With only days left in the ZOOP campaign, CBY contributor Andrew invited Nick Pitarra into the Yeti Cave for a deep dive into the world of Ax-Wielder Jon!
COMIC BOOK YETI: Nick, I've been seeing art from this book popping up in the comic community over the past year or so, and I count myself quite lucky to have just read this masterful new graphic novel. Within the published volume of book one, AX-WIELDER JON: The Chirping Skulls of Blackrock, you've provided an immense amount of supplemental material and background on the journey towards publication since 2018. How much of your time and creative energy went towards this project amidst your other work?
NICK PITARRA: For the last two years it’s been all Ax-Wielder all of the time. I’ll work on commissions on and off and take the occasional cover gig to make ends meet and fund the creative team for Ax-Wielder Jon. But Jon has been my primary focus for two years now, and I’m hoping to make it the next ten years of my career.
CBY: On the topic of balancing priorities, both within the story and in the broader context you've provided around its inception, the role of family, parenthood, and providing stability and security looms large. I've got three kids, so I'm curious; what's your perspective on managing parental responsibilities towards stability and security with working in comics, as creative industries are notoriously haphazard in terms of scheduling stable workstreams across various projects?
NP: That’s really tough. Regarding my art career, I’ve always bet on myself and it’s always worked out. I believe in betting on yourself. Becoming a father at the end of 2018 (when the idea for Ax-Wielder Jon first came to me) it was a much different ball game. Before, the gamble was easy because I could afford to lose. Now, like you mentioned, I’m gambling with the stability of two daughters and a wife. So with starting Jon two years ago, I’ve been way more disciplined and deliberate. I kind of saw Jon as my last big gamble/swing for the fences. I wanted to take one final swing and do things completely my way and see if it’d work. I know that was selfish of me, but I’m lucky to have a supportive wife and I’ve invested in comic book art (which has appreciated in value) and that kind of made the gamble a bit less risky. Basically, I look over at my All-Star Superman cover by Frank Quitely and think, well, if this doesn’t work, you’ll be going to auction. So I’ve been working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen!
CBY: Ax-Wielder Jon definitely draws upon the passage of time, and offers perspectives spanning generations, from the narrative voicing to Frank training his replacement. The title denoting this is Book One begs the question - what sort of timeline do you envision for this story? How deep a field do you have in mind, reflecting back and projecting forward for the overall narrative arc?
NP: It’s very much a generational story. We will see young characters grow old, we’ll watch the apples fall not too far from the tree, see side characters become main villains, and along the way we flashback to familiar characters in their youth and see how decisions they made then affect the current storyline now. I think becoming a dad and watching my children grow and at the same time seeing my own Dad get older, all of that is kind of on the brain for me creatively at this stage of my life.
CBY: As a fellow father, I can say it definitely resonates in the tone of your work. Now, while this graphic novel is a cohesive product of your imagination, can you share details on how you selected Ben Didier, Ferran Delgado, and Michael Garland to aid in the design/title page, lettering, and coloring, respectively? Can you explain the broader roster listed as colorists, and their contributions, as well? (As it's not often a whole team is credited with supporting the coloring of a book.)
NP: Assembling my super team was a blast. Like I mentioned above, I wanted to take the biggest and best swing possible, and that meant hiring the best. I’ll start with editor Chris Stevens. We have been friendly online for years, and have flirted with working together since the early 2000’s. In that time I had some industry success, and he went on to win multiple Eisner’s as an editor and publisher. Chris loves story, and more importantly puts the work ahead of himself and the egos of the creators involved. The work comes first with Chris. He’s a ballbuster. I knew when starting Jon I’d need that type of editor to keep things on track. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also great with story and has a love and knowledge of comics that I’d put up against anyone’s.
Mike Garland is my long time colorist in comics. He’s a magician, and I’ve never been colored better. Mike makes me look better than my empty lines could ever do, he brings the work to life and adds an atmosphere that I could never achieve on my own. Mike had some scheduling problems and couldn’t finish Jon when we needed it, so that's where the other colorists came in. We hired top flight pros and divided up some short scenes between them all, hence the six credited colorists.
Ferran Delgado makes the pages pop with his letters and sound effects. He’s a real historian when it comes to letters and the craft of lettering. He knows how to place things as if they were created alongside the original art. He’s also a work horse and has always been there when I’ve needed him, doing early passes on letters for sneak previews, working over roughs, and putting the final book together. He’s a wizard and someone who I can count on when I need him.
Ben Didier, our designer, is a real treat. I saw his design work on Little Bird (for Image Comics) and just loved it. I found him online and convinced him to come onboard. He’s a professional designer and works with big brands but dabbles in book design when he has the time. His illustration work and how he handles the type, the chapter breaks, and the cover (and back cover) elevated the whole book to a level I could have never envisioned. His work is pure class. When I get an email from Ben, I’m always floored. It’s such an honor to be working with someone so skilled. Ben’s worth every penny and then some if you can convince him to take on some extra book design work.
CBY: It's certainly paid off - this book presents itself like an Artist's Edition right out of the gate. Adding to that effect, you also pulled in Das Pastoras for supplemental cover and epilogue illustrations, and I was very curious as to both the story behind his involvement, and particularly the massive portfolio of supplemental pin-up art from numerous illustrators featured after the epilogue. How did you end up with so many contributions prior to publication from such a wide array of talented artists?
NP: Das Pastoras is someone whose work I’ve loved and revered for many years. I actually own an original Punisher page by him from one of his Marvel short stories. Chris Stevens was lamenting that it was a shame that we didn’t have a classic Conan artist that could do a cover for Jon. I mentioned that it’d be a dream to work with Das Pastoras. Das handles violent imagery in an almost timeless way, his worlds have a history to them, the people he draws have a culture. Das raises the writing and the projects he’s involved with to legendary heights. The famous comics colorist and teacher, José Villarrubia, just so happens to rep Das Pastoras, and José was friendly with Chris, having worked together before on a few things. We got very lucky with scheduling as Das was available to take on some side work and, luckily, he liked the work I’d started on Jon. I’ve hired him to do the five fully painted hardcover edition covers for Jon and to do the epilogue sequences in each volume. He’s a master in every sense of the word, and it’s an honor to work with him. Thank you to Chris, José, and Das for making a dream come true for me.
The pin-ups were such a blessing. I can never thank the artists enough who did drawings of Jon. Getting those was a very organic process; pretty much one artist did one and tweeted it out, then another, then another, and it just snowballed into this incredible viral marketing campaign for the book. I tried to see everyone published in the book as a “Thank You”. I got all 60 in that were emailed to me in time and some of the ones that came in late or haven’t been turned in yet will be included in future volumes. Those pin-ups provided marketing when we needed it, and much more importantly, I got to see Jon live off the page and in other artists' heads through their hands. The creative energy it provided pulled me through the finish. Thank you to everyone who drew Jon, it means a lot.
CBY: Yeah, the viral marketing of fan art was part of how I came to know about Ax-Wielder Jon in the lead-up to release, so it certainly paid off. On the topic of other artists, you've gotten some glowing testimonials from luminaries in the field, from Bill Sienkiewicz, to Frank Quitely, to your cited inspiration of Geof Darrow. Your style and depth of detail clearly draw from Darrow's body of work, but are there other visual or narrative influences you'd like to cite, given the opportunity?
NP: I wear my artistic influences on my sleeve and I’ve cited them a bunch over the years, Frank Quitely, Geof Darrow, Seth Fisher, Moebius…my apologies as always! I guess since I’m writing for the first time I’ll point out a few writers that inspire me: Brian K Vaughan, the way his characters come to full-fledged life, how you can read the first sentence they utter and know they have a history and depth that’s long lived in Brian’s head. He can ground someone and make them human, complete with erectile dysfunction, while giving them a TV for a head. That’s a real superpower. That’s something I aspire to in writing comics.
And also Jeff Lemire, his pacing, the gentleness, the slow builds to soft moments. That’s another super power I hope to steal. They are two of my favorite modern comics writers that have entertained me greatly and taught me a lot about what the medium can do when done right.
CBY: Ah, yes. Jeff is brilliant, and I can say, as a fellow Ohioan, Brian K Vaughan is definitely doing us proud! So, building upon this discussion of external influences, I would be remiss in neglecting to acknowledge the absolutely stunning amount of originality and variation in your creature design. The concept art provided some insight into your character development process, but could you share any additional insight into where all these monsters came from?
NP: When it comes to designing things I just trust my gut instinct. I've absorbed and have been oversaturated in pop culture for so long, I believe whatever comes out of me will have some familiar charm inherent in it while possessing a twist of originality all its own that’ll surprise the audience.
CBY: Tying your originality back to the issue of work-life balance we touched upon earlier, Ax-Wielder Jon is being released through Karoshi Comics. Evoking the whole Japanese concept of "death by overwork," what kind of precedent are you hoping to set and ethos are you communicating to both potential collaborators and the broader audience? What other books do you and Chris have in mind to release under this moniker, and are they similar labours of love on the part of their creators?
NP: I was going to make this book or die trying, so Karoshi just kind of fit. Plus, it rolls off the tongue nicely when butted up against “comics”. “Karoshi Comics”. We want to help produce other creators' passion projects. Chris has a book in the works that’s very special, featuring the art of James Jean, Arthur Adams, and Jae Lee, just to to name a few. It’s called Pretender and it’s going to be fantastic. We are also helping a few other artists get their dream projects off the ground and Chris and I are helping them develop the stories. We want to make the best books at Karoshi. We want passion projects. We want that dream in your sketchbook that made you start drawing in the first place, only now executed to the highest standards…taking everything you’ve learned as a professional and combining it with the wonder and freedom of that gem of an idea living in your head that you just can’t let go. Chris and I want to help creators make those types of books at the highest level possible– to do their best work on their best ideas.
CBY: Building on this self-publishing launchpad, can you tell us a bit about how you decided to work with Zoop? What sort of relationship has arisen, and what sort of support have they been able to provide beyond what is offered by platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo?
NP: When I first decided to step out on my own into the wild west that is crowdfunding, I knew I’d need a platform that offered more support than Kickstarter or Indiegogo currently offers. Zoop, while still pretty new, checked all the marks when it came to customer support, communicating with third party vendors, and helping with the printing and fulfillment. I’ve developed a close relationship with Eric and Jordan, who are my contacts and the guys who own and operate Zoop. They are a text message or phone call away when I have a question or need help with anything. I can’t recommend them enough. As a new publisher, I have a team behind me from the start; help with marketing, help with printing and distribution, customer service…it’s simply invaluable. They offer everything a creator with trepidations needs to have to feel secure when entering the crowdfunding landscape. They are the hardcover home of Ax-Wielder Jon.
CBY: While the release and promotion of Ax-Wielder Jon has certainly been looming large in your schedule, can you share with our readers any other comics or media that have caught your attention and inspired you lately?
NP: My wife and I are late to the party, but we just finished Mr. Inbetween on HULU. I really enjoyed it, and put it a hair above Justified (a personal favorite) in terms of quality and character work. Other than that I don’t get to watch much these days and my comic ‘to read’ stack is deadly high at the moment.
Thanks so much for taking the time to interview me and for helping me get the word out about Ax-Wielder Jon.
CBY: Nick, thank you for making time to join Comic Book Yeti today, and we look forward to seeing the next installment of Ax-Wielder Jon when you're ready to share it with the world!
For more details on the publication and the opportunity to pick up a copy, please visit the following links: