Jorge Vega is a playwright, children’s author and comic book writer originally from New York and now living in Brockton, Massachusetts. In 2007, Jorge entered Platinum Studios’ “Comic Book Challenge”, an on-line contest in which more than 7 million users voted on their favorite concept. The finalists heading to last year’s San Diego Comic Con to pitch their idea to a panel of judges, which included Platinum President Scott Mitchell Rosenberg and Donald Faison, star of the hit TV series Scrubs. The winning entry was none other than Jorge’s Gunplay, an 88-page supernatural/western graphic novel illustrated by Dominic Vivona and launching this March from Platinum Studios.
Comics Bulletin’s Adam Volk sat down with Jorge to discuss his love of comic books, history and myth in the American West, and his newfound success as a professional writer.
Adam Volk: First things first. What exactly is Gunplay?
Jorge Vega: Gunplay is a story set in 19th century America. It follows the volatile, often combative relationship between a 14-year-old boy and a lost Buffalo Soldier, who roams the west with a cursed gun that forces him to shoot and kill one person every day.
AV: And what inspired you to create the original concept?
JV: Over the last few months, I’ve been asking myself the same thing. I know it “came together” while doing one of those cornball writing exercises but, now that I’m actually done with the script and looking at this thing in its entirety, I see that this story started a long, long time ago. I’ve always been interested in stories that feature sympathetic characters doing horrific things. Whether it’s the Incredible Hulk or Bigger Thomas from Native Son, the “monster hero” has always been my thing. The kind of person who continually finds themselves in situations where they must choose the lesser of two evils—and that lesser is only a hair better than the alternative. Out of those moments is born what I’ve started calling “terrible acts of heroism”. And that’s what been at the heart of my writing lately. At the heart of Gunplay.
AV: Gunplay is described as a “supernatural western”. What is it about the American Western that makes it so appealing?
JV: Well, the western as a genre, to me, has always been defined by the stark black and white nature of law and justice—especially on film, which is where I first fell in love with the western. A man shoots another man because “he had it coming”. A person’s dress, their gait even, defines their very nature. That’s a good guy. That’s a bad guy. There’s a clarity to things, to people, to actions– a clarity that is simply ridiculous. Yet, we respond to it because wouldn’t it be great if it were really that simple?
AV: So is Gunplay your way of exploring the traditional themes of the western then?
JV: The choice to set this story in the American West stems out of a deliberate desire to break that traditional clarity; to muddy things a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I love westerns but, like I said, they’re ridiculous. You can’t shoot another man, no matter how much they’ve wronged you, and walk away unchanged. There are no true bad guys. No true good guys. There’s just a bunch of dirty people riding westward under a hot sun, dragging whatever personal burdens they may have suffered through in the back of an old wagon; much like America just after the Civil War.
AV: How much research did you do in terms of finding out historical details about the time period?
JV: I did a considerable amount of research on the period before writing a single word. During that time, books like The Buffalo Soldiers by William & Shirley Leckie were indispensable. But, no matter how accurate I may think Gunplay is, someone will inevitably point out a flaw, so I’ll say this– it’s as accurate as we could make it without sacrificing the story we wanted to tell. When history gets in the way of my story, well… what good is being a writer if you can’t remake the world?
AV: Gunplay is illustrated by artist Dominic Vivona. What kind of collaborative approach did you take when working with him?
JV: In the first few weeks of the project, Dom and I spoke on the daily, almost hourly, basis. It was like we were study partners cramming for a big exam. To his credit, Dominic brings very little ego into the work environment. He’s been more than willing to give me the space to define the world of Gunplay but, when it came time to build that world, he brought forward ideas that not only worked in harmony with my vision—they magnified it.
AV: Speaking of having your vision magnified, by winning Platinum Studios Comic Book Challenge, you’re now basically living the dream of every unpublished comic book writer and artist on the planet. Can you tell us a little bit more about the experience?
JV: The whole submission and pitch process was a little surreal. I can’t say I ever really intended to be a part of the Comic Book Challenge. My initial plan was simply to get some pages together and hit the convention circuit, showing Gunplay to anyone who would give me thirty seconds of their time. I met Dominic in February 2007, loved his pencils and immediately began discussing the idea of working together on the project. He had a busy schedule and I was concerned that, without a specific end goal to anchor his time, the project might linger indefinitely. In all honesty, I only entered the CBC so I could give Dominic a firm deadline and assure that I’d have pages quickly. At that time, the thought of actually winning never entered my mind. Given the overwhelming number of entries, it seemed like a mathematical impossibility. So, of course, getting the phone call from Platinum Studios and hearing that Gunplay had been selected to be in the Top 50 was pretty damn exhilarating. From that point on, yeah, all bets were off– we wanted to win.
AV: You must have been ecstatic. How did it feel when you found out that you’d actually won?
JV: What did it feel like? I think we all know what winning feels like. Winning the comic book challenge felt good, validating and zesty. It felt like the start of something big.
AV: How has your life and career changed since winning the Comic Book Challenge and being signed with Platinum?
JV: For the most part, things have stayed the same—which is a good thing, in my opinion. I mean, I’m still a husband with two kids and the day to day responsibilities and routines of home life haven’t changed. I still work my normal nine to five at a small school in Boston and I still write. I’ve always had to squeeze my writing into the cracks between my kids’ bedtime and my commute time; winning the CBC hasn’t really changed that. What has changed is that I now get paid to write! I hope that doesn’t sound too materialistic but, man, money can really get the creative juices going. Being well paid to tell stories is fantastic and, while sacrificing the time to write – instead of doing other things – is a sacrifice that all writers have to make, it’s incredibly satisfying to know that Platinum values my time.
AV: Platinum St
udios is a relatively new company and is now competing directly with the Big Two. How has your experience been with Platinum so far?
JV: I have nothing but great things to say about the folks at the Platinum office. From day one they told me, “This is your project, your vision, Jorge. We want to help make it happen.” Sure it sounded like lip service but within a month of writing it was clear that they were serious. Platinum has given me a tremendous amount of leeway. There are parts of Gunplay that are a little…edgy. The kinds of things that make a production team pause and ask “Is someone about to get pissed at us?” To Platinum’s credit, when those moments happened, they’d call a timeout, ask me some open and honest questions, and listen to my open and honest answers. Then, we’d all move on — telling the story exactly the way I wanted to tell it. No punches pulled.
So, yeah, I love Platinum for giving me more than enough rope to hang myself with! [laughs] But I think the whole team sincerely believes that Gunplay’s honest and direct approach will rope the readers, pulling them into the cursed, horrific world of Abner Meeks. It’s where “terrible acts of heroism” are measured in gunshots and setting suns.
AV: What is it about comic books themselves that appeals to you as a medium?
JV: Comic books are where American mythology lives. I’ll never be able to add a god to the Greek pantheon. However, within comic book mythology, the roster for Mt. Olympus isn’t fixed. It’s a medium that allows mere mortals to contribute new deities, new tragic heroes, and new morality plays. Who wouldn’t want to play in that sandbox? The idea that I might be adding a new chapter to America’s growing mythology is beyond exciting.
AV: Speaking of American mythology, what comic books are you currently reading right now?
JV: For the last few years, all I’ve bought are trades. I keep a couple in heavy rotation by the bedside. Right now it’s The Walking Dead, a couple of Astro City trades, The Watchmen (an old standby) a couple of Squadron Supreme trades (that book definitely celebrates the monster hero).
AV: And who would you say are some of your biggest influences?
JV: The biggest influences on my writing don’t come from comics. The guys I want to sound like are August Wilson and Richard Wright, America’s greatest playwright and its greatest novelist in my opinion. They created heroes and drama out of nothing, out of situations that existed just outside the peripheral vision of mainstream America.
AV: Alright shameless plug time: What other projects can we expect to see from you in the near future?
JV: Well, hopefully, you’ll be seeing a Gunplay: Book Two. This project is a definite trilogy…lots of things that need explaining, lots of growth for the characters, lots of people to shoot. I’ve also got three other graphic novels and creative teams waiting in the wings: one is a story about a pregnant teen who becomes a crime boss, another one is about an army of African child soldiers and the third is a story about John Henry, the real John Henry. All of these projects are officially homeless right now but there are a few interested parties wanting to sit and talk at conventions. We’ll see, I guess.
Gunplay is published by Platinum Studios and will debut at Wizard World Los Angeles from March 14-16.To find out more information about Jorge Vega’s Gunplay, check out www.GunplayTheComic.com.