The Past & Future Collide in a Reimagined American Wilderness - An Interview with JUSTIN GRAY
There are a lot of amazing crowdfunding campaigns right now and HOPE is at the top of this Lil' Squatch's list. I was lucky enough to chat with Justin Gray about this project, why he wanted to write a neo-western horror, his previous collaborations with Jimmy Palmiotti, and so much more. With only a few days left in the Kickstarter campaign you are not going to want to miss out on HOPE.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Justin, thank you so much for joining me in the Yeti Cave as we continue the Cryptid-Bits segment into 2023. Your newest project with Branko Jovanovic, HOPE, is on Kickstarter until February 2nd, what is HOPE all about?
JG: HOPE is a character driven mashup of horror, sci-fi, and the American western, with the latter representing the struggles people face to survive a hostile environment and building a new life from scratch. The modern world is gone and with it all the things these characters took for granted. Of course, to spice things up, there are monsters of both the human and inhuman kind.
CBY: The campaign page describes HOPE as a neo-western horror. What elements of that sub genre interest you most that you hoped to capture in HOPE?
JG: I have always been fascinated with the idea of the lawless frontier, which is why HOPE is set in a reimagined American wilderness that is both in the future and embodies the struggles of the past. A future where everything we take for granted is noticeably gone. The idea was to push people back two or three hundred years. In a story like HOPE the characters are not constrained by modern society. Action or inaction defines these characters instead of wealth, appearance, social stature, or personal identity. Survival is based on luck, the ability to adapt, and people working together toward a common goal. There were generations of people who struggled and lived selflessly for the survival and success of the next generation that followed them.
CBY: HOPE is black and white and I appreciate that you write about why on the campaign page, not only because you personally love black and white comics in the horror and crime genres, but the economics of making comics. You’ve been writing comics for, what, 20 years now? Certainly how comics are distributed has changed, with crowdfunding, but have the economics of making comics changed over that time?
JG: Like everything else they’re becoming more expensive to produce and clearly that is impacting publishers and consumers. We’re dealing with inflation, paper shortages, and supply chain issues, but part of it is also how consumers have been conditioned. Everything is a numbers game. Printing small runs of a 28-32 page comic is expensive and I prefer to support domestic printers whenever possible. This is another reason why I place more emphasis on content. I’ve seen several comics that are 32-pages with 18-20 pages of story. This is all the same stuff we’ve been seeing for a long time. Every other medium is delivering more content in larger chunks and monthly comics are still asking audiences to come back to the theater every month to watch 15 minutes of a three hour movie. With HOPE, Branko and I are working from a model of two issues at a time that can range from 52-60 pages of story and art. With something like Bleeding Pulp the books are 64+ pages with two stories full-color with a square bound binding.
CBY: Is there a comic (single issue, trade, or OGN) that made you feel the way you hope readers of HOPE will feel after reading it?
JG: To be honest, whatever single issue, trade, or OGN that made them fall in love with the medium of comics. I think that’s important to the experience of both reading and creating to get back to a love of the medium. At this point my goal is to entertain and engage people that support my comics in a way that doesn’t insult their intelligence or try to forcefully change their worldview. I think it is important to have a voice with something to say but also make it integral to the story. While it is impossible to detach oneself completely from writing I am also trying to present characters that represent different mindsets. I want to be engaged in the story as much as I hope someone else would be.
CBY: What’s your comic creator origin story, meaning when did you first get into comics and what was it that made you want to create comics?
JG: I was talking to Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti online. Wizard World Chicago was coming up. At the risk of being fired, I called out of work, drove to Chicago, found a hotel, grabbed what was then known as a phone book and started calling around to find out what hotel Joe and Jimmy were staying in. I got Joe on the phone and he suggested I come hang out and a month later I was interning at Marvel Knights. I started reading comics almost immediately, it started with Harvey Comics like Casper and Hot Stuff then moved on to Spider-Man and Marvel.
CBY: You have worked with Branko Jovanovic since 2019. What would you say are the qualities that have made your collaborations successful?
JG: We have a mutual respect for each other professionally and personally which is a great base. I love his work and his work ethic. Neither of us needs a lot of attention and our work interactions are always direct and to the point. When I started in comics I was writing dense scripts. There was a lot of heavy direction, mention of camera angles, managing background characters, and writing paragraphs of dialogue to somehow try to plug into the panels. By the time Jimmy and I were into year two of Jonah Hex my view of scripting was getting leaner and leaner. Now I just give a general overview of what happens on a page. Sometimes I have specific imagery in mind that I will make more detailed but for the most part I let Branko do his work. He’s an artist. He doesn’t need me micromanaging his art. Sometimes we collaborate on cover ideas where I’ll do a horrible little stick figure drawing and he makes it work.
CBY: Since we are on the topic of collaborators, you have co-written more than a few comics with Jimmy Palmiotti, such as Hawkman and Jonah Hex. How did you first start writing with Jimmy and how do you approach scripting differently when you are writing on your own rather than co-writing?
JG: Jimmy was trying to get editors onboard by having me write a story with him. Unfortunately, the majority of them said they were fine with Jimmy, but I didn’t have a name so no deal. While I thought that was dumb and a Catch 22, how exactly does one get a name when one is not allowed to write a comic? I love to tell the story and I have told it to Paul Jenkins in person, about how I walked into an editor’s office and pitched a Spider-Man story that was immediately rejected. Paul walked in after me and pitched almost the same story and the editor said, “Great! Let’s do it!” I don’t harbor any animosity toward those guys, especially not Paul. I learned a lot from him, it just is what it is. Getting a gig with a publisher of any size is not easy and you’re going to have moments where you question why you’re even doing it. I am eternally grateful to Brian Pullido for being the first person to put me on a comic with Jimmy which was Chastity Reimagined. Writing with another writer isn’t for everyone but Jimmy and I get along quite well and have for decades. I’m not a particularly argumentative person. I tend to be very direct and emotionless and there’s a reason for that I’ll explain in a bit. I recognize the job is to do the best job and if Jimmy had a better idea for something I was all for it and he felt the same. Let the best idea make it to the page.
CBY: In addition to being a writer, you’ve worked as an advocate for victims of crime, chef, fossil hunter, and micro photographer. With all of those different, seemingly disparate jobs, are you a comic book character? How has working in those different fields influenced your writing?
JG: I am not a comic book character but my brain is wired differently from most people. I’m on the Autism spectrum which was something I suspected but had no real understanding of the scope and how it has impacted me throughout my life. One reason it is relevant to this question is that I very rarely stop to think if I can do something. Especially not from an emotional standpoint. I just try. And if someone tells me I can’t do something then I want to try even harder. Hence my story of breaking into comics. And again for the fossil gig, I had a friend I worked with in the framing department at an art store. I hated that job. Anyway, he said he knew a guy who was a fossil amber dealer. He said the guy needed a photographer. Good news! I dated a photography major in college. I can totally be a photographer. So, I bullshitted my way into an awesome job that took me to Japan and allowed me to dig up dinosaur bones and spend a glorious day working a cattle ranch in Wyoming.
CBY: That's incredible. What are the comics, books, tv shows, and/or movies that have influenced HOPE and what are you currently enjoying?
JG: Realistically, HOPE is the byproduct of wanting to go someplace that’s different from where I can go to now. I think the influence is more from the way things are done in a story rather than a specific show or media. For instance, if you’ve seen Black Summer I love how some things are handled in the telling of the first season. The extended chase scene, the friendly fire stuff, things that I haven’t seen or things that subvert expectations are what I’m shooting for. Obviously, I’m a fan of westerns and neo-westerns which is what I would call Tulsa King, a show that gives us the best acting of Stallone’s career. If I can find a way to put a Letting Gary Go scene into anything I’ll do it. There’s one scene in the film The Road that always comes to mind. As for comics I just read whatever I find more so than when I used to read monthly titles. I really enjoyed Alone by Christophe Chabouté all of his work is remarkable, Animal Castle by Xavier Dorison and Felix Delep, Resonant by David Andry, Alejandro Aragon, Jason Wordie, and Deron Bennett, That Texas Blood by Chris Condon and Jacob Phillips.
CBY: Where can you be found online?
JG: You can hit my website jvgray.com or on instagram.com/bleedingpulp/
CBY: Thank you so much, Justin, and good luck with the rest of the campaign.
JG: Thank you, Jimmy, I appreciate it.