As WonderCon continued to power on through Easter weekend, Oni Press director of publicity John Schork was among the industry professionals in Anaheim, moderating the publisher’s panel focusing on new works.
Fans who attended the panel were treated to free preview copies of two new series debuting this summer — “Princess Ugg” by Ted Naifeh, and “The Life After” by Joshua Hale Fialkov and artist Gabo. Schork then asked the creators to discuss the new projects.
“‘The Life After’ is a book Gabo and I have been working on for a couple of years,” Fialkov said. “To finally get it out is a big happy moment. It’s a book about a guy who wakes up to find out he’s been living in the afterlife for suicides. It’s your most mediocre day. It’s not your worst day; it’s the day you had to make photocopies every day. You try to take the subway and it’s closed, you have to take the bus. It’s not as bad as walking, but it’s not the subway. It’s the week ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ isn’t on and you have to watch one of the other cooking shows. He goes on a journey through the afterlife, there’s a hierarchy people have created for where you go after you die. That’s what the book explores. We get to see where people end up as he tries to figure out why he’s in the afterlife for suicides. He meets other people, he helps them move up or move down. I like to say that it’s like ‘Highway to Heaven’ in the afterlife for suicides. People loved ‘Highway to Heaven,’ right?”
“It’s not a miniseries,” Schork said, speaking to Oni’s commitment to the series. “It has a very huge scope.
“We get the entire creation of the universe in the first three pages of issue three,” Fialkov said. “Completely fair and balanced.”
Fialkov revealed that the protagonist has a special ability. “When he touches people he gets to see the story of their life and death. You get these miniature short stories inside the issues.”
He also revealed that there would be a special guide for this newly awakened character. “Who has committed suicide that has enough willpower that they would be able to triumph over this programming? Who would have never have had a mediocre day? Ernest Hemingway. Being in this afterlife is his mediocre day. Also, when you die, you get a big dog.”
Fialkov moved on to “The Bunker,” which he described as a story “about a group of friends who find a bunker from the future that contains letters from themselves that explains how they cause the apocalypse. Do we throw away our hopes and dreams or do we follow the path? What would you do? It’s sci-fi without the sci-fi. These characters have to go on this journey. They still want all those things, but they think they can do it better. One of the biggest creator owned imprints in the world said nobody wants to read this book, it’s too smart. We put it out on our website and it’s been growing and growing.”
Then they discussed “Princess Ugg,” which is written and drawn by Naifeh. “What if King Conan’s daughter had to go to Disney Princess finishing school?” Naifeh asked. “That’s the short version. If this was a Disney movie, it’d be about how she met a handsome boy and decided how she had to tame her ways. I wanted to tell a story about how she’s going in search of something she doesn’t know the name of, but it’s education. Her people have been at war for 1,000 years, and she wants to find a better way. She’s trying to save her people. I wanted to do a different kind of princess story.”
“Super funny book, beautifully drawn, very lovingly rendered,” Schork said of the book, noting that colorist Warren Wucinich is rejoining Naifeh after their collaboration on “Courtney Crumrin.”
“Imagine Conan as a teenage girl surrounded by Disney princesses,” he continued “She’s supposed to learn about high tea and manners and all she wants to do is fight.”
A page was shown with the title character’s “arch nemesis,” Princess Julifer. “They have to room together,” Naifeh explained. “They meet when Ulga — they call her Ugg because they think she’s a Neanderthal — she doesn’t understand when they shout ‘way way peasant’ that they’re talking to her.” A battle ensues, an outrage is perceived and the enmity is set.
“It’s like ‘Mean Girls’ with swords,” Schork said. “That’s all ‘Mean Girls’ was missing. Violence.”
“When she gets a teacher who understands what her needs are,” Naifeh said, “the word she’s looking for is ‘diplomacy.’ That becomes the story, her trying to make friends with this horrible, horrible princess. The first story is eight issues. If the book is a massive success, I will probably do another eight issues.” The next story after would be a gothic princess, using what Naifeh called “the Buffy model.”
A fan asked if, after Hemingway ceases to be the guide here, coulf gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson be next? “He died too recently. It might be too soon.” Fialkov said, explaining that other notable names would show up. “As we explore, we keep finding ways to tie it into things people know in the real world. We have a very big guest star in issue #3 you might have heard of — his name is God. We get to play with all that stuff.”
A question came up about Gabo’s detailed fifty panel layout depicting the almost “Groundhog’s Day” styled repetitive nature of the “Life After” world. “Those two pages were regular sized comic core,” Gabo said. “When I got the script, I thought, ‘What could I do to cheat?’ I could have done five panels and just repeated them. I’ve seen people do that. Your brain already knows, you stop reading. [This] starts off a little bit away, as you get closer, you see his face more and more. I felt like it gets more and more mundane for him, so keep pushing in on the camera. You get the sense of despair.”
Failkov noted, “By page four, he’s already changed. You get a sense of what his life has been before.”
Gabo continued, “99% of people in the world have been this guy. Sisiphyian.”
“It’s a punishment,” Fialkov said. “The idea is to make it terrible for you. It’s an infinite city made up of all time periods.” He described his inspiration as more of “What Dreams May Come” than a somewhat similar project called “Wristcutters,” which Fialkov discovered after he started. Naifeh noted his sister was in the film “What Dreams May Come.”
“It’s about a journey through the hope of a better world,” Fialkov said of “The Life After.” “I grew up Jewish and around that religion. The thing that has always stuck with me is how people of hard faith have this strange antipathy towards people who don’t live by their rules. I’m an atheist and I don’t prostletize.”
“I hate you,” Gabo interrupted. “I quit!”
“You read the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and it’s about loving people,” Fialkov continued. “The sacred Hindu text is this massive action story — it ends with nuclear war. It’s literally a three thousand-page epic about how we should really be nicer to each other. Buddha taught about love, and then the people around him decided that meant different things and went to war with each other. Reformed Jews had their service in English, and we were like, ‘Pssh, they’re not real Jews.’ God is probably pretty cool; he’d be okay with people not doing exactly what he said. He’d not take their human rights –”
“Thor would,” Gabo suggested.
Fialkov then cited “Thor: Spiral,” a storyline where Marvel’s Thunder God inspired a new religion after deciding to “guide” mankind more personally. “It always comes with a price, this weird hatred of others,” Fialkov said of religious fundamentalism.
Naifeh was asked about his finite plans for “Princess Ugg,” which was envisioned as four eight issue stories. “No matter how definitive your ending is, you can always do something. Unless it’s Highlander.”
This sparked a mild argument as Fialkov hated “Highlander 2” and Schork called it, “my favorite bad movie.”
The panel turned into a much more in depth examination of the writing process and critical comparative analysis of well known works.
“Don’t save anything, throw it all away, we’ll find more,” Naifeh said. “I think that’s a good way to write. ‘Buffy’ did that. That’s a much better option than whatever they were doing on ‘Lost,’ not to dis ’em. ‘The X-Men’ was built around foreshadowing things, and they had no idea what they were gonna be. There were a million loose threads dangling and [Chris Claremont] didn’t know what they were — and then he forgot them.”
Fialkov expressed bemusement at how “Watchmen” inspired people to make grimmer, grittier heroes, when he believes the work’s point was that doing so was a bad idea. He then noted that the X-Men as a soap opera was so successful, everyone wanted to copy it.
“Closure is such an important part of making a story,” Naifeh said.
“Every issue has a beginning, middle and end,” Failkov continued. “When people complain about decompression, about the pacing, they’re complaining there’s no reward.”
Naifeh concurred. “It doesn’t mean you don’t want more from that character.”
“‘Bunker’ is a dense, long form story,” Fialkov said, “but every single issue has a problem in pages one through five that is resolved or moved forward by page 22.” He then spoke of how even in Hollywood, “Jack’s tattoo” from “Lost” is used as an example of a meaningless plot element.
“One thing ‘Lost’ was really good about was having a big dog,” Schork joked.
Another fan asked about how stories are paced for each creator. Fialkov noted that each project he does has a “master document.” “The one I have for ‘Bunker’ is 14 pages, for ‘The Life After,’ it’s 4-5 pages. That book is a process of discovery. I ask [Gabo] what he wants to draw, and then I totally ignore it. That book is much more storyboarded.”
“When you think of a story, that idea is a big question,”Naifeh said. “You come up with an answer, and you have the beginning of a story and the end of a story. In ‘Courtney Crumin,’ will this grumpy angry character find love? The answer is no, of course not. You can’t go from question A to answer B, that becomes trite. You find a way to make that answer meaningful. How does this character change to get what they want? They have to go through this journey where they get completely lost and alienate everyone on this journey, and maybe they don’t know what they want. With ‘Princess Ugg’ I had this idea and she becomes friends with all the princesses at the end. That becomes what you fill in the middle.”
“You’re building a maze,” Fialkov said. “You keep putting up walls. The first time they crawl over it. The second one is too tall, they have to go around. You’re constantly finding ways to challenge the character, they have to change as a character.”
“What makes them change as a character,” Naifeh said, “the person who wants a thing at the beginning of the story can’t be the person who gets it at the end. A great example is ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.'”
Failkov then referred people to John August’s Scriptnotes podcast, although he said it will ruin “Little Mermaid” forever. He also said that he appreciated the path of creator ownership. “I would like to fail because of me,” he said. “I would like to be able to screw up and take all the credit for it.” He also said Kickstarter is a great testing ground for that.
Each creator talked about dealing with publisher mishaps, printing errors and being told to “dumb down” the material during the course of their careers, praising Oni Press for never behaving in such ways.
“We like our comics to be full of fiber, hard to digest,” Schork joked.
“It’s the Grape Nuts of comics?” Naifeh asked.
“It’s a big carafe of flax and chia seeds,” Schork declared.