After last summer’s graphic novel sensation, “Blankets,” everyone knows Top Shelf Comics and long time fans have always said the company puts out thought-provoking, true-to-life stories.
And now it’s time for superheroes.
Writer and artist double threat David Yurkovich is the mastermind behind “Less Than Heroes,” which sees a June release in comic stores and spoke with CBR News about the series.
“‘Less Than Heroes’ is not so much about one character or a group of characters. Rather, the title is intended to serve as a kind of universal label for all of the characters within the ‘Yurkoverse’ (as Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock politely calls it). ‘Less Than Heroes’ is sort of the umbrella title beneath which stand the multitude of characters I’ve been working on for the last decade. The plan is to release a series of books under the Less Than Heroes blanket that reprint my earlier, self-published ‘super-hero’ material, with considerable updates to the original artwork. Afterward, and assuming the books are profitable, I’m hoping to start producing new volumes for Top Shelf.
“The fact is I’ve always wanted to produce a collection (or collections) of my earlier work-I’ve kicked around the idea since 1998 or so. However, as a self-publisher with very limited funds, I always thought it more important to use my working capital to publish new material rather than collect old material. Top Shelf has provided me the opportunity to present a definitive version of my work to a much larger audience, and for that I’m extremely grateful. Brett had very specific ideas about presenting the stories as part of a unified collection of volumes. We tossed around various names for the series until Dianne Pearce, who I worked with on the ‘Haunted’ anthology, suggested the title ‘Less Than Heroes.'”
The first volume of “Less Than Heroes” has a diverse cast and Yurkovich spent much time developing the characters from his passion for the genre. “‘Less Than Heroes’ volume 1 features a quartet of super-heroes once known as Threshold. The history is a bit convoluted though I’ll try to present is as coherently as possible (keep in mind, however, that I’ve been binge drinking [or eating] for the past 187 hours). Is that a vodka bottle in my hand or a Pringles canister? God I’m wasted.
“Begun around 1993, the super-hero team known as Threshold began as my, more or less, straightforward attempt at doing super-heroes. But then, as I was writing and drawing the first book I realized that as much as I love mainstream superheroes, I didn’t want my own work to be a clone of everything else out there. The stories and characters then began to bend and take slightly askew shapes. Also I was heavily into synth pop and alternative synth bands at the time and that’s kind of where a lot of the cast character names were developed, as they seemed to suit each other.
“Threshold is a quartet of super-heroes based in Philadelphia, PA, and whose members are:
“Recoil (a non-powered super-hero with an obsessive-compulsive dental hygiene disorder, named after the Depeche Mode spin-off band)
“Cosmopolitan (an ‘alternative-magic’ magician who was either named after the popular women’s magazine or the drink, or perhaps both)
“Mr. Malevolence (the team’s resident strong guy who, contrary to his nom de plume, is actually quite nice and extremely mellow, hence his mellow surfer first name, Chad)
“Meridian (the only female member of the team; she was named after a now defunct savings and loan in Philadelphia [that I miss dearly to this day!]).
“As for the team’s name, Threshold was inspired from a song lyric by New York’s lower east side post-punk machine rockers Chemlab.
“The supporting cast includes The New York Super-Hero Syndicate (a group of professional heroes who are contracted to protect the city of New York but who, in one of the chapters in ‘Less Than Heroes,’ must jet to Philly to ‘save the day’), and characters the Lightning Man (inspired by Nitzer Ebb’s song of the same name), the Demolition (whose name was taken from Duran Duran’s ‘Do the Demolition’ on the ‘Notorious’ album), and the Stamp Collector (a weird adversary that was developed when I was heavily into Grant Morrison’s ‘Doom Patrol,’ and, um, stamp licking). About 25% of the characters I develop are based on song titles or lyrics. Music is a great inspiration to me when developing characters.
“Beginning in 1996, I published a few mini-series under the ‘Threshold’ title. These were received fairly well in the market, so I decided to publish the series as an ongoing quarterly. The same month the premiere issue of the ongoing series appeared in Diamond’s Previews catalog, something rather unusual happened. Avatar launched an anthology entitled ‘Threshold.’ I remember sitting at home one evening, enjoying a dinner of Frosted Mini-Wheats, refried beans, and whiskey sours when my pal Sean McKeever called and told me the news. Then my pal Paul Storrie called and told me the news, too. I was kind of surprised, cause I typically only get about 1 phone call a month (and usually it’s some Spanish guy trying to reach Maria Martinez-Gomez who es fuey). Eventually I spoke with someone at Avatar and we agreed that our series had nothing in common with one another and, thus, there would likely be no chance of retailer or reader confusion. After a while though, I decided to change ‘Threshold’ to ‘The Super-Heroes of Philadelphia (The S.H.o.P.)’ which was not only a more appropriate title but was a hell of a lot catchier as well (at least I thought so).”
Some of you still may be thinking “A superhero comic from Top Shelf?” and Yurkovich is happy to explain how this dynamic duo came together. “I think what attracted Brett Warnock to the Threshold tales that will be appearing in volume 1 of ‘Less Than Heroes’ was that this team of crime fighters was different from others. I know, I know, I know. everyone always says their crime fighters are different from all the others. But I think Brett saw something in these characters and in the stories that affirmed that statement. I know for certain this was not a case of Top Shelf just wanting to start doing super-heroes. Brett saw something unique and felt that it should be collected and given a shot. That’s one of the things that makes Top Shelf a company creators can really get behind, I think-they do the unexpected.”
If one reads the preview pages on Yurkovich’s Web site, it is easy to see that “LTH” is a lighter and more “fun” super hero book than most. The reason for this partly stems from the time when the series’ concepts were first brought to life. “‘Threshold’ was conceived toward the tail end of the first wave of the ‘grim and gritty’ scene in comics. I mean, I’d walk into a comics shop, and with few exceptions, most of the characters on most of the covers were constantly grinding all 88 of their teeth. Everything was so intense and grim. So, there was definitely a conscious effort to avoid bringing that kind of seriousness into the series. At the same time, I kind of envisioned ‘Threshold,’ to an extent, as the ‘Seinfeld’ cast with masks. I was trying to portray a quartet of friends who were involved in often humorous situations and juxtapose their levity against storylines that were genuinely dark and serious. When the books first went on sale, one CBG reviewer stated that ‘Threshold’ was just a rip-off of ‘Mystery Men’ (a series I’d never heard of at the time and have, to date, never read). I don’t think it’s a creator’s job to read every comic book being published to make sure his or her work isn’t similar to someone else’s because, invariably, there will be similarities. I actually stopped reading new super-hero comics because I don’t want to be influenced by the writing or the artwork that’s out there in today’s marketplace.”
The comparison to “Seinfeld” isn’t unwarranted, as both that television show and “LTH” feature a fair amount of realism, albeit tinged with some absurdity, tempered by a humorous spirit. “Again, I think what sets this book apart is this sort-of mainstream comedic writing for the central cast bumping ugly with rather dark and offbeat life-and-death situations. I purposely did not write origins for the characters. In most instances, we don’t know who these people are-I don’t even know who they are aside from the fact that they are super-heroes who live atop an office building in Center City Philadelphia. In fiction, I think characterization is something that just happens or it doesn’t happen. You can write huge paragraphs about a character, giving them these huge back stories and histories and bogging down the story you’re trying to tell. I didn’t wanna do that. The point was to just present to the reader all these strange individuals who wear funny uniforms and to let the personalities and characterization unfold in the story itself rather than through excessive narratives and flashbacks.
“The world in which Threshold lives is one that (insofar as super-heroics is concerned) is very structured. This is a world wherein there are organized, contracted super-hero teams assigned to protect all of the major cities in the US. All of these guys and gals are top professionals. They are card-carrying members of a national super-hero union known as the Super-Hero Syndicate. The Syndicates are managed by a west coast company named The Establishment that develops super-hero teams for various cities on an as-needed basis. The exception to this is Philadelphia’s Threshold who are non-union, non-Syndicate heroes. They were hired by Philly’s mayor during the city’s financial crisis. Being freelance, non-union folks, Threshold were sort of the Discount Drugs version of super-heroes. And so they’re kind of looked down upon by their “legitimate” Super-Hero Syndicate counterparts who live and work in other cities. And, being different, everyone around them is kind of waiting for Threshold to drop the ball, to really screw up-which, of course, they do.”
For those who’ve read the original series, Yurkovich has made some significant changes with the art, “cleaning” the visuals, as some of the images with this interview show. “I didn’t start out with the intention of doing any art redos. But I wanted to make the process of putting together the ‘Less Than Heroes’ compilation as painless as possible for Brett. So I agreed to provide hi-resolution scans (600 dpi TIFs) of all of the art. That meant scanning all of the original art boards. I knew that I’d need to make a few adjustments just to clean up some of the smudges on the boards. Additionally, Brett and I felt the collection would look nice with full black bleeds. So I more or less was going to reverse the white panel space to black, which I estimated would take about a week to complete. How wrong I was.
“As I looked at the pages on the computer screen, I really started to assess everything with a critic’s eye. Once I started doing that, I knew I’d have to start fixing stuff that looked wrong to me. Soon I started noticing stuff on virtually every page of art that bothered me. Little things, at first-a shadow falling on the wrong side of a character’s face, a light background in a scene that was clearly occurring at night, subliminal homages to Josef Stalin and Cookie Monster. As I continued with the scanning process, it occurred to me that I could really do a lot of computer enhancements with Photoshop using various filters and options. So I took advantage of the technology whenever possible. I reformatted some of the layouts, but I didn’t mess with the stories. Too much finagling can be a terrible thing-look at what George Lucas did to the original “Star Wars” trilogy. But a personal goal of mine from the very first comic I published in 1996 was to improve, improve, improve. So I couldn’t send the files for ‘Less Than Heroes’ volume 1 to Brett without improving the images where I felt improvement was needed.
“A couple of supplemental items were drastically improved and updated. The 4-page ‘Less Than Heroes’ introduction was originally published in an anthology entitled ‘BLIP (The Book of Little Independent Publishers).’ However, I felt this piece needed an extensive overhaul in order to work in ‘Less Than Heroes.’ In this regard I retouched and/or redrew practically every panel, and I completely rescripted it to better fit the format of an introduction to the Threshold characters told by the Threshold characters themselves. Another of the supplemental stories, a solo Christmas story starring Mr. Malevolence, underwent a good amount of changes. Some of the original drawings looked, well, sloppy seems to be the most appropriate word. I redrew a number of figures and faces in Photoshop. All of the new art for the book-spot illustrations, covers, etc.-was done electronically as well.
“Overall, I’m extremely pleased with the end result. Brett seems to be pleased with it as well, which makes me even happier since he and Chris are the ones taking this chance on my work. I think those who read the original ‘Threshold’ comics will definitely notice a marked improvement and freshness.”
Offering support to Yurkovich and “Less Than Heroes” has been one of the comic book writers who seems to surprise fans with all his online speech–Warren Ellis. “Warren is really amazing,” says Yurkovich. “I really dig his work and I used to frequently read and surf (and sometimes post) on his Delphi forum. At some point I believe a press release for the launch of Unbound Comics made its way to the forum and, much to my surprise, there was this very nice quote about my work from Warren, which he’s graciously allowed me to use to help promote my current endeavors. Someday I would love to work with Warren; you look at his site and read what he’s working on and just have to wonder if this man ever sleeps or if his imagination ever tires. I don’t think it does.
“It’s a nice feeling to receive accolades from someone in the same industry as you are and whose work you admire and respect. A lot of folks have been so super and, as you state, vocally supportive-people like Tony Isabella, Cliff Biggers, Marcia Allass, Marc Bryant, Greg McElhatton, Lee Atchison, Paul Storrie, Sean McKeever, Jason Asala to name a few-it’s a real boost to the adrenaline because this isn’t a paying gig for me. I have a love-hate relationship with comic books. I love reading them, but in many ways I also hate them because, insofar as what defines a comic book to me, I’m living in the past. I love old comics, especially stuff from the Bronze age. And really, a lot of the stuff from that era was terrible, but a lot of it was great, and the continuity was really easy to follow. A lot of my favorite writers and artists are dead, so it’s kind of weird going to conventions knowing I’m not going to see Archie Goodwin, Gil Kane, Johnny Craig, Ross Andru, or Jack Kirby. But I do enjoy the medium and I think it will continue to evolve with alternative works like ‘Maus,’ ‘Blankets,’ ‘Palookaville,’ etc. If I didn’t love the medium I’d probably have stopped after the first ‘Death by Chocolate’ comic book, which I published in 1996 after receiving a Xeric Foundation grant..
“I don’t necessarily feel any sort of added pressure to deliver with each new project, per se, because I think it’s just a natural progression of a writer or artist to improve. Granted, I can name a few artists and writers in the industry who contradict that statement, but I think in general, most improve with age and practice. Every drawing I do, every story I write, is just practice. Without getting too heavy (cause my chocolate milk buzz is starting to wear off), every day we live is just practice at becoming better at whatever it is we do. It also helps to have a good editor.”
The rest of 2004 is shaping up to be a huge year for Yurkovich and his workload is massive. “It’s a huge year in theory. A lot depends on what I can find time to actually finish. But lots of stuff is in development. Everyone is asking me where is ‘Altercations book 2?’ Everyone I know and people I don’t know keep bugging me about this. Last week my butcher stopped me on the street and said, ‘Where is ‘Altercations 2?” Now, I know what you’re thinking-Yurkovich is a vegetarian. What the hell is he doing with a butcher? All’s I can say is, don’t ask. Yesterday, my proctologist, Samuel L. Jackson (no relation to the actor) asks me, ‘Where’s ‘Altercations 2?” I said, ‘I dunno, Samuel, but ya ain’t gonna find it up there.’ He just laughed, slid off the latex glove, and gave me a bill for 80 bucks. He reached into the fridge and I asked, ‘You’re not gonna eat with that hand are you?’ He just smiled and told me to get the hell out of his office.
“‘Altercations 2’ (the second book in my full-color ‘History of Super-Hero Activity in 20th Century North America’), is more than a bit overdue. Now, I know that whenever a self-publisher or small press publisher is late with a project, everyone says things like-‘This is what is wrong with small press. The creators are never committed to finishing what they start.’ I can assure everyone that I am committed to finishing book 2. There have been various extenuating circumstances that have led to the book’s delay, including a cross-country relocation from Philly to Los Angeles, and the Top Shelf collection which, hopefully, will result in ‘Altercations’ reaching a wider audience.
“I’m writing an ongoing column for Underground Online entitled “Retro Reviews” in which I look at the lesser known Marvel comics of the era (I’d have found it too boring to write about the more well known stories since those have been dissected ad naseum by the fan press). The intent is to write not just reviews, but to kind of assess the context (environmental and social) in which the stories were published. Dianne does an amazing job editing the column and keeping it focused, and is available for weddings and bachelor parties as well.
“I have a couple of novels in various stages of production. The problem, as always, is finding the time to finish them. With regard to future comic projects, I’m planning to adapt my short story ‘NYSS Post 9-11’ into a graphic novel. This is a super-hero tale starring the New York Super-Hero Syndicate and members of Threshold/The S.H.o.P. It speculates, in a very systematic and, I believe, realistic manner, upon the ramifications of super-heroes in the U.S. following the September 11 attacks. I’m firmly entrenched with the concepts of super-humans and super-heroics, so I think as long as I’m writing and drawing, the focus is going to be on that genre. I’ve developed a non-superhero more supernatural concept that I’m hoping to shop as an ongoing series, but it needs a bit of polishing before it’ll be ready.”