Comic Watch: To start us off, for anyone unfamiliar with Tartarus or still on the fence about buying the first issue, how would you introduce them to it?
Johnnie Christmas: We’ve been describing it as “Star Wars meets Breaking Bad.” We’ve got a military cadet who learns that her mother was an intergalactic warlord: an enemy of the empire that she serves, and when this comes to light, she has to flee and decide if she’s going to live in exile for all time or does she pick up her family legacy and take up her mother’s cause. So this story is a journey of discovery for our character Tilde as she’s learning more about herself and learning more about her legacy and learning more about which side she’s going to choose. And, of course, it sounds like an easy choice, like, “Oh yeah, you choose the right thing” but the story throws all sorts of things up that complicate what she knows to be the truth. That makes her journey a lot more complicated.
CW: The artist on Tartarus, Jack T. Cole, has an incredibly beautiful, intricate style, one that doesn’t exactly scream sci-fi. What drew you to working with him on this title?
JC: Right. Yeah. I knew that the story I wanted to tell — well, I don’t know how to describe it — I knew that there had to be an emotional core there that was not just about the flashy gadgets and spaceships. It was gonna be more about the characters and the beauty of this world. I knew that had to be a very integral part of it. It had to be beautiful and ugly, but also because of the choices that Tilde has to make seem very clear, so I needed every tool in the arsenal to make it seem maybe not so clear, like it’s “let’s do this thing.” It should be appealing. Even if it’s like this dark world, it should look like a very beautiful dark world, like it’s radiant.
So when I first saw his art at VanCAF in 2015, I just knew “this is the style that I want, this is the style that I think would serve it, serve the seed of the story that I had in mind.”
CW: So I know that you’re also an established artist in your own right and I was wondering, for one, what you felt that his style was bringing to the table that you didn’t necessarily feel that you could accomplish yourself, and also how being an artist may have changed how you approach a script vs. when you’ve been doing art for other people.
JC: Being an artist, I approach a script very visually, so I know I approach what’s going on through action. So even if there’s going to be scenes of lots of people talking, there needs to be action, even if the action is just walking, y’know? And in that way you’re also telling story. You have background that’s informing the world. So I’m always thinking of the visuals first, not just the blocks of text and exposition, which are important as well, but I always want every frame to be telling a bit of story and giving a window into — enriching the world, which is part of what I love about Jack’s work.
His love of backgrounds is very appealing and I knew that he could flesh out the world in a way that was very unique. I had a dual interview with him recently, and he mentioned this thing I thought was very interesting about his philosophy on backgrounds. He wants it to fill up the field of vision to the point that when you turn your head it almost keeps creating the world. So it was much more the uniqueness of what he was doing more so than what I didn’t think I was gonna bring to it. ‘Cos in my head it was sort of formulated mass and from the start I knew I didn’t want to draw it. I knew I wanted a different kind of feel from my own art and then when I saw his art I thought he can do it in this very beautiful way. I didn’t want the story of the warlord with this really gritty art style because I thought it would be a little bit too obvious and and just too like people would know what they were getting, just like “oh right, it’s the brutal bloodbath and, okay, we get it” but with this, it kind of throws you: you hear “warlord,” you hear “Breaking Bad,” and then you see Jack’s art and then you’re intrigued, like, “What is this?”
CW: Cool. So, I know that one Tartarus’ most obvious influences is Greek mythology, but that seems like a very interesting touchstone for a sci-fi story. Why were you drawn to it?
JC: I’ve loved Greek mythology ever since I can remember. I was on a Greek Mythology Bowl in middle school and we’d compete against other schools on points of Greek mythology. So I’ve always loved the storytelling. I loved how rich and expansive it was. I always loved how the good guys weren’t always so good. Like, you were told a story about Zeus and he was at least through the telling of it you’re thinking “oh this is the good guy” sort of, but he would do these atrocious things. So it was always intriguing to me as a kid, like, why are we spending time with this monster?
So I always thought that was fascinating about Greek mythology, but in terms of sci-fi I thought it could give us a really cool framework to use. We are relaying thoughts of symbolism, meaning, into the book, so we thought it would be cool to have these touchstones that are not only stuff that we enjoy but can be kind of a shortcut for the reader, so if you’re aware of Greek mythology you can see these certain things where you’re like “okay, oh I get it” or you hear the name Tartarus and you’re like “right, right, underworld, right.” It gets you up to speed quickly with what we’re trying to do symbolically. And plus, it’s just fun. It’s fun to get back into the Greek mythology bag again. And I know Jack’s a huge lover of Greek mythology as well, so we’re having a fun time putting our own spin on it.
CW: Are there any other sort of influences that you think have come into the comic that also serve in a way to work as shortcuts while still being something that you really enjoy writing?
JC: The big one is alchemy. And tarot. So that’s really huge. We’re not hitting it as hard as Greek mythology, but we’re weaving it all throughout the story.
CW: I noticed that the cigarette pack at the very beginning of the first issue has the tarot card for death and that was also on the back of the issue.
JC: Exactly! Yeah. All of the issues will have a tarot card on the back. Jack’s been hiding cards as Easter eggs inside of the issue that are symbolic of the issue and then he’ll have the full card on the back of the cover for each issue.
And even the title of the first issue “As above, so below” is referencing the Emerald Tablet. We just love the symbolism of that with the story of Tilde versus the story of Surka, these opposites that are also the same, ya know? Even the name Tilde’s a little mathematical joke referencing mathematical similarity. So we have that in there.
We’re also tucking in a little bit of Egyptian mythology and whatever we find shores up what we’re going to do in the story. There’s lots of stuff. There’s a grab bag of so much wonderful stuff that we could tuck in there, but I would say the most obvious ones behind the Greek are alchemy and tarot.
CW: Cool! Since we’re talking about of mythology in comics, and you’re drawing so much from mythology as a framework for your own, how do you feel about the news articles and nonfiction works that have been describing superheroes in comics and comic book movies as a sort of modern mythology? I’ve seen at least one writer call it an anti-mythology. Are there any stories from the last century that you think could be considered a mythology? Not necessarily just superhero comics. And when you’re building a world, do you feel as if you’re actually creating your own mythology?
JC: Good question. I do. I do. I think we’re all creating a mythology and that’s why in Greek mythology you’ll have so many stories of Greece or Hera or Apollo because everyone has their own iteration of the ideal. Similarly, every writer doing a run on Superman has a different iteration of Superman. So the ideal and the bag of six things that make him Superman will always be there, but everyone’s take is a little bit different.
I think even as a society we have our own mythology. I’m super fascinated by the mythology around retirement. We have a mythology that everyone retires at a certain age, and it happens to a lot of people to be sure, but there’s a whole lot of people I know who just aren’t going to retire and they know it. But it’s this myth that still serves some purpose, for our society to believe that myth.
But yeah, I think superheroes are pretty close to a modern mythology. You’ve got Superman who’s this benevolent godlike creature who does these trials. He’s good and he’s pure and he speaks to some sort of American ideal of morality and what American force should be ideally. There’s Batman. There’s Wonder Woman. They’re all there. DC characters are especially mythological I find. The Marvel characters less so. They’re a little bit more quotidian. They’re a little bit more day-to-day every-people. Ya know, you can relate to Peter Parker. Everyone can relate to Peter Parker, but Superman you relate to the ideal — what you hope for in yourself. You’re striving to be Wonder Woman, but you are Peter Parker. So yeah, I can definitely see it.
CW: So where do you think you would place Tartarus on that spectrum, from modern mythologies to everyday characters you can relate to, or do you think it’s somewhere in the grey?
JC: That’s a very good question. I would say that I’m trying to do the high and low. All of the characters are hopefully relatable. I want to give them very simple motivations that are super understandable. Surka wants out of jail. We get that. We don’t need to explain that, right? Klinzu wants to go on a date. People understand that. It doesn’t require a big block of exposition, so in those ways it brings your reader in very quickly and they understand.
But then that frees us up to have this world that has all these ideals, especially what Surka’s legacy means for Tilde. It has all this weight and all this meaning and it means so much to so many people in so many different ways. You’ve got this everyday person just trying to figure out where she fits between two titanic glaciers of belief that she’s kind of squeezed between. So we’re very much trying to do both.
CW: So, really, heavy is the head that wears the crown.
JC: Yeah, exactly. Especially when you inherit the crown and you don’t know what it means and you have to make that meaning for yourself because everyone’s telling you something different. Who do you believe?
CW: People may notice when they’re picking up Tartarus that it differs from a lot of sort of classical sci-fi in the fact that most of its cast are not white. Most of its main characters are women. And I was wondering, because, of course you want to have the comic that you’re writing relate to the real world in some regard, I suppose, and I’m wondering if you’re planning on also bringing in other minority voices like queer characters or disabled characters into the mix on Tartarus or generally your thoughts on the importance of diversity in fiction.
JC: I think it’s very important. You know, growing up as a young black man, it was hard, especially loving comics. There wasn’t a lot before this time now. We have this wonderful explosion of diverse creators as well as diverse creations. So it’s vitally important.
In terms of queer voices, I know which characters are queer in Tartarus, but we haven’t gotten to romance yet. There’s so much pushing in terms of laying the groundwork we need in terms of story. It’s interesting, because in my head I know it, but it hasn’t come up as a story point, so I don’t want to shoehorn this thing in where someone looks at the reader and declares something. But they’re in there.
We have characters of various degrees of ability in stories coming up. There’s a main one, but again, when you see this character, I think it’ll occur to you after? The force of this person’s character, you’ll have a reaction like phwoar! “I like this person” or “I don’t like this person” blah-blah and then it’ll be like “oh yeah!” So we’re leaning really hard with the character. We — myself and Jack — have had conversations and it’s very important to us to have representation in the book but we don’t want it to feel like a shoehorn. But they’re very much there.
Tartarus #2 is out on March 18th. The first issue is available for sale in your local comic book store or online. You can read Comic Watch’s review of Tartarus #1 here.
“Two Titanic Glaciers of Belief”: An Interview with Johnnie Christmas
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