Monday, June 9, 2008

The Amazing Joy Buzzards: Smith and Hipp tell us how to rock

Just before I go on vacation, here's a special feature of the type that I've never done before:

The Amazing Joy Buzzards Interview!

First appearing in 2005, The Amazing Joy Buzzards was a super-fun comic about an adventuring rock band who fight monsters and world-threatening menaces in between playing awesome rock shows and starring in Hollywood movies. Over the course of two four-issue miniseries, they fought vampire robots, uncovered mysteries about movie stars, experienced awkward romance, participated in high-speed car races, and raised the ire of a group of supervillains called "The Spiders". This Wednesday, a new "director's cut" volume of those comics is coming out called The Amazing Joy Buzzards volume 1: Here Come the Spiders. And now, writer Mark Andrew Smith and artist Dan Hipp discuss their influences, the process of creating the series, and what's in store for the future:

So where did the idea for the series come from? You've got several genres mashed together here (action, superhero, espionage, monsters, sci-fi, etc.); do you have any specific influences or authors/artists that you want to pay tribute to?

Mark Andrew Smith: The idea of the Amazing Joy Buzzards was generated almost entirely from '60s cinema and combining my favorite elements of many films across a wide range of genres. Above all other mediums film is the greatest influence for the Amazing Joy Buzzards.

Dan Hipp: Yeah, it's a real mix of influences, to the point that I think when people read it they start to assign their own influences, which is always fun to hear about, whether they're spot on or not.

Mark, what are some of the specific 60s films that inspired you? I imagine A Hard Day's Night would be one, along with the James Bond films. Do you have any movies from that era that you would recommend to fans of the series?

Definitely A Hard Day's Night and James Bond. I went to film school but I was also one of those guys that worked in a video store as well and digested almost everything he'd heard about. So French New Wave such as Breathless, Akira Kurosawa like Yojimbo, Italian Cinema, Fellini Films, anything with Marcelo Mastroianni, then American Cinema as well, so it really runs a long and wide range in terms of the influence. If I get too into films it just feels like I'm dropping obscure references just to be cool and that's one of my new pet peeves. Two of my favorite films are 8 1/2 and Divorce Italian Style. I think with these movies there's such a beat to them and they're living and with great characterization and pacing. Marcelo Mastroianni is the basis for the Amazing Joy Buzzard's manager Dalton Warner.

It's impressive how many crazy concepts and ideas you threw onto the pages in the first couple issues of the series, introducing readers to the band, their skills, and the types of conflicts they come across, while keeping the energy level high, the comedy flowing, and the story moving quickly and enjoyably. I guess my question here is, is this all planned out meticulously ("gotta introduce El Campeon, throw in some screaming groupies, and be sure to include some action"), or is it more of a stream-of-consciousness style of writing, just putting ideas down on paper as they come?

MARK: Initially it was a lot more of a stream of consciousness type of writing but as the characters have grown it's started to become more planned out meticulously. There is definitely an aspect of surrealism to the first volume but with Volume 2 of The Amazing Joy Buzzards titled "Monster Love", it's more serious in tone and much more like an Amazing Joy Buzzards feature film.

DAN: This was our first book, so the ideas (good and bad) kept coming to the point we were holding the finished book in our hands. It was a fantastic learning experience, and probably worth remembering so we never lose that fresh spontaneity as creators.

I love the way the characters are all so differentiated, rather than being generic, pretty-boy musicians. They've got fun aspects to their characters, like Gabe's awkward relationship with Betty, or El Campeon's love of donuts. Is it a challenge to keep their interplay interesting and make them seem like real characters rather than blandly famous blank slates?

MARK: El Campeon is definitely one of my favorite characters. I think one of the things that works the best about the Amazing Joy Buzzards is the characterization, the awkward moments and pauses, and the character quirks. Every character in the book down to the very villains themselves all have their own hang-ups and distinct awkwardness about them that makes them endearing to the readers. Doing the interplay is never a challenge because these characters could potential talk to each other forever and it would still be interesting. So it always comes very easy.

DAN: I think on some level there are pieces of us in each character, so it's never difficult to come up with geeky awkwardness. What, did I say too much?

I enjoy the nonverbal gags that show up whenever Steve-o "talks". While this isn't exactly a new idea, you make it pretty enjoyable, throwing together some interesting juxtapositions or non-conventional images (my favorite might be the Jackson Pollock painting). Is it difficult to come up with imagery that is unique and non-obvious for his speech? I also notice that you often include translations of what he saying, so do you feel that sometimes the meaning doesn't really come across?

MARK: You know, that's all Dan Hipp who comes up with those. Initially, I just had Stevo never say a word, but in the first issue he began throwing those in there. Sometimes I may try my hand or write one or two of them in, but Dan is so much better at doing them than I am, so I usually leave them to him. So it's almost always Dan who is coming up with those. It's very refreshing because so often I see them and find myself unable to stop laughing.

DAN: HA, yeah those are too much fun to come up with! Usually they'll just invent themselves as I'm putting the page together. Sometimes I'll throw on the translations just to be safe, or to give it the comedic beat it needs, so the eye doesn't stop moving. It totally depends on moment and the pacing of the narrative at that point. They're always good for a gag or punchline, but we don't want to stop the flow of the story.

What does the AJBs' music sound like? Myself, I hear something like Weezer or The Strokes, an affable, high-energy band playing eminently singable and danceable music.

MARK: We're always quiet on what the Amazing Joy Buzzards sound like because every reader plugs their own favorite band into the spot. Eventually for film and animation they will actually have a sound if all goes well so then we'll have to chose. I'd say you're not far off in your assessment of what they sound like.

DAN: Everyone has their version of what the band sounds like, so it feels better to let everyone hold on to their hopes and dreams. I mean, when they find out that Billy Ray Cyrus was the driving force behind...(pause)...did I say that out loud?

The second miniseries (is that what they were? Or were they aborted ongoings?) ended with a couple of issues containing stories by other artists, with Hipp-illustrated framing sequences. Those stories aren't contained in the new collection, but the framing stories are (with some slight alterations). Was there a reason why the other stories aren't included? Did they stray too far from "official AJB continuity"? For that matter, why turn to guest artist to finish off that volume in the first place?

MARK: We found ourselves in a bit of a bind schedule-wise to finish of the second volume, and in comics you have to solicit three months in advance and we had solicited the next two issues in the series. But as we got closer to those two months we found ourselves under such a crunch and we knew that there was no way we'd make the deadline, and canceling would be certain death. So the guest stories was the perfect solution to fill in the last two issues of the volume and our friends were very kind to help us out, such as Jim Mahfood and Dave Crosland. I love their work and the stories that the guests did in those volumes, but they did appear abruptly and in the middle of Dan's continuity from reading the issues from A-B-C-, suddenly we had A-X-C. The guest stories aren't how the series was originally envisioned or intended to be read. The way it should be read is with a more seamless story that connects the continuity issue with all the art by Dan Hipp. The new volume does that and it best represents our vision for the series.

DAN: Yeah, what Mark said. Those lovely gents were kind enough to help us out, so kudos to them! The framing sequences are still contained in the new collection (reworked), because even though those issues were somewhat out of continuity, we had peppered in a lot of hints as to what is coming in the next volume. So we didn't want to lose those setups that had been established. Personally I'm not a huge fan of issues that are entirely out of continuity, so we wanted to frame them in such a way to help set up the new material, and give those extra stories a certain amount of importance (especially since we had such awesome artists working with us). When putting together the new collection, we didn't want to lose those elements, otherwise we'd need to do a lot more setting up in the next volume, rather than jumping right into the action.

I love all the detail that Dan puts into the art; looking over the new collection, I'm impressed by how much is crammed into the corners of the pages. The "attack of the zombie extras" story was a great chance to fit all kinds of cool references into the edges of panels. Is that sort of thing planned/scripted, or does Dan add it in as he's drawing?

MARK: Dan goes nuts and he adds in all of those cool references into the edges of the panels himself. Dan adds it in as he's drawing.

DAN: YAY! I have on a lot of movies when I'm working, so the backgrounds are usually filled with whatever movie is making me laugh, or whatever. I put a lot of my old students in there too (they think they're famous now).

It seems that Dan has really been refining his skill over the past few years, especially in his solo series, Gyakushu! I loved the gritty details and awesome action of that series, so is he going to have plenty of chances to deliver his unique AJB craziness in the upcoming new volume?

MARK: Dan's Gyakushu! series is overwhelmingly good. There will be a lot more chances for him to deliver his unique AJB craziness. The new volume is also an original graphic novel so we have a lot of room to stretch out and pace the story a lot more. So he's taking his tricks and his experience from GYA and plunging headfirst into the new volume of MonsterLove.

DAN: THANKS, guys! Yeah, Gyakushu! satisfies this massive itch I have for blood-soaked epics, but my heart has been aching to get back to the AJB boys, since so much of my regular (non-bloody) personality is tied up with them. It's been ridiculously fun and entertaining working on the new pages, and there are all sorts of new references and gags just waiting to be seen!

What can we expect in the new volume of the series (and when will it be coming out)? I'm particularly interested to learn more about the mysterious angel(?) who saved Steve-o's life during the race at the beginning of the second miniseries, and to see more conflict between the AJBs and The Spiders.

MARK: You'll be seeing a bit of the angel in this volume but he mostly comes to play in the third volume of the series. But this one is all about the conflict with AJB and the Spider Syndicate and things really come to a head in this one. I think folks will be taken aback because it's very different from the first volume in terms of style and mood but it still keeps a lot of the fun. It will be interesting to see once it comes out how people react to certain things we have in store for the readers.

DAN: This next volume keeps the same heart, but goes in a different direction, at a breakneck speed, so it will be fun to see the reactions it gets. Everyone has their expectations of how it's supposed to be, so it's always fun to turn things on their head a bit. I'm totally not making sense, but you'll see. YOU'LL ALL SEE!!!

It sounds like you might be taking a more serious turn with the upcoming story. Do you find it challenging to go in that direction? The characters and world of the series are so much fun, it would seem to be easy to rely on humor all the time, so is it difficult to keep from doing that? Or am I mischaracterizing what you've got planned?

DAN: The tone of the series does shift, but these are still the same characters, so the humor is inherent to them. In terms of the challenge to go serious, thankfully both Mark and I have other books that sit well in that territory, so it feels natural enough and fits the progression of the AJB story. Mark has had the general map set from the beginning, so we knew what we were headed toward. That said, there are still plenty of laughs and general ridiculousness along the way.

MARK: I think folks knew our beats a lot for writing by this point and caught on to the twist and turns, so it's important to change up the style of storytelling to keep it interesting for the audience and very interesting for us. The next volume feels very epic and more like a feature film. It's a progression of the characters and a fuller story without so much jumping around. So the first volume was many stories that are tied together while pushing forward the plot and then this is a direct build into this where, we're getting fully into THE story and there are no diversions. It's much more moody and Dalton is at the center of this one. But as Dan said, they're still the same characters and people.

Do you guys have any other projects in the works? I know Mark is writing Aqua Leung (which recently saw the release of its first volume) and Dan has one more volume to go on Gyakushu!, but is there anything else coming down the pipe?

MARK: I'm working on too much stuff to keep track of. So even I have trouble with it. On the Amazing Joy Buzzards front, there's MonsterLove that's out in October, then for next Spring, The Amazing Joy Buzzards & Tales from the Bullypulpit will come out, as well as an Amazing Joy Buzzards prequel adventure called "The Tunisian Lava Squirrel".

DAN: Right now I'm focusing on that last volume of Gyakushu! (OH, the epicness!) and the next volume of AJB (OH, the adventure! the excitement! (It's okay, I'm not a jedi)). You'll just have to wait and see after that. YOU'LL ALL HAVE TO WAIT AND...hello? Where'd everyone go?

Thanks a ton to Mark and Dan for their time, and I encourage everyone to pick up the new book on Wednesday. You won't be sorry!