The first day of Comic-Con International got off to a strong start with attendees scurrying between the floor and various panels, excited for a weekend of comics culture. The first Image Comics panel of the afternoon drew a significant crowd as fans filed in to see powerhouse creators Rick Remender, Nick Dragotta, Stuart Moore, Richard Starkings, Declan Shalvey, Tom Neely, Ryan Burton and Jason Latour. Moderated by Image's own David Brothers, the panel began by having each creator describe their current projects, which span a range of genres and themes.
Writer Ryan Burton spoke first about his freshly launched savage sci-fi series, "Dark Engine." "The idea behind "Dark Engine' was to have a really powerful, strong female protagonist. We don't have that enough in comics. When John [Bivens, series artist] and I started chatting, we were thinking that we wanted to have this female character, make her incredibly badass like Conan, and once that started going, we thought, lets give her a sword, and make it from a T-rex rib, and let's see how far we can push things."
Brothers tapped Moore next, reflecting on a past conversation the two had about how his sci-fi series "EGOs" was transforming to include a crime fiction element. "I tend to work on a lot of projects, and when I started 'EGOs' I wanted it to be a clean slate, combining a lot of things I like. Initially that meant science fiction, HBO-styled characters and a certain kind of multi-character, very peripheral, superhero battles. As I'm working on the second storyline, issue #5, it's turning into a crime story. It's a broad enough canvass that I can work all of that stuff into it," Moore said.
Starkings added that his ideas of sci-fi in comics expanded to include other genre types as well. "Science fiction is fiction with science extrapolated. So you're going to have human drama."
"It's like a '70s exploitation biker movie," Neeley said, describing "The Humans." "Like 'Planet of the Apes' meets 'Easy Rider.'" Set in 1970s Bakersfield CA, involving themes like Vietnam, bikers, drug running. The ape aspect? "It's a world where apes are the dominant race and humans are slave animals."
Dragotta works across genres with "East of West," a violent western, and "Howtoons," an educational kids comic integrating instructions for making various crafts and experiments into storytelling. "We've been doing it for ten years and 2014 is our ten-year anniversary. Image collected everything we've done over those ten years and it went on sale last Wednesday."
Brothers commented on the evolution of Dragotta's art over the ten years of "Howtoons," noting that he saw where the "East of West" influence crossed over. "I learned to cartoon a little better from when I was doing it back in 2004. 'East of West' is where I get my frustrations out and behead people. The world we create is a broad canvass and I just follow my whims."
Latour said "Southern Bastards" is about a very specific experience, the love/hate relationship he and co-creator Jason Aaron have with the south. "It's about watching dogs poop," the artist corrected.
The conversation was momentarily paused as Rick Remender joined the panel to a round of applause from the audience. "You decided to leave your hot tub of champagne and join us," Latour joked.
Getting back to the work on his series, Latour spoke about his experience of growing up in different parts of the south, specifically Charlotte and rural North Carolina. Shalvey asked if there were conflicts between he and Aaron, who grew up in different parts of the south. "Yeah, I've tried to convince him that farm animals are off limits for sexual proclivities. He disagrees," Latour said, grinning.
Remender spoke next about the three separate titles he has with Image, "Low," an aquatic sci-fi, "Black Science," a space exploration, and "Deadly Class," which follows a homeless teenager who joins a school for assassins. Remender considers "Deadly Class" his most grounded work, dealing with the awful, vicious parts of being a teenager and magnifying them into a larger story.
"It's drawing from a lot of my experiences in the mid-80s in the punk scene, being a little skate rat in Phoenix, Arizona, which was a pretty violent place to grow up. I saw a lot of pretty gnarly shit happen," he explained. "As I was trying to write memoirs I tentatively titled it 'Reagan Youth' as a nod to a punk band from the era. As I wrote, I realized that the violence aspect of it turned it into something else, gave it more adrenaline, than taking the personal, unique coming of age stories I wanted to tell and turn up the volume a little bit."
Expanding upon Remender's use of his personal history, Brothers asked the rest of the panel if they incorporated the philosophy of "write what you know" into their work.
Moore agreed that writing what you know and extrapolating on personal experiences and enhancing the details made for good storytelling, especially gaining distance from an event and being able to examine it from other perspectives.
Brother's turned the panel over to audience questions, the first asking the group how they balanced their history of reading and writing comics with influences outside of comics.
Dragotta answered first. "You've gotta keep current. I use everything. Science fiction gives you a broad canvass to put it all together, like we said earlier. I was always a big Kirby guy when I was at Marvel, and then doing 'East of West' I brought in a lot of manga influences."
"In the late 90s, I got introduced to underground comics, so my primary influence comes from underground comics of the 60s and 70s as well as current underground stuff. We're bringing that into 'The Humans,' a little bit more raw and violent, coming from people like Robert Crumb and David Mann," Neely shared.
"When I was outlining the second arc of ,Dark Engine,' I realized that I was drawing a lot from 'Shadow of the Colossus' and trench poetry, which is weird," Burton added. "I thought, how rad would it be to have these roaming colossi in the sky and shell-shocked victims in trenches writing poetry about it because they didn't know what else to do."
What sort of advice does the panel have for someone submitting to Image comics?
"Do it yourself first," Neely, who has been doing self-publishing for fifteen years, said immediately.
"By the time I got to Image, I'd been making my own comic books for seven years," Remender said. "If you want to make comics, make them. Then find where they end up and hone your craft, you'll find your voice and you'll eventually find a place to do it at. It'll potentially take longer than you think but you have to keep doing it. If it's not in you to do it anyway, then you're not going to do it."
Do the panelists plan when their stories will end?
Dragotta shared that he and "East of West" writer Jonathan Hickman have 60 issues planned out, with every fifteen issues covering a year of time. "I love 'East of West,' and it might be something I want to come back and revisit after sixty issues, but it's not something I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to do so many things."
Latour added, "Jason and I have ['Southern Bastards'] planned out as if it were a cross-country trip. We can take the highway or we can take the back roads, but it's all the same destination."
Shalvey spoke on "Injection," his newly announced project with writer Warren Ellis. "It's designed to be a specific length, and when I was talking to Warren, I wanted to do something long form. The way he's constructing it, it will be at least two years."
The next audience member asked the group how much fan response influenced their story, noting that Remender had recently been embroiled in a bit of controversy over his work on Marvel character Sam Wilson. How does that affect their future storylines?
"A controversy demands that somebody has actually done something. What was done to me was libelous and slander made of absolute bullshit," Remender said. "There was an attack on my character that was so far from who I am that I just locked down for a week with my kids, weeping and eating toast. As far as responding to that bullshit? Fuck it," he finished, as the audience burst into supportive applause.
Shalvey spoke next. "It's great that as a fan of something you can get really involved with the creators who make it, but the reactionary natures and how quick people are to judge worries me. You can tell a story, and maybe there's a plot point there you don't like, but the feedback is straightaway on Twitter, people shouting at you, I'm kind of worried that it's going to scare creators away from telling stories they're passionate about."
"The kind of rednecks that are going to have a problem with "Southern Bastards' can't read," Latour offered.
What genres do the creators wish they could work in but aren't comfortable with?
"I'm kind of scared of sci-fi," Neely said. "There are so many spaceships to draw."
Moore commented that he found erotica to be tricky.
As for Latour, he cited werewolves. "I'm serious," Latour insisted. "Werewolves. I always want to do a werewolf story, and then I'm like, this is stupid. But once a year I get a real hankering to do a werewolf story."
Starkings shared that he found writing to young audiences challenging, noting that comics like "Bone" and "Mouse Guard" have done it very well. "It's very difficult these days to reach new young readers," he said.
Dragotta agreed. "It's almost impossible to find out what will draw young people to a comic," he said.
Burton said that he'd like to do something along the lines of "Bee and Puppycat" if he could find the time, talent and drive.
The next question expanded upon the previous one -- since the panelists couldn't tell the stories mentioned, what made them pick the ones they are working on, specifically Latour with "Southern Bastards."
"Because I couldn't figure out a werewolf story," Latour answered, laughing. "Part of why I'm doing that book is to figure out why I'm doing that book. There are a lot of things that Jason and I both wrestle with. It's sort of a crime fiction story in its form, but I don't know if that's what its heart is. Having a vehicle to objectively tear apart your feelings and repurpose them into other characters in a fictional narrative -- life doesn't work in the same way as a narrative, so we can play out our own faults in a safe environment and have sort of a guidebook when we come across a situation that has a similar tone or tenor to it.
"It's my excuse to take pictures of dogs pooping and figure out why I act the way I do."