I absolutely love webcomics. Romance, drama, horror, suspense – you name it, chances are I love it. The format has quickly become one of my favorite ways to consume stories. The way authors and artists are able to mix together the feel of a graphic novel with animation, music and cliffhangers of all sizes at the end of each chapter. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Marissa Delbressine and Anne Delseit, the dynamic duo behind The Shadow Prophet. We got the chance to chat about the story itself and life as a Webtoon creator.
If you haven’t had the chance to read The Shadow Prophet, do so! You can find it here on Webtoon!
Interview with Marissa Delbressine and Anne Delseit
Julia Roth: The Shadow Prophet is beautifully done and I binged the entire first season within a day. Why did you decide to write the story in this format instead of a novel or graphic novel?
Marissa Delbressine: Originally, the plan was to make a graphic novel. That would have happened if I had better luck with publishers and with myself trying to get this story together. I had been struggling for a long time to tell the story and some publishers were interested but bailed and others went bankrupt. I kind of had a very rough road getting this project into being.
At first, I was together with a different scriptwriter and during the process, we were starting to look for another publisher or other opportunities. A friend of mine was already a Webtoon Original at that time and very successful – Colourbee and the webcomic Acception. She is a former intern of mine and it was really good to see how she was succeeding there. When we were talking when she visited and she shared that she was doing so great and that I should try and pitch.
We kept talking about the possibility and I was thinking about it and it was like, ‘well, it’s going to be a lot of work to change what I already have been making in graphic novel format to a webtoon format.’ It’s also a different audience. The graphic novel format would have had a darker story for a more mature audience so we decided to make it more accessible for the general public and reformat it with different pacing and almost different everything.
We knew it was going to be a major job, but there was still so much of the story not drawn yet, so let’s just try to pitch and see if we get accepted. And then we did. That was exciting to finally have a publisher and potential readers, but we also had to make so many adjustments and the process has taken so many years already. And I’m also very fond of thinking up millions of ideas for the story itself. In the end, my writer was so busy already and felt like I knew the story better than them and left me to focus on this story while they worked on theirs.
I was worried about doing this on my own, but at the same time, I was already pitching another story to Webtoon with Anne that was in a similar situation. We were trying to make this other project work for so many years, but there were always other things happening. We decided to pitch it anyway, but Webtoon went with The Shadow Prophet instead. Since we already knew each other so well and worked well together, I asked Anne to assist me with this major task of restructuring and helping me finally fulfill this project. She gets to read so many of my endless emails and bins of ideas and try to structure them.
JR: Will the project that you previously worked on together get repitched to Webtoon? Or is that just pushed to the side for now?
Anne Delseit: Well, we first met in the early 2000s when I was translating one of her comics into German. We’ve been in touch ever since playing around with different project ideas. We had a project that ran in a German magazine for a little while, but we never got around finishing it. The story was set in a dystopian Europe, and while it’s been sitting on our desks, the real Europe has gotten uncomfortably closer to our dystopian vision and that is kind of scary.
For example, back then, we thought about a Europe falling apart and borders being closed again. And suddenly we are at a point were Great Britain has left the EU and we have to face borders again. Since the reality has caught up with our dystopian vision, we have benched it for now.
Anyway, we have always been exchanging ideas and pitches and working on stuff together in the last couple of years. I just love doing concepts in general. In the end, it all comes down to money though. Of course, we love doing comics, be it a print version or a webtoon. It’s our passion. But we all have to eat, too. So there will definitely be a project after TSP, but which one an will be we’ll probably we can secure funding for.
MD: It will also depend on if there is a publisher as well. It is such a difficult route to get things pitched and picked up. For our second go, it might go easier, but you never know. We hope to get stuff out there.
JR: I’ve always heard that getting into Webtoon can be tough, but once you are in, it’s a bit easier to get new stories pitched. However, that always depends on how well your first story did and the audience it brings in.
MD: That’s true and unfortunately, with The Shadow Prophet, while we get very good reviews, the audience isn’t very big compared to other titles. It is definitely something that could be better for us and our future prospects.
AD: I think it’s also because Marissa comes from animation and illustration and I come from editing, and we also started in what now feels like a different era of publishing. Today, social media and your online presence seem to have become a major factor in the business. This is a huge change when you are used to the more classic route of pitching your project, getting your contract, working on the project, publishing it, and then attending press events, signings, and conventions.
Now, you need to factor in social media. Which, of course, we do love to, but it’s not that easy to gain a lot of followers unless you spend a significant amount of time there, and have the right content ready. It is a lot of fun, but it can be very time-consuming and takes time away from writing and drawing.
MD: It’s like a second job.
JR: Social media definitely plays a role in how well your story does as it helps grow the audience. Over the last few months, I have been trying to make a point in following the creators of the stories I love because I now understand how important that is. Shifting over to creative design. What is the process like since you both live in two different countries?
MD: Through calls like this (Zoom) and emails and through Facebook messaging. Every opportunity that we get. Sometimes Anne comes over for a weekend visit and we do a lot of planning then.
AD: So we don’t live that far away. Marissa is in the Netherlands and I’m in Germany, which are right next to each other. Especially when I still lived in Cologne and she was studying in Maastricht, it was about two hours by car. Now it is about three hours by car. It is still close enough that I can drive over easily.
JR: So very close! Being in the States, we tend to forget how close the countries in Europe are!
MD: It’s great because we can still get together. We spend a lot of time talking about the project and we have a Google document where I just type endlessly with ideas and we shift things about trying to decide what stays and goes.
AD: It’s always about trying to find out what we can and cannot squeeze in. ‘Do we really need it? If we include this that we won’t have space for that. Which is more important to you?’ It’s funny coming from printed books. When you have printed books, it’s this feeling of ‘if only I had a couple of pages more’, and trying to get the publisher to let you have them without having to increase the price of the book. Then we are on the internet and Webtoon and finally, we have space. But then again, we are set on 40 panels an episode!
MD: Usually more because I can’t contain myself!
JR: Are you guys limited to how many panels per chapter? Is this a Webtoon choice or your own?
MD: Webtoon usually has a panel minimum. If we decide to go totally crazy over this episode, it’s totally fine; we just need to meet our deadline in the same amount of time.
JR: Time is definitely a thing, especially if you are writing week to week for the story. One of the things I loved about The Shadow Prophet is how long each of the chapters is. It just felt like it kept going on and on and it would end at a perfect point and I was always excited to dive into the next chapter. Of course, this takes longer to do. But were there things that you wanted to fit into this first season that helped make the story a bit longer?
MD: Definitely! We wanted to hit certain cliffhangers so we could have good to be continued moments that might entice readers to fast pass, which of course, helps with our income. It also keeps people on edge like, ‘Oh, this is so exciting I need to read the next chapter,’ and people can theorize about cool cliffhangers. But then we are always like, ‘this scene needs to be a little longer’ and then you end up with 60 panels instead of 40 and question why I did this to myself.,
But it’s all for the good of the story. It is very hard to say that we will be done with 40 panels. We need to find that special place where we can cut it off and that was so hard with the season finale cliffhanger!
JR: The story is what I really love about The Shadow Prophet. Where did the story originate? What themes or previous tales have you heard that helped grow this idea?
MD: We need to go back almost 13 to 14 years ago. Similar to the other story I was doing with Anne, this is a story that has scarily become real with time. Originally the basis of the story came to me when I was going through a breakup with my then-boyfriend. I was on an internship abroad in Brussels. Everyone was speaking French and I didn’t get that language, so I was really isolated in a way. I had heartache when my then-boyfriend left me for another woman.
Here I was all alone in a foreign country doing my internship. I was getting on subways for the first time in my life, which was really serious in a way. They were these dark tunnels and at some points, I would see construction vehicles veering off down there and I was also curious about what was happening. It really sparked my imagination and those things congealed together and created the starting point of the story with a lot of my personal themes like perfectionism, fear of failure and trying to find out who you are.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of how much this impacted me, but later on, I was diagnosed with ADD/ADHD and that was also a very important theme in my life. I wanted to give it a space in this project. Over time all of those themes came together and mixed with my then script-writer Willem Ritstier, a renowned Dutch veteran writer who also does his own graphic novels and greeting cards. He was my entry ticket into the Dutch comic theme. We were introduced by my then publisher.
Getting to know him, we decided to make a Manga story together. I would draw and he would write. I had so many ideas and I gave him a list. One of them was a story about a girl being isolated, dealing with heartbreak and perfectionism and he connected that with the idea of a dystopian setting. From then, we started building it up slowly and slowly. He based this version of this city and country on his fears of what the world would be if things go wrong. The drones are villains and people are following a religious dictator and having the entire country ruled by perfectionism. It grew naturally from that point on.
Over the years, we veered in different directions with the characters. Some changes were made and The Shadow Prophet is kind of what it was back then. But, a lot of the character routes have changed and the way the story is being told. I don’t know if you recognized it, but a lot of the scenes are from the original designs. There are still a lot of specific dialogues and scenes from the old days.
It’s a very interesting mix-up of old me and new me. Old ideas from Willem and new ideas from me and Anne. There was another scriptwriter involved for a very short period of time, Pieter van Oudheusden who is sadly no longer with us anymore. He had this really great idea of having the Godo sayings in the story. It is really cool that we still have that in there as well, so he will still be a part of the story together.
JR: I really love how you use the Godo sayings as chapter titles. It really helps to nail the idea these people worship Godo and every decision they make is for him. Now, Anne, you are newer to the project, not new now at this point, but how was it to come in and be a part of the creative process after it has already been started?
AD: It has been an amazing journey so far. I mean, there is so much love in this project and throughout the whole process of creating it. The characters are really interesting for me to work with and I have the honor to do some final stitching, and work on the structure with Marissa. I get to say, ‘okay, we are kind of losing it in the details here’ or ‘keep the focus on Itshou more’.
There are so many characters and they all have intriguing background stories, if I may say so, which I’d love to tell right to the last detail. But sometimes it’s my duty to say, ‘yeah, we all love her but let’s go back to Itshou because she is the main character.’Or, ‘let’s not have Ryuchi be like this, let’s keep that for later.’
JR: I could use an Anne in my life to keep me on task! Now, we can’t talk about The Shadow Prophet without discussing the artwork. It is truly fantastic and has its own unique feel and style to it. What is the background of the style? How did you best decide what would work for this story?
MD: Well, since it is a project that has been on the road for so long, the style has changed through the years. Originally it was more rounded, but I veered more and more into the angular, polygon/origami style which it ended up becoming. This is mostly due to my internship. Back at the time, I was interning for Brendan and the Secret of Kells. It is a very beautiful and stylish movie that the studio I was at as an animator did work for. It was really cool to be a part of the development and they had an amazing style bible where you could see all the different things.
What I really liked about the style was you look to create a beautiful picture that doesn’t necessarily have the characters looking like the model. You are pushing the shapes and pushing the models and they used a more rounded style. I really loved the style but I didn’t want to copy it so I went with more angles and tried to push the shapes for a more angular shape. So, I took those ideas and made them in a different way.
I experimented a lot with it at the time and I was creating all kinds of doujinshi at the time and I still have friends in that genre. But I used these to test out the new style and in each one, I pushed the shapes further and further. My graduation animation, which I never finished in the end because it became too big of a project, but I made a really beautiful test version of it. I got my degree anyway, but I was really lucky they still accepted the unfinished project. But it really had these angular shapes where there’s not the need to have a perfect model, but you go for a more impactful image that is much stronger.
It eventually developed into the polygon/origami theme, which people thought was because of the origami in The Shadow Prophet. I really thought about agreeing, but it really stems from all the work I had done in the past. Everything came together very beautifully. I hope to continue to push this into the second season and keep experimenting as the chapters go on. I love to keep things fresh and it’s easier for me to look at a project as something I am learning. It is my way of working with my perfectionism and try to not make myself freeze up. I am continuously looking for ways to improve, even though it seems counterproductive to the idea that you need to have a consistent style or you are not a good artist.
JR: There is a very specific scene with paper cranes and a sword that just pops in and out of the scene that I adore. I really love all the smaller touches, the animation and the music. It all leads to building this great story. Being an animator, I’m sure you did that work yourself, but how did you find people for the music?
MD: It was actually a fan who approached me and said, ‘hey, I made this song because I was inspired by The Shadow Prophet; hope you like it!’ And it was so good. It’s the song when Itshou crawls through the tunnel and I knew we needed to use it. Being a Webtoon original means that we can have animated gifs and music in the series. Originally I wanted to end every chapter on an animated image because it would be so cool, but when I was making the first chapter, I realized I just didn’t have the time to do it.
For the special episodes, we knew they needed to have a little extra. I would have loved to animated entire scenes from it because it would have made it so epic, but there was just no time. I was very lucky that Jeanne Côté reached out with the music. Our flat artist, Daniel De La Cruz Díaz-Valdés, reached out and shared that he composes and he was inspired as well. He gave us permission to use it if we wanted and I knew we would. We were so lucky that the people around us were inspired and made music for us. There are still some pieces of music that haven’t been used yet because we haven’t gotten to a point where it fits perfectly. We are saving them for the perfect occasion.
JR: One of my biggest draws to Webtoons specifically is that way they are able to incorporation music and animation. I love to read books, but there is something special in Webtoons. You get these little details that just work to enhance the story. So, you’ve tied up season one with a big cliffhanger. Can you share what is in store with season two? Are you in the process of writing? Will it still release in early 2022?
MD: Currently, we are still in the plotting stage and we want it to be early 2022. I hope I will make it art-wise because I have a maternity leave coming up. We will definitely try to do as much before and after while I am able to and get extra help if we can find the right people. There needs to be a lot prepared in advance, so that is our current focus. The second season will also be the last. We will be rounding it off and you will get all the answers in season two.
Because we aren’t that big of a series audience-wise, we are rather limited in our options. Sadly this is still a business as well, but we will fight to do our best.
AD: We really know where we want to take the story and we have an ending in mind. The details themselves are still floating around a bit. We want to really nail everything down structure-wise and see what we can fit into the story. It will be a bit of a struggle and we will do some changes along the way. The great thing is that Marissa comes up with really amazing ideas all the time, and we just got to continue developing the story while we are working on the comic. I think it is really important for this project to not always go by the script but to give the creative process some space to breathe. And also to give some scenes space to breathe.
I think this is also something we get a lot of good feedback for. We have a certain flow in the comic. Visually, of course, when you are looking at the artwork but also storytelling-wise. We try not to get haunted by the cliffhanger situation at the end of each episode too much. It seems strict at frist, but it also helps you create your structure. When you plan for a whole book, having ‘weaker’ chapters endings seems to be more tolerable in a way. You don’t always have to say, ‘come on, read on.’ There can be chapters where everything is just fine and you don’t have to do any foreshadowing, and then you just hit something at the readers at the beginning of the next chapter.
This isn’t the wisest strategy for Webtoons though because we need people to fast pass or come back the moment the new episode drops the following week. We love staying awake until two in the morning central European time so we can answer the first comments on the new episodes. We can’t always make it, unfortunately, but we really try.
Anyway, with the structure of working towards a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, we use the scenes within to take time to breathe and for that, we need this ‘creative flexibility’ to be very last minute sometimes. But so far, it has all worked out.
MD: Doing great, of course, and we still had a long hiatus during the pandemic and we are going to have another until season two releases. The pandemic had its challenges, but in the end, it’s the story that matters. I feel conflicted about having long hiatuses and making the people wait. I am very happy with how we are telling the story and the pacing and art. It’s like, yes; we can go faster, but then I would be unhappy with the end result. This story deserves to be told the way it is now.
AD: We are talking a lot of breathing time while actually rushing a lot. But that’s okay because we take our freedoms with it. Marissa has her family and I have my day job. It’s okay.
JR: I think it is crucial to remember that this is coming from two people who have other obligations like family and full-time work. It is amazing what you are able to create and bring to us. Getting to experience what you have been able to create is that much more impactful. And I hope season two will come soon, but I understand why there is such a long break.
AD: We can’t wait for it to come back!
MD: I miss all the comments and waking up to see if everyone hates Ryuchi as much as they did before or even more!
AD:There are some fans who don’t hate him. They love him for not being a typical villain. He has a special place in our hearts and sometimes you just love to hate some characters and he is one of those. It is always a great compliment when people are raging about what he is doing or going to do, or if they are taking notes on his backstory.
JR: It is the depth! When you add depth to a character like that, it makes them more than just a bad guy. When you add backstory, it is easier to see why they would make their choices. You can even sympathize with his choices. But at the same time we have to say no, Itshou is our girl and he did her wrong! Thank you for chatting with us! We look forward to season two when it does come out!
MD: Thank you for having us! I really enjoy keeping everyone guessing and feeding readers tidbits on backstory and making them really think about the characters in different ways! It is so much fun and I love doing that!
AD: Thank you for chatting with us! We love doing this! We are really enjoying our time as creators of a Webtoon series! It’s been so fortunate for us to be able to present the story on Webtoon and interact with our readers. I think The Shadow Prophet deserved to be told exactly in this way, and it’s been an amazing experience so far.
This article was originally posted on 7/30/21.
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