Interview: Brandon Barrows

So, tell us about Jack Hammer (that can be the book, the character or both!)

JACK HAMMER is my new graphic novel, with art by Ionic, coming this June from Action Lab Comics. It’s a detective book set in Boston in a world that is nearly identical to our own, except for the existance of a small number of super humans.

The main character is Jack McGriskin, a private investigator and former superhero (who had a very brief career years earlier under the name “Jack Hammer”), living in this world. In the first volume, Jack is working a case and stumbles over a much larger mystery leading to the discovery of a criminal conspiracy stretching all the way to the halls of Congress.

Having read the book it certainly offers an interesting perspective on the world of Super Heroes. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired the book & how that developed into Political Science?

Well, originally I envisioned JACK HAMMER as a straight detective story. I am a big fan of 1940s/50s film noire and I wanted to create a book that was a true noire updated for the 21st century. There are a lot of books calling themselves noire, but few, if any, actually are. I am also a big fan of the comic detectives Ms. Tree, Michael Mauser and Cal McDonald. Topping it all off, I read a lot of mystery (prose) fiction.

When I was working on the story, however, it just didn’t quite click. I know I’m onto something when I’m writing and I can’t wait to find out what happens next, but I wasn’t super excited about the original story. As Robert Frost put it, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”.

So, I started thinking about what makes noire and what the concept was lacking. All true noire has one thing in common: the main character has something hanging over their head that influences the character heavily and often the story. The question became what is Jack’s albatross? And then it occurred to me that there’s one thing almost everyone dislikes about themselves in some respect and nobody can change: their biology.

After that, the idea that Jack was an unhappy superhuman, and the idea of powers being central to the story, let me smoothly fill in the gaps and make JACK HAMMER a richer and more satsifying story.

The powers aspect adds some interesting depth & detail to the world that Jack lives in. The other thing that helps with that of course is the books eye catching artwork by the mysteriously named Ionic. Who is Ionic & how did working with them on the book come about?

Ionic is a dude like any other, albeit with more artistic talent than most of us could dream of having, he just prefers using a nomme du plume for reasons that aren’t mine to say.

When I was looking for an artist for JACK HAMMER, I was perusing a website where professional and hopeful artists post ads with their portfolios and what kind of projects they want to work on and found a (even at the time) pretty old ad with beautiful portfolio pieces and a blurb saying something along the lines of “I want to make comics”. I figured Ionic would have gotten hundreds of emails by then and mine would be ignored, but he emailed me back saying mine was the first he’d gotten and he’d love to do a comic. Thus was an awesome working relationship born.

So how does the relationship between you guys work? Is is simply a case of you write the words & he draws the pictures or do things happen a bit more organically with ideas going back & forth between you till they’re fully formed?

There is a lot more than just writing the words. There is a common misconception that comic writers just write the dialogue, but in fact I (and many others) write full script. That means not only do I write the story (which is almost always completed before I even begin a script), I write page by page and panel by panel breakdowns of the action, in addition to the dialogue and captions. The scripts are fully completed before Ionic sees them and he hasn’t expressed a desire to contribute to the story to date, although I would of course be happy to take any suggestions he might have under advisement. He does sometimes suggest different panel or figure layouts than what I had envisioned and, as the artist, he is pretty much always right about those so I’m happy when he does so as it makes the stories stronger.

A typical script page will look something like this, to give readers an idea of what I’m talking about:

Page 1 (3 panels)

Panel 1

This is a medium shot from a 45 degree angle looking down at the scene as Johnny walks along the sidewalk,  past neat and happy looking little houses with picket fences, heading towards the viewer. He has a gleeful smile on his face, and the scene is brightly lit indicating it’s mid-to-late morning.

BOX:            A sunny morning in Happy Town

JOHNNY:    Gosh, today is such a beautiful day!

Panel 2

Pull out and shift perspectives to an overhead shot. Johnny continues his stroll down the sidewalk, but has turned his head upwards towards the sky and the viewer as a giant bird-shaped shadow is now overlayed on top of the area Johnny is walking through.

BOX:            Suddenly!

JOHNNY:    Hey, who pulled the shades?

-link-

JOHNNY:    Waaaaah!

Panel 3

Pull out to a wide shot now, so we can see the entire scene. A giant eagle-type bird has grabbed Johnny’s shoulders in its claws and he is now 10-12 feet off the ground and rising. Johnny’s legs kick wildly and his face wears an expression of confused terror.

 

JOHNNY:    Waaaaaah! So much for my morning stroll!

-link-

JOHNNY:    Heeeeellp!!!

Thanks for that little chunk of script there. It’s interesting, no two comic book writers ever have quite the same way of writing a script. I used to think it was always done the way you just showed us, but I’ve seen so many variations on the theme since then that every script I read still manages to suprise me in the way the process works. Now you mentioned earlier a little bit about what inspired Political Science, but what inspired you to write comics & what else have you worked on?

I’ve always been an avid comic reader, since before I could even actually “read” the comics. In fact, one of my earliest memories (I was probably 3, maybe 4) is of my dad taking me to the corner convenience store and letting me pick out a comic book to read on a long car trip.

I’ve also always been a writer, in one form or another. I spent many years, from childhood on, writing fiction for my own enjoyment and I’ve written non-fiction for some small print outlets and websites. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d end up writing comics some day.

As for what else I’ve worked on…well, I have written a number of short comic stories that have appeared in anthologies in both the US and UK markets for publishers like Fan-Atic Press, Grim Crew Comics and Reasonably Priced Comics. I also have some stories in the upcoming anthology GN from Orang Utan Comics later this year.

Long works include a science fiction graphic novel in my VOYAGA series coming out this fall. I can’t say too much at the moment, but the publisher will announce it before too long, I’m sure. I’ve also got three one-shot comics I’m working on. The one that is furthest along is a horror story called RED RUN and I’m looking to find a publisher for it, currently.

Can you remember what that first comic was? Was that the one that really gave you the bug, or did that come later & if so what was the comic that started it?

I am fairly certain my first comic was Spectacular Spider-Man #99. I still have it and I very clearly remember being amazed by the cover, with the Spot’s fists popping out of all those holes punching Spider-Man simultaneously, the first time I saw it. If any comic gave me the bug, it was probably that one or another from right around the same time, because I almost literally cannot remember a time when I didn’t love comics. I couldn’t have been more than four, and my dad probably just bought it on a whim for me. I’m sure he couldn’t have imagined where it would lead.

The super hero influences are pretty clearly marked in Jack Hammer but the villains in it are pretty memorable as well. What do you think goes into making a good villain & who are your favourites (this doesn’t necessarily have to be from comics. it can be from anything)

I don’t think villains should be complicated, ideally. Not to say that they can’t be, neccessarily, but the most memorable villains are the ones that are larger than life and people can either identify with (who doesn’t love letting their evil side win once in awhile) or root against without reservation.

The villains that have survived the test of time are characters like Ming the Merciless, Cobra Commander, Megatron, Goldfinger, the Red Skull…they’re all characters that, no matter which of the many mediums they’ve been translated to, are clearly evil, make no bones about or apologies for it and you can either cackle along with them or cheer the hero on against them.

Make no mistake, though, there’s a difference between a villain and an antagonist. Just because a character is your protagonist’s enemy, doesn’t make them a villain. I try to keep that in mind when writing and I hope people keep that in mind when reading.

On the flip side of the coin then what do you think makes a good hero & who again who are some of your favourites?

Well, a good hero should be memorable, too, but the most important thing is being relatable, I think. Someone you can look at and see yourself in, at least a little bit, is a must. Someone who’s doing larger than life things who isn’t obviously infinitely beyond the average person. That’s why Spider-Man is arguably one of the most recognizable and important heroes of the 20th century. He’s a hero, but he’s also got real-life problems that most everyone who reads his stories has had or will have. He’s also neurotic and a real mess. That may not sound too appealing in this context, but it makes him extremely relatable in the stories because we all know what he’s going through.

Some of my favorite heroes are GrimJack, Nexus, the Badger, Mr. Monster, Judge Dredd…I could go on, but those are my top five.

Some interesting choices there. I see that you’re a fan of your anti heroes too. Obviously Jack Hammer had a career as a hero before his current career as a P.I. but Political Science only gives us the odd glimpse of this previous life. Can we expect to see what made Jack the way he is as well as what made his world the way it is further on down the line (so effectively will there be more Jack Hammer I guess is the short version of that)?

Yes, for folks wondering about his past, I do have notes for a storyline in which Jack, still fairly young and relatively fresh out of the army, is still in the boxing phase of his life and it leads into the hero phase, although that particular story won’t show the “hero time”.

The next storyline, however, has been fully scripted since last year. Ionic will probably start working on it this summer and we hope to have it out in spring of 2012. It’s set almost immediately after Political Science and gives us a little more insight into Jack’s interpersonal relationships in the current stage of his life.

After that, there is a storyline in which Jack confronts some of his own demons (a big one stems from the next storyline, actually) when he’s faced with some examples true evil, the kind we unfortunately have in our own world, as well  (hint, hint).

Thanks for that Brandon. It’s certainly piqued my interest & I look forward to reading the next installment. Now, speaking of our own world, what advice would you give to the people in it who want to create their own comics?

To just knuckle down and do it. If you want to write, write until you have the best story you possibly can, then find an artist partner. If you’re an artist, draw/paint/etc EVERYTHING, not just your favorite superheros, and polish your style, then find a writer partner if you’re not up to doing a story yourself. (The internet makes both of these things VERY easy these days).

Then, just make your comic. Nobody will ever come to you and say “please make a comic for me to publish” until you have a proven track record and you have to be a real self-starter on that front.

I spent a lot of years wondering how you got a job in comics and then it hit me that nobody could stop me from doing it but me. That was four years ago and here I am today.

 

Jack Hammer is released this month from Action Lab comics & you can see a review here in the very near future. If you want to read more of Brandon’s work then you still have time to contribute to his aforementioned IndieGoGo horror title Red Run here