Jon Bogdanove: Subverting Expectations with StrongmanA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
In the world of comics in 2013, where everything that once was taken for granted is now common, it's not unusual for a well-known creator to go the route of self-publishing his own graphic novel through Kickstarter. So i
t shouldn't be surprising that Jon Bogdanove, one of the creators behind one of the best-selling comic series of the last 25 years, should be pushing his latest book through Kickstarter. Freedom is an important thing, and it's great to follow your vision for comics art, unfettered by standard constraints, and with the assistance of your son and friends.
But as you'll see from this conversation, Jon Bogdanove is a bit of a maverick in the comics field. He enjoys doing things his own way and in following a very specific vision for comics art. In part, that's why he decided to follow a very different approach than many of his peers who have created Kickstarters: Jon aims to raise $200,000 up front in order to pay himself, and especially his team, including letterer, colorist and assistant artist, a liveable page rate comparable to DC and Marvel, while creating a massive 150-page hardcover graphic novel starring his character Strongman.
Who is Strongman?
Jon Bogdanove: For me Strongman is kind of a legacy project. The archetype for this character design has been floating around in the back of my mind for years, but the idea to do a story about a team of proto-superheroes based on circus side show freaks in the 1920s was Kal-El and Chris’s.
[Jon nods toward Chris Faiella, and Jon’s son Kal-El, both co-writers/co-creators on the project. Chris and Kal-El are established writers in the video game industry with credits on a number of major franchises, including Command and Conquer, Sherlock Holmes, Starcraft, Skullgirls, House: Critical Cases and more. Kal-El is also a director of voice and performance capture on numerous properties, including Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Fallout: New Vegas, Guild Wars 2, Quantum Conundrum, and more.]
Strongman, aka Bronislav "Bron" Bellman, legendary circus athlete and crime-fighter.
Chris Faiella: Yeah it was just one of those things where we all got together and threw around ideas.
Kal-El Bogdanove: At the time, Chris and I and were working for a little company called Reverge Labs in Marina Del Rey where we had been writing, and script consulting on a game called Skullgirls. Shortly after, Reverge was approached by Disney for ideas for free-to-play games. Reverge had this wonderful tech for coding 2-D cell animation and that really appealed to Disney. Anyway, Reverge came to us and asked if we had any ideas the three of us could pitch. So we spent a day kinda locked in our studio. I think we came up around twelve or thirteen--
Jon: -- genius ideas! Well, some were more genius than others.
Kal-El: And one of them was Strongman. Chris said something like “What about a circus strong man and a group of circus freaks who are like the X-Men? They’re outcasts of society to a degree, but they work together like a family of heroes. As freaks and circus athletes, they have powers and abilities that others don’t.”
Chris: In a lot of ways, they are like real-world superheroes. It’s starting to trend pretty well with things like Kick Ass and all that kind of stuff now, you know what I mean? It’s the whole notion of everybody looks to comic books and they’re like “Aw, man. Superheroes. If only they existed!” But a kind of superheroic ability exists already, in the skills of circus performers.
Strongman's circus family. Clockwise from top left: Bella The Ball, demurely coquettish Sumo champion; Lumi, Gypsy fire handler; Lupita, The Wolf Girl; Rolly (Raleigh) "Tynamo" Beaudine, magician, knife expert, pitch man.
Jon: When you think about the basic superhero costume, specifically Superman’s iconic tights and cape, with pants on the outside, and boots-- these were clearly drawn from circus costumes of aerialists, tightrope walkers and strongmen. I think that without the circus, we wouldn’t have Superman’s costume. The archetypal image of the superhero would not exist without the circus.
Kal-El: The idea really appealed to me because I had read a book, the life story of a guy called The Mighty Atom. Not the shrinking superhero, but an actual real life strongman athlete who did amazing things. He could do things like tie an airplane to his hair and prevent it from taking off. He could bend railroad spikes in his teeth-- incredible stuff that you read about and go “I don’t know how that’s even possible.” but there are pictures. These feats are documented.
Jon: He was once shot in the head with a .22 and flattened the bullet on his forehead. It was not a part of the act.
Kal-El: That's right. Some guy had developed an obsession with his wife, and came to try and shoot The Mighty Atom. He shot him in the face. It left a giant bruise, but he lived right through it and disarmed the guy. There were other strongmen like this. Probably one of the greatest of the age was Louis Cyr. He is the guy that we get the image from with the handlebar moustache. He was a French-Canadian lumberjack and he was phenomenally strong. He could lift horses on his back. He lifted a flat with sixteen men on it over his head. Just incredible.
These were all real guys who actually did these things. So the idea for a character like this had been rattling around in all three of our heads for years. But it was when Chris vocalized it in a meeting that it all came together.
Preliminary rough sketch of Strongman and Woollcott: Everyone needs a best friend. Strongman and Woollcott were both orphaned when they were little. Both grew big.
The spookiness and logic of circus based super-heroes
Chris: The idea was that circus freaks or show folk in general were cast out from society back in the day. They were society's outcasts at the time, but they all had unique characteristics and unique abilities, like the X-Men.
Jon: Kal-El and Chris came up with the perfect scenario for the idea of a Strongman as prototype superhero, and his fellow circus acts as a sort of proto-superhero team. The concept fits so well as a period piece, set prior to the appearance of Superman in 1938. We all started firing off each other, and before you know it we had this entire cast of wonderful and endearing freaks, and a whole world and mythos set in the early part of the last century. Superheroes in the age before superheroes.
Kal-El: Traveling heroes, who go from town to town the way the circus does. And this circus has an uncanny way of going where our heroes are needed most. Somehow, they’re always in the perfect position to help somebody who is in trouble. We deliberately picked a very large sandbox in terms of what kind of trouble that can be. Everything from the kind of hard-boiled pulp crime and high adventure that Doc Savage or The Shadow would face, to Lovecraftian Gothic horror and steam-punky sci-fi.
And of course Strongman — the character, Bron — his origins are Russian. So there is this wonderful realm of Russo-Finnish mythology and folklore that’s very rich, and super bizarre. There’re all kinds of very strange stuff there to be explored — we cast a fairly wide net in terms of the kinds of stories that we can tell.
Early concept sketches of Woollcott, as a baby and as an adolescent.
Jon: They all seem to grow out of the idea of the circus. Because, as Chris pointed out, the circus has a sort of dual identity. A circus can be fun, bright family entertainment, but also, a circus is scary, and strange, and a place you see pickled fetuses in jars.
Kal-El: There’s a macabre, dark, disturbing side to the circus. There’s color and fun and light and show, but also a dark and mystical underbelly to that.
Chris: Bright colors versus darkness. We’re trying to play both sides of that contrast -both with the characters and the circus itself. A dark circus is creepy as hell. With a clown, for instance: a clown in the daylight? Ah, it’s a clown doing balloon animals! But a clown at night is terrifying.
It’s the same thing with the characters. Spectators show up and go “Oh my god! Ooo. These guys are strange! These guys are weird!” and they’re kind of a little scared of them, but the reality is when the lights go off, and the circus shuts down- they’re actually the ones going out into the night and saving people from the real monsters. So on the surface they’re kind of strange, even scary, but underneath they’re heroic. Likewise some of the villains can appear very dapper and handsome, but underneath, they can be monstrous and evil.
Kal-El: Subverting expectation is the thing, I think. Appearances are deceiving and the same thing can be very different seen in a different light. Some of the ugliest people are some of the best inside, and some beautiful people can be pure evil.
When Woollcott was orphaned by hungry cavemen, he was rescued and raised by Bron. The circumstances that made this possible are timey-wimey and too long to explain here. Order the book and read the episode.
Jon: For some reason, in our heads anyway, that mixture of pulpy crime, Lovecraftian horror, and Slavic folktales really gel under the big tent in the circus. It’s a great universe to play in. We’ve already got fans drawings of Strongman and the cast, just from a little bit of buzz on the internet. People have been sending us drawings, which I think is incredibly charming and inspiring.
Kal-El: It’s really just what we wanted. At one point or another we’ve all been touched by the kind of comics where what brings you back is not necessarily some overarching destroying-the-universe plot. Sometimes it’s just the family of characters. I read a whole bunch of Mark Waid’s Flash comics in the '90s, and I loved the family element to those. Occasionally they’d go on long arc, high stakes stories, but more often there would just be a fun villain who would wander in and the stakes would be human. What was really going on was the creation of that Flash family of characters at that time.
Early Strongman concept sketches.
Reality makes the mystery more bizarre
Chris: What makes Marvel movies like The Avengers so special is that those characters are essentially forming a family. That’s what we saw in the first Avengers movie.
Kal-El: In the classic age of Marvel Comics, there were always moments where superheroes are walking around on a New York City street having a hotdog — nowadays, shwarma or something. That's part of why the comics were good. If you’re always pedal-to-the-metal in some ongoing race, then that becomes the baseline, and nothing seems exciting.
Jon: If everyone is screaming all the time, then nobody is ever louder than anyone else.
Kal-El: So it’s important to us to explore human moments and concentrate on human stakes, even when the threat is supernatural… and to focus on the continuity of relationships as much as the continuity of the plot.
Jon: When I started reading X-Men, when Chris Claremont and John Byrne and Louise Simonson were doing it back in the late '70s — for me, it really had much of the feel of Stan and Jack’s Fantastic Four — in that Chris was investing very heavily in character bits. When we did Fantastic Four vs The X-Men together, he would write scenes like the one where She-Hulk and Thing have a moment in a coffeehouse somewhere, for instance. Chris would spend pages on this. It did nothing to advance the plot against what Dr. Doom was up to. But it was the kind of scene that, as a reader, made me want to spend time with the characters. Also, as an artist, he was really playing to my strengths with character and emotion.
Concept drawing of Lupita, The Wolf Girl.
Kal-El: Another thing that the cozy, human stuff does — it makes the really high stakes, life-or-death moments much more exciting and heightened. You’ve gotten comfortable and fallen in love with these characters, then, when a threat comes along it really feels like a threat.
Why Kickstarter and what do you get?
Jon: It’s a six-story collection.
Kal-El: It’s like an anthology of legends about Strongman and his friends. . You can order the trade paperback, hardback, or digital PDF bundle. Or all of the above. It’s 150 pages of content, — large format — which is about twice the page count on the average graphic novel on Kickstarter, for the same price as a comparable collection in any store.
Chris: Plus, there are a bunch of exclusive perks and packages you can buy. Posters, shirts, even original art. You can even run away and join the circus. For a reasonable price, we will create a character from your likeness, or the likeness of someone you love. Working with you, we will include you in the story. Plus, you get the original page of art on which your face first appears. Pretty cool trophy, or an amazing gift or wedding present.
More concept art for Lupita. She is a Quinceañera princess from a respectable family of Hypertrichiosics, who traded her frills and lace for the life of a circus performer and crime-fighting werewolf.
Kal-El: That’s one of the main benefits to funding a book on Kickstarter. You literally can be involved in the creation. With Kickstarter, we can have a direct connection with our audience in a way that no comics company can. There are many levels at which you can be involved. You can get your name printed in the book for just $1. Or, you can order the digital PDF for $15. Or you can order the physical book sent right to your home for $45. We’re publishing both English and Spanish versions at once, so you have a choice. And we answer our mail, so you can talk with us while we are writing and drawing the story — even influence what we do. So there is feedback and interaction with our readership in a way that I think fosters that really wonderful feeling of family that we had as comics fans.
Jon: What we’re doing is a little bit risky because a lot of graphic novels on Kickstarter are just collections of things that are already done. People have webcomics that they’ve funded with ads, and their work is all behind them. They’re just trying to pay for publication. We’re actually trying to pay for the production of the content itself, plus the printing and the distribution.
We want to pay our letterer and our background assistant and our color artist a professional Marvel or DC page rate, a liveable rate. We’re by necessity underpaying ourselves a bit, just so we can do the project.
Early Strongman model sheet.
So it’s very ambitious, and we’re going to need a lot of help to make it happen. But this is the most democratic hope for new concepts and ideas in the world. You make a presentation to the readers. If they like it, they can order it before it’s made. If there aren’t enough orders to pay for making the book, then nobody’s credit card is charged and the project just doesn’t happen.
Kal-El: We will need everyone to pitch in. It’s a low price point to buy the book, but if you don’t go online and order it, it will never be made. You can’t wait and buy it in stores. We’re hoping that if you care about good story, if you care about great characters— you’ll click on the link now. Go to our Kickstarter page and order your copy of Strongman. After you do, please go on Facebook, get on Twitter, get on the phone, rent a plane and do some skywriting. Whatever it takes to let people know.
Jon: There’s not a lot of time left, and the clock is ticking.
Superheroes don't smile much these days, but Strongman enjoys a good laugh.
How can we talk to Jon Bogdanove and not talk about the Death of Superman?
Jon: I think the most remarkable thing about the way we worked on Superman was the whole Superman team— those of us who worked on all four of the titles— co-plotted everything. It was like working Marvel-style cubed— compounded to the power of four. It was madness because when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were working in this style it was just Stan and Jack. But, Mike Carlin [editor of the Superman titles at the time] created that level of collaboration among four teams of writers, artists, and inkers!, Plus colorist! I think his intention, with Superman, was to create a sort of Marvel Age for DC. Considering the impact we had with the Death of Superman, I think he did that successfully.
It may have started because we were grumpy that a year’s worth of continuity that we had just worked out [which would have ended up with the marriage of Superman to Lois Lane] had to be scuttled for the sake of the Lois & Clark TV show. It was a last minute decision, but it became an Event—maybe the biggest event in comics history. For months, Superman comics sold in the millions for the first time since The Golden Age of the 1940s. After we did it of course, Warners quite naturally wanted a repeat performance every year. So was born an era of “event-driven comics” — but it started out really as just a story. Its success surprised everyone.
The whole gang venture into danger, in this panel excerpt.
The answer we usually give in interviews like this, is that it must have been just “a slow news day” when news of the death of Superman came out, and that explains why it became such a big thing. The Long Island Newsday picked it out of Previews or something and it became a giant media event, because nothing else was going on. It’s meant to be a humble, self-deprecating sound bite, but I think it under-estimates the cultural significance of Superman. Slow news day.
Are there any slow news days, really? What I think was that everyone — the general public, not just comics fans — all knew Superman. He is and was dear to people's hearts, worldwide. Superman is the most recognized popular cultural character in history. I think people just wanted to know he was there. Even people who never read a comic book — they loved him and wanted to think that no matter what happened in the real world, he was alive and well, fighting injustice and saving lives somewhere, invulnerable to age, change or the sad fates that befell the actors who portrayed him. It was like a piece of America was dying. So people who had never read comics before or hadn't read them in years, certainly the news media, reacted to what I think were the political implications connected to that time of the early '90s.
Bogdanove dreams of a day when his two favorite heroes might meet.
I think there’s a lot of national identification, and also world identification with Superman-- in that he is symbolic of what we’d like to think is the best of our national character, and human nature in general. He is a mythological representation of many of our core values. So, he’s part of our identity. Fighting for Truth, Justice and the most idealistic, altruistic possible version of The American Way. So what does it mean if Superman can die? That was the underlying question that made it newsworthy, I think. Did Superman’s death suggest that Truth and Justice could die as well? So it’s easy to say “Oh, it was just a slow news day.” but I think it was more than that.
Thanks to Jon and his wonderful family for joining us. Please visit their Kickstarter and suport Strongman!