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Warlords and chaos: Johnnie Christmas and Jack T. Cole talk new series ‘Tartarus’

Debuting next week via Image, this sci-fi epic in the vein of Blade Runner follows the offspring of a famous warlord.

Imagine growing up to find out you’re the offspring of a notorious warlord. Those would be some might large shoes to fill, especially having made enemies before word one. That’s the case in Tartarus, the brand new Image Comics series written by Johnnie Christmas and art by Jack T. Cole. 

We were fortunate enough to chat with Christmas and Cole about the new book, their creative process, and how they finally brought the project to life after being in development for years. 

Tartarus #1 hits shelves on February 12.

AIPT: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, I’m a huge fan of both your previous comic projects Sheltered and The Unsound. But, for those who may not be familiar with either of you, can you give us a small introduction?

Johnnie Christmas:  I’ve been writing and drawing comics since I was a kid but my first series was Sheltered. After that, I went on to collaborate with some really great talents (Margaret Atwood and William Gibson among them) before making my pro writing debut with FIREBUG. TARTARUS is my first ongoing series as a writer.

Jack T. Cole: Thank you! I’m from Portland, Oregon and a member of Helioscope Studio. The Unsound was my first series, I illustrated a comic called Epicurean’s Exile before that, and I’ve done a number of my own short story comics, many of which are unpublished, but plenty of them are publicly available online.

 

AIPT: Can you tell us what Tartarus is about and what readers can expect?

JTC: I’m terrible with story synopsis so I’ll leave that to Johnnie, but as far as what readers can expect; sci-fi megacities, fire swords, liquid robots, garbage dumps, and gleaming temples, visual decadence, mysticism, and general chaos.

JC: Tartarus is the story of a young soldier (Tilde) who finds out her mother was a warlord part of a smuggling cartel of monastics selling the galaxy’s most dangerous weapon to the highest bidders. When the empire finds out about Tilde’s lineage, at the same time as Tilde does, it leads to drastic action with deadly consequences.

AIPT: I got a chance to read #1 and it’s fantastic. It reminded me of a lot of classic films like Total Recall, Star Wars, The Fifth Element, and even Blade Runner. Were any of those movies an influence in the creative process for either of you?

JC: Absolutely. Star Wars, Blade Runner,and The Fifth Element (only in hindsight though, not while creating it) for sure. I want to echo Jack regarding Akira (the manga) as well, which is probably an even bigger influence in terms of scope. Being a series, we can do more room/time to play than a 2-hour movie affords, so we’re going to take advantage of that!

JTC: Thank you! I would say Akira was a bigger influence for than Blade Runner, but they have a fair amount of visual similarities. Star Wars has left an indelible mark with it’s attention to detail and the excitement of it’s space fights. So has Ghost in the Shell.

AIPT: I read somewhere that you both have been crafting this story for quite a few years, can you tell us how the two of you came up with the concept and why it took so long to make? Were there any challenges that got in the way?

JTC: Yes, so early 2015 was when we started talking about working on a project together. Then, in December of 2016, Johnnie emailed to say “let’s do this!” and ready to get the project into production, but literally the week before I had just signed on to do The Unsound, so we had to push it back a year! And then in 2018 we got it started. I’ve spent more time on it in than I normally might because I’ve been trying to figure out both what my approach to illustrating science fiction is, and in particular how that fits into the look of this series.

JC: Yep, mostly what Jack said. I had the seed of the premise already and when Jack and I get going conceptually things come together pretty fast. It’s other stuff that got in the way.

AIPT: Walk us through the creative process, was this done full script or was there concept art created first?

JC: We nailed down the Big Picture of the story and our characters’ emotional journey first. After that, I went off and wrote full script to figure out how to get us from point to point. I usually give Jack a call at the start of each issue and “pitch” him what I have in mind and get his feedback or just riff on ideas. It always makes things stronger.

JTC: If I remember correctly Johnnie came up with the premise, he had the frame of the story he wanted to tell, and he presented me with the gist of the characters. I then went and made the character designs and a few concept pieces just to explore some possibilities. I nailed Surka on the first try, but Tilde and Mogen definitely went through a few iterations before getting their designs down. I also brought up with Johnnie that I wanted this world to have a “liquid aesthetic” and to have technologies and structures that were essentially made out of liquid, but could function like solids, and he liked the idea and incorporated it into the structure of the story he had built, and then took it and expanded on it.

AIPT: The first issue covers a lot of ground and introduces us to a lot of people, is there a method to either of your madness in keeping the characters and the story properly balanced so it continuously makes sense?

JC: Oh boy, yes that’s where most of the “work” comes in. I find doing multiple drafts helps with making sure everything lines up emotionally and plot-wise. Also, our editor (Stephanie Cooke) really helps out there too.

JTC: I guess just making sure the character designs read, and of trying to make sure the designs of characters in the first half of issue 1 are just different enough from themselves in the second half so that you know that 18 years have passed since then.

AIPT: Did you both have a particular art style in mind for the story or did Jack kind of develop that on his own?

JC: Before we began I brought up some stuff regarding my thoughts on fashion, otherwise, Jack’s style is all his own. I told him at the start, he’s the “Visual Boss” of the book.

JTC: If you mean by art style and aesthetic direction for the story, we talked about some influences and things we wanted to see in it beforehand, and then after those initial discussions I kind of went in whatever direction. We still chat about the different ideas and influences we want to incorporate.

AIPT: Jack, the art in the issue is terrific — where did you draw your inspiration for the character designs, building, spaceships, etc?

JTC: Thank you! The character designs come from an odd amalgamation of the characters of stories and individuals who I’ve liked, disliked, or who’ve had an influence on me over my lifetime, and it is difficult to fully describe or disentangle beyond specific instances. As far as the outfits in this series go, Johnnie wanted the story to have some Alexander McQueen inspiration to some of the look of the story, and this got me interested in Haute Couture and contemporary fashion (previously I had been focused on historic fashion and costume) which I’ve tried to incorporate further. The buildings come from loving architecture, both classical and modernist. A big inspiration for the spaceships and machines have been from the Japanese model-makers, who create these incredible and exciting vehicles and robots out of things like yogurt containers and pen caps that they’ve rearranged and re-painted. Doing a similar process to that, of looking at ordinary objects, or focusing on a detail or a part of a whole and building the design out of a machine out of that is engaging and rewarding.

AIPT: Jack, what was the best part about illustrating this story? What was the worst? Do you have a favorite issue from what you guys have done so far?

JTC: I would say the best and worst part of illustrating the story has been figuring out what “language” I’m going to use for science fiction. When left to my own my illustration drifts towards fantasy, mythology, or things from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. So I have a really good visual toolset for illustrating those subjects and can create stuff on the fly without really having to think too much about it anymore. With science fiction, I have to think about everything in order to get that same level of immersion that I can with fantasy.

I have to re-figure out how furniture, lighting, building materials, and containers look like. Machinery I already had a decent grasp on, but it also needed re-working to show off its futuristic functioning, and typically needing the incorporation of slicker designs, especially for “consumer items”. So this causes me a lot of anxiety trying to figure out solutions that don’t end up with me falling back on my familiar toolset. But at the same time, it expands the range of things I can illustrate and is what makes working on a sci-fi story so fun and unique.

As far as a favorite issue goes, I still really like #1 because I really enjoy drawing Surka. I also still love the big fight scene.

AIPT: Johnnie, what was it like working with Jack and can you give us any behind the scenes funny moments that occurred while making it?

JC: It’s like the best game of “Telephone” ever. I send over all these ideas in the script, mostly going for how things should feel. Then, Jack sends back something awesome and unexpected. Nothing funny or quirky behind the scenes, except sometimes when Jack sends over pages I feel like literally standing up and applauding, they’re so good.

AIPT: Jack, what tools do you use to bring your incredible artwork to life?

JTC: I use pencil and ink for the lines mainly. Though I switch back and forth between digital for them. All the colors I do digitally too.

AIPT: Johnnie, what do you do to keep the dialogue so fresh, fun, and interesting?

JC: Dialog in the first pass at dialog is just what the characters feel or want. I’ll write long, just so I get the full scope of what they want to say. Next pass I give it more of their personality, but the more I write these characters the more their “voice” comes out on the first go. Then I shorten and tighten as much as I can. As James Baldwin said, “You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.”

AIPT: If Tartarus was turned into a live-action movie who would you want to see write and direct it? Who would you cast as Tilde?

JTC: I’m not really up to date on who’s who or what’s going on with movies these days, so I’ll leave this one to Johnnie.

JC: There’s soo much great talent out there. But top of my head, I’d say Matthew Weiner to write and direct it. Maybe Willow Smith or Halle Bailey.

AIPT: Can you both tell us why readers should check out Tartarus #1?

JTC: Johnnie and I have put a lot of effort into making something immersive and exciting, so if you’re looking for a story with its own “flavor” so to speak, then I hope you’ll consider giving Tartarus a read!

JC: Our mission statement at the start was to make a book that would make people glad to jump in the car and drive to the comic shop every month. And we mean it. We’re putting our all into Tartarus.

 
 
For more with Johnnie and Jack listen to their interview on our weekly comics podcast
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