Interview: Alex Mayo Talks Broodmother, Harlem Unbound, and More!

Here we are again, and so soon! The truth is, after writing the Broodmother Skyfortress review and realizing I had questions for the creative crew, I got this crazy idea to contact each of them and hope they wanted to answer queries from a Twitter weirdo. Luckily, Jeff Rients wasn’t the only creator willing to spend a chunk of his time talking about his craft – Alex Mayo, whose work I praised heavily in the review I posted a few days ago, also had time to very graciously sit down to talk about that book and so much more!

So, as always, let me get out of the way so our illustrious guest can save this blog:

Let’s start with Broodmother Skyfortress, published in 2016 by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. You brought an incredibly distinct look, at least as far as the OSR is concerned, to a hardcover release – what was the inspiration for the Kirby-esque graphic design?

That actually came from James Raggi himself. Raggi is a pretty canny art director, to be honest – I think it’s partly what has made Lamentations of the Flame Princess a success. Each of the books in the line has a distinctive look and even the books you’re not sure you will use at the table you want to own just as a gaming artifact. Sometimes James is more hands-on with the aesthetic, sometimes less. When he handed the project to me he gave me some vague thoughts about what he wanted and then sent me on my way. I did a sample page design and he approved it and that was pretty much it. I remember we had some discussion about whether or not to go with a sans-serif font…usually in a text heavy book sans-serif fonts are a bad idea, but we took a chance on that and I think it actually worked. I wanted it to resemble a comic book as much as possible and serif fonts would have skewed that in the other direction. I also took the idea of the ‘Kirby Crackle’ framing and used it to separate the two parts of the book, so that the split between the sections was easily noticeable. There was a lot going on in there and I wanted it to be easier to flip through.

What challenges were presented by that book? Was it hard, as a visual artist, to try to balance the sort of gonzo tone with the usual LotFP characteristics?

Not so much – because every LotFP book looks different I tend to approach every book I do for Raggi differently. There are some similarities (I love Minion Pro as a body text font, for instance and will often defer to that out of habit…) but by and large every time Raggi hands me a project there’s a moment of problem solving where I’ve read the book and try to figure out how best to exemplify the tone of the book through layout. As for challenges specific to Broodmother itself – Jeff had a lot of information in there that was conveyed in a highly organized manner. I mean, he’s an academic and I guess that influences how he communicates this stuff. So there were lots of places where it made sense to create checklists and tables to articulate not just what Jeff wanted to say but how he was saying it. And Jeff does love his tables! There were tons of those things…and tables that spread across multiple pages can be difficult to wrangle if you want to preserve the user experience. I also remember a moment when the book was nearing the finish line in layout and Jez Gordon (who did the excellent maps in the endpapers) pointed out that the way the text flowed didn’t precisely match the way people were likely to encounter the areas. I guess that’s a thing that you see more easily when you’re drawing a map of the thing than when you’re laying it out! Anyway, Raggi asked if I could re-work that section to match Jez’s suggestion…which sounds easy. But the problem is the way I do book layouts for Raggi is I flow all the text into the document for a first draft – then Raggi goes and has the artist make the art to fill the empty spaces I’ve left. So re-ordering those sections meant changing the empty spaces and re-placing all the art…which was very nicely drawn to fit into my previous empty spaces like puzzle pieces! And to make it more difficult – I had to make sure the art still related to the text around it when it was dropped back in. That was a fun afternoon spent at Starbucks trying to figure that out! But I think it’s unnoticeable in the final book – which I’m kind of proud of.

Layout and graphic design are underrated portions of the process and a large percentage of the buying public doesn’t even realize how critical it is to their enjoyment of these complex books. What books have you encountered that resonated with you, as one of the few folks out there who definitely notices these things? Any books from your life that inspired you to take on graphic design and layout as part of your illustration career?

Yeah, for real! I was just joking with a friend today that you almost never hear about layout in a book review unless it’s atrocious. So I often read reviews of books I’ve done hoping to not see my name being mentioned – ha ha ha! I’ll be honest, it’s less books that inspired me to do graphic design and more artwork I was surrounded with growing up. When I was a kid I absolutely loved Warhol’s prints and to this day I really enjoy seeing a Warhol screenprint in a museum. I actually went to art school because I wanted to be a comic book artist, but I pretty quickly decided I couldn’t do that because my page rates would have been awful and I kind of fell out of reading comics to some degree after college anyway. I think one of my bigger influences when I started doing graphic design was a British design collective called The Designers Republic. People probably remember them mostly for the work they did on the Wipeout games for Sony’s Playstation console, but they also did a lot of art for music groups – particularly Pop Will Eat Itself, a UK band which I followed obsessively for quite some time. My other main inspiration, artistically, are the horror comics published by Warren Publications from the late 60’s through the early 80’s – stuff like Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. I still love the amazing black and white line art in those things and it’s the main reason I prefer to work in black and white myself to this day.  In terms of RPG books that inspire me – I really admire the old James Bond 007 rulebook. I’ve gone on at lengths about my admiration for the game itself, but I also think the core book is wonderfully designed. The way it uses sidebars to add to or elucidate rules in the main body of text is wonderful. It’s a very clean, smart piece of layout work. I also love, love, love the spartan design of the old Traveller ‘little black books’. I can scarcely see the Optima font without thinking of Traveller – that’s how deeply it’s rooted in my mind. I remember Marc Miller saying somewhere that the books were designed that way because the guy he hired (whose name escapes me) just wanted to get the books done quickly – but I can’t fault the results. 

You have worked on a number of projects within the RPG industry, including B/X Essentials for Necrotic Gnome and of course a number of projects produced by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. What was, in your opinion your breakout gig – the on that really made it clear you could keep getting gigs in the industry?

Honestly, I think the steady stream of work I produced for Zzarchov Kowolski (much of which can be found in the Omnibus which is being made available as part of his Kickstarter!) is what really did it. Not only did Zzarchov keep me busy for a couple of years straight it also gave me plenty of experience and helped me develop a working relationship – and friendship – with Zzarchov that continues to bear fruit to this day. I could point to things like Hubris or Towers Two and Broodmother and say these were big feathers in my cap – and they are, to be fair – but it was that ongoing series of books I did for Zzarchov that really taught me what I needed to know to take on bigger projects and to help me develop my style as a layout guy and an illustrator.

This year you worked on a project called Harlem Unbound as a stretch goal contributor. In addition to making waves on Kickstarter, the book has earned some amazing ENnies nods! What inspired you to take this project on?

Frankly, I owe that one to Brennen Reece – the layout guru and artist who did so much work to make that book look as good as it does. Brennen is a close friend and he recommended me to Chris Spivey and when Spivey told me the pitch (‘we’re going to tackle Lovecraft’s racism head on and pay homage to the Harlem Renaissance’) I was totally on board. There’s such a rich artistic tradition that owes its life to what happened in Harlem during those years – it really was a joy to research what I needed to know to take that assignment on. I feel truly fortunate to have been involved in that, Ennie nod or not. Spivey has produced a work of massive importance, and I’m incredibly proud to be a part of that.

Neoclassical Geek Revival! The Zzarchov Kowalski Kickstarter achieved a stretch goal to bring an all-Alex version to print. What are you most excited about with this project? Any pieces you’ve illustrated that you’re excited about?

Oh man – I wish I could tell you something! I can tell you I’m probably the person who has spent more time looking at that book other than Zzarchov having done layout on it at least twice, and now a third time on my own version. I’ve only just started working on it – but I’m committed to making it the most ‘Alex’ version of the book I possibly can (take that as you will ha ha ha…).

There’s still a lot of 2018 left to go; will we get to see more of your work published this year, or are you content to rest on your laurels with B/X Essentials: Monsters, NGR, and Harlem Unbound?

Yeah, there are always projects in the pipeline. I’ve got more work I’m doing for Zzarchov – I don’t know how much I’m supposed to say at the moment, but if you go to Gen Con and poke Zzarchov (figuratively, not literally) you’ll probably see some of it. I’ve got at least two books I’m doing art for that are crawling towards the finish line, some layout work, and even some writing gigs…although I suspect those are probably not 2018 releases. I’m very busy πŸ™‚

Your Patreon project, Penetralia Press, is producing a lot of content for its backers and collecting quite a few patrons in the process. To close this out, what can you tell us about the Patreon, your plans for the future of the project, and your favorite takeaways from this experience so far? 

I’m really happy with it so far. I mean, it’s only a few weeks old and I’ve already got a fair number of supporters. I really enjoy doing personal work and putting odd things in the hands of gamers. Although I’m a gun-for-hire in this industry I do have a decent amount of leeway when it comes to the work I do, which is nice. People tend to come to me because they like my style and as long as I stay true to my instincts I usually make my clients happy. But I also have some goofy ideas rolling around in my noggin and being able to bring those things to life is gratifying. Sadly, because I have rent to pay and whatnot, it’s hard to sit down and draw things unless there’s a payoff down the road somewhere – but Patreon is a wonderful venue for allowing me to make the things I want to see in the world and for people to pay whatever they want to have them. As for what I plan to do with it in the future we’ll see. I want my supporters to feel like they’re getting a good value for their dollar and I want to find ways to make that happen. Whether that’s livestreaming my work process (oh my god does anyone really want to see me draw a hand thirty times because I don’t like the way it looks?) or running games for my supporters, I don’t know. I’ve already committed to doing podcast-style interviews with people I like…so I guess that’s happening since I crossed the Goal line yesterday. Maybe YouTube videos. I’m a pretty shy person, so I don’t particularly like being on camera. But we’ll see.

Alex, you did this exercise far more justice than I deserve! Amazingly insightful responses. I feel truly lucky to have gotten these answers, so thank you so much for contributing to my blog. It was truly a pleasure to speak with you, and I hope we get to do it again in the future! It would be my absolute pleasure to find the thinnest of reasons to have you answering more questions about your work.

Those of you playing along at home should definitely follow Alex on Twitter, as well as go take a look at his Patreon project delivering his own top-to-bottom brand of unique RPG creations – art, writing, podcast-style interviews, and who knows what is yet to come. And while you’re clicking links on the blind trust that I won’t send you someplace horrible and emotionally scarring, do yourself a favor and check out the Alex Mayo art edition of the Neoclassical Geek Revival Kickstarter by Zzarchov Kowalski – not only can you get Alex’s fantastic artwork and layout work and a great approach to the old school style of gaming, you can also get your hands on a limited omnibus print run of the collected adventures of Zzarchov (with Alex Mayo art galore) in the same place! The Kickstarter has less than two days remaining and is a great way to spend a few dollars and end up with what will surely be a great return on investment at the table!

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