Whether it's an original Vertigo graphic novel like "Shooters" or established franchises like "G.I. Joe," "Battlestar Galactica" and "Vampirella," writers Brandon Jerwa and Eric Trautmann have explored a vast landscape of comic book casts and stories -- and they plan to bring that experience over to digital comics with "Frost," a new series published via Chris Roberson's Monkeybrain Comics digital imprint. Along with artist Giovanni Timpano, Jerwa and Trautmann's "Frost" sets its scope on CIA operative Frost as he hunts down terrorists and attempts to extract an Agency informer from a local warlord in the Middle East.
With the series' announcement debuting at Emerald City Comic Con 2013 and "Frost" #0 already available via comiXology for free, CBR News spoke with Jerwa and Trautmann about the upcoming series, how the experience with "Shooters" tied in to the story, the challenges and advantages of Monkeybrain's digital-only formula and bringing the genre of grounded military fantasy back to comics.
CBR News: Brandon, Eric -- tell us about "Frost" and the central concept you've got going here. Who is Frost and what's his mission when the story opens?
Eric Trautmann: The central concept is pretty traditional: a tough, relentless government operative is on the hunt for terrorists, specifically attempting to uncover a covert weapons pipeline in the Middle East. When the story opens, we see our operator -- the titular "Frost" -- under cover and attempting to extract a CIA informer from the clutches of a local warlord. His method for doing so is... non-traditional? [Laughs]
There's more to Frost's origin than is immediately apparent, and will form a major component of the story as it unfolds. But for our purposes here, he's a covert operator determined to accomplish his mission. How grounded is the series in the real world? Are the situations and characters similar to what a real world covert operative would encounter?
Brandon Jerwa: We're setting these stories in the very real world. Unlike "Shooters," though, this is an action thriller with all the earmarks that you expect -- shadowy organizations, political intrigue, secretive black ops -- but not to the extent of having Frost take on cartoony terrorists. This is more al-Qaeda, less Hydra or Cobra; more Jason Bourne than James Bond, at least in terms of the realism of the universe.
Trautmann: I'd call it "grounded military fantasy" if pressed. The book seems to tap into a genre of pulp that's gone dormant in comics for a while. What was the process like for tapping into that espionage/spy adventure/thriller grindhouse genre?
Jerwa: This started with Giovanni coming to me, hoping to do something with a military action bent. I came up with the core concept and wrote a script for the first issue. At this point, I tried to tag Eric in -- but he was still coming down from the "Shooters" experience, and was, understandably, reluctant to get back into military fiction. Weeks went on, and Eric stayed in the loop. I knew this was exactly the kind of thing that he and I should be working on together, so I basically just kept talking about it -- and he finally caved in. Once Eric signed up, we started retooling, and the book became exactly what it was supposed to be all along.
Trautmann: ...which is an apt summation of our entire collaborative process.
I was, indeed, rather reluctant to dive back into military themes, as I've navigated those waters quite a bit over the course of my career, and "Shooters" (a Vertigo OGN Brandon and I wrote and illustrated by Steve Lieber) was a wrenching book to write. For over three years, I was immersed in the research, interviewing soldiers, reliving a terrible personal tragedy within my own family that formed the crux of the book -- I was really, really not sanguine about tackling that kind of subject matter again.
I'm not sure entirely when we hit on some of the material we drew inspiration from, but there's a certain right-wing -- almost operatically reactionary -- feel of Bad Men's Adventure Fiction™ that struck a chord with us (which is odd, given my own political leanings, which tend to veer way left of center here).
Part of it was almost certainly commercial (if I told you how many copies have been sold of, for example, Mack Bolan/"The Executioner" novels, your head would spin), and part of it was the idea of tapping into those themes and that style in a way that wasn't quite so meatheaded and gung-ho, but still allowed for that wild, anything goes military fantasy "feel."
Both of you have worked extensively in print during your careers in comics, and even done a bit in this genre. Brandon, a lot of your notable work has been with teams or a large cast of characters like "G.I. Joe" or "Battlestar Galactica." In terms of number of cast members, where do you feel your comfort zone is?
Jerwa: Not to toot my own horn here, but -- *toot-toot* -- I like to think I'm pretty good with a large cast of characters. I haven't been able to really tap into that since "Mighty Crusaders," and it's my favorite thing to write. When I have a solo protagonist, like Frost or Vampirella, I get to scratch that itch via the supporting cast, and/or juggling the different story aspects going on around them -- without taking the spotlight away from the title character. Frost will always be the focus of this book, but he is definitely part of a larger world that we will reveal as we move ahead.
Eric, you've worked before on a covert ops book for the "Perfect Dark" six-issue miniseries and did some work on the "Halo" story bible. When building up a protagonist like Frost, what's the primary goal for you? Where do you start?
Trautmann: It seems like I've been writing soldiers and spies for my entire comics career: "Perfect Dark" (and boy howdy would I love another crack at that franchise), "Checkmate," "The Shield," "Shooters"...
So I feel like I already have a pretty good handle, at least as well as any civilian can, on the military mindset. I'm comfortable there.
For Frost, the challenge was to come up with an origin that I liked -- and this one is fairly crazy, and I'm looking forward to the big reveal there -- to explain just why he's so determined and driven. From there, when we realized where he came from, it meant mapping out a larger conspiracy. It's familiar, but it also took some tropes from the aforementioned "grindhouse school" and turned them on their head in a way I think is unexpected, fun, and delightfully weird.
The digital format obviously presents a number of unique advantages and challenges for any modern comic. What about the format do you think lends itself especially well to the story you're telling in "Frost?"
Jerwa: I have to give credit where it's due. Eric has been making a nuisance of himself with every publisher we've dealt with, constantly ringing the "digital comics" bell. Seriously, he's wanted to do this for years, long before the code was truly cracked for mass market digital. He was the early adopter/true believer, no doubt about it.
Trautmann: I'm not sure it's "especially" suited to "Frost," honestly, other than our "book" is not something that traditional comics publishers would pick up. The beauty of the digital comics marketplace is that it's possible to make a modest commercial success out of genres that are under-represented on the comics racks. Even the absolute, very best war books face an uphill battle when put up against capes and cowls.
One of the challenges of the format is not to fall prey to some of the excesses of comic page layout and design, I think.
I have a lengthy screed on the subject of unconventional page layout as a barrier to entry for new readers (who, for example, might not have a decade or more of reading comics under their belt) that I shall spare you.
Personally, I find the standard 2-page "spread" in comics problematic in a digital format, so making sure we're not using them often (or if we do, doing so in way that makes best use of the screen size/format) so the reader doesn't have to keep zooming in and out to get the necessary story information is a concern.
That's all fairly inside baseball stuff, obviously, and is fairly simple; I look at things like Mark Waid's Thrillbent material, which is making some really interesting and deceptively complex use of a simple browser interface to achieve terrifically effective timing effects, and it makes me want to cheer. I'd kill to see how Mr. Waid scripts those things. One of the major aspects of Monkeybrain's digital comics that's different from print are the length and pacing of issues. How have you adjusted your process for "Frost" to take advantage of it?
Trautmann: We originally envisioned sending Frost out to publishers for standard 22-page issues; we realized pretty quickly that we wanted to work with Monkeybrain, and for a variety of reasons (mostly involving not crushing our illustrator under the weight of deadlines every month) that a minimum of 16 pages of story (plus a varying amount of backmatter, essays, illustrations, behind-the-scenes material and so on) would allow us a lean, stripped-down "footprint" for our story and still provide a lot of bang for the buck for the consumer.
Brandon and I have worked on comics of several different lengths -- standard 20- and 22-pagers, 10-pagers, a 140-page graphic novel, so looking at our overall plot and figuring out how to trim off the fat and boil it down into easily encapsulated 16-page issues wasn't a huge difficulty. "Frost" is drawn by Giovanni Timpano, who posted some test pages for "The Shadow" on his blog. What made him the right person to take on "Frost?"
Jerwa: As I mentioned before, Gio came to me. He'd seen my "Galactica" and "G.I. Joe" work, and wanted to collaborate on something in that arena -- big military/espionage action with a focus on character. When you have an artist as great as Gio knocking on your door, you invite him in and do everything you can to make sure he stays. We are working in a collaborative situation here.
Eric and I worked with Steve Lieber on "Shooters," and I know for sure that we were completely spoiled by that experience. Steve is extremely detail-oriented, and very much focused on making sure that each page is serving the story to the fullest extent. Giovanni lives up to that high standard -- he'll do three rough versions of a page if he thinks there are three different ways to approach it. He is a consummate professional, and his work is just stunning. What's been your favorite aspect of creating "Frost" so far?
Jerwa: We're making the kind of comics we'd like to read, and that's really rewarding.
Trautmann: I'm making comics with friends, for my friends, and, as mercenary as it sounds, it's something we own. Everything I contribute, everything Gio contributes, everything Brandon contributes -- they're all like gifts we give each other. And doing so for a publisher that truly gets it, that has a long-term, forward thinking view of the comics landscape and actively wants to do things that are different? That's icing on the cake.
"Frost" #0 is available now from Monkeybrain Comics on comiXology.