's the only definite thing on the horizon, though Tommy and I are constantly talking about projects. It would be nice to pull off an adventure tale or two over in PA and I have a couple of guys from some old ideas that might fit well there. So after I get my first installment in the can I'm open to more writing on top of the design work I do for Pro Se at least.

AP: Ali, without those people like you, writers and artists today would be suffering. Thanks so much for what you do for pulp fiction!

Ali: Thanks for having me!