Carl Choi and Sean Chen Talk NextChapter and the Future of Comics

NextChapter is a new, graphic media publishing and distribution platform of creator owned content focused on building a community for artists and fans to directly connect with each other. Their mission is to provide fans with access to original stories along with the creative process behind them, and unique opportunities to purchase limited edition collectibles such as compendiums, original pages, sketches, and various other pieces of art. I had the pleasure of talking to NextChapter’s founder Carl Choi about its origins and its future, and I also spoke with their first partner artist, the illustrious Sean Chen about his process and projects amidst the pandemic.

If you could just tell us about NextChapter’s origin story — what did it look like when it first started to come together and take shape?

CARL CHOI: To be honest, it hasn’t been that long. For me personally though it was a long time coming — July would have been my 30th year at San Diego Comic-Con and like many others I was pretty sad that I wouldn’t get to attend. I mean especially for myself, I grew up in this space, so yea it really was a long time coming. I’ve worked in peripheral to the comic book space for a number of years — for about a decade now, and I’ve never really strayed away from my hobbies. Comics really were my last love, and in essence, those key moments started in April when we actually realized that things were going to change forever.

Diamond Distribution told us they were going to stop distribution indefinitely. And so that was actually the key moment because, you know, every year you go to a convention and there is a community. When I’m there I often stayed in the Artist Alley, speaking with friends and creators. So, when that announcement came out, we knew the community was going to be fractured and for me as a problem solver I brought it up to my team, what can we do to connect fans to creators as if Artist Alley never went away. And that’s really how NextChapter came about.

You mentioned how catastrophic April was to the comic book community. Was NextChapter something you were thinking about in the back of your mind or at least something like it, or was COVID the catalyst that brought it to fruition?

CHOI: Sure, I might be jumping the gun with this, but my business partner and I began working with creators back in February to develop original IP, and a lot of it was to back creators we love and stories we love. In a way, we wanted to pair the best of both worlds — meaning, we saw that, sure you can go the route of Marvel and DC and you can draw your favorite childhood characters and get paid well, but you don’t own any of it. On the flip side, you can take a full-on gamble — a 180 and go Image and send them your book, where you own everything. There may not be much guarantee because there isn’t much marketing that goes behind it, but you get to own what you own.

So, we wanted to develop something that was in between because our initial thought was to back creators and then take it to Image and have them distribute it through Diamond. But when COVID happened, we knew it would drastically change our long-term plans. Everyone knows this — from Sean Chen, to our next partner Guy Gilchrist — the expectation is that NextChapter is a creative experiment.

I think you make a really important point in highlighting this as an experiment — considering the state of things, we thought for a while now that so many of these industries were untouchable. Then 2020 happens.   

CHOI: Right, I see a lot of folks out there trying to cast a vision — you know, when we were growing up in school, we were told to have a “three to five-year vision.” And then within the last decade or so it’s turned into a “one to three-year vision.” But these days? Good luck if you have a one to three-day vision. So, calling it “experimental” is just an honest way to put it.

You spoke before your passion for comics and the culture, so could you tell us what some of your fondest comic book memories are — maybe even some of your favorite characters or series.

CHOI: Oh, for sure my fondest memory would be my first San Diego Comic-Con and how under-prepared I was. I remember sleeping over my buddy’s house and they invited me but were really casual about it like, “Hey, we’re going to this thing and it’s gonna be a two hour drive so bring your comics and your trades because we also heard there’s like an oasis for comics there.” So I’m totally up for it but I don’t get much sleep and I’m knocked out on the drive over but I wake up in a daze like, “Where are we?” At the time — I’m sure folks have a certain image of Comic-Con in their heads — but at the time there were maybe 30 to 40 long tables just full of long boxes and people with comics. I just remember seeing so many gems and wishing I had more to trade for them and especially wishing I had more cash on me because there weren’t card readers there at the time. It was overwhelming, but man… I was mostly consuming the art and the scene. I was super intimidated by the artists; it was just a different time. Back then they were our superstars, our idols.

I remember Jim Lee came into one of our local comic shops, and I couldn’t even talk to the guy we admired them that much. I’ll share a funny story — years ago when I was in the entertainment industry, they’d hold these fundraising poker tournaments. During one of the events there was a gentleman next to me with this huge beard who I spent the time laughing and joking with. We were just having a ball and really enjoying the game and then the next day I get all of these Facebook messages with people asking me, “Hey what’s Jim Lee like?! What’s he like?!” and I was lost. Apparently, I played poker with Jim Lee all night and just didn’t recognize him with the full beard! I was really fortunate to be in this industry; it just makes you realize how much of your dreams really do come true.

So, what’s up next for NextChapter? What can fans look forward to or events you folks plan on launching that you can share details about? 

CHOI: Well, we’re super excited September 1 is our first drop — we’re trying to do something really different. It’s going to be a 24-hour drop where you can only purchase the book within the drop time and the idea is we want to get the book out in the next six to eight weeks. The second thing we’re going to be doing is producing an event — we were looking for a way to not have an event on Zoom. Zoom events just aren’t the same — our work every day takes up that space and those streaming platforms, so for entertainment I don’t want to sit in front of Zoom or a Google Hangout. So, we went far and wide and searched until we found this platform that will allow our fans and users to jump into this online universe and actually attend a gallery opening of Sean Chen’s original artwork. And when you’re there, you’ll not only be able to buy his book but also purchase original art that we’ll ship to you.

It’s going to be an exciting, but again very experimental, release — our next release may look totally different, but our goal is to supply what works for the culture. For me, I’m a promoter of culture, and comic book culture is beyond what it used to be. Marvel movies have proved that it’s become pop culture and everyone growing up from the older scene has got to come together and welcome those new fans and comic book enthusiasts.

How’ve you been handling COVID as an artist now that there’s even more alone time — time away from the workspace and from people you might have worked with frequently?

SEAN CHEN: Well, as an artist nothing much changes — I work in the basement like I usually do, and the only difference is the wife and kids are home also. The kids can be tough sometimes but we tag-team on taking care of them so having the family around more has been enjoyable. Also, my schedule is kind of flexible — you know, you draw comics and take on as much as you can but occasionally scale back to care of your other goings on now. All in all, we’re pretty fortunate to have this kind of ideal setting to be sequestered in.

What’s the thing you’re going to miss the most from the convention atmosphere and space? COVID has truly devastated that part of the comic book and trade world for longer than we’ll be able to guess.

CHEN: Well, as a comic book artist there are so many things about the conventions — I mean, it’s the place we can go to earn much needed extra money and it’s also the place we can connect with the editors, which sometimes turns out to be the only time you get to meet the editors. We also go there and connect with the fans and that is so very important.

So, what has it been like to go from sharing your work with the public — out in public, to now having to strictly use screens and social media outlets to disseminate it? 

CHEN: I guess it begins more as an experiment now — I put it out on my Instagram, I put it out there for free for folks to read if they’d like and enjoy it too, and that’s really what it was at the start. But it wasn’t too long after that I realized people really like it on Instagram and for them was the best way to read my work. In addition to what you work on you definitely want to have a lot of extra material in there, so Instagram became a great space to showcase that.

Do you feel more willing now to take experimental risks than before because of how drastically things are changing, or are there more apprehensions for you?

CHEN: For me, in the beginning it was “try to serve the fans that Marvel catered to as best as possible.” So, to give them the Iron Man they wanted or maybe didn’t even know they wanted but would still really enjoy — catering to the fans, through Marvel, was at that time the most important thing. And that meant working a very constrained path but I was very happy to do that and deliver that. But these days I’ve been working more with advertising and my wife has a great job — there are a lot more avenues to pursue creative things now. I mean I’ve been drawing for comics by other writers for a quarter century, I feel I’ve been there and done that, and I was surprised to see that I never really needed my own voice with what I’d draw.

And social media — it’s played an even larger role in getting out the content to fans. How has it been for you adjusting to that kind of a medium? Does it feel invasive at times that folks have access to that much of your own personal space?

CHEN: You know, I’m a late comer to social media. When I discovered it, it kind of hit me like a freight train and it opened up the world for me — I didn’t know this was at all possible. The thing is, when you work in isolation, you don’t get much feedback. You can get a very general sense of how things are going over, but when you put things on Instagram you can hear people chime in on all levels and get a real good read on what’s working and not working. And the biggest thing for me is, I was surprised that some of the pieces I thought were not that great — I was just going to put them up but then people really loved them. It allowed me to value my own work — you know, you can be your own harshest critic, but I came to see a lot of love out there for the stuff I did, and I really didn’t even know it. Also, on Instagram it opens up the entire world of art to you. You can pass some really great artwork in a large flurry.

On September 1, NextChapter will host their first digital drop and fans will have purchasing access to physical copies of Wingman: Compendium of an Artist’s First Writing Experience, a graphic storybook featuring author and artist Sean Chen’s original story “The Second to Last Seal” (retitled Wingman) — which is currently available on NextChapter’s Instagram. You can find a link to NextChapter x Machi X DAO Art Gallery Event Pages here.