Exclusive Interview: J. Michael Straczynski on ‘Apocalypse Al’
As we showed you earlier this week, J. Michael Straczynski is teaming up with artist Sid Kotian on The Adventures of Apocalypse Al, This is something you should probably investigate, because this is the creator of Babylon 5 and the writer of one of our current favorite series, Ten Grand, among many other illustrious credits in the comic book world – Rising Stars, Midnight Nation, Superman, Spider-Man, the list goes on. This new miniseries, about a P.I. named Allison Carter who has to save the world by making her way through crazy circumstances like zombie cops, demon theme parks and closet trolls, is something he describes as "semi-serious, semi-funny" and "just about excitement and adventure and action and fun," as compared to the heavy stuff going on in Ten Grand.
You can learn about the individual characters here, and then find out more by reading Iann Robinson's Q&A below with the man we know simply as JMS about this new project.
CRAVE ONLINE: What inspired you to write Apocalypse Al?
J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI: It comes from a number of places. For starters, I've always loved writing strong female characters. If anyone liked Ivanova or Delenn on Babylon 5, they're going to love Allison Carter here. All too often, when someone wants to write a strong female character, they end up writing her like a guy, which I don't think is either necessary or correct. There's a very different energy that women have that goes deep and is powerful and doesn't need to be reinterpreted as something else, it's awe-inspiring on its own terms. So that was the first inducement.
On the structural side of things, like most writers, I've always been fascinated by dreams…their hidden meanings and what they tell us about ourselves and the way we see the world. My dream life has always been very full and very weird, in the sense that most of my dreams take place in this kind of consistent city or town that my subconscious stitched together growing up. My family and I moved 21 times in 18 years, from town to town and city to city, from New Jersey to Illinois to Texas to California, so there was no continuity. In reaction to this, my brain kind of stitched together a home town in my dreams out of bits and pieces of the rest…I know the neighborhood where I "live," where the stores are, the theaters, the restaurants…it's not real, but it's there.
This has led me to repeatedly wonder about where dreams come from, and the purpose they serve. I figured it'd be fun to do a comic that explores the dreamscape in the fashion of a semi-serious, semi-funny police story with a kind of Dragnet vibe to it. Some of it is meant to be comedic, but there are some dark moments as well.
CRAVE ONLINE. The name is very unique. How did you arrive at it?
JMS: It just makes sense once you get the device of an organization that patrols the dreamscape, protecting dreamers from mistakes or dangers that could harm or traumatize us. The organization is very old, as old as humanity. It also sets the stage that introduces us to some of the others who live in the dreamscape full time: changelings and ethers and wisps who play specific roles in our dreams as people we know or the like. Then there are the Nightmares, who wear masks to hide their true faces, because to look an unmasked Nightmare straight in the eye is to risk considerable psychological trauma.
CRAVE ONLINE: What's your creative process like? How does it go from the mind of JMS to the final product we all read?
JMS: My creative process is really kind of weird. I don't sit at my desk trying to figure out what my characters should do next. I think that's how some folks get writer's block. Instead, I let the characters figure it out and write down what they do. For me, writing is about getting to know your characters so well that all you have to do is drop them into a situation and watch what happens. The corollary would be: imagine your best friend walking across the living room at night, the light off, and banging his or her head against the coffee table. You don't have to sit there and try to figure out what they might say when this happens, you just know because you know your friend. For me, that's the writing process at its best. You do your homework, then just have fun with it.
CRAVE ONLINE: When creating a female character, how do you walk the line between feminine and exploitive? Do you think there is a line and if so, how do you keep from crossing it?
JMS: In comics, both male and female characters are presented in attractive, physically powerful ways. The difference, and it's a subtle one, is that male characters tend to beidealized and female characters tend to be objectified. It's all about out-thrust boobs and tight uniforms and making them sex objects. With Al, we made the conscious decision to make her attractive and strong but not pump up the volume on physicality or wardrobe. There is one scene is the first issue where she is wearing a nighty because she just got dragged out of bed in the middle of the night for a meeting by someone who didn't let her change…but after that, she's wearing pants and jackets and dressed the way someone doing that job would logically dress. It's attractive and professional but not exploitive.
More to the point, Al is smart and sharp and sarcastic and willing to go wherever the latest case takes her, regardless of the danger involved. Sometimes she shoots her way out, or fights her way out, and sometimes she thinks her way out…and for me, that's vitally important. I like smart characters, and Al's a stunner in that respect.
CRAVE ONLINE: What can you tell us about the concept of the Book of Keys?
JMS: In our first mini — it's just four issues, to introduce the character, so readers don't need to worry about signing on for a year-long run — the danger comes because someone has gotten his hands on a book with the keys to alternate universes, the past, the present, dreams and nightmares. One of those keys opens the door that will bring about the end of the world. Trouble is, he doesn't know which that is, so he's going through all of them to try and figure it out. Each time he uses the book, it has weird, dangerous or unintentionally funny effects on the world, and Al invariably finds herself caught in the middle of those situations.
The key thing about The Adventures of Apocalypse Al, in my view, is that this title is all about sheer, unadulterated fun. Ten Grand and Sidekick are very dark, dour, dangerous books…Al is just about excitement and adventure and action and fun.
CRAVE ONLINE: How did you get together with Sid Kotian?
JMS: Sid's amazing. I knew I wanted a particular kind of look for this book — somewhere between Gil Kane and Dave Gibbons, with a lot of detail and a fresh, accessible, young look — and I literally just stumbled upon his work online while searching for artists. He'd done several books before this, most for the Indian marketplace, and I was just staggered by the quality of his work. We locked him down immediately for both Al and Dream Police. I think these books are going to be real breakout moments for Sid.
CRAVE ONLINE: Can you talk a little about Joe’s Comics and your decision to put Apocalypse Al out through that imprint?
JMS: I'd initially created the Joe's Comics imprint (then with Top Cow) about ten years ago as a place for me to write stories that were more personal to me than might be the case writing any of the mainstream comics characters (Spider-Man, Superman, and so on). We did Midnight Nation and Rising Stars through that imprint, books that are still in print, well-regarded and selling well today. (Just got in the French language hardback editions of both those books today from Delcort, in fact.)
I let the imprint rest for a while, as I worked in the mainstream publishing arena, and revived it last year to again tell more personal stories. We launched Ten Grand (the first trade paperback is now out, collecting issues 1-6) and Sidekick to terrific reviews and sales. So now comes The Adventures of Apocalypse Al, Dream Police, and two more titles later in the year.
CRAVE ONLINE: What's the Al and Scott relationship like?
JMS: We meet Scott in issue three, and discover that they have a complicated relationship. Over the years, Al has learned not to let anyone get too close, because they generally end up dead. Scott started out as her partner, and over time, despite her misgivings, they became lovers. That ended the day he put himself between her and a spellcaster, taking the bolt of energy that was meant for her. He ended up neither alive nor dead, existing in a state in-between. In time he pulled away from her, knowing she felt responsible for his condition, and he moved on to another life without her…but their paths will soon cross again in a way neither of them could have expected.
CRAVE ONLINE: Mr. Abernathy – what inspired his creation? He almost looks like an evil clown in this sketch, and you mentioned that he was sort of based on Roger Ailes as a ruthless evil corporate type. Is that a coincidence?
JMS: Abernathy is a corporate figure who represents evil and toy companies alike, never distinguishing much between one and the other in terms of what he should be doing. He's actually of secondary interest to the individual he works for the most: Ultimate Darkness, a stylishly-dressed figure from hell itself who wants to work with Al to stop the apocalypse from happening not because he has any love of mankind, but rather because it's not happening on his schedule. Ultimate Darkness is hell's bureaucrat, right down to the bogus John Cleese accent.
CRAVE ONLINE: If Apocalypse Al had a soundtrack. what would be on it?
JMS: Etta James' "Tell Mama," Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," Tom Jones' "Burning Hell," Parov Stelar's "The Flame," Caravan Palace's "Jolie Coquine," David Byrne and St. Vencent's "Who," and Kongos' "Come With Me Now."
CRAVE ONLINE: Who are some of your favorite current comic book writers and artists? What titles are you really enjoying?
JMS: My problem at the moment is that I'm writing so much — not just for the Joe's Comics line but also for Sense8, the series that the Wachowskis and I are writing and producing for Netflix — that my reading has gone straight downhill. I keep buying everything in sight, such that the reading stack beside the bed is threatening to collapse and destroy my entire house, but I'm not getting to much if any of it right now.