Interview with Dillon Gilbertson, writer of Sweet Heart

by Nick Devonald on April 20, 2020

Hi Dillon, thanks for taking some time out to talk to us about Sweet Heart. I've been really enjoying the series and how it works as an analogy for chronic illness.

There are some obvious parallels between the monsters in Sweet Heart and chronic illnesses. You suffer from type-1 diabetes. Does this form the basis for most of the characters emotions and behaviour? Does it make it easier or more challenging writing from personal experience?

Definitely. The entire story sprang from my personal experiences with Diabetes; experiences I’ve had and experiences I’ve heard from others. I remembered my mom’s reaction to the news, how confused I was, how frustrating it was at times as I grew older, and those memories made it easier to translate those emotions. Then, as I heard from people who related to the story on the level of depression or addiction, it got a little trickier. I could only speak from the perspective of Diabetes, but had grown up with friends and family who had fought with those things and I wanted to continue that relation to all the seemingly unwinnable fights people can have.

And all that stuff is in just the first issue. It became even more difficult as the story progressed because these characters are fighting “real” monsters and working through real feelings; some things I hadn’t even fully worked through myself. So this isn’t just a story to display those struggles, it’s an active attempt to come to terms with some of them myself. It was a hell of a ride for me, personally, and I hope others are willing to take it with me.

How does it feel knowing that a lot of people are going to be able to relate to the characters in this comic and their struggles? This is sure to help a number of people with their own struggles. Is this a good feeling or added pressure?

Kind of both, honestly. I always want it to be clear, as the issues are released, that it isn’t all doom-and-gloom. I started the first issue as horrific and foreboding as possible, but I want people to know it it’s going somewhere. There is a story that equates to more than “it’s going to kill you and there is nothing you can do”. So there was some pressure there, but I think we stuck the landing, which is a good feeling. I hope people get something positive out of it.

Continuing this line of thought where did the inspiration come from to symbolise illness as literal monsters?

Sleep deprivation [laughs]. I’d worked an overnight shift and had been awake for +30 hours. I had an appointment with my endocrinologist after my shift before I could sleep so, on my drive home, my mind started to wander quite a bit. The doctor and I discussed how well I was doing and things I needed to look out for as I got older so, as I was driving, I went the familiar thought of ‘this damn thing is never going away and it’s probably going to kill me eventually’. Then remembered how my mom did everything she could to help me fight it when I was younger. And that lead to “damn, what if it was a physical thing you could ACTUALLY fight? Like it was a monster that was always there, but wins every battle”. And from there, it kind of snowballed. I got home, passed out for 14hrs and started writing. My mom literally trying to fight it for me actually became a very specific scene in Issue 1.

Sweet Heart has had an interesting path to being published. Before Action Lab released the first issue in March the first two issues were funded and released through Kickstarter. Can you share a bit more about the process with us?

Yeah, so we had already finished Issue 1 and were trying to fund Issue 2 when we tried Kickstarter. We’d seen the positive response to Issue 1 and were nominated for awards (one we would win from ComixCentral for the 2018 People’s Choice Award), so we knew we had an audience for #2. Meanwhile, we had already submitted to a few publishers we thought would be a good fit for the book. And since we knew that most publishers who were interested might require us to fund the book ourselves anyway, doing a Kickstarter felt like a no-brainer. It also felt like a great way to thank those who had been with us since Day 1 with exclusive stuff that wouldn’t be seen anywhere else. We had KS exclusive cover that we will never release outside of that, so those people got something really special. Then, after Issue 2 was funded, Action Lab made us an offer and the rest is history.

A lot of publishers have decided to put all new releases on hold for the moment, including digital. Sweet Heart #2 went ahead with its digital release. I’m curious whether you had any involvement with that decision, and what your feelings are on this?

I did not. And my feelings on it are very positive but also complicated in a way. I want to be clear right off the bat that I do not have a firm understanding of the comics marketing landscape and do not claim to know what is best for the industry. My understanding is tentative, at best. So I got the email from Action Lab shortly after the Diamond announcement that Sweet Heart would be going to digital ASAP. Not only that, but it was going to a weekly schedule instead of monthly. The decision is great because people who love the book can read it sooner and from the safety of their own homes. I’m hoping this will make their time at home easier. We also had decent press leading up to Issue 1, so this lets us ride that wave a little longer instead of trying to light the fire again after several months of no releases. The book was always going to be on digital anyway, so this just condenses that timeline. I only hope that people who buy physical will still be there to support their local comic shop when this is all over. We obviously want to book to sell well physically, but comics will go on without Sweet Heart. It’s hard to imagine comics without our local shops. They are what’s really important right now. In fact, other creators and I are participating in #Creators4Comics to raise money for local book stores and comic shops. I think all the auctions end Monday, April 20th at NOON pst so please check them out and consider bidding on something you like!

Continuing this how does the new weekly release schedule of Sweet Heart digitally affect the print comics when publishing is back to normal? Will they still be released in print or will it go straight to trade?

Right now, we are planning to resume the physical releases once Diamond continues distribution. According to Action Lab, as long as the numbers are good, there should be no problem. We’ll just need to update the release dates once all this chaos is over. 

COVID-19 is dominating the world right now. How much of a direct impact does this have on your work?

More than it should [laughs]. I spend all day, every day inside which makes a lot of time for writing. But it’s actually been harder than usual to do that work. When you spend all day at the desk at home doing “real” work for my day job, it’s hard to wanna stay there for an additional 4 or 5 hours doing what I love. So I haven’t been as productive as I’d like, but I’m still writing and don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

Have you got any reading suggestions for our readers while they’re stuck at home?

Wytches by Scott Snyder and Jock is amazing. I also just read the first volume of Something is Killing the Children and I can’t say enough about how good it was. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is another book I’ll always suggest. That series has influenced so much of my writing.
For some lighter stuff, I’d suggest anything from the Avatar the Last Airbender comics or Bone by Jeff Smith.

Francesco Iaquinta’s art is a really good match for the story being told. How did you two start working together?

I found Francesco on Deviant Art. I had a very specific, closed minded idea of how I wanted the book to look. But when I saw Francesco’s art, it was so good that I actually started rethinking how the book should look. He has this organic, almost wet look to what he does and adds more or less detail to scenes that need it. So I sent his a message with a brief synopsis of what I was working on and he responded immediately to say he was interested. Sweet Heart is really lucky to have him. Look at it now, it’s one of those books I couldn’t imagine being drawn by anyone else.

Can you tell us about your experience of getting into writing comics? Have you got any advice for aspiring comic writers?

I started writing comics with my friend in college. We co-wrote a short webseries called Bear Arm Baby and it is…really something [laughs]. Maybe the worst thing I’ve ever written but it was so much fun. It only lasted 10 posts, but I learned a lot in that time. And that’s what I suggest for anyone just starting. Just jump in and write what you want to write and don’t get too ambitious with that first project. Make it short. You don’t run a marathon without training at shorter distances first. It may not be the best story, but it’s necessary to learn the basics.

Thanks for taking the time out to talk with us Dillon. Sweet Heart #1 - #3 are available digitally on Amazon/Comixology now.