Meet Butch, a smirking, steely-eyed criminal with perfect stubble and a pompadour that would make Morrissey jealous. Well… sort of. He’s not exactly a criminal — not yet — but he’s going to rob a bank any day now, promise. Until he hatches the perfect heist, he’s working as the best air conditioner repairman in Repo City State, a reclaimed trash island oasis that thousands of other criminal wannabes call home. Butch’s best friend and trusty weapon is Gun, a raunchy, genetically modified killing machine who has what it takes to help Butch become the ultimate bad-guy. Well… sort of. With Gun’s unpredictable mood swings and recreational drug use, there’s no telling when he’s going to shoot blanks. Between his fickle firearm, a vengeful cartel hungry for bone marrow and a robbery gone wrong, Butch might just go “Ballistic.”
Up-and-coming comic book publisher Black Mask Studios releases its newest boundary-pushing title today from writer Adam Egypt Mortimer and comics-about-weird-stuff veteran, artist Darick Robertson. CBR News sat down with Mortimer and Robertson to find out more about their transhuman take on a classic buddy adventure.
CBR News: Adam, when you had the idea for “Ballistic,” was Darick always your ideal artistic collaborator?
Adam Egypt Mortimer: He was. I didn’t have some big list of artists I was looking at. The idea for “Ballistic” and my friendship with Darick started around the same time. It wasn’t necessarily that I was creating it with him in mind, but knowing what his work was like, knowing his artistic sensibility and seeing that he was excited about it, there was no other way to do it.
It was a couple of years until he finished “The Boys” and then did “Happy,” so I had to wait. There wasn’t a moment where I thought that I should pitch to other artists because he was busy, because it had to be him. It had to be both of us.
Because we began as drinking buddies who would just hang out, tell jokes and tell each other stories, we felt a sense of how we could collaborate. We went into this with a collaborative team mentality and it’s the way we’ve worked ever since.
With Black Mask, I’m friends with [company founder] Matt Pizzolo. He lives one neighborhood over from me, he stops by when he has questions, calls me on the phone and we have long frustrating conversations that go on past when they should, but he’s really super involved. It’s the same with Darick. Whenever he has a question about some idea I’ve muddled, he just calls me. Or if he decides he wants to try something new, he just does it and he does it fearlessly. It’s about the fact that we can communicate really clearly about what he’s doing.
You came up with the story a while ago. What made this the right time to publish it?
Mortimer: It was a perfect lightning storm of synchronicity. Darick had this perfect moment of availability and Black Mask wanted to get off the ground. It was obviously the way it had to be.
I’m not sure how long Darick was on “The Boys” for, I think around seven-to-eight years, and now he’s in a new phase of his career where I think he’s choosing to do a series of smaller projects and work with different co-creators. So, this is a perfect time.
Over the years I was worried that someone else would do a psychotic talking gun book, and Darick would have to reassure me that no one else would do anything quite like this. I feel like right now is a great time to be telling a story about a crazy world of DNA-technology, considering how much similar content is in the news. It makes the futuristic world we’ve created feel very present.
Does this title being creator-owned through Black Mask come with any editorial challenges? Do you have different parameters or restrictions than you’ve encountered with other publishers?
Darick Robertson: Traditionally what happened in the past, even when I was working on something that is creator-owned, is that the publisher would have different ideas about what we could do. Somebody will come along and say, “Yeah, I know it’s creator-owned, but you’re not going to do that here.” In other cases, I’ll be working with a writer who gives me the script, wants it drawn the way they wrote it and I need to just to shut up and draw. That doesn’t necessarily make the best collaboration. It’s different now, with companies like Image and Black Mask taking a more hands off approach to the creativity. What’s been great about working with Adam is that I don’t just get handed a script, I have my say in it. We work it out mutually.
Mortimer: I feel like Matt Pizzolo says the word “transgressive” more than anyone I’ve ever met in my life. He says it so much that it makes me feel like Darick and I are doing some G-rated story. Matt gives great notes, though, and they are totally the opposite of an oppressive publisher.
What made you bring “Ballistic” to Black Mask?
Mortimer: I had originally pitched “Ballistic” to Matt before Black Mask was established. Matt and I were introduced to each other via a woman we only know through Twitter, who is this mysterious Swedish hacker that lives in Tokyo. She was constantly tweeting to both of us, so much that I felt like I had to meet him. I introduced myself to him at Comic-Con. Nothing was available at that time, but the second Black Mask became a thing that was happening, Matt called me up. He said that he remembered my pitch, explained that he was starting up a company and asked if I was still interested. It was at the exact same time where Darick and I already had an opportunity that he’d set up to work with another robust, successful publishing company but the disruption to the industry Black Mask was promising made me want to go with them.
Robertson: I met Matt last year at Comic-Con and we sat down and talked for an hour about what he wanted to accomplish with Black Mask. He’s such a great person that you want to be in business with. I like his vision for the company and how innovative his thinking was. Adam was so enthusiastic to work with him and I couldn’t help getting caught up in it. I hope the audience finds the book because the people behind it are so motivated and are so enthusiastic about what they’re doing.
Can you walk us through the story?
Mortimer: It takes place in a city called Repo City State. It’s an island that’s been formed out of trash and molecular plastic in the Pacific Ocean. Most of the Western world has been demolished by an ecological apocalypse. America looks like “Road Warrior”; it’s in ruins.â€¨â€¨Repo City State, however, is in a part of the world that’s really thriving. The technology there has been built from the ground up to be ecologically sustainable, entirely using modified forms of natural resources for energy and based entirely around this principle of biomimicry. Biomimicry is a movement in sciences and engineering that looks at the way nature inherently solves design problems, so that we can solve the issues surrounding environmental apocalypse and still meet the needs of society. From a design point of view, that’s where we start the book.
â€¨The first issue begins right in the middle of the action. We don’t even see the apocalypse parts until the second book. Our main characters are a guy named Butch, who is an air-conditioning repairman, and his gun, which is only ever referred to in the book as “Gun.” The two of them have this tortured-buddy sort of relationship. It revolves around the fact that Butch is fixing air conditioners while wishing he were John Dillinger, and the gun is incredibly frustrated with their life, too. In this world, air conditioners are made from guts, sphincters, lungs, and it’s 130 degrees every afternoon, so it’s a horrible, stinky job. All the gun wants to do is shoot people! They’ve been together for like ten years with Butch saying, “one of these days we’re gonna rob a bank and be a hero to the people!” They’ve gotten into some scrapes here and there, but nothing great.â€¨
The beginning of this story shows them trying to rob a bank for the first time and completely fucking it up because of the gun’s unbelievably bad mood swings. Then it launches them into this left-turn adventure based on that.
What’s the format? Is this a miniseries or are there larger plans for “Ballistic?”
Mortimer: It’s a five-issue series with one contained arc, hopefully coming out monthly. If it does well and there’s interest, we will do more.
It’s easy to imagine that with a world this large, there’s an endless amount of stories you could tell beyond Butch and his gun.
Mortimer: Yes, it’s a huge world because of how dense the city is and how unique the point of view is.â€¨
In doing this sort of a story, the most interesting thing in building the world with all of this crazy future technology is looking at scenarios about people’s lives. How do they go on dates? How do they have sex with each other? What kind of drugs do they do? What kind of fashion choices do they make now that genetic engineering is at their fingertips?â€¨
There’s a strong feeling of hyper-reality in the book. While we’re telling this citywide story about crime, a heist and gang warfare, we are also super interested in the details. There are so many characters and so much life going on in every building in the city. We could definitely form like “Voltron” for the rest of eternity and come up with new stories. Beyond the city, we’d like to explore the rest of the world — like America, and the moon, which is a settled colony.
Right now, in five issues, it’s all we can do to tell this one tale.â€¨
Thinking about the way Repo City State embraces bioengineering and genetic modifications, is it safe to say people are on friendly terms with the machines? Or is there tension and classism created based on these trans-human opportunities?
Mortimer: That’s a really interesting question. The technology and the human beings are incredibly integrated. Our focus in this world comes down to the body. Their technology is made from life materials, and isn’t just life-like, it is life. There are bits and pieces of the story where people appear to be talking into thin air but really they’re on the phone, and phones are things that can be grown or embedded in your skull.
In this city everyone wants to be a famous criminal. Everybody is spending all of their money trying to make their bodies look better, and the technology is literally insane, because that’s the entropic direction in which all life goes, right?
Some people treat Butch’s gun like it’s a pet, some people treat it like it’s pathetic that a gun is his only friend and other people just accept that of course he has a talking gun. There are subcultural movements in this world, that I’m not sure will rise to the surface in this arc, that dig into the question of whether technology should be freed and allowed to run wild or not. I’m not convinced that the technology wants to run any wilder than it’s already doing, but it could be interesting.
Does the technological integration elevate mankind, or are they still all about the usual base desires? I’m thinking about some of the first examples of successful at-home 3D printing I heard about, where the first two items made were a sex toy and a weapon. It was like — wow, awesome technology, but same old people using it.
Mortimer: Yes, guns and sex toys. That is the majority of the focus of technology in our book. You can’t walk down the street without some guy in Repo City State telling you that he has a three-foot dick.
The idea of a gun is an ultimate description of what human beings do with their knowledge and technical know-how. This book, about a psychotic gun, is really about what we do when we can do anything with technology, and when we can make any choice we want about who we’re going to be as human beings.
Darick do you feel like there are thematic commonalities between “Ballistic” and “Transmetropolitan,” especially in how each book is very much about the world-building?
Robertson: It’s definitely similar in the fact that it’s a futuristic world where I’ve created a city. In the world of “Ballistic” the city is grown rather than built, where in “Transmetropolitan” it’s our world, just far in the future. There’s a divergent point in the creation of these worlds — the future world that Spider lived in had fallen apart and gone to seed through an eco-disaster. In “Ballistic” they created something new.
There are some similar crossover ideas, but where Butch lives is the last bastion of humanity. Nowhere else in the world is still civilized other than this weird trash island that was transformed. Everything there is ecologically in sync, nothing is falling apart; the air there would probably be very clean. It’s not as crazy or polluted, or consumed with media bullshit the way Spider’s world was.
It’s a very different political structure, too. In Butch’s world, it’s whoever is the toughest and most conniving is king. Criminals are held up like celebrities. It’s as if the mafia took over politics entirely.
How does the collaboration between the two of you work?
Robertson: What’s great about working with Adam is that we have a long history as friends. We shared ideas long before we started working together. What we’re doing differently in this is that we’re really being hands on to make the world we’re creating uniquely our own. I’ve been able to bring my own ideas to the story and I’ve taken a hard look at things I’ve designed to go back to the drawing board when Adam has strong feelings about it. This entire process is a real integration of what he knows about film and what I know about comics.
Adam’s background in film gives him an incredible imagination that’s really unique; it’s almost like chasing a dog after a squirrel and I’m trying to keep him from getting hit by a car. When I’m reading his script, I’m seeing the movie he’s making and then I have the job of taking that to a comic book page. Comics are a very different beast than film; in film you don’t have to worry about how much dialogue you’re taking up in a panel. I push back sometimes when something isn’t working, take Adam’s ideas, find out what’s essential, and make it work. Because we’re such good friends, I can come back with my changes without it causing problems. My experience in comics helps me find the middle ground, and I hope the audience has as much fun with it as I do. It’s a great story.
Mortimer: Our ability to collaborate and bounce things back and forth keeps in line with the theme of evolution in “Ballistic.” Sometimes the script is a raw soup of material for a story, Darick starts to pencil it, I change the story, and it evolves into a structured organism. The back and forth communication between us feels like steps that evolve the story forward, which is cool.
This is the first long comic I’ve written, so I have no idea if this is the way other people work. We have this incredible luxury to communicate between the two of us that also connects to what our book is about. We aren’t screaming at each other like Butch and his gun, but there is a similarity.
â€¨Is Darick trying to get you to rob banks?
Mortimer: He might have to if the book doesn’t work out!
Darick, what has been your favorite panel of the book to draw so far?
Robertson: It would have to be Butch screaming at the gun. It’s toward the end of the first issue. The gun decides that it’s not going to work for Butch in the middle of a heist. It’s everything that Adam ever described to me about the book, so for me being able to get their expressions just so, and seeing the creative team react the way I hoped they would was a real key moment for me. I felt like we really brought the idea to life.
The splash page flying over the city is another favorite. That was the first thing I imagined when Adam described the book to me, and seeing it so vividly in my head and spending four days drawing it and having it look the way I pictured it was great.
Mortimer: Overall, the fact that you’re creating so much emotional range with a character that is a fucking weapon is amazing. It’s the whole point of the book. I remember we had really early conversations where we talked about Jim Henson and asked each other how he would’ve “Muppetized” the character. In the first issue, there’s a part where the gun preens and says “I look cool and kill things” and it’s totally brought to life with his expressions. Any time the gun is emoting, it’s magic.
Robertson: It’s a lovely challenge to draw. I actually photographed my dog, a wonderful Catahoula hound named Petey. He has these amazing emotive eyes that shine out from his black fur. I took a day and photographed his eye expressions. I tried to work those into the gun, so he has those dog eyes, and that’s what makes it click. Gun is this ugly, weird thing but if I can get him to perform and the audience feels him, then that’s the magic of comics.â€¨
Mortimer: I’ve been wondering how people were going to cosplay “Ballistic.” If people dress up their dogs, we’re in business.
“Ballistic” is on sale now. Want it digitally? Check out http://kingsroadmerch.com/black-mask-studios/ for “Ballistic” and other Black Mask Studios titles. Curious readers who crave more about Repo City State can check out Mortimer’s sourcebook at http://bio-noir.tumblr.com/.