It seems the comic book medium is one of the friendliest places to be. Although superheroes might rule the roost on comic store shelves, there’s ample room for a variety of players – from vampires to gangsters, future tales to those of the past – and even just plain personal stories. They all get along, and sometimes even get together – like in the recent Image series Turf. In Turf, gangsters are running right up against a European family of vampires in Prohibition-era New York City; and if you look in the sky you’ll see an alien about to crash land. Comics have proven to be a fertile playing ground for a diverse number of concepts to play out, and play with each other. Sure you might see this in films or movies or books years from now – but in comics you’re getting it first.
Comics has also proved welcoming for creators from other fields of entertainment. We’ve seen numerous Hollywood directors & screenwriters make their way to comic shelves, and others to follow. But with Turf, you’re getting something new – famed UK media personality Jonathan Ross. Considered England’s Jay Leno – or better yet, Conan O’Brien if you’ve heard his work – Ross has a deep love for comics, which has shown up numerous times in his work – and even in a documentary about reclusive Spider-man artist Steve Ditko which aired on British television. But now, Ross has taken that love for comics and entered the field himself with his first written work in comics with Turf.
For his debut work, Jonathan Ross teamed up with none other than artist Tommy Lee Edwards who has worked with comic industry greats like Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and J. Michael Straczynski while also finding time to do art for moves such as Batman Begins and Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone. Edwards has been known to be very choosy with what he works on, but thanks to an introduction from mutual friend Mark Millar, Edwards and Ross convened and found they had a lot in common and a mutual love for what Ross had planned with Turf.
Turf’s first issue debuted earlier this year and the second one promises to be on shelves on June 30th, so we caught up with Ross to talk in-depth about the stories inside Turf and his own card carrying’ comics lovin’ origin.
Newsarama: To what do you owe this interest in the 1920s and the Prohibition era, Jonathan?
Jonathan Ross: I love crime stories and fiction generally set in the past - before the internet and mobile phones and surveillance cameras made it too easy to catch people up to no good. The fact that the prohibition is such a weird concept as well - a time when a drug we all consider to be - whether rightly or wrongly - pretty much OK to consume on a daily basis - was outlawed. The ease with which the mobs capitalized on the publics desire to get hold of hooch, and the subsequent struggles with the law allow you to play out some pretty interesting scenarios. You can have gangsters who are easy to sympathize with because they're supplying booze - and if that’s their major source of income then it's a lot easier to sympathize with them. I also just love the period - the clothes, the cars, the weapons, the hairstyles! As a kid I remember just going gaga over those episodes of Star Trek when Kirk and the gang wound up in NYC - so perhaps subconsciously that was an influence. I also loved those issues of the Fantastic Four towards the end of the Kirby/Lee run - I think it was 91 and 92 - where the Thing is trapped on Gangster planet. The movies that were made or set the have also always appealed to me. Historically it's also a key time - the birth of modern weapons and commercial air-travel open up the world and make it a riskier place to be. I wanted a reason for the vampires to come out of their shadowy hiding places and engage with Man - and the fear that mankind now has the technology that can wipe the vampires out provides that.
Nrama: Entering stage left as it were for Turf's vampires from an Eastern European family called the Dragonmirs. This idea of introducing two genres into each other is an interesting thing in fiction – how early did the two meet in your mind for this story? How did the idea start out?
Ross: Well it struck me as such an obvious and fun idea. The Dracula stage play opened to rave reviews and sell out audiences in New York in the late 1920's, so it's more then likely some well heeled Manahattanites had their first taste of the greatest vampire story of them all before heading out to a speakeasy and breaking the law and getting wasted with their pals. The way the idea for Turf itself came to me was that I pictured a scene which is not really in the book now - a night-time chase between gangsters out of the city, tommy guns blasting away, and then a crash off a twisty road, into a wood in which vampires finish off the men in suits
From that I fashioned the central story - but it's changed tremendously along the way. At one time I sketched out a Romeo/Juliet sub -plot involving different species that might well crop up if or perhaps when we do a sequel.
Nrama: Although ther’es been no Romeo to speak of (yet), you do have aliens. Entering like a bolt from the blue is spacefaring alien Squeed Prin – one of the most unlikely people to show up for both the readers and the people living in the comic. Although he's relatively obscured in the comic, I see a very exotic design for him thanks to Tommy. What can you tell us about his impact into Turf?
Ross: I was conscious of the need to keep the story from settling into a predictable groove. Vampires versus gangsters is a cute and cool premise, but once you've set them against each other it's not hard to work out the two or three ways it will probably get resolved. The aliens add a totally fresh and crazy element that allows me to really put the characters into wild situations, and to hopefully keep the readers guessing until the very end. Also, I already knew that Tommy could draw cars and buildings and people really really well - I wanted to see what he's do with a 9 foot alien!
Nrama: Re-reading the first issue for this interview, I had the opportunity to really soak in the book and your writing specifically. The captioned panels seemed to be meant to be read aloud from their cadence and turn of phrases. As this is your first outing writing comics, was this one of the aspects you dwelled on most?
Ross: Honestly ? No. I just waded in and tried my best to tell the story in a clear, fun way. I was more conscious of trying hard to give the characters believable back-stories and have them all talk/think in a distinctive 'voice' of their own. But I am loving the experience, and think that as we get on into the series you will notice how much more assured the writing is.
Nrama: Since you're known for your humor in your weekend shows, was there pressure to infuse the title with more humor as a spoof or gag comic?
Turf: The joy of this being 100% creator owned is that we can do whatever the hell we like!! There are a few humorous moments - book 4 probably has the most. But overall I really didn't want the tone of the book to fall into parody or cheap laughs.
Nrama: In the press for this book, it's heralded as your first comic – but as such a comic fan, I have to ask – are you sure? Did you do any comics as a teenager with your brother Paul, or in private later on, before Turf?
Turf: I have drawn a few strips in the past - mostly quite pretentious two or three pagers inspired by RAW magazine in the 1980's!One was called 'Oh Wild Mother City of Moscow'. That might give you a little idea as to how terrible they were. But this is my first comic as a writer.
Nrama: I’ll take you on that. Going from a hidden comics past to a speculative big screen future, the UK paper The Guardian has a rumor that Matthew Vaughn is gearing up to produce a big screen adaptation of Turf. Can you confirm, deny or just wax on a bit about that idea?
Ross: Matthew loves Turf and has said he wants to make it into a film. We both love his work as a director so would be delighted! But at the moment he is committed 100% to X-Men: First Class, which won't be finished for at least a year, so we have not taken it further with him or his company yet. We are going to give him first refusal before wee offer it elsewhere. He is also very keen on our next major project, The Golden Age... but for now I have to keep quiet about that.
Nrama: Just the title alone will send some fans’ minds reeling there. Speaking of other comics projects, you famously went on the hunt for Steve Ditko in a BBC Four documentary back in 2007, and have since gotten to be on a first name basis with him. Have you broached the subject of your comic Turf or sent copies to him?
Ross: No, I didn't. I think maybe I will. He might like it - the choices between good and evil are pretty clear so I doubt if there is anything in it philosophically that will piss him off.
Nrama: Earlier this year you made your first North American appearance for the book, at San Francisco's WonderCon. What was that like for you to be out with the fans to show off the book?
Ross: It was great! The book actually came out that day so I only got a little feedback but everyone seemed to love it. I am looking forward to SDCC this year though, because book two will have been available for a few weeks and hopefully we'll have some people who are keen to see more!
Nrama: I’ve got to ask – as n avowed comic fan and amidst metric tons of comics at that convention, did you have an opportunity to bring some back with you?
Ross: Hell to the yeah. I kind of have all the comics I need, so it's mainly art now. The best things I got last time were Kamandi book 6 -the cover and all the inside pages!! I also got a silver age Spider-Man & Avengers covers, and a beautiful Darwyn Cooke Captain America pin-up!
Nrama: Nice! I can’t help but thing about other comic ideas in your head, such as the name you just dropped -- The Golden Age. In an earlier interview, Tommy lee Edwards mentioned that when he first hooked up with you, there were two developed ideas that he had to choose from. What will happen to the other one – is it The Golden Age or something else?
Ross: I have about 6 or 7 ideas I am fleshing out now, but only one of the original three I mentioned to Tommy is still on the go. It's a zombie book, and I have it on hold because a) the world has enough zombie comics in it right now, and b) my wife might be writing a zombie movie and her idea is so much cooler then mine!
Nrama: Given the sell-out success of Turf’s first issue and your BBC tenure coming to an end this July, can we expect/hope for more comics work from you in the future?
Ross: Yes sir. Just try to stop me.
Do you want more Ross comics? Digging Turf? Sound off!