Full Steam Ahead

UCLA TFT alumna Madeleine Holly-Rosing has big plans for her web comic series 'Boston Metaphysical Society'

By Noela Hueso

Madeleine Holly-Rosing isn't one for dressing up in costumes. In fact, the author, former professional fencer and graduate of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (UCLA TFT) is much more comfortable in gym wear or jeans than petticoats and corsets. Nevertheless, almost a dozen times a year she willingly dons an elaborate 19th century Western outfit replete with a Pinkerton badge, owl lapel pin and a tricked-out hat of her own design as she visits various Comic Cons around the country promoting her six-part web comic series, Boston Metaphysical Society (BMS). "You've gotta keep the fans happy," she says.

Since 2013, Holly-Rosing, along with her five-member graphic arts team, has been growing a fan base that ardently follows the adventures of ex-Pinkerton detective Samuel Hunter and his partner, spirit photographer Caitlin O'Sullivan. Together, they battle supernatural forces in a steampunk version of late 1800s Beantown; Nikola Tesla, Harry Houdini, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell also figure prominently in the award-winning series. After two successful Kickstarter campaigns, Holly-Rosing just published the fifth installment; the sixth will follow later in the year. It marks nearly the end of the first phase of what she calls the platform of her transmedia goals for BMS, which include already existing ancillary products (short stories, novellas, steampunk swag) and, in the future, a TV series, another comic series and novels. In fact, she is currently in talks with a small press publisher to publish an anthology of her short stories and novellas.

Steampunk, for the uninitiated, is a sub-genre of science fiction, characterized by retro-futuristic inventions (think steam-powered electronics, analog computers and the fictional machines H.G. Wells wrote about) and 19th century art, architecture, culture and fashion that have both period and modern sensibilities and/or components.

Holly-Rosing, who graduated from UCLA TFT in 2009 with an M.F.A. in screenwriting (she also holds a B.A. in Politics from UC Santa Cruz and an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University), originally imagined BMS as a TV series when she took Visiting Assistant Professor Channing Dungey's "Developing the Drama Pilot" class. She envisioned a period piece that incorporated her love for history and science fiction; it would also feature leads that shared a ying-yang relationship along the lines of Mulder and Scully in the hit Fox series The X-Files. Steampunk, with all its anachronistic tendencies, wasn't part of the equation until a classmate suggested that it would fit Holly-Rosing's idea like a glove.

"I didn't know a lot about the genre," Holly-Rosing recalls. "After our conversation, I went and did a lot of research about it — and he was right. History plus science equals steampunk. It's pretty easy."

But when she was later warned that the series would be too expensive to produce, thanks to the elaborate costumes and bevy of gadgets integral to the story and its new genre, she morphed the idea into its current style and ran with it, taking a sequential arts class at UCLA Extension after graduation to educate herself on an art form that was new to her.

"I was very lucky to have an exceptional instructor and outstanding writers in the class with me," she says. "We helped each other quite a bit. I had four amazing mentors on this project, which is one of the reasons why it turned out so well."

On April 1, 2013, the first BMS comic went online. By October, in response to fan reaction, Holly-Rosing decided to do a print version. She self-funded the printing of the first three chapters with her husband, a rocket scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena. She turned to Kickstarter to fund the final three installments, to the tune of $25,000. She quickly realized, however, after raising just $7,556 at the end of that first campaign, that there was a limit to the amount of people who were willing to donate to her cause.

To date, she has funded the printing of the fourth ($7,060) and fifth ($8,240) chapters. After that unsuccessful first attempt, she learned what worked for her campaign — setting smaller goals — and used that knowledge to her advantage. In fact, her second Kickstarter attempt was fully funded in 48 hours. She ended up receiving about as much as she did in her first campaign but in a fraction of the time.

"It wasn't just about lowering the amount of the goal, but doing a better job at preparation and honing the campaign strategy," she says. "We still could have failed if I hadn't done that." (The trials and tribulations of running a Kickstarter led Holly-Rosing to partner with Culver City's Pulp Fiction Books and Comics to teach a Kickstarter class for independent creators; she's currently writing a book to compliment it.)

The geek community has embraced and paid tribute to the work of Holly-Rosing and her team right out of the gate. BMS received an honorable mention at the 2013 Geekie Awards and was nominated for Best Comic/Graphic novel in 2014. It was also nominated for a 2013 and 2014 Steampunk Chronicles Reader's Choice Award for Best web comic and short story (Steampunk Rat, 2013); and was nominated for a 2012 Airship Award. But Holly-Rosing says that the greatest reward was being accepted into the 2015 San Diego Comic Con. "This was the first year we applied to SDCC so I was very surprised when I found out we got in," she says, "and we have cosplayers (individuals who wear costumes to represent a specific character at conventions or just for fun) who want to dress as Samuel and Caitlin!"

When asked about her UCLA TFT experience and how it prepared her for her current enterprise, Holly-Rosing says, "I knew it would make me a better writer. The School produces the best. The proof is in the posters," she says, referring to the movie posters representing successful alumni that line the walls of UCLA TFT's Melnitz Hall. "When I was at the School, USC producers and directors came to us looking for material for their theses.

"I loved my time at UCLA TFT," she continues. "The commitment of the faculty to push us to be the best helped enormously. They gave us the foundation we needed in order to excel in whatever type of writing we ended up doing. UCLA TFT allowed me to draw from my previous experiences and take my writing to a new level."


Posted: April 24, 2015