Lucky Number: Palmiotti and Gray talk '21Down'

Tue, April 8th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[21 Down #10]
21 Down #10
While DC Comics' Wildstorm may not have produced huge sales numbers with the imprint's re-launch of many series under the "Eye of the Storm" mature readers moniker, it has garnered a significant amount of critical acclaim. From the intrigue of "Sleeper" to the relevance of "Wildcats Version 3.0," the majority of the "Eye of The Storm"/Wildstorm line has been a hit with critics and the fans who've picked up the books. There's been one book produced by Wildstorm that would seem to fit the "Eye of The Storm" mold, but was not launched under that line- "21Down." A book with a mature look at superheroes, the series has been an instant hit and CBR News once again spoke with creators Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray to get fans caught up on the ins and outs of this series.

For those who are interested in "21Down," but haven't had a chance to read the hard-to-find early issues, Palmiotti and Gray offer up an introduction to the series.

"The major focus of the series is the two main characters, Mickey and Preston," explains Palmiotti. "Preston has a superpower he never wanted and because of it, he is one of a small group of people that have until the age of 21 to live unless they can uncover the mystery of Herod. Preston's problem is that he is now 20 years old and he needs to find out as fast as he can, how to stop this from happening. Mickey is someone with her own agenda that is on the search with Preston. Mickey has a very colorful past and a daughter that is stricken with the same problem as Preston."

There's more of a human component to the series that makes it such a universal book, adds Gray. "As Jimmy said the characters are the driving concept behind '21Down.' We try to the best of our ability to make Mickey and Preston as human as possible, which makes the superhero elements in the book seem all the more fantastic. Both Preston and Mickey are on a quest to uncover a mystery and save lives, even their own."

With heterosexual male and female leads, readers know that there's going to be some sexual tension, but what readers didn't expect was the lack of clichés in "21Down." One of the most common comments about the series is that Preston's "relationship" with Mickey, an older woman, is maturely written and different from what you'd normally see in a superhero book. The key to the writing duo's success? "Treat the characters like real people and don't write every stupid cliché we have all been brought up on," laughs Palmiotti. "When I was a kid, it once took me 6 months to get enough courage to ask a girl out…. six friggin months. I remember all the excitement, frustration and fear that went along with it. Relationships are much more than good looks and a nice pair of tits. It's growing to know someone and falling in love. This book likes the tease, and flirtation of the characters points out that romantic tension can go on for years…and its only particular circumstances that can push it further."

"I've never met a girl that hasn't kept me on my toes," says Gray and adds that relationships are another element he strives to keep as realistic as possible in the series. "Nothing in life is cut and dry, emotion and rules of attraction are subject to constant change. Life isn't a Hollywood romance. True love doesn't happen to everyone otherwise there wouldn't be thousands of books; songs and movies about it. The relationship between two people is an unlimited source of material if you're willing to look at it honestly and unflinchingly, which is what we attempt to do with Mickey and Preston."

In keeping the series grounded, or as relatively grounded as a superhero series can be, Gray and Palmiotti have kept super villains absent from this series except for the big bad guy Herod and focused instead on the potential within each person to do good or bad. "We do not want to write what is in every single other superhero book out there," explains Palmiotti. "We stress that '21Down' is different in many ways and feel it is our duty to give the reader a break from the same old same old. The best villain, in my opinion, is the guy that thinks he is doing the right thing and is driven by it. The classic villains always work best that way."

[21 Down 9, Page 9]
21 Down #9, Page 9
There's also not much else they have to add to the standard super-villain archetype, says Gray, and explains that he'd rather explore the actions of real people. "Turn on one of the cable news channels right now and you'll see that people are capable of more villainous acts than any metaphorical representation. Sure we could give you our version of Magneto or Doctor Doom or Darkseid or Galactus or Doomsday or Ultimate Venom or Loki or White Martians…you know what I'm saying. You have those villains, they're always there waiting for your favorite heroes to do battle with, but that's not what '21Down' is about, good and evil actions are sometimes only a matter of perception."

But the cast of "21Down" is not limited to Mickey and Preston, with mysterious elements in the background and as the writers explain, some more characters moving to the forefront shortly. "By the end of issue twelve there will be a number of new characters and plot twists, some expected and some unexpected," reveals Gray. "The introduction of Hank Champion is a bit timelier than we anticipated. Mickey and Preston meet a guy in Texas who may play a much larger role in the search for Herod."

"We'll be exploring more of Mickey's daughter as a character and the other freaks locked up in Neptune's lab," adds Palmiotti. "In issue 8 the long missing and reported dead war hero Hank Champion has come out of the woodwork. Neptune is up to no good and we really are going to see some of his true colors showing themselves very soon."

It's never easy having to write a comic book with someone else and while Palmiotti & Gray having been doing it a lot, their other most well-know collaboration being the now cancelled "Resistance," they say there's still some distance to go before they perfect their synergy. "We seem to be thinking alike a lot more, and that helps at times. We both have become much better at dialogue and breaking down the emotional drives of the characters," explains Palmiotti. "Like any relationship we're learning a lot about each other's strengths and weaknesses and have been doing a good job working on both. At this point, we still got a ways to go, but if you are reading our stuff, you can really start to see a development in the right direction."

Speaking of moving in the right direction, if the reaction to the end of "21Down's" first arc is any indication, this series is firing on all cylinders. The creators have established a new direction for Preston & Mickey and are enjoying every moment of working on the comic. "The highlights are with every issue for me!" exclaims Palmiotti. "When we finally see Jesus's [Saiz's] pencils, it never fails to amaze me how right on he keeps nailing everything we are writing. Issue 3 and 7, for me, were the best so far for the series…and I think the next 5 issues really nail what were really looking for when we started."

Gray says that he looks back at the first arc with fond memories and a few regrets, but realizes things worked out great. "There are a few little things I would like to have done differently, but overall I'm happy with the way it played out. The feedback from people that read and support the book is the biggest highlight, particularly some of the emails we received regarding issue seven and the positive impact it had."

The issue that Gray refers to spotlights one of the key themes in "21Down," specifically making the most of one's time in the world and that we have a responsibility to make the world better with our abilities. "This is a pretty obvious answer that all of us sometimes forget when we're caught up in our daily lives," states Gray. "Life is short don't waste it; it's as much a reminder to ourselves as it is a theme in the book."

[21 Down 9, Page 14]
21 Down #9, Page 14
For Palmiotti, it's even more personal and he relates the importance of this theme in the series to the death of a loved one. "My dad died at 70 from cancer. He had a lot to live for, besides growing old with my mom. I am at the age where all my grandparents are gone, and every other month I am attending funerals for aunts and uncles as well as friends. Life is short, life is sweet and then life is gone. I live by the rule of doing what I want, do it now and get it done. I have the energy of three people and I am going to use it in every way I can. Amanda and I know we only have so much time on this planet together, so we travel, work and party together every minute we get.

"The worst thing is, and I see it every day, is people who waste their lives…people that are scared to take a chance, make a difference or embrace fear and hate. They compare their lives to others and feel short changed, instead of thanking God for what they have. The grass is greener people tire me out. Preston and Mickey, the characters in '21 Down' are driven to live…driven to find out what is messing what their lives and focus on what is important to them. These are two characters that I can totally relate to, and I enjoy writing with Justin every month. There is nothing cookie cutter about their personalities and this book has the uniqueness of having truly two very original, three-dimensional characters. Ask anyone who reads the book; they really care what happens to them each issue. We care that Preston has a year to live, we care that Mickey is a driven woman who doesn't concern herself with what gets in her way. We understand their motivations because we each feel these things ourselves on many levels from time to time.

"How long do we have on this planet? No one knows, but I know it's shorter than most people think. I like these characters because they have no time to whine. They are driven to the point of exhaustion to get to what they are seeking. I can relate to that."

Someone else whose driven is artist Jesus Saiz and his work on "21 Down" consistently blows away Gray and Palmiotti, with both men agreeing that Saiz is the best man they could have picked for this series. "There is no best part of working with him, because everything about his work is perfect for the series," says Gray. "I don't think people realize exactly how good he is because attention to talent in the industry is based on the character you draw not the skill with which you tell a visual story. Jesus understands subtlety of emotion and character expression, which is what we're going for."

"Jesus is a simple, straightforward classic storyteller," adds Palmiotti. "His characters are proportion to the world around them and his facial expressions are so dead on, we feel comfortable not having to write dialogue for some of his art. It's the highest compliment I can give anyone in our field. We really lucked out hooking him into this series."

Despite the passion of all the creators involved in this series, it's not easy launching a new comic book series in today's market and both creators admit they wish that "21Down" sold at a slightly higher level. "The problems are the usual ones," admits Palmiotti. "If there is not enough support from the company as far as retailer awareness and ad support, then no one is going to hear about the book. If 'Wizard,' 'CBG' and other news print magazines don't cover it…again, little support. The biggest problems I personally have are simply that the companies have a problem getting behind anything new and tend to spend their time promoting what sells the most…to get those numbers up. The good thing that is happening with a lot of the properties I create and co-create is that their life outside the industry is booming for me right now. Right now what works in the comic work I write, co-write, or produce really connects with people working in TV and film a bit better. In production right now is 'Ash' at DreamWorks, 'Painkiller Jane' with Sci-fi, 'Spy Girls' with Fireworks, 'Beautiful Killer' at Strike Entertainment plus two other projects I cannot talk about just yet till the studios announce them. Sure I want the comics these deals are based on to sell better in comics, but if you look at the diamond top 100, all that is selling is the same three dozen superhero titles. Nothing has changed much in the past 21 years. It really is sad."

Gray says that his partner's hit the proverbial nail on the head and all he can is simply produce the best work of his career. "I could cite a dozen or so problems a book like '21Down' faces in today's market, but it's not going to be anything you haven't heard before from people a lot smarter than myself. I believe we do everything we can to produce a consistent, entertaining read that's worth the price of admission."

[21 Down 9, Page 19]
21 Down #9, Page 19
Both writers cite their interactions with fans as one of the highpoints of working on the series and say the reaction of readers has surpassed their expectations. "The fan reactions have been great, as anyone who wants to read them, they are posted on the Wildstorm message boards daily," smiles Palmiotti. "Justin and I take all of the fans very seriously and take time to answer the fans any chance we get. They really are the reason we write the books. Feedback, good or bad, is very important."

"Over the last eight months the book has gathered a dedicated and committed group of outspoken fans, which is more than we could have hoped for," adds Gray.

What's next for "21Down?" While the big surprises will remain as such, the writers are glad to hint and tease at what's to come. "Year two of '21Down,' the cast of characters grows a bit, as does Mickey and Preston's relationship," says Palmiotti. "We are hoping to get the numbers up on the book with the trade book coming out, and as usual, continue to keep the story moving at a cool pace…and resolve a number of issues brought up in year one. Look forward to the story making leaps and bounds, the art getting better every issue, and some cool guest stars in the series. We kept away from that for the first year, but now we are going to go a little nuts."

But Gray jumps in and whets the appetites of fans by adding, "This month issue eight kicked off the Roadside Attractions story, which is a great jumping on point for new readers and it takes Mickey and Preston on a road trip from Brooklyn to Texas. Along the way they encounter some terrifying and amazing things including a forgotten American war hero with a mystery of his own. That story arc ends shockingly and then '21Down' takes a dramatic turn in ways we can't announce yet, but if you thought issue six was life-altering, wait until the end of issue twelve."

There's no end in sight for the series, though there are definite plans and Gray says, "I prefer not to think about the end, I'm having too much fun working on the beginning."

However, some characters will prematurely face their end, warns Palmiotti and adds, "We have many ends, like real life, where people come in and out of your life. Some stay around and some leave and are never seen again. Mickey and Preston are the main characters in the title, but like the real world, every experience is going to change each of them in a different way."

Both Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray hope you'll giving "21Down" a try, but if you're not sold on the series yet, they've each come up with one reason why you have to check out the book:

JIMMY: Because you deserve something better than you normally get, created by people who really care about what they do.

JUSTIN: Sure we could give you the sales pitch, we could give you the money back guarantee, but instead we ask that people to pick up an issue and give it a read. We think you'll be surprised with what '21Down' has to offer.

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