“Growing up, I wanted to be either an animator, a comic artist, or a muppeteer.” Say what you will about childhood dream jobs, but those are some solid choices, and Sam Ellis has managed to live out all of them as an adult. Case in point, when he arrived at our interview, he brought a bright yellow, three-eyed puppet along with him, just for fun. This goofy fellow has his own series on Ellis’s YouTube channel, Robot Cowboy Samurai, and has been known to spout puns corny enough to make any dad proud. It’s not surprising, though, considering Ellis’s outlook on his measure of an artist—or any other professional, for that matter: “No other success in life can compensate for failure within the walls of your own home.”
Following that fine line between an ambitious career and quality time with his wife and two boys seems to be the defining element to all of Ellis’s pursuits. Whether he’s doing character design, teaching college courses, or organizing conventions, his driving motivation is to make his audience feel good about themselves. That outlook may come as a shock for anyone who knows some of his more famous work, notably for the FX network’s animated series Archer. Ellis was Lead Character Designer for the original episodes, a wild romp following the escapades of a team of foul-mouthed, self-absorbed superspies. Even though he drew the original concepts for most of the show’s characters, the project wasn't completely aligned with his personal vision and he left after the first season.
From there, he and his family moved to Muncie, Indiana, a community that Ellis described as having “the look of a Norman Rockwell painting.” While there, he helped establish an animation program at Ball State University while simultaneously earning a master's degree, working full time, and raising two kids. Though he liked the cost of living and the fact that he was close to his parents, it wasn’t sustainable. “I slept for two hours every night for ten months straight and thought, ‘Well, I’m going to die soon.’”
It was around that time when Bryan Tillman, a fellow comic artist, propositioned him to teach at the Art Institute of Washington. Ellis agreed, but stipulated that he would only do it if his workload would be light enough to allow time for his own personal projects. Once everyone agreed on the terms, he packed up the family again and moved to Spotsylvania. He didn’t have any previous connections to the area, but he appreciated the history and, once again, low cost of living.
Although he’s come to call the place home, there aren’t as many resources for animators in Virginia as Ellis had grown accustomed to previously. That’s why he’s been proactive in building up the community that he would like to see flourish locally. Most notably, he is the founder of the Fredericksburg Comic Convention, affectionately known as FredCon. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, he hosted the inaugural event last year, a free, family-friendly gathering of comic creators, cosplayers, and other lovers of geek culture. This year’s event, FredCon 2017, will be held on July 15 throughout the Spotsylvania Mall and will feature over 100 presenters from Virginia and beyond.
Ellis has also pioneered a new artist collective, called Just Comics, designed to put distribution control back into the hands of the people who actually write, draw, and publish comics. In the United States, there are really only two names in comic distribution, Diamond and Scholastic. Traditionally, getting your work into brick-and-mortar stores meant going through one of these companies, and as with any monopolistic scenario, the terms are anything but good for the creators. Ellis wants to sidestep all that noise and take a cue from modern crowdfunding models. By offering comic book shops risk-free advances on publications, plus the promise of in-store appearances to boost sales, he’s hoping to bootstrap an alternative paradigm that has more similarity to traveling rock bands than anything else.
About a dozen creators have joined Just Comics so far and most are still working on longer form titles to be released in the future, but two are currently available in serial format: Last Stop by Trey Walker and Hoyt Silva and Ellis’s own Komander Kaiju. The latter title features big monsters, big robots, and big battles, all reminiscent of classic Japanese monster flicks. It’s one of those personal projects that Ellis insisted on having time to do. As he put it, “This is all stuff that I love that I’ve never been asked to draw.” The first chapter, “Tokagerino Awakens,” is available to read online for free.
Looking at the bigger picture, Ellis sees the potential for Virginia to become widely known as a home for comic and animation artists. Between the top notch art programs at universities like VCU, central access to cities up and down the East Coast, and beautiful living arrangements, what’s not to like? He’s scheming up a campaign to petition the State Legislature to provide tax incentives to animation studios the same way the Virginia Film Office supports movie productions in the Commonwealth. With their minimal infrastructure requirements, highly transient workforce, and massive popularity, animation studios are exactly the kind of businesses that can bring in big returns from small investments.
It all goes back to his personal ethic of providing for his family and his community. Ellis has known hardship in his days, having suffered from a stint with homelessness, as well as a flood that wiped out almost everything his family owned, including an original first edition Tarzan comic worth over $54,000. Despite these setbacks, he’s never thought of himself as a starving artist. “If you’re a starving artist,” Ellis mused, “you kind of choose to be starving,” meaning that for all but those in most dire of circumstances, personal fortune is more a matter of perspective and planning than anything else. Though he doesn’t necessarily consider himself materially rich, by continuing his lifetime of perseverance, humility, and hustle, Ellis knows that good things are on the horizon. As he put it, “My life is full of hope.”
This year’s Fredericksburg Comic Convention will be held at the Spotsylvania Mall on Saturday, July 15. Admission is free, visit facebook.com/fredericksburgcomicon for full schedule. Read comics by the Just Comics artist collective at justcomicsgroup.com. See more of Sam Ellis’s work at samellisportfolio.blogspot.com.
Photography by Seth Casana