After graduating from USC’s Thornton School of Music, Nick began work on the Mondo Media web series Dick Figures and Dick Figures The Movie. Nick’s other projects include scoring for web content and commercials.
In addition to music, Nick has written several feature scripts, including Turner of the Century which is in development as an animated film at Ghostbot Animation.
In July 2015, Dark Horse Comics began publishing his horror comic series Death Head.
Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to share your experience with us, Nick. You and your brother have done some cool projects, and I loved your recent podcast interview about your upcoming comic, Death Head. To start us off, can you give our readers a quick summary of what Death Head is and where this idea came from?
Nick Keller: Death Head is a new horror comic series, published by Dark Horse Comics. The story is centered around the Burton family after the parents discover a mask in the woods. A murderous villain, the Plague Doctor, begins hunting them down to get it back. This idea was born when Zack and I were on a walk in the woods one afternoon. We came upon a manhole cover and we asked “What would happen if you fell into there… but you escaped and brought something back with you? Something that was never meant to leave.” From there, we wove in the mystery of the Plague Doctor and the story became Death Head.
JS: Do you and your brother work together often? What other exciting projects have you two collaborated on?
NK: We have worked together on several projects over the last few years. Death Head has been in the works for roughly two years but we’ve also written and sold a feature-length script together, as well as developed a web-series for YouTube. It’s an exciting time to be writing with Zack and we’re very happy with all our projects.
JS: Have the two of you studied writing, or did it just come naturally?
NK: I never traditionally studied writing in school, but I have been a reader and lover of stories all my life. Particularly horror. I’ve always loved deconstructing why certain stories are loved and why others are not. Usually when I look at my favorite movies, it has less to do with the plot. I think most people are drawn to character moments within a story, and that’s what makes you come back to any particular one again and again. So I would say… I learned to write just because I’ve been a student of stories all my life.
JS: I see that you studied music at USC, and understand that is your main passion. How do these two worlds unite for you?
NK: Music is a passion of mine and I’ve played piano since I was a young kid. However, writing strikes a different creative chord separate from music. I tend to gravitate towards minor chords when writing music and that bleeds over to my writing. A reporter commented that Death Head #1 felt very atmospheric and asked if my music was similar to that. He realized it even before I did, but I think he’s absolutely right. For both music and stories, I’ve written mostly atmospherically… so I think that’s how I’ve blended the two mediums.
JS: Would you say your music or writing is the main focus of your career?
JS: At this point, writing is definitely at the forefront of my career. Zack and I are very exciting with the opportunities with Death Head and our other project. However, I still work on many music projects every week and want to keep doing it.
NK: As a fellow writer, I’m glad to hear it! Do you ever write without your brother, or is it more of a partnership?
NK: I do write things without him, but we’ve found an abundance of success with our writing partnership. We both have separate projects always going, but our most successful ones are together. Writing with another person is very rewarding because you can bounce ideas off each other. Usually, this means the story becomes very strong as we keep revising because we have double the brain-power. Hopefully people are enjoying the work we are putting out!
JS: Let’s step back to the comic. A lot of people out there want to make comics, but getting published isn’t super easy (especially with a great company like Dark Horse). How did you manage to make this happen?
NK: We decided that we wanted to make a comic. Before we even thought about being published by a big company, we went out and made the first five pages of the comic ourselves. We wrote all the issues and hired our artist, Joanna Estep, for a pitch packet. Last summer, we had the opportunity to meet the Dark Horse president at Comic-Con and he picked up the series. We didn’t want to wait for permission to make a comic by a publisher, so we just went out and did it ourselves! They took notice and now the first issue is hitting shelves this Wednesday. It’s been a crazy journey to this point.
JS: What were some of the challenges/ hurdles in getting this done? How did you select the artist?
NK: The main thing people don’t realize about comics is how much teamwork goes into them. You have the writers, who write out a script for one issue, which usually comes out to 40-50 typed pages. Then an artist works for roughly two to three months on an issue. Then there’s coloring, lettering and cover art. In addition to all this, you have promotion, marketing, letter columns, and a ton of other craziness. It makes me appreciate the amazing work being done in the comics industry right now. So go out and support the monthly issues at the comic stores… the team will thank you!
We selected Joanna from a large group of artists because she was the best for our story. Our criteria were expressive characters, strong backgrounds, and exciting layouts. She hit the bill on all of those. She originally colored the pages but we hired Kelly Fitzpatrick (her color work was some of the best we’ve ever seen) to take some workload off Joanna so she could focus on the art.
JS: Your brother wrote (and did so much more) the Dickfigure series and movie, and you composed the music for it. What can you tell us about this experience? Do you have any crazy stories from this collaboration to give our readers an idea of how crazy (and of course fun) this creative life can be?
NK: Working with the entire Dick Figures team was a great part of my life. I owe so much of my career to Dick Figures. Zack asked me when I was still in college if I wanted to compose for this new web-series he created with Ed Skudder. We had no idea it would turn into the huge success that it has become. One crazy story comes to mind. One day, I was working at the studio finishing the score for the Dick Figures movie. A letter gets dropped on my desk and it’s written all in pencil. I open it up and there’s a page long fan letter from a Dick Figures fan, telling me how much they loved the series and my music. That was very flattering that they found the studio address and sent a letter to me. It’s nice to know that people can be inspired by others in creative careers. I keep the letter in a very safe place.
JS: That’s awesome! Thank you again, Nick. Before we sign off, can you leave us with one last piece of advice for following our passions?
NK: I recently read a quote that said something along the lines of: “The next Michelangelo could be sitting behind a desk, writing invoices for paper clips just to get monthly paycheck.” I thought that was interesting because the world could be robbed of fantastic art just because someone had to take a job they don’t enjoy. If you can, follow your passions, because you really have nothing to lose. And if you have to take a job that you don’t enjoy, keep working on projects of your own, even when no one’s looking and you aren’t getting paid. It will pay off in the long run. Those projects usually become successful and bring the most creative joy.
For other interviews like this, see my book Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. (now in Audiobook!)