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BAKER'S DOZEN for 10/13/2004
Shoplifters of the World Unite
Dave Roman on Jax Epoch, Vol. 2
I first met Dave Roman at the very fine and very fun Mid-Ohio-Con years ago, and have looked forward to seeing what he's been up ever since. Which is pretty easy, actually, since he attends just about every show I attend...and I attend a lot of shows.
Anyway, it's been a real joy to watch him branch out, trying new forms and approaches, all the while expanding his range both as an artist and as a writer. And it's in the latter position, with no insult meant to his fine drawing and visual storytelling skills, that I've been particularly rewarded for my vigilance over the years. In fact, the subject of today's column is a perfect example of why I enjoy his writing so much.
In Jax Epoch, Roman and his partner, artist John Green, twist what might have been a fairly straightforward and safe all ages fantasy title into a provocative, intelligent, and highly engaging all ages series that is peopled by characters who, for all of their being interesting and even charming, are terribly flawed and utterly human, and quite capable of intermixing acts of charity and courage with those of a less seemly nature. It's also a series which, while being extremely reader-friendly, still isn't afraid to address the simple fact that life itself is sometimes anything but easy or safe, yet still remains incredibly hopeful, fun and reader-friendly.
Bill Baker: So who, exactly, is Jax Epoch, and what can you tell us about her life and world?
Dave Roman: Jax is a teenage kleptomaniac from our own world, who fell into a completely different one after chasing a lab rabbit into a wormhole. She's kind of an oddball heroine, and a makeshift flannel-wearing sorceress with a knack for trouble.
BB: OK. Then what's this Quicken Forbidden thingie everyone in the story seems so worried about...and what's it got to do with Jax?
DR: The Quicken Forbidden is the destructive result of bringing magical items from one dimension into another. This causes the two dimensions to merge, and eventually cancel each other out. Obviously, this is a bad thing, and Jax is responsible for setting it all in motion after "borrowing" some magical items, and bringing them back to Manhattan with her. The results include dragons flying over the streets, giant robotic snakes in the subways, floods of rabbits pouring out of closets, giants playing catch with skyscrapers, while mystical creatures are forced to get day jobs and fill out tax returns back in their own world.
BB: I just recently reread the first trade, and there's a phrase that kept running through the back of my mind the whole time: "Be careful what you wish for," because it almost seemed to be a subtle theme underlying much of that first arc. Which got me wondering just where this whole story came from, how did it get developed and what were some of the more interesting turns the story or characters took during that process?
DR: Quicken Forbidden as a series resulted from a combination of imagery in my head that I didn't know what to do with, and also the kind of fantasy stories John Green and I enjoyed as kids and wanted to see in comic book form. Stuff like Time Bandits, The Secret of NIMH, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal. Surreal adventures with dark undertones. I was thinking about someone jumping through a window-or being sucked into their closet...stuff like that, and how a story would build from there. And I liked the idea of someone feeling depressed about the world we live in, with its lack of magic...and then finding herself bringing magic into our world, and all the chaos that would result if that really happened. I wanted to see the smaller moments, as well as the cataclysm. We knew we wanted to create a scenario where magic and technology could combine to form new things, and follow the evolution of how that came to be, as a result of one person's actions. And in thinking of a protagonist, John and I wanted someone who would be compelling to see in really bizarre scenarios. Jax was the type of girl we both wanted to hang out with. Sorta nerdy-looking, but really cute with an indie-rock sensibility and quirky tastes.
BB: Jax is a fairly complicated character, and far from unflawed. Why pick a character like that as your lead? Does it present you with different opportunities, or perhaps more interesting possibilities, that you might not otherwise have with a more...normative character?
DR: It's a Catch-22 because Jax is what makes Quicken Forbidden unique and original, but also what makes it a hard sell for many comic fans. When we started the book, the whole girl-hero thing was just starting to come into vogue, but most were "Bad Girls," or at the very least, classically sexy as well as good fighters. Even to this day that's still pretty much the case with things as well-written as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which allows the side characters to look like you and me, but keeps the hero's hair and make up perfect at all times. So for Quicken Forbidden to star an awkward girl who is truly average, meant we probably weren't gonna sell to the mainstream Charlie's Angels-watching, Maxim-loving, Wizard Magazine-reading crowd. So that leaves the more intellectual, open-minded types...a lot of whom don't read comics! But the ones that do, seem to really love Quicken Forbidden and appreciate the idea of someone like them, or that girl they always see in the library, as the hero of an apocalyptic adventure. But I think that the themes and stories that happen in Quicken Forbidden are pretty universally accessible. Because for the most part, it is an adventure story with extremely cinematic action sequences in every issue. John tackles comics from a storyboarding approach, working in dynamic camera angles that keep you in the moment following the movement of the characters. Everything in Quicken Forbidden is approached as if it were a Hollywood movie with an unlimited special effects budget; cramming in as many set pieces, creatures, and explosions as we can. And once the more skeptical people realize they don't need to be a teenage girl to enjoy reading about one with magic powers, I think they find the book a rewarding experience.
BB: Another thing that struck me about her is her real, almost palpable isolation from the other characters, be it her mom, her friends or even her boyfriend. Again, why? Was it a conscious and logical kind of choice, or was there a bit more of your gut involved with assigning that trait to Jax?
DR: A lot of times people watch something happen in a movie and say, "I would never have done that!" Jax sort of follows her own logic, so readers can't necessarily guess what she might do next. She can be calm in a scary situation like exploring an alternate dimension, or really freak out in seemingly mundane scenarios, like eating lunch at a diner. But instead of being irrational, it's just true to Jax's nature and makes her more interesting to write for. She's someone who lies to herself, and if you follow her ups and downs, you see how vulnerable she actually is. She's closed off, but we get to go inside her head. I think that's part of what makes her feel real. She doesn't fit into the mold of a hero, but she has the ability to become one. She keeps making bad decisions, because she doesn't like feeling the pain that comes from dealing with the reality of the world around her.
I think a lot of how Jax reacts to things start out as gut feelings during the writing process, and then if I think it propels the story into new and interesting places, I go with it. For example, I didn't realize that Jax's parents were divorced when I wrote issues #2 and 3. But by the time we finished issue #5, I realized we hadn't shown her dad yet, and it really would explain a lot of why Jax feels disconnected from things. When my own parents got divorced it kind of doubled my life. I'd have two Christmas gatherings, two families to vacation with, two beds, etc. It just seemed to underline the fantasy aspect of QF where Jax shifts between reality and fantasy, and even has to fight a duplicate of herself. And this gave her a source for her anger, and explained her detachment in a sort of shorthand. Because we really hadn't addressed the issue of Jax's parents until Issue #6, it really amplified this idea that Jax was in denial about a lot of things in her life. She wasn't telling you the whole story, and it becomes obvious that it is part of what gets her in trouble again and again.
BB: What about John Green made him the perfect artist to bring Jax and her worlds alive?
DR: When I met John, he was the best artist that I was friends with. And even now, working with tons of artists on a regular basis, he is still one of the most versatile artists I know. He really can draw anything he wants to. You've just got to make him want to draw it. That really opens the doors in your mind, when you know that there aren't many limits to what can be done. Every now and then, I'll call him before I go too far with an idea, and ask something like "Can you draw horses?" Because if not, I certainly wouldn't write a whole elaborate action scene that involves people fighting on horseback! Nine times out of ten, John accepts the challenge and does a better job than I could have possibly imagined.
BB: How does a typical issue get created, and how much interaction and give and take is there between you two during that process? Oh, and if there's ever a disagreement, how is that settled?
DR: I usually have glimmers of what I want to do before the specifics are worked out. I keep a sketchbook, and just brainstorm and think about the characters and where they are going. I run my ideas by John and tell him what I'm thinking, and he usually gives me feedback. Sometimes that cements the fragments, and sometimes it sends me in a new direction. In terms of disagreements, it's really a balancing act. We kinda both need to be happy with the finished book. So if John feels strongly about something, I try to detach myself from the argument to see if I'm just being stubborn. And if it's a matter of personal taste, sometimes I'll concede with the hope that he'll let me have my way with something else. But there are actually a lot more times where I think John's not gonna go for one of my wacky ideas, and he ends up really digging it.
BB: Well, what's next for Jax and company? How about yourself? I know you've got a ton of other things going on, comics-wise, as well as your regular day job, right? What else might you have coming out or going that's important to you right now?
DR: Well, we just got back from SPX, and are still in the afterglow of winning an Ignatz Award there, for Teen Boat #6. We're planning to get all the pages of Teen Boat that we've done so far colored, to see if anyone would be interested in publishing it as a small trade paperback. We like to do various mini comics to sell at the conventions, and Teen Boat is one that was instantly really well received. It started out as a humorous conversation between John and myself on a bus about what if there was a cartoon about a kid with the powers of a boat-rather than something cool. But the more we talked about the more we realized it was something worth actually turning into a comic. And every time we do a new issue the Teen Boat universe expands more and more! Even though it's basically a silly idea and started off as a parody, it's also in many ways closer to mainstream pop culture writing than what we do in Quicken Forbidden.
In terms of what is on our plate right now, John is currently inking issue #13 of Quicken Forbidden, and I'm supposed to be writing #14. I started drawing a weekly comic strip for GirlAMatic.com called Astronaut Elementary, which is sort of an anime-inspired kid romance strip, and developing some stuff for Platinum Studios. I also have a horror mystery anthology that I've been working on called Agnes Quill, which might be finally coming out soon. Besides all that, there's the comics I edit for Nickelodeon Magazine, which is my day job. We just finished up a special tie-in with the SpongeBob movie, and are currently at work on a comic book adaptation of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. That should be really cool, because it is being drawn by Sam Hiti, one of my new favorite artists-he did an awesome graphic novel called Tiempos Finales.
Why am I doing all these things at once? Just in case I die next year.
BB: With all the success surrounding the Spider-Man and X-Men and other comic films, you must have contemplated at least fleetingly the possibility of doing Jax in other mediums. Is that something you'd be interested in exploring sometime, or do you want to present her adventures only in comics and trade editions?
DR: John and I are movie buffs, and I think that comes through in our approach to comics. John's storytelling sensibilities are very cinematic. So we can't help but imagine how things we put into the Quicken Forbidden comics would translate as a film, and there so many directions that it could go. I can imagine at least 6 different versions of a Jax Epoch movie, and all of them would be cool. Cell animated, live action, mainstream, indie-part of me would like to see it done every way possible. That's why I love getting pinups of the characters by my favorite artists, to see their different interpretations of Jax. And if Terry Gilliam could direct Quicken Forbidden The Movie, I would be ecstatic to see what he focused on. In terms of us doing films ourselves, that's a bit muddier. Part of me would love to get into making movies. But comics are just so easy to figure out and make happen-whereas films involve so many outside resources that can spiral out of control. My friends and I tried making a Quicken Forbidden movie in college and all's it did was make me realize how much I love making comics.
That said, the movie rights to Jax and QF have been optioned by a company called Pipedream Productions based in NYC. So things are out of our hands but certainly in motion. I'm eager to see what they end up doing.
BB: What does writing comics, and cartooning, give you that you can't get elsewhere? How about Jax? What does writing this particular character do for you as a writer?
DR: Well, like I said, comics are easier to keep a focus on and make sure they get finished. And I'm all about the satisfaction of the finished product. The thrill of getting boxes of comics back from the printer and giving them to friends, or seeing them in comic shops, can't really be beat. Flipping through and seeing things that existed only in your head a few months ago.
In terms of writing Jax, it's interesting because she is obviously very different from me since I'm not a girl, a teenager, a klepto, responsible for destroying our dimension, or a fan of grilled cheese sandwiches. So when people tell me they can really identify with her, and that Jax feels real to them, it means that I'm doing "something" right with my scripts. And if someone who feels like they don't really connect with most people-fictional or otherwise-can find some familiarity with Jax as an outsider, that's pretty cool. I think people like to have an icon that speaks to them. A cartoon that they can wear as a badge, or on a T-shirt, and project their inner self. Like for some reason when I saw the movie Kiki's Delivery Service, something about that character and her "mission" really hit a nerve with me. And I felt certain elements from the film reflected my own worldview, even though I'm not a girl, a witch, and don't have a cat named Jiji!
BB: How about your readers? What would you like them to get from your work, generally, and from Jax, specifically?
DR: Something compelling, hopefully. To me, contrast is interesting. Watching an awkward teenage girl have to defend herself from monsters is more suspenseful than if it were a superhero or a great warrior that you know is gonna make it through. Jax is vulnerable and self-destructive, so you just can't say what's gonna happen. She can surprise you because she is clever and resourceful, but not in just the same way most characters are. She also screws up a lot and makes things much worse. And yet she keeps going forward and you want her to win in the end. At least I hope people do! And maybe something in that can be a bit inspirational to those of us who don't particularly feel like we fit the definition of a superhero, but still kind want to be one in our own unique way. Ideally it would be great to think that the characters and worlds that we are creating in Quicken Forbidden are the kind that people will think fondly about long after they've finished the comic.
BB: Anything else you'd like to share before I let you go? [Great place to plug reorder numbers, websites, new or forthcoming releases and re-releases, con appearances, and tell people to vote to Pat Paulsen even though 99% of our audience wouldn't understand it.]
DR: The second Quicken Forbidden trade paperback comes out this week, and John and I are so excited about that. It has the longest title ever, Jax Epoch and the Quicken Forbidden Volume 2: Separation Anxiety. It's the first time these issues, 6-10, have been reprinted, and I'm looking forward to seeing how people respond to them all as one complete story. We added a brand new epilogue too, which I think is really funny and gives a bit more back story into how Jax starts to build her own superhero costume. The new collection is being published by AiT/Planet Lar, which is a really cool company to be associated with. The publishers, Larry Young and Mimi Rosenheim are super down-to-earth people who really respect and care about the future of comics and are really putting great stuff out there.
We've also been trying to put up a lot more content on our websites, so hopefully people will swing by and check them out:
If you haven't previously explored Jax's world, or the larger body of Dave Roman's work, you're missing out on a lot of wild rides, and perhaps even doing yourself a real disservice, my friends. And if you've never had the pleasure of attending the Mid-Ohio-Con before, what's stoppin' ya from doing it right now?!
<< 10/06/2004 | 10/13/2004 | 10/20/2004 >>
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