Expert Feature: Jamal Bilal on Telling Stories

EvolvEd intern Bryant Blackburn sits down for a conversation with Jamal Bilal, a storyteller, writer, producer and comic book artist in New York City.

BB: I usually start interviews by asking for the guest to introduce themselves, but you say on your website you don’t like talking about yourself, so, instead, I’d like to ask you to explain why?

JB: The reason I don’t enjoy talking about myself is because I like listening and hearing about other people. As a storyteller you’re always looking for material and the best way to do that is to listen. You can’t listen and talk at the same time. So I prefer to not talk about myself because then I don’t get to learn about others.

BB: Has that been true for you throughout your whole life or was [the importance of listening] something you had to discover?

JB: I just got back from North Carolina spending time with my family… my wife was talking with my mom and asked her what kind of kid I was and [my mom] said I was a quiet kid and I could play by myself for a long time. So, I’ve always been a quiet person, but I’ve [also] always been engaged, depending on the person I’m talking to. I like to give [people] all of my energy… that [way] I can learn from them and make everybody feel energized and heard. Has it always been like that? I think it’s evolved to become that. From being a quiet kid you learn, you listen, and [begin to grasp] how to understand people and I think that’s what stories are about. And I think it makes me a better storyteller…

BB: I want to key in on that word “story-teller,” because you’re a writer, and a producer–you do a lot of different things… Why does storyteller fit you best?

JB: I use the word storyteller cause to me it doesn’t matter what medium you’re in… Human beings are storytellers. I just like really good stories: watching really good stories, reading them, talking about them, hearing them, and when you hear a really good story you get that chill through your body… it just sends that wave of energy through your body and [you feel] that it affects you. And being able to affect people in that way is an amazing thing. A story can change someone’s mind about anything and make them believe in themselves and others. So to be a good story teller is the goal. You can change hearts and minds and you can effect change in the world and make it better. That is why I use the word storyteller. My goal is to make you feel something from what you’re watching, reading, or listening to.

BB: You say “people are storytellers.” Does that mean everybody is a storyteller without trying?

JB: Oh hell yeah! Think about it, so right now, this is the first time we’ve met, so everything you do is telling a story. This interview is me learning about you as much as you learning about me… even the environments we place ourselves in is telling a story. And, when we’re talking to someone we’re telling them our version of what is happening, so technically it’s a story, because they haven’t experienced it or lived it. Our lived experience translated to somebody else is essentially storytelling. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good storytelling. [For example,] I walked up the block and went to the post office, [begs more questions]. What happened? I went to the post office. Did anything [else] happen? I put something in the mailbox. [Isn’t an interesting story], but if it was [I walked to the post office and] there was this lady with two pugs and they were barking at each other… and one was getting really aggressive with the other pug while I was walking to the post office. That’d be kind of crazy [and maybe] a mildly interesting story. So that’s why I think everybody is a storyteller.

BB: Haha, I think if you put a good beat behind that first [post office story] you’d have a bad 80’s rap song though. I feel like you’re an arts society in one person–how you’re [drawing] on poetry, [photography], television. Who are your influences? I don’t think anyone could surprise me.

JB: It’s always hard for me to … I’ll give my [parents] a shout-out because if it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t have gone to art school. Both my parents are artists in their own right and I spent five to seven years of my childhood drawing, focusing on the fine arts, and that led me to comic books. But even before that, my mom was watching Star Trek and I grew up on He-Man and Ninja Turtles. And, even in those half-an-hour moments, you’re getting a really solid story. [Those stories] are affecting you in some way. So, combining all the elements I beloved in some way is what inspired me to go after [art]… For me, getting into writing poetry or prose or writing long form or screen plays, that’s just me finding a way to express a narrative.

Honestly, who my inspirations are beyond my parents is tough for me to say because I’ve been inspired by so many people and I’m constantly inspired by them. In comic books, Brian K Vaughan is one of my favorite writers. [Vaugan and also] Rick Remender have the “what if” story on lock… [director] JJ Abrams is a master storyteller in his own right too… [director] Ridley Scott is a master storyteller—he convinced you to sit in a theater and watch one dude, [Matt Damon in The Martian], for almost two hours. That’s masterful, he made you feel something for that character. Depending where the story is meant to be or meant to be told you can choose your medium.

BB: Is there a difference for you between where you would take an idea for a comic book vs. a poem?

JB: Every medium has its own rules. A poem isn’t going to be as long as a novel. A comic book needs to hit its beats a certain way to get the reader to turn the page. [There are even different rules] between feature films and television and [within television], network television and HBO. The way that the stories are told in each one of these is very different. But, you can take a story idea and then expand upon it in each one of those mediums and tell its own unique story. That’s the idea of transmedia storytelling, [an idea which has] been circulating around for awhile and I’m a huge believer in. [Transmedia storytelling] is the way storytelling needs to be, in order to engage your fans, the reader, and the watcher beyond a particular moment.

BB: Within this idea of transmedia storytelling and moving between mediums, how are these realms communicating in your mind?

I don’t have an answer, haha. I’ve never had an answer for how my brain operates when I’m coming up with something. I allow myself to be the conduit for the work. Right now I’m working on a short story. I’ve completed it and I’m going through edits, passing it along to different readers, and then I start thinking this short story has an ending and it’s for one character, but there are two other characters [and I think]: what about their lives? What are they doing? So I decide to write short stories about those characters so [the reader] can better understand the world they’re in. Then my brain starts to think, [I] could do a comic book about the company [one of the characters] is going to work for in space. What type of story would I tell up there?

It’s not that everything happens all at once. It’s an evolution of what is created first. It’s looking for where the tentacles the spider web of this nugget [of story] are going to go. For my comic book Half Breeds, after I finished writing it and started marketing it, I started thinking, making an indie comic book is really expensive. It costs five to six thousand dollars which isn’t chump change. So I started thinking how can I make [stories] that are cost effective and bring people back to this world. So I built this world and now I’m going to tell a story about the newsroom in this world. I’m going to do an NPR broadcast about this world and connect the first issue of this comic book to this NPR news group, because it’s a way to stay in this world with all of its problems and characters.

That’s how my brain will operate, it’s just one piece, and then I think how will I do something else with this? Is there something else I can do with this? And if you’re in sci-fi, fantasy, or even the real world you can find those webs to connect your work.

BB: Wow! Building a whole universe from one idea is astonishing.

JB: Think about the spiderweb of your own life. We are constantly rippling into each other. That [interconnectivity] is what I’m trying to express with transmedia story telling. It’s equity. You know the saying don’t put all your eggs in one basket, why put your universe in one basket.

BB: I feel that’s very different and more powerful than the trend of books reimagined as movies. I do have to get to EvolvEd. Why did you choose to teach indie comic books instead of poetry, drawing, or any of your other skills?

JB: I love comics. I love writing and the project development aspect. Technically my day job is project manager. I’m a post-production supervisor and I manage people, product, and do my best to make everything move as smoothly as possible. [Those skills are what you need] to create an indie comic. So my love for writing and the arts allows me the experience to mash up my day job and my passion and what better way to do that but to teach them. Because I have the wherewithal, the knowledge, to say you start here and this is why and explain it easily. I can’t explain how I write poetry or where my stories come from, but I can explain the aspects of building a comic book, what makes one interesting, and why I read a comic book.

BB: Why did you choose to teach on EvolvEd instead of Masterclass or just doing YouTube videos?

JB: EvolvEd stuck out to me because it allowed me to set a price point for my time. Because I’m doing multiple projects all the time, time is very important to me. Being able to set up a time with an individual or block out my own schedule is very important, especially as a creative person, working a full-time job. So, the time management built into the system is very important to me. The other reason I went to EvolvEd is because you can be an expert in anything and your expertise grows as your knowledge base grows and if I have the opportunity to share that with someone who is interested and is willing to sit and listen then I’m going to give them as much of my knowledge as possible. The idea of someone paying for my knowledge allows me to know they are committed, and I’m committed to giving them as much value I can.

BB: So all the way from quiet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle enthusiast to multimedia expert, you’ve been on quite a journey. What would you like for the EvolvEd community to check out?

JB: I’m still in the process of selling comics I’ve created. So you can check me out on jamalbilal.com/stories or my social media, [Twitter: @twothenextlevel], I’m constantly working on stories and poems. I’m developing feature films and directing another short film, also in November the short I directed will be screening… I refuse to call myself a jack-of-all trades. I do what I want and try to make the best of it.

BB: That’s a great note to end on, haha. Thank you so much for your time!

JB: Thank you, Bryant. I hope everyone that uses EvolvEd wants to make a comic book at some point!

Learn how to create indie comic books with Jamal at EvolvEd!

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