“A Simple Story Done Bombastically”: James Stokoe on Orphan and the Five Beasts

All images in this post from Orphan and the Five Beasts.

James Stokoe has spread his unmistakable style across the world of comics, from prominent licensed gigs on the Godzilla (Half-Century War, 2012-13; Godzilla in Hell, 2015) and Alien (Dead Orbit, 2017) franchises to his own creations, like Orc Stain (Image, 2012-13) and Sobek (ShortBox, 2019). He's versatile too - in the same few pages, he can land a visual joke with perfect timing, then immediately inspire confused awe at explosions of grotesque imagery. When I spoke with him this past spring, the room seemed filled with laughter and absurdity; this joyful outlook is ever-present in his work, articulated by an expert storyteller. He has been active now for decades, published since the early part of the '00s, but a Stokoe page remains both recognizable and esoteric: a unique aesthetic the artist continues to investigate.

Last year, Dark Horse published the first collected volume of Stokoe’s newest series, Orphan and the Five Beasts. The project builds a ridiculous tension around the main character, Mo, an orphan girl who employs brutal fighting abilities, yet remains innocent and confused by an absurd world of dying masters, magical criminals and grotesque outcomes. We discussed the next chapter of the series, among other things.

-Eric Buckler

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ERIC BUCKLER: You’re Canadian, born and raised?

JAMES STOKOE: Yes, born and raised. Born in Calgary.

Are you currently living in Canada?

Yeah, I was in the States for a while with my wife, but I got deported about 15 years ago. It’s not an exciting story, I got busted because I didn’t have a work visa or anything down there. I went across the border with a commission I did for a Japanese ska band. [Laughter] A lot less cool than it sounds.

The reason I ask is because, assuming you were always a comics fan, what was the comics culture like for you growing up in Calgary?

I didn’t start reading comics until I moved here; I’m currently in Kelowna, British Columbia. We had a couple comic shops, I didn’t like them that much. You know the people who are running the shops that you don’t like? I got most of my comics at used bookstores, so it was at the mercy of what other people were throwing away. I didn’t have runs of anything. So if I liked a Spider-Man, I would pick up a Spider-Man; or a Silver Surfer, I would pick that up. Or Alien, there were a ton of Alien comics that people were throwing out, so I got a lot of those. I had one other friend who read comics, it was kind of lonely. [Laughter]

Where did your desire to become a cartoonist come from?

I just always liked to draw. You know those Nerds candies? Do you have those in the States?

Oh yeah.

I used to draw those little Nerds characters. I’d tape a bunch of pages together and I’d have like a big Nerds city. I was crazy about Nerds candies when I was a little kid, and it just kind of grew from there.

Was it a trip for you to be able to work on Spider-Man and Alien comics when you became a professional?

Oh yeah, I’ve gotten to work on most of the property stuff that I’ve wanted to. I think, like, Rogue Trooper is the one thing that I haven’t done yet that I really want to do. I know my parents were very excited when I got Godzilla, because they knew how much of a fan I was of it growing up. I had all the toys and stuff. I was in Vancouver and they sent me a little gift box that said “We’re proud of you!” [Laughter]

As far storytelling and illustration, the insanity, the orchestrated and complicated, lots of disgusting, over-the-top elements - what led you personally to that style of visual storytelling?

All the gross stuff? [Laughter]

Ha, yeah, I could have just said that.

I don’t know, I don’t really like super violent-- well, if it’s like “funny” violent in, like, a horror movie or something, I’m more drawn to that than a torture movie. I don’t really know what the difference is. Something like Riki-Oh, I find that hilarious. It’s just such a gross movie. It’s funny. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

So, considering you have mentioned H.R. Giger and Alien as influences, that type of that element of dark and complicated evil - how do you feel about that?

It’s just even-- aesthetically, that it's pleasing. It sounds kind of stereotypical. Yeah, I’m not sure. That is a good question. I guess it’s just something you don’t see in your everyday life. Like when you see a drawing like that, it’s like, oooh, what is that?

In Orphan and the Five Beasts, I saw a lot of elements of the movies Five Deadly Venoms and Kill Bill. Can you talk about how you decided to put those details in, and how you incorporated your own story within those elements?

Well, the beginning of it is basically just Five Deadly Venoms, full stop. [Laughter] The master in the pot thing. I didn’t want to dance around it, like, this is nothing like it! Once it started going beyond the first issue, I think it’s something way different than that. I’ve been watching those movies, like Shaw Brothers movies and Hong Kong action movies for ages now. And I think elements of that stuff has always been in my work, like especially in Orc Stain or something like that. This is the first time-- I don’t want to say homage, but the first time I have been directly referencing stuff from movies that I really like. Again, Riki-Oh. [Laughter]

There is a scene I’m working on now that I am pulling stuff from 8 Diagram Pole Fighter. Have you seen that?

It’s on my radar, but I haven’t seen it.

It’s kind of a messy movie because the main guy they were going to have in that, Alexander Fu Sheng, I think he died in a car accident halfway through filming it, so they switched the main actor from him to Gordon Liu.

Oh wow!

Halfway through the movie you’re, like, where did that other guy go? [Laughter] There’s a scene where they train in “The Club to De-Fang the Wolves” I think it’s called? They have this wooden dummy of a wolf and they have their poles and they’re knocking all the teeth out from the wolf. At the end of the movie, Gordon Liu comes into the bad guys all hanging out at a hotel or something - he comes in and he’s got a wagon full of poles behind him, [laughter] and he just starts knocking everybody’s teeth out. Just stuff like that, I think it’s hilarious.

I’ll definitely watch that, I love Gordon Liu too.

Yeah, there’s that scene in Orphan where the Master, he’s got his little slate and it gets struck by lightning. That’s definitely from 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, too.

I ask because in the story, there are the obvious parts like there being five deadly venoms, and five beasts, the Master in the pot, etc. But then the unique elements that you put in are clear too. It was interspersed in an interesting way.

I tried to not make it a pastiche of those movies. I’m inspired by them, but I don’t want to rip them off whole cloth and make it look like exactly what they're doing - I want to do my own thing, too.

How much freedom were you given by Dark Horse to create this?

My editor Daniel [Chabon] was just happy to get pages in, as slow as I am sometimes. [Laughter] He’s great about letting me do what I need. He hasn’t told me I’ve gone too far on anything yet!

The main character, Mo, is almost a complete mystery as far as context, origin, her spear, the mask, etc. How did you create her as a character?

She’s kind of like a Clint Eastwood, Man with No Name. That’s the way I sort of think of her right now. The first arc, she’s just kind of there. [Laughter] There’s mystery, I guess, but not a backstory or anything like that. The [next arc] I’m working on right now goes into that a bit, goes into her personality a bit deeper. I don’t wanna do too much, because I kind of like her. I like that for a main character. There’s all this weird stuff happening around her, I don’t want her to have a secret history because she’s an orphan. I don’t want her parents to be some emperors or something.

Speaking of that minimal backstory, the setting and the type of martial arts and the time period - none of that is specified. There are clearly Asian elements, but it’s pretty vague. Was that intentional? Were you going for the same mystery as Mo?

I’m still kind of building the world out. When I do stuff like this, original stuff, I don’t plan out the world that much; I just kind of let it develop as it goes along, because otherwise I’d be sitting there for ages trying to figure out what this does and what that does.

It’s definitely based off of Kangxi Emperor China [1654-1722], or around then. It’s a fantasy world, like a sword and stone thing based off a Chinese era, rather than a western one.

Based on some of the notes you put in the back of the collection, you said you go back to cannibalism a lot in your stories?

I do think it’s funny that I’m always cannibalizing my own work. I feel like I’ve drawn that scene [Chopper Teng eating himself] about 30 times for different things. [Laughter] Cannibals are one of those things that are really scary for me. I’ve never met-- well, I hope I’ve never met a cannibal. It’s one of those weird things that I know nothing about.

I was impressed with the auto-cannibalism.

I hoped that was a good reveal, I was worried people were going to be like, oh, he’s just a cannibal, he’s just eating people.

And then he seasons himself.

Yeah, I love that scene. Like that scene in Hard Boiled where it’s the shootout in the teahouse where he’s covered in flour and looks like a ghost, I was like, what if he had breading and eggs on him?

Is it pretty natural for you to place the comedy throughout your work?

Oh yeah, I love comedy. It’s hard for me to do stuff without comedy these days. It’s just a way to keep the drawings from getting too boring for me.

Naked Gun movies are like the greatest thing in the world to me. [Laughter] I love stupid slapstick, like bad physical jokes done with a straight face, I love that stuff. Mel Brooks movies are my kind of comedy.

They are doing that new History of the World, Part II. Have you seen any of that?

Yeah, I’ve seen a couple episodes. They had the guy who played Jonah in Veep. He was Abe Lincoln, and I thought that was so great. He’s hitting his head on all these lamps and looking at his pants saying, “Look at these pants, they don’t fit. They don’t make pants for big boys!”

Is there anything else you can think of that naturally comes up in your comics in general?

I don’t want to spoil the new one too much, but there is one thing I like doing lately - it's a character that won’t die, it just keeps coming back. I don’t want to say who it is, you might be able to guess if you read the first one. I’ve been doing that in my own work lately, at least in writing stuff.

I also like to draw inept guards. [Laughter]

Yeah, the regeneration stuff, there are different perspectives on that throughout the first volume. I found myself shocked when Thunderthighs starts to come back.

My wife was so happy about that page. I’ve never seen her beam about my work like that before. [Laughter] “Look at him, that’s adorable!”

The colors in this series are largely orange and blue. What drove that?

I don’t go too crazy on the colors, just because I hate working on the computer. I’ve done this since Orc Stain, I’ll make a palette of six or seven different colors. I’ll use that throughout the whole book, but I’ll flip the colors so this one’s more prominent in this scene, but I’ll use the same colors in the whole thing just to tie it all in. I think if I used too many colors in my work, it would get really muddy really quick. So, I try to keep everything grounded in one palette, not go too ham on it.

As far as going back and forth between minimalism and insanity, how do you pace that?

I try to keep the story, the plot and everything, bare-bones - some people might say way too bare-bones. It’s a simple story done bombastically. That’s kind of how I like to describe it.

When I was doing Sobek, that was my mantra through that whole thing. It’s about a crocodile who goes up a river. That’s the whole plot. It’s the way that it’s done that’s a little bit more exciting than that. That’s definitely a conscious decision these days, one of my few conscious decisions. [Laughter]

Why did you pick orange and blue prominently for Orphan?

It’s basically nothing more than I thought they looked alright. I used a lot of reds if it’s an action scene, and if you've gotta draw a point of impact or something, you’ll just slap that red gradient on there and it’ll ratchet up that intensity a little bit.

The softer stuff, yeah, I just thought it looked alright. Orange and blue are my go-to these days. No real deep reason behind it or anything.

We have already covered this in parts, but do you have a general process for how you get ideas from your mind to the page?

It depends. I’ve been doing licensed work for a while now, and I got into a habit of-- you know, because you usually have like three other people you have to show it to before you can get it approved. So I script everything. I used to never script anything, I would just draw it straight to the page, but I’ve gotten more in the habit of that.

Less on this one now, because I’m kind of getting the hang of it - I’ve got it mostly in my head. Now I pencil pretty tight; I never used to do that, but I do now because of getting into the habit on licensed work.

This book is kind of a cross between a licensed book and what I would do on my own. It’s a bit looser, but I’m still trying to figure out some stuff.

Do you prefer working on your own stuff, or for other people’s/licensed work?

I usually prefer to work on my own stuff, but it doesn’t really ever feel like that huge of a difference. On the stuff that I’ve worked on-- there’s some stuff, like, I don’t want to draw this character, but I’ve got to pay my mortgage this month, so I should probably do it. But I usually find something to draw you in, make it fun to do.

You said in the back of the book that this is the first time you’ve done connecting covers. What inspired that?

I was going to do all the covers at the same time, just so they are done and out of the way. I probably shouldn’t have done that, because the design was probably going to change throughout, before I even started doing the interiors. I had just never done it, and if I’m going to draw four covers at the same time, I kind of wondered what it would look like if they were all together. It’s just an experiment, really. I’ve drawn big spreads and stuff before, more-than-two-page spread stuff before, and it’s kind of the same thing, so it’s not that alien of an experience. I think they turned out alright.

Are the next arcs going to continue to have connected covers?

Yeah, they’re not going to all connect together [across the entire project] because I don’t think my computer could handle that. [Laughter] I finished the second arc's covers ages ago, they are another four-set connecting.

Without revealing too much, what’s next for the series?

The one I’m working on now, which is issues #5-8, it’s kind of like a mystery. There is a movie, [laughs] it’s called Human Lanterns, which I think is a Shaw Brothers one. I wanted to do one in that vein, because it’s a serial killer guy who’s making lanterns out of people’s skin - it’s really cool. I don’t think this one is that gross, it’s more of a mystery. I had to shoehorn in an action scene in the first issue, because there was no action in that one.