Interview: Russell Mark Olson on Gateway City

by Benjamin Williams
7th September, 2023
9 minutes

Gateway City Vol IV is on Kickstarter at the moment, so what better time to get some thoughts from the man behind it all - Russell Mark Olson.

Russell is a cartoonist based in Hampshire, UK, but originally from Missouri, USA. Not only is he the creator of Gateway City, but he has also contributed to various comic companies such as 2000 AD, Aftershock, Accent UK, Mad Robot, and Cult Empire.

If you're interested in getting early access to any of his work, you'll want to check out his Patreon page, where from as little as £1.50 a month, you get behind the scenes content and early access to weekly Gateway City content. More importantly, though, you're supporting an incredible comic creator.

Now, let's get into it.

How did the idea for Gateway City come about?

I'm from a little town about an hour away from St. Louis and moved to the city for University. I love St. Louis. All the amenities of a huge metropolis with a small town feel. I moved to the UK in 2008, and as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. I started reading up on St. Louis history and discovered a book by David Waugh on the early 20th century gang, Egan's Rats.

At the time of their operations, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the US, and, as the name suggests, the Gateway to the West. It was the edge of the so-called civilized world, and some of the lawlessness of the Wild West seeped into the city. The gangs--the Rats--in particular were bold as brass, politically active (Whelan is based on real life gangster turned politician Snake Kinney), and ruthless.

One of the Rats, Chippy Robinson, was an absolute maniac. He once killed a fellow gang member in the middle of a busy night club for getting too big for his britches, and then took the corpse for a drive around the city, narrating the scenery for him, and shoving a lit cigar in his mouth, before dumping him in one of the city's rivers. Within a few pages of Waugh's book, I knew I had to do something related to this history, but beyond newspaper articles and police reports, there really wasn't enough of a clear narrative to do a straight historical drama.

Gateway City vol IV panel
Panel from Gateway City Vol IV

Somewhere, deep in my brain, the idea clicked. I think it had something to do with the childhood imprint of Beatty's Dick Tracy film and Kyle Baker's comic adaptations that worked their way into what would become Gateway City. In hindsight, I was also responding to how foreign the States felt to me. I was writing my first draft of the outline when Donald Trump was running for president. Here he was, saying all of these terrible things, and half of the country was lapping it up. It was as though millions of Americans had been whisked away and replaced by strange, bloodthirsty people in red ball caps.

To add insult to injury, my baseball team, the Cardinals, wear red ball caps, so when you're walking around St. Louis now, you're trying to pick out the MAGA caps from the STL caps. It's strange, like some kind of mirrorverse.

Can you walk us through your process of creating a page?

Since starting Gateway, I've had a rough outline that covers the entirety of the story. It started as a webcomic and now lives on Patreon, where the creation of pages has more or less stayed the same: I draw, ink, letter, and colour one page a week. This serialized version of storytelling means that if there's something going on in the news or I think I could explore a character a little more, I can just add in a page or two to see where that strand goes. It's a little like a soap opera.

Every couple of months, I sit down with my outline, and write out a dozen or so pages of script. Then I take the script, make a layout, and then start pencils. Gateway has to fit around my other work, so that means the production has to be flexible.

Sometimes, I print a layout in blue line onto a page of A4 and use traditional pencils to block out as much as I can before scanning it, making changes, and printing it back out for inks. Sometimes, the pencil stage is digital. Often, it's a blend of both. And the completeness of pencils varies, too. If I've got a bit of time, then I might spend a bit more time refining things.

Other times, the pencils have to be left rough rough rough, and all of the tightening occurs at the inking stage--I'm keeping the correction fluid companies in lettuce. To be honest, that's my favourite way to work. The lines stay fresh and active. Those pages are always a little more exciting. But, if the looseness starts to cross the line, well, back to the drawing board.

Inks are still traditional. I've never got to grips with digital inking. I can never get them to look like physical mediums, so I just keep it as is: pencils printed out as blue line on A3 bristol board. Colours are all done in Photoshop.

Gateway City vol 4 inks
Inking Gateway City IV - shared on Twitter

Do you make many changes to previous pages as the book progresses?

Yeah, the nature of working the way I do means that sometimes, a page would breathe better as two, or I've forgotten a detail from a previous volume and have to go back in and fix it.

Usually, it's simply that when I published a page online, I didn't have enough time to perfect the colours, so I'll go back in and add some shading here, or tone something down that went a bit too far in the wrong direction.

How do you settle on a cover design for each volume?

For the patrons of my Patreon page, they get a tabloid-sized newspaper comic called The Gateway City Quarterly every three months. This includes 12 pages of the most recent Gateway strips. It means, though, that each issue of the Quarterly needs a cover. So, I sit down with my sketchbook, look at the twelve pages in a particular Quarterly, and tease out the overarching theme or biggest set piece. Then, I try to figure out which direction to take it, often keeping in mind that the image is going to be big and needs to be both narrative and graphic--that it could stand alone as a poster. Once I've got my thumbnail, I start sketching out variations until I'm happy, then it's off to the digital paint box.

I also think about the entire run of a series of Quarterlies, and try to double up my work by considering if any of the individual GCQ covers would work as the cover for the annual collection. From there, it's a bit easier: what is the main theme of that issue and which cover conveys it best?

For the last issue, Smashed Up Things, I chose the title for a few reasons: there were a few crashes, lots of fights, and the title came from The Great Gatsby and referenced how the wealthy idle would indiscriminately break things and people in the course of their pursuit of love, fun, money, power without any thought to those at the other end of their recklessness. The image of the woman with the radio on her head painted in homage to the German expressionists seemed the most appropriate image for that volume.

In this edition, American Trust, the uniting theme is suspicion and gullibility. Using the angel of death sitting atop the plinth to a bank literally reading as "American Trust" has been the easiest editorial decision I've ever made!

Gateway City Volume 4 cover
Gateway City Vol IV: American Trust

What's been your favourite part of Gateway City so far?

On the surface, I think it can appear to be a niche book (I don't think it is, though. I try to write my characters as honestly as possible, so in my view, I think there's something for everyone: action, romance, heartache, disappointment, ambition, dishonesty, loyalty, etc). So the fact that I make it for my own amusement and yet it's still found a devoted audience gives me the greatest thrill. I love that people have embraced these characters and their world.

Running a close second is how much this book has allowed me to develop and grow. I've learned so much about craft and the comics industry as a whole while making Gateway. Every so often I consider going back and redrawing the early pages, but I think I'd better leave them alone. People invested their interest, time, and money in that work and I think I should leave it all as is in respect for them.

How far through Gateway City are we? And what comes next for you comic-wise?

Well, we're still a little ways away from finishing Gateway City. Each volume roughly takes place over a day in a week. My synopsis runs over the course of 8 days (but I think I've recently figured out how to shave off a day), so we're really just over half way through the saga. That said, I would like to take some time in the near future and just bash the thing out.

I love working on Gateway, but now that I'm working in comics full time and have a young child, I could do with clawing some of that time back. We'll have to see, though.

Gateway City vol IV sample 2
Another panel from Gateway City Vol IV

I've sat on the fence for years about submitting it to a publisher. On the one hand, it would be great to get it in front of a wider audience, but on the other, I'm less likely to be allowed to digress as much as I currently do.

I've got a few irons in the fire at the moment. SKRAWL #3 will start to take shape soon. I'm also working on a super secret, fun project with Mad Cave. I imagine more details will be out there in a few months. There are also a number of writers who I'm dying to work with, but it's up to the editorial gods at the moment about which of those projects will get the green light.

Do you think you'll keep using Kickstarter as your choice of crowdfunding going forward?

That's a good question. As long as they don't make any further steps down the dodgy side of environmentally harmful practices or ethically questionable monetary tools, then yes. I was impressed with a recent statement they made regarding AI. If they're serious about supporting creative people and don't get distracted by tomorrow's pyramid schemes, then I think I will. Especially in light of the collapse of Twitter.

Kickstarter, for good or evil, is the most recognized platform for indie comics. If we all had to jump ship tomorrow, we'd survive, but I fear that a few creators would get eaten while on the raft to new shores.

Finally, what IP would you really love to work on?

Dick Tracy, of course. I love fedoras, trench coats, and tommy guns, so that would be right in my wheelhouse. Staying in the neighbourhood, it's been a dream for a number of years to adapt the Continental Op stories by Dashiell Hammett.

On the other side of the coin, something properly sci-fi would be fun. I loved Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero in my teens. That would be fun to work on.

In the comics world? Maybe Dylan Dog or Steve Canyon? Something with a lot of shadows!


Gateway City Kickstarter

Check out Gateway City Vol IV on Kickstarter now. If you haven't read any volumes of Gateway City before, you have the option to add the three previous volumes as add-ons. You don't want to miss out on the thrilling storyline, well-crafted design, visually appealing characters, and overall excellence in comic book form.

It's already smashed its funding target, taking just 14 hours to raise the required £2k.

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