Dillon Gilbertson Talks Comic Writing

Dillon Gilbertson is the writer of the independently published comic book Sweet Heart.

Disclaimer: If you click a PHASR link and make a purchase, at no additional cost to you, we may receive a commission.

Dillon Gilbertson Interview

An Interview With Dillon Gilbertson

Aaron Iara: It is a pleasure to be able to talk to you about your work. Please tell the readers a bit about yourself.

Dillon Gilbertson: Thank you so much for speaking with me and spending some time on my comic. I’m a comic writer from Oregon, but currently living in San Diego where I complain every day about how much I miss the mountains and forests back home. I grew up watching horror movies from a VERY young age and spend a lot of time outside.

Eventually, I found comics and it was love at first sight. I knew I wanted to write my own stories and my affinity for horror and love of the outdoors obviously influenced my style. I try not to corner myself as a horror writer, but that seems to be my bread and butter; though I am working on some adventure/drama and sci-fi stuff as well.

Aaron Iara: I am a life-long lover of horror myself. Can you give the readers a quick synopsis of Sweet Heart?

Dillon Gilbertson: Of course! Sweet Heart is an intimate horror story that focuses on a single family dealing with monsters that are plaguing an entire town which has given up on fighting them. It focuses on a girl named Madison who is being stalked by the same creature that killed her father and is trying to juggle a normal life with contempt for her parents’ decision to conceive her into a “feeder family”  and her desire to kill the monsters and save the town.

Aaron Iara: I found this book to be super scary. I actually freaked out over the first issue. It completely captured me. How did you come up with the concept?

Dillon Gilbertson: So the book is sort of a thinly veiled analogy for life with diabetes, hence the 2 different monster species. I was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes when I was 6 and in high school I used to joke the Diabetes was a symbiotic or parasitic creature that I had to feed from time to time. Then a few years ago, driving home after an overnight shift and being awake for +30 hours, I started thinking about those jokes and imagined what Diabetes would look like as a monster and how it would live and how you would go about fighting it.

In my sleep-deprived imagination, I had this image of how hard it was for my mom and what she did to help me deal with it (which became one of my favorite scenes in Issue 1) and things sort of took off from there. I’ve since been told it actually hits close to home regarding struggles felt by people diagnosed with other illnesses which makes me happy that others can relate to the story.

Aaron Iara: I had a feeling that the monsters were an allegory for something medical. I think that is an amazing concept because it is subtle while delivering a big punch. 

I really like the painting/watercolor style of the artwork. How did you land on this style?

Dillon Gilbertson: To me, that paint-like style always gives things another worldly feel; like you can’t be sure how real things are or what to expect.  And that’s kinda how it is when you experience traumatic things or get diagnosed with a complicated illness as a child. I wanted this story to be steeped in that kind of feeling. All the credit and thanks in the world to Francesco and Marco for this.  Francesco injected a lot of nuance into his inks and suggested bringing on Marco to enhance all of it with colors.

Sweet Heart Issue 1 Cover

Aaron Iara: You definitively found a great style in which to tell this story.  When it comes to making comics, there are a lot of parts that need to come together (drawing, inking, writing, coloring, lettering,etc.). What is your process for bringing everything together?

Dillon Gilbertson: It really depends on the story and the team, but for Sweet Heart, it was very step-by-step, from pencils/inks, to colors, to letters. I do wanna take a small side note here to thank Francesco for putting up with me. I like to give him as much freedom as possible and he does his thing of bringing it all together better than I’d ever imagined, but occasionally I’ll get stuck on some specific detail that we will go back and forth about which slows everything down.

Then I’ll review the script again to be sure any necessary details for colors are there and it’ll go to Marco. The hardest part is making sure we have both RGB (for digital) and CMYK (for print)pages. I only have a Chromebook that has very limited capacity so it’s difficult for me to check which version I’m looking at or even check what the size is.

Saida does an awesome job of this. Instead of sending Saida 2 color versions of the same comic, we will send her 1 version (usually RGB I think)for letters and she will copy/convert it to CMYK to avoid lettering it twice. And since she’s a comics veteran, she knows the right sizing for different publishers and online hubs and makes sure everything is good to go. I honestly can’t praise Saida enough for what she does.

Aaron Iara: I have been looking at Chromebooks myself. They seem to be great for running a website and writing.

It can be difficult to maintain motivation and progress when working on a big project. How does everyone working on the comic stay productive and meet deadlines?

Dillon Gilbertson: I think this is kind of a faux-pas, but I don’t tend to set deadlines for self-published projects like this. I understand everyone is struggling with their own schedules and life happens. I *might* have some general time I’d like to have things done, so I might ask if that time is acceptable, but I’ll always ask each team member when they can reasonably have it done.

Rushing art is seldom wise and I’ve yet to have someone propose an unreasonable production time. I like to think people are much happier to set their own deadlines and I can check-in time to time to see if everything is on track. If there IS a hard deadline, it’s usually because the project with being distributed by a third-party publisher. In that case, communication is the key. Grouping everyone in on every email goes a long way so everyone can hold everyone accountable to get things to the next link in the chain on time.

Aaron Iara: Honestly, your stance is very similar to the other people I have interviews. One of the perks of working for yourself is the ability to set your own deadlines. It is definitely one of my favorite parts of running Effective Nerd. 

There are many sources of creative energy. Some wait for inspiration, while others train their creative skills. There are endless strategies for approaching the creative process. How do you approach your own creativity?

Dillon Gilbertson: If I’m lucky enough to hit a wave of inspiration, I have to move quickly. I get up immediately and start writing or else the moment might pass and I’ll be tempted to put it off and risk losing it. These moments are like striking gold and it’s so much fun unless you’re at work or in a place where you physically can’t write.

But so many times it can be hard to figure out what to write or where the story needs to go. When I struggle with that, I tend to write garbage; stuff that doesn’t makes much sense or is cliche or has no real purpose in the story. I write a lot of stuff I don’t intend to keep to”get the juices flowing” as they say. Then after a while, I’ll find something that makes sense that I can work with; something that fits the narrative or inspires some completely separate train of thought. Then I’ll delete the garbage and run with the goods.

Aaron Iara: I feel the same way. My easiest work comes when I am extremely interested with the topic at hand. That is why I love talking to creators such as yourself. I love learning about other people’s perspectives.

What other independent creators are you into right now?

Dillon Gilbertson: Christian DiBari is cemented on my bucket list of artists to work with. The work I’ve seen from him at IMAGE is unreal. Every time I see new work he’s done, it blows my mind. I can’t wait to see whatever book he takes on next.

I also recently read a book called Sol Survivor and the world-building in it is incredible. It reminded me of how everyone said the first Avengers movie shouldn’t work with how many characters they have to feed. The first issue is beautifully paced and none of the characters feel wasted.

Another is Tini Howard. I’ve been picking up some of her Rick and Morty stuff and I can’t get enough of it. She’s an incredible writer.

I don’t know if you want to count him as an indie these days, but I also just started reading some Cullen Bunn stuff. Literally, just before this interview, I finished the first volume of The Sixth Gun and just, damn. The last chapter in that book utilizes the narrative functions of each gun in so many cool ways. I just love it.

Aaron Iara: What advice can you give to those who want to make their own comics?

Dillon Gilbertson: Start small. You don’t one day decide to start exercising and run a 30k without any training. Do short stories. Get a feel for the medium. It’s going to be crushing if you are 3/4 of the way done with your 22, 32, 48, whatever page comic and you learn that you’ve drawn it in the wrong dimensions or messed up the page turn or realize it could have been so much better if you’d learned some new story-telling technique earlier. Smaller comics mean smaller risk if you mess up. Also, if you want to get it published instead of self-publishing, there are way more opportunities to submit for anthologies than for multi-issue series of graphic novels.

If you’re looking for one (of many) good place(s) to start on a story of any length, think of something that affects you emotionally. If you wanna write a horror story, think of something scary. For comedy, think funny; for action, think exciting, etc. Really let it get to you. Roll it around until you’ve reach peak scary, funny, sexy, whatever. Get some specifics for what is happening at that moment. Where is it? Who is there? What time of day is it? Things like that. This doesn’t have to be the big climax of the story, it just has to affect people. And it if affected you, chances are it will affect others.

Once you have everything, think about how this moment came to be. What lead to this moment? How does everyone involved know each other?How did they get there? Why are they there? Add context to everything. Make this moment make sense. Explore why it affected you so much. When you lead people to this idealized moment to exemplify the genre you’re writing in, they need to know why you chose it. Make them feel what you felt.

Now, what is gonna happen after? What are the consequences of this moment? Does someone die? Did characters form a relationship? Did a relationship end? How are the characters going to react? Play it out in your head. Think of the implications.

And boom! You’ve essentially outlined a large portion, if not the entirety of your story all from one moment. All you need to do it write it out. Boom.

Aaron Iara: That is some amazing advice. Do you have any other projects in the works that you would like to discuss?

Dillon Gilbertson: I have a story in the 2018 Horror IF Anthology coming out in January (Lines by Seba Lizana and Letters by Cristian Docolomansky)which is a simple collection of horror stories of all kinds. I’m assigned to received around 30 comp copies of the book that I think are marked at $14.99 and I will be donating all my comp sales to an organization to benefit marginalized comic creators.

I also have a story in the local Haunts Anthology (Lines by Danny Jiménez, Colors by Luca Romano, and Letters by Cristian Docolomanksy)that collects local ghost stories from the hometowns of dozens of other creators all over the world. What I Iove about this book is that it shines alight on smaller, less publicized stories that might not be known outside of the towns they originate from. The kickstarter just ended and didn’t quite make its goal, but we plan to re-launch sometime early next year. So be on the lookout for that.

There are a few others I have in the mix, including and Adventure/Drama tale I’m working on with a good friend of mine with Débora Caritá’s pencils and a shorter sci-fi tale about monkeys being launched into space with an awesome dude name Michael Kus. Aside form that, I can’t really say too much.

Aaron Iara: What can our readers find you and your work?

Dillon Gilbertson: You can find me on Twitter and Instagram

The first two issues of Sweet Heart are available on Comixology and ComixCentral.

And you can see a lot of my other work on my website.

Keep an Eye on Dillon Gilbertson!

A huge thank you to Dillon Gilbertson for taking the time to speak with me! No lie, Sweet Heart is one of the scariest things I have read in a long time. I am a huge horror fan and it is rare that a story will elicit a visceral response. 

You can find Dillon Gilbertson at the following locations:

Social Media: Twitter | Instagram

Dillon Does Comics

Make The Other Emails In Your Inbox Jealous.

Get The Best Of PHASR Delivered Weekly

The Perfect Shirt For All Your Special Stains.


Get The Best of PHASR Directly To Your Inbox!

When you sign up for the PHASR newsletter,
you are automatically entered to
win free PHASR merch.