Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Five or So Questions with Joshua Unruh

Check out this interview with Joshua Unruh on his new Patreon project! With this post, we're having a contest! If you become a Patron of Joshua on Patreon, then comment on this post, you'll be entered to win a copy of his book TEEN Agents in The Plundered Parent Protocol. Leave a means of contacting you in the comment so we can let you know if you've won!

Tell me a little bit about your project. What excites you about it?

The short explanation of the project is monthly, serialized bursts of superhero prose. Faster and cheaper than full comics, I'll get to tell exciting stories about people in colorful costumes punching their way to justice without needing a huge production team.

Two things excite me most about this project. First is the opportunity to tell superhero stories about heroes of my own creation that are different. I don't mean to say that I plan to reinvent the wheel with my superhero fiction. In fact, I hope to give the same thrilled feeling I had as a kid of following larger-than-life heroes through their serialized adventures. I stand on the shoulders of giants from Jack Kirby and Curt Swan through Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, and they all reinvented things a bit as they went. But I do mean the heroes will be different. Different colors, different genders, different walks of life.

The second reason I'm excited about this project is how I expect it will stretch me as a writer. I've got outlines and have done some writing ahead, but not a ton. I want to see what happens when I'm under a deadline for a story and not even the sky is the limit. That, I feel, is one of the stronger things the superhero genre has going for it. Tight deadlines and no locks on "the rules" meant that the superhero genre has some delightfully weird tropes. Sometimes that resulted in crazy stories where Superman had the head of a lion. Sometimes it resulted in entire cities of super-intelligent gorillas or teenage super clubs from the future.

Weird, ridiculous, or amazing, these ideas literally couldn't have been created in any other situation. And I can't wait to see what a similar situation pushes me to create.

Talk to me a little about your three goals for your superhero fiction. What are they and why are they important?
The three goals for my superhero fiction are 1. Make it all ages, 2. make it fun, 3. make it diverse.

All ages is an important concept to me because, as an adult, I've realized just how much learning I did reading comics that didn't talk down to me. All ages doesn't mean "for kids." And even if it did, "for kids" too often means "talks to kids like they're stupid." I don't want that. I want to be entertaining to a broad swathe of ages. The all in all ages overpromises, but it's still a goal I want to aim for. Kinda like Pixar, they make the effort to entertain both the kids and adults in their audience on different levels.

This has been a thing superhero stories have lost. By and large, they aren't all ages anymore. Every Free Comic Book Day, I struggle to find something my seven year old son can enjoy. And let me assure you, at this point, if you name a popular superhero book that was either all ages or for kids, we've read it a hundred times. There just isn't new stuff churned out for him. And I want there to be. So I'm being the change I want to see.

As for making it fun, that's just what I want from my superhero fiction these days. There are absolutely places where superhero comics can be grim and serious affairs. Watchmen is the quintessential example. But one reason Watchmen works is because there's all this fun stuff that it can be an opposing reaction to. I've just sort of grown past the point where I need superheroes to be taken seriously. Especially when "serious" means drab colors and compromising of heroic ideals rather than living them out in technicolor. I want superheroes to be a roller coaster ride again, and I think kids do as well even if they can't articulate it yet.

Make it diverse is just something that's close to my heart. My wife and I were foster parents after our son came along. We wanted to add to our family and thought that would be a great way to find the little girl that belonged with us. That got me thinking about how the stuff my son and I enjoyed just didn't have enough action heroes that would look like her. We fostered an African American boy and I couldn't shake the same thought for him. I know I'm not alone in wanting more diverse heroes, but once again, all I can do is try to be that change with my own work.

What kind of characters can we expect to see?
You can expect to see heroes! Selfless people who want to make the world a better place! It just so happens that they want to do it while wearing masks and capes! Other than that, I'm just asking myself how I can make my character base more diverse. Of the first five characters I have in mind, four of them are girls or women, two of them are mixed race, and one of them is Greek (like, ancient Greek). But they're all still multi-faceted, detailed, completely realized characters.

On the villainous side, you're going to see a similar approach to characterization and diversity, but maybe a bit less diverse than the heroes. I mean, the fact that a lot of evil people in the real world are old white guys with a lot of money will filter into my superhero work.

Maybe some examples will help. Catfight and Hell Kitten are from a recently broken home. Their mother is African American, their father is white, and they're moving in with their maternal grandfather (who just happens to have been a mystery man in the 30s and 40s). Think of these girls as the Spider-Man type. Broken home, struggling with money, but they still aspire to heroism. Catfight and Hell Kitten are my coming of age story, so they'll face villains that represent everyday troubles.

My second character (should I get that many patrons) is The Gray Angel. She's what happens if Buffy the Vampire Slayer decides to become Batman. She works in Pilgrim City. The Grim is controlled by supernatural evil and criminals...who are also usually supernaturally evil. Gray Angel is where I'll tell the horror and crime stories.

The last character I'll mention is Andromeda. She's the Andromeda from Greek myth, except she's no wilting princess. That's just the Zeus-fueled PR machine at work. When Perseus failed to show up and fight the Kraken, she yanked the chains from the cliff, dove into the Aegean, and killed it herself. She's adventured all over the place, including to the peak of Mt. Olympus where she got these stunning little strappy sandals with wings. Later, she punched Nazis and even become a warrior queen in another star system.

What kind of inspirations do you have for your villains?
I think the best villains are the opposite number of the hero. And if you have a truly great character, like Batman, you can have several opposite numbers that are nothing alike. Coming in right after that are villains that represent a problem the hero is facing or a problem from their past. The Lizard is, for Spider-Man, a mentor and father figure he couldn't save, especially from his own inner demons. And then there are villains that are just cool concepts or a twist on cool concepts. Solaris the Tyrant Sun is just epic and scary while Klarion the Witchboy is weird and scary.

So I have plans for Helena Handbasket who is, in some ways, the shadowy reflection of Catfight and Hell Kitten. She's new in town, also comes from a broken home, and has found unexpected power. But she's going to use it for her own ends instead of to help others. What will the girls do when they realize that, except for a few blessings, they could have been her?

Over in Pilgrim City, you'll meet Chilly Graves. He's a mobster who crossed the wrong guys, found himself thrown in a freezer to die, and then got dumped into unholy ground. When he awakens, he's a zombie fueled by cold. He's the "what happens when the problems you bury arise?" kind of villain (and also a twist on some favorite Batman bad guys of mine).

I don't want to give away too much, but you can see how my inspirations come through those two characters I hope.

Who do you think this project will appeal to most?
I sincerely hope it appeals to everyone who wants to read some superhero action! I mean, let's be honest. I have some ideological axes to grind that are influencing some of my creative decisions. But I don't expect these to be seen as "superheroes for girls" or "the diverse universe." I just want them to be fun, exciting, and full of wonder in the way that Spider-Man and Legion of Super-Heroes were for me when I was a kid. If along the way I get to reflect a readership that isn't being served as well as it could be, then I am totally okay with that!

Really, I just love superheroes and have for most of my life. My wife and I were discussing how she can't even imagine who I'd be without superheroes. I want to appeal most to the person that might become a lifelong fan of this incredible genre like I did. It would be one of my greatest joys as an artist if my stories were the portal through which even one person became a true believing superhero fan.

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