Cartoonist Zack Giallongo is known to fans of mini comics, but he’s hoping to get wider recognition thanks to First Second Books who just released his debut graphic novel, “Broxo.” The story is a fantasy tale about barbarians, the dead coming to life to feed on the living, a witch with uncertain loyalties, a missing clan in a remote region and a teenage coming of age story — to the extent that barbarians come of age as teenagers.
CBR News spoke with Giallongo about making his full-length debut with the new book, character designs, not being a zombie fan and why exactly fantasy stories require a map.
CBR News: Zack, this is your first graphic novel. To start, tell us a little about yourself — who you are, where you went to school, all that.
Zack Giallongo: Sure. Well, I grew up in Massachusetts and I’ve been a freelance cartoonist for a handful of years now. I’ve published a lot of my own mini comics as well as lettering work for a number of other publishers. I studied Illustration at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth. I’m a Sagittarius.
And what is “Broxo?”
He’s a boy!
But if you mean the book, it’s a story about a barbarian princess named Zora who runs away from home in search of a neighboring clan. However, when she ascends their mountain home, all she finds is a barren wasteland inhabited by a single feral teenager named Broxo. There are also walking dead, monsters, and a witch. Broxo and Zora work together to find out what happened to the missing Clan.
Where did this book begin for you?
The characters emerged from my sketchbooks, and I became interested in telling a story with archetypal images and themes, but twisted slightly. I also knew from the start that I wanted a very small world with a small cast of personalities. From there, I wove threads from various ideas I’d had in the past and the story began to take shape.
I also always like the idea of combining genres or seemingly disparate elements. People have asked, is this a zombie story? A fantasy story? A weird teenage slice-of-life story? The answer is “yes.”
How did the story and the characters change as you worked on the book and did they manage to surprise you?
In the original draft, Broxo was far less communicative and socialized (believe it or not) and Ulith the witch was also an amnesiac. But with a character who’s forgotten everything, and another one who didn’t know anything to begin with, it quickly became impossible for Zora to figure anything out and the story couldn’t progress. So Ulith’s memory was restored, she became less trustworthy, and Broxo’s IQ was raised a few points.
Usually in working on these kinds of stories, you’re often combining characters or stripping them out completely. But in this case, I actually added in the character of Gloth somewhere in the second draft. Ulith is such a gray character, and I wanted Broxo to face someone who was just BAD, plain and simple, with few redeeming qualities. I also like the level of danger that Gloth brings to the entire affair.
I wouldn’t say I was surprised. But when working on something of this length, there definitely comes a tipping point in which you realize that you’re no longer driving. The characters do what they want to and all you can do it try to steer it and give it some semblance of structure.
Are you a big zombie fan?
Actually, not at all. I saw “Night of the Living Dead” for the first time last year — I loved it — and I’ve seen “Shaun of the Dead,” but that’s kind of where zombies begin and end for me. I also think that with both of those movies, the zombie element was not what was interesting to me.
Are you a big fantasy fan at least?
I loved “The Hobbit” and the Narnia books as a kid. When I got to be a teenager, I also loved the three main “Dragonlance” books, but that’s about it as far as fantasy novels go. I did play D&D and Magic, however. As far as fantasy stuff now, I’m afraid I’m not really on top of it. Sometimes people say that “Broxo” feels like something they read as a kid, and I guess that’s because it evolved from the stuff I read as a kid.
Talk a little about Migo and how the design for him developed.
Migo was one of the first designs I did when the characters were just sketches. He’s kind of a bear, a mountain lion, and an ape all rolled into one with a horn. I knew I wanted Broxo to have a massive and deadly mammal for a nanny, but one with a heart of gold. All of his aggression is fueled by the desire to protect. Something about a single horn feels just a bit alien enough to be unsettling, but without being totally whacked out. My favorite touches, however, are the small ones: his big lips, his curly, husky-like tail, and his Little Orphan Annie eyes.
The book is being marketed for young adult/middle grade readers. Did you always see it as a book for younger readers? Was there anything that you changed or rethought for that?
Nah, I had no intention of writing for any particular age group or audience. I mean, I kind of suspected that it would be aimed at a younger audience by the folks who make those decisions, but that wasn’t my goal. My art style is often described as ‘warm’ and ‘accessible’ and for whatever reason, that means young. Does that mean adults get crappy, inaccessible art? (Answer: yes). Even now, I feel like the book is appropriate for young adult readers, but not exclusively for young adult readers, if that makes sense. It’s for everybody!
There were a few changes between drafts. I remember initially that the witch, Ulith, was rather, um, uncomfortably interested in Broxo, though he was oblivious. There is a very good reason for this, but I feel like explaining it would result in a pretty big spoiler. To my mind, she still feels that way even though it wasn’t expressed overtly in the actual book. I did write a small short story for First Second’s “Between the Panels” that hinted at this a little more strongly. Also, Broxo was a lot more vocal about the differences he saw between himself and Zora’s anatomy.
My editor Calista [Brill] and I had more than a couple discussions on what could be shown in terms of violence and nudity, particularly in the bathing scene. To her considerable credit, Calista never, ever handed down a decision (“You can’t show that nipple!”) but rather, explained her reasoning, which all came down to not wanting to piss off moms and hurt the book’s potential reach. But the final decision was always mine, and I chose to edit a few body parts here and there that I otherwise would have left in. Conversely (and ironically), I was actually encouraged to up the violence in the book, which I did. There are a few sequences which make even me shiver. But that’s the society we’re living in right now; naked = bad, blood = good!
I want to touch on the interaction between Broxo and Zora. What was the challenge as far as that and how conscious were you in terms of how to treat the characters, their relationship with each other, how they fight and think, and how much of getting it right was because of the fact that it’s targeted for younger readers.
Knowing who they were as individuals was crucial. From the get-go, I tried to give them opposing characteristics to play off of. Zora is more logical and works methodically. Broxo operates on his gut instinct and his emotions. In some ways, I actually thought about the relationship between Mulder and Scully on the “X-Files” and how it plays against some of the stereotypical notions of male/female relationships. But while Broxo and Zora’s personalities had to be clear, they also needed to change and develop over the course of the story. Both of them are selfish in their own ways and by the end, they both are able to shift their character stances and grow as people.Â They are taught lessons, and also uncover larger truths on their own.
I don’t think ‘getting it right’ had anything to do with targeting at younger readers. Strong characters and strong relationships are paramount regardless of readership.
Did there have to be a map? I ask this because it seems like all fantasy tales require a map and I’m curious why you included one but didn’t draw it.
Every good adventure story should have a map! The map was actually helpful for me so that I could visualize where the characters were, how far away stuff was, etc. Which I guess is the whole point of a map. The only reason I didn’t draw it is because I had seen Matt [Loux]’s map for his “Salt Water Taffy” series and knew he would do a much better job than I would. And he totally did!
The ending is somewhat open-ended, the two characters riding off into the sunset together. Did you have an idea for a sequel in the back of your mind or have you moved onto something else?
Both. The sequel is not in the back of my mind; it very much exists, and all but written. I know what happens to the two of them quite a ways down the road. But for now, I’m on to some other things. Of course, I hope that I can return to the Penthos, but like Yoda said, “Always in motion is the future.”
“Broxo” is on sale now.