A Conversation with Justin Jordon: Part 1

I interviewed comic book writer, Justin Jordon. He has written for DC and Image comics. His Webtoon Urban Animal has over 100,000 weekly reads. He will soon be launching a Kickstarter for a print version of the first volume.

In part one, we talk about his book Reaver published by Skybound. Reaver is one of the best dark fantasy comics I’ve seen. You can read the first issue here. It’s packed with brutal combat, unspeakable sorcery and colorful characters reminiscent of Michael Moorcock, Howard and other Appendix N writers that inspired Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Reaver #1 available from Image Skybound

Could you describe Reaver? What do you think Reaver is?

I think Reaver is a grim dark fantasy set in a world where magic exists, but always costs more than it gives you, but you can make someone else pay the price for you, which is kind of the short version of it. If you are a fan of stuff like that, the one that everybody knows is Game of Thrones, and that vein of fantasy where the intrigue is grittier and the characters are a little more morally gray, probably the thing to go with. If you’re more into grimdark fantasy, which is not a term I made up, it is basically my love letter to Joe Abercrombie. And so it is me doing, a comic book version of that. And also trying to do basically dark fantasy takes on different genres. The first arc is essentially a Dirty Dozen type story. And the second one is meant to be a noir type story, both in the fantasy setting that Reaver takes place in.

I just finished reading The Trouble with Peace, which is the new Joe Abercrombie novel. It’s great. I enjoyed it. You’ve done a lot of different genres within the comic form. And, if I’m not mistaken, before Reaver, you had never done anything in fantasy before.

Not explicitly. That’s one of those things where when I say fantasy, what I am usually thinking of is swords and sorcery. I’ve done stuff that has fantastic elements and magic. Death of Love is arguably a kind of fantasy as is The Family Trade. In terms of pure fantasy, the kind of thing that I’m thinking about when I talk about fantasy; Reaver is the first thing that I’ve done that is kind of pure fantasy and the sort of fantasy that most people who would be playing D&D would probably think of as fantasy.

Why? Was it just like, “I’ve never done this before, or was it some other reason?”

A lot of it literally was just, I’ve never done it before. I have sort of a terminal inability to stay in my lane in comics, which is kind of what the genre hopping is about. There’s the business part of me that would like to be like, “You should do stuff that is on brand,” and then there’s other parts of me like, “I want to do a romance comic.” Which is not what Reaver is, but I have that sort of thought process. Usually, I want to do this random ass thing, wins out over the business sense of it.

I have been a fantasy fan for a long time. I actually probably started out on fantasy reading, like the Dark Is Rising and that sort of stuff ehen I was a kid. I was just the right age we would go to our book fairs, and if you were real lucky and got there at the right time, they would have Hickman and Weiss’s Dragonlance books. You could snag those like once a year. They were coming out round about when I was in grade school. I like those. And then of course I segued into Tolkien and that sort of stuff. Much like comics, I never got away from it. I kind of come and go with it. The whole kind of like “grim dark” movement started to happen. And that really kind of fits my tastes in fiction. Outside of comics, when I’m consuming fiction, I tend to gravitate towards crime and thriller and mystery, which isn’t necessarily gritty. But the stuff that I read tends to be and that is much of a piece with kind of grim dark fantasy and that sort of fiction.

I really liked doing that and I had this idea for Reaver. Putting on that business hat, I also looked at tabletop gaming. RPGs are having a big resurgence and is doing incredibly well. All the kids that I know are playing. “The kids these days” are back into the D&D. Things like Critical Role and all that kind of thing are going on. So the business part of me is like, “You know, what, if you want to do a fantasy thing like that, now is probably the time because there is not a lot of it on the market and there is a market out there that likes that kind of thing.”

Outside of comics and gaming, I think Game of Thrones and The Witcher on Netflix has demonstrated that things that are of that vein are things that people actually like. It was just a chance for me to do something I wanted to do and, hopefully, actually have it find a fan base. That’s the tricky part with any creative endeavor, right? I’ve done pretty well in comics, but it is hard to get something to last in comics and to find something that actually makes an impact and kind of cuts through the signal to noise ratio that exists. It felt like the right time for Reaver. I had thought about Reaver for a few months and Sky Bound, who I had worked with before on Dead Body Road, which is a crime book was like, “You got anything else you want to pitch us?” I said I would really like to do a dark fantasy book and I pitched it to them. They said, “That’s awesome. Let’s do it.” That’s how comics work sometimes.

It’s nice that you have that. That they trust you that way.

We have a good relationship. It’s it’s worked out well for me, I’m also doing I’m doing a work for hire Summoners War thing for them, which is an adaptation of a mobile game. Actually, that book is turning out really cool. But I have worked with Skybound a lot and we, we work together well. It was nice that they, they gave me a fair amount of trust and a fair amount of rope to kind of do projects like that.

Is there any other sword and sorcery material that you called on when you were writing these?

I would say that David Gemmel’s Legend, is a large part of the DNA that goes into that specifically that goes into the character of Essen Breaker. There’s bits of David Eddings in there. And then there’s also kind of forays a bit into other kinds of weird fiction. There’s China Mieville that kind of influenced the way the magic works there. Some of it was outside of fantasy fiction. I was also drawing from history. So if you, if you look at the continent of Madera where the action is set on in this fantasy world. It’s a fantasy world in the classic swords and armor sense of i but the political situation there is roughly meant to be a proxy of the United States within the first couple of decades after the revolution, before it quite gelled into a country.

It seems like there is a three way fight going on. Is that right?

Very much so. You’ve got the people who kicked out the empire. That’s the rough equivalent of the British. They’re are the people who are native to the land, the Rael, and they are still fighting for their own independence. And then they have also allied with the Escalene protectorate, which is roughly the French. So we were trying to get that dynamic in there. And there was also, just to compress everything in there, got a bit of kind of pre civil war Indian Wars aspects in there that, show up. We have people kind of clearing the frontier and manifest destiny and all that kind of stuff. Which in arc three, that is a little more overt.

Our arc three is meant to be kind of a fantasy take on the Western, which again, I am cribbing heavily from Red Country by Joe Abercrombie without hopefully being too much there. I’m also also throwing in some Cormac McCarthy, cause I really like Blood Meridian, weird as it is. It’s kind of aspects of that, which have gone into the creative stew. There’s a lot of stuff and that’s often how my writing works. I kind of take a bunch of fiction that I like in a bunch of real world that I find interesting and kind of stomp on it until I get a mush that hopefully it’s interesting to people that are not inside my head.

I think that that people who maybe have some of those same interests and touchstones recognize them and are sort of like, “Ooh, I know what that is,” and you get the feeling of being, “part of the club” when you read books like that.

Oh, I hope so. Yeah. It’s, one of those things where I think if you were coming into this with a background that would include things like, Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance; even outside of the D&D related kind of stuff; I think you will find archetypes and characters that are interesting and familiar without being repetitive. Certainly such as the goal. The extent to which I can actually execute on that, is a matter of debate. I suppose. That’s what I’m trying for.

One of the things that’s really important and that’s a thread that runs through Reaver is the way magic works. What was your thought process when you were deciding how you wanted magic to function.

Magic is always kind of interesting and there are different ways ways to approach magic. It ranges from Tolkien’s approach, which is essentially “God done did it” to, the George RR Martin approach which is, magic is very mysterious and unpredictable. And at the far other end of the spectrum, we’ve got Brandon Sanderson’s approach to the magic that exists within his cosmos. He has a bunch of different worlds in there, but the magic in his worlds is always so precise and laid out that you can basically do math and figure out magic he hasn’t even written yet just because it’s that level. But whenever you’re thinking about magic or that kind of thing, and this applies to science fiction too, right?

I am getting to a point here… I heard a thing where an author said the job of a science fiction writer is not to predict cars. The job of a science fiction writer is to predict traffic jams and the essential meaning of that is you you’ve taken this one step away from reality. It doesn’t exist and that’s fine. And that can be interesting in of itself. But if you want the world to feel real and feel consistent, you need to look at the third and fourth order effects of that. So when it comes to magic systems, you’re always looking at like, okay, if magic exists, what stops them from using magic for literally everything or what are the consequences of it? And the answer to that depends very much on what kind of a story you want to tell. You know what I mean?

It’s that sort of dynamics. To put another thing into the stew that went into the magic in the world that Reaver takes place in; it is something akin to a nuclear weapon in that it’s this potentially world crushing power, once the colonial powers of the world have figured out how magic works. It’ll start escalating because they can start throwing more and more lives into it. So that defined how magic worked for me.

And that boiled down to, for me, was that kind of like the real world with physics. Magic always costs more than it gives. So if you want to resurrect somebody from the dead, you can do that, but you’re going to have to kill a whole bunch of people to do it. There will be more death in the world afterwards, than you will get, in life, back. And that’s kind of across the board. And then the second rule of course, is that, but you don’t have to be the one that pays the price and that just sets up the kind of moral imperatives or questions that I find interesting.

It does bring up the kind of question. If someone you love died and you knew you could bring them back, but you had to murder somebody to do it, would you? And how many deaths makes that okay? What are you getting back? Or, if you can prevent a war? You can win a war quickly? It’s that Hiroshima question. If we drop the bomb now, do we save more lives in the long run? Cause we haven’t done this on the ground fighting. And that literally does come up in Reaver. That’s sort of what’s going on in the first arc. That’s the other side’s justification for what they’re doing is that they will save more lives by, sacrificing some now to save more later. The magic was built from that sort of logical world, that to me made sense and still did what I wanted the story to do. Allowed me to kind of look at the sort of things in the story that I wanted to look at. What is the effect of magic on a world? It’s interesting to me.

You’ve you’ve modified the Faustian bargain in Reaver and another comic you wrote, Luther Strode. Instead of trying to get something that you want, its a bargain to either prevent something worse from happening or to try to get something back.

That is certainly the excuses that people will use right? They will find ways to justify it just as we… “we,” collectively, individuals nations, whoever will find ways to justify doing the things that we want to do. People in power, find ways to justify accruing more power. I tend to have, at the risk of going into the pretentious artist category of things; I certainly realize looking at my own work that I have I have an interest in kind of deconstructing stuff. In the sense of looking at what the normal tropes and consequences are, and then looking at them through, if not a cynical eye, an arguably realistic eye. With Luther Strode, there’s a lot of stuff, that much like Reaver went into the creative DNA of Strode.

Part of it was, you’re a teenage kid you’ve been bullied and abused and somebody gives you super strength, super powers. What are you going to do with that? There’s the Spiderman approach. And one way I’ve described Luther Strode is that it is Spiderman without uncle Ben. If you don’t have that moral guide post, you don’t have the judgment of an adult; You are going to make mistakes, even if you’re well intended. And honestly, if you’re a kid who has been getting your ass kicked and suddenly you have the ability to kick ass; the odds are that you are not going to do the smartest things with these abilities. That was a way of looking at superhero stuff. And that’s sort of the way that Reaver does that with fantasy tropes.

I think that is part of what grimdark is about. It is taking the tropes that we know and understand and looking at them through kind of a different lens, a different, reality sort of thing. Depending on how cynical you are or how optimistic you are; how would people act if these things were true? That’s interesting to me, and I don’t necessarily always intend to do it, but I find that I gravitate back to it a lot, regardless.

You have told stories in different genres within comics and there are commonalities between many of the stories. For example, Luther Strode and Urban Animal are both about a teenager that gets super powers. Are there any other commonalities you find across your stories?

There are a few, but there is one that actually comes up in all of them and that comes up in Reaver, particularly in the second arc. It’s definitely in Urban Animal, which is kind of a nature versus nurture argument to an extent. How much does the past make us who we are and how far can we get away from what we’ve already done and been? And it’s a pretty consistent theme. It’s one of those ones where I don’t necessarily intend to do it. I look back at my stuff. I’m like, ah, there it is. Again. I’m apparently fascinated with it cause I keep doing it. I hope it’s not in ways that are repetitive, but it is one of those things where more often than not, if I am doing a project, it will come up at some point. It is, something that I, for whatever reason, seem to kind of gravitate to.

There’s a manifestation of that, which comes up in Luther Strode and Reaver and Urban Animal, which is just the concept of “better.” Which is usually where I arrive at; you did the things you did and nothing can undo that, but you can do better today than you did yesterday and you can do better tomorrow than you did today. I keep kind of coming back to that as a, as a sort of philosophical touchstone which I think probably represents something I actually believe. You know what I mean? I’m always wary of reading too much into other people’s stuff. You know, you can do a lot of mind reading and make conclusions about authors and creators that aren’t true. But in my case, I feel like that one is probably welling up from an essential facet of my personality and I can’t not do it unless I work real hard consciously to not put it in there.

I can totally totally understand that one. It is a common theme in grimdark fantasy. It’s certainly a theme throughout Joe Abercrombie’s work.

It absolutely is. And I think that’s one of the reasons that Abercrombie stuff resonates with me. It’s interesting to go on a little tangent about Abercrombie stuff and without being too spoilery about it. I was thinking about it. Both Abercrombie’s “heroes” and “villains” do really terrible things. I think what actually kind of separates them is whether or not they’re trying to do better. You know what I mean? Some are not. There are some of the characters who are definitely bad, but there are characters who do some utterly horrific things who remain immensely sympathetic, because they, they are aware of what they are.

I think that self awareness goes a long way. You know, I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say that Logan understands fairly well, and certainly by the end of the first trilogy, what he actually is. And I think that kind of aspect is the part that sort of separates the villains from the heroes there. And I think that is part of why those books have resonated with me a lot. And I think a lot of what his heroes are trying to do is “better.” Caul Shivers really kind of represents that in ways that are really pretty fascinating. And honestly, it’s also interesting to see the way in which characters failed to do that, even though they’re trying which is sometimes an epic bummer. I think it is part of the spice and sauce that makes those Abercrombie books good. Sorry. I could go on at length about how much I love Joe Abercrombie’s stuff.

Yeah, me too. I can go deep down that rabbit hole.

Part 2 of my interview with Justin Jordon coming next week! In the meantime, check out some of his current projects at http://justinjordancomics.com/

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