BLACK STARS ABOVE Meets HEART ATTACK Meets OLYMPIA For a Chat

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Credit: Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment/Vault Comics

Editor's Note: Three new creator-owned titles debut in November - Black Stars Above, Heart Attack, and Olympia. Different publishers, different creative teams, and no, this isn't a crossover. What they do have in common is friendship between some of the creators.

With that in mind, we got a creator from each book on the line for an interview - not with us, but with each other. For that, Olympia writer Curt Pires, Heart Attack artist Eric Zawadzski, and Black Stars Above writer Lonnie Nadler spoke at length with each other, creator-to-creator, about their upcoming books and their individual approaches.

Credit: Jenna Cha/Brad Simpson (Vault Comics)

Lonnie Nadler: Welcome everyone to our creator-on-creator-on-creator chat. Basically the three of us each have new creator-owned titles being launched this November and rather than trying to compete with each other for space on the site, we thought we’d kill a few birds with one stone and interview one another about these new books, our process, and general comics stuff. My book is Black Stars Above, Eric's is Heart Attack, and Curt's is Olympia. Strap yourself in. Where this goes is anyone’s guess.

Curt Pires: Three creators, one cup.

Nadler: Great start, Curt.

Eric Zawadzki: Let me get the ball rolling. I’m always curious how a creator thinks their work is best consumed by the audience. Do you guys think your projects are best read month-to-month or as several chapters collected in a trade?

Credit: Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment

I bring this up because, although I’m proud of the first issue of Heart Attack, I worry that it isn’t enough to grab someone. But I wholeheartedly believe that the first trade will have people falling in love with the book.

Pires: I like the idea of people reading everything all at once. I wish I could release the first three issues on the same day almost. But I also think each issue works on its own. It’s kind of my job to make sure they do, I feel like. I guess I also feel like comics are way too little bang for their buck these days, so I’m constantly trying to up the “value” of reading in singles.

Nadler: I was just thinking about this earlier today. I think my story definitely works best when it’s all read at once.

Black Stars Above was designed to be deliberately slow, the kind of slow burning horror story we don’t see often in comics where the genre elements are present but don’t fully payoff until later issues. It’s a lot of mood building, an exercise in tone and sustaining tension.

But like you said, Curt, it’s our job to also make sure we’re playing the single issues as enticing chapters, trying to convince readers to come back month after month. That was a big part of the reason why we decided to do our first issue as 30 pages. It allows for the pacing we wanted but also gives readers more out of the initial chapter.

Olympia
Olympia
Credit: Image Comics

Pires: Yeah, Olympia #1 is actually almost 40 pages since there’s tons of DPS in there. I wanted it to feel deliberately widescreen like a film. I’ve been doing 28-page issues on my creator-owned stuff as much as possible. Sometimes I can tell the story I want in less, which is great, but I think this idea that comics are 20 or 22 pages is largely a bad idea propagated and propelled into mass consciousness because it’s the way things have been historically.

Zawadzki: It’s also done because it’s a reasonable time frame for artists to get full issues done. But I personally took about six weeks an issue, so I can’t disagree with you much. I needed that time because of the extra time I put into page design and the excessively high panel count I used.

Nadler: This is probably all boring for people who want to know about our books.

Pires: Yeah we went on a bit of a tangent there.

Nadler: Okay, I’ve got a question for you guys. Both of your books, Olympia and Heart Attack, deal with superheroes/superpowers but in a creator-owned space, which hasn’t been all that common in recent years. Why did this appeal to you? Is it the freedom of playing around in a world with superheroes without the restrictions and baggage of continuity? Is it something else?

Heart Attack
Heart Attack
Credit: Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment

Zawadzki: This actually worried me when I signed on to the book. I’ve ranted to friends many times in the past about how little demand there is for superhero books outside of the Big Two. But I read several scripts ahead of time and although super powers are featured a little, there’s very little of it shown. And there’s no superhero costumes.

For the most part it’s a character drama about two people who slowly fall in love. I also made it my job to make it look as different as possible from anything else at the Big Two. The way I compose a page and tell the story is completely different from anything they’re producing. I decided to not pursue the widescreen approach and design the pages more similarly to a small press indy book.

Pires: Well, the idea for Olympia was actually my Dad’s. But we grew it togeather after that, and sort of shaped the superhero angle of it, so there was a conscious choice on my part to decide to work in this mode. I think it’s so different than anything coming out right now, and so personal in a lot of ways, that it doesn’t feel like a superhero book to me, even though it is.

Also, to be totally honest, I wanted to show people that I can tell these large mythic stories and narratives as good as the top writers at these big companies. There’s definitely a little of my competitive side coming through, because I love superheroes - I love well crafted books - and I think I’ve been almost written off as not being interested in writing these stories - which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Black Stars Above
Black Stars Above
Credit: Jenna Cha/Brad Simpson (Vault Comics)

What about you Lonnie, what was it that made you want to blend historical and weird fiction? It feels a lot like From Hell to me in terms of its genre, which is like, hugely ambitious and biting off a lot to chew on.

Nadler: Before I answer that, I just want to say, having read the first few issues of both your books, I can absolutely see the elements you’re talking about. Heart Attack feels like if X-Men were published by Fantagraphics. And Olympia feels like a very personal coming of age story mixed with Jack Kirby insanity.

Regarding mixing historical and weird fiction, I think it really comes down to what my interests are as a person and as a writer. This is the first book I’ve written solo, and I wanted it to be utterly and completely me. It was incepted when I was reading Margaret Atwood’s book, Survival, which is a non-fiction exploration of Canadian literature, which sounds dull as a fucking rock, but I found it hugely inspiring. It brought back all the memories of being in school and learning about the Canadian fur trade and I just couldn’t get that time period out of my head, and the idea of how people back then would have understood nature and the wilderness so differently from how we do now.

I wanted to explore what would be truly threatening and scary to a family in those times, living in isolation, in a country that was going through major shifts. So this image came into my head of a young fur trapper wandering through the woods with a parcel she was delivering to some unknown place, and then since everything I do seems to have some horror elements, there were these cosmic horror black stars in the sky, watching her. It all sort of grew from that, and because I love doing research I feel so at home writing in a different era. It’s like a crutch I can rely on.

Olympia
Olympia
Credit: Image Comics

Pires: One thing I loved about Black Stars Above was how authentic it felt. Like I told you after I read it, I could tell you did your homework. And beyond that, I think the way the wilderness, and nature are depicted resonated and felt real to me. I could feel the cold in my bones. Maybe it’s from living and growing up in Alberta - but the cold needs to feel real to me. That authenticity is important.

Zawadzki: Both of you used silence so effectively in the beginning of your first issues. It did a great job setting the mood and letting the artists shine. I find this is such a rare thing in comics.

Nadler: Thanks, Curt. There are months of research behind the book, so I’m glad that authenticity shines through. I’m a bit obsessive about it, down to the utensils and cups they use.

And I’m glad you noticed that, Eric.

For me, I knew the book was going to be epistolary, but I never wanted the journal entries to consume or overpower the art, so I sort of had this idea that the art is still the journal entries, just visualized. Playing with the idea of cosmic horror being indescribable in words. Silence plays a big role later in the story too, so I needed to establish that up front. In general, I think silence in comics is so key for tone and pacing.

Pires: Yeah, It’s been really important to me recently to let the art do the talking whenever possible. Plus, like Lonnie says, it creates atmosphere. I find there’s this tendency in comics for writers to feel like the characters always need to be saying something, or that the captions have to always be going. Which I just don’t think is the case.

Zawadzki: Curt, I think this is your third time collaborating with Alex Diotto? His work is stunning. I’m envious of how much he can express with an economy of linework. (complemented beautifully by my old collaborator, Dee Cunniff on colors!) How has your creative relationship with Alex evolved over time?

Olympia
Olympia
Credit: Image Comics

Pires: I love Alex. Straight up. I love working with him because there’s no bullshit. We’ve been working with each other for such a long time that it’s become second nature. I know I can get detailed when I need to, but just go marvel style for other points, and trust him to deliver the beats I need him to. I want to give you a more detailed answer, something more glamorous, but I think our creative partnership is  grounded in mutual admiration and respect. It’s as simple as that. I think that also extends to the rest of the team - Dee and Micah, too.

Nadler: Eric, having worked with you previously, I’m curious to know about your relationship with the series writer, Shawn Kittelsen. I know you tend to change how things are scripted, adding lots of panels and playing with layouts. I noticed plenty of beautiful 12-panel grids and experimenting with storytelling in the first couple issues of Heart Attack. So, what’s your collaborative process like?

Zawadzki: I absolutely adore working with Shawn’s scripts. He didn’t realize it at the time he was writing them, but these scripts are tailor made for my sensibilities. I love drawing character acting and there’s no shortage of drama in his scripts. He shines best when he’s writing dialogue, so there’s naturally a lot of it. Designing pages around all that dialogue has been a regular challenge, but it’s been very fulfilling. I look back at everything I’ve drawn for the series so far and I find that I’m especially proud of the pages that started with me getting frustrated because I didn’t know how I was going to pull it off. And Michael Garland’s colors over my work have been a dream. It’s so hard to find a colorist you really mesh with, so I’m very lucky.

Pires: I think what’s cool about Heart Attack is it kind of shows a side of your storytelling that maybe people haven’t seen before. The layouts that you’ve sort of always played with are there. As is sort of this supernatural ability to do these really dense pages without feeling claustrophobic, but it also kind of shows off some of your Travis Charest and Olivier Coipel influence. Was it fun for you to get to incorporate these popcorn widescreen superhero elements into the already existing visual language you’ve developed?

Zawadzki: It was a little difficult at first because I had just finished my graphic novel Eternal, which completely embraces widescreen action and I think I didn’t entirely shake away that way of drawing. It took me drawing almost a full issue before I discovered the way I wanted to approach Heart Attack. As a result, I feel the second issue is a better example of my approach going forward with the series. Fortunately, it’s an ongoing series because that stumbling around to find my voice wouldn’t work so well on a mini.

Heart Attack
Heart Attack
Credit: Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment

Nadler: I can definitely see the shift between issues #1 and #2 of Heart Attack. Not that issue #1 is lacking anything at all, but issue #2 feels like you really found the world and the mode of storytelling. Though there were some pages in issue #1 I loved as well, like all the stuff of the lead characters touching hands and the X-ray effect you use to communicate their bond.

Zawadzki: Thanks, Lonnie. I’m glad that page has been resonating!

Nadler: Curt, on this note of finding your groove, Olympia is interesting because in the first issue I almost felt like the transgressive Curt Pires we’ve come to know and love was missing a bit, and that’s not a bad thing but I was surprised by your ability to tell a more conventional story, but then once you hit the third issue the darker elements are there in full force. I loved the change in direction and tone for the story there. It added a real sense of gravitas to the narrative. How did that side of you work it’s way into this? Was it a deliberate choice to hold back this part of yourself?

Pires: Well, I think they’re both parts of myself. I think the most transgressive thing you can do after making almost stupidly anti-commercial work for like five years, is to make something that’s basically the comics equivalent of a popcorn film.

But I get what your saying. Issue #3 was sort of the big risk of the book, and I think what separates it from other similar books. I just made the choice to just channel all the death and struggle surrounding me - and some of the frustrations I was having professionally - into that character of Kirby. But it’s in no way autobiographical. I think it’s sort of like what Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips did with that Criminal graphic novel, it’s just giving people a real human peek behind the curtain of the comic industry - and the guy who created Olympian. Because it’s one of my books, there has to be some bullshit meta element.

Nadler: I really like that element of your work, and I think it feels very natural in Olympia. I’m a sucker for it, too.

Olympia
Olympia
Credit: Image Comics

Pires: This is the part where I feel like an asshole for forgetting to send Eric issues #2 and #3.

Zawadzki: Haha! No worries. You’ll have to send it to me after this chat. It sounds right down my alley! I love Subversive Curt Pires.

Lonnie, I love that you're continuing to get your collaborators to draw disgusting material. Similarly to how you got me to draw the gruesome creation of human sausage over several pages in our book with Zac Thompson, The Dregs, I see you convinced Jenna to draw the full process of skinning a cute furry animal.

Nadler: Hahahaha. I tell you, that stuff follows me wherever I go. But I never want to use that kind of imagery to be superfluous. It always has to have meaning.

That scene in question is about how the characters in this world, in this time period, don’t see animals the same way we do and the act of skinning one has obvious contrast with what they are talking about in the scene. So the idea was to have this contrast between how I knew readers would react to this, but neither of the characters in the scene react to it at all. How many sixteen year olds do you know who could perfectly skin a muskrat without so much as wincing? It’s just everyday life for them.

I also have to say Jenna loves drawing gross horror and she’s amazing at it, so I’m lucky to have her on the book, but she had a tough time drawing that scene because I made her watch this elaborate 15-minute reference video of a dude skinning a muskrat so the art would be accurate. I got a sick joy from that.  

Pires: I love the animal skinning scene so much. I think we need to get Vault to skin a beaver or something on Twitter in celebration of the books launch.

Zawadzki: Now they have to! Lonnie, I had to watch a lot of disgusting videos as well when I collaborated with you, you bastard. I know you're a huge Junji Ito fan, so I love that you're working with someone who seems to be very influenced by his. How did this bit of serendipity happen when you were developing Black Stars Above?

Black Stars Above
Black Stars Above
Credit: Jenna Cha/Brad Simpson (Vault Comics)

Nadler: It’s pretty wild. I’d been looking for an artist for Black Stars Above for months and I couldn’t find the right person. I came across Jenna’s work on Twitter one day and immediately knew she’d be perfect. I could see Junji Ito in her work along with some Bernie Wrightson because of how hatchy her style is, and that’s exactly what the book demanded. We bonded a lot right away because of those mutual influences, and so they obviously work their way into the book. I think you can feel how on the same page we are throughout the series. Curt, I’ll get on that. Live skinning coming soon. Be on the lookout.

Pires: That feels like a good note to end on.

Nadler: Nothing ends a conversation like talking animal skinning.

Pires: Can’t wait for the people of 'twitter dot com' to take this joke incredibly seriously.

Zawadzki: I hope 'twitter dot com' also knows that all of our first issues are out in November. Black Stars Above, Olympia, and Heart Attack.

Nadler: And they’re all f***ing great.

Pires: Collect them all, beautiful internet people.

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