Growing up was tough on us all, with those teenage years being a unique powder keg of emotions, personalities and hormones. Now imagine that in barbaric times.In the upcoming graphic novel Broxo from First Second, cartoonist Zach Giallongo makes his full-fledged debut with a story of a rough-around-the-edges, animalistic boy named Broxo who finds help in an outsider of royal birth named Zora to find what happened to his family. There’s wild animals, zombies, revenants and ghosts to deal with, as well as Broxo and Zora trying to come to terms with each other and their vastly different upbringings.
Newsarama spoke with Galliango about this upcoming book release, and dealing with the insecurities of teenage like in the context of sword and sorcery times.
Newsarama: Zack, what can you tell us about the titular hero of this story, Broxo?
Zack Giallongo: Broxo is a barbarian boy who has lived in the wild without much human interaction since he was four (he's fourteen when the story begins, although he probably doesn't even realize that). He's tough and wiry, covered in scratches, bruises and scars, and is missing a couple of teeth. His best friend, the giant snowbeast Migo, is the chief influence on Broxo's wild ways and occasionally unsettling survival skills. But Broxo always exhibits extreme sensitivity to the things around him. He's emotional and empathetic and rarely hides his thoughts and feelings. He also feels a great kinship to other living - and not so living - things. Oh! But I've said too much!Nrama: Although Broxo’s name is in the title, this story doesn’t start until a young woman named Zora comes looking for Broxo, sort of. What is Zora after?
Giallongo : Zora is a modern, cosmopolitan barbarian princess from the big city. If you were to ask her straight out, she'd tell you that she's helping her father strengthen relations between the various estranged clans in the Penthos. Sort of a peace mission or an ambassador. While this is true, Zora's deeper reasons for leaving home and seeking out the Peryton Clan are a little more selfish. I mean, let's be honest, a sixteen year old rarely has fully altruistic intentions. She's run away out of spite and hoping to cause her family some pain. She's lashing out from the pain she herself has felt over the past year or so before the story begins. And you have to give her points for actually seeing her plan through. Most of us only threaten to run away as kids and teenagers.
Nrama: If you had to compare yourself to one of the characters in the book, which do you think is most like you, and why?Giallongo: Hmmm... that's tough. I think I'm a bit like all of them, and like none of them. I think I can be sensitive like Broxo, but I also tend to be a planner like Zora. Maybe I'm most like Migo. I like the people around me to be safe and happy. And I'm hairy. Nrama: How do Zora and Broxo get along, or do they?
Giallongo: Broxo doesn't have a lot of experience with other people and does whatever he wants. He has no sense of duty or responsibility to others. Then, in marches this princess to whom bossing people around comes very easy. Their personalities are at odds. Broxo feels while Zora thinks. Broxo doesn't know what "personal space" is. Zora's boundaries and social cues are inflexible. But life and survival is about compromise with those who are different from you. The two teenagers have to go from butting heads to more of a yin yang relationship, and really, that's the story.
Nrama: For getting the teenage personalities right, how much did you draw from your own time as a teenager? Were you a bit Broxo growing up?
Giallongo: Broxo and I probably have the same level of intelligence. I definitely was not as rough and tumble or athletic as he is. However, I did grow up as an only child without much family close by, and I didn't live in a neighborhood with lots of other kids around. So I think in that respect, I can identify with his lonely upbringing. There are a few times where Zora expresses frustration that I felt, though was not as vocal about. Even though she's resilient, she hates being inconvenienced, and I think I felt that way a lot as a teenager. Heck, I feel that way now! Like Broxo, I just wanted people around to like me, but like Zora, I could be pretty snarky and probably thought I was somehow smarter or more worldly than others around me. I hope I've grown out of that, at least a little.Nrama: In drawing this, not only do you get to draw the barbaric Broxo and the princess Zora, but also zombies, wild animals, witches and even the strange animal Broxo calls his best friend, Migo. What was it like designing all these creatures?
Giallongo: It was fun and I loved it! But also a lot of work. We could have an entire discussion just on drawing the characters. I wanted to be careful and thoughtful about each character and nothing on their person is an accident or an afterthought. Broxo is thin and wiry with a puckish face, which was done to contrast with Zora's thick and athletic nature. Sure, she's a princess, but the last thing I wanted was for her to be thin and willowy with perfect Disney
sweeps and curves.
I always feel like there's more flexibility in designing animal characters, but at the same time, I do research and I try to coordinate everything with nature in the real world. Migo is sort of equal parts bear, cat and gorilla, and I think I've been obsessed with single horns ever since seeing Venger from the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon as a kid. Kol and Krol are sort of a mixture of weasel, ferret, martin and stoat. See, you wouldn't think there were many differences between all those species, but visually, there absolutely are! I took a lot of cues from hairless cats for Gloth, as well as crocodiles.Ulith was always fun to draw, although some of her features are actually quite subtle. If her nose is drawn too large or too curved, she doesn't look right. Body type, particularly for female characters, is super-important. Ulith is an adult. She's a bit pear shaped with large hips and a smaller bust, and her hair is sort of evocative of a silent film star or something. Here's a little tidbit: In a very early draft, Ulith was actually able to remove her head, hence the origin of the neck scarf. You'll have to ask me in person how all THAT worked.
The Ancestors in the book are actually the least exaggerated of the designs. I wanted them to be gross and realistic and thus more frightening to the large-eyed protagonists. They're primarily based on real-world mummies and bog corpses.
Nrama: Seeing the cover, people might expect this to be “Kid Conan” or something but it’s not. How do you describe it to people at conventions?Giallongo: I have a tough time with this. Usually, my stock answer is that it's about "teenage barbarians on a desolate mountain who fight zombies and try to help each other to survive". But of course, I feel like it's about way more than that. I think so far, people have been pleasantly surprised to find out that while this is an adventure with swords and cracked skulls and monsters and zombies, it's really about two teenagers who just happen to be interacting against this backdrop. I tried really hard to try to make the characters real. Broxo and Zora are not superheroes, They don't kick ass. They are in very real danger and they have the scars to prove it. Any of the characters can be wiped out at the drop of a hat. But all of the characters exhibit both ugliness and beauty, just like we all do. Even the villain is so gray, that I hesitate at times to use the word. Although the book has a lot of intentional archetypes, I tried to play against expectations.
Nrama: You’ve been a frequent face online in the comics community and with your small-press comics Grune and Novasett Island, but this is your first major book release. How’d you come up with the story and hook up with First Second?Giallongo: The story came about from various ideas and threads of other stories that were never meant to be. I think I did a sketch of Broxo and Migo and decided that I really wanted to tell a story about them. Zora was a character from another dead idea about a princess that was kicked out of her home for being such a brat. I started to build the world and quickly knew that I wanted a very gray, claustrophobic setting with a tiny cast of characters. After a lot of pushing and pulling and world building, the story took shape. There is a vast universe beyond Peryton Peak, and small tendrils of that have already crept into this particular story.
I'd been doing conventions regularly since about 2004 and when I saw First Second at MoCCA their first year, I knew they were something different and special. I was living in New York at the time and through the vine of comic folk there, I met and became friends with First Second’s Gina Gagliano. At a party, she encouraged me to submit something and I soon sent in the pitch for Broxo. It wasn't outright rejected, but there was interest expressed by an editor there to maybe see something different. Time went on and out of the blue (at least on my end) I received an email from a new editor, Calista Brill. She'd come across Broxo and seemed to like it and wondered if I was still working on the idea. She and I went back and forth through emails, phone calls and convention meetings and after hitting it off and expressing a mutual adoration for certain formative comics, I was offered a contract and now I'm doing this interview!Nrama: Stepping back for the big picture here, what were your goals with telling this teen-friendly graphic novel story Broxo?
Giallongo: Characters. I wanted each character to have a heart and a soul and warmth. What they go through is such a frightening and dismal experience. I wanted the reader to feel like they knew these people and creatures and to root for them. I wanted to have a sort of nostalgic fantasy story that felt like something I would have loved as a kid, but with my sensibilities as an adult. I also wanted it to be just a little dangerous. For a book aimed at this age-group, it's a little violent, a little bleak, and maybe even a little sexy at times. When you're a kid, there's something thrilling about reading a book that's just a teeny bit inappropriate for you. The kind of thing you read and maybe look over your shoulder to see where mom and dad are. I certainly had those experiences as a young reader, and I don't think it's any mystery as to why those particular stories resonated so deeply with me into adulthood. I think for some parents, they want stories that can be this safe place where the real world doesn't interfere; a place where their kids can hang on to their innocence longer. But sex and violence are part of life, and what better place to explore those issues than within the safety of two covers? Now, is Broxo some dark violent sex tale? Of course not. But despite being a fantasy world, I think it's actually pretty real. Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!