One of the biggest original graphic novel hits for Oni Press is the thrilling and funny Junior Braves of the Apocalypse Vol. 1. In some ways that success seems inevitable because this series has a clever, high-concept pitch. Co-written by Greg Smith and Michael Tanner with art by Zach Lehner, the book takes familiar tropes and twists them in delightful new ways.
As Tanner explains it, “Junior Braves of the Apocalypse is a young adult survival-horror/adventure graphic novel series about the young boys of the Junior Braves. The Junior Braves are an outdoor wilderness organization like the Boy Scouts – but not the Boy Scouts. The Junior Braves Tribe 65 go on a week-long camping trip where they learn all sorts of survival and wilderness skills.”
All seems normal enough, but, as Tanner continues, “When they return to their small town, the zombie mutant apocalypse has happened. The town is destroyed. Their parents are missing. Everyone else they come across has either gone insane or become a hideous zombie-mutant. So they have to use all of their Junior Braves skills to survive in this dangerous new world.”
The team took inspiration from the idea of a group of young boys banding together to fight something they don’t understand. The events also hit home for the Braves since their families are victims of this cataclysm. A lot of the excitement for Junior Braves lies in its depiction of how these teenage boys learn to deal with these horrific events.
As Tanner puts it, “Yes, I think the relatable part for readers is – not necessarily that zombie-mutants might take over the world or you small town – but a natural disaster. Or there could be some situation where you are separated from your family, and reuniting with them is your absolute focus.”
One of the real pleasures of the book for a reader is that the creators fully introduce all the characters. All are distinct from each other, and they all react to the horrible changes in different ways. Smith reveals that the character design is “a little bit drawn from people that we grew up with or people that we knew. Each one of us had – as we were developing these characters – had little tidbits of memories. But then also real life. And everything always influences, so there’s little headnods to things you’ve grown up with or around.”
“Yeah,” Tanner adds, “I think we definitely tried to avoid character tropes without significantly revising them or looking at them from a different angle. Like Travis – from the beginning. Hopefully, if we succeeded as storytellers, when you start reading the book, if you’re thinking in that mindset of ‘Oh, this character is this trope, this character is that trope,’ your thought is that Travis is the bully and the antagonist type character. Where really – We hope that we succeeded in evolving the character to a point where, between him and Johnny, Travis is the main protagonist.”
Tanner enjoys writing characters who change: “They’re being formed by the world around them, which is also an interesting thing that we’ll explore in the books – how these boys are being formed in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-mutant world.”
Greg adds, “One of the things that this series is going to showcase is the resilience of children and their resilience and ability to bounce back from certain situations and into other situations. And to use those hidden skills and talents that they might not know that are lying within them.”
He continues, “Like with Travis or with some of the other kids as we’ve seen through in the first book and we’ll see in the second book. That will get called out. And it’s like, ‘Oh wow – I can actually do this. This is something I’m actually capable of doing.’ And it goes to show other kids that are reading this that they are actually also able to do that, as well.”
Lehner approached character design initially from the uniforms they wore: “The first concern that we had when coming up with character designs was that they all had to have a uniform. So, the way they looked came after designing what their outfits were because they all had to be wearing roughly the same thing.
“After that,” he continues, “there was a question of what’s their background? Where are they from? We keep coming back to Travis because he’s the guy who gets a lot of the spotlight. He’s not a person who takes well to discipline. So, things like grooming aren’t really his thing, and he ended up having a make-shift, spikey mullet because he doesn’t really get his hair cut. He doesn’t want to sit still for it. He’s more interested in sitting at home playing video games or beating up on his brother.”
But clothes do matter. There is a crucial event in book one in which Junior Brave Johnny’s hat is a key plot element. As Lehner states, “Only two of the characters wear [the hat], but Johnny is the one whose hat becomes a story moment and a motion that he makes. He pulls his hat down over his eyes whenever he’s – he’s very standoffish. He’s very much a loner. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody when he’s pulling his hat down and he’s covering his eyes. Those things come out over time as the characters evolve through the course of the story.”
Smith and Tanner are longtime college friends who have been writing together for nearly twenty years. A fortuitous pitch to Oni resulted in the project being picked up by the Portland-based publisher. Oni requested several artists try out for the book. The team decided Lehner was the best fit. All the team members are happy with the work they’re doing. That’s important because Junior Braves will eventually be a five-volume series: “this is the next decade of our lives” as Tanner states.
Since the series is projected to run so long, the obvious question is whether the truth will be revealed about the zombie plague. Its causes aren’t directly explained in this first volume, but Tanner has an intriguing answer to the question of revealing its origins: “Certainly, we’re going to address it in some ways. But in some ways, it ultimately doesn’t matter.”
Not surprisingly, Smith agrees: “I think that we, Mike and I, take a lot of that from the master [George] Romero. In his classics, he gives you enough to get you to build that – enough of the idea, and you can work around that. And that’s we are – we’re taking that and saying, ‘You’ve built a great structure. Now, let’s just let that fall into place.’”
Though the origins of the zombie plague may be a ways off, Zach promises, “We had a story meeting on [Volume] 3 at San Diego. It’s gonna get intense.” Tanner adds, with a smirk, “My favorite teaser to talk about is that – If you really like an exploration of different economic and political community systems, Junior Braves is the book for you. And if you like fast cars, danger, and knives, Junior Braves Volume 2 is also the book for you.”
Zach gives some examples of the intensity, “There’s gonna be a lot of scary moments in Book 2 that are going to involve everything from falling down holes to cars catching fire. It’s going to be pretty crazy.”
With the current popularity of Stranger Things on Netflix, a comparison seems inevitable. Smith says it’s a valid comparison but that the series don’t quite match up. “I would say Junior Braves – we cover all the outlier stuff, where Stranger Things covers all the sci-fi and amazing shock and horror type things that the 80s produced. We cover all the things that are on the fringe of that – like your cool, classic action movies. In this book, you’re gonna see a little bit of Mad Max, a little White Water Summer.
Tanner adds, “Yeah, if you love outdoorsy, 80’s adventure movies, Junior Braves Volume 2 will be pretty exciting. The book is very funny, and I think the series is also meant to be. It’s survival horror, but we never want to take everything too seriously. It’s gotta be fun, also.”
Lehner loves the fun they’re presenting: “Also, we never take anything too seriously. That’s something we’re very good at as a creative team.”
Tanner asks for any interested readers to order this book through their local comic shop: “I think because nobody knows who myself or Greg or Zach is, if you are interested and you haven’t gotten it yet, you can go to websites. Or what also really helps is to go to your local comic book store and ask for it. That would help us raise awareness within the comic book community more. Like I said, it’s doing very well in book stores and in that outside comics group. But we could always use more support inside comics.”
Smith adds, “Yeah, absolutely. If you have read it and check it out, go check us out on Good Reads or Amazon or our Facebook page. And give us a little shout. Get in touch with us. We’re very responsive. And give the book to a younger reader, and have them get hooked on it, too.”