Once upon a time they were the trademark hobby of “nerds”, but with the rise in popularity of The Avengers, Batman, Arrow etc, there is no doubt about it: comic books are cool. Or mainstream, rather…they were always cool. In this rapidly inflating bubble of blockbusters and hit television shows, it’s important to remember where they all stem from: the vibrantly colorful pages of a thin paper book. Nowadays, most especially with the rise of self-publishing, you can find incredibly imaginative tales online, as well as on a bookshelf, created by writers and illustrators who work tirelessly to get their stories out. We recently sat with one such writer, Justin Peniston of Big and Tall Tales. A giant of a man, Justin is one half of a duo (the other half being illustrator Will Orr) who, together, churn out page after page of Hunter Black and Rocket Queen and The Wrench.
What was the first comic book you ever bought?
Justin: Ye gods, who knows? My mom started me on comics when I was something like three years old. I CAN tell you that from a very early age, I had a very specific affinity for Superman and Batman.
A better milestone for me in terms of early comics was the first time I read X-Men #137 in a drug store while my mom was shopping. That was…1981? Something like that, so I was 9 or 10 years old. This was the comic where Jean Grey dies for the first time, sacrificing herself so that her enormous powers couldn’t be used for evil. I remember my mom coming to find me to get ready to go and I was in tears.
That was the first time that I realized that comics could be an effective tool for telling adult stories, that they could be used for more than just action or comedy. I’m pretty sure that moment changed my life forever.
How did it make you feel? Is that what you aim for when creating your own comics?
Justin: Well, comics occupy a very different space now than they did then. When I was a kid, comics were for kids…mostly for boys. Now that I’m a man…they’re seen mostly for men, or rather, they were when my career began in earnest.
One of my first goals as a writer was to help bring in more female readers, and that has by and large happened without me. Female readers are now a significant percentage of comic readers, which is huge. That will likely keep the medium alive.
So now I’m focused a bit more on engaging younger readers. I’m not SOLELY focused on that, but that’s a big part of why I do what I do.
“None of my characters are like me…and all of them are. All of my characters are influenced by my attitudes about what is valuable in life.”
When did you decide that’s what you wanted to do?
Justin: I’ve been wanting to write since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I created my first superheroes when I was…six, maybe? I created a character called Intergalactic Man, who had all the powers of the Millennium Falcon. (I was quite the Star Wars nut, you see.)
Courting younger readers has been a more recent development. I haven’t frequented comic stores in a while, but when I did, it was hard not to notice that all the customers were MEN. I soon realized that if I wanted my career to have legs, I’d have to do my part to bring in a new generation of readers.
How do you relate to your characters? Whom do you feel is most like you?
Justin: None of my characters are like me…and all of them are. All of my characters are influenced by my attitudes about what is valuable in life. My relationships with my family tend to play out on the page in a variety of ways. It took me a long time to start writing about characters WITHOUT daddy issues, for example. (I grew up with mad daddy issues.)
Of all the characters that I’m currently writing on the regular, Jasoom Badrali from Hunter Black is probably the most like me in terms of personality. He shares my sense of whimsy and is probably a more decent guy than most of the people around him. That said, Hunter Black is noir and none of the characters are what I would call “good people.” There’s more to be learned about Jasoom, and some of those things will make him less and less like me.
And yes, I’m aware that I just called myself more decent than most. Turns out I’m also more egotistical than most, too!
How do you decide on the overall look and feel of your designs? Who’s idea was it to make Hunter Black gray scale and red/so angular? Rocket Queen softer and more colorful?
Justin: By and large, I leave decisions about visual style to the artists themselves. I like to think I’m pretty good at telling a story, about handling characters, etc., and it’s best to leave me alone to do those things. The flipside of that is, artists are usually MUCH better than me at deciding how a book should LOOK.
Now, Will and I decided on the “rules” of Hunter Black together, and that includes the decision to do the comic in grey scale, except for blood and magic. Noir was born in a colorless world, after all. We’re hardly the first to do something like that. Frank Miller did it in some of his Sin City stories, although those were B&W rather than grey scale. Matt Wagner also did his Grendel: Black, White, and Red books, which I LOVED. Both Miller and Wagner have been huge influences on me personally, so it’s not surprising that I occasionally make similar choices.
Now, when it comes to Rocket Queen and The Wrench, that’s entirely different. I had a very clear visual in my brain. Rocket Queen was always intended as a full-color book to reflect the bright world of superheroes. I absolutely had NO intentions of doing a book in a visually manga style. I grew up on Western comics, and while I admire Japanese comics, my biases and tendencies were already set by the time I discovered manga.
Rocket Queen is also much more MY creation. While I believe in giving artists the freedom to do what they do, in this case Ramanda is executing MY vision. Also, I’ve never really met Ramanda. (We’ve had exactly one video-chat in the time we’ve been collaborating.)
All of the above said, I was BLOWN AWAY when I saw Ramanda’s samples and initial designs for Rocket Queen and Captain Zoom. They looked nothing like the way I pictured them…they looked better, and I have almost no ego when it comes to my work.
It turns out that Ramanda is an EXPERT at reading my scripts and giving me what I want on a page, even more than Will. I give Will a script and he produces HIS pages. Our styles are very compatible, but also very distinct. Ramanda takes a script and spits out MY pages. It would almost be creepy if it wasn’t so AWESOME.
A great artist elevates the story when taking it from script to page, and both Will and Ramanda do that, just in very different ways.
What is your process when writing? Do you draw ideas from real life? Any examples?
Justin: Like every good writer, I procrastinate until I can’t anymore, and then I write like mad until I’m done.
Seriously though, my process differs by project. Hunter Black is written way more by the seat of my pants than Rocket Queen was, for example. That’s largely because Hunter Black is a webcomic, and I don’t have any restrictions in terms of page count, which is both a blessing and a curse. Too much freedom can make me unfocused, but it also allows me to craft a much more organic and character-driven story.
The one thing I tend to do consistently is to map out my character’s desires and how those desires will affect their actions. I do this for all my major characters in a story so I can figure out where the conflicts are, and hopefully make those conflicts into something badass.
Stories are how kids learn to process that stuff. Bambi’s mom and Obi-Wan Kenobi were probably the first time I ever had to deal with death; they laid the foundation for me to be able to deal with the losses that everyone has in life.
What inspired Hunter Black? What is the overall message you try to convey with his story?
Justin: We originally had no intentions of doing a webcomic. Will and I wanted to put together animation pitches to take with us to San Diego Comic-Con. It was just supposed to be another way for us to market our talents. We were going to create a couple of different cartoons, one for kids and one for the Adult Swim crowd. Hunter Black was our attempt at the latter.
Both of us had just read Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptation of Richard Stark’s crime novel, The Hunter. I loved it so much, I kept thinking, “I want to do something like THAT.” Everything that is Hunter Black started there.
Now, here’s the thing about noir…at its core, it’s about bad people. Even the heroes are bad people, they’re just less bad than everyone else. Hunter is motivated by the need for revenge, and revenge is an ugly thing. I’m a huge Star Trek fan, and the two best Star Trek films (Wrath of Khan and First Contact) are about how revenge poisons your soul, and I believe that.
Hunter’s relentless need for revenge does him no favors, that’s what the story is about.
Your note in the back of Rocket Queen and Wrench’s first issue mentions you were upset there were no Harry Potter comics (I had that same thought myself while wandering in the store at your signing last week) and that you want this to be the HP of comics, bringing kids back to reading. Is that your target audience? Or are you aiming for the universal themes to be a bridge for all ages?
Justin: I make a distinction between being “for kids” and “All Ages.” To me, “All Ages” means that it’s for everybody, and that’s what Harry Potter is. I mean, it’s ostensibly written for kids, but I’m as big a Harry Potter fan as you’re likely to meet and I was…29? 30?…when I read the books for the first time. It was accessible to kids, but there was plenty there for me. That’s what I want Rocket Queen to be, accessible to kids but readable by anyone.
I mean, Harry Potter deals with some pretty weighty themes. Harry himself is bowed under the weight of the loss of his parents throughout the story. People that the readers come to love are killed. Harry deals with issues of socialization, with living up to unreasonable expectations, with unconventional nature of families. The main villain is a mass murderer! Does that sound like it’s for kids?
If it doesn’t, it should. Stories are how kids learn to process that stuff. Bambi’s mom and Obi-Wan Kenobi were probably the first time I ever had to deal with death; they laid the foundation for me to be able to deal with the losses that everyone has in life.
These are lofty goals to have for my brightly colored comic. But from the very beginning, the kids at the heart of my story are dealing with death and divorce…with the profoundest sorts of loss. I don’t know if I do it WELL or not…that’s not for me to say. But in the shadow of a dead parent and an absentee father, I hope I’ve demonstrated what’s at stake.
How did that story and characters come to you?
Justin: Honestly, I was on a walk, thinking about Harry Potter and comics and what was missing from comics. The name “Rocket-Girl and The Wrench” just popped into my head without any other frame of reference. I love alliteration, and the title SOUNDS alliterative, even if it really isn’t. My brain circled that idea for a long while. It’s actually one of my prouder moments as a self-described progressive. Usually I come up with ideas for male characters and deliberately change to female as a conscious decision, but Rocket Queen (or rather, Rocket-Girl when I first came up with her) was a girl from jump.
Anything in the pipeline for Big and Tall? Or personally?
Justin: Yeah, our next big project is well underway. Will and I have returned to the first big project we ever undertook. We ended up dropping it, even though we loved the idea, because it wasn’t what Will wanted to draw. Once we got Hunter Black to a sort of auto-pilot stage, we revisited this project and hired another artist to draw it. It’s BANANAS.
Joshua Covey is a name that deserves the widest recognition. With any luck, we can help him get it.
I don’t want to say anything too specific about the project; I literally just mailed off a submission to Image yesterday. If they like it, I imagine they’ll want to hold off on talking about it until it makes marketing sense to do so.
I will say this much, it’s “All Ages” in the same way that Rocket Queen and The Wrench is…and it also features a female protagonist.
Big and Tall Tales recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to bring Hunter Black to print, so keep an eye out! This first volume will be a collection of the first few hundred pages and is expected to be released this summer.
words by Chelsea Duran | illustrations + photo provided by Big and Tall Tales