san fernando valley
Maytal Gilboa is woman who seems most comfortable working outside of her comfort zones. She opens our eyes to the world of independent comics and the rich stories within them. She also shares her key to success: kindness.
You’re a born-and-raised Angeleno. Did you ever have any desire to leave?
I’ve done my fair share of traveling. When I graduated from college, I moved to India for a year.
I lived in Bombay for ten months. I wanted to get some fresh air and perspective, to have a completely different experience. I worked for an ad agency while I was there, on the creative side, in brainstorming and development. My job was part-time and then I spent the rest of my time traveling, getting to know the country.
Were you by yourself?
I was there on my own, but that was the fun of it. Everyone should do something crazy like that at least once in their life. When I’d had enough, I moved back to LA and have been here for ten years.
Why Bombay? Did you have contacts there?
No. I didn’t know anybody. I had one friend in college who introduced me to somebody who lived in Bombay. That guy was very nice to me and his family let me stay with them for the first two weeks until I found an apartment.
I got to be a wallflower for a while, an observer. I’m actually sad that I don’t get to do that anymore, because I’m always in the hustle and bustle of work. I rarely get to just sit and observe. That whole year was like a very long meditation.
India is an interesting place to do that, because it’s full of so many contradictions and extremes. You see such extreme wealth and such extreme poverty, such joy and also suffering. Everybody is a poet and a philosopher there and the religion is so complex.
It’s so different from LA where I grew up; we never philosophize. We’re so comfortable being comfortable, but in India they are so comfortable in absolute chaos. It’s amazing.
What was it like coming back to LA?
I think I became completely detached from material things.
Even until this day?
Even until this day. I’m very, very minimalist. I don’t know if it’s just because of my time in India, because my grandma’s like that, too. A lot of my family came from poverty. My grandmother’s family is from Morocco. My mom’s family is from Yemen. They did whatever they needed to survive. India was not too far off from that. Being there allowed me to access my authentic cultural background.
I’m not your typical American consumer. I’m sure if I did DNA testing I would find that most of my family is from Africa and the Middle East, where there isn’t that same kind of plenty. There isn’t the abundance. So, I guess those are the kinds of things that you realize when you live in India for a year.
That’s amazing! Did you know what you wanted to do when you came back?
I just wanted to be a film producer. When I was at film school, they taught you how to make a movie, but they didn’t actually teach you the business of how movies get made, which is probably 80 percent of it.
So I was a little dumb, ignorant and very inexperienced in the industry. I started interning. I interned at Paramount, I interned at DreamWorks, and then finally I got a job as an agent trainee in the William Morris mailroom.
I worked at William Morris for about a year and a half and then William Morris was acquired by Endeavor Entertainment. I worked at the new entity, William Morris Endeavor, for another year in the talent department and I finally had enough experience to know what to do next. The right next step was to work for producers. So I got a job working for two producers in development for four years.
I really learned how development works and how you get films going. Then the social entrepreneur in me woke up and was like, "What the hell, I’m not working with any women?" I was working with all male writers, directors, and producers. There were no women around me. I knew I needed to take a step back and figure out how to live a more authentic life. I knew I wanted to tell female stories that resonated with me and with women in particular.
As a development executive, I saw comic books and graphic novels hitting my desk all the time. My eyes were opened during that time to that world. I didn’t grow up reading comics.
I started working with a dozen female filmmakers and writers. I said, "What do you think if we started a comic-book company?" They were really excited by the idea of creating something, because nobody was letting them create.
Did they come from a comic-book background?
None of them. They were scared because they had never done it before and didn’t know how to find artists. They didn’t know how the industry worked. So I hired a consultant, Lea Hernandez, who’s a veteran artist and writer. She came in and sat down with everybody in the conference room and taught us how to make comics. [Laughs]
So you guys were actually creating stories?
We created everything and then hired an artist to bring it to life. It was chaotic at first, but then I hired Maria, my assistant, who was a true comics fan. She brought that missing piece—helping me understand how we fit into the market.
Our comics came from an indulgent place. We asked ourselves what stories we wanted to tell. What was important to us? Our comics are for adults, even though people keep trying to peg us as comics for young women. That’s not the case. All of our comics deal with very adult themes and serious subject matters.
Zana was nominated for the McDuffie Award for Diversity last year. It’s a futuristic story about two black girls who join the underground movement to save South Africa from an apartheid state.
Verona is like a kick-ass action version of Romeo and Juliet. Juliet—who's called Jo in our story—comes from a family of assassins. Juliet’s mom has ambitions to take the whole city, so she pairs up with Roman [the comic’s version of Romeo] to bring her mother down. So, it's a very fun, sexy action story that deals with relatable themes: learning how to stand up to your mother, assert yourself, and come into your own as a woman outside of what you think people are expecting of you.
Finding Molly is our webcomic that people can read online for free. It’s about a 20-something woman who gets out of art school and she’s like, “Now what?” She doesn’t want to be a sellout and she definitely doesn’t want to get married and start popping out babies. She has to find her way.
I always think of comics as being stories about superheroes, which isn’t really my bag…
The majority of people who buy our comics at the conventions are people who normally don’t read comics. The first question I ask is, "Are you a comic-book reader?" And I’ll get weird, squirmy responses like, "Nah, sometimes..." or "Not really."
Then I open up [Emet Comics series] The Wendy Project and say, "Well, this is for you because that means nothing you’ve read up till now really speaks to you. Why don’t you try this comic, which is completely different?"
I had no idea there was so much diversity in comics!
The comic-book industry is a very small-margin business. You make comics for the love of it, with the hope of turning a series into a graphic novel that sells really well, or a movie or a TV show.
Because of that, there are no real marketing dollars spent on promoting comics. The average person would not learn about comics anywhere except specific comic blogs and geek-culture blogs. Even those usually promote only the top 100 titles from Marvel and DC.
Where people really discover comics is on the convention floor. There are very big conventions across the country that are not the San Diego Comic-Con. They’re in Seattle, Portland, Maryland, or Arizona. The barrier to entry for independent publishers is low because it’s not expensive to go. There’s a potentially huge upside because there are thousands and thousands of people coming through that convention.
How would you demystify these conventions? My friend was trying to convince me to go to Comic-Con, but I feel like I won’t fit in there.
I actually don’t disagree with you. I’ve been to Comic-Con in San Diego three times now and I don’t like it. It is crowded. It is smelly. It is not quality-oriented. It’s where enormous companies dominate. If you love movies,TV shows, and spectacle, you go there to see that and to see directors like Guillermo del Toro or JJ Abrams speak. That is a very different experience from going to Emerald City Comic-Con in Seattle and walking through Artist Alley to discover wonderful artists. Emerald City, I have to say, was like 60 percent women exhibiting.
It’s fun. It’s about art. I would say start with the small conventions. Make a fun weekend out of it. Find what interests you and not what everyone is telling you to be interested in. There are so many things that I love about the comic-book community that have nothing to do with comics.
I love comic-book readers. They are so opinionated and outspoken. They’re so alive. They will engage with you on a debate and argue with you until they’re blue in the face.
Many of them are geeks and are highly intelligent. They are maybe not the most social people, but when they have the opportunity to share their thoughts, they’re very passionate.
Sixty percent of people at cons are probably women. There are so many families walking around. It’s like a fair. It’s like a new type of county fair where all the parents come out with their kids, and everyone’s in costume.
That is empowering for somebody like me who didn’t have those kinds of rituals growing up. I think, "You know what? I want to be that family." When I’m married and I have kids, I want to go to three or four cons a year with my kids and buy them art and introduce them to artists and let them go crazy. There is something so family-oriented about that.
I think that’s why that culture is growing. It’s partly because Marvel and DC have a growing fanbase, but I think also because it’s now perceived as safe for families to go.
How do you feel about what you’re doing now?
I’ve always been creative. I grew up doing theater, singing, dancing, and acting. I went to film school. So I’m just doing something else creative, which just happens to be comics and graphic novels. Right now I do comics for fun and to build my graphic-novel business, but a big part of my income still comes from film development and producing work. So, I can split in the middle: half of my work is focused on comics and graphic novels and half is film and TV.
As the company grows, my dream is to have a film and TV group within the company. I might even have a management group to help budding filmmakers. I might go back to doing theatre. It’s all interconnected—it all comes down to story and writing and working with creators and trying to tell authentic stories, regardless of the medium.
I think sometimes people feel pressure to excel in a single field. But as you describe it, you’re just splitting the same skills in different ways.
It’s just a different medium. And one thing feeds another. In the film and TV world, you are constantly meeting filmmakers, and writers, and authors. That can very organically support the comics and graphic-novel world, because that's where you find your new writers and artists.
Ideally, we would cross-pollinate people from one space into the next. An artist might call me and tell me they’re out of a job. I could say, "Wait a minute. This movie needs a storyboard artist in two weeks. Why don’t we put you on that, and then in six months we’ll find you a new comic gig?" Right? So, there’s incredible potential in my position, to see opportunities that other people don’t immediately see and to help fill in the gap. And talent is talent. A great writer can write a book. They can write a script, they can write a comic book, they can write anything. They have to be willing to learn the format, obviously, but that’s the kind of fun of it, getting to think outside the box.
In terms of comic books, what makes a story successful?
First of all, the comic has to feature a character people can relate to. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man—that’s what made all them hits. It starts with the character.
For most of the history of comics, it’s been white men creating white characters, not because they were intentionally trying to exclude other people but because that’s who they related to. And so, what we are trying to do here is the same thing. I'm telling writers, "Let’s create characters that resonate with us."
Jean Barker created Zana. In the story, Zana experiences a lot of things that Jean experienced growing up in an apartheid South Africa and trying to figure out how to make sense of it all. And Jean is a very rebellious spirit, just like Zana. She is hot-tempered and feisty, and so that comes out in the character and that’s what makes you love that comic. You can relate with that character, you’re rooting for her, you understand the odds that she’s up against.
I like to develop stories that make you think for a while afterwards and to reflect on your own life. That’s why Finding Molly has been doing so well. It's because the online comic community is primarily made up of artists, writers and creative people, and they read Finding Molly because Molly is them, trying to find a way to make a living on art without compromising.
Do you have favorite comic book stores that you recommend?
Meltdown Comics has a very large selection. Pulp Fiction, in Culver City, has a lot of graphic novels. And the people who work there are friendly and make recommendations and will also order things that you want.
Comics are different from books, because bookstores can order one of everything and then return whatever they don’t sell. Comic bookstores have to keep what they order, so their inventory is very conservative but they will order things for you. They’ll let you flip through the catalog and order things on your behalf if they don’t have it on the shelf.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Sometimes the thing that gets you fired is your greatest strength. It’s so easy to let failure get you down. But there’s that quote, "If you’ve never failed, you’ve never tried anything new."
It’s important to learn how to deal with failure, and create mechanisms in your life that help you bounce back. I can give you an example. I had a really rough week, so I told my boyfriend, "Cancel your plans tonight. I’m surprising you." I packed a picnic, and we hiked to the top of the mountain overlooking the whole city. I just took a breath of fresh air and was like, “This week sucked.” But when you can disconnect yourself from your week, you can really look at your life like you’re looking from the top of the mountain. Okay, this week was in the past. It was down there, right? Now when I go back down the mountain and go home, the future is completely new. I have cleared the slate for myself.
Also, have mantras that you say, like, if you have a temper problem. [Laughs] If you are a passionate person, you will probably have a bit of a temper, because people will not agree with you all the time. Learn how to deal with that and be kind. Do everything in your power to be kind to every single person you meet. Even if you can’t hire them or help them or whatever, treat them kindly—because you never know what happens.
People have come up to me years after meeting me and they remember something nice that I did or said. I don’t even remember what it was, but they want to help me, they want to work with me and they want to introduce me to other people. There is an incredible power to kindness because people remember those things.
What does LA mean to you?
It’s a hub of creativity unlike any other place in the world. I mean, New York is a hub of creativity but it’s different. LA is a little more disciplined. I think New York is more wild. In LA, people are very focused and driven and progressive. And there are a lot of dreamers here. There’s a lot of diversity here. A lot of traffic. [Laughs]
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Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©