As comic books become more and more prevalent in popular culture, the mainstream crowd is becoming increasingly aware that comics have more to offer than just superpowers and spandex. Image Comics has certainly done their part to showcase the diversity of the medium, perhaps most prominently through "Popgun," a series of anthology books filled to the brim with short stories of various shapes, sizes and genres.
In February, Image will release the fourth and latest installment of "Popgun," featuring a cover drawn by "Choker" artist Ben Templesmith and stories from illustrator Frank Stockton, "Life of a Fetus" creator Andy Ristiano, "Sulk" creator Jeffrey Brown, "Popgun" veterans and creative duo Amanda Becker and Janet Kim, and many more. CBR News spoke to the aforementioned creators and "Popgun" editor D.J. Kirkbride about what readers can expect from the upcoming volume.
"We wanted to make [the fourth 'Popgun' installment] even more eclectic and exciting and bigger than the previous volumes," Kirkbride told CBR about his goals for the upcoming volume. "In terms of the first two goals, I do think we achieved them, to be honest. There are so many different styles and tones for each story in this collection, it's kind of overwhelming, in the best possible way. We continue to find great and varied talent, which is what makes these books work. We're very lucky that so many excellent creators, new and established, are interested in working with us."
As for Kirkbride's third goal — making "Popgun's" fourth volume bigger than previous editions — that mission was also accomplished. "It's 512 pages compared to 448 for volume one and 472 for volumes two and three, and all at the same price," he said. "That's pretty cool, and we're grateful that Image let us do it, as, well, it's kind of crazy."
The book's massive size allows for a plethora of diverse stories, including the ones rendered by the aforementioned creators. Amanda Becker and Janet Kim, for instance, crafted a story called "Jacket" that tells a tragic tale contrasted against the visual style of a children's storybook. "Basically, it's a depiction of a little girl's attempts to deal with an abusive relationship with her mother by trying to save herself through her ideal world," the creators said. "The storybook quality lulls the reader into a child's frame of reference, but, as is shown, life isn’t a storybook and at times can be a not so idealized experience."
"The art style [of 'Jacket'] reminds me of a storybook from the '60s, and the story is just heartbreaking while maintaining the childhood innocence of their young protagonist," said Kirkbride. "In 'Jacket,' Amanda and Janet have made good on the potential they showed in their story 'Father of Two' in 'Popgun' volume three. As much as I love that story, 'Jacket' is even better."
Where "Jacket" focuses on the lonely and often abusive existence of a young girl, Frank Stockton's "Hamburgers for One" explores the topic of depression by way of an oversized adolescent with a strong passion for — you guessed it — hamburgers. The protagonist is equally passionate about a beautiful fast food employee, leading the socially awkward hero to make a move towards embracing his crush. "The main theme is the internal struggle of one man to try and go for what he wants," said Stockton. "There are also themes of self-esteem, social bonding, being yourself and coping with rejection, but they all kind of naturally flowed out of the psychology of who the main character is."
Stockton's story is filled with many hamburger related fun facts, thanks to a healthy research period. "A couple of weeks before getting the idea, I was doing a lot of research on the history of hamburgers, because I thought it would be funny to do a comic about America's favorite sandwich," said Stockton. "I suppose that if I had been studying mufflers or something that [the story] might have taken place at a mechanic's repair shop — but I don't really find mufflers very interesting."
"'Hamburgers for One' is one of the centerpieces of the book," Kirkbride described of Stockton's contribution. "At 24 pages, it stands on its own and could be a one-shot. Frank has an amazing style, and this one surprised me after his very action-packed and humorous contribution to volume three, 'The Swordsman.' 'Hamburgers,' to me, is a great illustration of pacing. It's all very deliberate, and as a reader and writer myself, I learned a lot from it. A very subtle and interesting character piece with great visuals — Frank knocked it out of the park."
Of course, "Popgun" volume four isn't confined to tales of the ordinary and often depressing nature of life. Cartoonist Andy Ristiano contributed a humorous 20-page story titled "Night of the Living Vidiots" that posits a spin on the classic zombie tale by turning the flesh-eaters into walking advertisements — literally, single-minded humans with television sets for heads. "'Night of the Living Vidiots' is the first story in the book and a great way to kick off this volume of 'Popgun,'" said Kirkbride of Ristiano's contribution. "'Vidiots' is a hyper, wordy, colorful and amazingly fun 20-page adventure. Though it's very humorous and fast-paced, Andy weaves in some effective commentary on consumerism and the media."
"I didn't want to knock television shows — I end up watching a lot of TV while I'm working and I enjoy a good story no matter what form it takes — I can't, however, stand watching or listening to commercials," Ristiano described of his story. "When I first got out of school, I used to animate on commercials, and doing that made me realize that for every commercial there were people just sitting around in rooms trying to figure out the best way to trick people into wanting their products. When you watch commercials, they seem so insincere and insulting, and while you might think commercials are completely ineffectual, the information in there sneaks in. I can still remember commercial jingles from when I was a kid. It's upsetting to think there is so much space in my brain devoted to remembering things like the theme to a 'Fruit Islands Cereal' commercial when it could be put to better use. There is no escape."
In order to combat the commercial-addled vidiots, Ristiano created a quartet of heroes with various artistic inclinations. "The Bookworm represents the written word, the Painter represents the visual arts, the Martial Artist represents the physical arts and the Rocker represents music," he said. "The main characters are the people who are focused and inspired enough with what they are interested in that popular media does not have control over their lives and how they choose to live them. These artists possess the power to shock the vidiots out of their stupors. I liked the idea of telling a story where the hero saves the world using books or wins through non-violent ways. While I wasn't able to completely pull that off with this story, it's definitely a theme I want to explore more in the future."
"Vidiots" isn't the only action-centric story in the book, as Jeffrey Brown contributed a swords-and-sorcery tale called "The Dark Master's Reign." "It's a fantasy tale of a lone badass kind of warrior who's attempting to infiltrate the castle of an evil overlord," described Brown. "I've always been a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, but diverged from my once intended career path of illustrating [Dungeons & Dragons] and Magic cards. I felt like 'Popgun' was the perfect place to have some fun and have a go at the genre."
"Here, he took an opportunity to do what was one of 'Popgun's' original mission statements: famous creators working in genres different from what we usually associate them with," said Kirkbride of Brown's work. "Jeffrey has created a cool sword-and-sorcery epic in just eight pages. We asked him who he had in mind for colors and he said Bill Crabtree, and we were so lucky to get him, too. His colors and the darker, more intense style of the line art make this unique to Jeffrey's work that we've seen [from him] so far."
"Bill did a great job and really captured the feel I was going for in terms of mood without having it become distracting," said Brown. "There's so much line work that in black and white, the story actually comes out as maybe just gray. With Bill's colors, the story feels just a little more nuanced."
From neglected children and awkward hamburger lovers to zombified advertising addicts and warriors aplenty, the sheer diversity of content in "Popgun" is what keeps Kirkbride so enthusiastic about the anthology. "It's maybe my most repeated word when talking about 'Popgun,' but it really is the variety [that makes 'Popgun' work]," he said. "Each volume contains so many different kinds of stories and styles of art, so it's just exciting. Even though I'm an editor, I'm still able to step back and appreciate the work we've received as a comic book reader and fan. The fact that we have no official theme has confused some readers at times, but I look at it as our biggest strength. In 'Popgun,' anything can happen — that's just plain fun right there."
The fourth volume of "Popgun" goes on sale on February 10th, 2010, courtesy of Image Comics.