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Creating new Stardust memories with Van Jensen

Comic Book Yeti: It’s a pleasure to have you join us today, Van! How’s everything going back Stateside?

Van Jensen: Good! Hectic! Excited to share my obsession with Fletcher Hanks with the world.

CBY: So, I was previously acquainted with Fletcher Hanks as one of that first batch of creators at the outset of the Golden Age. In terms of his own creative output, he hit a dead-end, but his legacy has gone on to inspire many with his off-the-wall characters, which have since slipped into the public domain. He’s a controversial figure given his known history of alcoholism and domestic abuse, which clearly impacted his legacy. When did your fascination with Stardust the Super Wizard begin and how did you decide upon pursuing this project?

VJ: I got back into comics in the early 2000s, and at some point I saw some of his art floating around online. It hit me immediately. This was like R. Crumb riffing on goofy Silver Age comics, except it was all made before any of that existed. It's just so singular, when superhero comics have long been pretty formulaic. And then Fantagraphics released some collections of his work, which I devoured. I particularly loved how irrational and gonzo they were, which I think speaks to the inner conflicts that Hanks struggled with.

CBY: You’ve got an all-star roster of comic industry veterans involved (Mike Allred, Francesco Francavilla, Derf Backderf, Pete Woods, Jeff Parker, Zander Cannon, Tom Raney, Ron Marz, Zander Cannon, Cecil Castellucci, and Jay Baruchel, among others). As the idea for a Stardust anthology took shape, what did the process look like for enlisting the creative team involved given everyone’s varied commitments, priorities, and scheduling requirements? Given the range of styles and variety in prior work of each of the contributors, do you have an idea of what will draw everything together into a cohesive collection, and will there be a narrative through-line, or will these be vignettes wholly independent of each other?

VJ: This all started with a tweet. I posted on Twitter about how I loved Stardust and floated the idea of an anthology, and I had hundreds of responses of people wanting to take part. It blew me away. I recruited a few people, but mostly the creators are all just people who came to me asking to join in.

In terms of the process, I've been managing the logistics, just trying to give everyone as much runway as needed, and doing some matchmaking between writers and artists. But everyone's been really lovely about freeing up time for the book.

So, this collection is going to be a little different. Instead of a bunch of one-pagers, it's going to have about 20-25 longer stories. And these stories are held together within a meta-narrative that I'm writing and Pete Woods is drawing. That story is about The Editor, an alien who comes to Earth to judge us by our stories, and whether they're logical enough for him to allow humans to survive.

CBY: That's a hilarious plot device. I'm looking forward to seeing how that ties it all together. Now, Hanks specialized in concepts riddled with sadistic madness (i.e. “blood drying needle bombs”) and would have Stardust mete out justice in the form of elaborate, often eternal, torment for the villains once captured. How have these mechanisms come into the plotting of the stories discussed for the collection? How much of the storyboarding has taken place for these installments so far, and what sort of madcap embellishments can we look forward to seeing in this anthology?

VJ: My only real edict to creators was that I wanted to be true to the spirit of the original Stardust, meaning that the stories should be really weird and, yes, pretty seriously sadistic. To give you a taste of what's in store: Criminals get folded up like envelopes and stuffed into safety deposit boxes, they have their organs removed from their bodies and forced to fight, and villains are sent to a limbo they're eternally tortured in a hellish diner. And that's just the tip of the macabre iceberg!

Quite a few stories are either done or far along in the progress, and then some will start during the course of the campaign. We're aiming to have all creative work done by the end of July.

CBY: Fantastic! It sounds like there's plenty of new material to enjoy. One of my favorite aspects of Stardust the Super Wizard is the preponderance of rich and powerful men being slung through the air like ragdolls. Hanks also employed a loose and distorted depiction of geo-politics and power dynamics within his stories. This culminated in his latter installments in the conflict between the Fifth Column and his own corps of mini-super wizards in the Sixth Column he formed in response. Will these stories pick up where Hanks left off, set in a similar 1940’s period, or will they be brought into a contemporary setting? Will this setting also be wildly distorted from reality? What can we expect (without unduly giving up spoilers)?

VJ: I just need to say that I love how deep you are in the Stardust lore! The one thing I'll say about Stardust continuity is that it is pretty deeply inconsistent and more than a little illogical, so I didn't want to impose a whole bunch of continuity rules on the creative teams. The stories absolutely pick up on Hanks' plot threads, but they're also wholly their own thing. I think above all, you'll see that the creative teams love Fletcher Hanks' work and are doing their best to honor his legacy (the good, the bad and the weird of it).

CBY: That's great to hear! On picking up where Hanks left off, the Zoop campaign mentions the introduction to the comics industry of Fletcher’s grandson, Ian Hanks, as a contributor in this anthology. Can you relate for our readers how this relationship began, and how - while the original characters are in the public domain - this may provide an avenue for some restoration of rights to the Hanks estate through new media? Is there a process for the Hanks family to re-establish ownership of these characters? I know Paul Karasik curated a collection of the complete works of Fletcher Hanks with Fantagraphics called Turn Loose Our Death Rays and Kill Them All!, so I presume some discussion around attribution and revenue share took place before its release. What does that conversation look like in the context of this anthology?

VJ: Even though Stardust is in the public domain, and anyone can do whatever they like with the character, I felt like the right thing to do was to reach out to Hanks' family and ask for permission. It turned out that Karasik knew Ian and put me in touch. And not only was Ian thrilled about the project, he asked about contributing. And I gladly accepted.

Ian will own the rights to his story--just as all creators will retain ownership of their stories. But, for good or bad, once a character or story is in the public domain, there's no way to reverse that.

Regarding revenue, I drew up a simple contract for all creators to stipulate rights ownership and to split profits equally, based upon how many pages each person contributes. I can't stress enough that this is a labor of love. I'll be happy if I break even!

CBY: I'm guessing more enough Stardust fans will come out of the woodwork to make this turn a profit. On a related note, Cosmic Lion Productions recently released a short Stardust the Super Wizard story from Turkish creators Sezer Turğay and with art by Ozan Bilaloğlu. They’ve also been instrumental in spearheading the creation of Golden Domain: A Public Domain Zine of Golden Age Heroes (which, full disclosure, I’ve contributed a story to, resurrecting the Black Wings spy team from the WWII era). With recent titles like Jim Rugg’s Mystry Octobriana 1976, seeing current creators explore the largely unplumbed depths of public domain figures, what other public domain characters do you think have room for resuscitation in further anthologies? What other titles would you like to see reclaimed and re-framed, and which creators would you like to see build new stories on old legacies?

VJ: The Cosmic Lion stuff is great. People should check it out. Other public domain characters? Oh, jeez, how to even start... How about a Miss Fury comic by Ming Doyle? I'd pay to read that. I can't say I have designs on anything else. This book has been plenty of work!

CBY: A Miss Fury resurgence doesn't seem like a bad idea at all (...and Ming Doyle, if you're reading, it sounds like an winning prospect). Returning to Stardust, Hanks intermingled concepts of science and magic freely. Have you discussed with the team involved in the anthology any sort of consistent approach to building rules of engagement into the world of Stardust, or is everyone taking free rein to deliver whatever plot devices and existential threats to this new look at the character? Will there be any sort of logic or rules of engagement applied?

VJ: This kind of goes back to what I said earlier. Hanks' comics almost hit a degree of magical realism, untethered from any logic, and so if I were to impose *my* logic on the other creators, I think it would feel false. We aren't going to be able to replicate Hanks' particular weirdness, because no one ever could. But I love seeing how each creator applies their own weirdness to the Hanks milieu.

CBY: Hanks created a number of other characters in the same visual mould as Stardust (i.e. Space Smith, Whirlwind Carter, Yank Wilson, Buzz Crandall, etc.) - giant, statuesque blond guys with impassive features, often adorned in bright blue. Hanks clearly had a visual template for what heroism meant in his narrative world(s). His villains were a motley crew of grotesque men, aliens, and creatures. With a diverse body of creators, what sort of cast of characters can we expect to return, what new characters will be appearing, and will we see the inclusion of other Hanks creations such as Fantomah in this anthology?

VJ: Readers who know Hanks' body of work will be pleased to see several classic characters and concepts return (Brain-Men of Mars, anyone?). And Fantomah, of course! But then there are several new takes that I think feel like they could've emerged from Hanks' mind. It's a nice mix of the two, I'd say.

And you're right about Hanks and a lack of diversity in his heroes. I mean, he deserves credit for Fantomah being the first ever female superhero. But at the same time, there was no real diversity on display (which of course was the norm of the era). I've worked to try to make sure our stories and the creators are as diverse as possible.

CBY: So tell us about how this project came about with the Zoop team? With a public domain property, you could’ve have taken it to any given publisher, particularly with the roster of creatives throwing their weight behind it. How did Zoop end up being the best fit, and what sort of arrangement have you devised for the release of this title?

VJ: I've known the Zoop team for a while now, and we'd talked about doing a project together. Zoop is a great fit because crowdfunding is kind of the only effective model for an anthology, and Zoop is laser-focused on comic books, so they get the medium and have connections with the fans and retailers. They also do a ton to help with production and fulfillment, and I need that help. I'm a writer! I can't dedicate all my time to printing and shipping logistics.

CBY: So I’m sure Stardust is taking up a lot of mental space, but can you let our readers know what else you’ve been enjoying lately across the creative spectrum (comics, movies, books, music, etc.) that you’d recommend they check out? What else has caught your attention lately?

VJ: I'm in the midst of a move/home renovation, so I haven't been watching or reading too much lately, unfortunately. Let's see. I'm doing a big read-through of Italian writer Italo Calvino, one of my favorite authors. Anyone interested should start with The Baron in the Trees--my all-time favorite novel. And then I've been catching up on the new Perry Mason. Good period noir. For music, I love Sault, and then I just caught my first Flaming Lips show, so have been revisiting them. Oh, and I went 20 years without playing video games, but I'm super into Breath of the Wild/Tears of the Kingdom.

CBY: Van, we appreciate your time, the recommendations, and thank you for joining Comic Book Yeti to discuss this expansive new anthology. We're pleased to share social media and other pertinent links for our readers to check out, included below.

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