Boogie Wonderland: An Interview with Jonathan Stevenson and Luke Balmer-Kemp of DISCONAUTS
We talked with writer Jonathan Stevenson and artist Luke Balmer-Kemp about their newest project, a wild 70-inspired romp called Disconauts!
Check out Disconauts issue #1 on Kickstarter here!
COMIC BOOK YETI: I'm here with Jonathan Stevenson and Luke Balmer-Kemp, the creators of Disconauts! Tell me a bit about yourselves and the book you're working on!
LUKE BALMER-KEMP: Hey, I'm Luke, the artist on Disconauts. This book is our brainchild, sort of our love letter to growing up. Very fun, wacky, all that. By day I'm an architectural visualizer, I make things look pretty and do some 3D visualization for that. And then, of course, by night, I'm a comic book artist!
JONATHAN STEVENSON: I'm Jonathan, I've been a comics editor since January 2017. I worked at Titan Comics, where I managed their translated comics in print and was also the editor on Doctor Who, Tank Girl, and a few other things. I'm also the writer and letterer of Disconauts which I'd call a love letter to the '70s wrapped up in an '80s summer blockbuster.
CBY: Perfect, perfect. Now I've read the book, of course, and it is very much a wacky and wild time! You've leaned so heavily into the disco theme, it's fantastic. What made you decide to use that vibe as your inspiration for a story? I assume you have some history with disco and that whole scene?
JS: Not especially, actually! It was very much me trying to come up with an idea that I wouldn't usually write. I wanted to stretch myself, make myself think just a little differently. I had come up with a comic years ago that I had roughed out a plot for (I never ended up writing it because, quite frankly, it was awful) that was sort of a post-apocalyptic story, but if the world had ended in the 70s. So of course technology was way beyond that time, but everyone's clothing, speaking patterns, etc, were still from that decade. The main character of that book was an assassin named Kitty Kat, which is a name you may recognize from Disconauts. So you can see some of the ideas from that original story incorporated into this project.
CBY: The fact that you don't have major history with disco makes this story even funnier in my mind, I never would have guessed that from reading it! You presented the theme so well that I just assumed it was a space you were experienced in.
JS: I think it's just a really fun concept. I can't think of any sad disco songs, you know? It's a whole scene that lends itself well to comedy and silliness.
LBK: It doesn't take itself very seriously, which is especially nice for the artwork. It leaves me a lot to play with, and it makes sure I don't have to worry about being exactly accurate to the period. I was born in the late '80s, so I wouldn't know, but it's very open to parody. Hence the puns and everything...
CBY: Oh, the puns. That was something I was going to bring up! I remember the one that comes to mind is the sequence with the dinosaur, and I won't go into detail to avoid spoilers, but there's a pun...and then another...and another and another and another for this entire page, it was hilarious. So it's clear you guys enjoy puns. What made you decide to go so all-out with that type of humor?
JS: Well, it works well with disco being so fun and silly. It just fit the vibe of the comic quite nicely. I remember wondering if it would work, but then after seeing Luke's art, I decided to go with it. I mean, I know it's not comedy genius, it's a page full of puns, but I think that's why it works.
CBY: It's self-aware, so it's fantastic.
LBK: This was the first time that I've ever had someone say sorry to me in a script in brackets before. I remember at the top it said "This page is going to be filled with puns (sorry about this)," and then there was a 13-panel page just filled with puns.
CBY: Talking about that dynamic between you two leads well into another question I wanted to ask: How did you two meet, what's your history together?
JS: I was working as an editor at Titan, and Luke came in as an editor for a few months, he'll tell you more about his end of things in a second. But I saw him doodling in his sketchbook during lunch break, and as someone who had been around small press comics for a while, I'm always on the lookout for new artists. So I had a look to see if he was any good, and he was, and I also noticed he was drawing cowboys and other western scenes. We started talking about our favorite Western movies, we found we're both fans of those, and then we started talking about Disconauts. This was a few years ago, and we did other projects since then, but then, of course, we came back to Disconauts.
CBY: So Luke, tell us about your end, what was that internship like?
LBK: I had just finished up studying sequential art in Georgia and returned to the UK. I wanted to figure out how to get into the comics space, which is difficult in the UK, but I found an internship at Titan Comics. The job there was touching up and improving some old art, things like 1960s Flash Gordon pages for new printed collections and such. So I was very lucky finding that job. I got to deal with some very precious cargo, lovely artwork from a period that actually gave me some nice insights on how comics worked back then. I got into comics around 2013, so seeing some of the production from decades past was just amazing.
CBY: And you're also an architectural visualizer, how does that help you out in comics work? I imagine the two jobs have some shared skill sets.
LBK: Yeah, I'm a visualizer who works with a lot of 3D, but I also work in 2D. Let me tell you something, if you hate backgrounds and want to get better at making them, become an architectural visualizer. All you do is backgrounds, so it really helped me learn how to visualize 3D things in a 2D space. See, when we first talked about Disconauts, my art wasn't ready yet, it wasn't quite there. But I've gotten much better, especially over lockdown in the UK and having to draw so much for my visualizer job.
CBY: Yeah, that's awesome. Great to see that improvement. While we're on the topic of history in the industry, here's another question. Jonathan, you were an editor on the Doctor Who comics! As a fan of that franchise myself, I have to ask what that was like, working on such a high-profile name.
JS: That was the one title I wanted to work on at Titan. When I started, we were doing multiple Doctor Who titles with different Doctors, but they all had editors already. But right as we started with the 13th Doctor, they decided to cut down the titles and just focus on that one. And it just so happened that specific editor had just found another job elsewhere, so I marched right into the boss's office and said "Give me Doctor Who."
CBY: That is fantastic!
JS: I don't even think I was polite about it! This'll probably cause me some problems with fans, but I feel like during that time, the writing on the show wasn't very strong. We had a new writer on the comics though, Jody Houser, and her work was fantastic. The first arc was great, the second was even better, and the third really let us play around in the sandbox. We got to work with a character who had been mentioned in the show but never seen before, which was another Time Lord. In fact, I think that was the first mention of a Time Lord changing sex, which of course became very important later in the show. It was fantastic to work on what I think was the best form of Doctor Who at the time.
CBY: Looping back to your current project, you have a Kickstarter running for Disconauts right now! I can see (at the time of this interview) you're not even halfway through the campaign and you're already at well over 50% funding, so first off congratulations on that milestone! Is this the first Kickstarter campaign you two have run?
JS: Yes, it's our first! I think we both thought the goal was a little ambitious at first, but we decided to go big or go home, and it's clearly going well so far.
LBK: Yeah, had you told us a year ago that we would have this much funding halfway through I wouldn't have believed you. I've always been on the sidelines of crowdfunding, I have friends who had done it before, but now I get how strange of an experience it is. You have to stop yourself from checking every five minutes, you know? Just refreshing that page over and over.
CBY: I totally get that feeling, I've Kickstarted my own work before and I felt the same way! But for you guys now - and maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself - you're less than halfway through your time and well over halfway funded, so I think it's a safe bet to say you're going to make it. Assuming that, what are your plans for Disconauts in the future?
LBK: We've done a full arc already, four issues fully written and drawn up. Jonathan is the idea guy, he can tell you more about what the future will hold.
JS: See, the idea was to capture the feel of comics from that '70s era. That's why issue #1 is a complete story. There's stuff we can build on for an ongoing arc, but it does wrap itself up nicely. That's what issue #2 is like as well. While #1 focused on a member of the team called The Whiz, #2 is going to focus on a different main character, and over the issues, we'll explore the whole team more in-depth. Issues #3 and #4 will be a two-parter that will sort of wrap up the arc.
CBY: And I can tell you've gone for that '70s comic feel with some things you've thrown in there, like the steroids ad! There's one of those full-page ads that are so common in old comics, it's a very well-done parody. Tell me about that, I'm sure there's some funny story there.
JS: We knew we wanted to go for that old comic feel, so I just went through some old comics I had looking for ideas. And in every one, there was some sort of ad with a muscle man or something, some product claiming to give people massive muscles. I figured putting that in our book would be perfect.
LBK: We wanted Disconauts to be a fully immersive experience, that's why we have a letters page at the end as well. It's not presented as the first appearance of these characters, we have these made-up letters from fans talking to each other about their previous adventures, like there's some lore about it. And if you read those letters, you can actually get some hints about where the story is going next!
CBY: I was going to bring up that letters page, I thought that was fantastic! I've seen parody ads in comics before, but I don't think I've ever seen a made-up page of letters from fans. That's a really innovative idea.
JS: Yeah, and like Luke said you can pick out some new things from that page. Making those letters with little nods to where the story is going next was quite fun.
CBY: I'm going through your Kickstarter page again and there's something cool here I want to make note of. You have a pull quote here from Mark Waid, who called Disconauts "clever and laugh-out-loud funny." That's a big name, how did you go about getting a quote from him?
JS: It happened right around when we were planning the Kickstarter. I had just been contacted by Humanoids to ask if I wanted to do any work with them, and I quickly found myself on a zoom call with Mark Waid. I was pinching myself the whole time and as soon as the call ended I sent him an email with the book asking if he would read it. He was very nice about the whole thing and we were so pleased with the quote he gave us.
CBY: That's amazing, I'm so glad you had that chance! Now, to wrap this interview up, can we get a little teaser of what's to come in Disconauts #2? You said you had it all written and drawn, so give us a little sneak peek!
JS: Well, I don't want to say too much, but I'll tell you two things. One, it introduces a character named Doctor Love, and two, the issue is called Night Fever.
CBY: Sounds amazing! And of course, that'll come after this current Kickstarter. Do you have any last things you want to say about that?
JS: If you're looking for a book that's fun, that's a bit silly, Disconauts is the perfect book for you. The world has been a bit bleak for a while, so Luke and I wanted to bring something fun and lighthearted to the world. I think it's a nice homage to '70s comics and '80s animated shows, but it's also very much its own thing as well. If you want something that'll make you laugh, this is perfect.
LBK: And there's no disco knowledge required! I made a disco playlist that I had running while I drew the book, and that was my first experience with the genre!
CBY: Fantastic! Thanks so much for doing this interview guys, I had a great time! And of course, good luck on your Kickstarter!
LBK: Yes, thank you very much!