No Country for Divorced Oafs – An Interview with JUAN PONCE About THIRTY-THREE
CBY Interview Content Editor Jimmy Gaspero sits down with Juan Ponce to discuss the current campaign for Thirty-Three on Zoop. They discuss the moment Juan knew he wanted to write comics, the influence of the Coen Brothers, and the importance of emotional authenticity.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Juan, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave to talk about Thirty-Three, which CBY readers can support on Zoop. How have you been doing?
JUAN PONCE: Thank you for chatting with me, Jimmy. I’m doing good, thank you.
CBY: What is your origin story as a comics creator? Have comics always been a part of your life, and what made you want to write comics?
JP: I didn’t really get to read many comics growing up, money was always a bit tight. My big introduction to comics happened in college, when I was assigned Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis for an English course. That book hit me straight in my core. It opened my eyes to what this visual medium could do. That book lead me to Maus, Dark Knight, Watchmen, and Batman: Year One. Quite the college year, haha.
Throughout my time in college, I was a Wednesday warrior. All-New All-Different Marvel and DC’s New 52 will always have a special place in my heart.
The moment I knew I was going to do this for a living was when I read Brian Michael Bendis’ Words for Pictures. During some downtime from studying, I read the book for fun. Then I wrote a comic script. And that was that. Law flew out the window that day, nothing made me feel as fulfilled as writing a comic; and I knew nothing ever would. I didn’t know it then, but all those years of reading comics in college, I was studying for my actual career.
CBY: Wow! That's awesome.
Thirty-Three is a 116-page graphic novel collecting the first 5 chapters of this story. It is already completed. I thought it was fantastic. For anyone that doesn’t know, what is Thirty-Three about?
JP: I’m really glad you enjoyed it! It means a lot to hear that.
Thirty-Three is an over-the-top, dark, action-comedy and family drama. After twenty-five years of hiding, a middle-age office drone is confronted by his past—a league of superhuman assassins. To ensure his family’s safety, the once deadly hit-man, turned divorced oaf, must transport his loved ones across the state of California. Along the way, he’ll have to come face-to-face with those he’s hurt, including himself.
CBY: "Oaf" is such a good word. The campaign page on Zoop compares it to John Wick meets Raising Arizona and I think that’s an apt comparison. It mixes well the intense action sequences of the former with the comedic/human moments of the latter. It feels as though the Coen Brothers are in its DNA. Was the balance between action and comedy hard to maintain as you wrote the script?
JP: Our awesome editor Brittany Matter was the first person that said it was like John Wick meets Raising Arizona. I love that description and ran with it. I’m so glad to hear you agree with it too.
The Coen Brothers are in this book’s DNA for sure. Whenever in doubt about a scene, I would often think about movies like Fargo and No Country For Old Men, both dark films, but both very funny and heartfelt in their own crazy way.
It was definitely a tightrope act to make sure this book was well-balanced. Heavy scenes had to have that weight, but the comedic moments also had to deliver at least a chuckle. As crazy, crude, and outlandish as the book could get, I aimed to keep the characters grounded and believable. If the reader could relate to a character's struggle or joy, that means I touched something real. So long as the world feels emotionally authentic, I know the reader will follow me into some crazy situations.
CBY: I really appreciated Thirty-Three from the opening panel, which sees main character Andrew West at work but “hiding out” in a bathroom stall, which he calls his safe haven, something I found terribly relatable. It was such a smart choice as a starting point and almost feels as though the image of that panel came first and the story built up around it. Have you ever worked in an office setting like West and with such a fantastical story of genetically enhanced super assassins? Do you mine details from your own life to use?
JP: You nailed it, that first panel was the image that set this whole story in motion. I was definitely an office drone when I wrote that first page. Something about considering a bathroom stall a place of solace and tranquility really stood out to me, because I’ve heard people actually say that before. White collar or blue collar, we’ve all had (or have) those jobs where we feel like cogs in the machine. Andrew started out as my "f*** the machine" moment. I loved the idea of his world exploding into action and suspense, it made for awesome daydreaming, haha. But it didn’t take long before I started analyzing Andrew himself. I began to wonder why he was so miserable, why someone who could have it all with his family just threw it all away? The pieces just started falling into place from there, and I had my story. There’s definitely some of me in Andrew and I myself had to look in the mirror to get the answers for this character.
CBY: A strong theme running through this story is one of identity. Who is Andrew West? Is he what he’s been told he is and trained to be? Can he be the person he wants to be? Can he change? This is all intertwined with his role as a father to his two kids. Do you think your experience being a father influenced how you approached this character? Would you have written him differently if you weren’t?
JP: Andrew is a complicated individual. For the first time in his life he’s getting to try something he never has: finding out just who the hell he really is. When we first meet Andrew, he’s an office drone. This is an act, though his pain is real. As a father and husband, Andrew could never tell his loved ones of his past or show any signs of it, so this persona had fallacy in it, too. That said, his love for his family and pain at pushing them away was real. Andrew has never tried to come clean to his loved ones or himself, that is, until now that his past has come knocking back. In reading Thirty-Three, I think readers will get answers to these questions.
Being a dad definitely helped. Before my daughter was born, I had a lot of this outlined. Yet she changed pages and character beats, not just [Andrew's]. I’m not sure the end of volume one would actually be the same if I didn’t have her in my life. Me and Gavin are both dads and I think readers will totally pick up on that throughout the series.
CBY: The art team is different in chapter one than the rest of the book, and although there is a clear difference in styles, there isn’t one in quality. These things can sometimes happen with how long it can take to make a comic and creators moving on to other projects. What do you look for in your collaborators when you set out to get started on a project?
JP: I got very lucky with both teams on Thirty-Three. Each one brought a different voice to the story, and both are incredible. When forming a comics team, I look for a specific voice that fits the world I have in mind. They’re my first readers, so I try to create a story I think they’ll really gel with. It’s important that everyone is on board with the story, because as a writer, you will eventually end up writing for that voice you hired as much as for the story itself. Gavin’s work screamed Thirty-Three. Although it was different from Marco’s style, the heart and madness needed for this story was more than present. After only a few pages into issue two/chapter two, I knew this was as much Gavin’s book as it was mine. His voice was perfect for Thirty-Three. Michael, Gabriela, and Brittany then completed the magic formula.
It’s our book, for sure.
CBY: Are there any favorite pages or panels you can tell me about without spoiling anything? Anything where you saw the artwork and it surprised you?
JP: I have a lot of favorites: the birth of Andrew’s son is a great page, the panel where a horse gets punched is magic. It’s hard to narrow it down. That said, I think there’s a two-panel sequence in issue three in which Andrew says goodbye to a close friend, those two panels still get to me when I see them. Gavin crushed that farewell scene, I think readers will really dig it.
CBY: I know which scene you mean and I agree.
You went to UCLA and have a degree in History, but you also studied film, TV, and literature. Were the Coen Brothers’ films a big influence on you, or who/what would you say has had the biggest impact on the kinds of stories you want to tell?
JP: They were a huge influence. They’re masters of the craft and fearless as heck. I studied their films in college and continue to today. In addition to the Coen Brothers, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky screenplay played and plays a big role in my writing. I often go back to that screenplay and take notes, it’s the perfect three-act structure with a brilliant ending! The Godfather is a film I wrote analysis papers on and another film I revisit often for inspiration. It’s a visual masterpiece that you can pause at any moment and be inspired by any shot. There’s tons more I’m probably forgetting, but I also have to mention Stephen King. He’s always been my writing guru. “Just write” is the best advice ever.
CBY: As someone that's from just outside Philadelphia, you'll hear no argument from me about the Rocky script.
Thirty-Three was a project that was previously on Kickstarter, but unfortunately did not reach its goal, although in positive news, there were 268 backers that had supported it. Why the switch to Zoop as a platform, and how has your experience been so far compared to Kickstarter? Have you done anything else differently with this campaign?
JP: The comics community really showed up for Thirty-Three. So many peers and people I’ve long admired backed it up. It was a real humbling experience. It’s a bummer that Thirty-Three didn’t get funded the first time.
This time around, we came to Zoop. I loved their mission statement. Their dedication specifically to comics and their creators has been a breath of fresh air. I appreciate everything Kickstarter offered, but Zoop offered a more collaborative experience. From the first day, they pushed Thirty-Three, they marketed it well. Me and team Thirty-Three garnered over 60% of the first campaign's earnings. Again, I appreciate everything Kickstarter offered, but we did so much heavy-lifting that first time. I can’t tell you how much it means to have a platform where they’re just as excited as you are, and are working just as hard. I think this time, the team is approaching this with even more excitement. We have our beautiful book ready to print and are all working hard to get eyes on our comic once more.
CBY: You have comics on your website, which I will link to HERE. I really loved A Moment in Time and was hoping you could tell me about that story. How did it come about, what influenced it, what does it mean to you?
JP: Thanks a million, A Moment in Time is a favorite of mine. It’s such a beautiful short, I’m super proud of it. The inspiration for that comic came from a news report I heard on the radio. There was a man who had been searching for the Loch Ness Monster for over thirty years of his life. He would just not leave that lake. The thing that blew my mind the most was that he was so happy to be there, after so many decades. That report lingered in my mind for a while, until the image of the scuba diver floating in space popped into my head. From there I came up with a story of friendship and love. That story was as much about letting go as it was hope.
CBY: It's excellent.
Are there any comic creators working today whose work inspires/influences you?
JP: So many, haha. Here’s just a few off the top of my head. Hivemind (Jackson Lazing and Collin Kelly), G. Willow Wilson, Rainbow Rowel, Jason Aaron, Kelly Thompson, Gene Luen Yang, David Pepose, Tom Taylor, and Ethan Sacks, again just off the top of my head!
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
JP: The first two are easy Maus and Persepolis. From there, it’s super difficult. I could say Watchmen or Calvin and Hobbes, both are amazing works of art! I could add McCloud’s Understanding Comics. That third book might have to change every season, too hard to finalize, sorry!
CBY: That's okay, your first 2 are great choices. Any other projects CBY readers should check out?
JP: My latest work can be found in Marvel’s Voices: Comunidades, I got to tell a lovely Nina the Conjuror short. Voices is a really important anthology series that I hope people will check out. In addition to this I should have more cool stories coming soon, just keep an eye on my Twitter: ElOzymandias or on my website: www.poncecomics.com.
CBY: Thank you so much, Juan.
JP: Thank you, Jimmy!