REFLECTIONS #218: Justin Gray

Mon, August 20th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Robert Taylor, Staff Writer

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Justin Gray has always been one of my favorite creators (along with his longtime collaborator Jimmy Palmiotti, who I interviewed just a few weeks ago) because he is a honest-to-goodness jack-of-all-trades. Gray can go from writing the best superhero comic on the stands to a moody horror piece to a wild throwback to '60s monster movies to a classic western without missing a beat.

Gray is currently at work on a plethora of projects including DC Comics' major yearlong weekly crossover, "Countdown," the always excellent "Jonah Hex," a Martian Manhunter-centric arc of "JLA: Classified," a fantastically fun "Shanna" miniseries, not to mention several one-shots on ongoing series that reinvigorate characters and mythology.

The best part of Gray's writing is that his voice is never lost in the genre shuffle. I can always tell when I'm reading a Justin Gray book because of the down-to-Earth nature of the characterization and the pacing and mood therein.

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"Countdown" #30
Robert Taylor: Do you ever get tired of being asked by interviewers how you and Jimmy Palmiotti co-write books together?

Justin Gray: Yeah, I do. Why?

RT: Never mind. So, which of your books are you most excited about right now?

JG: "Jonah Hex." It allows for a much higher level of creativity and control in content and themes and the fact that I'm working with so many wildly talented artists on a book that nobody thought would last 12 issues.

I'm happy with the way my "JLA: Classified" story came together. Rick Leonardi and Sean Phillips did an amazing job with the art.

RT: I want to first talk about the new "Shanna" miniseries. What made you guys want to do a sequel to Frank Cho's book?

JG: We didn't want to do a sequel. We wanted to work on something outrageous, action packed, fun and pulpy that served no purpose other than to be a guilty pleasure. Think of it as building a roller coaster and how much fun it would be to ride.

RT: Cho carved out a pretty specific world in his miniseries, how are you guys striving to make it your own?

JG: We're working within the rules established in the first miniseries; there's no driving force to make it our own. I wanted to work on a project that played to my inner kid, a romp through the jungle with a half-naked bombshell, pirates, Hong Kong gangsters, sea monsters, dinosaurs, Neanderthals and Nazis.

RT: Now THAT sounds like a good time.

JG: I realize this isn't quite the same kind of material that is popular during the age of respectable funnybooks but, fuck it, love what you do or don't do it.

RT: Favorite dinosaur?

JG: Allosaurus

RT: I'll be honest and say I've never heard of Khari Evans, can you give me a little info about who that is?

JG: Go find the "Daughters of the Dragon: Samurai Bullets" trade. That's another book that was crafted with love and joy for the characters, fun, outrageous moments and over the top action. Khari illustrated that to perfection.

"JLA: Classified" #44
RT: I know you are a fairly big DC continuity buff, so working on a project like "Countdown" must either be a huge headache or a dream come true. Care to enlighten?

JG: Actually, continuity serves a purpose and over the last year I've had to dive in with both feet and absorb as much DCU history as possible, but prior to working in comics I knew more about Marvel history.

As to "Countdown," I think it helps that I genuinely like the characters and their histories.

RT: Which of the various storylines were you most excited about working on?

JG: I like Mary Marvel. I wish I had more time to devote to her story. I really dig Ray Palmer as well, but the nature of the countdown makes it difficult to stay with one character for an extended period of time.

RT: Which one surprised you the most?

JG: They all come with surprises.

RT: Were you a big fan of "52"?

JG: I certainly enjoyed the majority of the series, but one of the drawbacks of the weeklies thus far is the inside track and assumed familiarity with all of the characters and nuances of his or her histories. In my opinion, that makes them somewhat unfriendly for casual readers. Of course the audience for these kinds of books is clearly defined as being for the longtime reader, but I'm of the opinion that you should reach out to include as many people as possible.

RT: Obviously "Countdown" is a much different animal than "52," but the books continue to get compared, sometimes unfairly. Are you the type of creator who really follows the critical reaction, or no?

JG: The interesting thing about "Countdown" is that initially, before we even started working on it, I had hoped it would offer Jimmy and myself an opportunity to reach a much larger audience where we could perhaps have a bigger stage to go all out and showcase our work. Perhaps it might have even drawn more attention to our other projects like "Jonah Hex."

As it turned out, "Countdown's" structure and the nature of being so similar to a TV show makes it much more of a team effort. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but my initial assumption was that we'd be working in a similar style as the writers on "52."

As far as following critical reaction is concerned, you can't allow armchair quarterbacks to influence your thinking or your creativity. If you believe the good press then you have to believe the bad press. I choose not to believe either one.

"21 Down" trade paperback
RT: What is your opinion on handling the numerous tie-ins with other DCU events like "Amazons Attack" or Bart Allen's death? Do they help or hurt the pacing of the book?

JG: Fortunately, these events are plotted out very far in advance. The real challenge comes from trying to pick the right places and moments to support or exploit them. The pacing isn't within my control because we're essentially staff writers on the "Countdown" bandwagon. Again, this isn't a criticism; it is simply a different experience from what I'm used to.

RT: On a related note, now that you are working on DC's major crossover, do you prefer this kind of storytelling, or the smaller intimate stories that you normally tell?

JG: To be entirely honest, I'm looking forward to the opportunity to tell more tightly focused individual stories which aren't dependent on or influenced by other books, events and so on. It is fun being a part of the vast tapestry of a massive publishing plan, but I am excited to see the where aftermath of "Final Crisis" leaves the DCU.

RT: I know every other interviewer out there has asked you to talk about how great the other writers on the book are, but I'm going to ask you to tell us something embarrassing about each one, just to mix things up.

JG: I don't have any dirt on the team.

RT: Seriously!?

JG: They're all great guys, funny, smart and easy to get along with. I know that doesn't make for an exciting interview but it is the truth.

RT: I know the "Friday the 13 th " miniseries is, well, over, but I loved the book! What was your favorite movie? Least favorite?

JG: I prefer the first two movies. Everything after that is pretty much an exploitation film.

RT: What was the hardest thing about changing the pacing and storytelling of a slasher movie for the comic?

JG: For one thing you can't rely of cheap scares, the sort that bad horror movies use to get you to jump in your seat when a cat runs across the screen. Other than that you have to spend a good amount of time making the characters kill-worthy.

RT: So what is new on the "Jonah Hex" front?

"Honah Hex" volumes 1 and 2
JG: We're still doing stand-alone issues with brilliant artists like Jordi, Cammo, Phil Noto, J.H. Williams III, David Michael Beck, and some great surprises and people you may not be familiar with.

We're using this year to mix up styles and storytelling techniques. Hex Just met Edison and there's a great Weird Western Halloween issue coming up with Bat Lash, El Diablo and a certain witch.

RT: My tongue is whetted.

Did you guys ever think the book would pass the two-year mark?

JG: I didn't think it would last a year. I'm still so grateful to be working on "Hex" every month. And look, the movie is suddenly back in development 10 years after the first time a script was written with the express idea of bringing Hex to the silver screen. There's also a Jonah Hex action figure in the works.

RT: What do you think draws artists like Luke Ross, Jordi Bernet and Phil Noto to the book?

JG: Luke was hired but Phil and Jordi love us, they love Hex and what we're giving them to work on always seems to excite them creatively.

RT: Ready for the lightning round?

JG: Is Dan DiDio here?

RT: [laughs] What was your first comic book?

JG: Oh God…"Spider Man"-something.

RT: What comics can you never miss?

JG: Good ones.

"Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters" #1 and #2
RT: Has there ever been a comic that touched or changed your life? If so, what?

JG: " Ronin" made me not care if my books sold, only that someone out there enjoys them.

RT: Absolutely fantastic choice. I want an Absolute Edition posthaste.

What is the best comic book movie ever made?

JG: You'll laugh…"Flash Gordon." Maybe it isn't the best but it is my favorite.

RT: I love "Flash Gordon" with a fiery passion, all the way from the throne room football game to the Queen soundtrack!

What is your weirdest convention experience?

JG: I haven't had it yet and I hope I never do. I'm not much for conventions.

RT: If you were only remembered for one thing in your career, what would you want it to be?

JG: My writing.

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