Of Monsters, Banana Burritos and the King

After the success of their comic series Robot 13, writer Thomas Hall and artist Daniel Bradford of Blacklist Studios have branched out with a second series, this one looking at monster fighting from a different perspective — different in terms of tone, theme, plot and certainly as regards the nature of its “heroic” protagonist. Where the skeletal/robotic hero of R13 is conflicted, uncertain, in search of the meaning behind his existence and inclined to fight mythological creatures with an attitude of self-sacrificial commitment, this new human monster-fighter is self-confident, gruff, in search of a decent breakfast and prone to take on less-classical types of monsters for more mercenary reasons. He is Jessie King, ex-wrestler, Elvis look-alike and bane of zombies — with a penchant for typically Texan high-calorie food, violence and sanguine skepticism.

The first issue of King! — which has just been released — is an updated rendering of a story first published in a limited way by Hall and Bradford in 2007. In it, we are introduced to the series’ hero (dressed in his underpants initially) when a mysterious package is delivered to his rather isolated home in the American South-West desert. The package contains a semi-mechanical heart that informs King that a rift is about to open in a nearby fast-food joint, unleashing a horde of moche zombies and their over-sized bloodthirsty deity. Idealism doesn’t compel King to get off his ass and fight the undead, but an abundance of gold coins does — and I’m sure the fact that the hole in the fabric of the universe is opening in Blubber Tubber’s Burgers may have been a considerable incentive by itself.

The resulting free-for-all with the moche zombies and their deity is fast, furious, bloody — and humorous, too.

Hall’s black, though good-natured, sense of humour is spot-on, and it is well translated into visual terms by Bradford, whose style here — though recognisably from the same hand that drew R13 — has been slightly modified to suit the new series. The visual pacing of the narrative is generally smooth and effective, with clear semantic movement from one frame to the next — something too often problematic in independent comicbook productions. And I like the use of large frames (such as the one below) that give an abundance of character or plot information with no verbal back-up.

At the end of the day, though the emphasis in King! is less on some overt journey of self-revelation and more on sheer monstrous mayhem, there are questions left over that will no doubt propel the series forward: what is the semi-mechanical heart and what is its relationship to King? And what is the Spear of Destiny doing in a burger joint in the middle of nowhere? Are these things — rift, heart, Spear, ex-wrestler/Elvis impersonator — connected?

Finding out looks like it might be lots of fun.

The first issue of King! is available now from Blacklist Studios. There’s even a King! t-shirt.

Interview with Thomas Hall and Daniel Bradford on King!

Curious about the origins of King!, the Backbrain once again pinned down the creators for an interview, which they generously supplied despite being active with ComicCon and other promotional events.

Undead Backbrain: Welcome back, guys. It’s great to see a new comic series from you. But is it new? The copyright notice says 2007 and I believe King! was around before Robot 13. So what is it I’ve got in my hands here?

Thomas Hall: Back in 2006, Daniel and I were working on a Graphic Novel for Markosia Comics in the UK. Thinking that we should be able to debut the book at the Phoenix Comic Con that year, we booked a table and started asking when the book would be available. Months went by and we got very little communication from Markosia. Then we found out that they were having all sorts of internal problems… we still had a show coming up, however, and we had nothing to promote.

By the point we realized that there was no way anything would happen on the Markosia front, it was October of 2006 and the Phoenix Comic Con was in January of ‘07’. We decided on Halloween of 2006 to run with King! I wrote the script in a couple of hours and Daniel did all the pencils, inks, colors, lettering and everything else to get the files ready for the printer by the end of November. I called in a favor with a friend who knew a printer, and we made the show. We only printed 250 copies of that, and we were never 100% happy with it, so when we decided to re-launch King!, Daniel told me that he wanted to re-do all the art and we decided to make some other tweaks as well. What you have is version 2.0 of that first issue. Issues 2 and 3 will be completely original, new stories however.

Daniel Bradford: There’s was just so much of that book that I felt could’ve been 100 times stronger.  The story is such a great introduction for King! that I didn’t want to ditch it or leave it as an old intro from years past.  I’d much preferred to just redo that issue as it should have been and launch the series with a more solid footing.

UB: So why the obvious allusion to Elvis? Is King really the King?

TH: No! Elvis and King are two different people. Our character was the “King” of wrestling and he took on his iconic persona to emphasize that fact. His given name is Jessie King, but who knows if even that is a put-on. But this isn’t like Bubba Ho-Tep where we want you to wonder if this is or is not Elvis. In fact, I try and work overtime to make sure we pull as far away from the character in Bubba Ho-Tep as we can and do something fun and original. Besides, Daniel hasn’t even seen the movie, so that’s not an influence for him.

DB:  King! is influenced by a number of things — music, film, legends. The Elvis thing is really just the most obvious layer and a pretty solid hook. But being able to do a funny horror book about monsters and wrestling with references to rock ‘n’ roll set against a desert landscape is basically a way for us to do all that we wanted in comics. Hell, who knows what we’ll come up with in future issues. There’s nothing too absurd for us to put in this book … hence, a retired Elvis-impersonating wrestler fighting monsters!

UB: Daniel mentions the influence of “music, film, legends”. Can you expand on any specifics — in regards to both words and pictures?

DB:  Music always has a huge impact on my work.  It more or less feeds my creativity … the less I pay attention to what I’m working on the better it will turn out.  For instance, while working on R13 I listen to a lot of Tool, Lust Mord, Mind.In.A.Box, etc.  Very dark and moody material.  King!, however, requires a bit of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, White Zombie, and Calabrese.

TH: The West is full of inspiration — Daniel lives in Arizona, which colors a lot of the visuals, so there is a natural inspiration in that. There are all kinds of legends rooted in the Spanish cultures of the Southwest, Mexico and South America that kind of bubble up through the ground and flavor the Western experience. I try to look for weird specifics from those legends and kind of take them to crazy extremes for King! It makes for a very out-there experience.

UB: Can we expect the sort of referencing of legends in King! that we got  in Robot 13?  If so,  which ones?

DB:  Absolutely.  The 1st issue’s giant monster is Ai Apaec, a Moche god of decapitation archaeologists dubbed the “Decapitator God”.  The direct translation, Tom found, is actually “Wrinkle Face”, exactly what King calls him after cutting off his nipple.

Issue 2 actually features a group of mexican vampires, one of which Tom pulled from existing legends and tales and another that is something of a combination of other vampire legends.

TH: I did a ton of reading, and it comes through more as the series goes on. There is a vampire legend in Mexico, for example, about these women who died in childbirth and became bloodsucking ghouls who steal and eat young children. The really wild part is that to stop them, people would put cake out on their doorstep! It’s like saying, “Hey! These vampires are women, and women LIKE cake, right?” Crazy as it sounds, the legend says that if you give these vampire women a piece of cake, they will eat it and get full and it will distract them from eating your children… So how can I not use that in some way? Exactly how King! uses that to his advantage, I won’t give up … but it’s pretty funny.

UB: I recall an image that had both King and Robot 13 in it. Do you see any connections between the worlds of Robot 13 and King! — either generally or specifically in the future?

DB:  Probably not.  That image wasn’t for anything specific. It was a from a series of concept sketches of King! in different situations, one of which was supposed to depict a fight with a robot.  The only physical publication for these sketches were in a sketch book, though they’ve been circulating the web for a bit as well.

But I wouldn’t count on a story between the two.  It’s been discussed, albeit briefly, and decided that it wouldn’t work.

TH: Robot 13 is pretty self-contained, so no. I could see King! doing team ups, or at least I could see King doing what he does and having other people come along for the ride… but Robot 13 has its own trajectory. And I am not sure if King and Robot 13 even inhabit the same reality anyway. We are all about making great stories, and one thing that every great story needs are boundaries. You need to know who a character is, what they will or will not do, why they act like they do … So from that standpoint, there isn’t a good reason to put them together, and I doubt it would make a very good story.

UB:  Do you have any plans to feature story arcs in King!, or are you planning on keeping it to discrete stories contained within each issue? And what about his “origin”?

DB:  What we really are working on is an overall story arc told in chapters that can be enjoyed as stand-alone issues.  We don’t want readers to feel totally confused if they pick up issue 5 and have no idea what’s going on.  A series needs a direction of sorts, but that’s not what King! is all about.  The third issue, as dark and dramatic as it may seem on script, will still be focused on the absurdity that is King! … the all-encompassing plot merely drives the series forward.

TH: When you do a story like Robot 13 and you have mysteries and things you want the reader to wonder about that are part of the character’s makeup, you struggle to tell an ongoing story with all the twists and turns while realizing someone may pick the book up late. You want issue 4 or 10 or whatever to grab someone enough that they want to go back and read the early issues without punishing them for not having read the thing from the beginning. In a book like King!, where the character is in the moment all the time and there isn’t much of a mystery, you have the opposite task. Every issue of King! can stand alone in a sense, because it has that “Dick and Jane” action arc to it: “King see monster. King Kill Monster. Kill, King, Kill…” But even so, we don’t want to do crap comics, and there is a sense in which you need to bring in threads from issue to issue. As for King’s origin, we do see some of King from his Wrestling days in future issues, and we do learn why King quit. But as a rule, I am not crazy about Origin stories. Doing an Origin story is so artificial and predictable. I mean, it’s an Origin, so the guy can’t die so it takes away a lot of the drama. I like doing things people won’t see coming.

UB: Speaking of back story, the first issue of King! has that very droll anecdote about King’s past as a sushi chef, ostensibly told (by you guys) in response to a reader’s letter. Was that a one-off or is Blackmail going to be a regular feature?

DB:  There was going to be one in the second issue, but we had to scrap that due to me going a bit long on the pages. What often happens with Tom and I is that Tom will write a script and I would find that a particular sequence can use more or less pages than he wrote because of the pacing of my storytelling.  In this case, there were a couple of sequences that I felt needed some extending.

TH: That was a fun piece, though, and I think we will do that again. We get a lot of letters from people, and I think doing a traditional letters page is less fun than doing what we did and making it a jumping off point for a comic. We couldn’t fit one in issue 2, but we will most likely do that again even if we have to put them online or add them to our digital versions of King!…

UB: I believe you guys have been attending the New York Comic Con. When I asked Daniel about it, he mysteriously said he thought he’d let Tom handle that one. There was a tone about his response that suggested there was a definite story involved. So, Tom, how was the Comic Con for King!? What’s the gossip?

TH: New York Comic Con was a weird show for us this year for a bunch of reasons. First of all, we got a huge run around when we tried getting a table for the Con… Rather than tell you what I believe happened, I can give you the documented facts and you can decide what you think went on. We put in our request for a table over a year in advance, and were sent a form letter a few months before the show telling us that the tables were juried based on who the committee doing the selection thought would be the biggest draw, and that we weren’t deemed to have a big enough following to rate a table. I wrote the person who sent me that and gave them reams of reviews and links, explaining to them that we had a following and our books sold well, especially in New York, and that I wanted an answer why we weren’t given a table.

The next day my phone rings, and it’s a salesman from the show telling me that a company doing as well as Blacklist should be able to spend a few grand on a booth in the main room. When I told him that was out of the question and that I was told (via the form letter) that we weren’t “big enough” by their own admission to rate an Artist alley table, the salesman told me that it wasn’t the case, and we were “selected” as being “worthy” of having a booth, which was a “big deal.” I told him that I was going to make the whole thing known on Twitter and that I felt I was being scammed, and I Tweeted about it when I got off the phone with him, and people started re-tweeting that… Less than 24 hours later, I got an Artist alley acceptance letter with no mention of anything that happened before that.

As for the show itself, the fans are always awesome. This is the first show we did where we had an active fan base, and where people were bringing books they already bought to have us sign them and wanting to have their pictures taken with us. And I went to the Podcast section to give people copies of King!, and I found out that everyone had not only heard of the book, but most had already bought a copy and had reviewed it and loved the book. All of that was pretty surreal, because it’s hard for us to think of ourselves as doing someone’s favorite book or being any big deal. The day-to-day aspects of doing everything ourselves keep us pretty focused on the next thing we are doing rather than sitting back and getting a big head over reviews or sales numbers or some digital download records we are setting.

UB: Despite the Comic Con hiccup, it sounds like everything’s going really well for you and Blacklist. So, what can readers expect from King! issue 2 — and when can they expect it!

DB: Second issue is done.  We still have to zero in on a release date (keeping in mind that when we set a date something always seems to pop up and delay the release), but news about issue 2 is coming very soon.

TH: We have to figure out a release date, but the second issue is done and the 3rd issue is written. The more books we do, the more bugs we iron out of our system. As Daniel said, you can expect news soon, but it’s looking like we are finding ways to cut down the lag time between issues as well…

UB: One other question, guys. Blacklist now has two titles and the studio’s success is growing. What are your plans for the future? Any other titles brewing?

DB: Tom and I have several projects set to a low boil on the back burner.  It’s a matter of getting to them.  R13 and King! are both ongoing titles, finding the time to work on those books is difficult as it is. Add families, paying bills, and bathroom breaks we have to focus on what’s doable now. We will be getting to these other projects. We just have to figure out how.

TH: Our problem has never been with coming up with ideas. We have a backlog right now that makes us want to put ethical issues aside and endorse human cloning, so we can have maybe a dozen copies of us grown in a lab. That way we can do more of everything and have that occasional nap or maybe see the sun once in a while. Our goals right now are to finish the current mini series of King! and get people more Robot 13 and then see what makes sense with our schedules. The good and the bad of doing things yourself is you have to do them yourself. And that’s not a complaint at all, because we are thrilled how people have embraced our work — but we don’t want to do fast, crappy comics, so it takes time to give people something they can really love…

  • Thanks to Thomas Hall and Daniel Bradford for giving me their time to do this interview. Interviewed by Robert Hood. Review of King! by Robert Hood.
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