Recently I had a chance to talk with Keith Dallas, Kevin Powers and Robert Saunders about their work on new small press publisher Timeless Journey Comics. I hope you enjoy this exploration into the very unique worlds that they have created.
Jason Sacks: Keith, would you like to tell our readers a bit about the world of The Argonauts?
Keith Dallas: My simple description of the The Argonauts is that it’s about eight heroes from different time periods who are joined together to stop an alien invasion of Earth.
My more long-winded description is that it’s about Shard, a 27th century freedom fighter who concludes that the only way to overthrow the evil “D’Ent” empire that rules the galaxy is to go back in time and stop the D’Ent before they can conquer the Earth and become too powerful to withstand. So Shard constructs a time machine but when he activates it, he inadvertently causes other characters to travel in time with him: Commander Pol and Lieutenant Kidd–both of whom are part of the imperial military that Shard opposes–as well as three characters from 12th century Norway: a young sorceress named Karina, her companion Davin, and an as-yet-unnamed Mountain Giant. All of them get transported to early 21st century Argon City–a (fictitious) Mid-Atlantic American city patrolled by a high-flying crime fighter code named Dart.
Jason Sacks: One of the most fun aspects of the book is that you’re bringing together characters from the past, present and future. Why are these particular characters brought together?
Keith Dallas: Mostly to illustrate the “Tower of Babel” theme that will be running throughout the series. Years ago, when I was still formulating The Argonauts, I was running some ideas past my Omega Chase editor, Egg Embry. I was describing rudiments of the characters I wanted to use and the story I wanted to tell, and at one point during our conversation I said to Egg, “And then the characters from the future use their translator to understand 21st century English and…” But Egg stopped me by asking, “Why are you having them do that?” I didn’t understand what he meant so he asked, “Why are you letting them use a translator? Why are you letting these characters understand each other?” He went on to say that one thing about Star Trek that he can’t stand is that whenever the crew beam down to a planet, they automatically can understand–courtesy of their “universal translator”–whatever new alien race they encounter. And he thought that was just ridiculously implausible. So he stressed to me that the Argonauts characters couldn’t possibly understand each other since one group of characters would be speaking Old Nordic and another would be speaking modern English and another would be speaking whatever language the alien race use in the 27th century. That’s when it hit me to have “miscommunication” be the principal theme of The Argonauts. Here are a group of characters who have to band together in order to stop an alien invasion of Earth, but can they overcome their language barriers to do that?
Jason Sacks: It’s clearly implied in the book that these characters are brought together as part of a plan; whose plan is it, and how can specifically these characters bring down the evil D’ent Empire?
Keith Dallas: Yeah, it’s obviously not Shard’s plan since he anticipated traveling back in time by himself. So that means the gathering of these characters was either some random physical accident (which even I would have to admit would be a pretty lame explanation) or the design of someone else, perhaps one of Shard’s compatriots, hoping to provide him with valuable aid? Or is it a saboteur, hoping to impede Shard from altering history?
You’re going to have to read to find out. (And the crowd boos.)
Jason Sacks: It’s easy to see how characters from the present and future can help, but what do the medieval characters Karina and Davin bring to the series?
Keith Dallas: Well, think of The Argonauts as a “blending” of three genres: Shard, Pol and Kidd create a sci-fi foundation, and Dart brings the super-hero vibe. That leaves Karina and Davin to establish a sword and sorcery aspect. So their presence allows me to do some fun stuff as the demands and expectations of the fantasy genre collide with the sci-fi and super-hero genres.
Also, as characters, I find Davin and Karina to be very interesting. Of the book’s entire cast, I hope readers are most sympathetic to Davin. He is truly thrown into a situation that not only bewilders him but also threatens to overwhelm him. Only the presence of Karina stops him from dropping dead of shock. Speaking of Karina, she is the fantasist aspiring to transcend her mundane, medieval life. So with Shard’s unwitting help, she gets her wish, but then she makes some comments in the second and third issues that reveal what kind of person she really is.
Jason Sacks: Would you like to talk about what artist Robert Saunders has added to the book?
Keith Dallas: I’d love to since I am a huge fan of Robert’s work! I met Robert at comicbloc.com a few years ago when he began posting sketches in the Crit Forum over there. There’s a grace and cleanliness to his linework that I immediately fell in love with. I said to myself, “I HAVE to work with this guy!” Thankfully, my description of the story and its characters intrigued him enough for him to accept my offer to draw the book. And when he sent me his designs of the characters, I knew I teamed up with the artist that Argonauts–and I–need. By that, I mean Robert’s work has truly supercharged my enthusiasm for this series. It keeps me thinking about writing the next Argonauts script so Robert can keep drawing more Argonauts pages. Put another way, the writer of a creator owned book has to be the principal fan of the artist he has drawing the book. That’s definitely the case here.
Jason Sacks: Robert, tell us how you designed these characters.
Robert Saunders: Wow, I am going to have to think back to over three years ago. I believe that Keith gave me his basic design ideas for the characters, i.e. Dart had wrist bands and wings that resembled The X-Men’s Bansee. I then tried to make his costume match his name and took the idea of a dart’s flight (tail end). Pol and Kidd needed uniforms that matched as they were part of a military unit. And for Davin and Karina I googled Viking era clothing styles and took it from there. Then Keith and I bounced ideas back and forth, like about which colours worked. For instance, Pol went through several skin colour changes, and I originally designed Dart in blue. The technology–like Dart’s wrist bands and Pol’s forearm device–I designed, and now yo
u have the end results.
Jason Sacks: Robert, how did you approach the idea of creating three different settings for the book? Was that a challenge?
Robert Saunders: Again, Keith had a very clear vision of his worlds. He let me pretty much play and design the elements of each time period. Argon City, I thought, should be influenced by Greek mythology since we have Jason (Dart’s real name) and the Argonauts. The future world of Shard, Pol and Kidd is really a mish mash of all different technologies, which you will see as the story progresses. You will also see a lot of variety as we meet different species. The Norwegian past was quick as the first issue has only two pages of it before all the characters get transported to the present. I mainly had to make the scenery look Norwegian: fjords, mountains and timber. I look forward to getting a chance to go back there someday, if Keith chooses to go there.
Keith Dallas: And luckily for you, that chance comes in Argonauts #4 when we learn about Davin’s past in 12th century Trondheim, Norway. So sharpen your pencils as you will be drawing lots of trees.
Jason Sacks: Are there certain characters you find more fun to draw? How about big scenes like the invasion fleet?
Robert Saunders: I love drawing Dart. I am a superhero guy, so he is always fun. Pol is probably the hardest since he has virtually no expression or reactions, so it is hard keeping him grounded to each scene, especially when he is just standing around watching the action unfold around him. He does pretty much nothing to help.
Keith Dallas: Which is what I love about Pol! He’s built like a brick shithouse, but all he does is observe and make comments. He’s a visual contradiction!
Robert Saunders: Things like the first issue invasion scene were hard. I think I had to do the opening page of the first issue twice. It was one of about three pages that I have had to redo from start in the first three issues. There are so many great artists out there doing amazing sci-fi technology that I always look at mine and say, “man, I can make that look better.” Also, Keith doesn’t let me get away with much. He calls me on a lot of things and keeps me trying to produce at a high level, and I think it shows, especially as we move further into the series.
Jason Sacks: Kevin, would you like to tell us a bit about Mack Turner, lead character in his eponymous title?
Kevin Powers: Mack Turner was actually a random idea I once wrote down who was supposed to be a part of an established universe. Sometimes I notice when creating characters, I’ll place them in an already established place to flesh them out and then move them out onto their own. So Mack was in a popular universe where the paranormal and supernatural were commonplace but there was no zombie hunter. So Mack was the zombie hunter and as I fleshed him out I moved him away from that universe and into his own, although he sat in the notebook for the better part of two years.
It really wasn’t until I saw Israel Gonzalez’s artwork that I said “I have to revive Mack!” He really captured the style and the look of Mack and really brought his “A” game.
Mack was always intended to be that guy that is very good at what he does but often doesn’t get the respect he deserves. While he may be the guy that people turn to when they need him, listening to his opinions and insights is not something people often do.
Jason Sacks: Mack seems a bit rough around the edges, and not a classic square-chinned protagonist. He chews out his desk sergeant, swears and drinks. Did you want a lead character that readers could identify with?
Kevin Powers: I think Mack kind of fits into the reluctant anti-hero role more than anything else. He’s the type of guy that is fearless and is not afraid to use whatever is at his disposal to get the job done. There’s mention of him tasing an old woman. This isn’t something Mack would do for kicks, there would have to be a reason behind him taking such action.
I think there are two types of main characters a writer strives to achieve. On the one hand there are the types of characters that you want the reader to identify with. They are the type of characters designed to reflect a reader’s emotions and touch on the real world, kind of like a Peter Parker. Then there are the characters that readers don’t necessarily identify with, but they just enjoy reading and want to know what is going to happen to them.
Jason Sacks: One of the bits I really enjoyed in your first issue is how nobody believes there really are zombies, though if the infestation gets too bad, they’ll have to see reality. How long can you keep going with that gag?
Kevin Powers: Well, as seen in the first issue, the zombies are on their way into the town. In the second issue, the zombies have been barricaded inside of a school and because he encountered them in the first issue, the Chief calls Mack. So while no one believes there are zombies in the first issue, in the second issue, the people are well aware. However, what is firmly established by the end of the second issue is that this is not going to be your typical “zombie infestation” or “zombie apocalypse survival” story. It’s something much different, much more fun and a lot crazier!
Jason Sacks: Israel Gonzalez is obviously having a lot of fun with the art on this book.
Kevin Powers: Israel’s artwork is phenomenal. Mack Turner was always meant to be a little bit tongue-in-cheek and a little bit like a cartoon so his style is beyond perfect for this book. Actually, when I was looking for artists, I had a couple of stories in mind but I wasn’t set. So when I saw Israel’s artwork I had him sketch a zombie just for kicks, but once I saw it, that’s when I went digging back into that notebook to find Mack Turner. Israel is very talented and brings a very fun tone to not only this story, but his artwork as a whole.
Nephtali Leal and Dany Morales also did an excellent job teaming with Israel to bring the story to life with the colors. I really think the art team did an amazing job and I couldn’t be happier with the result!
Jason Sacks: Zombies are so big right now; what are your favorite zombie stories?
Kevin Powers: To be completely honest, I am not a huge zombie fan. In fact, “Mack Turner: Slayer of the Dead” is meant to be a parody of the entire zombie genre. The mass hysteria behind “zombie-mania” has no doubt called for it and I think this book is the perfect way to really harp on the genre and have some fun with it. Let’s face it, zombies as we’ve come to know them today, are kind of ridiculous. That’s kind of the tone I’m going for with “Mack
But to answer your question with a real answer, my favorite zombies stories are “Walking Dead,” Garth Ennis’ “Crossed,” the video game “Dead Rising” and the movie “Shaun of the Dead.” Actually, mix those together and you’ve got the inspiration for Mack Turner!
Jason Sacks: Why a new comics publisher in 2009/2010? This seems like a tough time to get out there, especially since so many shops don’t carry self-published titles. What makes your stuff stand out?
Kevin Powers: A comics publisher is always something that has loomed in the back of my mind. Not only for my own stories, but for other great creators like Ketih. Halfway through 2009, I had the means and the ability so I said “eff it, let’s do it” and I dove head first into it. Originally, TJ Comics was meant to just be a place for webcomics that would be offered as “print on demand.” However, once things started moving, it got a lot bigger than that and I decided to shift gears and move to a full-fledged publisher.
It’s always tough for the small fish in the pond, no matter the economic climate. Some people do and don’t know that during the summers in college and today, I have worked in a comic store. It’s the same place I went as a child, and minus a couple of years living elsewhere, I have worked there part-time for quite a long time and continue to today. So I am well aware of the general retailer attitude towards non-Diamond Distributed books and independent titles. However, with the digital age upon us and new outlets for distribution opening up, I truly believe things are going to change. Part of the appeal of places like Ka-Blam’s Indy Planet and Comics Monkey is that they offer print on demand and are very affordable, especially for small press publishers.
However, I have seen retailers roll their eyes at the thought of carrying some small press and independent titles, so a publisher does indeed need to stand out. While I partially did originally intend TJ Comics as an outlet for my own work, that was too self-serving and my own personal standards for quality stories and artwork also led to the expansion. TJ Comics emphasizes quality, both in writing and artwork. Even as publisher I am not excluded from this as I have already shot down two ideas of my own. While we aren’t exclusively after professional talent, we do want professional quality effort and commitment from creators.
Jason Sacks: Since we’ve all worked for years on ComicsBulletin, I liked the note in your editorial that you’ve spent four years as a comic reviewer, dissecting what works in comics and what doesn’t. What are some of the insights you’ve gotten?
Kevin Powers: I think one of the best things I’ve learned is to take positive criticism to the ego and take negative criticism as simply constructive. Sometimes you may not agree with a certain critic, but it’s always beneficial to hear a wide range of opinions and move forward from there. I often like to take criticism that I agree with or understand and take it to the drawing board. I’ve read and continue to read a lot of comics and I’ve read both good and not-so-good stories. I think one of the main things is to really keep your readers involved.
Kevin Powers: Comics have become so much more mainstream in the past decade that I think it is very important to avoid a specific way of storytelling. The goal is to entertain and intrigue and I think it’s important to think beyond selfishness and not say “I want to write the story” and instead think “people would enjoy this story.” I’ve also come to learn that a lot of people have many different tastes when it comes to what they read, so if one person hates something, another may love it. I think while it’s important to get opinions, it is also important not to get too caught up in varying opinions… unless of course you are universally canned!
Jason Sacks: What are your ultimate plans for your characters, and for Timeless Journey Comics?
Kevin Powers: Mack Turner will go five or six issues, there will be a trade paperback available and that will more than likely be it for him. Keith will keep the “Argonauts” going as long as he wants and will always have a home at TJ Comics. In that all-powerful notebook I mentioned, there is a plan for more than one universe, even a TJ Comics superhero universe with some interesting characters and a focus on limiting the number of superheroes in existence.
Next up for TJ Comics, and for me personally are two titles. One will be a webcomic exclusively on TJComics.com and will take place in the Old West in the late 1860s. I’ll have some announcements regarding that project very soon. Also, I’m teaming up with James Nguyen, an artist I met at the Baltimore Comic-Con who had a character idea that I completely retooled. We’re collaborating to bring that character to life and the first issue should be ready to go a couple of months.
Also for me personally, there is a huge project I have been working on. I call it “my ultimate project” that may not go through TJ Comics but will perhaps see some characters in that universe brought to life through TJ Comics. Could be interesting!
Jason Sacks: Anything else you’d like readers to know?
Kevin Powers: Definitely check out our books! Head over to TJComics.com for all the information you need and you can order the books easily and securely from Indy Planet! Also, help spread the word and have your retailer check out Comics Monkey to order our titles!