A bleak and poignant entry into the Dark Horse catalogue, Justin Madson steps into the Yeti Cave to share his graphic novel, Breathers, with Interviews Editor, Andrew Irvin.
CBY: Justin, thanks for joining us in the Yeti Cave today. Can you help unpack for our readers the world in which Breathers takes place? There’s indication that the plot takes place at least forty years post-apocalyptic airborne illness event, but where in the world is it meant to be set? What other world-building conventions would you like readers to know about before picking up this graphic novel?
JM: My basic approach was that I wanted this story to take place in a world where the characters are already decades into living with this deadly air. I wanted them to have already had the time to adapt to the world. So, instead of focusing on what happened to make the air poisonous, I wanted to examine how people now live their lives in this world.
For many, it’s the only world they’ve ever known. They lived their entire lives wearing gas masks when they went outside. For them, this was all normal.
As far as where or when it actually takes place, I wanted it all to be a bit ambiguous. It’s pretty much set in a world that’s just like ours, except for this one major life-or-death difference. People still work regular jobs and go to coffee shops and pick their kids up from school. But there’s also ventilation systems in place in every building and filter drugs for gas masks and the “Breathe Free” movement, which believes the deadly air is all a conspiracy.
CBY: You’ve been exploring concepts of melancholy and loss with some of your shorter
stories, like "Laundry Day" and "Last Breath." In Breathers, you dive further into the
intractable interpersonal issues that lead to frustration and conflict - what drives your
approach to conflict in narratives, and how does a long-form graphic novel given you
room to explore this in ways your shorter format work has precluded?
JM: I am always thinking about my characters motivations for doing things. They all have these lives and pasts and experiences that influence their choices, whether good or bad, and I really try to be true to that. As it so happens, most of the characters I write are broken in some way or have had to deal with some sort of loss or trauma. In Breathers, these characters have to live in this already messed up world, but they still have their own individual messed up lives to endure on top of that. I always try to get my characters to a place of acceptance or hope, even, by the end, though. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I try. Working in longer form storytelling lets you delve further into each character’s motives and struggles and that’s what really drives a story for me.
CBY: The story is told in a series of interrelated vignettes - did you have the chronology worked out ahead of time in which you wanted to present each character’s journey, or did you determine the overall arc, then decide how to break it down between everyone featured in Breathers?
JM: When I started the series, I didn’t really have much of a plan. I had these characters and some story plot points I wanted to hit. I had an ending in mind, but as far as getting to that ending, I left things pretty open. I found that if I plan everything out before I actually draw it; I tend to struggle, because there are no surprises left in the creation of the story. In my eyes, it’s already done. And stories tend to change and evolve as one works on them, so I like to leave my work open to those wonderful surprises that inevitably happen along the way. Since I initially self-published Breathers, I was free to do whatever I wanted, without worrying about page counts and stuff that books with editors need to think about.
CBY: While a number of characters (i.e. - John Marsh) have rather non-descript names, two of your protagonists are named October and Easter Stars - was there a deeper rationale you’re comfortable sharing around selecting such unique names for them?
JM: I hadn’t really thought that much about it. But, looking back, the reason could have been that I wanted the two siblings, October and Easter, to stand out a bit more that the rest of the characters, since I do think of them as the main characters of the story. Their relationship to one another grounds this seemingly fantastical story to this tether of strong family and sibling bonds. And, if you’re familiar with my other books, Tin Man and Carbon, I am always taking the lens to the relationships of siblings, in one form or another.
CBY: Yes, you've definitely touched on some thematic through-lines. There are clearly analogies to be made between the respirator-dependent culture of Breathers and the personal protective equipment requirements (and subsequent relaxation of regulatory/legal demands) regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. What role did the pandemic and social response play in the redevelopment of this story which you’d initially completed over a decade ago, and how did you manage to make the conflict distinct from the anti-vax/denialism that took place in various societies around the world in the face of COVID-19?
JM: I had completed Breathers in 2011, well before the words “global pandemic” became part of our daily conversations. I had written it as mere speculation. I had no idea what going through an actual pandemic would be like, so I just thought about the story in a very realistic way. There would have to be ventilation chambers in place in every home and building. There would be a drug culture and drastic medical experiments in hopes of finding a cure. I did not change anything in the story after the COVID-19 pandemic. I imagine Breathers would be a very different story if I had written it now.
CBY: You certainly captured a lot of the claustrophobia and group psychosis elements that emerged when the world was thrust into lockdown. I saw you had a variant cover with contributions from Jeff Lemire, and Sweet Tooth was definitely one of the comics the tone of Breathers evoked for me. Can you explain a bit further the visual and narrative influences upon this story, since it has taken on its current form over more than a decade?
JM: Breathers and Sweet Tooth both have that hopeless, dystopian feel to them, to be sure. I dig Jeff’s work and was so stoked that he and Matt Kindt agreed to do a variant cover for the series.
Looking back, I remember drawing my inspiration for Detective Marsh, the drug-addicted detective in Breathers, from the Anton Chigurh character in No Country For Old Men. He’s just this guy obsessed with hunting someone down and clearly a bit insane and dangerous. A character like that would definitely exist in the world of Breathers. In the way of storytelling, I draw inspiration from a lot of my favorite cartoonists, including Ted McKeever, Daniel Clowes, Mike Mignola, David Lapham and many others. My style and my way of creating comics has evolved so much over the years as I learn what works and what doesn’t.
CBY: Can you relate to our readers the process of negotiating with Dark Horse to publish Breathers? How did the arrangement come about, and what has Dark Horse been able to provide you weren’t seeing from other publishing options, if they were out there?
JM: It’s a bit of a complicated story. I had self-published a black and white version of
Breathers from 2007-2011 and tried, unsuccessfully, to find a publisher for it. Starting in
2019, it had been re-released as a series of full color comics by a small publisher called It’s
Alive. The first two issues had come out and the pandemic hit. Six more issues came out
over the next couple years and, in 2022, the publisher at It’s Alive passed away suddenly,
leaving Breathers in limbo with one issue to go. Luckily, talks had already been in the
works with Dark Horse about releasing a collection at some point. I reached out to them
to see if publishing the trade was still an option and, luckily, it was. It was a long road, but
I couldn’t be happier with how the book turned out.
CBY: I didn't realize the real-world tragedy involved in the process of its publication, and my condolences go out for the loss of your publisher. Turning back to the narrative, you touched upon the character's inspiration briefly, but without spoiling anything, can you speak a bit about the nature of Detective John Marsh and the darkness he brings to the other characters’ narratives? There are a number of motives and mechanics left somewhat ambiguous throughout, which I’d like to explore further, but I don’t want to give up any key points of tension, so what would you like to dig into?
JM: Marsh is addicted to this drug known as Filter K. It has taken over his entire life and his addiction follows him around in this shroud of black smoke emanating from the full-face gas mask he wears. When he encounters Juliana, he sees her as a similar, damaged soul. In his Filter-K-addled state, he becomes obsessed with hunting her down. His is this sort of dark energy that is impossible to evade, it seems.
CBY: I think you crafted a really good villain in his role - ominous and grounded. We haven’t explored the technical elements of Breathers - since you started the project over a decade ago, can you share the artistic process you’ve undertaken to bring this graphic novel to life? What tools did you use, both analog and digital, for the penciling, inking, coloring, and lettering?
JM: The only part I did digitally was the coloring. The rest was by hand. I worked 11 x 14 inch Bristol paper, penciling with HB drawing pencils and inking with brush pens. The lettering was all done by hand, too. I would work on one vignette at a time. I would write out the dialogue, sketch out some page thumbnails, then set to drawing it. I think it’s easy to get bogged down on what tools to use sometimes, but, really, you just have to find what works for you.
CBY: Once our readers give Breathers a look, what can they check out in terms of comics,
film, art, literature, music, etc. that has been catching your attention lately?
JM: I have been really into Naoki Urasawa’s manga series, 20th Century Boys and Monster.
He is an amazing cartoonist and his storytelling is right up my alley. I can’t believe it took
me so long to discover his work, but I’m so glad that I did. I can already tell, as I start
writing a sequel to Breathers, that his work is making an impact.
CBY: Justin, thank you for joining us today in the Yeti Cave! Please let us know where
you’d like our readers to find your portfolio, publications, and other social media with
Last year, my YA graphic novel, Tin Man, was published by Amulet/Abrams. I also have a
self-published book called CARBON that I just collected into a 600-page volume. That one
you have to get exclusively from me since I’m still looking for a publisher to pick that one
up. I sell books and artwork on Etsy at justmadbooks.etsy.com and I’m most active on