Tom Scioli’s career in comics began in 1999, when he was awarded the Xeric grant for The Myth of 8-Opus. 8-Opus garnered a mixed reception to Scioli’s art aesthetic, a studied imitation of Jack Kirby. Following a series of releases featuring the titular 8-Opus character, Scioli collaborated with writer Joe Casey on Gødland from 2005 to 2012. Another Kirby-inspired superhero title, Godland updated the formula with a contemporary sensibility. Following Godland, Scioli moved into a more stylistically experimental period with American Barbarian. Fueled by a desire to produce more freely and reflexively, American Barbarian was serialized online before its initial publication by Adhouse Books. Beginning in 2014, Scioli’s breakout work, Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, was published by IDW. Co-written by John Barber, it was a bold reimagining and amalgamation of the source material. Marked by Scioli’s experimentation with layout and structure, Transformers vs G.I. Joe revealed the scope of his vision when unfettered by constraints. In 2016, Super Powers, written and drawn by Scioli, debuted as a three page back up feature in Cave Carson has a Cybernetic Eye. Based on DC's 1980s Super Powers property, Scioli’s strip utilized little-used characters like the Wonder Twins alongside mainstays like Batgirl in service to a disjointed, psychedelic, meandering narrative aimed at the essences of the characters. In 2018, Scioli revisited giant robots with Go-Bots. Published by IDW, Go-Bots was less thoroughly researched than its predecessor, Transformers vs. G.I. Joe. It was also more somber, more minimal, and more succinct in its storytelling. In 2019, Scioli delivered Fantastic Four: Grand Design, an encapsulation and exploration of the early years of the Fantastic Four. He is about to release a print edition of Kirby, a biographical strip based on the life of Jack Kirby which first appeared online. While Scioli’s early reputation as a Kirby imitator was formed on the basis of his art style, that reputation remains apt on the basis of his approach and his trajectory, both of which increasingly stress imagination and stylistic experimentation over all else. That he has been able to put his distinctive mark on a body of work that is so heavily comprised of licensed properties is a testament to the strength of his vision. Over the course of several interviews in 2019, Tom Scioli and Ian Thomas discussed Scioli’s career to date.
IAN THOMAS: I see you talking insightfully about film stuff when you appear on Cartoonist Kayfabe. It makes me think that you approach comics in cinematic terms. Does film figure a lot into your creative process or your creative history?
TOM SCIOLI: Yeah, I mean, I’m a student of film. I took film classes in school and I was an aspiring filmmaker. In college, I took film production classes and things. A lot of the learning I did there I apply to comics, like the writing end of things and then even like, you know, the similarity between like storyboards and comics, it comes from like a study of screenwriting and that kind of visualization.
Did you go to school to study film?
Like, among other things. I went to Pitt and I majored in Art, but I took a lot of film classes through Pittsburgh Filmmakers.
And you are originally from Philadelphia, is that right?
That’s right, yeah.
Did you move to Pittsburgh for school?
I moved here for school, yeah.
Can you talk at all about your relationship with music and what kind of what kind of music you tend to listen to, if you listen to much music?
Yeah, the type of music I like if I had to narrow it down would be like psychedelic rock, or just psychedelic music, period. So, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix. And then more recent would stuff would be like MGMT, the Lemon Twigs, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, you know?
So, Psychedelic leaning into Prog a little bit, would that be fair?
Yeah. I'm a really big fan of rock operas, concept albums, music that tells a story, where the songs add up to something greater than the sum of their parts, that’s the sweet spot for me.
And as far as non-comics related reading, are you mostly reading nonfiction? Fiction?
For the past maybe five years, or so, it’s been nonfiction stuff, like oral histories and things like that; like there was that book about the history of comedy, I’m trying to think of the name of the author.
Is that the Kliph Nesteroff book?
Kliph Nesteroff, that’s it. So, his book. And there was a book about In Living Color, a couple years back. Books about the late-night wars. Stuff like that. Most of the fiction reading I do is comics.
And what are your comic reading habits?
I have my favorites that I get at the comic book store, but then I just do a ton of reading of stuff from the library, then I’m just getting out of my comfort zone, just kind of trying everything.
You have one of these very distinctive perspectives, where I see other things across the gamut of pop culture and I wonder ‘What would Tom Scioli think of this?’ in an effort to pinpoint or contextualize your perspective. I'm re-watching like Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example, or Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’s recent movie starring Nic Cage.
That Nic Cage thing I haven’t checked out, but Evangelion, I’ve tried reading Evangelion and I've gotten through parts of it and haven’t been able to finish it. Same with the show. I’ve watched it here and there, I’m into it, I like it. Some of these long running manga, it’s a question of how much you want to commit to it and I’m just not finding myself in the mood, but it’s something I’ve attempted a bunch of times over the years. I definitely took a few close looks at Evangelion when I was first doing Transformers vs. G.I. Joe just trying to get my head around that genre of giant robots, just trying to approach it from as many directions as possible.
Can you talk about your earliest experience of comics and how you became immersed in that world? From reading them to writing them, how did that go?
So, comics started in childhood, they were just one of those things that were just kind of around, part of the landscape of childhood when I was growing up. My dad wasn’t a comic collector. I had an older brother that was somewhat into comics, but not really. But, like Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg had comics around the house, where, for me, it was like you’d go to 7-11 or the bookstore at the mall and maybe I'd check them out or look through them and maybe spend some of like the little bit of pocket money that you have getting one. It wasn’t something that I had a ton of access to. I guess some of the earliest stuff would have been like like the comic books that came with He-Man figures. There were probably things earlier than that, too. He-Man’s like ’81. I probably had some stuff like a Marvel Comics Star Wars digest. I think that was one that I had pretty early. When I was a kid it was like anything Star Wars. It was like a way to take Star Wars home with you. VCR’s weren’t really common at that point.
Had you been collecting comics for a while by the time you were going to school in Pittsburgh?
When I was little it was like a comic here and there and it would be like a Star Wars comic or a Superman comic. When I got a little older, around ten, eleven, twelve, something like that, I started more actively collecting comics. It was around ’87, so comics [were] a little more in the forefront, you had just had that year of Dark Knight Returns and all that stuff, but I wasn't keyed into any of that stuff. It was just like here's a bunch of cool looking [stuff], like Spider-Man had a black costume that looked super cool and I guess maybe prior to that there was Secret Wars, which was like a toy where you could finally have some cool toys of the various super heroes, mainly that I knew from cartoons on TV and stuff, so the Secret Wars comic was kind of another gateway.
And then that kind of ebbed and flowed for me and then somebody brought like Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, so then I learned about this other more serious vein of comics that excited me. Then comic book stores really started popping up, so I found my way into a comic book store and it was like here’s some cool stuff, like Batman: the Killing Joke. And then I was curious about old comics, like the Jack Kirby stuff. I didn’t know the name Jack Kirby, but it's like ‘Oh, here's like some cool old looking issue of Captain America. It’s only three dollars. I can afford three dollars for this thing that seems like a priceless object.’
And without really knowing what that was, it captivated you on an emotional level and from there you kind of explored it?
Yeah, exactly, and kind of got deeper. And then I kind of got out of comics as I went through high school. My interest waned the way it normally does for kids as they get older and move into adolescence, but then when I went to college in Pittsburgh, Phantom of the Attic was nearby and I’d be sort of checking things out and that was like a further education into comics. And then I got really into it at that point.
What clicked? Being able to immerse yourself in it more?
Yes, just more access to it. I was older and more mobile and more self-sufficient and then having a really good comic book store in walking distance, where they’re inviting and friendly and helpful. Then keying into, like, Jack Kirby and Nexus and Frank Miller and then going deep with that stuff.
This would be the mid 90’s to early aughts. You're talking Nexus, so that's Steve Rude and Mike Baron. Were you into Madman?
Yeah, it's exactly that era. And then Hellboy comes around that time. There was just a lot of exciting stuff.
Was there a big leap between that time when you were getting pumped about these exciting comics and when you decided to make them yourself?
No, it was kind of around that time, or maybe a year or two after that. So around that time I was like ‘Okay, yeah, I want to do comics.’ As far as career goes, it was one option. My main thing was getting into animation or gallery art.
It was all art-related, though?
Yeah, I wanted to do something art related, storytelling-related, and something primarily visual. So all those things were kind of competing, but, with the comics thing, it took me a really long time to attempt to actually, start to finish, make a comic, which is, looking back, kind of crazy. But then I talked to other people who were sort of like aspiring comics creators and it does seem like it is like a real roadblock.
My advice is just to make a comic and do it soon as you can. I had all these fears and all these thoughts in my head that like you’ve got do all these things to prepare. Also, around that time I was reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and the way he laid out how comics function seemed to me so complicated and had so many factors that you have to balance that like how do you even begin? And, of course, he created that as a way of analyzing comics and not as a how-to for making comics, but I was treating it as a how-to for making comics, so I was thinking ‘I need to practice. I need to study before I put pen to paper and make that comic.' There was a lot of postponement of what I should have done a lot sooner.
I do think that McCloud book is a great explainer, but, like you said, it does make it seem very complex, but that was the only game in town for many years.
Yeah, and again, he did make that how to make comics later on, but understanding comics wasn’t that. I think it's similar to when you first see Pointillism and all these millions of little dots add up to this picture and it’s so perfectly balanced. And you’re like ‘How did that person do that?’ And you imagine them sort of measuring out where to put each dot and choosing the exact perfect color. Then when you learn about how they actually did it, it’s like no, you just kind of do it and you get into a zone and things start to form, but you're looking at this finished product, rather than seeing somebody go through the process.
Prior to the publication of The Myth of 8-Opus, how long had you been reading or immersing yourself in comics before you started to make them?
It was like two years of college, studying art and studying comics really hard. Then I did my first couple comics. A year after that I started doing the 8-Opus stuff.
What form did those earliest efforts take? Were you, even back then, working within the parameters of Jack Kirby emulation that you had on display in 8-Opus?
Yeah, the first comics I did were Kirby emulation. They were a little further from the mark because I was learning. I wanted to draw like Kirby, but I didn’t start off that way. I worked my way towards it.
Was that a choice that you made because you felt that it would help you learn the craft? Was it based solely on your admiration of Kirby and his work?
It was admiration. I was just really drawn to his work. It was just so strange and so different. And it was different from the natural way that I drew. I just thought it would be an interesting project. How would I do that? Could I learn to draw like Kirby? And if I could, wouldn’t that be so cool?
You set about achieving that by studying the material and emulating it as closely as possible? What were the big stretches you had to make to acclimate yourself to that style of art?
One of the things early on was the thing of unlearning what you learned and forgetting what you know because there’s a lot of things that Kirby does that go counter to academic drawing or go counter to natural ways of depicting things. The prettying up that you internalize when you’re somebody who draws or makes art, to forget some of that stuff and deliberately make jarring overlaps and juxtapositions.
I remember learning how to crop, where there’d be a panel where a half a person’s face would be cut off, and wondering how to do that, how to decide where to crop it, and wondering if I had to draw the rest of the figure. It was just breaking it down. Like with groupings, the way he would group things, there was a math to it.
A ‘math,’ did you say?
A math, M-A-T-H. If a character is fighting a group of opponents, it’s usually an odd number, three, five, seven. Making theories, like ‘I think this is how he does this, let me try it out.’ What I ended up having was almost like a caricature of the way Jack Kirby worked that I internalized, not realizing that it was a caricature.
I think in a lot of ways I sold it short. His stuff isn’t as simple as I dismissed it as being. There is a lot of beauty and draftsmanship, it’s just a matter of where you look. If you’re looking at his more out there stuff—if you’re looking at Captain Victory or his late-seventies stuff, that’s one thing, but if you’re looking at stuff he did in the forties and fifties, it’s a whole other thing altogether.
It sounds me like you were trying to distill it.
Distill it, yeah. Amplify it. Intensify it.
Was 8-Opus created for the purpose of applying for the Xeric Grant?
No, I just created it. I was making superhero characters and that was just the latest one and that was the next thing I was going to work on, so it was just timed with when I was applying for the Xeric. If I had applied six months earlier, it would have been a different project.
After you received the Xeric, did you find that lines of communication were opened to you? What changed?
Yeah. I had something that other artists could check out and communicate with me about. I ended up talking to Erik Larsen and Dave Sim and people who were in that end of things.
After it was completed and you got your first proper comic book printed, what was your promotion strategy? To whom did you decide to send promotions?
I had a list of retailers that I’d gotten at a comic convention, so I sent ashcans out to retailers. I took out ads in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, also. They were teaser ads where each ad was like a chapter of a little story.
Did Jack Kirby Collector play a role in your reception?
They were into it. John Morrow, he was way into it, very receptive and very supportive. I was like a kid when I did it, too, so I think there was a little bit of ‘Hey, the kid’s got talent,’ that sort of thing. I encountered a lot of support in that way, people pulling for the plucky kid.
Did you sense any kind of generational disconnect between what you were trying to do and your reasons for trying to do it and the audience who accepted or were even drawn to it?
Thinking back, the people who were into it, were into it, but there were also people who weren’t. Some people got the whole Kirby thing and some people were just like ‘Wait a second, why are you imitating Kirby?’ or ‘Kirby was good and all, but his day is done, what’s this have to do with 1999?’ or ‘Kirby is great. I love him. Why are you ripping him off?’ It was a variety of reactions that fell into those categories.
It seemed to be drawing a lot from Kirby’s Fourth World. Your execution of it was very rigid, in terms of layout and inking and figure work. In these early efforts, were you just drawing on everything that you were jazzed about at that point?
Yeah, I was into Joseph Campbell, the Hindu pantheon, and all these other things that were relatively new to me.
When did Joseph Campbell hit your brain in terms of your practice of making art? It seems to me in the plots and trajectories of your early stuff that Kirby and Campbell go hand in hand for you?
Sure, yeah, they do. It seems like Kirby’s work never crossed Joseph Campbell’s path, but I feel like if it had, it would have resonated. But I don’t think one was aware of the other.
As far as your personal artistic education, were you into Campbell before Kirby?
I was into Campbell before Kirby. I discovered Campbell in high school. That’s when Bill Moyers was doing interviews with him that would play on TV. That’s where I was exposed to him. I was aware of Kirby in a vague way for a really long time, but I was more clearly aware of Campbell. I learned about Campbell in high school and I learned about Kirby in college.
Do you think the application of Campbell’s theories is better suited to someone who is just starting out or do you find them to be universal to any point in the life a creator?
I’ve gone back and forth. If you’re just lost in the woods and want to tell a story, Joseph Campbell is really helpful that way. If you have a story and it’s not quite finding a shape - it still feels like a series of incidents and set pieces and moments - Campbell can help you find the way and sift through it, especially if you’re telling heroic stories. Sometimes I feel like people cling to it to such a degree that it’s really limiting.
It’s been helpful to me and it’s even been helpful to me very recently. I’d put Campbell aside for a while, then somewhat recently picked him back up and it was helpful with Fantastic Four: Grand Design.
In the subsequent 8-Opus graphic novels, such as The Myth of 8-Opus: The Labyrinth, that rigidness falls away. Was that due to a growing confidence? Feeling like you had wrung everything out of that initial approach and those parameters under which you’d been working?
In a lot of ways, I worked through the Kirby influence. I really, in the beginning, wanted to make something that you could maybe mistake for Kirby and emulating that approach was my focus. As it went on, you kind of find your own voice and I began to let other influences come in and I became more flexible, less rigid, and became more my own artist and less an apprentice.
I still see your work mentioned in the context of that Kirby emulation. It might be less true now, but it seems to me that it’s married to your legacy as an artist. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m fine with it. Once they figure out a shorthand for describing your work that kind of sticks. Your work can change and do all kinds of things but that shorthand sticks. So, I think even if I were to radically reinvent my style at this point, the shorthand would always be ‘Oh, the Kirby guy. That’s the Kirby guy.’
There’s worse things. I’m fine with it. I love Kirby. It’s what I was going for. I’m still a huge fan. I haven’t soured on Kirby’s work, or anything. It’s fine. I don’t mind that comparison, especially since I invited it. Also, I understand that kind of shorthand - when readers or reviewers use that shorthand to describe me - is a marketing tool. It’s a handle. It’s not the art, itself, so I’m okay with that being whatever it’s going to be.
Do you think it has ever cost you opportunities or precluded you from doing projects that you wanted to do?
Sure, in the beginning definitely. If I had drawn in a more standard style, like a style that was more of that moment, I think breaking into comics would have been easier. Breaking into comics was a very long and very difficult process for me and I think the market was not looking for someone who, in 2000 or 2001, was drawing like Kirby. The market was not looking for that.
What about that approach made you feel so strongly as to not change it up in exchange for accessibility or making yourself more marketable as an artist?
It was just a stubbornness, a vision. Sometimes I have a contrarian nature, like ‘Everyone else is wrong and I’m right and they’ll come around. Maybe the problem isn’t that I’m trying to emulate Kirby, or drawing in this style that isn’t considered marketable. Maybe it’s just that I’m not doing a good enough job of it and if I just double down and do it even better. Maybe I’m just not doing a good enough job of being a Kirby imitator and, if I double down, the next thing will be even better.’ You can spend a lot of years like that.
Gødland started on the basis of Erik Larsen matching you and Joe Casey up. What was your relationship to Erik Larsen at that point and then what was meeting up with Joe Casey like?
My relationship with Erik Larsen was a mentor relationship. He wanted to help me break into comics in a bigger way. He liked my work. He saw potential in it and thought it was worth his time, so that’s what that relationship was. Once he became the publisher at Image, he got in touch with me and got in touch with Joe Casey and kind of paired us off. Just from talking to Joe and knowing me and my situation, he saw that we were both going in similar directions or at least in complementary directions and thought that it would be a smart pairing.
Were you able to find your footing in that collaboration pretty quickly?
Yeah, we hit it off really quick and threw a bunch of ideas at each other. We were both really excited about what we were coming up with and we clicked pretty easily. We found a division of labor that made sense.
What was that division of labor?
I would send him some visual ideas or fragmentary story ideas and he would create a page by page plot, like when they talk about Marvel method, the legendary Marvel method. From our conversations, he’d come up with a very clearly broken down plot. Then I’d take that and interpret it, in a way that made sense to me, into a visual thing, then he’d go back in and add dialogue to it.
Were there any impediments in the collaboration? Did you find that any of your ideas were a hard-sell?
More good than bad came out of the collaboration. I think we did accomplish some really cool stuff, but it was frustrating to have an idea and have to sell it and not just put it in there. When you’re doing something by yourself, you don’t have to justify your ideas. Sometimes you have an idea that seems weird, or silly, or stupid, or maybe even seems like a bad idea, but if you really believe in it, you can put it in. When convincing someone else to go along with your crazy idea becomes part of the equation, it can take some of the fun out of it and be demoralizing. And vice versa.
Sometimes he would have an idea that I wasn’t thrilled with, or that we’d have a disagreement about, and I’d go along with it and have to spend hours drawing something I couldn’t get behind. Not that any of these ideas were bad ideas, but it wasn’t necessarily something I would want to say. So, I’d try to be a good collaborator, a good compromiser. I feel like that’s just built into that system. Our collaboration was really good and really healthy and really fruitful, but under the best circumstances there is going to be discomfort and dissatisfaction and unhappiness, from time to time.
Gødland was your first major collaboration, right?
In some of our other conversations, it sounded to me like you sort of limped to the finish line on Gødland. Is that a fair description?
To me, that work from later in the series was when you were hitting your stride. Do you think that period toward the end of the run was representative of your winning Joe’s trust, maybe not along the lines of your abilities, but maybe your ideas?
I don’t know if it’s that. The way I feel when I'm making something and the way it comes off or the way it works or doesn't work on a page are totally different things. The best is when I'm feeling really good about something while I'm making it. But sometimes you feel really, really bad about what you're making and then it works. To me, that struggle ended up creating something really cool. Then, sometimes, you feel really good about something and it doesn’t come out right. The fact that some really cool stuff was happening in those final issues isn’t contradicted by the real struggle that I was having internally, while I was doing those things.
Creatively, I was also in a transitional phase, too. While I was working on those last issues, I was also working on American Barbarian. I might have even been working on some of my other webcomics, so you’re seeing my work going from one phase to another, trying out different things. I’m very proud of that work, but those last couple issues were really difficult to do, just because I had put so many years into that project. Being so close to the finish, but not close enough to the finish, was really emotionally painful. When I drew the final page of Gødland and I was done, I looked at the final page and re-drew it because I wasn’t happy with it. In some ways I was ready to be done with it, but in other ways I didn’t want to let go of it. On some level I did enjoy working on it, even eight years in.
In an interview you did with Tom Spurgeon in 2008, you cited flagging sales as the impetus for ending it. Did you find that it was an uphill battle throughout the run of Gødland for what you and Joe were aiming to do with it to be understood?
We were talking earlier about how smoothly things went in the beginning. When we were making it we really thought we had a hit on our hands. Before it came out, we both felt really good about what we were producing.
The initial issues did okay. There were other comics that went on to be big successes that started with similar numbers, but we had a really hard time progressing beyond that point. Only speaking for myself, it was a strain on me and my enthusiasm for the project. I wasn’t as seasoned in dealing with the rejection that is part of putting your stuff out there like that. Around issue sixteen, we did an issue that was sixty cents, one of those kinds of gimmicks, and that ended up being disastrous. We printed a thing that wasn’t sold for a lot of money and we kind of dug a hole for ourselves that the book never quite climbed out of. I feel like if Gødland was a hit, we might still be doing it. It was demoralizing. At least, it was for me back then. Not being as seasoned, it felt like a real rejection. To me, it’s a miracle when anything is a success, so I couldn’t tell you what made it not a financial windfall, or whatever, but since then I’ve heard from a lot of creators who do creator-owned stuff at Image with the exact same frustration. They created something that they really believed in and felt was awesome and then saw it crash and burn. I don’t remember hearing a bunch of stories like that back then. That was relatively new.
What was your experience with editorial at Image at that time? Did you and Joe answer to anyone beyond each other?
No. If you have an editor at Image, it’s because you hired an editor. There’s not an internal editorial—at least, there wasn’t then and, as far as I know, there still isn’t, at least for creator-owned projects. [Image] was mainly trying to figure out how to help. There was never an external pressure to change anything, nothing like that.
Do you think Gødland’s reception has changed in the intervening years since the book’s completion?
A lot of people tell me how much they like it. It’s hard to say because even when the book was a current book coming out, I heard from people who were really fond of it. It doesn’t seem like that’s changed at all.
It struck me that the relationships explored in Gødland were almost exclusively familial relationships. Did this exploration of the family dynamic happen organically or was it by design?
From my end, it just grew into that. Maybe Joe had different intentions. The lack of a romantic interest was something that felt like, maybe we should have engineered this thing a little differently to allow for that. When you have a cast that’s entirely familial, you lose the possibility in romantic tension that is maybe a necessary ingredient for a superhero team comic. By not having that, you’re creating something interesting, but are you creating something commercially viable? Maybe you’re losing an essential element.
At the time, I had much purer notions of art and I felt that commercial considerations were beneath what we were trying to accomplish. We were trying to make a greater philosophical point. We wanted it to be financially successful, so maybe we were kidding ourselves a little bit by being too pure or high-minded with our artistic ambitions.
Your treatment of the villains was especially sympathetic.
The villains really were the stars of it. They were the ones who, I feel like, even after we finished the series—if you were going to do a spin-off or a sequel, it should focus on the villains. Because we weren’t constrained by any editorial dictates, we were able to play with the formula and tilt the weight of the formula in different directions.
The villains are always favorites. They’re always really interesting and they get the best lines. We tilted way, way toward the villains. They kind of dominated it, but I feel like so much of that comic was organic and evolved in the same way as when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were doing Fantastic Four. We just went where the story led us and those characters just stole the show. They were like the Fonz, or whatever, and it just became their show all of a sudden.
Metaphysical and mystical themes run through Gødland and, really, all of your work. Can you speak to what role religion or spirituality has played in your life?
Biographically, I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school, so I was sort of steeped in this mysticism. You’d learn about these magical ideas, but they were taught to you like they were common, everyday things. I’ve had my own ups and downs with that, rebelling against this body of knowledge that I grew up in, that was part of family life and school life. But it’s left its mark on my work. Yeah, there’s mysticism and metaphysical themes.
I feel like Satan’s Soldier, for all its very obvious Satanic symbolism, is a very Catholic work. You have to have grown up Catholic and then rejected it to create something like Satan’s Soldier. My dad was holding a copy of Satan’s Soldier and was like ‘Oh, what is this?’ as he was flipping through it. And when I told him ‘Oh, it’s Satan’s Soldier,’ it leapt out of his hand. The idea of holding something that was Satanic in nature frightened him or repulsed him and it flew out of his hand, but I feel like if he had read it in its entirety, he really would have gotten something out of it, like it would’ve warmed his heart, or something. It doesn’t get more personal than that.
What did you take away from Gødland, not only as a creator, but as a collaborator?
As a creator, that was my bootcamp, or that was college. That was where I learned what it’s like to do a real, legit comic book. I learned everything there as a creator.
A lot of it is tied to the idea of collaboration, too. It taught me what aspects of collaboration didn’t work for me and what I need to be willing to do to create my work. I learned that if you want to get your way all the time, you gotta do everything. You can’t collaborate on any aspect of it if you want total, complete, unquestioned control of your work. That was a big one.
I have collaborated since then. I collaborated with John Barber on Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, but I went into it with my experience with Gødland, with the idea that if I was going to collaborate, I had to be the one in charge. It can’t be 50-50 partnership. I have the final say, I’m in charge. We’re working on this thing together, but I have ultimate veto power. That’s how I had to collaborate after Gødland. I don’t know if I still feel that way. I’m not feeling very collaborative at the moment, but I feel like, at this point, if I did collaborate with somebody, I would be a lot more open, but it would have to be very special circumstances for me to agree to collaborate with somebody at this point.
Have you rejected a lot of opportunities or invitations to collaborate since Gødland?
Ummmm, yeah. Yeah [chuckles]. It’s a lot easier to get a comic made if you’re willing to be part of a team. It’s very easy to make a comic by yourself because you just sit down and do it, but that’s sort of rarefied air to have a company hand you that - especially the properties I’ve worked on - them to trust one person with all that. It’s a little tricky to get someone to sign off on that.
Can you place American Barbarian into the context of your body of work? When did it appear and when did you make it?
I was working on it while I was still working on Gødland. It was towards the end of Gødland.
And before it was published, American Barbarian was serialized online, correct?
Yeah, it was a webcomic first.
What were your intentions for American Barbarian? I felt like you were bringing to bear a lot of stuff that you started 8-Opus.
I think a big part of it was that, up to that point, I had been working on a lot of sprawling series that were multiple volumes, just the sort of endless run-on sentence that comics were for most of the history of comics, things without an end, where they just keep going and going.
I had invested several years into Myth of 8-Opus and I had invested several years into Gødland and they were still going and I didn’t feel like I was close to concluding either of them when I started envisioning American Barbarian, so I really wanted to make something discrete, that had a beginning, middle, and end and that could be one volume. Like ‘Here it is, here’s American Barbarian,’ and not ‘Here’s American Barbarian volume one and you may have to wait three years for volume two and it still might not be done with the story.’
So, I wanted to do something that was complete and I didn't want to start drawing until I had the whole story figured out start to finish because that was another frustration that I had had, working on something and not being a hundred percent sure where it was going. It made me anxious and it made me kind of lose faith in what I was working on from time to time. It hurt my morale to be working on something that took eight years, ten years, and not be sure of every step of it.
When you're working, even if it's in a longer form, you like to at least have a resolution envisioned. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, and at that point, after having Myth of 8-Opus and Gødland, which were pretty loosely plotted and didn't have any kind of solid idea of exactly where they were going, I wanted to get every beat nailed down. So, that was American Barbarian and I worked on the story for a really long time and then it finally all gelled into a complete story that I could graph every moment of and I saw it unfold like I was watching a movie. The whole thing came to me. I was working on it by bit and slogging along and then suddenly I could sort of see the whole thing. And so that night I stayed up as late as I had to stay up to just write down every single thing so I wouldn't forget it the next morning and then that was the roadmap that I had for it.
Was it coming out regularly once you started to put it online?
I think it was pretty regular, once I had it online. I came up with the whole story, then I did the first, like, issue, the first chapter, and the idea was to put it out as a regular comic, like Gødland, but with a definite end, where it would come out as issues and then be collected in one volume. So, I was sort of pitching that first issue around and I wasn't really having any luck. I couldn’t find a company, like an Image or a Dark Horse or a Top Shelf to put it out like a regular comic. So then I just did it as a web comic and that was my first web comic.
What do you think didn't catch with those publishers to whom you pitched it?
It had changed a little bit from the time I pitched it to them. Some of it was aesthetic. What I had pitched to them were the same drawings, but with very dark black lines. The eventually published version had greenish bluish lines. That sounds like a very minor difference, but for me it was like an aesthetic breakthrough. I wanted to draw in sort of a gestural way. I didn't understand why, throughout the entire history of comics, various creators drew in a loose gestural way and it looked fine, but when I did it, it did not look the way I wanted it to look. I realized I was drawing these black lines and then printing them using modern technology, modern paper, so they would become super, super deep saturated black almost to the point of being like a spot varnish and it just made it look really—it separated the line work from the color. It was like they were on two totally different planets. I realized that the black line that you would see in an old comic book or an old comic strip wasn't actually black. When it was printed on newsprint and the ink wasn’t making great contact with the paper and the ink was being absorbed, it was actually more like a brown. It was like a brown. So, you could have a thick, gestural, loose line and it would sort of blend with the colors in a really nice way. Instead of having a black line, it prints as a colored line. So, the right color to me was blue with a hint of green in it. After that, I feel like the aesthetic really gelled and then that kind of became my aesthetic for a while, until, eventually, I got to this sort of pencil aesthetic which kind of had the same outcome of bringing the color and pencil closer together.
I don't know if any of those companies that rejected it would have identified that as a reason why they rejected, but to me it didn't work with the black line, but it did work with the blue line.
Can you give me an example of an artist who you feel succeeded with this gestural approach that you mentioned?
A lot of Kirby inkers. George Bell Roussos. I’m thinking more like Golden Age stuff, like Simon and Kirby. And then like a lot of comic strips. I don’t want to compare myself to any of these artists, but like Dick Ayers inking Kirby, like early, early Kirby Marvel stuff, like from the early 1960s Marvel, before he started working regularly with Joe Sinnott. Some of Chic Stone’s stuff is pretty slick and pretty on the money, but some is a little looser.
I was looking at the original art, too, and the original art is drawn really big, so I thought maybe that's it, maybe I need to draw really big, so I was drawing on super large pages. The aesthetic of comics at the time of the late nineties and early 2000s had sort of become making the line work thinner and thinner and thinner, like really thin lines and then, if somebody did use thick lines, they’d be very precisely placed. There wasn’t room for thick, loosely applied lines because it just looked wrong with that black ink. Like, if you're going to have your stuff, you know, super, super, super defined, then it has to be perfect. It has to be razor precise.
It felt softer to me.
Softer, exactly. I compare it directly to Gødland. Some people tell me they prefer the Gødland aesthetic, crisper, darker black lines, but for me personally, I far prefer the American Barbarian approach and even the pencil approach that I use now. I think we had one or two chapters of Gødland to go when I started working on American Barbarian. Joe Casey really liked the black line and I had a hard time selling him on this new green line. I wanted to go with the green line and he just wasn’t on board.
In retrospect, it seems like a very obvious thing but at the time it was kind of a revelation for me.
It was a matter of matching your artistic approach, which was informed by certain artists of the past, with the existing technology of today. Is that right?
Yeah, getting it to line up with the technology. I feel like that's where I'm really at now because I can take really good advantage of the technology and the precision. What the precision allows you to do is it allows you to be very subtle. You can be very subtle and still have it be legible. The way I was drawing, there wasn't room for subtlety. I was drawing as if this thing was going to get bad reproduction, but it wasn’t. It was going to get digital, high-fidelity reproduction. So I had to add imperfections. I had to add, like a yellowed paper texture. I had to age the art, distress the art, and there's a learning curve with new technologies.
You created this with the ultimate intention of print, but you knew that it would first exist digitally, at least for a while. Maybe these are also considerations you make with your other work, given the various ways that readers might consume things now, but what considerations do you make in terms of print versus digital?
What I found was digital reproduction, being on the screen, is an extremely flattering format. Things that maybe don't look as good in print look amazing on the screen. It's backlit. It's got a range of colors. It's this luminous version of your art. Digital felt really bulletproof, like everything looked good. So, I would put most of my energy into making sure that the print version looked good because so much can go wrong with print. I would focus on making it print worthy, but then I found that some of the things that I did for print ended up working really well digitally, like the vertical scroll. When you take what I had drawn for print and take it apart and line things up vertically it would serendipitously end up in these really great compositions. And it makes sense because there's the regular print reading, to the right and down. So for the down part, having something that just keeps going down and down and down, it does work. There would often be, without any planning, surprises at the bottom. Intuitively, I started coming up with things that would really work well in digital but still worked in print.
Doing web comics really invigorated my whole process and my whole creative world at a time when I felt like I really needed it. I was feeling burnt out. Sometimes you're just kind of running out of steam a little bit and when I was getting close to the end of Gødland, I was really running out of steam, running out of juice, creatively. To be that close to something that I'd already invested a lot of years in, but still being like a year or two away from the end - the last eighty pages of Gødland were the hardest eighty pages of my career.
Financial constraints notwithstanding, can you envision yourself doing something exclusively for digital release as some kind of webcomic? Did it open you up to that great a degree?
That's a good question. If you had asked me that two years ago or three years ago, I would have said no, there’s got to be a print component. I mean, I don't see any reason why something has to be exclusive to anything. That’s a tough one. I'm way more process-driven now than products driven and that's just the result of the past couple years. Working on Go-Bots and then Fantastic Four was really going full bore into the process and letting the chips fall where they may as far as the product. I guess I could. If comics just existed as something on somebody’s tablet, that wouldn’t be the end of the world.
You seemed to hint that you took American Barbarian as a chance to tell a story with a narrower focus. It was not as sprawling and definitely felt more linear than some of your other work. Did the increased linearity and rigidness have an invigorating effect on you?
Yeah, I mean it was very meat and potatoes. I have this story to tell, now let me tell it. Also, I wanted to do something that had a high concept, that I could just explain in one line, something that had a hook to it. That came out of my experience at conventions. People ask, ‘Oh, what’s your comic about?’ There would be a lot of explanation of things and I realized the power in being able to say, ‘He's American Barbarian.’ It's really just two words and it’s a strong visual. He’s going on his adventure. There’s nothing complicated about it.
Despite the narrative straightforwardness, there are still a number of stylistic experiments in American Barbarian. There are elements of photo collage. There are watercolors, which lend a kind of dreaminess to it. There are what appear to me as photographs that are painted over. How did you pick your spots to for these? Did you find an excuse for them simply because you wanted to try them? For all its straightforwardness, the whole thing feels comprised of moments for you to flex, so to speak.
Modern printing allows for subtlety and so I wanted to look at different ways of making an image. I think I was doing a page a day with this and it would be kind of like I'd wake up in the morning and say ‘Okay, here's the page that I'm doing’ and it was whatever I felt like doing that day. Whatever way I felt like creating that image, I’d go with. I think part of the web serialization is like that.
I really felt a direct involvement with the audience. For the first time in my career, I was getting instant feedback, where I make something, put it up and then immediately get reactions. That was a first and it was intoxicating. It gave me energy and fueled the work and it made me want to be daring and try different things, knowing that, if something didn't work, I could always change it because it's not it's not set in stone. It's not printed. It's not engraved yet. It was just like a real freeing up. I had very rigid set of self-imposed rules that I'd been working under my entire career that I was just freeing myself of.
You say that the feedback invigorated the work, did it inform the work in any way?
It had to. When you’re playing to a crowd, you can’t help sort of leaning in certain directions, like ‘Okay, yeah they’re really going to like this.’ I don't think it changed anything significant about the story or the plot, but it had a holistic effect. It felt more like performance art, where, up until that point, comics were such a hermetically sealed thing where I’d work on something for months and months and then by the time it gets to reach the audience, I’ve already moved on to other things. With this, I’d draw it in the morning, post it at some point during the day, and then get feedback right away.
With this approach, especially in contrast to Gødland, a monthly book, did you feel any deadline pressure?
Just that pressure of knowing people were waiting for the next day’s page. It was a manageable pressure and it was a healthy pressure. It helped it and it didn't get bad. It never got to be too much. It was a good pressure and a gentle pressure that kept me moving forward.
The only real deadline pressure was towards the very end, when me and Chris Pitzer from AdHouse were putting the book together. I did have deadlines for the thing to ship. I needed to wrap it up. There was some of that kind of pressure that makes your stomach kind of churn a little bit at the end, but that was the only point where there was.
When you’re in the grip of that spirit-crushing deadline stuff, how does that affect your work?
I think for any artist that's an ongoing relationship that you have, your relationship with the stress or the pressure, and you find different ways of dealing with it and you get better at it as time goes on. So, I've gotten way better at it. I’m really good at putting it in the right perspective, but you have your moments where you don't handle it as well.
In the case of Gødland, I just wanted to get it over with, so there were parts of Gødland that could have been better, that I just had to get through, so I got through them. But then also sometimes something really beautiful can come out of the struggle. There were parts of the last few issues of Gødland where I did things that I'd never done before that I was really proud of, that I think were a result of being in the crucible.
I found there were a lot of humorous moments in American Barbarian. Can you speak to your sense of humor and maybe your relationship to comedy?
My personal taste in comics is to minimize the comedy. I think the best comedy just emerges. I'm not a huge fan of people trying. Gødland had a lot of comedy in it, but a lot of that comedy came from Joe. Like, compared to 8-Opus - 8-Opus was very straight laced, very anti-comedy, but some outlandish crazy stuff happens and that would be the closest it came to comedy, but, with American Barbarian, I wanted to just unbutton my top button for a second, loosen up a little bit, and think about comedy as sort of a lubricant or a sweetener.
A lot of times people read something and they aren’t sure what to do with it. I like to loosen it up a little and let it be funny. Prior to this, I was such a serious world-builder. I was so serious about world building that I was afraid that too light a touch would undermine the world building and the plot and the pace. I just realized it would be okay. Media in general, especially adventure stuff, is never taken that seriously. Like, James Bond is pretty light. Star Wars is pretty light. I wondered what I was trying to make, you know? Something like Dune that was so serious you couldn’t relate to it at all?
I was struck by the strength of the character designs in American Barbarian. We’ve discussed your sense of play on other occasions, but in American Barbarian, I felt like it was especially strong, almost like you were prototyping a line of toys, or something. Can you talk about what informed these designs? I wonder if these were designs you accumulated over the years and you were drawing from different eras of your development as an artist.
Some of it came from dreams. Two-Tank Omen, the villain of the piece, was something I dreamt. A lot of the looks were made up on the fly. American Barbarian - that character’s look - is something I’d been working on for a few years leading up to this. A lot of it was improvised.
To the thing about it being like a toy line, one of the conceits that I had early on — I don’t know that it made its way into the final form - was that each chapter of this was like a mini-comic that comes with a toy, like a He-Man figure or Micronauts, or something, but that it’s not so much the comic that came with the toy, but the child’s memory of what that comic was, their incorrect recollection of what happened in that comic. It’s a little bit weirder, a little more dangerous than the comic actually was. I think we've all had that experience where there’s something that you were really into as a kid that you haven’t seen in a long time and you have all these ideas about what actually happened and then you find it and it’s not at all what you remember.
I had that experience with the Sid and Marty Krofft stuff: Land of the Lost and H.R. Pufnstuf. I had that experience with Thundarr the Barbarian. These things are huge and mythic in your memory and along comes YouTube or DVD compilations and you can finally see this stuff after a couple decades and you can see how threadbare it was and how your childhood imagination was filling in all the gaps to make it into something epic.
You used the term high-concept earlier to describe American Barbarian. This story feels very allegorical. Do you care to speak to any of the underlying themes or aspects of American Barbarian?
I’m a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre. Since American Barbarian came out, that genre has exploded. Like everything, it’s proliferated to the point that we’re almost tired of all these post-apocalyptic stories, but at the time I made it there was still a little bit of freshness left in that.
What I responded to in that genre was that it was an opportunity to remake the world, to have a fresh start and remake it from all the bits and pieces that came before it. You could take something from a thousand years ago and marry it to something from three years ago and then marry it to something that hasn’t happened yet. It’s also got elements of the Western. In barbarian stories, the world you’re showing is familiar, but you’re not restricted by the rules of the world as it ever was. In a lot of ways it mirrors post-modernism, so American Barbarian was kind of the meeting point of those two things.
Can you see yourself telling more stories in this world or replicating the conditions under which you created this?
As far as sequels, I have ideas for sequels and I have different ideas of what I would do for follow-ups, but I went into this with the idea of making a standalone thing that’s just it and I feel like it’s stronger as its own thing and it feels like a sequel would take something away from this. I can't rule anything out in life. So, there could be a follow-up, or maybe there won't be a follow-up. I like the way it ends. The ending feels complete, but has some ambiguity to it.
As far as like replicating the conditions, that's what I’ve been trying to do ever since. Everything I’ve done since then, I approached hoping to get the same sort of thing where I figure out the whole story from start to finish, work out every beat, and then execute. It's just that everything I've done since then has been for a company. This was done for myself and I sort of connected with Chris Pitzer and AdHouse to get it published, but it wasn’t like Transformers vs. G.I. Joe or Super Powers or Go-Bots, when I was doing it for a specific publisher and they had their timetables that they needed things by.
So, everything I've done since American Barbarian, I've tried to replicate that process to varying degrees. Final Frontier was the follow-up to American Barbarian. It was the comic I did immediately after American Barbarian. It had a similar aesthetic. It was shorter than American Barbarian and it came to me faster than American Barbarian. It came to me all of a piece without any preliminary work. On a drive home from a convention, it all manifested itself to me. That was the other time, those same conditions happened and I did at as a webcomic. But since then, that’s what I’ve been shooting for.
Your other webcomics seem to exist in various stages of completion on your website. Satan’s Soldier was completed and currently lives on your website. Princess seems like it's a work in progress as does Kirby, your Jack Kirby biographical strip [Editor’s Note: Publication since announced]. Where have these projects fallen in terms of mental real estate or priority for you? Do you see them as proofs of concept for later publication?
Princess is one that I plan to go back to. That's like my most recent fictional creator-owned thing and I was just sort of getting that started and there's more I want to do with that. So that one’s a priority. Final Frontier and Satan’s Soldier are so long ago, like 2012 or 2013, that I don't feel like they’re any kind of big priority. They're finished. I’d like them to see print in some wider format. I’ve talked to publishers, here and there, about that, but my priority is always about creating new work, so it’s just a lower priority. Satan’s Soldier was something I just did on a lark that ended up becoming something really different and something I'm really proud of.
Was Final Frontier meant to be a companion to American Barbarian? I get the impression that they may exist different ends of the same universe or timeline.
Yeah, I mean it's not like a sequel or anything like that, but I thought of it as a companion piece to American Barbarian. I developed this drawing and coloring style for American Barbarian that I really liked and I was about to move into a different style, a different look, but I thought that maybe I could do one more thing using that style because I probably wouldn't be going back to it ever again, so that’s what Final Frontier was. It was sort of tangentially connected to American Barbarian and, yeah, you could read it as a prequel, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be read that way.
To me, Final Frontier had similar things to say about Pop Culture. In Final Frontier, the characters are bandmates. The villain puts his captor in a pinball prison. There are all these reference points that today would be read as Pop Culture, but that in previous years, maybe a generation before ours, would be read as trash culture. I frame it this way because I think that this work, like much of your work, is informed by that era when this stuff was regarded as trash culture. American Barbarian and, to a greater extent, Final Frontier reminded me of artists like Coop! and Robert Williams. What gives these things like comics, rock and roll, pinball, hot rods such lasting relevance?
They maybe weren’t the direct product, but they were like an offshoot product of the era of advertising, like the Mad Men era, where you’d have illustrators and writers, like the best of the best, recruited into these commercial venues. I didn’t go to Art School, though I majored in Art, but the art schools that were very successful for a long time were fueled by this idea that there was this huge market for artists and you could go work for an ad agency or you could go work for some company’s in-house art department.
I feel like the art of Robert Williams, for example, is informed by that world. There’s a rigor to it that comes from having a lot of super, super skilled visual craftsmen. It's filled with commentary on advertising and pop culture and corporate cultures. It’s all tied up in that era. It’s like somebody who is a Divinity School dropout, or something. It's like they came out of this factory that produces a certain kind of rigorous thought for a very specific purpose, but they learn everything they're going to learn and they break free to create their own thing.
It’s the creation of a whole new application of a trade in service of a personal vision, rather than a commercial one?
Yeah, exactly. You're swimming in this pool of high technical ability and razor sharp focus that’s, like, utilized for all the wrong things. You take those things and apply them to something more subversive.
It's sort of like the plot of the first Star Wars movie, an aspect of it that doesn't really get explored. Luke was ready to go to the Imperial Academy to learn how to be a tie fighter pilot. That was the career path he was on. And what his friend Biggs did was go to the academy, learn everything there is to know about how to fly a spaceship and stuff, then jump ship and join the rebellion.
Using the system’s tools against it. Subversion.
Yeah, or at least doing something interesting, even if it's not specifically subversive. You're taking these skills and doing something worth doing with them.
Democratizing the tools.
Yeah. I feel like in different eras, there’s a different—this era isn’t producing artists that make work that looks like the work that was done by the EC Comics artists. Each generation has a commonality because they are swimming in the same pool. And it's possible to apply a lot of effort get your stuff to look like it’s from a different generation, the prior generation, but a generation is going to tend to produce creators that seem like they're coming out of the same tradition or the same school.
What do you think are the commonalities of your generation of cartoonists?
The big thing is just being well-versed in the history. We're living in a time when you just have the ability to learn everything that's out there about whatever field you’re going into. It’s at your fingertips. I see that in my generation of people. They are versed in the classics of Comics and the classics of Pop Culture and Cinema. You’re not just limited to whatever happens to be showing on television, like you were if you were coming out the sixties or the seventies.
Of course, it’s funny when you can tell everyone just saw the same documentary on Netflix, or something. You start to hear people speaking in a language that indicates they definitely saw this or that movie. Even though we do have access to this wider range, sometimes there are homogenous elements.
Do you think those generations that have come up with this level of access are better skilled at contextualizing it, whether they’re doing so subversively or to make a point about where it fits in a canon? Ben Marra’s work, for example, I think made the trash action thing into a different kind of artistic statement than the source material from which he draws.
There’s definitely an embracing of trash, at least within a segment of my generation of cartoonists. That feels like something, though, that is one of those things that goes in twenty year cycles. Every twenty years it’s like ‘Let’s do trash! Let’s wallow in the muck!’ and then the next generation is ‘Let’s aspire to pristine, utopian artwork.’ It seems like there is a back-and-forth with that, so I don't know if this embracing of trash is so new. It might be something that went away for a while and came back.
Given the referential nature of much of what is going on today, what do you think the legacy of this era is going to be?
That’s a really good question. I think you're going to have a lot of really solid, high quality work that has legs that people will enjoy and that won’t just become trash on the pile. I think that some some classics will come out of this era. It's not fair, but work that is self-aware and building on a tradition of things, it tends to be really good. It tends to be really polished, ambitious, and well-executed, exactly the sort of things that become classics. It's a little bit unfair because it is built very squarely on the shoulders of giants and it's definitely built on what came before, but that just seems to be how it is. So, I think there will be some very readable things.
But, you know, sometimes I wonder how much real, real, profound innovation goes on. Maybe it’s the benefit of hindsight, but I look at different eras, and see people just trying everything, just just going for it, and doing crazy things, and I feel like this era is a little bit safe, a little bit tame. Again, maybe I'm just not looking at the right things. Maybe that's just how it looks to me.
Are you speaking in terms of mainstream or art comics or kind of across the board?
All of it. The mainstream stuff I couldn’t judge more harshly. That stuff does not bear up very well under scrutiny, but even the art stuff tends to fall into these groupings and follows trends.
Final Frontier felt very polished, while Satan’s Soldier felt like you were shooting from the hip. Satan’s Soldier feels like your most experimental work to date, but it also feels very personal. What was your process in creating Satan’s Soldier and what drove your choices in regard to your use of unorthodox materials and techniques. For example, I saw you were drawing on backing boards at one point.
Yeah, that was a reaction to what I was able to accomplish with Gødland. In the back of the Gødland collection there would be sketchbook stuff. To me, that stuff from the sketchbook always looked so much better than what was in the meat of the comic. The stuff that we put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into, the stuff that we really labored over, didn't look as good as the things that were sort of from the gut, dashed out, direct, just getting it onto paper however you can. It didn't look as good. It wasn't as alive to my eyes.
From the people whose sketchbooks I’ve seen, I feel like that’s true for maybe everybody. Sketchbook stuff is so much more fun to look at. It’s objectively more attractive to the eye than the things they put all of their effort into, so I wanted that with Satan’s Soldier. I wanted that with American Barbarian to an extent, too, but on Satan’s Soldier I really went for it.
Like you said, I would just use whatever piece of paper was at hand, and if there was a crease, or smudge, or some printing on it and that ended up in the final work, so be it. The work was alive, like a living document. I think that was an end result of coming of age in this era where digital technology was brand new and the idea of making something that looked like it was made out of machine was so attractive. It's like ‘Oh, yeah, like I want my stuff to look legit. I want it to look like it's perfect and mechanical.’ Then you see everything you lose when you do that. It took me years of working in that way to see what gets lost and I reacted against it. I miss this the evidence of the human hand. That's such a beautiful thing and let's get it back in our work.
Did Satan’s Soldier come to you all at once?
I mean, I was just kind of playing with Superman tropes. I always felt Superman is just done wrong. Superman could be the coolest comic ever and it rarely is. There's a handful of good Superman comics out of however long there have been Superman comics. So I was just playing with those Superman riffs in my head, like being on a walk, thinking about Superman and what it is to me and for me personally and how I’ve encountered the work.
I'd read these collections of old Superman stories, stuff from the fifties and the sixties and the seventies, and they’re these sort of silly fairytale kind of worlds, like a Sci-Fi Space Age fairy tale. Then I'd be reading Alan Moore or Frank Miller things, like these dark eighties takes on things. Satan’s Soldier was a blend, just marrying all those things together. It was a thought experiment. So, I thought ‘Okay, let me make a little comic about this.’ I had been doing experiments with webcomics, where I’d get an idea one morning and just make a webcomic of it and then it would run its course and I’d come up with something else. Satan’s Soldier was just going to be another one of those. Then I started working on it and maybe ten or so pages into it I was thinking ‘I'm really on to something here.’ It turned out way better than what I had envisioned. I thought I was just making a goof or a lark and it ended up that there was something really special happening.
But it did not end up being published in print?
Just self-published. There’s five issues total and I printed four of them and sold those online and at conventions and stuff.
I have to imagine that a big part of the draw of putting out a comic essentially for free on your website is in the feedback that you’d get for it. What does a validating response look like to you?
It would be somebody, first, saying they really enjoyed it and then naming some things I put into it that aren’t super obvious that they picked up on. That’s like the formula for a good response, as far as I’m concerned.
You are also working on Kirby, a biographical piece on the life of Jack Kirby, still a work in progress. From what sources are you drawing to produce Kirby?
I didn’t interview Jack Kirby’s children. I didn’t interview Stan Lee, or anything like that. It’s just based on stuff that’s out there: fanzines, interviews, various books on the subjects of comics, in general, or Marvel comics, or Kirby, specifically. And, of course, the Jack Kirby Collector, because that’s kind of a gathering point of every imaginable kind of information on the subject. That’s kind of the central repository of Jack Kirby knowledge. The same sources that everybody has access to. I wanted to do a comic of the legend of Jack Kirby, what we know about Jack Kirby and the stories he’s told and the stories people have told about him and see what that looks like as a graphic narrative.
In Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, I got a lot of storytelling background from the the Director’s Commentary that ran in the back matter. With that in mind, I’d like to focus at least on the creative details of the project and what you took away from it. Can you talk about how the project came together?
Yeah, I was doing some work for IDW, like some covers, through John Barber. I kind of let him let him know I was open to other things beyond just covers. In pretty short order, he said ‘Hey, how would you like to do Transformers and G.I. Joe. He said he was in his bathtub and the idea just came to him of G.I. Joes on Cybertron, in a Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos kind of thing with me doing Kirby-style art. So he pitched that and I said ‘Yes, that’s great, that’s awesome, I would love to do that.’ Then, it was just a matter of getting Hasbro on board with that, which took a little bit of time, and then we were off to the races.
Were you working on American Barbarian at the time?
American Barbarian was finished. I had just finished Satan’s Soldier and I was working on other web comics that haven’t been completed or haven't come out in a printed form. Like, I was doing like a sort of like a Super Mario Brothers by way of James Joyce webcomic. I was just in an experimental period, yeah. I didn’t really have a job, you know?
What did research entail?
I just read every G.I. Joe and Transformers thing I could get my hands on at that point. I was just sketching nonstop. Part of it was learning how to draw those characters, learning how to draw those robots. And then part of it was just priming the pump. Like, if I just drew it, maybe story ideas would come to me. I was also soliciting feedback from people and people would offer it and tell me what they would love to see in a Transformers or G.I. Joe or telling me what that stuff meant to them. It was just like just like an information gathering phase.
And who was in that circle of folks from whom you solicited feedback?
John Barber, of course. And Ed Piskor. I think we might have been working in the same studio at that point. Then, at that Hollywood Theater thing, I was just hanging out and drawing for anyone who walked by, who would see it or ask me about it, getting into conversations with strangers, acquaintances, friends, you know.
What of that source material resonated? I get the impression that the Larry Hama stuff probably resonated a lot.
Exactly, that was the big thing. G.I. Joe was just really high quality. I thought it was a really good comic and then there was just so much there. There was a whole mythology and interesting characters. There was just so much to build on there. That was like a real resource. And then there was the Transformers comics. The British Transformers comics by Simon Furman were way, way more interesting than what was going on in the American Transformers comics. So I was drawing a lot from that and it was just kind of giving me insight and acquainting me with all the different characters and what I could possibly latch onto, getting my head in that world and letting the story kind of form like sugar crystals, or something.
Was that the first time you worked in that way?
Yeah, because that my first time working as a writer on a property. I had drawn other properties, but this was a very different project for me. This was the first time I was given a franchise or a brand-name thing and then had to come up with what this thing is going to be. I was really excited to work on it and I knew it was a big opportunity, but it was a little daunting. These things have big, vocal fan bases and they have these huge, huge mythologies with so much stuff to wade through, decades worth of stuff that I wasn't really all that familiar with. I had sort of a passing familiarity with it. There was just a ton of work to do and then producing a monthly comic for it, it felt like ‘Ok, this is the big time. Don’t blow it.’
Did you have parameters as to how many issues you got with it, or was the mandate to run with it for however long it would take?
No, we said we would do twelve issues - like a Watchmen kind of thing - a twelve issue series and we would try to tell a complete story. That's what I wanted to do. I wasn't really that interested in the idea of spinning our wheels. I wanted to try to come up with a complete start to finish kind of story for us to come in, do it, and get out. And just being open that maybe if I'm having the time of my life and I don’t want it to ever end, then maybe would go beyond that. But, we thought we would do twelve issues and we talked about doing a mic drop, ending it in a spectacular fashion. I was thinking a lot about various comic series and TV series where they stuck around too long and took a good thing and ruined it, so I didn't want to do that. I wanted to tell the story and then, when the story was told, step aside and maybe maybe revisit it in years down the line, but to let this thing be its own complete thing.
Am I correct that issue zero, which you released prior to the release of the first issue for Free Comic Book Day, and Transformers vs. G.I. Joe: The Movie Special, which came out after the final issue, were kind of afterthoughts or bookends to the series?
Yeah, I had a story that I wanted to tell. I had to start making the actual comic before I had every little bit and piece worked out. I wanted to have like an airtight thing before I went in and I’ve come to learn that that's just not how it is. It's never going to be exactly the way you want it. The timetables just don’t allow for that. But I had this story idea and then it was like ‘Oh, yeah, we're going to do Free Comic Book Day and we're going to do an issue zero,’ so I had this idea of how I was going to introduce the characters, so now I had to introduce them twice.
I had to come up with a way to introduce them and have everybody meet each other for the first time, but then be able to meet each other for the first time again in the regular issue. It came out of that and it took on a life of its own. In my initial story ideas for the whole series, Cobra Commander was going to play a big role in it. And then, in the making of issue zero, late in the process, I came up with the idea of killing Cobra Commander in it and having Snake Eyes disfigured in the same moment and that was like a big spanner in the works of this story I’d come up with because this character that was going to play a major role was now taken off the board. That's just that's just kind of how this Transformers vs. G.I. Joe thing went. I was just all in and I was trying to make the best thing I could possibly make and giving myself challenge after challenge, putting all these obstacles in my way and then coming up with these crazy solutions to get around them. I didn't know this at the time, but I've later learned, studying about the science of creativity, that’s an observed, quantified thing, the idea that the more obstacles put in your way sort of drives creativity.
Your comment on Cobra Commander and Snake Eyes in issue zero brings me to this quality that I noticed throughout the series. It seems like there was an emphasis on symmetry. Symmetry between the two licensed properties, symmetry between the good guys and the bad guys, tit-for-tat, throughout the story.
It’s something I took from Kubrick. There were symmetrical layouts, too. I really liked the idea of good guys and bad guys. There was an advertisement for the G.I. Joe video game that ran in a lot of comic books and it had this poster where it's like ‘Will you join Cobra or will you join G.I. Joe?’ I like the idea of good guys and bad guys, but I like the idea of having this multiplicity of dualities. There are all these groups and subgroups and there are multiple poles throughout it.
I never stated this, but one of [the] underlying things was that there's the good guys and the bad guys, but there's no morality whatsoever to it. You could have a horrible person, a war criminal or something, in a G.I. Joe uniform and he’s on that side and then you could have someone really great and wonderful and they’re on the Cobra side and have the heroes just do horrible things. And just trying to see how that plays out, where it's so clearly, visually, defined as these are the good guys. Here are all the guys who are wearing combat fatigues and American flags. And then the idea of how one person’s hero is another person’s villain and the changing pointing point of view.
From the G.I. Joe point of view, the Transformers are these big, scary robots, but to balance things I wanted to come up with ways to even things up a little bit and make the G.I. Joes scary to the Transformers. So, I thought of the idea of how people are creeped out by mice or bugs. What are they going to do to you? You have all of human technology at your disposal and you’re so much larger than they are. Why would you be scared of them? It’s just part of our nature, so I tried to do that and make the Transformers be kind of creeped out by human beings, these wet little creepy-crawly things.
Between reading it the first time and the second time I read the first few issues of Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe stuff. I think it gave me a better idea of what you were going for in Transformers vs. G.I. Joe.
A large part of what I was doing was almost like literary criticism or writing a paper on Larry Hama’s comics because so many of the stylistic choices that I put into it came from the material I was referencing. This has sort of become a hallmark of my style, but the use of sequences where there are all these little tiny characters - or where you don't even see people, you just see vehicles - those were things I got from the Larry Hama comics. You have just panel after panel of little tanks fighting each other. A lot of the heroes of Hama’s G.I. Joe are the villains. Destro and the Baroness have the closest thing to a hero story and a love story in the whole thing and they’re ostensibly villains. Snake Eyes is like good ninja and Storm Shadow is like the evil ninja, but he’s evil for maybe three issues and then the rest of the series, he’s the hero of it.
You mentioned to me in another conversation that, in this industry, there's a constant pressure to always be visibly working on something and to always stay on the public’s radar. So, you get this project, from a professional point of view, from your point of view as an artist, and maybe those are separate, but what were your goals going into Transformers vs G.I. Joe?
My goal was just to tell a really compelling story, to make this the comic that you had to get on a monthly basis. Like, you couldn’t wait for the trade, you had to read it as it came out. I wanted it to be a showstopper, a total entertainer. I just wanted to knock your socks off and blow your mind and make this the comic that everybody was talking about. I wanted to create something for the ages. I wanted to add to the pantheon of the great comic books. That was my goal. That was what I deliberately set out to do.
Can you talk a little bit about your collaborative method with John Barber?
He came up with the elevator pitch, the two sentence thing of G.I. Joes on Cybertron. As far as our collaboration, collaboration is hard, I’m not sure exactly how to do it, and I said I have a million ideas, all these things I want to do, so I’m going to go off in my corner and I’m going to write stuff and you go off in your corner and you’re going to write stuff, and then we’ll meet up and throw our stuff at each other. And that was at the very, very, very beginning. That was like issue one, issue zero. Beyond that, it became more and more of a one man show, just by necessity and also because I just had this fire, this mania, that had taken over my process. I was really on fire.
In preparation for this conversation, I was looking over the comics and it’s like I don’t think I have ever been as invested in a project as I was in this. I had blinders on and John knew enough to get out of the way. He had other commitments. He had other series he was working on. He had other commitments as a Senior Editor at IDW. And I just kind of went for it. For the later issues, he was a good sounding board and was very supportive. He also did a lot to iron out things with Hasbro. For example, he would communicate why I was having Snake Eyes cut off the limbs of Billy. He would defend these creative choices to Hasbro when they’d have a problem with it, or not get it. It just became a one man show, and, going into it, I didn’t foresee that being the way it was going to go, but I was also open to whatever this collaboration was going to look like.
I just wanted to make the best comic possible. I kind of obsessed with revision. I would write a script that was perfectly acceptable and ready to go and then I’d get a better idea and I’d throw that one out and then start over. I connect with how that would be very frustrating if you’re collaborating with someone who is doing that, but I was just on this mission. I had my sights set on something really special. I’d like to bring that energy to a project again, but I don’t know how easy it is to recreate that chemistry.
Did you get to a place creatively that you have been able to re-access since then? It sounds like the doors were thrown wide open, but, since then, you haven’t been able to replicate that experience. Is that right?
Part of it is, like you said, throwing open doors. Once you gain a skill, you can sort of use it without going through all the turmoil that you had to in order to acquire it. I learned so much in the process of making this that these things have just become skills, where they are very, very hard skills to acquire and very painful, but now I can just access them and use them kind of effortlessly. And that's like another thing I've sort learned about, like when they talk about different states, like the flow state. When your brain is learning, it's a very uncomfortable feeling. It’s not as comfortable as when you're in a flow state. A flow state feels very good and very happy and almost effortless. But learning isn’t and there was a ton of learning during this.
It’s not up to me to judge my own work, but I’ve created things since then that I’d say might be as good as this or better than this, but the experience of making it was like nothing I’d ever had before. It was my first time in that world and it was sort of like the Agony and the Ecstasy. The panic would sort of lead to these amazing breakthroughs. It was a roller coaster ride and since then I've applied a much more professional approach, an approach that’s kinder to myself. It was very punishing. Like I was saying, writing a whole script and then throwing it out and starting from scratch, you’re not being very kind to yourself when you’re doing that, especially when you’re under a deadline and you’re in danger of missing your deadline. It was like a real high-wire act.
As a reader who is familiar with your body of work, I would say that Transformers vs G.I. Joe ushered in a few of the things for which you’ve become known. The playfulness that I saw later in Super Powers and Go-Bots was introduced here.
I was in a very playful mood. I took things really seriously, but at the same time I didn't take things seriously, at all. There are different ways of characterizing a work. Grant Morrison characterized All-Star Superman as Apollonian. It was this Sun-god story. It’s beautiful and symmetrical and glowing and radiant. If I were to characterize Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, I would say it’s Puckish. It’s like Loki. It’s mercurial. It’s mischievous. It's a trickster god. It’s playful. It’s also messing with you a little bit. It’s dangerous. It’s funny. That would be the mythological god that the work was trying to be. Like Puck or Mercury or Loki or Satan or Anansi or Bre’er Rabbit.
In terms of layout, it seems to me like you were taking things page by page. I see a lot of symmetry within the strictures of the page, but each turn of the page felt jarring. What parameters were guiding your approach?
The unit would be the double page spread. When you first open up the comic you see one page, then after that you see everything in double page spreads. I thought of every page turn as a reset. You can reset the location, you can reset the style, you can reset the continuity. Every time you turn the page you get an opportunity to reset. That’s how I approached it. I wanted to keep the reader off guard and guessing and never knowing what they’d find when they turned the page. Just thinking I have a pretty good knowledge of comics history and I now have a head full of all the different ways you can tell a story, so just trying to do as much of it as you can. I also had the thought that the best possible solution is to just make one image. Just make one double page splash or one splash page. Just make one image to tell your story and then if you have to break it down into two panels or three panels, each one of those is like a concession. Each one of those is a loss. The ultimate is just one big image, but sometimes you’re forced because you couldn’t come up with a better solution to break it down. So everything started as a splash and then got broken down as it went.
Some of these ideas that I was working with, I’ve changed my mind about with subsequent projects. And then in some cases, even if I haven't changed my mind about it, like when I approached Go-Bots, I was sort of deliberately trying to think of the way I handled things in Transformers vs. G.I. Joe and do the opposite, or try different strategies, just for the sake of seeing what that would be.
In Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, you were very liberal with your use of splashes and the limiting of panels. When there are sequential panels, they are inset within a splash. When you’re doing those insets are you going full size and shrinking it down?
As part of my process, I would make a mini comic of the comic before I started drawing the final pages, so I’d get a bunch of pieces of printer paper, fold them over, and I’d sort of figure out what the comic book looks like as a comic book first and then go in and do the drawing. So, those inset panels are all drawn normally, as one would draw a normal page of comics. They weren’t things I drew separately and inset. I kind of had the page figured out before I did the final art.
There are a few pages where there are two panels, a top panel and a bottom panel. I’m sure this varies from page to page, but a lot of times it felt that you were showing a detail of a larger piece, like it was something that was clipped and presented from something bigger.
Yeah, when I first started out doing comics, years and years and years ago, I was in awe of - especially Kirby - but just artists, in general, and how they know where to crop the image. Like when half the guy’s face is shown, that fascinated me. Like, how do you do that? And do you draw the entire thing on a separate piece of paper? How do you figure that stuff out? I was obsessed and I wanted to get to a point where I could do that, where I could crop it. Now all these years later, I sort of know how to crop things. So, no, I didn’t draw some larger thing and crop it, but I have acquired that understanding of how to crop things in an interesting way to make them seem like there’s all this amazing stuff going on beyond the borders.
Is critical reception something you worry about? Is there a temptation to say “Yes, people are getting it,” or, “This is lost on people.” How do you work with or around critical reception or audience reception?
It’s one of those things that becomes less important as time goes on. Early in my career, critical reception was so important to me because there really wasn't anything else. There wasn't some great financial reward. All there was was like, ‘Oh, well, I hope people get this and understand it and enjoy it.’ But that has become of lesser importance. I mean, it’s still there, like we were talking about Fantastic Four and I am kind of antsy because it's coming out in like three weeks. I just finished it a couple weeks ago and I just want to hear what people think of it. The goal as a creator is to just not care about that stuff at all and if I think it’s good then it’s good. To me, it’s not a comic until somebody reads it. It’s not a good comic until somebody reads it and enjoys it. And it’s not a bad comic until someone reads it and is like ‘This thing stinks.’ The job’s not done yet. They haven’t read it, so I am really excited to see, but I don’t want to get too caught up in that. You want to protect yourself a little bit. It’s not about people pleasing, it’s about my own personal goals and if I feel like this is a good comic, then it’s a good comic. Still, you’re human and you want to know what people think of it. When I did Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, I was much more interested in what people thought. I was relishing the opportunity to hear what people thought.
When that issue zero came out as Free Comic Book Day, that was one of the greatest days of my life. This project that I had been working on for a really long time, that I felt really strongly about, and felt really strongly about the quality of it, just waiting to see what the world makes of it and then to have it go over really big, to have the reaction to it be really strongly positive, that was terrific. There have been many years of Internet culture and Social Media culture since then, where it’s kind of like I think we’re all much better at putting those things in the right perspective, [knowing] what other people’s opinions count for and how you shouldn’t put so much stock in other people’s opinions, but that was many years before that education I feel we’ve all had to some degree or another, just how much noise is out there and how not to get too wrapped up in it.
Transformers vs. G.I. Joe was well received. I assume that reception is what led to merchandising. To you, is that icing on the cake? Is that a greater boon the book, itself? What was that to you as a creator and how did you approach those things?
As a creator, having a big hardcover deluxe version of the book, that meant a lot to me. Having toys made of it, that was fun and exciting and cool, but it’s still somewhat nebulous. Seeing some of the plot elements show up in a Transformers movie felt good and kind of weird.
It’s not the comics.
Yeah, the comics are just really important to me and that stuff feels like it’s not real. It just doesn’t feel real. My connection to it is - I don’t know how to put into words - disembodied, or something.
With regard to Super Powers, can you talk about how it came to be?
I was working on some creator-owned stuff and I didn't really have a job with a specific project I was working on. I was kind of playing around with a couple different projects that were in the early stages. I was having lunch with Ed Piskor and he said ‘Did you hear Gerard Way has his own comic line at DC?' So I was like, okay, I’ll see what’s up. When you hear about something like that it’s worth looking into. Then I contacted Gerard and right off the bat I said ‘How about Super Powers?’ It seemed like a quirky DC thing and that seemed like the brand: quirky kind of stuff. He liked the idea and pitched it to the powers that be and it was on its way.
Was it called Young Animal when you heard about it?
Yeah, at that point it had been announced and it was pretty far along. They had already put together what the major books were going to be, so all that was left was they had decided they were going to try some backup stories. So, I’d be doing something for that, which was perfectly fine. That actually sounded like a really cool thing for me. I really liked the idea of having zero pressure and of only having to come up with just four pages every month.
And then you can just kind of you can just kind of let it rip with those four pages and go bananas.
Yeah, and gild the lily and just have more than enough time. That’s not really a thing in comics anymore. You either do a whole book or nothing.
Do you find that these kind of projects - I’ll call them under-the-radar properties, on which you’ve worked several times at this point - are preferable because you can take them into the weirder places?
I mean, that’s definitely an advantage. I don't know if I’d say I prefer them. Either one has its pluses and minuses. Going under the radar has pluses and minuses and a major thing has pluses and minuses. I’m four pages away from finishing Fantastic Four and I definitely felt that that was pretty major. And I did feel a little more pressure, especially after the announcement happened. This is something that people have expectations for and that people are into, whereas with Go-Bots, which was the thing I did just previous to this, was the opposite. There were no expectations. It could be whatever I wanted and I didn’t have to worry about people’s preconceived notions. But, I was definitely feeling it a bit with Fantastic Four, so that is pretty nice when you’re working on something that’s under the radar, it always feels like you have the option to just burn it all down.
Were you burnt out coming off of Transformers vs. G.I. Joe and looking for something smaller?
After I finished Transformers I was like, okay, I need to take little breather. I wanted to stay busy, but I needed to recharge, so Super Powers came along at the perfect time. I was still working, but it felt like a vacation.
Was Gerard Way your point person with DC on this project?
Yeah. Once it became official and put on a schedule I had an Editor and an Assistant Editor, but up to that Gerard was very much a part of it. I would text him, like what do you think of this idea. It was fun and it made the project fun to have someone to shoot the ideas at.
How much flexibility did you have? Where did they cut you off and where did they let you run?
That was kind of the trick of it, which I learned as it went on. I assumed that because I pitched Super Powers and was doing Super Powers, that I’d have access to all that Jack Kirby had with Super Powers, so I pictured a cartoonier version of Justice League, Superfriends, whatever you want to call them and the New Gods. I thought that I would be able to do this really crazy Justice League/New Gods thing, almost like an insane version of what DC would do in their mainstream books. Sort of like what Jim Lee’s JLA run was, but an insane version of that. When it came time, that was not an option. I was not permitted to do that.
Was that what the pitch looked like?
Yeah, that’s totally what the pitch was. The pitch was just Super Powers. I didn’t submit anything, it was ‘Okay, Tom’s going to do Super Powers.’ When I started turning in scripts, the response was that I couldn’t do A-List characters. So, it was like ‘Okay, so I can’t use Superman or Batman.’ ‘You also can’t use Martian Manhunter.’ ‘Okay, well I didn’t know those guys were A-list.’ There was some negotiation here and there, but that was a little bit shocking to me. Better communication on both sides would have resolved it, but I assumed it was Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, but for DC. I assumed that I could have a ball and go to town with these Super Powers characters, which were based on a toy line. That’s what I thought they were buying from me.
When in the production do you learn that your space was cut from four pages to three pages?
It was somewhat early. Initially it was going to be four pages in Doom Patrol and then Doom Patrol ended up going longer than planned, so there wasn’t space for a backup, so then they moved it to Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye and cut a page. They decided all the backups weren’t going to be four pages, they were going to be three. But that was pretty early, before I turned in any kind of final scripts.
I feel like you worked within the parameters of a strip rather than a larger work. Is that fair to say?
Yeah. I was thinking of Wednesday Comics or a newspaper comic. Like you said a full page in a unit. I ended up kind of breaking it up. I was trying to figure out what this comic was going to be. Super Powers. I can't do the Super Powers as I see them, so I came up with a bunch of ways to go about it. One of the stronger ones, I thought, was the Wonder Twins. And then, within the Wonder Twins, I had this conceit that they were superhero fans and they’d be watching these holovids of other superheroes, so then I could stick in a superhero adventure.
These strips reminded me of the Masters of the Universe mini-comics you mentioned the last time we talked. Very compressed. You seemed to be especially intentional with your your color palette choices and putting color at the forefront. Can you can you talk at all about your color choices?
For Super Powers, I pushed the line work way back. I made the line work very, very soft and let the colors do as much of the heavy lifting as possible. This was probably the furthest I’ve pushed it in that way. It does kind of get a painterly quality to it. It's an aesthetic. I think we talked this a little bit before, it’s just an aesthetic I arrive at, bit by bit, with all these projects, just changing the way I think about color from doing all of it myself - from doing the writing, the line art and the color - and realizing that default aesthetic of comics, where you have a really bold dark line and color being kind of secondary, it felt like it underutilized the potential of what you could do, especially when it’s one hand doing all of it.
Are you thinking in terms of complementing or contrasting the main feature when you're doing this as a backup story?
I wanted it to have its own visual identity and I wanted it to have a strong visual identity. I also had this idea of healthy competition, like a rising tide lifts all boats kind of thing. The main feature, they have twenty pages to tell the best story they can. In four pages, I’m going to try to top them. I felt like the advantage was kind of mine. They have more real estate, more pages, but that also means they have less time per page, so I can kind game the system a little bit and make the greatest three pages of all time. And, again, it was healthy competition.
With all your comics, I get the impression that you're going for broke and that you have more ideas than you have space.
With this, in particular, that’s 100% the case because I had a really good lead time. I had a lot of time to plan before anything was due and I took full advantage of that. And, again, it’s only three pages. I have so many stories that are fully fleshed out that I never got to tell. If DC ever decides to bring me back in, I have my whole line of DC comics ready to go. That’s how much pre-planning I was able to do. I was very intoxicated by it, too. It was the first thing I ever did for DC and just having access to that world. Gerard even said, and I forget his exact words, that I was a perfect fit for DC. I’d never thought of myself that way until I was working on it and I realized, oh yeah, Marvel is a little more serious and the nuts and bolts of their universe kind of works better, where DC is, like, insane. There’s some really cool stuff, but then there’s some really stupid stuff and it’s all mixed together. It was a good fit for me.
Did you go so far as to make full pages that weren’t published?
No, it never got that far. I never did a start to finish page, I just have everything I need to make a comic. It’s just a matter of setting aside thirty days to make twenty pages.
Was it scrambled at all in editing? You have that Batgirl piece in the first strip. Was that meant to run somewhere else?
No, the jarring jumps are deliberate. That’s a storytelling choice to create a ‘What’s happening now?’ effect and tell a fragmented story. It’s not like I pulled a page from somewhere else, although I had a larger Batgirl story that could have been told in a smoother way from start to finish, but I was trying to cut to the bone. The more you edit, the more you cut out, the stronger your work becomes, even cutting it to the point of where it hurts a little bit. It’s a stylistic choice, but space limitations also nudge toward certain creative decisions. I had employed that in some ways with Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, where you were involved with one thing and you turn the page and it’s something totally different.
You mentioned space being an issue and you mentioned in your notes on your American Barbarian site that you worked with - I think you used the word hyper compression - in terms of the way that you laid it out on the page. How big were the pages that you were working?
They were normal sized. The image area would be like ten inches by fifteen inches. They weren’t drawn two-up, it was just the normal comic book page. The compression is just that nobody is drawing that many panels per page, other than like Chris Ware or somebody like that, but nobody in mainstream comics.
It did feel very intricate. It was pencil only and not inked, correct?
I was surprised to see thumbnails drawn on graph paper it in the supplementary materials on the AmBarb site. Do you do do all your thumbnails on graph paper?
No, but there were some graph paper sketchbooks used in this.
Is that like a tool in your tool kit or was it just nearby?
With sketchbooks, I try to get sketchbooks that are going to inspire me, so sometimes it’ll be one with a cool cover, or graph paper, or maybe even use a calendar as a sketchbook. Things that will prime the pump, basically.
Based on these Super Powers supplementary materials, I kind of surmised that you felt the pinch around not having a director’s commentary in the way that you did on Transformers vs. G.I. Joe. Is that fair to say?
I don’t remember having that thought, but it makes sense.
It struck me because - going deep with the Transformers vs. G.I. Joe stuff - it feels like that supplemental material, while not quite intrinsic to it, does bolster your work a lot.
Sure. I mean, those walkthroughs I did for Super Powers were like that Director’s Commentary.
To me, that feels like a generational thing. You are part of the generation of artists that push themselves on social media and the generation of artists that largely came of age with an Internet’s worth of reference materials and context. Do you feel the need to have something supplemental to the work itself? Are those tangents and supplements part of the work?
For me, it was just necessity. With Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, at the same time that I was making it, part of the process was digesting a pre-existing thing. A lot of it was a commentary on G.I. Joe comics and movies and Transformers comics and movies. So, I had a lot to say about all this. And I wanted to be able to say ‘Oh, this part here, I got from there. And this part over here was a synthesis of this, this, and this and that’s how it came together.’ Some projects I’ve worked on didn’t have that. On Go-Bots, I didn’t delve that deeply into the source material. It didn’t make sense to me to do that, so I didn’t really need to make a commentary for that. With Super Powers, it was the same kind of thing as Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, where I'm delving into this body of work and, like a prospector, sifting for gold. With the space limitations, also, it would enrich the experience.
It’s almost dependent on how much lore is already in existence there.
Yes, and another big part is how much I’ve left on the cutting room floor because there was a ton of stuff on the cutting room floor for this project. There wasn’t much left on the cutting room floor of Go-Bots. Fantastic Four, there is a little bit on the cutting room floor because there was a certain point with Fantastic Four where I thought I was going to be creating something wholly original. There was a point where it went from ‘Just do your thing’ to ‘Okay, do your thing, but we also want it to function as a gathering place of the existing Fantastic Four lore.’
On your blog, you mentioned H.P. Lovecraft. You touch upon Cosmic Horror - being horrified by the sheer scale of things in relation to humanity - in Super Powers and I think it runs throughout your work. What is your history with Lovecraft and how do those Cosmic Horror themes inform your work?
Looking at the history of comics, you think of superheroes being such an important part of the history of comics. Mainly, you think of the colorful costumes and the Sci-Fi, but I think that if you really look at the history of comics, those elements are not as popular, or enduring as the Horror elements. Secretly - and when its most successful - the Superhero genre is like an adjunct to the Horror genre. For example, something like the Hulk. A lot of the appeal of the the Marvel superheroes were its Horror elements. It’s actually monster stories. That realization kind of changed the way I did things. Almost thinking of these superhero characters - Batman or whoever - as masked psychopaths like Jason in a Friday the 13th movie, or something. When you start mining in that direction it gets really powerful.
I mean the term ‘superhero’- it's not super unless it's compared to you know, the normal or the mundane.
Yeah, and we’ve gotten to this friendliness. We’re so familiar with the superheroes now that the edge isn’t there anymore. If you forgot what Spider-Man was - If you’d never heard of him and discovered him - it’s a scary looking costume and it is kind of creepy. If you can put some of that back into superheroes, there’s power there. I think there’s also more of an appetite, more of a hunger for that from the audience, then there is a hunger for ‘I want to see cool Sci-Fi stories’ or ‘I want to see good triumph over evil’. I think there’s less of a desire for that on the part of the readership.
Lovecraft, specifically - I guess I didn’t really address Lovecraft - I think it’s similar to everybody when they encounter Lovecraft, but for me it’s the idea of these things that are so big, beyond human scale, like the terror of being in the ocean with something that might just seem like the tip of the iceberg. The idea that humanity is not the top of the food chain. We’re not the apex. That we’re just these tiny inconsequential things and that the gods are indifferent to us. They speak a different language. They’re not larger versions of us. ‘Mankind is so important’ is kind of the default setting for a lot of stories, where they’re protectors or looking to warn us, but in Lovecraft the gods are just totally on a different wavelength altogether.
What were your takeaways from this project? I mean as a creator and also from the perspective of your experience, which, I believe, has been your most corporate to date, is that fair to say?
Yeah, totally. There were so many good things about working on this project and any of the negatives were just the result of the corporate side of things. When you’re working for DC, there’s the “Big Two” in this industry, so I definitely felt that. The other thing, like you said with corporate, was the decision was made that these stories were in continuity, which is why so many of the things that I was doing were limited or vetoed or whatever, which was just ridiculous. I can’t imagine what would be gained from putting my stuff in continuity. I feel like, when you look at it, nobody is going to look at this and wonder ‘Oh, how does this line up with what Batman was doing in Detective Comics?’ I can’t imagine it and that’s just crazy to me, but the idea was that this was in continuity. So, yeah, that was a first for me. I never had to work with someone else’s continuity before.
Can you picture working on an in-continuity book?
At the time I made this, no, but now, yes. I wouldn’t want to draw it. To write and draw is such a commitment that it really does have to be my way or the highway. I would like to try it out just to try it out, just because I’ve done everything else. I like the challenge of it. I’ve never done it before. I would like to try it out. I don’t know that I’d like to make a habit of it, but I would like to try it. When I made this, I felt differently. I felt that I couldn’t work like that. It always seemed impossible to me. I have racked my brain to come up with a really compelling story. Then I have to do the added thing of trying to make it line up with a story that somebody else is writing, right now, at the same time. It seems impossible, like you’re trying to read somebody else’s mind, or predict the moves that all the other guys are making. Now, I’ve made peace with the idea that life, in general, is just a stumble into the unknown. You don’t know anything. On a good day, you don’t know anything.
Did IDW have the rights to Go-Bots when you pitched it to them?
Yeah, it was part of the Transformers rights. Go-Bots has just been part of that for years.
When you brought it to them, how formed was the story? Was it was it just kind of an idea then you flesh out the story or was it pretty fully formed when you brought it to them?
I had a pitch that was pretty loose. When the pitch was approved and I started really working on it, it turned into something very different.
I would not call these a major part of the narrative, but there were references to the Transformers, a license you had worked with in the past, in the Go-Bots story. Were there limitations from IDW, as far as Transformers references. The references were all sort of implied.
I’m pretty sure there were no limitations that way. They didn’t say anything like ‘Don’t use this, don’t say that.’ There was nothing like that. I had done a version of the story that was way more overtly referential to the Transformers and I, of my own choosing, took it in a different direction because I kind of thought about it a lot and thought ‘I don't want this to be like a Transformers spin-off or like a redheaded stepchild to the Transformers. I wanted it to stand on its own.
And it was just for that reason that you wanted it to stand on its own that you left it a little bit more vague?
Yeah, exactly. I just didn't want it to be in the shadow of Transformers.
How close was this process-wise to your previous work? Is it a matter of scripting, then thumbnailing, then penciling?
Yeah, I mean that way it was pretty close to previous stuff. What I’d done prior to Go-Bots was Super Powers and just prior to that was Transformers vs. G.I. Joe and the big difference was I didn’t research it nearly as thoroughly as I did those other two projects. For Go-Bots, I kind of did the mental calculus and decided that there was really nothing to be gained by mining the history because I don't think there's very many people who are conversant in that history. So, who would it be for? And then, I wasn't very fond of that history. Like, I didn't think it was very good. So, there was no creative reason and there was no, for lack of a better word, demographic reason.
The history of Go-Bots feels more floated by marketing copy than, you know, any kind of canonical stuff.
I did end up checking out some of it later on, when I was well on the way and it better than I had given it credit for. A lot of it I hadn’t seen since I was a kid and I judged it really harshly. I mean, I'm not saying it's good, but it was better than I thought.
Do you think that you didn't maybe look as closely at it because you wanted to kind of flex some of your creativity a little harder and maybe assume more control of it?
Yeah, completely, completely. With anything, that's what I want to do. I want to have fun and I want to flex my creative muscles, but I do the research if there's some really good reason and there just wasn’t a really good reason. So, the underlying assumptions is, yeah, I just want to have fun, pretty much unencumbered.
With regard to the art, it’s pencil only and it's not inked? Are you coloring it with colored pencil, like you did with Transformers vs. G.I. Joe?
No, I’m coloring it on an iPad.
Are there pieces that are done in pencil, which are transferred to Photoshop?
Yeah, what I do is start on the iPad - and this is new to Go-Bots, but I’ve been doing it ever since then - so, I do my layout on the iPad and then I print that up at the full one and a half up drawing size, and then I trace that onto a piece of paper. In pencil, I do sort of finished line art, tracing off that print up and then I scan that, bringing it into Photoshop. And then I send that to the iPad, again, where I color it and then I send all that stuff back to Photoshop and put it all together there.
As far as the results of this project, were you satisfied with it? What did you like and dislike about it?
I was a hundred percent satisfied. I like the aesthetic. There's a lot of really painterly moments because the iPad, ironically, does allow you to make stuff that looks more organic. There's more freedom and ease of movement. Where, before, I’d do a lot of drawing with the mouse. The drawing with the color was very flat, previously. What the iPad does is it gives me an infinite set of Copic markers. It gives me an infinite set of watercolor brushes. I can just bring in any tool that to bring in into real life would be kind of a hassle and take some time. And you couldn't necessarily mix them, whereas with this I can sort of mix everything and get the look I want.
Are you experimenting a lot or do know what you're looking for right off the bat and the iPad just allows you to hone in a little bit more quickly?
Yeah. It's a ton of experimentation. It’s a lot of just figuring stuff out as you draw it. If you look really closely you'll probably see moments where it's like ‘Oh, okay, he's discovered this tool, or he’s figured out this way of doing things and abandoned this other way.’
I see some tone in here At what stage is that added? Is that added in the Photoshop stage?
The tone is when I’m coloring on the iPad. The line work that I do on paper, there’s maybe a little bit of shading here and there, but it’s mostly linear.
The smudges on the cover of the trade paperback lend an open-ended feeling to the work. These smudges are in enough of your work that I would call them one of your staples. Can you tell me about what those smudges mean to you?
It’s alive. It makes it more alive. It makes you have the evidence of a human hand in an era where the evidence of the human hand is less and less. There was a time when you’d watch like a Disney movie or whatever and the lines are all stencils, they’re just xeroxes of stencil lines. Just more and more, everything is just more and more polished and polished and polished. It’s an aesthetic that you don’t see very often and has a lot of life to it. I think it’s more inviting. When I first started I wanted my work to look machine-made. I wanted it to look crisp and have really black blacks and white whites . Over time, I’ve come to see that way of working as being really distancing and unflattering, too. it casts everything in a very harsh light, where this was is very soft and it's very flattering. It glamorizes it a little big.
It’s the difference between, say, the animated Lion King and the current Lion King, for example.
Sure, yeah, something like that.
It seems like a blow against like sterility.
It’s definitely not sterile. And it’s inviting. And I think in some ways it’s also empowering. You feel like ‘Oh, somebody did this. Maybe I can do this, too.’
A sizable portion of your recent output has been related to properties created or popularized during the 1980s. You did Super Powers, Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, and Go-Bots. I think that you’ve worked on this kind of material enough of that I can ask if there is something that draws you to that stuff?
It’s probably very simply just my age. If I were a different age, I’d be drawn to different properties, these are just the ones that push buttons for me because I was very small when I discovered these. They just speak to me in a way that something older wouldn't and something newer wouldn’t.
I feel like other creators who work on this kind of stuff, licensed properties, are just kind of happy to play in the sandbox. Whereas with you, I feel like - please correct me if I'm wrong -but I feel like part of the challenge of it is to see how much of your own auteur sensibility you can bring to the project. Is that fair?
Yeah, I want this to be my comic. I don’t let the property limit me in any way. It’s kind of like I use it as a starting point, or a primed canvas. The color has already been established on the canvas and I’m going to do my painting over that. I can’t help but make a comic my way. That’s just how these things come out. These properties have a nice balance of being things that mean something to me and are interesting to me, but aren’t precious to me. They aren’t sacred. So, I’m perfectly happy to desecrate them when necessary. Right now, I’m working on Fantastic Four and this is the first time I'm working on a property that I have immense respect for. It’ll be interesting when it’s done to see how it compares to these other ones because that is the difference.
With that in mind, it kind of brings to mind the way a lot of writers and directors and stuff work in - I guess genre is the right word to use - because it allows them to smuggle their ideas into more accessible terms. I think that might be the case with you. You bring a historical knowledge and an aesthetic sensibility that I think might not resonate immediately with a less educated reader. I say educated in the terms of comic book history and stuff like that. Do you think that there's part of it that maybe you're smuggling something in to reach a wider audience?
I don’t know if this answers your question, but for the past couple projects I could have been doing my own creator-owned properties. But, that’s really an uphill battle. From a reader’s perspective, it’s like ‘Why should I care about this thing I never heard of?’ Where, with this stuff, it kind of gets your foot in the door. Like, ‘I know Transformers, or I love G.I. Joe, or I liked Go-Bots when I was a kid.’ It gets you a couple of steps further than just starting from scratch. So, I’m working the way I would be working on my creator-owned things, but I know that I’m going to have little bit more of a platform.
Go-Bots felt in a lot of ways like the flip side to Transformers vs. G.I. Joe. The impression I got was that Transformers vs. G.I. Joe felt more emotional. It felt like these were the emotional repercussions upon these soldiers in this weird space and Go-Bots felt less emotionally driven and more political. I came away with a radical read on it and a less radical read and the radical read was that it kind of a challenged the notion of leadership in general with egalitarianism as the way forward and maybe a less radical read was just that the Old Guard, the Establishment, just by its nature hinders new ideas. Do any of those reads resonate with you?
Those are definitely fair interpretations…Transformers started in 2014 and this started in 2018. So there are four years worth of just change and growth. There are the ways I’ve changed as person and as a creator and ways the world has changed. You're not going to want to just keep repeating yourself. A lot of the decisions I made going into Go-Bots was kind of like, ‘Okay, people are going to view this as kind of similar to Transformers just because its giant robots. So what can I do differently?’ There were a lot of decisions I made with Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, where it was like ‘Should I do it this way, or this way, or this way?’ So, with Go-Bots, I was kind of like, ‘Okay, this time instead of doing it this way, I’m going to do it the other way. Transformers had a bunch of splash pages. This one I think has no splash pages.’ So, little technical things like that. And then, also, I think part of it is that the source material can't help but shape what you do with it. Especially with G.I. Joe. G.I. Joe is very colorful and has a cast of thousands and they’re human beings. Whereas Go-Bots is very spartan and very bleak. There’s not a lot there, so you’re going to tend to make something where there’s more distance. The humans aren’t going to be the focus of Go-Bots. The humans are definitely a focus when you’re doing G.I. Joe, but they’re not going to be the focus when you’re doing Go-Bots.
You mentioned personal changes in those intervening four years. Is there anything that jumps to mind in terms of what your read might have been on this stuff in Transformers vs. G.I. Joe stage versus Go-Bots stage?
Transformers vs. G.I. Joe was a big break for me. My career had stalled out for maybe like a year or two prior to that and so this was the first time I was given an existing property and a historically big property. It’s not Spider-Man or Batman, but G.I. Joe and Transformers were, at one point in the eighties, the two top selling comics. Somebody was giving me access to these, you know, multimillion-dollar franchises or whatever the word is. I was very excited by the idea of working on something like that. It felt like it was make or break, like I had to make this into something or else. With Go-Bots, I had already been there and done that, so I wasn’t as interested or as worried about what this could do for my career or for my profile, so I could just focus on the task. I think Go-Bots benefited in some ways from that and then maybe there were some ingredients that weren’t there at that point of it, but just turned it into something different.
Do you stay engaged with politics? Are politics something you actively bring to your stories or something you can’t help but bring to them?
Especially with G.I. Joe, when you make something that is focused on even a cartoon superhero version of war, it’s political right off the bat, whether you want it to be or not. Even if you deliberately try to make it as apolitical as possible, that’s political, too.
Go-Bots is very intentionally political, especially for a title released in a mainstream comics landscape, where I think people go out of their way to stay apolitical and not alienate any readership.
Sure, but the tag line for Go-Bots was ‘Mighty robots, mighty vehicles.’ You’re talking about might. You’re talking about power. Taking away the specifics of the times we live in, those are evergreens. Just change the names. This is an eighties property, too, so those things were very relevant. It was Reagan’s era.
Can you speak to the the theme of intergenerational dependence and the passage of the mantle from one generation to the next. I saw a little bit of this in Transformers vs. G.I. Joe and I definitely saw it in American Barbarian and again in Go-Bots. How does that fit in with your view of things and why does it appeal to you as a storytelling motif?
Those were things that really started to interest me just coming from Kirby's work. That’s a big part of Kirby’s work. The theme of New Gods was about how one generation inherits the unresolved issues of the previous generation. I always wanted to do something where there's a character who's a villain and they have a child or grandchild who is a hero, but uses the same identity or costume. And then the idea of having huge gaps in time from one issue to another. These are ideas that I’ve been playing with for years and I feel like couple of them worked their way into Go-Bots.
Do you think that you said what you had to say with with this property? Can you see yourself revisiting it?
I feel like I said what I had to say about it. There are massive gaps in it where you could do a thousand issues of a comic. If I wanted to revisit it at some future date I could, but don’t feel like I left anything unsaid. I feel very very happy with with what I did with Go-Bots. I think I used every piece of meat.
When in the publication period of X-Men: Grand Design did you pitch Fantastic Four: Grand Design?
X-Men: Grand Design was going on when they approached me. The ball got rolling when X-Men: Grand Design was relatively current, but they didn’t fully commit to it until pretty late in the X-Men: Grand Design timeline. My thought was get as many of these things in production as soon as possible. Don’t wait. What are you waiting for was my thought, but they do things their way.
So they approached you and said “If you did this, what would it look like?”
And what did you tell them?
They asked for something very concise and short. My tendency is more is more, but instead I gave them exactly what they asked for, which was basically a paragraph. I think maybe even the line that opens Fantastic Four: Grand Design, which is like “The story of the Fantastic Four, is the story of the Marvel Universe” and Grand Design would get the reader from the birth of the universe to the modern day. I forget the specifics but it was very basic, like super basic. They were mainly interested in what issues I was going to cover. At that point, there was wasn’t a length determined either.
Once you got the green light, how soon after that did you get your parameters and what did you do with those?
Before I got the green light, when it was still just a maybe, I had some time in my schedule, so I just started working on it. I started reading the source material and putting together a really rough comic, just grabbing this bit from here, that bit from there, and outlining what would’ve been the equivalent of half of the first issue.
So, I started doing that, then I started doing Go-Bots and abandoned it. It seemed to me that Fantastic Four wasn’t going to happen because I wasn’t hearing anything. When they finally did say they were doing it, I got right to work. I took it a page at a time and just kind of got down to business with it. All that stuff that I had done previously, had primed the pump and made things easier for me. Your brain plays with these things if you have a bunch of downtime. My subconscious was working on these problems while I was working on Go-Bots, so a lot of things came together instantly once I started doing the real thing.
What were the problems?
I mean problems in the sense that telling a story is a problem you have to solve, like it’s an equation you have to balance. What is the shape of this thing? What holds this whole thing together? What are the gaps in the narrative and how do I fill those gaps? How do I get from Point A to Point B to Point C.
Admittedly, I gave Ed Piskor’s X-Men: Grand Design more of a cursory read than I did your Fantastic Four: Grand Design, but yours seems a little bit more meandering and unfocused. Were you given any limitations? Was anything described to you as a no-go?
You’re almost describing the difference in me and Ed’s personalities. He’s very focused and I’m very into going off on tangents, going on these wild, circuitous rides, and then ending up at the destination by this very outside-the-box kind of route. It was nothing editorially dictated. It was just two different cartoonists’ approaches. There are so many similarities between our ways of working, but there is a world of difference, too.
You said you reviewed the source material. I assume you were looking for the high-water marks and the milestones of the Fantastic Four mythos. Looking back on some things that are 40, 50, 60 years old, what aspects of the Fantastic Four are timeless to you?
That was a big part of it. They haven’t figured out a way to make them relevant in a similar way to how DC struggles with Superman. They’re kind of cut from the same cloth of Silver Age optimism about the future. And that’s just not sexy, it’s not cinematic. Dystopias are cinematic.
So how do you give these characters a sense of urgency? To me, when I was looking at it, I was trying to imagine the world that the comic came out of. A lot of the ways that the Fantastic Four seem old fashioned and creaky are because we’re comparing them to things that came after them. Fantastic Four pales a little bit compared to Star Trek, but it predated Star Trek by five years or something, so it’s kind of an unfair comparison. Fantastic Four came out in 1961, when the world was more like the fifties than the sixties. Star Trek came out in 1966 and sixties had really become the sixties by that point. Or you compare it to the Twilight Zone. Well, it predates the Twilight Zone. Or you compare it to the X-Men. It predates the X-Men and it predates the X-Men that people love, that Claremont/Byrne X-Men.
The era when an edge of cynicism started to creep into it.
Yeah, and those comparisons all seem unfair. When Fantastic Four came out, they were dark, they were scary, they were edgy. There was something sinister to them especially in the early, early days. When people do the Fantastic Four, it’s so cheesy and so Norman Rockwell. They’ve got these big smiles on their faces, gathered around for Thanksgiving. Or the Thing is wearing a bowling shirt. It’s so corny the way people treat the Fantastic Four. They’re very domestic. The romance has been settled. Reed Richards married Sue Storm a million—before any of us were born, maybe before our parents were born in some cases. That storyline was resolved a hundred years ago, so it’s been matrimonial bliss or matrimonial doldrums ever since, while X-Men still has romantic triangles. Is this person going to end up with this person or this person? And it was up in the air for a much longer time than it was in Fantastic Four, so, since I was doing the history of the Fantastic Four, I wanted to take it back to the moment and stay in that moment for as long as possible, where it was like X-Men, where there was a love triangle. Who is Sue Storm going to choose? Reed Richards or Sub-Mariner? I wanted to keep it in that space for as long as I could and make it a genuine question with real stakes and real mystery.
I think the concept of the wholesomeness of the family unit is usually oversold at the expense of the concept of the lingering tensions that overshadow the dynamics of all families.
Right, yes. The idea of family is such bullshit to anyone who is actually in a family. Fantastic Four is aspirational, but it’s dishonest. It’s the image that everybody projects or wants to project about their family, but when you scratch beneath the surface, there’s way more tension and dysfunction than anybody would want to admit. I think that’s what kept it from being successful. Who wants to read about that? That was out of date in the fifties, selling that idea of the happy family.
So looking at the layout, it seems to me that in Grand Design you were doing the smallest panels I’ve ever seen you do. There’s a lot of palette cohesion across the book, but I’m getting the same sense that I got from your other books, which is that I’m looking at strips. You said that in Transformers vs. G.I. Joe you considered each set of facing pages as a kind of storytelling unit. How did you approach it in Grand Design?
I was approaching it a page at a time. And each page is a unit, treating it like a page of newspaper comics, or something.
Did you feel any pressure to cover ground? Did you look at the task in terms of events?
All the pressure was internal. The only pressure I had from Marvel was time pressure. As far as content, it was me saying ‘Is there room for this? If you want to claim to be the complete story of the Fantastic Four, you gotta have this in there!’ It was kind of like that: the internal pressure of wanting to cover as much ground as possible. As a fan of this stuff, I thought this might be one shot to do this, so I wanted to reference this, or show this moment, or spend some time with this particular Kirby drawing, or whatever. It felt like I was in this amazing museum and I just wanted to touch as many things that were in it as I could, as the clock was ticking. It was very urgent. I had this really strong sense of urgency as I worked on it.
You said that you might not get to work on this stuff again. Do you think that this is the best vehicle for you to work with the Fantastic Four? Can you picture yourself doing a run on the book or a limited series? Something in continuity?
After working on this, it deepened my understanding and appreciation of the characters and it opened up a lot of doors, mentally, creatively. When I started this, I would have said something like Grand Design is all I would want to do with Fantastic Four. This is as deeply as I’d want to get involved with them. Now, I am open to it. I’ve summed up their past and now it would be interesting to take them into the future and really go off the map and into uncharted territory. That is something I would enjoy. It will most likely never happen. A lot of stars would have to align for that sort of thing to happen, but I’m at least open to it, where I would not have been open to it before.
If Grand Design ends up being the only shot that you get with Fantastic Four, with these characters that were co-created by Jack Kirby, do you think that you brought enough to it transcend - and this is maybe a cheap way to sum up Grand Design - the gimmick?
I think that this work - Fantastic Four: Grand Design - has a lot going on in it. There’s things going on on a molecular level with it. I feel like it’s going to take the world, the audience, the readership, the critical community a long time to fully unpack it and really see everything. I think there is a lot going on there. I think it’s extremely subversive. There’s more moments in it than any superhero comic, page for page, than I’ve ever seen. It’s almost a magic trick, or hypnosis. There are things in there that I sell as business as usual or canon that are wholly invented and then there’s things that seem absurd or crazy that I must’ve added to it myself that are, word for word, taken out of the Fantastic Four. I couldn’t have made this comic at any time other than now. In a lot of comics, I’ve been a showoff. This is very stealth. It’s up to the world to figure out what this thing is or whatever, but I think it’s going to age very well.
You mentioned all the moments that are in this book and I think moments are kind of the the hallmark of Grand Design. Do you think the prevalence of these moments dilutes the drama of them?
I used it as a tool. I used it as a way of getting the reader into a rhythm, so I could take the thing where I wanted to take it. Maybe it will be misunderstood, or underappreciated, or dismissed—
It's almost an economy operating with a different set of currency, if that makes sense.
Yeah, there’s not a comic book like it. And if you’ve only read superhero comics, it’s like from a different planet.
Is there anything you regret that you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
Yeah, there’s a couple things, but there just wasn’t room time-wise and there wasn’t room page-wise. Out of all the things I’ve done, this is the thing I’m most at peace with because it couldn’t have been done any differently than what it is. Within the restrictions of time and space, it has be exactly as it is. But one that comes immediately to mind is that I just didn’t have room for ‘Johnny Storm Meets the Golden Age Torch.’ There were some ingredients there that would have really tied up some themes, but there just wasn’t time, so I had to leave it out. That’s one.