Justin Jordan is one of the hottest and busiest writers in comics these days. With his work on Deep State, Luther Strode, Spread, Dead Body Road, Green Lantern: New Guardians and a slew of other titles, Jordan has made a major name for himself as someone who knows how to build and pay off his intense stories. With the release of the third and final Luther Strode mini-series imminent, as well as the release of the first trade of Deep State (with Deep State #5 dropping today from BOOM! Studios), this seemed like a great time to sit down with Justin at Emerald City Comicon and discuss the fascinating ways he approaches his work.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Emerald City is such a good con, isn’t it?
Justin Jordan: Yes. This is my first time here. My first time in Seattle, actually, period. I hadn’t been to ECCC before.
CB: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Jordan: I had only started hearing about it two years ago probably. And my schedule has just not worked out. But I had to come out to LA earlier this week and I was like, “Well, I’m going to be out there anyhow, so I’ll just go up to Seattle and hit ECCC and see what it’s about.”
I have half a table, but I’ve let my tablemate, Rachel Derring, who is a friend of mine, take the whole table because I didn’t want to try to ship stuff out here to sell. It is actually a Con where I am just sort of wandering around, talking to friends, and that kind of stuff. I’m basically attending the Con as a civilian.
CB: That’s got to be nice for a change. How long has it been since you could do that?
Jordan: Five years. I haven’t been to a Con and not behind a table since 2009, 2010. 2010 might have been the last time.
CB: Yeah, and your life has changed a little bit since then.
Jordan: Substantially, yeah.
CB: You are a busy man.
CB: You have a lot going on. A bunch of series through a bunch of different publishers, and LA stuff too.
Jordan: Yeah, it turns out I really like money.
I’ll tell you what the thing is: once you are a freelancer, you don’t ever want to say no to projects, right? That just strictly a pragmatic “I need money and don’t know where the next paycheck would necessarily come from.” So there is that.
But also I get offered a lot of really cool projects that I want to do and it’s really hard to say no when you want to do something and you are getting paid for it. You know what I mean? It is a best of both worlds kind of deal.
But the net effect of that for me is I start playing this game with myself where I am like, “Well, if everything goes exactly right and I write eight pages a day, every day, and nothing ever goes wrong and I don’t have a sick day or the cat doesn’t have problems, it will be fine,” which is just bullshit that you allows you to get overstressed and overbooked.
So I’ve kept busy. I have intentionally this year tried to pair down my schedule so that I’m only working on two or three ongoing and then whatever else I fit in. Ideally two ongoings is probably the better way to do it.
CB: How do you feel about how Deep State is doing so far? You just finished the first arc. How does it feel having completed that and kind of gotten your feet under you in this series?
Jordan: Good! It’s tricky. It’s one of those things where there’s a lot of stuff going on in Deep State; there is this larger metaplot that you get hints of in the first arc that is really what the book is about. It’s playing out on sort of a slow burn in that regard.
So whenever you do stuff like that, it’s kind of nerve-wracking if people are going to stick with you long enough to get to the cool revelations. I think the stuff in the first arc, the actual A story is really interesting anyhow. But definitely the real surprising stuff about the thing, about what you think is going on, you won’t find for a few issues yet.
CB: You need to play it out and give it time.
CB: I’m always curious; for a person in your position especially, the first trade is always so important. Do you deliberately plan the first trade in the way that creates a lot of questions and gets the reader hooked?
Jordan: Yeah, the first issue, too. Whenever I do the first issue of a series in any series I do, I like to have both…
There needs to be something that hooks the reader that lets them know whey they should keep reading the series. But you also want to- and this is one of those things that sounds really obvious when I say it, but you would be amazed how often it doesn’t happen- is that if I give you the first issue without explaining to you what the book is about, you should understand at least what I want you think the book is about from that first issue.
There are a lot of books, books I like, mind you… I’m not even saying this as criticism. There have been a couple of titles that I’ve read that if I didn’t know what the book was going in, I would not know what the book was about from reading the first issue.
I just think when you are trying to appeal to new readers in a serialized, episodic format, that is not the way to go. Most of your readers will probably come in the form of trade paperback readers over the long haul. But I do think that you need to pay respect to the fact that you are working a serialized medium and that first issue and that first trade both need to do that work of hooking you for the rest of the series and letting you know the basic world you are in and what the book is about and what kind of tone you can expect going forward.
CB: Yeah, there are really two schools of thought on that. One is to hook them right away. Jim Valentino [of Image Comics/Shadowline] talks about how he likes to have a payoff in the first five pages that gets the reader to want to read the rest of the book. And then there is the other approach, which is, “I am writing the first few sections of a graphic novel (or the first fifth or whatever), so I am going to approach it from that standpoint.” That may be a quiet issue that leads to character stuff later on and hopefully it will be enough to hook people.
Jordan: Obviously I follow more the Jim Valentino model. I want every piece of the story to be like a satisfying chunk of entertainment. I know people are going to reading it and seeing what you form.
The trick is to get it to do both. You want something that still reads well when you collect it, but you want something that read pretty well in issues. And for my part, I try to have all my single issues follow a basic three-act kind of structure.
I think of the three-act structure as kind of being fractal, which you can keep going down smaller. Take the Luther Strode series because we’re rolling up to the third and final miniseries in that. Those three trades roughly follow a three-act structure. Each of those individual trades follows a three-act structure. Each of the issues within those trades follow a three-act structure.
And each of the scenes basically follows a three-act structure. There’s set-up, conflict, resolution. You drill it down and it gets that at every level. That’s what I mean by fractal. You keep looking at it, you start seeing the same pattern. I think that makes for a satisfying kind of narrative read for the reader in whatever form they are reading it in if you do it right.
Some stuff works better than others. I was surprised; I did Dead Body Road for Skybound Image. I did that as a six issue miniseries. When I read it as a trade, they didn’t put any cover breaks in it, so it’s one continuous thing and it reads really well like that. If you read it, it is a really fast moving paced thing and it reads like it was meant to be that all the time, which I didn’t consciously do beyond the structure that I try to get on my trades in general.
CB: Where did this technique come from? Is this something that you learned in school or developed yourself?
Jordan: I have never had any formal creative writing training. And I’m not recommending any of this. I’ve never had a formal creative writing class. I’ve never really done a writer’s room, like, “Let’s read each other’s stuff and get critiques.” It’s always been me and maybe the artist and maybe an editor, depending on where I am at.
At Image Books, it is always me.
That is a result of before I broke into comics, I had written thousands of pages of comics. I had been trying to get into comics for like ten years and I wrote consistently for ten years. It was a matter of that, just sheer practice, and a lot of me figuring out what I like in a story. I was just breaking down things that I enjoyed and seeing how they ticked to take them apart. I came up with a formula that to me creates a satisfying narrative structure.
It’s not the only way to do it. There are people who do it with a slow build, writing a graphic novel thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some of those are really good reads. But for me, to get the maximum entertainment value out of what I am doing…
That’s ultimately what I am always trying to do is entertain my reader because they are giving me their time and several dollars of their income, so I want them to get their money’s worth. I’ve found that that broken down, fractal three-act structure is the best way for me to do that.
CB: You literally put in your ten thousand pages in order to get professional quality. Do you consciously plan that, or were you always hoping to get published along the way?
Jordan: No, I was always hoping to get published along the way. I’m glad I didn’t get published for a number of reasons, actually.
I didn’t break into comics until I was thirty-three. So just from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, if I had broken in when I was twenty-four or twenty-five, I’d fucked up my career almost certainly on account of being twenty-five. Some twenty-five year olds are not like that. I, on the other hand, would not have had the discipline I needed to make it a career because I had freelanced at that time and got burned out on it because it was just too much.
I didn’t build a discipline structure, for lack of a better term, so I was kind of white-knuckling getting everything done. That ends up being enormously stressful. I’m still not as good at that as I would like to be.
I would like to be, “I write five pages, six days a week,” which gets you a hundred and twenty pages a month or thirteen hundred pages a year in script, which is the equivalent of sixty-five individual issues, which is a lot of comics. Five pages a day is not a particularly grueling pace.
But instead I have these bouts and spurts of writing like ten or eleven pages a day. I’ve even written entire issues in a single day. As that structure discussion would probably make obvious, I’m very outline oriented; I plan my stuff out ahead of time.
CB: When you get in the flow, too, often times a story will just come out. And I find with the pieces I write, when I actually sit down, sometimes the words will come incredibly easily and sometimes it’s a struggle to get things to come out. Often just that little bit of struggle, you get something on the paper, and then come the next day, all of the sudden you have broken through.
CB: Before you know it, you have ten thousand words down.
Jordan: Absolutely. I have this ideal that I would like to do that I have still haven’t gotten to yet, but I am trying to get away from (and I am much better at it now than when I was younger, but even so I do it more than I like) the spurt and then nothing. Like I’ll burn myself out and just don’t feel like writing for a couple of days. It is just unnecessary stress that I impose on myself.
But also going back to you wrote that many pages, I wasn’t necessarily trying to write out all my bad pages. I always wanted this stuff to be published. And a lot of it was; I self-published and wrote in anthologies and that kind of stuff.
But I also took what I am going to call a Zen approach. It’s not; it’s complete disrespect to Zen. But that is what I internally called it. I was like, “I am going to do the work. Whether the work is successful or fails doesn’t matter. It’s just that I am going to keep doing it. And if I succeed, I succeed. And if I don’t, I don’t. But the work is still happens.”
I managed to get pretty good at doing that, so I produced a lot of work before I got published. It had the effect of people would comment on when I did the first Strode, I had a number of reviews that said I was remarkably polished for somebody who just broke into comics. And that is why.
I don’t know how polished I was relative to other people, but I think that having written thousands of pages allowed me to work out. I understood what I wanted to do to get the comics that I wanted, limited by my talent and ability to do. You can know what you want and not get it. But I had internal rules about how I think stories should work. Things like I go through and I analyze each scene, and if I don’t know why it is there, I try to cut it, like if it doesn’t serve some purpose in the story.
Now admittedly, sometimes I thought it would be funny is a perfectly crumulent to have something in there. But for the most part, I try to get it down to the basic; it either reveals character or moves the plot forward or ideally it does both. And if it is in there, it is like can I go from A to C without B? And if I can, why do I need B? And if I don’t have an answer for that, I kick it out of the story.
CB: You have an interesting mix, Justin. You are very kind of empathetic about what you’re creating; it’s obviously coming from a deep creative point. But you’re also very analytical about it. It is an interesting combination.
Jordan: Yeah, and it seems to work, so I’ve kind of stuck with it. It is interesting how much of it is like you can have these rules and the science, but at some point, some of it is just the inevitable. As you start writing, you think of stuff and it is cool. At least for me, I need to get that medium space where I have that analysis, but I also have the freedom to kind of run with it sometimes.
CB: Yeah, it is like you are in your own head, but you are not in your own head at the same time. You can be objective and subjective at the same time.
CB: You mentioned the debut of Strode. It was a remarkably bold and bright debut. That first mini stood out on the stands. My friends were immediately buzzing about it in a way that is just not usually true for a first time creator book. Now you are revisiting these characters after having done thousands of pages since then. Do you feel different now looking back at the original stuff, the first series?
Jordan: Yes and no, but less for that reason than you might think. And more for the fact that I did the first book and I got with Tradd Moore, the artist on it. I found him on Deviant Art and I sent him an email. It was a blind email; I didn’t know Tradd at all. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure Tradd was a dude when I sent the email. Tradd sounds like a guy’s name (he is a guy), but it is ambiguous enough because he is the only Tradd I’ve ever met.
I mentioned that in the thing. I had the Zuda Comics work and had some other stuff going on before then, and I had hundreds of pages of finished art that I had written and other people had drawn it to show him. So he was willing to take a runner with me. That was when he was between his junior and senior year at Savannah College of Art and Design.
What has happened since then is Tradd and I have become really good friends. Actually, if the book had failed, it would be still be worth it for that area. But we are also really in sync about how we think about story and all that kind of stuff.
Over the years, it has gone from me writing it and Tradd draws it to we basically co-write the book together. Like with Legacy of Luther Strode, we wrote the story beats together and then I kind of go off and write scripts. I send them to him and he thinks about how he wants to draw it. He’ll add panels or delete panels or suggest stuff, and then we’ll talk about that stuff. Then we put together a completed script that is both of us. So that has changed.
That is less about me doing more work as a writer in the professional vein and more about me and Tradd trusting each other and developing a working relationship.
CB: You have the rapport and the writer-artist collaboration in the true sense.
Jordan: I think it’s a much better book for it. I think thus far Legacy of Luther Strode is the best of the Strode books. But it’s hard to say whether or not other people would agree, because it’s often hard to beat that first time.
CB: The first had a boldness to it. It pops off the page from the beginning.
Jordan: Thank you. And it is also a good quality to have in stories.
I like Stephen King’s writing. I’m pretty good with his short stories and I like his writing on writing. I don’t agree with how Stephen King writes, and that is a matter of I think he is wrong; it just doesn’t work for me, because Stephen King has this idea about when he writes novels, he thinks of it as unearthing a fossil. He doesn’t outline and stuff; he just writes. He is slowly revealing layers of stuff. Then when he rewrites, he polishes and all that kind of stuff.
I despise rewriting. I do it sometimes, but probably a good ninety percent of my work, when I get to the end of the first draft, it’s essentially what’s going to be on the page. Every now and again I will do stuff where I’ll go in and throw out the script entirely and start from scratch. But I do very little where I go back and rewrite sections of the script as exists. I either start from scratch or again or it is pretty much as it was in some parts.
There was one issue of Luther Strode that had six separate drafts before I got it where I wanted it to be. So I do that. One of the things that I’ve heard said about the reason King is as popular as he is, and I think this is probably true, is a big part of it is that for all of his other strengths and all of his other failings, Stephen King is really good at making you want to know what happens next. You need to turn the page, find the thing.
That’s a good thing to aim for when you are providing entertainment. Inasmuch as I can do that, that is what I try for. Some of that is not planned. That’s what I want, but I couldn’t analyze why Luther Strode works in that way in aside from the way that it does. It is one of those things that when I finally wrote it and sat down and read the entire thing, it was better than I thought it would be when I was writing it.
I thought it was good, but I was like, “No, this really works!” In a sense, it is hard to get over your own insecurity about that stuff. It was the same way I just proofed the first issue of Legacy. And when you’re in it, it is really hard. All you can see is the trees; you don’t see the forest, right? Usually when I get the final proof before we send it to the printers, it is the first time I can actually have enough distance from the book to actually read it as an entity. And it was good. I was like, “Yeah, I haven’t forgotten how to do this,” which I’m always kind of concerned about.
CB: So how do you protect yourself from those ticks that we all have as writers, in making sure that you don’t repeat yourself or bring out your own personal clichés?
Jordan: With some difficulty.
CB: When you write that kind of first draft matter, it just kind of all tends to flow out. We all have our conversational ticks, right?
Jordan: Yeah. I tend to embrace the conversation ticks rather than running away from them. It’s kind of like if you look at Joss Whedon’s stuff, they all sound like Joss Whedon characters.
To a certain extent, I don’t try to overanalyze it. But I do try to look at, especially when I am in the early planning stages, am I redoing something I’ve already done? Am I doing anything new? Am I doing anything fresh? Like anyone else, we have themes that we kind of rotate back to.
If you look over the course of Spread, Luther Strode and Dead Body Road, especially at Image, the idea of what violence means and whether we can do without violence and whether it is good and the idea of revenge and power and all that stuff comes up in a lot of the stuff I’ve done because that stuff interests me apparently me. That’s general enough that you can probably get a lot out of that.
I have a couple of projects I want to do and it is kind of frustrating because I realized there’s these three separate projects I want to do that are all kind of the same story. I think in execution they would be different enough that I could away with it. But the fact that they are all variations on the same story is a concern.
CB: You think you are kind of working through these issues? Like do you feel like your thoughts on the impact of violence, for example, is changing as you explore it?
Jordan: I think so. I just got off a run at New Guardians at DC where I did basically two years. I did twenty-one issues and then an Annual and a Future’s End and a Special and stuff. So it was two years worth of stuff. And when I was doing that, my interest in that (and this is kind of my overall interest of superheroes a lot of the time) is power in and of itself is not necessarily enough to solve problems. It often isn’t. It’s usually a necessarily, but not sufficient component, right?
A real world example: We went into Iraq. We got Suddam Hussein. He was executed. We beat their army. We did that. We didn’t fix Iraq. That’s not how things get fixed. You can’t go and take out the leader and assume the organization is just going to fall apart. That’s not how organizations usually work. It doesn’t change the underlying context of it.
But that’s kind of the deal with superpower stuff. It’s like, “Oh, I can go in and do this and save the day,” but you can’t. The idea with Kyle was that Kyle essentially had this god-like power. So the issue for me writing New Guardians was never what could Kyle do; it’s what should Kyle do.
All of my stories in that run were intentionally permeations on that same theme. That was the overall theme in my run on the book. Certainly a lot of that was me as I was working out how that actually worked and part of it was me refining that idea in my head, basically seeing what I thought about it and working it out on paper. My conclusion at the end of it was different than it would have been at the beginning of it. The intention was to work it out.
CB: And as a character, he had changed and grown also.
CB: Which is satisfying, especially playing in the DC Universe.
Jordan: I was really lucky with New Guardians because they let me do literally everything I wanted to do. The only thing I wanted to do in New Guardians that I was not allowed to do was bring back Warth in the final issue.
I had killed Warth and the other Blue Lanterns in an early issue, but I always liked Warth. So what I wanted to do at the end was I wanted him to come back and Saint Walker, the other Blue Lantern, would be there. He would like, “How are you alive?” He’s like, “It’s a long story. We don’t have time to get into it.” And that would literally be all the explanation I would give. He’s like, “It’s a story for another time.” Somebody else can figure it out later if they wanted to, which I thought was hilarious. DC disagreed.
CB: What does it matter now? They’re rebooting again. You can do anything at this point.
Jordan: That was my argument. I was fine. It was just a minor gag, so it wasn’t a plot point that I really was inclined to fight for. So for better or for worse, whatever New Guardians is, you have me to blame. That is one of those situations where I can’t say… Well, editorial asked me to have Kyle and Carol in a relationship, and I didn’t disagree with that. I didn’t have a problem with it.
Other than that, that book is pretty much pure me. Whatever the good parts of it are, are to my credit. And whatever the bad parts are, my blame.
CB: So you had a lot of freedom in that book, which is interesting. I expect that from BOOM! and Image, obviously. Image more than anything. But to play with the sandbox characters is kind of a special thing.
Jordan: It’s fun. And I was lucky to have been able to do it.
CB: Did you make a post-conversion pitch or were you more for getting back to your…
Jordan: Not for Guardians. I am going to pitch them something. I have this idea for a Bane book that I think they might dig, especially now that the Bat offices have tried to take on new things. It is kind of superheroes meets Jason Bourne through the lens of the character Bane to a certain extent. It’s more Jason Bourne in tone. It would be kind of grittier.
The basic idea of it would be that Bane looked at trying to be Batman. He looked at his own life and he determined that the problem is the world. Societies are producing and need people like him and need people like Batman. It means they are broken at the core. So he basically becomes dedicated to trying to bring down governments and these long standing organizations.
CB: That sounds really interesting.
Jordan: I thought so.
CB: And something you could turn. It doesn’t have to be Bane.
Jordan: No, it doesn’t. If they don’t want to do it with Bane, I can always do it on my own because it is a concept. I could create a new character to fill the same role.
CB: It is interesting hearing you talk about it because I could absolutely see you writing that series. It just feels like a very you series.
Jordan: I agree.
CB: Obviously since it came out of you.
Jordan: Yeah. I am going to pitch it for them. It’s one of those deals. There are things you can see. I don’t know. I can see it. Yes, they feel like a ‘me’ series because I know what I am interested in, and it is clear from what I have already written what I am interested in. So through those you can kind of see that.
So I am going to pitch that for them. But right now I am all creator-owned stuff. I would like to do stuff at Marvel and DC because there is stuff I would like to write.
It would be a different book, but just to go back to apparently I like villains. I had actually shot an email to an editor I know at Marvel saying that I would like to do a Kingpin book. Because I had this idea. And I will flat out say that it was inspired by watching the Daredevil trailer, which I am super excited for the Netflix series.
It would be interesting to imagine the Kingpin as a man who intentionally got into crime with the idea that all of these crime wars and all this uncontrolled crime was bad, and the police would never fix it. The only way to fix it was to become the person who was in charge of it. So he basically starts out a criminal career with good intentions.
CB: You don’t believe in good and evil on some level, do you?
Jordan: No. I mostly don’t.
CB: That’s another theme that comes through your work, which I tend to agree with also because we are always motivated by our own self-interests and goals.
Jordan: That is overtly the deal with Luther Strode, especially if you look at the first series. Luther makes this series of decisions. They all turn out badly. But you can always see what he was trying to do. It is just that he was too young, too inexperienced, to make the right decision. He tried to make a good decision that turned out to be a bad decision
It’s the same way with other stuff. Very few people think of themselves as villains in their own story. That is a cliché thing to say, but I think it is true, too. And I always think it is more interesting to probe into people trying to good and becoming evil as a result. There are different permeations of that.
That goes back to, more recently, Breaking Bad, which people have talked about. They think, and I disagree which is why I say they think… They call it a story of a good man who turns bad. My premise about Breaking Bad is that Walter White was always a bad man. It was about a bad man who was good until he didn’t have to be, and then he turned into what he always was. And I actually think Jesse on that show is the opposite. I think Jesse fundamentally is a good and decent person who circumstances have turned him relatively bad. He is sort of the antithesis, by design I assume.
So it is that kind of deal. If you ask Walt up until the end of Breaking Bad, he would have told you he was trying to do something good. It sounded good. And that is the same thing with that Kingpin series. To do what he needs to do, you cannot be a good person, not in an objective sense of other people looking at you.
That I think would be the interesting, dramatic part of that; you would see this guy that wanted to do good losing everything he cared about as he became increasingly more ruthless to accomplish this goal, to the point where his goal becomes entirely empty once he is at the top. And again, that is very much like Breaking Bad. When Walt gets what he wants, his original reasons for it, it rings completely hollow.
CB: That’s a tragic hero.
Jordan: Yeah. And that appeals to me. As I said, the first Luther Strode is overtly a tragedy. It is structured like a tragedy. And the second one is what happens if you survive a tragedy, which traditional tragic heroes never do. But he did.