Category Archives: Interviews

Interview: Lee Bermejo talks his new Vertigo series Suiciders

suiciders #1 coverIn the post-apocalyptic city of New Angeles, killing isn’t just a crime – it’s entertainment.

When the “big one” finally hit the West Coast, Los Angeles was left in ruins. And when the U.S. government decided to cut the city loose, things went from bad to worse. To survive, L.A. did what it does best: It turned survival into entertainment.

Now, thirty years later, the city of New Angeles is thriving once more thanks to the blood sport known as SUICIDERS – a TV series that combines the spectacle of hand-to-hand combat with elaborate, high-tech obstacles that test each competitor’s ability to survive. But these competitors have an edge: They’ve been freakishly enhanced by drugs and technology. The results are both marvelous and monstrous, as the man called The Saint begins to rise above his fellow Suiciders.

Suiciders is a dark, post-apocalyptic epic that tells the story of a strange, brutal world, written and illustrated by Lee Bermejo, with colors by Matt Hollingsworth, the first issue is out from Vertigo this week.

We got a chance to talk to Lee about the series, the evolution of the story, and how the immigrant experience comes into it.

Graphic Policy: I think the best place to always start with is, what is Suiciders to you? How would you describe it?

Lee Bermejo: For me, it’s kind of a cross between a post-apocalyptic/post-disaster story with a L.A. noire. I think it’s on the outside something big and muscular looking, but really what I’m trying to do with it is a very human story inside of that. I play around and have fun at the same time.

suiciders-1-jock-variant-121239GP: Where did the idea of the story come from?

LB: Wow. This is something I’ve been kicking around in one form or another for the better part of ten years… maybe more even. I remember telling the basic idea of a version of this back when I was doing Wildstorm, which at this point was 11 or 12 years ago. So maybe even longer than that. But, it’s something that’s been evolving and changing over the years, only because I didn’t really… I had a basic idea of what I wanted to do, but in 10 years you evolve as a storyteller. Hopefully you get better. So technically, I didn’t really have the chops to pull off what I wanted to do with the story until recently.

But, it’s set in Los Angeles, mainly because I grew up in Southern California, not in Los Angeles but I grew up close. So you’re kind of raised in the specter of this earthquake that’s supposed to demolish the area, and I grew up close to the San Andreas fault. So it’s something that’s a part of Southern California mythology. I wanted to some type of story that centered around the earthquake.

What slowly evolved out of it was “what would happen to the city years after a disaster?” And that became more interesting than the event itself. I wanted to see where I could take the city after such a disastrous event. At the same time I moved out of the United States, so I’m an immigrant, and the immigrant story, having lived it is something that really interests me as well. I wanted to find a way to work that in. So those were the basic germs of where I eventually took the story.

GP: Can you tell us a bit more about the immigrant aspect of the story? From the solicits that’s not something that’s apparent as part of the story.

LB: It’s something that starts in issue two. There’s two main characters of the story. A Suicider in this world is a modern gladiator. There’s these games that are the biggest form of entertainment in New Angeles, which is a medieval citadel. On the other side of that is a more heavily demolished area, which is another part called Lost Angeles. These games are huge in both professional and amateur form on both sides of the wall. One of the main characters is one of the best of the best. He’s at the top of the game. His life starts to fall apart, because he has secrets that are starting to come up and bite him in the ass. At the same time, there’s an immigrant character that comes to the city in hopes to make his dreams come true. He wants to be a Suicider. These are the two main characters and these two stories are being told and at some point they intersect.

SUICIDERS-1-1-b41b9GP: Something that really sticks out is that it’s set in L.A., a huge hub of entertainment. There’s the rise of reality of television. Then there’s the rise of more brutal sports like mixed martial arts. Any of that weigh in on your thoughts while putting this together?

LB: I can’t really say that was a big thing. It’s something that’s kind of now in the picture. It’s just kind of there. I don’t really think it’s a commentary on reality tv or anything like that. Unfortunately, as time has proven, it’s something that’s stuck around. It’s a fixed part of modern entertainment. I’m not trying to make some comment on reality tv, or violence in tv. What I wanted to do was take a city back in time. I wanted to do something more medievel. There’s a wall to keep outsiders out. The games are very gladiatorial and bloody, it’s something, it’s strange, it wasn’t influence by modern entertainment than by older forms of entertainment. There’s also an element of the noir story that I like which is a character who is veiled in secrecy and those secrets come out whether they want them to. That becomes a much bigger part of the story than commentary on violence or the world’s obsession with reality programming.

GP: You’re doing the art and writing. Was this always the plan? Did you think about working with somebody else?

LB: I really always wanted to do it by myself. Before I became a professional, I was doing indie comics on my own way back in high school. Writing and drawing is something I’ve always wanted to do. But, as an artist, I got into comics in the late 90s which was the worst time for a guy to get into comics if you wanted to write and draw. At that point the view of artist/writers was pretty terrible. I knew I was going to get hired based on my drawing skills, not my writing skills. And since I started at Wildstorm, which at the time was part of Image Comics, people forget when I started Image was looked at as a slum. It wasn’t a place where artists become writers. The stigma was still there. They just expected big double page pin-ups, not a story. There was a part of me that knew I had a lot to learn and I was technically not able to tell the story I wanted to literally until now. I always wanted to do it myself, and continue to write and draw as I go forward. That’s not to say I won’t work with writers as well.

GP: How has the story evolved over the years?

LB: The story started out as being something much more mythological and I was able to pair it down to something a lot more familiar. I started to introduce elements, I dramatized elements of me in there, and that’s when things started to gel.

GP: What else can folks expect from you this year that you can talk about?

LB: I’m doing We Are Robin with Rob Haynes and Khary Randolph for DC Comics. The series starts in June, set in the Bat-universe!

We Talk The Empty with Jimmie Robinson

emptyTanoor lives in an empty apocalyptic world of poison and decay. Her village is all that remains of humanity as they struggle against mutant beasts and rotting bones. But Tanoor finds a chance to save her people when a stranger drifts into town. A stranger armed with the power to grow life from death. A stranger who could change the world—if Tanoor can keep them alive in the deadly world of The Empty.

The Empty is the brand new series by writer and artist Jimmie Robinson that introduces us to a world of desolation and decay. The series is a science-fiction tale that instead of far out worlds or technology, instead takes an inward look at our own world and humanity.

We got a chance to talk to Robinson about The Empty including its inspiration, ecological disasters, and more.

Graphic Policy: Can you tell us a little about The Empty and how you came up with the idea?

Jimmie Robinson: The Empty was an idea I had in another form a long time ago. Way back in the 1990s I did an eight page short story based on the same concept— however, it used a classic medieval setting with swords and knights and faeries. It was published in an anthology called Mythography by a guy named Micheal Cohen. Last year I came back to the idea, but I gave it a new spin and a huge twist. I figured it was time to play in the fantasy realm again. I tend to do that a lot. I will hop from superhero, to all-ages, to drama, to sci-fi, to whatever. In fact, I have a crime mystery burning a hole in my pocket right now.

I get ideas from what I don’t see on the comic shelves. Some folks can read the tea leaves and see which genre will be the next flavor of the season. But my trigger is when I don’t see something that others are doing, or when I don’t see a certain story or topic being tackled. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not being done by someone. There are SO many comics being made today in print and online, you can’t keep up.

The Empty is about how diverse worlds collide. We see this through two characters. Tanoor is a fighter and hunter for her village in The Empty — a vast desert wasteland where hardly anything grows and survival is a daily routine. Lila, the second character, is the polar opposite. She comes from a paradise. However, in ways I can’t reveal yet, Lila ends up inside The Empty where she eventually teams up with Tanoor. Lila is frail, she’s not a fighter or a survivor, but she has a gift for growing things in a world where vegetation is very scarce. The story then becomes how Tanoor tries to save her village with the help of Lila’s abilities — but a whole host of problems come up which leads us to a much greater adventure.

Empty01_Page1GP: Why did you choose to tell not only a sci-fi story, but also to mix post-apocalyptic into it?

JR: When it comes to world building it’s a lot easier to say what isn’t in the world than what is. So making a desolate world is remarkably easier to build. The trick comes in explaining how it got that way. Also, sci-fi is fun in that it really explores what is going on NOW, just in a dramatic and exaggerated way. Often it’s the human condition that we cannot escape — no matter how much technology we have. But at a certain point, if we look at this in the long run, technology becomes magic. Just as right now we don’t truly understand all the technology we use around us. It just… works. We are told the magic spells, the buttons to push or whatever, but the basis and existence of that *magic* lives in another realm outside of our understanding.

By using a post-apocalyptic platform I can pin-point my story on the characters and their situation. There’s little to get in the way of the story. Also, the barren wasteland is a great contrast to the different worlds I’ve set up in the series.

GP: Can you talk about the design of the main characters?

JR: This came and went for me. I had plenty of ideas for the character designs, and I did a series of sketches playing with body structure. I didn’t want the characters to look like they just stepped out of a magazine. Often I see comics and the characters are so perfect. Lovely bodies, faces, etc. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want superhero bodies or people who were in great shape or very sexy outfits. I mean, I didn’t make them completely repulsive, but you get the idea. I wanted to break the mold… but not so much that it couldn’t be understood. So, instead of creating a new design I took liberties with existing forms. I lengthened the arms, or the neck. I widened the eyes and moved them apart — like an anime character. I tossed out traditional clothing and went for rags or Renaissance era clothing. I just wanted a mix-up of styles and such.

I did the same thing when it came to the weapon used by Tanoor, the warrior character. At first I had a traditional long sword, but then I tossed that idea when I saw another comic book that had a similar set up. So, out of the blue I came up with shields, but then I put a sharp edge on it, then the shield became more like a weapon. and then I was off to the races. Tanoor’s blades took on a life of their own. In fact, in later issues we will see them used as more than just blades. It’s like her Swiss Army knife.

Empty01_Page5GP: What was your inspiration for the poison?

JR: I have to admit the poison came as an afterthought. I wanted a destroyed wasteland, but often we see an apocalyptic platform built on an event that happened a long time ago. I didn’t want that, so I switched the dire situation to one that is a constant threat, not just a historical note. Otherwise, in my view, mankind would just pick up the pieces and get back to rebuilding what was lost.

Something that effects an environment on a large scale has to be something that doesn’t happen just once. It has to be ongoing. A mere explosion, or a war, or whatever would not be enough to wipe out life on the planet. Also, poison represents a symptom. What makes the poison? Why is something that’s poisonous now here that wasn’t here before? It’s not a simple fix. It’s not like killing the bad guy and the poison is gone. So the poison roots became a great visual for a situation that has gone REALLY wrong.

You might say it’s like the fears we have about radiation leaks at nuclear facilities. Nuclear waste and radiation has to be controlled, otherwise it could destroy our world, not just hurt it, but change it dramatically for generations.

GP: Are there any current events or issues that guided the direction of the story?

JR: A few things rattle around in my head, mutant frogs, Fukushima nuclear plant, oil pipe lines, species extermination and environmental loss — but nothing directly. The many ecological disasters that happen around the world makes me think, but these stories didn’t inspired me into a certain direction. You might say I was leaning on the overall thought of invasive technology gone wrong in a natural world. I admit, some folks might see some similarities with current issues, but in truth these are universal topics. Man has manipulated the planet in one way or another since the dawn of time.

GP: In a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, one of the characters uses religion as a tool to explain the horrible circumstances. Do you think that it is part of human nature to do so?

JR: Yes. But it’s not just religion, it’s basically a position of power. Some people have some real issues when they obtain power or prestige. It affects not only them, but also those in their immediate community. A person cannot have power unless it is given to them, thus it is like a snake eating its tail. However, while I admit I cloaked one particular character with religious phrases I never wanted him to be directly connected to any particular belief. In short, I just wanted to use the phrases of fear — which are often used in a religious context.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against religion. But it’s easy to pick up more than a few extreme examples of those who have distorted the good work and message of religion — often in ways that control entire communities. In my series the village in question is desperate, so divisions are seen between the characters. Dig in and weather the disaster, or move on to the unknown. It’s just human nature. There will always be those who are curious, who want something better than the last generation. There will be those who see traditional values as constriction.

GP: Talking about human nature, why do most loners from the wilderness have a dog-like companion?

JR: It’s funny you ask that. A little unknown fact about dogs, wolves and canines is that they are perhaps one of the most adaptive creatures on the planet. Add that to the near universal appeal people have for dogs and it was a no-brainer. I also wanted a unique creature around the main character to remind the reader that things in this world are not quite right. Likewise, I’m not a big fan of characters talking to themselves, but people will speak openly to an animal.

Also, pet companions are great for hunting. They have abilities that help the characters. They’re also seen as alarm bells, or the canary in the coal mine. We can see several examples of this through mythology in almost every culture. The creature often represents more than just a mere animal. It’s a connection to nature. A partnership that is needed to overcome a problem. Or they are often seen as the herald to adventure. The one that calls a person to follow them into the unknown. It’s a universal trope that people all around the world can recognize.

GP: Your series kind of raises the point, if not directly, that other sentient beings in the universe might be as destructive as we are about where we live. Do you think that it is something that is missed about aliens, that they have more imperfections than is often displayed?

JR: I do believe aliens are given shorthand details when it comes to some background platforms. Any race that can build a spaceship and travel a gazillion miles across the universe has to have some kind of waste issue. It’s not like you can grow spaceships on trees. Even the *organic* type vessels require a structure of some kind — not to mention the possibility of genetic manipulation. So yeah, the whole idea of a superior race other than us in the universe should also include a high probability of ecological damage. Granted, we have seen plenty of alien invasion films where our natural resources are targeted because the aliens are coming from a ruined planet. However, how their situation came about is never really put out in the open. How long did it take to destroy their planet? What did they do and was there any opposition or warning?

The idea that an alien life must be smarter than us just because they conquer another planet should be reconsidered. In fact, WE are the aliens when we explore other planets and I’m pretty sure we have a lot of issues going on among ourselves. In a way I do touch upon that in The Empty — but I can’t give away my plots and twists just yet, haha!

We Talk Fables and more with Chrissie Zullo

Chrissie Zullo was discovered at the San Diego Comic Con in 2008, and since then she has made her mark in comics, especially with covers for the Fables universe.  Recently she turned some heads with a series of sketches with some unconventional pairings of heroes.  We got a chance to talk with her about how to design a cover, the new Batgirl and why Boba Fett is so popular.

Graphic Policy:  Can you describe how you go about putting a cover together?  And what elements you have to choose from the inside to capture the story or to capture the interest of a potential buyer?

cz03Chrissie Zullo:  It’s really a collaborative process between the artist and the editor. I usually read a script and if certain elements really stand out or a scene really captures the tone of the story, then my head starts thinking of what a good image would be based on these things. I usually send in three to five thumbnails to my editor, and it’s process of elimination and back and forth on ideas from there.

GP:  You recently turned some heads with a series of drawings on DeviantArt.  Do you think that modern comic artists need websites like that in order to be able to be seen and get work?

CZ:  I don’t know if it’s necessary but it certainly helps. I heard that editors are looking online at sites like Tumblr and seeing who stands out and had a large following. I guess any exposure to your art can’t hurt, so I try to put my art on a lot of online sites in hopes that more people will see it.

GP:  The last year has seen an influx in comics geared towards younger women, such as Gotham Academy and a refurbished Batgirl.  Is the time right for a shift in outlook when it comes to female characters?

CZ:  I think it’s a smart move, because a young female audience gravitates toward young female characters, and if you are trying to pickup new subscribers, a fresh start to a story is a lot less daunting then one 300 issues in. I personally really like seeing the new take on characters, especially the redesigns.

cz01GP:  One of your recent drawings was of the new design Batgirl and Spider-Gwen.  What is it about the two of them makes them fit together?

CZ:  They both came out around the same time, and I think a lot of people would love to see them be friends, or in a same story arc. It’s fun to mash up two things that don’t necessarily belong together but for some reason would make a lot of sense together. I just love the new wave of young, strong females in comics and the fact that they are becoming so popular is also really reassuring.

GP:  Another one of the drawings which you posted was of Quorra from Tron.  She is a bit of an anomaly, as she was only on screen for about 30 minutes, but the character has a dedicated following.  What do you make of that?

CZ:  Yeah true! She needed more screen time. I just loved her look. I guess it’s like Boba Fett- there are these really great designed characters in films that don’t get a lot of screen time, but get a huge following. For whatever reason, people gravitate toward them. Maybe it’s their mystery that makes them more popular.

cz02GP:  Speaking of new developments in comics, ever since about the past ten years, fairy tales have been more noticeable, and as a Fables veteran, do you think that fairy tales are here to stay or that they will become less popular?

CZ:  I think fairy tales are forever, because they are timeless stories that are usually told to teach a lesson or a moral. No matter what generation or time, fairy tales can be applied or relatable; I think that’s why they have lasted so long.

GP:  A large portion of your published work has been either super heroes or fairy tales.  Are there any other genres that you would like to draw?

CZ:  I’m a huge sci-fi junkie, and I’d love to draw more with futuristic designs or post-apocalyptic settings. I love the idea of the far distant future, so maybe anything like that would be a lot of fun.

Art courtesy of Chrissie Zullo

We Talk Alien Legion: Uncivil War with Carl Potts

Carl Potts is a comic book legend.  He has worked on so many titles and with so many companies that it is hard to say exactly who or what he is best remembered for working on.  Despite that, one of his most important works was with the Alien Legion, a group of sci-fi space travelers unlike others in the genre at the time.  After a bit of time away from the Alien Legion, he is back with a new collection of their works and we got a chance to talk with him about.

ALIEN_LEGION_UNCIVIL_WAR 2Graphic Policy: The Alien Legion has been through a number of different versions with various companies, and with a changing cast of characters.  What stands out about this particular cast of characters?

Carl Potts: The cast for Uncivil War includes most of the core characters (Sarigar, Grimrod, Montroc, Tamara, Meico, etc.) We also introduce several new characters who Grimrod decides to take under his wing and indoctrinate in the ways of the Legion. Perhaps the absence of the three Iks this time around has Grimrod feeling a bit underappreciated so the newbies give Grimrod the adulation he craves.

 GP: With the rotating cast of characters, is there one that stands out for you?  And do you ever get the desire to bring back characters from the past?

 CP: I probably indentify most with Montroc and Sarigar but Grimrod is the most fun to explore! One of the foundations of the series is that, once someone is dead, they are dead. Some characters get maimed (Zeerod, Meico) and get tech and bio enhancements that allow them to be fully functional. There are some characters who have not been seen in a while but who are still alive. There is always a chance they will turn up again! (Neebo Brodix, the Iks, etc.)

GP: There are a lot of different approaches to science fiction based in space. This story focuses on a team made up of different alien species, as opposed to a solo hero, or a space exploration ship of mostly all humans (like Star Trek or Babylon 5).  Are there benefits and drawbacks to this particular approach?

ALIEN_LEGION_UNCIVIL_WAR 3CP: The concept of Alien Legion’s Galactic Union was to make a giant extrapolation of the American melting pot society. Instead of just different races and cultures of the same species trying to live and work toward the common good, in the Alien Legion universe, there are radically different alien races and extremely different cultures, all trying to work/live together for the common good. The ranks of the Legion is where the most diverse group of sentient beings from the Union are collected and put into high pressure situations. This puts to the test the great ideal of a diverse society, despite its differences, being stronger than a homogenous group (like the Harkilons).

I think this approach helps make Alien Legion unique. It is difficult, but fun, to try and put your head into non-human characters and figure out their desires, needs and conflicts. Hopefully, readers will find aspects of all of the characters to identify with, even the most alien in look or deed.

GP: Religion and science fiction usually don’t interact in stories, but this was chosen as one of the themes for the series, with a group of aliens on a pilgrimage. Are there any challenges to incorporate religious elements into outer space?

CP: Religious belief systems, even ones that are not supported by scientific evidence, continue to be very popular. So, I see no reason why religions and various dogmas would not be part of a universe with advanced technology.

In the Alien Legion universe, some dogmas or belief systems are sincere while others are led by those who manipulate aspects of a dogma to advance their own selfish agendas.

In Uncivil War, we learn that there is a lot more to Harkilon society than has previously been revealed, including the religious rationale Hark leaders have for wanting to conquer part of Union space.

GP: Science fiction isn’t complete without at least a couple of space battles, and this series does not disappoint with ship to ship combat. Comics allow a lot of liberties, but then again the panels only allow so much as compared to the enormity of space. Is it hard to realize the vision of the battles in space in comics?

CP: Fortunately, Larry Stroman is great at visually interpreting combat on every scale from close person-to-person fights to dreadnaught class space ships blasting away, and everything in between. He is able to capture the required sense of scale, from micro to macro.

ALIEN_LEGION_UNCIVIL_WAR 4GP: As one of the tag lines for the series says “This is the Dirty Dozen in Space.”  Was there any direct inspiration drawn from other sources for this series?

CP: Originally, outside of the French Foreign Legion (“The Foreign Legion in Space”), there was no direct or conscious inspiration for Alien Legion. With 20/20 hindsight, I later came up with “high concept’ lines that helped people quickly grasp the concept, including “The Dirty Dozen in space.” Another one was “Platoon meets Aliens.”

GPOne could say that the team is a collection of anti-heroes, not really bad guys, but not boy scouts either. Is it harder to write a team book with so many conflicting personalities?

CP: The Legion’s mix of personalities actually helps facilitate coming up with story ideas! it’s like playing with various volatile chemicals, mixing them together to see what happens.

GP: It was pretty amazing to see two comic legends work together on the same series. Any chance you and Chuck will be working together again?

CP: Chuck and I have worked together in various capacities over the years and, hopefully, will continue to do so!

We Talk Ares and Aphrodite with Jamie S. Rich and Megan Levens

aa06aComic veteran Jamie S. Rich and comic newcomer have recently been drawing attention for their collaboration on a new series Ares and Aphrodite, a romantic comedy presented uncharacteristically in the medium of comics.  The meeting of the two talents has made for an unconventional series, but one which is turning heads for putting romance back into the medium.  WE got a chance to talk with them about their new series.

Graphic Policy: The romance genre once ruled the comic medium, but has been all but dead since the 70s, with the few remaining romance characters incorporated into superhero universes.  Why did you think that romance can work now?

Jamie S. Rich: I’d say it was dead in terms of mainstream comics, but the alternative side of things–for lack of a better term–has kept the basic genre alive more than they maybe get credit for. So many comics are relationship based, be they Dan Clowes and Los Bros Hernandez or Seth or even Michael Allred. I think more often than not they get called slice-of-life these days. We did all kind of comics at Oni Press when I was editor-in chief that were about teenagers dating or someone pursuing their romantic ideal. Comics are like pop songs. They’re all kind of about love.

For me it’s kind of like veering back to where I started. My first comics as a writer were 12 Reasons Why I Love Her with Joëlle Jones and Love the Way You Love with Marc Ellerby, and so for a while I was the “love” guy. It’s been funny to have seen some reactions to Ares & Aphrodite where people have said, “Well, it’s weird that Jamie Rich is doing a rom-com, but I trust Jamie Rich.” It’s like, wow, do I have some fans who only read the crime stuff?

a&a3Megan Levens: Jamie has a good point about the romance genre being re-branded as “slice of life”. I grew up on mainstream superhero and fantasy comics, but my real interest in actually creating comics came after reading what I always considered romance books—Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore, anything by Adrian Tomine, and definitely Blankets by Craig Thompson. These were all comics that revolved around people and their relationships with one another, and no matter what you call them, I think those kinds of stories are universally appealing.

GP: How do you feel about the medium of comics as the grounds for a romantic comedy?  Are there challenges that you face as compared to other mediums?

JSR: I think some of the more physical stuff might be more challenging from a visual standpoint. Megan, is it hard to draw kissing? You’re pretty good at it, but I think a lot of comics artists are bad at it.

MLHa! Drawing kissing is only as hard as actually kissing is…once you figure out who’s leaning to which side.

In all seriousness, the most challenging part, which I put more of my focus on, is trying to sell the characters acting. It’s very hard to convey in just a few lines on a page that two people are gazing into each other’s eyes lovingly. It takes a lot of subtlety of expression.

GP: Is it hard to switch genres from a creative standpoint within comics?  Comics are known for either action or adventure, but this series focuses on human relationships. Is it harder to relate?

aa3.1JSR: I would think it would be easier to relate. We all have human relationships and for the most part everyone falls in love, but you know, only a handful of people have been in space. I don’t readSaga or The Fuse and think it makes no sense because it’s somewhere other than my life. Yet, I have no idea what it’s like to be on space station, and I want to find out. So, I would argue the point of access for something like Ares & Aphrodite is more broad, more welcoming, because it hits a common ground more people actually share. Yet, the purpose to all of these books is the same, to entertain and to maybe say something about how human beings get along with one another through the chosen genre.

ML: I agree. I think that when you look at the best stories from any genre, they’re the ones where the focus is really on the relationships and journeys that we can all relate to, and the science fiction or fantasy worlds are just a backdrop to heighten the stakes. I read Saga, too, and what I enjoy about it is that it’s a story about two people who are in love and starting a family and wanting to protect their child. Believable, compelling human relationships are what make the more fantastical stories relatable.

GP: The series Ares and Aphrodite which is an excellent case of opposites attract. The name perfectly matches the concept though, and so kind of begs the chicken-or-egg question for which came first the story of the title?

JSR: Honestly, both. James Lucas Jones, who is the current editor-in-chief at Oni Press, handed me the concept, he had a bunch of different basic one or two-line pitches and he was farming them out to different writers for us to develop. He suggested the idea and he had the title. I built the characters from there, including giving them names that related in some way to their corresponding deity. Will was actually going to be Will Ayers, but I realized that name was popping into my head because of Bill Ayers, the Weather Underground guy that the Republicans were saying was pal’s with President Obama. Like, you know, his Jimmy Olsen. “Obama’s pal, Bill Ayers.”

Anyway, I guess relating to some of what you were asking about dealing with genre, I find the challenge with all books with a romantic undercurrent is trying to find a way to make it interesting. Like, when I did A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat, a major challenge there was moving the story to the future and creating scenarios for the main characters that would make them interesting–because your goal is that if you make them interesting to each other, the reader will fall in love at the same time. So that was why in Ares & Aphrodite I decided to make the divorce lawyer the hopeless romantic and the wedding planner the cynic. Just to turn expectations on their heads.

GP: Will is an unconventional lead for a romance, seeing as part of his life is tearing people apart.  How do you go about making him a sympathetic character?

JSR: By not giving him evil intentions. Yes, unhappiness is a byproduct of what he does for a living, but at the same time, he views it as helping others and providing a service. He’s not vindictive, officiating a divorce is not a grudge match for him. Plus, we don’t spend any time with him really working this go-around, so what you see is how he deals with his friends, his generosity, and just his normal demeanor. He’s a regular dude.

ML: Yeah, the way Jamie wrote him, I never saw him as anything other than sympathetic. That very first scene shows how he’s trying not to let his job title define him, and how disappointed he is that some people will never see him as anything other than a divorce lawyer. I may have exaggerated the puppy-dog eyes a bit to help him out from a design standpoint. Even when he’s upset, he never really looks cold or hard, just sad.

GP: Part of the themes explored in this series is the invasive role of reporters on the lives of the rich and famous.  Is there a reason that you chose to pursue this approach?

JSR:  Once we landed on the Hollywood scenario, that sort of stuff just emerged naturally. It seemed an obvious hurdle that would drive the plot. When I originally mapped out the idea for the series, actually, my intention was to not tell this particular story, I wanted to start a year or more in Will and Gigi’s relationship. I was honestly looking at the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movies where they work together or in the same field and that brings up interesting problems. Like Adam’s Rib is one of my favorites, the one where they are lawyers on the opposite side of a case. So Carrie and Evans, the teenage starlet and the seasoned movie producer, they were part of an extended cast I envisioned. It’s only as we developed the backstory further that we decided the first volume would basically be how they were all tied together.

ML: I live in Los Angeles, so I actually see this sort of thing happening…not every day, but there are a few well-known actresses who go to my yoga studio, and I’ve gone to class more than once to find the place surrounded by paparazzi. I probably photobombed some TMZ story.

GP: Recently it has been stated that people are interested in the depth of the comic industry, especially looking into its development in the future. Do you think that romance has a bigger part to play than what it does now?

aa3.2JSR: Certainly. As I said, most books have some trappings of romance anyway. Terry Moore’s books are a great example. Echo had a romance at its core, despite being a science-fiction adventure. And, like Megan said, Strangers in Paradise was a romance comic through and through. I think what we are really seeing is most folks are just hungry for variety, they want to see a broader range of people represented. So you got someone like Rick Remender dealing with families and married couples in Black Science and Low, or more representation for women and people of color, something like the young Ms. Marvel coming into her own or the women of many races in Bitch Planet.

Keep in mind, when Joëlle Jones and I did You Have Killed Me back in 2009, we had people asking the same thing about the crime genre. But Darwyn

Cooke was starting his Parker books and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips were already starting to take off with Criminal, and now there are more crime books, more variations, be it the straight-ahead approach like Stumptown or something more out there like Copperhead or my own weird crime book Archer Coe & the Thousand Natural Shocks. This kind of stuff is expanding our readership, the way Vertigo did in the early 1990s, the way manga did in the early 2000s, and the more the merrier, I say!

ML: I definitely think romance is already a huge part of the comic industry. A lot of creators now (myself included) were absolutely influenced by the manga boom, which introduced this huge variety of stories about real people and their relationships, which was something that was lacking from most mainstream comics at that time. We’ve brought that with us into the books we’re writing and drawing now. And to reluctantly point to Saga again as an example, it’s selling ridiculously well, and I don’t think it’s just because of the robot TV porn. It’s a love story, and people are eating it up.

JSR: Hell, in Lady Killer, which Joëlle and I are doing for Dark Horse, people are expecting a romance. It’s like, “hey, I know there’s buckets of blood anywhere, but a heart has to be pumping all that, right?!” Because where there’s a heart, there’s love.

We Talk Lady Killer with Joëlle Jones

Joëlle Jones is back, and not only with a new series, but for another interview with us.  Her new series Lady Killers turned a lot of heads and got a lot of glowing reviews, with its mix of 50s style and brutal action.  We caught up with Joëlle to discuss her new series and to figure out how to get out those stubborn stains.

lk02Graphic Policy:  Can you talk about the inspiration for the main character?  It is such an unconventional mix but it works amazingly.
Joëlle Jones:  The main character and the idea for the book itself really came out of my love for vintage ads and violent movies. I’ve been collecting vintage ads and illustration for years and really wanted to work on something that would allow me to live in that world.
GP:  Does it worry you at all about the reaction of breaking down what is for many people still an icon (the loving housewife)?
JJ:  Not really, I don’ feel like the image of a perfect housewife is something that people take all that seriously and that it is ripe to poke fun of.
GP:  So much about this period is captured in perfect clarity, be it the main character acting as an Avon Lady, or the Kitty Kat club.  Did you do some research into the era first before writing?
JJ:  I did a fair amount in the beginning and as the series goes on and the situations get more involved I find myself having to do more and more research. I really enjoy it for the most part though. I love researching the clothes, cars, guns and historical moments. I’ve also gotten lucky enough to interview people that lived in Seattle at the time and get their impressions on the city itself.
lk03GP:  Josie is a character of contrasts, loving mother and wife but cold blooded assassin.  How do you balance the story telling to keep both separate and yet intertwined?  For instance, there are some very violent scenes, but also some pretty sedate ones.
JJ:  The contrast of her double life is what makes the book fun for me to draw and write. It is the central conflict and without it I doubt I would enjoy it as much. I find most people to be full of contradictions and Josie is just a version of that, maybe a version that never really happened but I think most people can identify with having to strike a balance in life that can be tricky at times.
GP:  There have not yet been the introduction of a main villain (or at least one that Josie hasn’t killed.)  Is there going to be anyone that can stand in her way?
JJ:  Sure, I have a character in the second issue that stands in her way and is a villain of sorts.
lk05GP:  One of the observations about heroes in comics is that they often use the same costume over and over again.  In the case of Josie she doesn’t really have a costume, but she is shown in different clothing during her other job, including the Kitten Costume which kinds of looks superhero like.  Do you think that the use of a costume is necessary for a hero in comics?
JJ:  No I don’t think a costume is at all necessary anymore. Comics have became so much cooler than that now and I think the days of needing a spandex uniform to identify what we consider heroes is over.
GP:  This is maybe more a question for Josie, but how does she get out all those blood stains?
JJ:  Lots of elbow grease and determination.

We Talk Legenderry Vampirella with David Avallone

David Avallone is a comic rookie, although with an impressive writing career in other mediums. Despite his lack of experience he hit the ground running with Legenderry Vampirella, a steampunk take on the bad girl character. We got a chance to talk science, feminism and goggles.

Graphic Policy: Legenderry is a world of characters from Dynamite put into a steampunk setting.  Why do you think that steampunk has become so popular as a sub-genre of science fiction?

lv01David Avallone: Of course, any individual fan might have a different answer to this question, but I can think of a couple of things. The future is notoriously hard to visualize well. Steampunk allows the creator and the audience to have comfortable, attractive visual and thematic “hooks” to hang the story on. Also, it’s probably not a coincidence that science fiction, in the modern sense, originates in the late Victorian era.  Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were creating steampunk before there was steampunk. The Nautilus and Cavor’s moon capsule and the Martian War Tripods and the Time Machine are all a beautiful cross between the Industrial Revolution and the then-undreamed future. That’s irresistible. I would say that trend even extends to Star Wars, which owes as much to the 1870s and the 1930s – design-wise – as any imaginary future.

GP: What were the challenges of incorporating Vampirella into a steampunk setting? And were there aspects of the character that were vital to keep?

DA: I can’t claim to be the one who faced the initial challenge: our steampunk Vampirella is the creation of original Legenderry writer Bill Willingham and artist Sergio Fernandez Davila. I think they kept her essense while dropping maybe her most iconic aspect: the 1969 monokini costume. That’s my favorite thing about Legenderry Vampirella: she proves she’s more than just the costume.  The most basic aspect of Vampirella that I’ve tried to maintain is her incredible strength. Not physical strength, but strength of character. She is no one’s victim, no one’s damsel-in-distress. In this series she gets some help from men (and a lot of women) but she is always in charge of every situation, and always the smartest, toughest one in the room.

As an aside… Bill Willingham prefers his own neologism “SteamPulp” for the world of Legenderry, because the elements are really more Pulp than Punk.

lv02GP: The genre is still somewhat based on science, even if it does sometimes incorporate in some magical qualities.  How do find the balance between a supernatural character and this scientific focus?

DA: This is a tough one to answer without spoilers, but let’s just say Vampirella has had a few origin stories over the years and I have leaned heavily in the direction of science fiction and away from the supernatural.

GP: Vampirella is a strong female character, but generally one that is based in modern times.  Is it harder to base a strong character in a time when women were less empowered than they are now?

DA: I’ve thought about this a lot, actually. Unlike some writers of iconic female heroes, I’m happy to identify myself – and Vampirella — as Feminists.

“Legenderry” is, of course, an imaginary world… but to a large extent their cultural mores mirror ours from the turn of the 20th Century. As a writer, I think it’s more interesting, and not necessarily harder, to tell a story of a strong, empowered woman in a time of greater oppression. Honestly, even in the stories set in modern times, an aspect that makes Vampirella “scary” – on a cultural level – is that she can’t be oppressed, she won’t be controlled, she won’t shut up and she won’t stand down. And that’s why I absolutely love her, and love writing her.

GP: It seems like one of the challenges with Vampirella is that she is a hero that has no problems killing her foes, and thus she does not have an arch-nemesis or even a common group of villains. Was that a problem when interpreting this story?

lv03DA:  I can’t claim this is a very original observation, but she’s almost like writing Superman. There’s no one like her, and she’s virtually invulnerable. In fact, I’ve been trying to work this one Kryptonite-related joke into every issue and I still haven’t been able to find a spot for it yet. Because of the science fiction setting, I have been able to effectively threaten her life in a lot of situations… or at least present her with challenges she’s not sure she can survive.

In the past I think Dracula has been presented as her Arch-Villain, but I’m leaving him completely out of this.  Bill set up a “Council of Evil”, to which I’ve added a handful of my favorite (public domain) villains from literature.  Collectively they have a lot of resources and skills and are a real danger to her: an army of ants can take out a scorpion.

GP: Vampirella is a character already from different eras.  Her popularity began as a pulp heroine with a cult following in the 1960s when such characters were still considered taboo and so escaped mainstream success.  Equally the character has struggled at times to gain a following in the modern day. Is there a time and place where you think the character best fits?

DA: She started out very much like a character from a Hammer horror movie and she’s come a long way since then. I think she’s been dismissed by some fans and readers, over the years, because of the costume, and because of the perception there isn’t a lot more to her than exposed flesh.  (And let’s face it, she has also gained a lot of readers because of the costume, and the exposed flesh.) I also think the frequent re-writing of her origin story hasn’t helped. But she’s still around, and her longevity speaks well of the ability of the character to apply to all sorts of genre settings. For myself, I don’t see a limit to the kinds of stories you could tell with her.

GP: What can we look forward to in this series?

DA: A kickass heroine in a fascinating setting, with a fun supporting cast. Robots and airships and swordplay and disintegrator pistols and autogyros and a whole lot of “spot the 19th century literary character”.  A little more seriously, I hope people find a compelling adventure about a very powerful woman trying to make her way in a hostile world.

GP: Is there any other character that you think would benefit from the same treatment?

lv04DA: Short answer: steampunk Nick Fury. He was the first comic book character I loved as a kid.

Longer: When I was asked to do this book, I had a nice phone call with Bill Willingham, and I told him some of the characters I wanted to bring into his world of Legenderry, and he gave his enthusiastic approval.  So the real answers to this question are already in the book.

I wouldn’t mind doing a steampunk epic where the superteam is Kafka’s Joseph K, Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter and William Burroughs’ Inspector Lee of the Nova police.

I’ve had an idea for decades about a mash-up of Homer’s Odyssey with the Black Sox Scandal in a steampunk milieu, but that’s another story…

GP: Characters in this setting have specific visual qualities (for instance goggles) incorporated into their design.  Vampirella still looks very vampire like, but were there any design aspects that restricted what you thought that you could do with the story?

DA: I will admit that as a writer I’ve been struggling to come up with a reason for someone to actually USE those goggles, but human dress often has pointless design elements.  I don’t actually use my tie to wipe my mouth with at the table, for example.

I find in some ways being in the steampunk setting is freeing rather than restricting.  In the present day, anyone can call anyone on a cell phone, find out any information instantly. The characters having such conveniences can get in the way of drama.  Sort of like on Star Trek… the communicators had to be blocked or stolen, and the transporter had to malfunction… like, all the time… or Kirk could simply pop out of any trouble he might find himself in. The writers had to solve that every week.  Without those “modern” conveniences it’s easier to back characters into interesting corners. And that’s what action-adventure is all about: backing characters into interesting corners, and then getting them out again.

 

 

We Talk Rat God with Richard Corben

ratgod01Richard Corben‘s name is synonymous with comic book art.  In the era of the comic code and before the mainstream companies were even daring enough to start deconstructing their own universes, Richard was pushing the boundaries in Heavy Metal and other magazines.  He has continued his long and talented career since then.  His most recent offering is Rat God which he wrote and illustrated himself.  We got a chance to talk with him about the new series

Graphic Policy: Rat God #1 still leaves a lot open as to where the story is going as it incorporates in three different groups of people.  It does tie in some common themes though, such as travel, love and being an outsider.  Which themes are the most important in this series?

Richard Corben: Of those Love is the most important. In a series of this length, there is enough space to explore several themes and how they relate to the lead character.

GP: Is it easier to both write and draw a series?  Does it make it easier to realize the full story, or can it be easier to have another creator work on the story or art?

RC: For me it is certainly not easy to write and draw a story.  But it is much more fulfilling to have complete control over my work, at least as much as is possible. I enjoy visualizing other writer’s stories, but when I write myself, I keep having further ideas about a scenario and I’m free to utilize them.

GP: This is a story from different times, from both the unknown setting for the natives and an earlier time for the driver and the academic.  Is it hard to balance the narrative when changing the era of writing?

RC: Obviously, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. My idea is to start in a prehistoric setting, and then try to make some connections to later events.  The narrator character, Mag the hag, is one way of creating continuity between story events widely separated in time. I’m not so much trying to make a balance as to create a unity between the first book and later books.

GP: Why did you choose New England as the setting for this story?  And why also choose a real place but then use a fictitious one for the city (Arkham)?

RC: My intention is to correlate several settings here.  I admit part of my goal was to create a pastiche of some of the themes used by Lovecraft; Arkham and the Miskatonic University are obvious Lovecraftian links.  There are also other instances where I use real things as well as fictitious ones, such as the real Indian tribe, the Tlingits, and a made up one, the Cthanhluks.

GP: The conflict here seems to not only be man versus man, but also man versus wilderness, as the characters struggle without fire for warmth or being stuck in a snowstorm. Are there challenges to writing when a protagonist is the natural world?

RC: In this case I’m drawing from my own anxiety and awe of the vast Northern forests. It is a common practice to isolate characters in a remote setting.  I wanted to escalate this idea and put them in an extremely remote setting. Much of man’s efforts are spent on conquering nature. I want to show that in some cases, nature can’t be conquered.

GP: Race plays a part in the narrative here as well.  Of course the characters are showing signs of their own prejudice, but how do you approach this as a writer to make the characters still approachable?

RC: Racial bigotry has always been with us. In the time period that I’m portraying, it was common even among intelligent sophisticated social groups.  I don’t want to give away an important plot conclusion, but Clark’s prejudices will haunt him further in the story, hopefully in unexpected ways.

GP: There are a lot more questions than answers after this impressive first issue.  Any clues on where the story might be going?

RC: The plot will become more entangled  with more sinister characters in more atmospherically moody settings before Clark can figure out and fight his way through the situation. The writing and drawing is still a challenge to me. I hope the readers enjoy it as much as I do creating it.

We Talk Alien Vs Predator and Ghost with Chris Sebela

We recently got the chance to discuss comics with comic veteran Chris Sebela.  Maybe better known for his work at the indies on a variety of titles, he has also taken on Carol Danvers and the Fantastic Four.  The focus of our discussion was Alien Vs. Predator and Ghost, but as usual some other things came up in the discussion, breaking and entering, pregnant women and dripping bugs.

seb01Graphic Policy: Ever since the appearance of the xenomorph’s skull in Predator 2, fans have been clamoring for a matchup between the two, but previous versions of the battle have fallen short somewhat, especially the movie versions.  Did that have any effect on your approach to the series?

Chris Sebela: I was and am right there with the fans that the movies definitely left a lot to be desired. I’m a fan of the original AVP comics stuff, but I made sure not to revisit that as I didn’t want any of it to bleed through, but I went back and watched the first AvP and enough of AvP: Requiem to confirm I didn’t like it the first time. None of that really altered my approach though, which was, simply: don’t screw it up. Giving myself the AvP I always wanted was my main priority. Not that every fan of either franchise is going to love what I love about these franchises or these creatures, but I feel like I’ve been almost a lifelong fan of these things, I’ve been there through their highs and lows, so I hopefully knew enough to steer the boat and not sink it.

GP:  The new series involved a mixture of the xenomorphs, the predators and the aliens from Prometheus, a decent mix of different characters, but do you feel that anything is missing from the shared universe?  Another species or another setting perhaps?

seb02CS:  I felt like the writer’s room was very cognizant of letting the books go nuts, but not letting them go infinitely nuts. I think we were pretty well balanced, we never went too far out in one direction or another to tip things wildly in one direction. The universe itself doesn’t need another species, at least not one that poses any sort of challenge to the dominant lifeforms. We have Engineers, Predators, Xenomorphs, Constructs, I think we’ve got lots to choose from, and that’s before you start throwing the black goo around and creating new variations on old themes. Settings, though, I feel like yeah, there’s lots more ground that can be covered in a universe that’s this big and this all-encompassing, as long as it’s never the Predator home planet, because I never want to see that and have the fanfiction in my head officially contradicted.

GP: The first movie of AVP set up the Predators as the heroes, but that was a difference from their depiction until that point in their own movies as they were mostly villains.  Do you think they are rightfully more heroic than the xenomorphs, or do you see it a different way?

CS:  I think one of the failings of the films was trying to pose either side as being heroic or vilainous. They’re both unstoppable killing machines that would kill anyone who got in their way. Making Predators the heroes makes sense because audiences can relate more to a vicious murdering thing if it also has 2 legs and 2 arms and a head and a torso like we do. Who could relate to the slithering, dripping bugs with inner mouths? I mean, someone probably can, but not a lot of people. Predators can be posed as leaning heroic because they have a code that they hunt by: they don’t kill pregnant prey, they don’t kill sick or wounded prey. But these seem more like the finer points of sports handicapping than actual morality. I dunno, in the end, I feel like Predators are as capable of heroic acts as the people you pass on the sidewalk, a lot of them could be, but if they were given the choice, would they?

seb04GP: What are the challenges between working on various titles at the same time?  Especially ones with such different themes and concepts as AVP and Ghost?

CS: I think them being so different in concept and theme makes jumping between those two books and all my other books less of a challenge. It’s a good thing to have, sometimes you’re not just in the mood to get as bleak and claustrophobic as you need to be to write AvP. Sometimes you want to write about a family dynamic, to have people talking to each other without constant threat of danger, so there’s Ghost. Or any of the other books I do, it’s all about keeping my fingers moving when I sit down to write, so having all these options means even if I’m in the midst of a spectactuarly awful day, I ideally have something to work on that fits my headspace.

GP: Ghost is interesting in that it looks at the main hero from a different standpoint, and addresses the fact that a lot of the actions that heroes undertake are in fact often illegal (breaking and entering, assault).  Why did you choose to focus on this aspect of the character?

CS:  I felt lucky being asked to join up when Ghost got expanded from that first 4-issue arc that Kelly Sue DeConnick and Phil Noto did. It felt like a chance to really tell the story of how Elisa decides, “I’m going to take this thing I can do and help strangers with it”. I wanted to track the progress of Elisa coming back from a huge trauma, with all sorts of deficits, and being strong enough to pick up this weird mantle she’s been saddled with and making the best of it. I wanted her transition into Ghost as a hero in this world to feel genuine and earned, not that she just came to grips with everything and wrapped it in a neat little bow. Sometimes it’s hard to make even the smallest life choices and not have the “what if” haunt you afterwards. These are bigger life and death, crazy or sane decisions that are just amplified and distorted. I didn’t want to do a villain of the week format, I wanted to focus on Ghost and, more importantly, on Elisa and how she recovers and rebuilds. That involves weighing the power of what you can do with the right or wrongness of what you should do, only with Elisa and Ghost, it’s much higher stakes that often floats right over the grey area of the moral spectrum. No one is born a paragon of goodness and few people achieve it and maintain it, for Elisa, I was interested in the inverse, how no one is (re)born a monster and what it takes to claw yourself back to some kind of state of grace.

seb05GP: What are some of the challenges that you felt as a man writing a female main character?  Was writing across the gender line a problem?

CS:  Not really. It was harder for me to write sibling relationships, because I’m an only child. That’s a thing I don’t understand. Being a human being in this world who is confused and screwed up?  That I understand. I felt like I understood Elisa from the get go and that was ultimately the biggest hurdle to cross for me to write her, getting to know who she is when she’s not handing people their asses.

I had some of hesitations when I started in on High Crimes, which also features a female main character, but I also felt like I knew her enough that she’d tell me when I was screwing up, when I was making her do things that weren’t what she’d do. I’m definitely aware of not screwing up and I try to make sure that I don’t. I’ll check some things with women I know to make sure I’m not completely off-base because I’m not confident to the point of delusion. And I’m still learning as I go, I will be forever learning to see outside of myself. Writing women is as hard as writing men, it’s getting inside their heads and figuring out ‘why do you do this?’ or ‘where did you get this from?’ that’s the killer part of the process. And I like it more, to tell the truth. It makes my job harder and easier at the same time. I got into writing to tell stories and build characters. The further away these fictional people are from my personal daily setting of white dude, the better.

GP:  Was a more realistic female character a goal, or just something that came naturally?

CS:  It’s not a spoken goal, but sure, it’s always a goal. Considering that “unrealistic women” or “no women at all” has been such a standard setting in comics for so long, who wants to read more of the same old same old? I don’t. And I definitely don’t want to write it. That’s why when I talk about Ghost I refer to her as Elisa more often than not, or why the Captain Marvel fandom is called CarolCorps and not CaptainMarvelCorps, it’s these women when they’re not in uniform that’s infinitely more interesting. None of the superheroics stuff matters if it’s just an empty suit stuffed full of cliches and tropes.

GP:  We never really got to see Ghost long enough for a collection of villains to be established as her adversaries, but do you even think that a superhero needs a main arch-nemesis as is so common?  Or can they exist without them?

CS:  I think the closest we got was Dr. October, because she was so tightly associated with how Elisa became Ghost. I felt like there was a time for her to come back, but I was more interested in the chaos that spins out from Ghost even existing in this world. All of this ties into the rest of the baggage that comes with being a superhero. By your very existence, you open the possibility for bigger and weirder things to come wandering into the world. And having the element of surprise is helpful when you’re dealing with a hero whose main power is she can’t be touched if she doesn’t want to be, so diversifying the gallery of potential threats is always more fun.

But I do think superheroes do need an arch-nemesis of some kind. Hell, we all have them in our lives, even if they only exist on our Facebook friends list these days, there’s always someone who sort of exists in your life to remind you of the times you screwed up or the choices you didn’t make. Regular villains are great for physical trauma, but heroes always heal. I think the reason archenemies are necessary is because they inflict psychic trauma, which is, for my money, the far more lasting and crippling of traumas.

GP:  Is this the end of Ghost as we know her for the moment?

CS:  Sadly, yeah. It’s the end of me writing her and I believe it’s the end of her running solo for the time being. I’m proud of what we managed to do in a short space, that we got to rebuild a hero from scratch and push her (sometimes roughly) out of the nest into full-blown Ghost status. With all that and Project Black Sky still happening, I wouldn’t be shocked to see her turn up there running circles around the rest of the capes.

Ethan Young Discusses His New Graphic Novel Nanjing: The Burning City

Nanjing The Burning CityIn August, award-winning graphic novelist Ethan Young brings bravery in the face of an overwhelming enemy to the forefront of one of the biggest mass murders of World War II.

Exploring the horrors of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, Nanjing: The Burning City focuses on two abandoned Chinese soldiers trapped in the city as they desperately attempt to escape. Outnumbered by the invading Imperial Japanese Army, they’ll encounter the horrors and terrifying effects of war—but they’ll soon learn that no enemy can destroy the spirit of resistance and bravery.

Written and drawn by Independent Publisher Book Award winner Ethan Young, Nanjing: The Burning City delves into one of the most contentious events of World War II. Impeccably researched and drawn in Young’s critically acclaimed style, the original graphic novel brings new insight into one of World War II’s forgotten tragedies.

We discussed the graphic novel with Ethan, including the history of the massacre, its lasting repercussions, and how he went about crafting the graphic novel.

Graphic Policy: So what got you interested in this historical event, and how did the graphic novel come about?

Ethan Young: Being Chinese-American, the 2nd Sino-Japanese War is paramount to my cultural identity, even though I grew up in NYC. My mother watched a lot of Sinovision when I was a kid, and I distinctly remember seeing China’s parade of weapons (which is strange when I look back, because that’s the kind of footage we’re getting out of North Korea these days). When I inquired about it, my mother told me, in a very direct fashion, “China was hurt during the war. Now we have these weapons and no one will ever threaten us again.” That was the mentality I grew up with. In high school, I discovered how few of my non-Asian friends were aware of China’s involvement during WW2.  In my early 20s, I started learning more about the specific battles and events within the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, such as the Nanjing Massacre. After leaving college, I wanted to tackle the subject right away for my first graphic novel. Part of me felt that it was my ‘duty’ to write this story. When you learn about something horrific happening to your people, you get filled with a heavy dose of nationalism, which I think is very primitive and tribal, but also kinda natural.  After several early drafts, I wisely put the project aside when I realized that my skills were not meeting my expectations.

GP: How much research did you do before and during the creation of the graphic novel?

EY: I started by reading Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking, which I think almost everyone familiar with the event has come across at some point. There was also The Diaries of John Rabe and the book on Minnie Vautrin.  After I wrapped up Tails and was ready to revisit NANJING, I read Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter and The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence. There were several other books for photo reference and ancillary information, but those were the bulk of my historical research. But as my editor, Jim Gibbons, told me, “There’s always more research.”  Google images was also extremely helpful in pinpointing small details, like finding a clear image of the Kuomintang symbol. Another reason why this book would’ve been so much harder to finish 10 years ago.

GP: How historically accurate did you aim for the graphic novel to be?

EY: Accurate enough that a historian would be comfortable with the artistic licenses I take. If someone is completely oblivious to the events of Nanjing, I want this book to be somewhat informative, but mostly engrossing as a story, while still maintaining a healthy level of respect for the victims of the tragedy.

GP: The story focuses on two Chinese soldiers trapped in the city. Where did that perspective come from?

EY: When initially conceiving the story, my idea for the main protagonist was still fluid. At one point, I wanted to follow 3 separate narratives: a Chinese student, a group of abandoned Chinese soldiers, and a family making their escape. Eventually, the soldiers were the most suitable for the tone of the book. I used the structural narrative of a Western to build the story, so the main characters are somewhat archetypal, and there are some very recognizable tropes when you read it.

GP: With the story focusing on the two Chinese soldiers, do you worry about the graphic novel being called biased? There are some who dismiss the atrocities that took place as propaganda.

EY: To be fair, yes, I am a little biased here. However, I’m more worried that the book will be labeled ‘awful’ or ‘trash’ than being labeled biased. There are parts of the book that do address moral grey areas, so it’s not a concise Black and White, Sheep vs. Wolf story. It’s not like Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, where EVERY Japanese character was a walking stereotype. And as for those who label the Nanjing Massacre as fabricated propaganda, I suggest they watch the documentary, Nanking, which includes recorded confessions from Japanese soldiers.

GP: How much of the brutality do you show in the graphic novel? When I read the Rape of Nanking in college I cringed at some of the acts committed. Did you have problems depicting any of it? Was there input from Dark Horse concerning that?

EY: There was definitely a lot of input from my editor, but also some self-censorship and restraint on my own part. Being a cartoonist is a very solitary profession, so you work in this vacuum, and things that seem tasteful at first might feel inappropriate when you shine it in the light of day. As for the horrific acts of sexual violence that took place, my book DOES address it, but you never see it happen, you only get glimpses of the aftermath. And even then, I aimed to be as tactful and respectful as I could. Jim and I made sure to field outside opinions on the depictions of brutality, to make sure we weren’t crossing a boundary.  When tackling a subject as sensitive as sexual assault, and more specifically, HOW to tackle it with maturity, I always point to Shawkshank Redemption. You never see Andy’s rape, it cuts away, but you know it happens, and it’s equally horrifying when you listen to Red’s stoic narration.

GP: I also remember being rather shaken while learning about it, some of the acts are so disturbing and photos from the time that graphic. How has the graphic novel impacted the team? What was the team like emotionally when working on the project?

EY: As I touched upon earlier, I was imbued with a heavy sense of nationalism when I first read The Rape of Nanking. But dig a little deeper, and you find that the Kuomintang government at the time was riddled with corruption, the city was practically surrendered to the invading army, and you realize how reductive it is to simply point your finger at Japan. Which isn’t an excuse for the atrocities of the Imperial Japanese Army – far from it – but it’s important to gain some perspective, and not allow your visceral reactions to debase an entire people.

I was a little shaken when I went through all my research notes recently. I had put some of the images out of my head for so long that it became a bit jarring to see them again. I nagged Jim until he watched Nanking, and I think that doc ruined his entire night.

GP: Some of what’s been written about the event is the psychology of the Japanese soldiers, and how things spiraled so out of hand. Do you present that at all?

EY: A bit, yes. There’s a Japanese soldier in the book who acts as the moral center for his squad, in the midst of the chaos. But Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death thoroughly explored the disillusioned Japanese soldier, so I didn’t want to repeat and/or rip off that plot device.  Also, I didn’t want to focus too much on the outsider’s reaction the events.

GP: The event was part of the Second Sino-Japanese War which folded into World War II. Interestingly the Germans helped China, and there was a lot of involvement from foreigners, especially to protect Chinese citizens. Much of the recounting of the events is from foreigners who stayed and witnessed it too. How much of that do you show?

EY: It’s interesting that you should mention that. Without giving too much away… there is a point in the story where it would’ve been appropriate to show a Nazi flag, but Jim and I felt it simply would’ve been too confusing to people who are oblivious to the event. The International Safety Zone is an essential element in the plot, but you don’t see a lot of westerners in the book, only some.

GP: This was a massive massacre with estimates of 300,000 people killed. It’s also not really talked about in the west, but still impacts Chinese/Japanese relations today. Why do you think this isn’t as well known in the west as opposed to other events of its nature?

EY: That’s an incredibly tough question. It’s a combination so many multiple factors, first of which is simple: a lot of people don’t read. Statistics show that 33% of U.S. high school graduates don’t read a book after graduating (and 40% after college), which to me, means that the average student is getting the bulk of their historical knowledge from compulsory schooling alone, and when you condense world history into 2 years of junior high and 4 years of high school, a lot will fall through the cracks. So much of China’s involvement and contributions to the Allied effort is relegated to foot notes. I remember having only ONE high school teacher mention the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, and even then, she didn’t go too in-depth.

Second, as you mentioned before, some still write the event off as propaganda. Since it’s impossible to know the EXACT death toll of the Nanjing Massacre, with military records having been destroyed, the topic becomes ‘debatable’ and our textbooks don’t like ambiguous topics (at least from what I remember). Textbooks are very binary in their narratives as well. Slavery: BAD. Revolutionary War: GREAT! When textbooks can only accommodate a certain amount of information, certain things will be considered less digestible than others.

Third, there was a lot of western sympathy for Japan after the atomic bombs combined with American guilt for Japanese-American internment camps, both of which are terrible in their own right, so I don’t want to dismiss those 2 tragedies. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But, sadly, that sympathy didn’t exist in China after the war. Chinese students protested western aid to Japan in the late 40s.  Then, you have the Cold War, and the Republic of China became the People’s Republic of China. The US enters the Korean War, and essentially fought China during that war. US/China relations didn’t really improve until the 70s.

GP: The events of Nanjing are still a contentious issue. What’s the reaction been like to it especially from China or Japan if any?

EY: Nothing yet, really. I’ve gotten some interest from Chinese history buffs and a librarian working in Shanghai was very, very intrigued by the book, so I’ll take that as a positive. The one thing that DOES worry me is when I’ll read a very anti-Japanese comment on Facebook regarding my book. The last thing I want is to incite hatred for a current generation of Japanese people who had nothing to do with the atrocities of the Imperial Army.

GP: What other projects do you have coming up?

EY: Well, I’m hoping to wrap up my kids’ comic, A Piggy’s Tale, with my writing partner, Tod Emko. After that, pretty much promoting NANJING and being a full time dad this spring. But once everything has settled down, I’ve already pitched my next big story to Jim. It’s going to be very exciting.

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