Joshua Luna: Everybody has their own fearA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
I've been a fan of Josh Luna's comics for at least six or seven years now, since I first discovered his collaborations with his brother on comics like Girls, The Sword and Ultra. Josh's work is smart, thrilling, and deeply resonant of interesting and complex themes. So when I had the chance to interview Josh at this year's San Diego Comic-con, I was excited to speak to him. But I had no idea that our conversation would be as interesting and thoughtful as it ended up being. Josh is a fascinating interview - equal parts instinctive and thoughtful, philosophical and empathetic.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: One of our favorite publishers is Image, and you kind of exemplify what makes Image special. You followed through on your vision. You created work that is specifically yours -- and your brother's as well, of course. Now you’re doing your own individual work and you’ve been pretty successful in that world.
Luna: I hope so.
CB: It’s got to be very rewarding in several different senses of the word. So as I’ve mentioned I have friends that have specifically brought up The Sword as a book that resonated with them, specifically the family with a hidden secret. Does that come from an inspiration with your family?
Luna: I think everyone has their secrets? Dark secrets. What fascinates me is creating genre stories, or supernatural elements, horror or sci-fi. I always had a love for mythology. I grew up watching Ray Harryhausen movies, the stop animation films of the whole pantheon of Greek gods clashing with mortals.
I love that stuff, so I wanted to find a way to bring it to modern-day and make it somehow more relevant to me. The challenge was how to bring that world that is so fantastic to life, how do you make it real? How do you make it present? So I wanted to create a family that was very normal, but they had a buried secret. The dad was holding a sword that was four thousand years old, and it was created by the demigods. So it’s a story that has linked the two worlds together. I guess it’s a metaphor for the sword. It holds lots of baggage. It’s a metaphor for secrets and power struggles.
CB: I think that’s a little bit of what I know I responded to was this feeling like your parents had this life before you were born, and you spent so much of your life in your own little world that suddenly when you reach a certain age their world becomes revealed to you.
Luna: And you never think your parents are cool, you know? Turns out he’s the coolest guy in the world!
CB: And it doesn’t necessarily bring the family closer though!
Luna: No, not at all.
CB: Because like all families, things are complicated.
Luna: Because he had to keep a secret from her because it was a dangerous secret. The threat was very present, clearly.
CB: So it’s interesting that mythology was a big part of that to you. Was that on the way of how you approach your work?
Luna: I learned from classics and the stories that came before me. I’m always influenced by that stuff like that. Definitely.
CB: As I’ve said though the first work I’ve read from you was Girls. That's much more of a story than a horror story, but it's a unique take on horror.
Luna: Yeah, I mean I always loved zombie stories. Horror was a big thing for me growing up, but I didn’t want to bombard the industry with another zombie story because there was so much of that material even back then in 2005.
So I tried to think out of the box about what would be different. Instead of something monstrous, I wanted to create something that would be beautiful but still monstrous. I also thought of the theme of Gremlins. I loved that movie growing up, but what if there was a girl who would reproduce that way? There’s the mogwai issue, if she is good or bad being in, the original movie.
Also it was a vehicle for me to explore gender issues because I love exploring that kind of stuff, the character dynamics, relationships. How would this reveal relationships - even some that appear perfect? The monster doesn’t just kill you, it kills your relationship. It tests you. It reveals the stuff that you don’t want to talk about.
CB: Yeah I think that’s the real horror of it, the truth of the people that you love, trust, betraying that trust.
Luna: What do you choose -- your relationships or this girl, this supposed fantasy?
CB: In some way it’s kind of a parable of how we all live our lives. Maybe that’s the part that gives it so much resonance, too. The whole atmosphere is so eerie. I found myself alternately attracted and repelled by the girls.
Luna: If they were zombies it would be a short story.
CB: What’s your feeling about the zombie renaissance now?
Luna: I love horror. It's great. I’m a fan of the undead. It’s cool.
CB: You were starting to show me some of the layouts for Girls. Do you want to talk about that some?
Luna: Sure, I never really showed the behind-the-scenes process before. For years my brother and I would have this process working on the whole book together. So what would happen is we would create the plot together, and then I would write the scripts, and then I would draw thumbnails -- detailed thumbnails which are based off my script, and I would show my brother. There are thumbnails for every issue of the series.
He would create an inked and colored version based off of my thumbnails, then I would put the word bubbles on it. I thought it would be fun to show the process to aspiring artists and people who are interested in our past works. How it came about, the inception of the idea. I think Image is all about the inception of an idea.
CB: Did you feel like that was just a process that evolved organically or did you consciously work to create something that would work well for the both of you?
Luna: I think it’s organic. I was a young guy. I was just trying to express myself creatively and everything just came out naturally. For me I never thought too deeply on how to create stories. I just wanted to create. That’s what I love to do.
CB: Have you done this sort of thing in the past? Kids growing up do all kinds of stuff to be creative. I’ve made my own little comics myself.
Luna: Oh yeah, as soon as I was old enough to draw I would staple lined paper together -- not even figure out how much pages I’d need, I’d just staple it together. I would draw random stories that came to my head, very organically, very stream of consciousness. I did that when I was little. So it’s just amazing that I can do this as a profession, as a career. I’m very humbled and honored to do that.
CB: Did you and your brother have a process worked out for years about the way you worked together? Or did you specifically choose to do this book, and make Girls in particular in that way?
Luna: Well before Ultra, our first project, I essentially worked alone for the most part, because I went to college and made my own home-made comics books. Even back in high school and before that, I was always more of a lone artist. When we both graduated college we both wanted to get into the industry together -- not necessarily together, but we both wanted to get into comics. We thought it would be cool to combine our strengths or our artistic talents, and that’s how Ultra came about. I guess it was a very organic process.
CB: The thing that strikes me the most about these layouts is the emotion and energy in them. You're really following the Scott McCloud idea of really simple designs that have real power to them. These aren’t what I think of classic thumbnails. They’re almost stick figures.
Luna: What I love about these is that I drew these knowing no one would see it but my brother. It was actually so freeing to draw whatever I wanted to. I think that when you draw for print you always hold something back. So it’s fun to show these looser pages.
CB: It’s interesting because all of your work really has a slick veneer to it. It’s very polished and professional. It has an almost animated style. Is that intentional? Is that what you go from very loose to very defined? In the art style, is that an important part of the progression for you?
Luna: Whispers #1, it was more like my thumbnails. It was just pencil, and then I scanned it in with the contrast high enough so it was dark enough and then I put the colors in. That had a more organic and sketchy feel to it, but I realized digital was faster because I had to have a schedule in mind and streamline it more. So there are those factors that come into play too.
CB: I’m intrigued by what Girls would have been like if it had been like a black and white book. Part of what made it so spooky- I don’t mean to stay fixated on this, I think it’s kind of typical of your work as a whole is that there’s the contrast as a horror of what’s happening and a clean, pristine art style. This is a much more visceral kind of thing. Was that meant to be part of the horror? Is that something consciously thought about?
Luna: I guess it came about accidentally. I can’t speak for my brother because he had his reasons for doing it the way that he had – I'm not sure how much of that was intentional.
CB: Tell me about your latest book.
Luna: It’s called Whispers. It’s about a mentally troubled man who suddenly discovers he has the powers to leave his body when he sleeps at night. He’s like a ghost that can phase through objects, teleport to people --only to people he knows, though. He can also manipulate people’s thoughts -- again, only people he knows, and only thoughts they’re considering already. So it kind of says the statement of are we really in control over our thinking, or are we always pushed to do things that we’re considering but not really committed to.
It’s a story about free will and losing control. When he's in this phase, this ghost-form, he is empowered at first. He has a tremendous power to control people. He also starts to hear voices and see demonic visions of individuals that normal people can’t see because he is in this world; he's susceptible to this world. So it’s sort of like he is opening a gateway and trying to keep his sanity in the process.
CB: This could go really in any direction.
CB: I could see it as a horror story, I could see "I hate my boss; I’m going to take this pen and shove it in their eye!"
Luna: He does that. He tries to solve his everyday problems with these powers, but it always causes more problems because there’s only so much that you can control. That’s the point of the story. You don’t have complete control over every element of the world.
CB: Impulse control is something that we’re used to as adults but we’re always gating with children in particular. I always find myself fighting my anger or frustration or whatever with my spouse or boss too, so it’s a resonant idea. I almost wouldn’t want to know that someone can force that would want to act on the anger that I feel with traffic for five minutes I want to just slam on the gas and I don’t care what happens.
Luna: It’s scary.
CB: Exactly, but I can also see it falling in the exact opposite way too. What’s the approach you’re taking with that?
Luna: Well, it’s kind of horror/crime. But with all the stories I do, no matter what the genre is, it’s important for me to just explore the characters and the conditions they go through -- just the human conditions in the best way they interest me.
CB: You seem very philosophical about the approach to this series. Is your work in some way a way of exploring how you feel about the rest of the world?
Luna: For me it has to be. For every character, I have to be that character. I don’t like straight up villains or heroes. For me everyone has a story. Everyone has a journey. We're fighting something. I think to me that makes the best stories – someone's clear motivation for what they’re doing. They’re not doing it for the sake of evil. Even though there are some very demonic things.
CB: This cover has a very spooky image. Is that symbolic?
Luna: That is symbolic.
CB: We all have the tiger inside of us essentially…?
Luna: We really deal with the mind as a kind of Rorschach test. So here you see a demon, here is the DNA strand, what if our molecules were fighting each other all the time and our brain was working against us.
CB: Wow! You love playing with the symbolism, don’t you?
Luna: I do. And here’s the last issue. It’s like Rosary beads, but.
CB: Can you really wash your hands of your inner evil?
Luna: Yes. Are your hands ever clean?
CB: No one’s hands are ever clean. That’s part of what makes this interesting. In Girls and Ultra, we're always fighting whatever impulses are inside us.
CB: What comes first? Is it the characters, or the concepts you want to explore?
Luna: That's a good question because right now I’m going through creating a new story. It’s always a very difficult process because I always think I want to do something and I have it so clear in my mind. I want to do a story about this guy in this situation, and then I realize I have another idea that I don’t like. And the idea that I don’t like, I always go back to. It’s always like I throw away what I need to do. It’s always different. Sometimes it’s the characters, sometimes it’s the story. I know it’s cheesy, but sometimes it finds me more than I find it, if that makes sense.
CB: I talked to someone the other day who talked about how important it was to let out the back of your brain to develop the ideas. That will tell you the more important ways that the more you look something through the more it will resonate with you.
Luna: When I think of a story I subconsciously think of what’s hot now. I should do a zombie story, a superhero story, and I find myself not listening to my true voice. What I want to say. What I need to say truly. It diverts me sometimes to follow the media and outside sources. It takes a lot of inner searching to find those stories.
CB: In a lot of ways that’s kind of what your stories are about. To use the Freudian term, the id and superego in eternal conflict with each other.
CB: That’s kind of the ultimate story of humanity. The story of human beings as human beings.
Luna: Exactly. That interests me.
CB: Tell me more about that. Are there any particular aspects of that you find in yourself reflected in that?
Luna: People know that as different as we all think people are, we all share a common connective tissue. We all go through struggles, and we’re all the same in that sense. I guess I subconsciously want to find a similar universal narrative. Even though the characters are very diverse and different, I mean in things that they would experience. Anyone can find struggle in their story. It’s fascinating to me to read stories like that where you see a character you have nothing in common with like in Breaking Bad, for example, I would never make meth but I still relate to this character. I’m compelled. I’m engaged. That's great to me. I love stuff like that.
CB: That’s a fascinating analogy because Walter is a completely terrible lead character, yet at the same time he's so compelling. He’s such an interesting person and you can really see yourself in that. If you’re forced to make a series of decisions on what happened, that’s a lot of what Whispers sounds like it's about also. So can you sublimate yourself as a character in a series of wrong decisions?
Luna: A big theme of the story is fear, and it’s different for everybody. I don’t want to spoil anything, but everyone has their own, and the definition of what fear is, but we all fear and that is a very common thing.
CB: We all fear maybe a lot of the same things but in different ways. It’s fair to say that all of your books have some element of fear in them? Fear of loss of family is of course really important to you.
Luna: Fear of losing celebrity status with Ultra. On a primal level, fear of death. Fear of losing relationships…
CB: Of course, all of life is also about facing those fears and sometimes accepting those fears, too. Do you find this to be a good way to think through some of the problems in your own life? In some ways I guess that's the goal of every author.
Luna: You have to find the truth in everything that you're writing. Even if you're writing about crazy girls coming from eggs or whatever. Or super-heroes. You have to make it real for yourself.
CB: Then that reality gets conveyed onto the paper, too. It’s not just the philosophy, it’s the actual execution, too. Do you have a method for determining Whispers is going to run six issues and how you’re going to tell the story, and how you’ve ended up developing it?
Luna: I have a loose outline. I would throw out broad strokes first. Where it begins and the middle, not so much the ending right away because I want to surprise myself. I think if you know the story too well, where it's going, then it's not as much fun because as an artist you’re actually going through a journey, too, with the reader. The audience is very smart. They figure things out. You should never underestimate them. I like to leave things more open-ended.
CB: I’ve heard a lot of people talk about they start with the ending and then work backwards so they know exactly where the story will go, so you get the perfect zing at the end. So you go the opposite way. You want to be surprised.
Luna: Yeah, I want to be surprised too. Because I think it’s not just a journey for the reader, but a journey for me too.
CB: That kind of illustrates the writing from the subconscious idea. You literally haven’t thought it through?
Luna: I have! I know where I’m going, it’s just that I’m open to the idea that there’s three avenues. Should I go straight, left, right or six other directions? I don’t want to know until I get to that point. Once I get there I’ll figure out where I want to go.
CB: I can think of a lot of my writing as a way of thinking through questions about things. Especially when I’m writing criticism. I like to think "Why does something resonate with me?" A lot of it I think of it as back-brain or subconscious thinking. I’m always thinking through my thoughts. It’s almost a revelation when my words get down on paper. I may have an approach in mind, or some specific words in mind, but by the time I get two hundred words in, it starts to reveal itself to me. I almost think it’s almost a mystical process. I know it’s not, but you know that feeling?
Luna: Totally. I was writing Whispers #1 and then started writing the other five issues. It became very difficult and I haven’t even drawn the first one yet. I put that aside and did this first. Once I started actually drawing the issues, they came about more organically and naturally. Also when you’re drawing you realize you’ll have to write some pages over – things that can be said in a gesture or a look. I’ve learned to leave things a little more open.
CB: The simple look or simple gesture is one of the things I think of in your work, also. The small moment of the wife looking at the husband.
Luna: It’s real life.
CB: Well yeah, exactly, right? And the more you know somebody the more than one look means so much.
Luna: It’s like 90% communication is body language.
CB: It’s hard for a lot of ours to pull that kind of thing off. It’s a key part of your approach though.
Luna: I was always an artist first. I was more visual so actually when I broke into the industry, I never really wrote anything professionally. Ultra was the first thing I ever wrote in long form, professionally. So I essentially learned to write in front of an audience, which was very nerve-wracking. What happened under the process was that I learned to love writing as well as drawing. That’s what Whispers is. They’re both so intertwined for me, I can’t separate them.
CB: This is the first book that you have done without your brother. How has that changed your approach to it?
Luna: What’s different is that my scripts are more for me because when you work with someone else you have to be very clear. When I work for myself, it's short form. I know what I’m saying, so they’re more of like reminders. Sometimes I leave things empty because I know what I'm going to say when I draw it, and put the word bubbles in later on since I already know where I'm going. It’s more organic. It comes together, not as structured, but it comes together eventually.
CB: Can’t come back to that. It’s organic. The story kind of finds its own way. Interesting approach. It’s not exactly the Watchmen approach, I’ll put it that way, where it’s like clockwork and you're setting seeds up in the first chapter deliberately to have it come back in the sixth one. Or the Arrested Development approach might be a better example where there are jokes about Buster’s hand in Season One they come back when he loses his hand.
Luna: The Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of thing. Like Seinfeld. I do tie in things like that, but loosely. There’s always stuff like that in Whispers where if I foreshadow something that happens in the future. That happens too. I like to leave the space open as well.
CB: You really do exemplify what Image is supposed to be about: the change to kind of find your own way and it’s successful.
Luna: I appreciate that. I didn’t think of myself that way.
CB: How do you think of yourself?
Luna: I don’t know. I just want to create books, and most of the time I’m in my room in my pajamas just drawing. That’s what I think of myself. I just like creating and trying to challenge myself. I don’t think of myself in terms of being…
CB: It's the creator finding his own way, and being true to his vision and approach. That’s the way I see it, anyway. A safe heaven to create work that means something to you. Do you feel that way too? Do you feel you have control of your career?
Luna: I hope so. I want to keep doing what I’m doing now. Create original stories that resonate with me. If I can keep doing that, I'm happy. That’s what I want to do.