After years of charting sci-fi stories, web-slinging tales, and charting the early days of the Man of Steel, writer J. Michael Straczynski is stepping out of his comfort zone and down a dark path with the upcoming series Ten Grand. This series sees Straczynski pairing himself with noted horror artist Ben Templesmith to tell a story of a mob enforcer who, just moments before giving up a life of crime completely to skip town with his girlfriend, gets a job offer from the most unlikely of people: an angel.Ten Grand is the flagship title of Straczynski’s rejuvenated Joe’s Comic imprint, now working under the auspices of Image, and will be the first of several new series launching this year. With the series set to debut May 1st (and a premiere the weekend before at Chicago’s C2E2), we spoke with both Straczynski and Templesmith about this supernatural crime thriller and their surprisingly natural partnership.
Newsarama: This book centers around a mob enforcer who finds love and leaves his life of crime, only to be drawn back into it. What can you tell us about this book, Joe?
J. Michael Straczynski: Ten Grand is a weird mix of supernatural thriller, investigative procedural, with a love story at the very core of it. It's about how far you or anyone else would go for love. Joe Fitzgerald worked for a mafia don and led a life he never sought but ended up living; he fell asleep in his life, doing what he was told to do, until Laura walked into his life and woke him up to new possibilities. I think we all do that, we all fall asleep in our lives, succumbing to routine and safety and the day-to-day stuff until something happens -- tragedy, joy, love, death -- to wake us up.
Nrama: Joe Fitzgerald – he’s made a life as a mob enforcer. Is he a bad man?Straczynski: Depends on how you define bad guy. During his time with Mr. Antonio, he took out bad guys on the other side, other enforcers or hit men or dealers who crossed the line. He was never sent out after "civilians." So if a bad guy kills another bad guy, is he a bad guy, a good guy, or does the term no longer apply? Is he somewhere in-between? I think it's the last option, and in a way Joe is still in-between, only this time he's in-between heaven, hell and our own world.
Nrama: What about you, Ben?
Templesmith: That's easy. Apart from what'll happen in the story, almost no one ever thinks they're the bad guy. Everyone has motives they think are justified. Everyone does things, sometimes horrible, for reasons that make sense in their own head. I'm sure on a level he doesn't think he's a bad guy. That he does whatever it is for a good reason. Even if it's just to protect or be with the ones he loves.Nrama: He’s on his way out when he gets an offer for one last job. What is it about this last job that makes Joe take it?
Straczynski: It seems utterly routine. Just one more hit, the last one he plans to take as a favor because Mr. Antonio seems very worried about this one. But when he goes to do the job, he discovers that the target has substantial supernatural connections, some of which he sends after Joe in demonic form. He tries to get to Laura in time for them both to escape, but it's too late, and they're both killed. It's just as Joe hovers on the very edge of death that an angelic force appears -- something almost as scary as the demons that attacked him -- and makes him an offer: "work for us, and we'll bring you back to life every time you're killed, though you'll feel every inch of pain and death, and if you're killed in a righteous cause, meaning "for us," you'll get to spend five minutes in heaven with Laura before coming back. Because you can't come where she's going, and she wouldn't want to go where you're going." And he says yes. He'd willingly endure an eternity of pain and suffering if it means seeing Laura...and fighting what he believes is the good fight.
Some might wonder "well, where's the suspense if we know that every time he's killed he comes back?" There's a certain level of commentary about comics structure -- no comics character is ever killed permanently, so it's kind of a false assumption -- and what matters is what you do with your life when you're around. And over time, Joe is going to discover that there are some flaws in his agreement that may imperil far more than just his physical body.Nrama: What’s so special about Joe that he gets this offer from this supernatural force?
Straczynski: Ah, that would be telling. Suffice to say there's something about Joe that Joe doesn't know. Yet.
Nrama: Ben, Ten Grand sees you returning to some familiar territory, being the demons and all. Looking at the page with the demons, they’re something else. Where do you get these ideas from, Ben?
Templesmith: Those ones came from interpreting some older medieval versions of nasty things. They may have been goofy in their ideas of horror back then but they're definitely original and disturbing. I'm hoping I can really riff on such things during the series. There's a lot of the occult in this book it seems and we've barely scratched the surface.Nrama: This is comics after all, so I have to ask – does Joe get any special powers given his new bosses?
Straczynski: His only ability is to be brought back after death. Other than that, it comes down to his expertise, his smarts, his resilience and his willingness to go into places no one else would go.
Nrama: In this book, Joe Fitzgerald keeps on going for that light at the end of the tunnel – his lover, Laura. In drawing those moments where he sees her, how are you working to make it inviting and heavenly without going to the stereotypical ways of depicting things?
Templesmith: Heh, well I'm trying my best. But you're never going to escape loving moments... "heaven" if that's what it is will be slightly different...it's basically just another dimension isn't it. And a relatively pleasant one. If there's any justice, everyone's heaven should be different and worth the hardships of life to get to.
Nrama: Laura’s dead, but kind of on that doorway with Joe fighting to be with her. What does Laura have to say about all of this Joe’s getting himself into?Straczynski: She loves him, and what matters to her is seeing him again. Moving into the afterlife, her perception of the physical world, and the agonies of the flesh, gets a little softened...which will over time become problematic the more she begins to drift from her own humanity.
Nrama: Ben, I see you all over the place doing art for comics but also other outside projects. What made Ten Grand a book you wanted to sign on for?
Templesmith: I'm starting to get out a bit more yeah, especially with 44FLOOD I helped just form with the Tome project and soon Lust as well... and finally on top of the pile again with projects ( After life in general and some non comics stuff that really cramped my comics style ). I'd never in a million years expected to be working with the man who basically shaped my young mind ( sorry to slightly date you, Joe!) in regards to science fiction with Babylon 5. I was never as much into Star Trek ( It's only other competition on Aussie TV at the time. ) The idea of long form science fiction enthralled me at the time. When Joe emailed and got me to do a couple concept images and then asked me to come on board for Ten Grand as artist, how could I say no? ( Plus, the concept itself is great for me so it was a double YES)Nrama: Joe’s Comics isn’t just comics – Ten Grand also promises a special QR code in the back of the first issue which, when scanned, will reveal an audio performance of the book’s dialogue by some old friends from Babylon 5. Can you tell us about that, and how it all came together?
Straczynski: Back about two years ago, we did a staged reading of one of my books at Comic-Con International: San Diego, with some of the same personnel. The reaction from folks in the audience was amazing to see, they really dug it. It allowed them to sit back, watch the images on the screen, and listen to the story unfold. So we decided to take the next logical step and do a tight, rehearsed and polished audio performance that folks could download and listen to along with the book. (The audio doesn't use narration, other than Joe's narration from the book, because the goal is to augment the book, not replace it.) The characters are portrayed by Robin Atkin Downes and Pat Tallman, both from Babylon 5 (and the latter the CEO of Studio JMS), along with Tara Platt and Yuri Lowenthal. Together these are some of the best voice actors in town. We'll also be using some of that audio to create an online trailer.
One of the reasons for Joe's Comics is to experiment with the comics format, to play with structure and layout and the way in which a comic is assembled or experienced. This is part of that process. We'll be taking chances and experimenting with other techniques along the way.
Nrama: Ten Grand, like all of the new Joe’s Comics title, will be told in 12-issue runs with pauses between, not unlike television seasons which you’re intricately familiar with. For Ten Grand, do you have this first season, so to speak, all planned out?
Straczynski: Yep, the whole first year is outlined in detail, with each issue pulling back a bit more of the veil not just for the reader, but for Joe. It starts with what seems like an innocent enough job -- a young woman comes to him for help in finding her sister, who has joined a cult -- but the deeper he goes, the more troubling the case becomes. Not only does it bring him back into the path of the one who ordered his and Laura's death, he begins to realize that there's some greater plan going on...and that someone is using him in ways that are going to seriously piss him off.
Nrama: You’ve talked before about ensuring all of Joe’s Comics come out on time – can you say today how far along Ten Grand is in terms of issues and pages?
Straczynski: We're pretty far along. We had issue one done and lettered and finished this past October, we have issue two done as well, three is being worked on...and the first one doesn't even come out until May. So we should have at least half the issues done and ready to go by the time the first issue comes out.
To be consistent in both the storytelling and publishing aspects, our plan is to do 12 issues then take a two-three month break, so we can catch our breath, get ahead on scripts, do any needed course corrections, and then launch the next batch. Doing it this way gives us plenty of opportunities for course corrections, and to determine if we have a story strong enough to merit folks spending their hard earned cash. We don't feel the need to keep publishing any of our titles just for the sake of continuing the title. If we feel a title has gone as far as it can, we'll stop it, making room for something fresh. But at each step, each 12 issue series will have a beginning, middle and end, so there's a sense of getting a full story every time we do one of these.Nrama: Ben, Joe’s Comics is going to extraordinary lengths to make sure their books run on time – for you, what’s it like working so far ahead on something when the first issue doesn’t come out until May? Is there a little bit of delayed gratification in getting feedback on your work from the 1st issue, which I hear you completed last fall?
Templesmith: Well, I disappeared off the comics landscape for awhile. For various reasons I didn't actually draw a real comic page for what must've been a year and a half. But I'm in a much better place now and to be honest, even the year I did EIGHTEEN ISSUES IN TWELVE MONTHS ( sorry for the all caps heh! ) back in the day, I was still never more than a book ahead. It was always a sprint to the finish line. Publishers rarely let you catch your breathe and be ahead before things start! So the fact two issues are in the can before it's even out is... well sort of amazing and a lot less stressful than the constant battle to churn things out. I've taken a little longer on the first 2 issues but I'm in the zone now and almost have the work rhythm with Joe, Pat and Phil down and can't wait for #3. Have to say #2 was *way more* fun to draw than #1 due to a certain character that was a lot of fun. People will understand when they see it. Oh and the more comics I do, the more I feel I *can* do... so with luck I'll figure out some Fell at some point down the road. I can dream can't I?
Nrama: The debut of Ten Grand will be the formal kickoff to Joe’s Comics return. Why was Ten Grand the book you chose to kick things off with?
Straczynski: It's the one most unlike anything I've done before, or that I'm known for. I'm associated with science fiction and superhero stuff, not supernatural fiction, even though Midnight Nation was definitely in the supernatural vein, and my first few published books were supernatural horror. Also, I've always worked before with artists who took a very realistic approach to the art, so I wanted to go the other way with something more impressionistic and almost abstract, which is what brought me to Ben Templesmith. The work he's doing for us is, I think, some of his best to date.
There are certain kinds of stories, books and approaches that I know I can do, and that the readers of my work know that I can do...so if we all know I can do that, why stay there? I can't imagine anything more awful than to spend the rest of my life doing only the things I know I can do. So I wanted to launch Joe's Comics with something written closer to the edge and very different from what I'm known for. It's risky, but that's the fun of it.Nrama: Ten Grand #1 will debut at Chicago’s C2E2 the last weekend of April with a convention variant. Will either of you be attending that or doing any events for the launch?
Straczynski: Yes, I'll be at C2E2, and we'll have a panel for the book and we'll be giving out copies. Then we'll be launching Sidekick #1 at Comic-Con International: San Diego in July.
Templesmith: It's almost sort of a home town con for me now, since I switch my time up between Chicago and New York right now. Plus the offices of 44FLOOD are in Chicago and we'll have our own slightly large presence booth wise, so it's gearing up to be a rather big "hello I'm still here" sort of con for me. The special cover for Ten Grand isn't exactly a typical one for me either...I think I'm getting a little sappy in my old age. But it's that depth to the story I like more than just the blood and guts these days! So yes, I'll be there in a big way and I suspect, and at Joe's disposal the entire time!
Nrama: Last question -- Why the name Ten Grand?
Straczynski: That's the price Joe charges to the clients who come to him for help. It weeds out the less serious, the whackos, the time-wasters and others. If you're going to hire Joe Fitzgerald, you'd damn well better be serious about it...or face the consequences, in this world and maybe the one thereafter....