When Words Collide: Tom Scioli Part 2 - Kirby Tech, Big Endings & Barbarians

Mon, February 13th, 2012 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
2

Tom Scioli's "American Barbarian" sees print in March

Last week, I kicked-off a discussion with "American Barbarian" artist Tom Scioli about his formative influences and his Kirby sensibility, before we delved into a close look at one of Jack Kirby's classic tales: "The Pact" from "New Gods" #7.

Today, we continue the conversation on that seminal Fourth World issue and talk more about Tom's current projects and how he has changed his approach as a comic book artist over the years. Before we get into that, though, I did get confirmation from Tom that the "American Barbarian" hardcover -- due at the end of March from AdHouse -- will be the complete story. The pages of the webcomic that are currently rolling out online are all included in that book. It's done.

Also, though Tom admits "anything could happen," he hopes to have finished the final two issues of "Gødland" in time for Comic-Con International in San Diego this summer. He drew seven of the pages for issue #36 while visiting France for the Angouleme International Comics Festival earlier this year, and posted them online as a teaser of what's to come.

But that's for later in 2012, now let's flash back to the past as Tom and I continue our discussion of 1972's "New Gods" #7, which neither of us would have seen until a decade or two after it came out…


Story continues below

Tom Scioli: I love all the entourages that the various characters in "New Gods" have. Yeah, that's the other level this comic works on. It's a prequel, but it's full of surprises. It thwarts expectations and reveals the depths of the characters you've met in the prior 6 issues. Darkseid isn't the god of evil yet, he's a quiet introvert. He's quiet because he's in the earliest stages of his conquest. The kindly grandfather figure Highfather is a warrior god in a surprise reveal in the last few pages of the story. The aloof Metron, who probably seemed like the most elevated of the New Gods, is actually a mercenary who will kiss whatever ass he has to to get that cosmic throne of his. Peaceful, idyllic New Genesis was once ravaged by war. Orion is revealed as Darkseid's son -- this was mentioned in issue 1, but in such a passing manner, that it probably would've been missed by most readers.

It's not all bombast. There are great quiet scenes, but when the bombast comes, it is huge. For a comic with so many scenes and different moments, it doesn't feel rushed. The panel-to-panel transitions almost have an animation or movie-editing feel to them. They feel perfectly natural.

Tim Callahan: Let's talk a little bit more about the transitions in this story, because if I have a problem with it, I guess it would be that I have a hard time pinning down where things are taking place. That adds to the feel that the whole thing is bigger than the panels can possibly contain, but there are the smooth panel-to-panel transitions within scenes, but then there are the sequences which are high-octane comic book montage-plus-caption pages. And Kirby will alternate those with the quieter scenes, but then he'll jump right into an action scene taking place elsewhere.

When the troops of New Genesis say, "Apokalips' armor! Coming out of nowhere!!" on page 12, you can't help but agree because the page before was Darkseid and Heggra (in an admittedly very Alex Raymondy scene). The Apokalips attack, even with the caption, is like a thunderstrike out of nowhere.

And you're saying this is a jarring transition? It feels natural to me. It's on a page turn, so you can have that kind of big jump in time. It follows the logic of the scene, without being tedious. The caption at the bottom of the last panel on page 5 saying that the war has begun and Izaya is still alive. Then you turn the page and the war is in full force. If it were a movie, you'd see his hand start to move or something, some sign of life in a character who was pronounced dead, then you'd cut to a scene of all-out war of revenge. I feel like Kirby's use of symbolism in his design makes it a smooth transition, but if you're having trouble with it, maybe it's not as smooth as I think it is. It's obvious to me that this is Apokolips, because it's covered with gray Kirby technology. The denizens are demonic and bestial, and they're being attacked by techno angels carrying a weaponized ark of the covenant, so they're obviously from New Genesis. It makes sense to me, but maybe my early exposure to the Apokolips episodes of "Super Friends" hard-wired me to have an appreciation for this stuff.


Another thing that makes the transition smooth is that page 5 ends with a ship taking off from New Genesis bound for Apokolips, so Kirby is already sub-consciously prepping us for a trip to Apokolips, we just get there a couple of years later.

To me, it's totally jarring. Not that I mind it at all, because it does pack a wallop, but when I'm reading I often get to these kinds of Kirby-jumps and then get a couple panels into it before I think, "Wait, what is happening and where is this taking place?" and then I have to go back and start the scene again. It doesn't ease the reader into anything, which is pretty great, as far as I'm concerned, but it does feel unnatural, probably because I didn't come to this Kirby New Gods stuff until the 1990s either, after I'd been trained to read comics by the likes of John Ostrander, Chris Claremont, Marv Wolfman and everyone who copied Alan Moore after he showed up on the scene. None of those guys would dare a transition between scenes like the ones Kirby routinely pulls off.

A question: how do you read page 20, with the Source Wall? Because my reading of it doesn't actually match the images completely, if that makes sense. Particularly on the fourth and fifth panel where it looks like Highfather is smashing the wall with his staff and then writing "The Source" in flames, but the words in the captions indicate that the wall is bursting with energy and a flaming hand is writing on it. There's no way I would interpret the images that way, without the captions directly contradicting what seems to be shown. (I mean, that hand at the bottom of the page would normall read as Highfather's hand, right? But it's not.)

It would probably be even less jarring to someone who grew up with Grant Morrison comics or [Robert] Kirkman's comics, where there's the occasional page turn where you feel like two pages were stuck together, but then realize you've been sent forward in time. Then your imagination fills in the scene in between.

But isn't that kind of transition something you'd routinely see in other media, prose, movies, TV.

Page 20. You're right! An encounter with the Source would be enigmatic, wouldn't it? The reference to the Uni-Friend and the Source didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I hadn't read issues 1-4 where this stuff was set up, so I had no idea who the Uni-Friend is or what the Source Wall is, but by this point in the story I was thoroughly hooked and ate it all up. I knew it had to mean something awesome.

I don't have my copy of the original issue handy, I'm reading the Baxter reprint. What color is the hand? It's red in the Baxter reprint and surrounded by flame, so I do read it as a flaming disembodied hand. But you're right, that's because of the caption. Without the caption it would read as Izaya's hand catching fire and inscribing the words himself. I never would've picked that up.

I don't read the fourth panel as him smashing the wall. I read it as the wall angrily exploding at him, in answer to his question from the previous panel, like the flaming head of the great and powerful Oz. But again, without the caption it would read as him smashing the wall with his staff. Comics reading is such a solitary experience that it's easy to forget how much of the storytelling is going on in your head rather than on the page for all to see. Everybody's reading the same comic, but having vastly different experiences, moreso than other visual media. Probably not as much as prose.

This issue is so bursting with story, that every element has to carry its own weight. I don't know that Kirby has ever made the captions bear this much of the storytelling burden. Look at that first panel of the next page.

We should talk about the techno-cosmic war from page 17 and the first panel of page 18. This is where we go into Star Wars territory, into full Kirby mode, the stuff that I wanted desperately to tap into. The dragon tanks from page 12 were pretty rad, too. Like the toys we grew up with. Like something out of He-Man, or Zod, the giant GoBot. Something ancient and hi-tech at the same time.

At the time I'd first read this story, I hadn't read enough Kirby comics to realize that this is how he drew technology. I thought these zig-zaggy M.C. Escher structures were specific to New Genesis and Apokolips culture.

They are specific to Fourth World technology as far as I'm concerned. It's like this is what the inside of Jack Kirby's mind looks like, and sometimes that Fourth World tech just spills over into other projects. Of course, that doesn't really make any sense chronologically, but there's something to the notion that this New Genesis/Apokalips tech is pure Kirby in a way that some of his pre-New Gods work is Kirby trying to do something that resembles our reality.

How do you tap into this "full Kirby mode"? Are you talking about doing that as a reader, or as a creator? Where does this stuff filter into what you produce?

Prior to this, it would be Inhumans tech/architecture or the stuff that Orikal gave the trolls in Thor. I imagine the Inhumans, Orikal, Galactus, Silver Surfer, the cosmic characters that were a step above the Marvel super heroes were Kirby's proto-New Gods.


When I talk about tapping into it, I'm talking as a creator. But as a reader, it made me want to do comics and do comics in this mode. I imagine Kirby's work has that effect on a lot of people.
8-Opus was, in a lot of ways, a direct reaction to this stuff. I wanted to create a world of sci-fi gods utterly divorced from our reality. American Barbarian, too, with all its alien landscapes, strange creatures, revenge and family dramas. The "Gødland" cosmology is a little closer to the Marvel model, where these gods intrude into a more standard superhero milieu.

I'd like to hear a bit more about the plan for 8-Opus, and then how you shifted things up for your collaboration with "Gødland." What's the overarching story in 8-Opus, from your point of view? Was the project an attempt to take Kirby and do your own take on it? Or did you have a giant story in mind, and the Kirby style was the best way to get the visuals into the world?

8-Opus is something I still plan on completing. When I started, I wanted to do the Kirby thing. Create a universe, populate it with worlds and characters and have them all duke it out with each other on as large a scale as I could accomplish. I wanted it to look like Kirby, feel like Kirby, read like Kirby. But have it be something totally new. Like somebody found a lost Kirby epic that no one had ever seen before. It's the sort of thing you hope for from a favorite artist, that there's some lost masterpiece waiting to be discovered. There are those rumors that Ditko has been working on the continued adventures of Dr. Strange for his own entertainment for the past 5 decades.

When I was first picking up the issues of "New Gods" from various back issue bins, there was a misprint in the price guides in "Wizard" magazine saying that issues #1-19 of "New Gods" were written and drawn by Jack Kirby. It was a disappointment when I found out there were only 11 issues.

When we started "Gødland," I wanted those god-like elements to come into the story a lot earlier, but Joe was wise enough to realize that it made more sense to build toward those elements rather than have them there at the beginning.

Tell me some more about "Gødland," then and now. I know Joe Casey has talked about how he wanted to use his improvisational style while writing that comic, and you guys work Marvel-style on that book, right? Has the collaboration changed from the beginning to the almost-end? What are you struggling with, if anything, as you reach the conclusion of the story this year?

It's been all over the map. It's a very free, very organic collaboration. The struggle is that you want to have an effective ending. Which expectations do you thwart, which do you satify? I had gotten a little bit burnt out on "Gødland." I wasn't even sure if I wanted to give it an ending. Do you end it and have a nice complete work, or do you leave it unfinished and keep it as your ace in the hole. Finishing it won out. A lot of Jack Kirby's works have a mystique around them because of their unfinished nature, but I know Kirby would've loved to have given each of them a proper ending.

To get back in the "Gødland" frame of mind, I went back and reread the series from the beginning to see it from the reader's point of view. What did they expect to see. What might they want to see. What's the shape of this thing? The next morning I woke up with a million ideas I jotted them all down. I sent them to Joe and he flipped for them. I got the impression he was having a hard time getting back into "Gødland," too. I might be wrong. This definitely seemed to energize him. We threw some stuff back and forth. Now we have the plot for #36 hashed out.

There were a couple of ideas I was very excited about that Joe didn't want to do. They were pretty crazy. I can understand why he wouldn't want to do them. I figure if I'm that worked up over them, I can draw those pages and put them in the back of the trade as bonus material.

Yeah, an "alternative ending" for the Celestial Edition Volume Three. That would be a great bonus feature.

And how about "American Barbarian"? That's getting a nice collected edition from AdHouse, so let's hear more about that project. I haven't read all of it yet, but I was keeping up with it for months, and then just decided to wait it out until the collected edition eventually turned up, and now it's almost here. I just need to look at the story in a physical form. There's definitely a Kamandi riff going on in "American Barbarian," but that's not all -- how would you describe the comic, and what does the collected edition look like?

The collection is quite handsome, which is to be expected from an AdHouse book. Nice weight to it, nice texture. I think you'd have a difficult time knowing it started as a webcomic, because the book is so perfectly-realized.

As far as describing the book, it's a cheerful post-post-apocalyptic revenge story. It's the culmination of everything I've done up to this point. It's the work I'm proudest of, and I don't think it's something I would've been capable of without all the years of figuring things out.

How would you say your storytelling (from a writer/artist perspective) has changed since you first began 8-Opus? Did you find your style (in art or narrative) changing to reflect the serialization of "American Barbarian" online?

There's a general loosening up, which is inevitable once you get comfortable in the medium you're working in. In the beginning everything was a struggle drawing, pacing, dialogue, composition. When you're fighting every element of the form, it's difficult to do anything deliberate. You just kind of follow where your abilities take you. You make the kind of comics you're capable of making. Once you've gotten more experience, you can get your abilities to do what you want them to do. It's exactly what people say happens to an artist as they enter their thirties, that's where their work starts to really get good. In my 20's I was impatient. Comics history is full of 20-something-year-old prodigies. I wanted to be one of them.

A big turning point for me was the "Space Smith" story I did for "Next Issue Project: Fantastic Comics." Since it was a one-off and the nature of the project encouraged me to loosen up, I was able to try things I hadn't tried previously. I really liked the results. And I saw that the less precious you are about everything, the better your chances of creating something worthwhile.

Another lesson I learned was just from working on sprawling narratives like 8-Opus and "Gødland." I wanted to make sprawling narratives like Kirby did. But at the point I decided that, I hadn't read the entirety of Kirby's sprawling works. I'd read bits and pieces and assumed it was all going to add up to something incredible. And they didn't. They meandered. They had periods of excellence and meaning, but they also had long periods of digression and mediocrity. They didn't pay off narratively.  I think the Fourth World could've been different had it continued, but there it is. Life gets in the way of these things. Comics get cancelled. You as an artist change. How can you expect to be committed to a project ten years after you begin it?

To make it worth the commitment of years of your life, the stories would have to pay off in a way that I don't think art is capable of. Maybe Kirby could've done it had he been allowed to finish the works he did at the height of his powers.

I've been doing comics for at least 10 years and only now that I've finished "American Barbarian" do I have a complete work. I realized that a work of art is complete, it's not a run-on sentence. I've decided I'll only embark on projects where the end is in sight. And "American Barbarian" is an epic. Having it be 2000 pages as opposed to 300 wouldn't have made it any better.

When you're walking in the footsteps of a talent as titanic as Kirby's, you wonder if there's anything you could do that Kirby couldn't. One thing I can do that Kirby couldn't is that I can end my works the way I want to end them. Kirby wasn't able to end "Fantastic Four," "Thor," "Fourth World," "Eternals." I think "Silver Star" might be the only one. Despite all of Silver Star's warts, the fact that Kirby was able to say everything he had to say about that story elevates it in his pantheon of works.

I think "American Barbarian" benefits from its finite nature. It certainly helped my in the creation of it. Because the end was always in sight and because I had the treadmill of regular online updates keeping me going, I was able to commit my full creative energies to it. The relief of not having to serialize it in single issue form for the direct comics market was a big help. There's a lot of pressure to fill up every page with bits of business to make up for the fact that single issue comics aren't worth the price of admission.

If I had done "American Barbarian" as a monthly comic, it would've been very different, and not as good. There were experiments that worked out really well that I wouldn't have attempted if I felt the pressure of, ‘people are paying a lot of money for this, don't get too crazy.' I was able to let loose, and I think that's when we get the best out of ourselves. With a webcomic, readers can figure out if they like a work or not, without having to pay upfront. With monthly comics it's, "Did I like this chapter enough to pay for the next one?" Where else do you see that?

Webcomics is more like TV. It's in your house already, you can check it out with no pressure, and you're more likely to give something new a chance. And it may end up becoming your new favorite.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, tom scioli, american barbarian, godland, he-man, jack kirby, new gods, star wars

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