When it was announced last December that Fantagraphics – the company best known for the high-minded likes of Love & Rockets, The Comics Journal and countless classic comic reprints – was getting into the superhero game, the comics industry raised a curious eyebrow.
But All Time Comics, which debuts this March, isn’t just another new superhero universe; it’s a unique fusion of old-school storytelling with a modern, self-aware sensibility. Filled with outrageous action, characters and storytelling, the adventures of such characters as Crime Destroyer and Bullwhip capture the feel of comics from another area – but with a distinctly present-day edge.
To get a sense of these books, we talked to mastermind Josh Bayer and several of the artists involved, including Firestorm co-creator Al Milgrom, indy creator Ben Marra (Terror Assaulter), and acclaimed writer/artist Noah Van Sciver (Fante Bukowski). The All Time team talked about the roots of this new series, their fondness for old-school storytelling, and working with the late Herb Trimpe, the veteran artist whose last work will be part of this series.
Newsarama: Josh, Ben – describe this universe and the characters in it.
Josh Bayer: All Time Comics is a series of one-shot self contained stories that take place within a joint universe filled with new superheros that seem old.
We wrote the books as if they are remnants of a long-running series from a forgotten comics company that's been lost to the public memory till now. They are supposed to feel like they came out in 1979 and the characters include Crime Destroyer, Atlas, Bullwhip, and Blind Justice, plus supporting characters like Knutty and Tobin Whey, and villains like White Warlock, Misogynist, and Time Vampire.
Ben Marra: I'd describe it as a gonzo superhero universe, which is the only kind of superhero universe, really. The characters in it are based on classic superhero archetypes, but pushed to the edge of what superheroes mean and represent.
Nrama: What's the key idea behind this line - the reason you wanted to work on this? I'm also curious as to Fantagraphics, which is not commonly associated with superhero books, is putting it out.
Bayer: I’d do horror, I'd do 2000 AD comics, I'd do sword and sorcery style comics, I’d attempt to do a Jules Feiffer-like comic, or a Calvin and Hobbes-style kids comic - but I especially love superheroes and crime comics. I grew up on all that stuff.
I will take any opportunity where I have the freedom to do comics, especially if I get to work with a talent pool I'm excited about. That's how it was on my previous projects, but really any project where I get to run up against other artists because I'm a sponge.
I love to learn, so when my brother pitched this at me, I was like “why not.” All I could see were the positives.
As for Fantagraphics, that evolved organically. The Fanta staff has supported what I do for years. The Comics Journal was like my first university. I personally would read their essays and reviews over and over, and everything I learned about comics in the ‘90s was thanks to them.
So when I started to build the company, I brought along Jason T. Miles to help me organize, and he then brought it to Fanta and I think they went for it because these are just good comics.
Noah Van Sciver: The reason I wanted to work on it was because I've been a fan of Josh Bayer's work for years, and the opportunity to stretch out artistically and take on something that was outside of my comfort zone was too good to pass up.
I think Fantagraphics loves interesting work as well as experimentation in comics, and this series is both of those things and more.
Al Milgrom: I inked two comics, one penciled by Noah Van Sciver and one by Josh Bayer. I also inked a handful of pages penciled by Josh Bayer who pitched in to finish an issue by Rick Buckler. Josh has interesting quality to his drawings. It was interesting inking Buckler’s stuff - though I did very little on his part of the job - because I used to ink his father back in the day. Inking Josh was really fun because his stuff is dynamic, and has a real sense of action.
After I did the ink work for him, Josh sent me a handful of indie comics, and asked me to write critiques of them, which will be published as part of All Time Comics under my new moniker, Critic-Al. In at least one of them Ben Marra is mentioned, and I’d never read any of his books before. I thought he was new on the scene - but it turned out he’s got quite a following out there. Then I ended up inking him!
Marra: I wanted to work with Josh and Sam. They're both people I draw inspiration and creative energy from. It was a fun project and awesome opportunity. I couldn't pass it up. I also love superheroes and I don't get to explore their ideas or draw them much.
To my knowledge Fantagraphics came on board later in the game, after most of the issues were complete. The tone and feel of the superhero books is outside what has become the modern conventions of superhero books. Though I believe All Time is closer to superhero books from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, when superhero stories were more about engaging the imagination and excitement, rather than character drama they seem to be these days.
But this seems to fit nicely within Fantagraphics scope of books. Fantagraphics is not limited to one kind of comic, except good ones, as they've demonstrated since their inception.
Nrama: How would you describe the tone of this? It's more straightforward than parody, but more outrageous than many current books - essentially a self-aware homage to 1970s/1980s style superhero books and indy titles in general.
Marra: It's definitely more straight-forward superhero action than parody. It's absolutely more outrageous than many current superhero books, but many superhero books these days feel so staid and pat, it's not difficult to feel outrageous by comparison. I actually think many comics of the 1970s/1980s comics were self-aware superhero books. It's just that the instincts for what feels right in mainstream superhero comics has shifted since then.
Bayer: There’s a back and forth between me and the other creators, but especially Ben Marra, as he's one of the most important architects of our comics imprint. Marra would drive it in one direction and I’d slightly veer another way. His work tends to be like a mix of David Lynchian horror and comedy, and I think you can see that in the books that have more of his imprint. All the stories with him have a “Ben Marra imprint,” and so I think of those books like the “Kirby-Lee” books of the series, while and the ones I did without him – for example, Blind Justice - are like the Steve Ditko-Stan Lee books in the series. At Marvel, Jack Kirby did 85% of the comics and then the other 15% - Spider-Man and Dr. Strange - were Ditko.
Anyways, I'm not always sure how to draw the line between where parody and homage begin and end. Is it straight, or is it satire? I like to say, it's like a circle that is both round and square at the same time.
Milgrom: All Time Comics are reminiscent certainly of Marvel Comics, and maybe DC comics in that era, though they are taking more liberties than Marvel and DC would have been able to. Certainly, they couldn’t have had a villain who enjoyed being whipped, as happened in Bullwhip. Bullwhip is sort of provocatively dressed - that sounds like an old guy talking, doesn’t it! - and I’m thinking this is not the kind of stuff we were doing for the mainstream comic books. She has this whip which she uses to disarm or hurt or rip this guy in half - only the villain is masochistic and enjoys being whipped and sort of eggs her on. He’s thinking, “What can I do to provoke her again?” It was certainly a departure from most of the relatively squeaky clean things I’d done over the years.
Nrama: What's most creatively vital to you about that era of comic books? I have a certain joy in finding crazy '80s-era stuff in back-issue bins; black-and-white knock-off superheroes, or hyper-colored NOW! books from the late '80s/early-'90s. There's a certain messiness and vitality to that storytelling that you don't see in the more carefully-plotted material out today.
Milgrom: My generation was probably the first generation of creators who intended to entirely work in comics. We thought there was nothing better than to be working in comics - nothing better to aspire to - and that comics was a great form of illustration, and that the writing was just as engaging as any novelist.
The thing that Stan Lee created is that his characters had complicated inner lives - and they weren’t always nice - and we took that and ran with it. We were making a clear break from cookie cutter characters. Plus, Stan paved a path where suddenly it was cool to read comics, even for older people. It became more acceptable to read comics and so all the new talent spawned more new talent - which picked up the sales and revitalized the industry.
Marra: The most creatively-vital element from that era was the freedom the creators had. There were certain things creators couldn't do, but they were able to tell some pretty wild stories back then, stuff that would never be possible today with the rigid editorial oversight and corporate climate of the same bigger publishers. It's unfortunate. I completely agree.
One of the things I love about comics is the type of stories that need to be told within a very strict monthly deadline. It's part of the challenge to see what can be created in such a limited time frame. Books that are too calculated, like most books you find on the racks today, lose that improvisational, rock n' roll feeling. They feel more sterile. Less human. Less alive.
Bayer: Though I like a lot of styles from all eras, the Bronze Age authors have a weird style that's very of its time. When you read Steve Englehart or Mark Gruenwald or Bill Mantlo there's a mannerist way of telling the stories they loved: words, their thesaurus, and their caption boxes. And yet these mannerist wordy books were often good. Good writing is good writing, even if it’s not fashionable.
There's a lot of bad writing and art in current mainstream books, but there always was. And there's always something pushing back against the bad art. And that's what we are part of - we avoided a lot of the aesthetics that just, in my gut, feel wrong to me.
Nrama: Tell us a bit about your collaborative process for this - do you use "Marvel-Style" plotting? I'm also very curious about the color schemes for these - how you come up with them, and the distinct effects you hope to achieve.
Marra: For the books I drew, I just plotted and drew, and then wrote dialogue suggestions, which Josh then went in and refined.
For Crime Destroyer #1, Josh plotted and wrote it, while Herb Trimpe pencilled it, then I came in and inked it up. I didn't have anything to do with the color schemes as that was hyper-talented Matt Rota's domain.
Van Sciver: The process was first being given a script and then batches of very loose sketches of the scenes based on it - 10 at a time over the course of a few month - from Josh. Then taking his loose layouts and refining them a bit into my own layouts with my own style. Next I would get his approval on my sketches to move forward to producing the final penciled pages, which upon completing and submitting for another thumbs up from Josh, I would pack into a box and ship to the letterer. I think the process was close to how Harvey Kurtzman worked with his artists on the Mad comic book.
Nrama: Who are some characters we'll be meeting in upcoming issues, and which ones are your favorites?
Bayer: We have a crew of four heroes. They’re all at their peak and have been crime fighting for a number of years when we meet them. You can imagine they might have a hundred issues of their adventures behind them. They live in Optic City or Swan City and have a supporting cast of friends and villains. We brought back the trope of the teen tag-along kid, and a lot of other things that are cool about old comics: cars, headquarters, secret lives, and self-contained stories.
Crime Destroyer is a war veteran turned crime fighter. Bullwhip is an acrobatic leather and whip wielding super mystery lady. Atlas is a super, Ultra-Matter powered hero whose abilities can actually be disrupted by fear. And Blind Justice is a sort of outsider vigilante with a fractured psyche who believes himself to be invulnerable.
They have what I like to think of as a Dick Tracy level villains gallery - grotesque and colorful characters like Rain God, P.S.Y.C.H.O, and Krimson Kross.
Marra: Atlas, Crime Destroyer, Bullwhip, and a myriad of nefarious villains. My favorite is probably Crime Destroyer.
Milgrom: I find the Justice character really intriguing because he’s in an institution with a nurse, who has sympathy for him and is looking after him. He’s this gaunt, skinny-looking guy but he’s got this whole other life going on where he cobbles together makeshift armor and padding under his oversized coat with a homemade cudgel that he uses when he goes out. He’s devoted to justice, and faces threats he shouldn’t be able to defeat yet through sheer force of will, and whatever skills and padding he has, he accomplishes his goal.
You couldn’t ask for a better secret identity because no one expects this guy in a vegetative state to be this hero. He’s not an heir, or a meek guy who take off his glasses - it’s his sheer indomitable will that makes him able to go up against crazy odds.
Nrama: How extensively is this universe laid out, and what's most appealing to you about what's coming up down the line?
Bayer: We plotted pretty far in advance, so there are issues written where we don't know the world yet. If characters go where I plan to take them, the early issues will seem ragged in comparison, that's how it always is with series. For example, they didn't even know what Wolverine would look like under his mask until he'd been appearing in the X-Men for months.
I'm okay with us not being a slick production on every level, as long as everyone's trying their best. Raggedness is a virtue, because the audience can see things evolve; when you're being intentionally lazy and half ass, not so much.
Nrama: Pedantic question from me: Do the fists on Crime Destroyer's shoulder pads affect his peripheral vision at all? It seems like that'd be an issue, and sticks with me despite the many, many other less-realistic elements of the story.
Bayer: Yeah, luckily there's no real lives on the line when we do incredibly ridiculous impractical stunts. We can say, “These look awesome, let's do it! Damn the consequences,” unlike say, Donald Trump. The wall he wants to build is his version of Crime Destroyer’s fists - better off as a fiction.
Marra: I'd say Crime Destroyer's superhuman-fighting senses are so above the realm of measure he doesn't even need peripheral vision. I understand why you would think that. To me these questions don't apply in the superhero world. It's sort of like "Wouldn't Wile E. Coyote die if he fell off a desert cliff?"
This is a fantasy cartoon world. When you start to apply real-world logic to it, you take away the fun. It's that sort of thinking that I believe has limited the possibilities of modern superhero comics, especially in the minds of mainstream editorial overlords.
Nrama: Why does the marketplace need this book at this time, and what will readers get out of it?
Marra: My mind doesn't think like that. I don't create stuff because I think it's missing from the market or satisfies some kind of external purpose. I work on stuff I find creatively rewarding. If other people dig it and connect with it, that's cool.
But I think All Time Comics is an effort to create some comics all the creators want to read for themselves as fans. I've found when you as a creator are emotionally invested in what you're working on, readers pick up on it and it resonates with them.
Van Sciver: We're all anxious for a brief escape from our current political nightmare I think. That's exactly what we're giving you with this.
Bayer: Magic. Escape from an increasingly horrible daily reality. The fun of comics and a sort of relief from long narrative comics. These books are a little different, theyre all self contained stories. One of my major models is Frank Miller's Daredevil issue “Badlands” he wrote for John Buscema and Gary Talouc to draw in 1985. He got in and out with a major story that could have taken place anytime in Daredevil's history and has the resonance of a myth.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Marra: I'd just like to say it was an honor to work with Herb Trimpe, a hero and legend in comics, whose contributions, loyalty, and talents, I feel are unsung with younger fans and, like many of his peers, was mistreated by his former publisher. He's everything a professional comic book artist should be. His work will always be an inspiration to me.
Bayer: Make comics. Read comics.