Tired of getting sand kicked in your face? Unhappy because you never get the girl? Then come October, make sure and pick up “The Strange Talent of Luther Strode” from Image Comics. The book, written by Justin Jordan and drawn by Tradd Moore, sets the spotlight on the titular character who — after being fed up with some bullying at school and wanting to win the affections of an attractive young lady — decides to mail away for “The Hercules Method,” a program to help turn your body and mind into those of a warrior.
Anyone who ever waited patiently for X-ray specs must be thinking “Poor kid,” but in this case, it actually works! Luther discovers a power set that includes increased strength, speed and stamina, plus the ability to see through those around him — and see their weaknesses. So what happens when a nerdy kid gains superpowers? Well, he gets the girl, hangs out with his friend Pete and winds up being trailed by a shady character called the Librarian. Comic Book Resources spoke with Jordan to find out exactly what all of that actually means, and how Charles Atlas, horror-movie slashers and “GoodFellas” all influenced the final product.
CBR News: “The Strange Talents of Luther Strode” features a kid who gains superpowers after sending away for the Hercules Method in the back of a comic. Did the genesis for this idea come from flipping through old comics with those awesome — yet dubious — ads?
Justin Jordan: It did. I’m actually just old enough — and started reading comics young enough — to remember when comics had those kinds of ads. The one I was always fascinated by was an ad where you could get your own UFO that would respond to your commands. Allegedly. But my mom would never let me order anything from a comic book, not even Sea Monkeys.
The specific ads we’re riffing off of are the old Charles Atlas ads. The Atlas ads, particularly the ones where the scrawny kid gets sand kicked in his face by a bully, are the most iconic of these kinds of things, but there was actually a whole cottage industry of them back in the early 20th century.
The thing that interested me about it was that some of them outright said they could make you superhuman, and a lot of the physical culture gurus claimed to be able to run for hundreds of miles or snap chains with their bare hands. So I thought, “What if?”
The Atlas ads were specifically about a kind of revenge fantasy, where the nerdy kid basically gets to kick the bully’s ass and gets the girl. It’s about somebody who feels powerless suddenly becoming powerful. Which is essentially what “Luther Strode” is about.
Well, that and gratuitous mayhem and bloodshed.
What can you tell us about Luther Strode as the story kicks off? What leads him to send away for the Hercules Method?
Luther is a smart kid, a good kid, who’s had a rough life so far. As the story begins, things are actually going pretty well for Luther for the first time in, well, ever. He’s got a good friend in Pete, he’s going to a new school, it’s going fairly well, and he’s got a girl he has a crush on.
Things look even better after he orders the Hercules Method, an old bodybuilding/physical culture course from a comic book. He’s surprised that it actually comes, and even more surprised when it actually works. Of course, as the first couple pages show, there are some fairly significant downsides, too.
A lot of comic fans can relate to Luther’s being picked on at school and looking for some kind of escape. Do you see a lot of yourself in Luther?
You know, I don’t. I just had such a radically different and happy experience growing up than Luther, there’s not a lot of identification in there. Luther is sort of a combination of people I’ve known, blended together.
I can definitely see me in the main characters, though. Even the Librarian, who I share a sort of black humor and straightforward thinking with. Although I kill a lot fewer people, generally.
Luther’s love interest actually likes him back right away, without going through all that high-school movie nonsense. Was that a trope you wanted to play against?
It was. There are a couple of things going on there. One is that I wanted Petra to be a character in her own right, and not a trophy to be won. If you go back to the Atlas ads, the girl goes with whoever is the biggest and strongest, basically swooning over his muscles. Petra is not that girl.
A lot of what “Luther Strode” is about, and I’m going to get all thematic for a second, is the difference between what we expect, what we dream about and what we get. Luther thinks that Petra wouldn’t give him the time of day, that if he were tougher and stronger she’d be into him, and he’s wrong. She doesn’t care about that.
Luther having a love interest is pretty integral to the plot, and when I looked at how this usually plays out in romantic comedies and teen comedies, I decided that was going to go in the other direction.
Petra turned out to be tremendous fun to write, because from Luther’s point of view, she’s basically a force of nature and he has no idea how to react to her most of the time. So he turns into half an idiot whenever she’s around, which is something that I think a lot of guys are familiar with.
There’s a great rapport between Luther and Pete, like something out of a great buddy comedy. Was their banter difficult to nail?
No, thank God. Luther and Pete’s dialogue was probably the easiest part of the comic to write, and their interactions are fairly key to getting the tone of the book right. I was able to hear, in a completely non-psychotic way, their voices in my head pretty early on, which made the rest of the script pretty easy.
I try to get a feel for how each character sounds when I write them. Pete speaks differently than Luther; for one thing, he talks a lot more. Not to mention he has a tendency to keep talking longer than is strictly necessary or desirable. Luther is a lot quieter, and Petra tends to drive any conversation she’s involved in.
The Librarian was probably the trickiest to nail, because he has a fairly formal and erudite way of speaking, but he’s also got a definite sense of humor. In my head, he sounds an awful lot like Giles from “Buffy.”
Who is the Librarian, and how does he play into Luther’s adventure?
The Librarian is the person who sent Luther the Hercules Method, and he keeps tabs on the people that order it. He’s part of a larger organization that we glimpse in the first issue and learn more about as the series goes on.
He’s also, in some respects, Luther’s opposite number. Luther is insecure and is feeling his way through life, but the Librarian knows exactly what his purpose in life is — to end it, mostly — and he hugely enjoys what he does. He’s a person with perfect certainty about what he does, which is not something that could be said about Luther.
He’s very interested in Luther, and he’s taking steps to push Luther where he wants him to be, which is not someplace that Luther wants to be. He has plans for Luther, and they involve an awful lot of blood and destruction.
The idea of real people becoming heroes in the real world has long been a standard in comics. What sets “Strange Talent” apart?
Well, there are a lot of intestines strewn about, for one thing. It’s actually hard to say without sounding like I’ve disappeared up my own colon, but I think one of the big things is that we’re sort of coming at it from a horror-movie perspective.
One of things that went into “Luther Strode” was a stray thought that there were some interesting — to the kind of mind I have, at least — parallels between horror-movie slashers and superheroes. At a very superficial level, they’re wearing masks, tend towards near superhuman abilities and stalk people they judge as being bad.
I mean, the Punisher might use more traditional weapons, but he’s pretty damn close in a lot of his appearances as being Jason Voorhees with a machine gun and a better complexion. So when we were doing “Luther Strode,” the idea was to make that line even thinner, so our protagonist could really go either way.
The art combines evisceration with detailed facial expressions, depending on the panel. How did you wind up working with Tradd Moore?
Well, we first met when we were serving time in a Guatemalan prison for emu smuggling…
Heh, I wish there were a great story, but basically I found Tradd online through his DeviantArt account. I spend a lot of time looking for artists online, because me attempting to draw is sufficiently horrible that it might well summon the Great Old Ones, and I happened on Tradd.
This turned out to be one of those really serendipitous things, because Tradd was the first artist I contacted about it, and the only one I considered, and we ended up working really well together. He thinks along the same lines that I do and really nails what I write. Plus, he generally makes me look a lot better, which is always a plus.
There are tons of pop-culture references in the book, from T-shirts to posters. Were they written into the story, or were those elements Tradd added?
That’s mostly Tradd, and he’s really good at it — and a bunch of other things. Those posters in the gangster’s room in the first couple of pages are exactly the kind of posters those kind of guys would have up.
Likewise with Petra and Luther. It gives them all a sense of depth, of a life outside what we’re seeing in the comic book, and it’s one of the reasons I knew Tradd was right for the book. I think I might have written one reference in there in the second issue, but otherwise that stuff is all Tradd.
I like my pop references, too, but they’re mostly written into the story. There are nods to “Dracula,” John Carpenter and Raimi’s “Spider-Man” in the first issue, for instance, as I dance the fine line between homage and theft.
The narrative style is interesting, bouncing around time between pages and panels. When you sat to write the story, did you do it chronologically at first and then mix things up?
Warning, boring writer stuff ahead: I have a pretty involved writing process, where I use continually more refined outlines before I write, so I know what’s going to happen on each page before I get started. Well, mostly. Sometimes characters like the Librarian do their own thing.
The book starts with a scene that comes later in the story and then jumps back to the beginning. The idea here is that I wanted people to get a good feel for what the story was like from the get-go, since there’s a lot less blood and destruction in the first issue. Plus, I wanted people to be curious about that.
You see this in movies from time to time; “GoodFellas,” for instance, does exactly the same thing for, I think, the same reason. It compresses the high concept down into the first few minutes for the audience.
Not that I’m comparing myself to Scorsese. I’m not that much of an egomaniac. Yet.