The new year brings with it a new adventure story from Eisner Award-winner David Lapham and Dark Horse Comics, the bug-centric “Juice Squeezers.” The story made its debut in “Dark Horse Presents” #26, and the four-issue miniseries launching January 1, written and drawn by Lapham, picks up shortly after the “DHP” story. “Juice Squeezers” follows the adventures of a group of outcast kids who make their home in Weeville: a small California town that happens to sit atop swarms of giant insects. Legions of giant bugs tunnel beneath the town, and the Juice Squeezer kids are the only defense holding the lines against the onslaught of insects.
The story, an all-ages adventure in the vein of “The Goonies,” is something a little out of the ordinary coming from Lapham, who is perhaps best known for his foray into the criminal underworld in “Stray Bullets.” Lapham puts story first, and recognizes that the emotional core of a story rarely lies in blood and violence. Speaking with Comic Book Resources about “Juice Squeezers,” Lapham touched on a few of the story points of the upcoming adventure, as well as the joy of communication through the medium of comics.
CBR News: What’s the story you’re telling in “Juice Squeezers”? Who makes up this band of teen adventurers?
David Lapham: “Juice Squeezers” tells the tale of a band of fifth graders who are part of a secret mission to protect their desert town of Weeville from giant bugs that live below ground. They tend to be the runts and outcasts of the class, not the least of which because their smaller stature helps them down in the underground bug tunnels. There’s Eric Fitz, the mission leader of the group. Socially, though, he’s kind of uptight and a bit of a jerk. Charlie Patton — a distant relative of the WWII general — is quick witted and sharp as a tack. Buddy is a tough, scrappy kid from the “other side of town.” Morko likes bugs and is just a little nuts. Popper is like a scared Chihuahua except when it comes to giant bugs. Billy Farnsburger is the new kid who’s something of an engineering prodigy and has a lot of problems with how the Juice Squeezers do things. And finally there’s Lizzy Beedle. Lizzy’s smart and cool, tough as nails, and cute as all get out. When Lizzy gets mad she’ll cut off her nose to spite her face (unless she cuts off your nose first). There is a pair of teachers who help and direct the kids in their duties: “Bug Eye” Kettleborne and the very beautiful Dr. Rivaldi. Both were Squeezers in their day and are still vigilant in the fight.
Where does this story pick up in relation to the short included in “Dark Horse Presents?” Has your thinking about the story evolved since that first glimpse?
The story in “The Great Bug Elevator” picks up at some point not long after the events in the [“Dark Horse Presents”] short — maybe a few weeks later. After his mom passes away, Billy Farnsburger and his dad move to Weeville and buy a farm. Unfortunately for them this farm should never have been sold, and sits on what is basically the bugs’ home turf. The Juice Squeezers launch a desperate plan to save the farm and the Farnsburgers, which brings them into contact with Billy. This is where the script gets flipped from the “DHP” short in that Billy questions what the Squeezers are doing and starts wondering who’s giving the orders behind their group. Questions that Lizzy brought up in the “DHP” story take a leap forward here. In this respect the story has evolved though this was always my intention, so I can’t say my thinking has changed. When I write though, I like to form ideas on the future direction of a project but I’m always reluctant to lock in what I’m definitely going to do. You have to be open to new ideas. When I write that script it will be locked in, until then I’m always open to a new thought or inspiration that could shift things dramatically.
It sounds like this infestation is something of a long-standing problem for the people of Weeville. Are there previous, retired bands of Squeezers? And why in the heck would anyone move to a town with a longstanding giant bug problem?
The people here live in denial to a large extent. [Laughs] When the bugs first came more people were aware of them, but once they began to figure out ways to keep the bugs underground through the efforts of the Juice Squeezers, people let them pass into legend. As far as moving there, well — not many people are flocking to Weevil. Even not knowing about the bugs. At least it’s not Sunnydale.
We’ve seen some of the group’s dynamic when down in the tunnels, but how do they get on with the rest of the community, and the rest of the kids at school?
They’re by and large the oddballs of their school class. I mean, who else joins Basket Weaving Club? Even Chess Club wouldn’t be caught dead there.
Giant bugs are pretty strange already, but there are hints that something more — and stranger still — is at work. What are these kids really up against?
That’s the question, isn’t it? That’s the nugget that keeps things fresh and more than just, “Okay, here are the kids fighting bugs again.” So far I’ve only gone up the food chain to the teachers, Kettleborne and Rivaldi. They seem to have noble intentions. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but there are people above them. Is there something sinister going on? Otherworldly? Scientific? Magical? Well, if I get to write more stories you get to find out!
“Juice Squeezers” sounds like a bit of a departure from your past work, possibly aimed at a younger audience, or maybe just a little more light-hearted than, say, “Stray Bullets” or your work on “The Strain.” Where did this story come from?
The idea came several years ago when I lived in California and I went out in my backyard and caught something out of the corner of my eye and this thought went through my brain. The thought was, “Why is there a tiny naked man writhing in pain on my lawn?” I looked again and saw this horrifying insect about four inches long, pale as sickly flesh, belly up, writhing on the grass. It literally looked like a small person. It turned out to be a >Potato Bug/Jerusalem Cricket/Nino de la Tierra/Child of the Earth. Anyway, it was clearly a traumatic experience! It was a short leap from there to thinking that someone needs to fight these demonic things. It sat for a few years because I knew the best way to write it would be for a more all-ages audience, and I wasn’t sure how to approach that in terms of the general comic book audience. Â Finally, I just said, “What the hell. I want to do this, let’s run it up the flag pole.” And so I pitched it to Sierra [Hahn] and Jim [Gibbons] for “DHP” and they loved it and I loved it and here we are.
What are the particular challenges of writing and drawing a book on your own? Is there something more rewarding about that greater control?
It’s not just greater control. I enjoy collaborating, especially with an artist who brings their own passion and ideas to the table. But writing and drawing to me is cartooning. They’re not two separate things. It’s one thing. It’s telling a story in the medium of comics: words and pictures. On “Juice” when I write the story, I see my drawings in my head, and then I put them on paper. That’s “Juice.” It’s the purest way I can communicate the ideas in my head to the reader. It doesn’t even matter if another artist could draw a particular thing, or monster, or character with greater draftsmanship, because it’s about communication the ideas in my head. It’s hard to fully describe. But yes, it’s very rewarding. As far as challenges, the only real challenge is that it sure takes a lot longer to write and draw a book than it does just to write it!
In crafting an all-ages story, how are you hoping to draw in that greater comic book audience as well? Are there other model-narratives you’re looking at for inspiration or structure, in comic books or elsewhere?
I’ve done enough projects to know that I have no idea how to “draw in” an audience. I’ve had projects have a large fan base and other projects be cancelled that were at least as good or better. So all I know is how to make as great a book as I can. On making an all ages book — not only having kids, but long before having kids many children’s books have been read in my house. My wife is a huge children’s book reader, everything from E. Nesbit, Baum, and C.S. Lewis to “Harry Potter” — she’s absorbed and the vicarious spillover has me believing I’m something of an expert (I’m not). I was a “Star Wars” kid. I love “Robin Hood,” “Ivanhoe,” “Gunga Din,” and hundreds of other classic Hollywood “all-ages” films, and I know what a good adventure is. So even though I’m known for work closer to a Martin Scorsese movie, I know what the difference is and I know that the emotional meat of the story isn’t dependent on colorful language or excessive blood. Though we do have excessive bug juice — Yum!
“Juice Squeezers” #1 by David Lapham goes on sale January 1 from Dark Horse Comics.