WOLVERINE & THE X-MEN’s Jason Latour Talks Rednecks, Ninjas & Mutants

Marvel Comics' March 2014 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics

When Jason Latour was announced as the writer of the soon-to-be-relaunched Wolverine & The X-Men series, it took many by surprise. Not because he wasn’t ready, but for casual comics reader Latour is best known as an artist.. But the North Carolina-born artist has spent the past few years growing as a comics creator to being both an illustrator of things like Wolverine and Mike Mignola’s Sledgehammer ’44 as well as writing the well-received creator-owned book Loose Ends and the final arc of Marvel’s Winter Soldier. And now as we enter 2014, Latour is coming into his own writing a major series for Marvel as well as continuing as an artist with the upcoming creator-owned series Southern Bastards with Jason Aaron.

Not bad for a self-professed southern boy.

Newsarama sought out Latour to talk about his long and winding road from college grad to becoming one of Newsarama’s 10 Creators To Watch in 2014, and what we found was an artist and a creator continually working to hone his skill and cognizant of the bumps and bruises he’s incurred along the way.

Newsarama: Jason, let’s ease into this – work are you working on today?

Jason Latour: I’ve just finished up a Wolverine & The X-Men script. Or rather it’s finished with me.

Nrama: Your name has been on comic book shelves for years for various smaller projects, but in 2014 you’re coming out guns blazing, writing the aforementioned Wolverine & The X-Men and also drawing Southern Bastards with Jason Aaron at Image. What’s 2014 shaping up to be from your vantage point?

Latour: Busy. Really, really busy. But that’s a good. You kill for busy in comics. It’s also surreal. Writing a Marvel comic is something I’ve always believed I could and would and wanted to do. But doing it? It’s both very natural and very much an out of body experience at the same time. My Grant Morrison Katmandu experience was a dream of Joe Robards from Winter Soldier in a mustard-stained wife-beater. He told me death smelled like stale farts.

Nrama: For people that only read your Marvel & DC work up until now, they might typecast you as the ninjas and rednecks artist from your work on those Marvel shorts, that special Scalped issue #43, and your creator-owned work Loose Ends and now Southern Bastards. What would you say to that, Jason?

Latour: To that I’d say Rednecks Vs.  Ninjas is now my next Image pitch. Honestly, if that’s the perception that’s okay. I’m grateful for anyone who is paying attention. Where I sit it feels like there are phases-- some of which beyond my or anyone’s control. Things just pick up steam. The crime stuff segued to the superhero stuff which lead the Mignola-verse stuff that became a period piece phase. You can find the art or the personal expression in nearly any subject if you look hard enough for it, it’s an approach that’s helped me feel like every step counts.

That said, ultimately Southern Bastards will be more personal and more unlike anything I’ve done as an artist. It’s not really like anything I’ve seen on the shelf. Maybe ever.

Nrama: I hesitate to ask too much about Southern Bastards as you'll be talking more in depth about that when the book is closer to launch, but I can't let that mention of it being "more personal" go un-answered. What is it about Southern Bastards that hits home? The subject matter, the collaboration, what is it? And is it something you found in Jason Aarons initial ideas, or something that developed over time?

Latour: All of the above. A big reason for doing the book is the opportunity to work really closely with Jason Aaron to create something that’s unique to who we are. It’s definitely a big fun genre romp, but our conflicted relationships to the South should give it another layer. That conflict is drama and dividing up all those personal feelings and spreading them into fictional characters hopefully imbues the work with a semblance of objectivity. Also because it’s ours my artistic choices are a bit freer, for better or worse. My mainstream work is personal to me because superheroes are my creative foundations, but Wolverine occupies a space in my head that's different from Southern Bastards’ Earl Tubb. Parsing out why is exciting.

Nrama: Let’s try to parse out you as an artist, Jason. Your first serious comics work was doing a strip called 4 Seats Left for East Carolina University’s school newspaper. Can you talk about your thoughts on comics and dong comics back then?

Latour: For about 4 or 5 years I did a couple hundred comic strips. One to five a week, published both in the school paper and online afterward. So it helped me work on my craft get over stage fright. Scaling down helped to wrap my head around how to think through a story more cleanly. At 3 or 4 panels you call upon all the skills you need in order to write and draw a story. There are enough elements that you can actually juxtapose thoughts and images. I always tell people struggling to do their first work that they need to scale down, learn to write a sentence before you write a paragraph so to speak.

By the end I had it down to a rubber stamp like Garfield and felt I’d outgrown the premise of the comic. Maybe I’ll get back to it someday.

Nrama: You were minoring in visual arts, but your major was journalism. What were your career goals back then?

Latour: Minoring is probably overstating it. Career goals? Not to drive a truck. Which in the end is actually fine work it turns out, I know because I ended up doing for a while after school anyway.

Nrama: So after school you didn’t jump straight to a career as an artist. Now that you found comics full-time, how do you think that experience working as a truck driver effected you personally and professionally for comics?

Latour: Just that making a living creatively is not easy, and talent is no guarantee. The subjectivity of art and the general lack of communication and understanding of what it takes to create it makes it very difficult to quantify it’s worth. I'm not just talking about money, though where I live means that money is always tied into worth.

In many ways artistic “success” is a privilege. When I was younger I had different expectations for my life and my work and it's perceived value. Learning to temper those with appreciation is a lesson in progress. Drawing cartoons is not easy but it's not breaking your back digging ditches either.

Nrama: Most people don’t realize this, but you were born and raised in Charlotte and HeroesCon is your hometown convention. Charlotte’s had a number of comic creators grow up there, but what’s it like for you coming up there and last year doing those HeroesCon badges?

Latour: HeroesCon is one of if not the largest influence on both my career and my art. From about the age of 12 or so I took my work around every summer and talked to most every artist there. There are comics pros who’ve known me for so long that they remember when I had hair. So it was my foundations. A little art oasis in an otherwise dry world. Maybe it sounds silly but doing the badges was one highlights of my life in some ways. What it meant to see people wearing them is hard to express. It felt like this amazing opportunity to show how much I love that show. One I’d never have been able to come up with on my own.

Nrama: I might be wrong, but is there kind of an unofficial crew of comic creators who, like you, grew up in and around HeroesCon?

Latour: Well, the community in town is pretty small, but the show itself is has a very strong creative pulse. Matt Fraction worked at the store for a while, as did cartoonist Dustin Harbin and artist Casey Jones. Rob Haynes is a local guy. Rico Renzi works there now and helps run the convention. There are a number of guys working who frequented the show, Chris Brunner for example. When you evoke the show itself, it's reach is pretty far and wide.

Nrama: Your first major work was an Image series called The Expatriate with B. Clay Moore back in 2005. You’ve spoken pretty openly about the troubles you had during that series that stretched out the production on it. But now years later – how do you view that finished book and what working on it put you through?

Latour: Though I probably wasn’t aware of it cognitively, it was kind of my attempt to literally bust free. I don’t believe I’ve ever told this story publically, but prior to jumping back into comics I was basically stuck. I’d lost a day job in advertising and my license thanks to the combination of self-loathing and alcohol. After that I tried going to graduate school, but was very unfulfilled and dropped out to do comics. The Expatriate became the horse saddled with all of that.

Long story short, in trying to prove myself I took on too much, put my energy in the wrong places. Tried to beat the world. Clay was gracious enough to put up with that, and let me run where I needed to run. Which was ultimately aground. It lead to a literal return to the drawing board, an eventual move to New York City, and a lot of nights eating crow and pasta sauce on wheat bread. So ultimately that book is a reminder good and bad. Some of it does work, it’s not a travesty, but my part of it is hard to look at. I just try to see it like it was necessary to “bomb” on stage in order to get my set down.

Nrama: Up until 2011’s Loose Ends you were known exclusively as an artist. Since then you’ve jumped up that ladder to be considered a writer and an artist, but is it hard to get out from being typecast as an artist first?

Latour: Well, honestly writing isn’t a step up the ladder from drawing to me. Readers may see it that way because writers are the people generating and orchestrating (more) ideas… but, at the risk of a mixed metaphor, without artists there ain’t no music. It is definitely a lot of fun being the guy dreaming up what happens-- the tip of the spear I guess. It’s a very special skill that is equally as hard as drawing and comes with it’s own stresses and benefits. It’s not unlike a lot of team sports though, where you really cannot succeed without the other people involved, and your job is to put them in a position to succeed. If you get to express your own talents in the process that’s gravy.

In either role, I happen to really like the collaboration. Working alone on my own little comics is fun too though. It’s just about getting up every morning and making things. If someone likes my art or my writing it’s a gateway to them trying this other thing I’m a part of. Allowing someone else’s idea of what the “rungs on the ladder” are to sway you too much is probably unhealthy. I just try to make good comics in whatever way best suits my needs and let it all fall where it may.

Nrama: But was it hard to get your shot at writing comics in work-for-hire relationships given you were known for years almost exclusively as an artist?

Latour: Luckily, most of my editors have recognized that whatever successes I’ve had as an artist seem to revolve around the way I tell the story. We invested over 3 years of our time and effort into making Loose Ends and maybe knowing me as an artist helped get them to read it. I can’t stress enough how important handing an editor or publisher a finished comic can be. It’s the best proof of what you can do.

Of course it doesn’t hurt to have folks who are kind enough to vouch for you and your talent. Nearly anyone who’s gotten any job got it because someone else left the door cracked. Once through that door your duty is to prove it was right to be left open. To do the best you can to earn your place and to hold it open for someone else who’s deserving. In many ways it’s up to the creative community to influence the changes we want to see.

Nrama: What do you see as the real breakthrough moment, either with a published issue, a conversation with editors, or what, that got you over that hump to thinking of yourself as a working artist and a working writer?

Latour: If Chris Brunner and Rico Renzi don’t put Loose Ends into as stunning a package as that they did I doubt anyone ever gives my writing a second look. So that was big. Winter Soldier was a nice trial by fire. Art wise, Daredevil: Black & White with Peter Milligan came out pretty well overall. Sledgehammer ‘44 may have gotten the biggest reaction out of people.

With both it feels like it’s not so much the second or the third story that seems to make or break you. It’s being able to summon it up again and again, on command. I’m still very much in the phase where people are looking to see if I can do that. It’s a good pressure to have.

Nrama: Was there a specific moment/page/day that really seemed to flip a switch though to make you say hey -- "this writing thing might work out!"?

Latour: No. It was pretty organic. Knowing I can draw means so long as there’s a pencil and paper no one can take telling stories away from me. But I never really know if it’s going to “work”. In fact the stuff that’s risky always seems most rewarding. I just give it my all and write stuff that excites me and hope it will excite someone else too.

Nrama: In 2014 you’ll be writing an ongoing for Marvel and drawing a creator-owned book with Jason Aaron. Do you always see yourself continuing to do both, ideally, or could you go the route of some others like Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker who forgo their art career for writing?

Latour: Oh no, I’ll never quit drawing completely. My writing would get so much worse because I’d never find the time to sit and think so much otherwise. If things go well then writing more is likely, drawing will probably be more selective and eventually I’ll do both on something.

Nrama: In previous interviews I’ve read, one of the things I take away from it is that you always seem to be working on your approach to comics – like a guy with a hot rod in his garage he takes out and drive but is always tinkering away at it. Am I off the mark? If not, what are you laboring on now in terms of how you do comics?

Latour: That’s pretty much on the money. I’ve only got the parts I’ve got-- coming up with creative ways to use them is most of the battle. The labor generally comes down to finding the balance of what the story needs and whatever direction my drawing wants to go. You’re constantly feeding yourself art and experiences and if you have soft eyes to some degree-- meaning you try to see what’s there and not what you want to be, then you can’t help be taken down some unexpected avenues. But stories have demands. Context that needs to be created, and that stuff can be at odds with natural tendencies. I try to see it as a system of checks and balances. But somedays it’s really damn hard to see it that clearly.

Nrama: What would you tell that early 2000s Jason Latour who just graduated ECU and was leaning towards a light blue collar job like so many you graduated with?

Latour: Get it down to a stamp. Make that Garfield cheddar, son. No. It’s funny you ask this given what I’ve been writing (you’ll understand soon). Maybe just, “you’re going to end up in art no matter what. Where you land probably isn’t in your control to the degree you think it is. The experiences you have will all count in some way if you allow them to.”

That and to ask out that girl in history class already.

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