"Truth, Justin & The American Way" - Scott Kurtz, Aaron Williams & Gieseppe Ferrario Discuss

Mon, December 19th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
George A. Tramountanas, Staff Writer

I'm a child of the '80s. Okay, I was born in the '70s, but I identify more with parachute pants and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" than I do with leisure suits and the Bee Gees (I'm happy to say). I get wistful as I think about all the greatness the '80s offered me as I grew up: Nintendo, "The A-Team," my family's beta tape recorder, "Back to the Future," and my first exposure to cable television (I probably watched "Porky's" about twenty times that summer). Ah, bliss…

For those like me - or for those who wonder how anyone could love a decade that encouraged people to wear neon in public - Image Comics has a book coming this March that you need to read: "Truth, Justin, and the American Way." This five-issue miniseries is written by Scott Kurtz ("PvP") and Aaron Williams ("Nodwick," "PS238"), and is illustrated by a newcomer to American comics, Italian cartoonist Giuseppe Ferrario. In addition, fans of Scott Kurtz's humor will celebrate extra-loudly that month as "PvP" (which Kurtz also draws) is celebrating its twenty-fifth issue with Image. CBR contacted Kurtz and his cohorts to talk more about the miniseries, their partnership, and "PvP's" milestone.

"TRUTH, JUSTIN, AND THE AMERICAN WAY"

"Truth, Justin & The American Way" #1
We began our chat talking about "Justin…" Specifically, we talked about the inspiration to write an '80s-influenced comic book. Where does that come from? Aaron Williams had a simple and clear response: "From years and years of watching bad TV.

"We grew up on Stephen J. Cannell, Aaron Spelling and Glen Larson productions, and now it's payback time," Williams told CBR News. "A lot of shows from the '70s and '80s had great premises, but due to the market, budgets, and technology of the time, the execution wasn't always the best. We're looking to fix that with Justin. This is everyone's dream show that was never made."

Kurtz went on to detail the exact date of inspiration. Interestingly enough, it appears to be almost exactly one year from the date the issue hits stands. "Back in March, I spent a weekend watching DVD sets of old '70s and '80s TV shows: 'Greatest American Hero,' 'Space 1999,' 'Buck Rogers.' And I realized that I was influenced more by television than I ever was by comic books," Kurtz told CBR News. "When I was a kid on the playground, I pretended to be the 'Six Million Dollar Man' and 'Remington Steele.' I didn't pretend to be Spider-Man.

"I called Aaron up and said, 'I want to do 'Greatest American Hero' and 'Buck Rogers' or the 'Bionic Man' as a comic book, but not really those shows. Something like those shows - our own characters but in that time and with those conventions.' We spent an hour passing ideas back and forth and the excitement started growing.

"We had talked about writing a comic together for Image for awhile and I was just waiting for the right idea to come along. So the idea of working with Aaron and another artist on a project was around long before the concept for Justin popped into our heads."

As Kurtz and Williams are both busy writing and drawing books of their own, it was clear that another artist was required for this project. They needed to find someone who could bring this period of American nostalgia to life for them. Neither expected that they'd find this person in Italy, of all places.

"I posted the concept and a sketch of Justin on a couple artist message boards that I frequent," Kurtz explained. "A lot of the artists I was interested in hearing from also do concept and storyboard work, which is perfect for a comic trying to recapture the feel of a television show.

Scott Kurtz's sketch of Justin. Giuseppe Ferrario's first Justin sketch.
"The morning I was leaving to drive from Dallas to Missouri to visit Aaron, I got an email from Giuseppe with the following sketch of Justin. And by 'sketch,' I mean a fully-rendered inked and colored shot of Justin with so much fun and emotion to it that my heart jumped into my throat.

"I had an eight-hour drive ahead of me and I spent all of it worrying about how I was going to convince Giuseppe to work on Justin with no promise of success or compensation."

Thankfully for all involved, Giuseppe Ferrario was interested and signed on. For readers who are curious about his background, the artist offered the following: "I'm thirty-six years old, and in the last twelve years I've worked as story artist, illustrator, writer, cover artist and character designer for a lot of companies like Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and so on," Ferrario told CBR News. "Last year, I met the 'Flight' (anthology) crew and I drew a little story for Volume Two. At the moment, my biggest project (except for this one, of course!) is a cartoon TV series based on my characters and scripts."

From looking at the art released for this project, there are many visual hints as to when the story takes place. But while the creators have already stated that the series is '80s-inspired, they spoke in more general terms regarding the time period the story is set in.

Williams explained that "Justin…" takes place "..in a timeless era of goofy fashion, cold wars, and the suspicion that somewhere, people were watching you on a TV screen accompanied by canned laughter. Justin's world is a simpler place, relatively speaking, where mobile phones still weigh thirty pounds and malls are a cool place to hang out."

Kurtz added, "We never come out and say it's the '80s, but everything about the book screams it. That's what's so great about Giuseppe's art on this title. The whole look for the comic is this idealized view of America through the eyes of the television shows that we produced in the '80s.

"This is how, growing up, Giuseppe saw America. And I think that comes through in his art and goes a long way towards transporting us back to the same feelings we had watching those shows as kids."

As shown by the creators' passion when talking about the project, it's clear this book holds a lot of sentimental meaning for them. So what's the story about? Williams laid it out for us.

"Boy has girl. Boy finds super-suit. FBI finds boy. Boy loses cool. FBI loses temper. Boy, do things go wrong from there."

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Kurtz elaborated, "At the core, under all the trappings and references is a story about a loveable guy who's doing his best to please all of the important people in his life.

"There are two stories happening at once: the amazing adventure caused by Justin accidentally coming into possession of this super-suit, and the ordinary adventure of Justin having to decide who he's going to be. I mean, the guy is getting married in one week!"

Williams offered some more information about the characters that populate this fun little story. "There's Justin, our lovable loser who's trying to start a new life with his bride-to-be, Bailey. Bailey's roomie, Blair, thinks Bailey is selling herself short. Justin's pals aren't helping Bailey's opinion. Catfish, Shades, and Moose have often helped Justin get drunk and in trouble, and not necessarily in that order.

"Then there's Agent McGee. This man is so red, white, and blue he makes Uncle Sam look like a communist sympathizer," continued Williams. "It's his patriotic duty to bring back the super-suit that fell into Justin's hands, and if Justin and his degenerate 'comrades' happen to be erased in the process, so be it. I must say, writing McGee's dialogue is the most fun. We just take a little Ronald Regan, add some George Patton, mix with a bunch of '50s civics class films and then really crank up the paranoia."

Kurtz echoed Williams' enthusiasm for this character. "McGee's dialogue is all Aaron and all gold!"

While the story has superhero elements, it seems clear from its description that this comic can be classified a comedy. However, Williams had slightly higher aspirations for the book's category. "The genre we're shooting for is 'best-selling, Eisner-award winning, soon to be a motion picture.'

"Seriously, it's a comedic tribute to American superhero comics set in a time when American culture was great, colorful, and often unaware of how silly it looked in bell-bottoms and butterfly collars."

Kurtz had his own take. "If I had to describe the genre, I would say half '80s action/adventure series and half 'Gaston Lagaffe' (the French comic about a bumbling copy-boy)."

The team working on this book had to somehow coordinate their work, despite the physical distances between them. When asked about their process and the challenges they had to overcome, Williams quickly chimed in. "Yeah. Microsoft's Instant Messenger's file-transfer 'feature' is too frickin' slow, when it works at all."

Ferrario went into more detail about their partnership. "I receive the script and work page by page, when I finish one (pencil, ink, fonts and color) I send it to Scott. I think it's very exciting to work with others guys overseas. I've never met them, but we are on the same project and we feel like friends. The internet can be wonderful because it's allowed people on opposite ends of the world to team up and make comics."

"We do everything over the net and the phone" Kurtz explained. "I get to see Aaron a couple times a year, too, but we talk mostly over Instant Messenger. Giuseppe is seven hours ahead of us, so I get to wake up to new pages. It's a wonderful feeling to see an email with an attached .jpg from Italy."

Speaking of Italian art, many comic books in Europe utilize a different art style - even a different format - than their American counterparts. When asked if he had to modify his style for an American audience, Ferrario responded, "No, and I think that's the most beautiful thing about this project. Scott chose me for my style!"

Kurtz agreed. "Giuseppe is bringing something to this project that an American artist couldn't. A wide-eyed perspective of what American life was like in the 80's as seen through our imported TV shows. His style just implies a nostalgic idealized view of life back then, which is really what we wanted to capture.

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"There are a lot of homages and references that we've peppered into the book. Those are fun and you're going to love finding them all. But overall, it's Giuseppe's style and his love for that old American television that really comes through and captures your attention."

Each partner's zeal for this project is apparent in talking with them about "Justin…", and each mentioned an aspect that made them most anxious to see the book hit stands in March.

"Well, naturally, we're all jazzed about the story," Williams said. "I'm loving how Justin's world is shaping up, and a large amount of credit has to go to Giuseppe. He puts in a ton of stuff we didn't even think about and improves the comic with every panel. The man's a genius."

Ferrario's excitement came from two different aspects: "First of all, the idea of working for American audience. Second, I love the '80s theme. It reminds me of when I was young and Italian television was full of American sitcoms and series. I really liked them!"

Kurtz's enthusiasm seemed to be tempered a tad by a feeling many creators can relate to. "I'm more nervous than I am excited at this point. I have so much emotionally invested in Justin already. I feel like I'm about to send my kid off for his first day of school. I think he's so special and wonderful and I'm just terrified that he won't find friends out there.

"I look at the first sketch I posted on those message boards looking for an artist, and I realize that Justin is so much more than I could have ever made him myself. This book is so much more than I ever expected it to be.

"I should be three times as excited, but now I feel like I just got three times as much on the line."

While "Justin…" keeps the members of this team busy, they each have other projects in the pipeline. Williams told CBR News, "I'm currently developing some comics with Scott and others to pitch to Image. I just had a Spider-Man script purchased by Marvel ('Spider-Man Unlimited,' issue #13!), and my self-published comic 'PS238' continues to get favorable reviews."

Ferrario has a cartoon series he is working on, but added, "I hope that this project will be the first of a long series. Another dream that has been in my mind for a long time is to work on my favorite character: the world's mightiest mortal, Captain Marvel!"

"DC, please hire Giuseppe to do a Captain Marvel story," Kurtz pleaded. "It would be so totally bad-ass."

He went on to say, "Aaron and I have a ton more Justin stories in our heads beyond this first miniseries. I really hope it does well enough to merit more. We might do them even if sales don't merit it."

While we had Kurtz on the spot, we also asked him about a project he had mentioned in a previous interview, "The Golden Agers." This was a book about a superhero retirement home that was to be written by Robert Kirkman ("Walking Dead," "Invincible") with Kurtz providing art.

"I totally hamstringed 'Golden Agers,'" Kurtz replied. "Kirkman was ready to go, folks. You can blame me. I still want to do it, but until I get my shit together and start working on the character design and art duties, it's dead in the water."

"'Golden Agers' taught me a very important lesson: don't hype projects until they are ready to hype. No matter how excited you are about them. I've been working on Justin since March and I have been biting my lip not talking about it until the time was right!"

"PvP" #25

While "Justin…" is Kurtz's latest creation, he still has plenty of love for his firstborn, "PvP," and is pleased to see it reach issue #25 with Image. "PvP" began as an online comic strip, then became a published collection of strips while still appearing daily online at Kurtz's website - www.pvponline.com. For those unfamiliar with this hilarious comic, Kurtz was happy to offer an introduction.

"'PvP' (Player vs. Player) started in 1998 as an online-only comic strip about the staff of a fictional video game magazine. The theme of the comic is exploring this new social norm where we grow older, but never really grow up or grow out of our childhood obsessions. We're all in our '20s (some in our '30s and '40s with kids and families) but we retain our childhood pastimes.

"The first 'PvP' comic strip was posted to the web on May 4, 1998, so I've been with these characters for eight years now. Of course, back in 1998, the characters really weren't who they are now. It wasn't until 1999-2000 that I sort of figured out who these guys were."

Image Comics is one of the largest publishers in the industry, so when Kurtz began publishing with them, he was amazed by the response. "Everything changed. I had been self-publishing 'PvP' through Dork Storm Press for a year or so when Image picked me up. So my numbers increased, my visibility increased, and people found the website who normally wouldn't. What I didn't expect was all the friends it would make me in the industry. To discover that the people whose work you've admired and imitated for years never miss a day of the strip can floor you. I owe Image a lot."

Creators on books have to serve two masters: their creative muse and their business demon. After all, you need to sell a comic so you can make it again next month. Fortunately, it sounds like fans will have "PvP" around for awhile.

"Yeah, I'm happy with sales. I'm like everyone with a book, right? I wish it sold 100k every month. But for a black and white humor book, to make me a profit every month and have sales level out and stick...that's unheard of. All I ever wanted was to find a spot like Stan Sakai or Sergio - where I can keep my comic going and make a living and keep a steady fanbase. I'll take that. I'll take that and smile."

As mentioned by Kurtz, "PvP" seems to have a lot of fans who are also comic professionals. This has led to some very fun covers on "PvP" by some very talented people.

"Frank Cho, James Kochalka, Mike Wieringo, Erik Larsen, Ryan Ottley...I've been blessed with some kick ass guest cover art. And I got more coming in 2006. It's one of the best parts of doing the monthly comic from Image. The cover for #25 is all me (unfortunately). I should have lined somebody up, but it wasn't until I had already submitted the solicitation that it dawned on me that we had hit #25. My dream trifecta of cover artists would be my biggest influences: Stan Sakai, Sergio Aragones, and Jeff Smith."

Since issue #25 is a milestone, we asked Kurtz if there was anything special lined up for the issue. He replied, "The only special thing we have planned is that there are some guest-written strips by some luminaries in the industry. And trust me when I say that you'll be disappointed with these strips. It'll make you groan. But the whole thing was Kurt Busiek's idea, so you can blame him."

Visiting Kurtz's website, you will also notice various "PvP" products for sale, including plushies and t-shirts featuring characters from the comic. Demand for these products have been high, and Kurtz promises more goodies for fans in 2006.

"Partnering with Thinkgeek.com was the single greatest business decision I've made in the last five years. They have really provided me with the means to provide my readers with some cool 'PvP' merchandise. Trust me when I say that doing all that yourself (dealing with inventory and shipping) is a real pain.

"Once the holiday season passes and those guys have more free time again, we're going to be putting together new stuff for 2006. We'll get new tees and stuff, but I want to get some products up there that haven't been available yet. So stay tuned.

"Ironically, my two most successful items in 2005 didn't feature one 'PvP' character: the 'Han Shot First' shirt and the 'Joss Whedon Is My Master' shirt."

Most popular comics are snapped up by the film or TV community for development. While the strip is available to enjoy on a daily basis, Kurtz indicated fans shouldn't hold their breaths for Hollywood's take on the PvP crew. While inquiries have been made, Kurtz said there's "…nothing worth talking about. I'm closer to producing free flash animations on my website than I am to getting any legitimate interest from Hollywood."

"PvP" fans are an enthusiastic bunch. They even have a "World of Warcraft" team whose fervor sounds second to none. So when I asked Kurtz if he had any interesting stories about rabid fans, it didn't take him long to come up with one.

"I had a knock on the door yesterday and it was this attractive young woman. She said to me, 'I work at Dominos Pizza and I delivered to you last weekend. I know this is really odd, but my friend is a huge 'PvP' fan and I wanted to know if I could get a sketch or an autograph for him.' They had seen my name on their computer when I ordered a pizza and figured out it was me.

"It was the single most surreal moment I've experienced since I started this strip."

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