Big Name, Big Concept: Justin Gray talks 'Monolith'

It's not easy being Justin Gray. You've got comic book superstar and beloved personality Jimmy Palmiotti as your co-writer on several books and DC Comics putting it's muscle behind some new launches featuring brand new characters and concepts you helped to create. There's also his "flagship" DC/Wildstorm book "21Down," co-written with Palmiotti, that's critically acclaimed and will be receiving a high profile re-launch quite soon, along with a snazzy trade paperback.

It's a hard knock life indeed.

"Well, to be fair I didn't just fall into this because Jimmy and I are friends," Gray told CBR News. "For a long time no one was willing to give me an opportunity to prove I could write comics. I'd been publishing short fiction and essays in magazines and was trying to break into the industry off and on since the early nineties without success. It wasn't until I moved back to New York and met Jimmy and Joe Quesada that things started to turn around. I landed the job as a gofer for the Marvel Knights with pretty much no clue on how the industry worked or how comics were produced. I learned a lot, but even then it took another three years to land my first gig."

In between those trials and tribulations, Gray found time to speak to CBR News about his newest series, "Monolith," announced alongside "Twilight Experiment" (which he spoke about earlier on CBR), and which will be of course co-written by Palmiotti. But the announcement of Phil Winslade, a fan favorite penciller, as the artist on the book is not the only surprise in store for readers of this series, as Gray soon explained.

"In the interest of surprises I don't want to tell you too much about 'The Monolith.' What I can say is that the origin story spans several decades leading up to modern New York and involves the city on, what Jimmy and I hope are some new and interesting levels. We're looking at the influx of immigrants into New York during the great depression and the rise of organized crime, prohibition, sweatshops and the communist movement. We made a concerted effort to be as historically accurate as possible, which made working on the first arc all the more fun because I'm a history buff. In the first issue you'll meet Alice, a hard-nosed, wise cracking cutie with a world of trouble on her ass. Alice inherits her grandmother's house and soon discovers a family secret that has been hidden for sixty years. You'll just have to pick up a few issues to find out the how's and why's of it. I will say that the Monolith is meant to protect the everyday person like you and I from crime and violence. While the JLA might be turning back an alien invasion, people in New York need someone down on the ground watching out for them. Now I know what you're thinking, here's another vigilante hero with a chip on their shoulder type comic. Nope, that's not the Monolith."

The story of "The Monolith" is very personal to Palmiotti and as Gray got more involved with developing the idea, he explains it became a very personal project for him as well. "The core elements of the Monolith came from Jimmy. The inspiration had been rolling around in his head for years, crashing into the million other ideas he has up there. While going through our usual jam session of concepts and stories he said, 'I have this idea for a book about a myth lost for sixty years beneath Manhattan…' From that we worked on angles and themes, developing a supporting cast and so on. From that discussion came the character of Alice. I suggested that we could make her more interesting in the superhero dynamic if she became a social worker. Mainly because it was something I'm familiar with and could relate to. I mean the social work, not being called Alice. Taking that angle allowed us an insight to situations that didn't require being a multimillionaire or having x-ray vision and super hearing to root out crime.

"When you're a social worker, you've got access to criminal records and files, locations on victims, families, the court system and so on. Things that superheroes don't normally get their hands on, which again plays to the pro active vs. retroactive style we're going for in this book. We're trying to create in Alice someone smart enough to say, 'The police can't get the job done in every situation because of the reality of the legal system. Alice has what she thinks is the right information and a six-ton mallet to strike down crime. Sometimes she' right and sometimes she's wrong."

Gray and Palmiotti's writing has been most prominently featured on more grounded action/drama series such as the now defunct "Resistance" or the aforementioned "21Down." But with "Monolith," the scribes will be tackling superheroes in a slightly more traditional manner… but don't expect flashy capes and spandex. "Pick up 'Twilight Experiment' for what we promise is an epic superheroes in costumes story," says Gray. "In that book the world's going to be changed in ways that haven't been seen before. It's going to be the Superman I logically envisioned if he one day decided the world wasn't going to get any better and the people that try to stop him. If you like superhero comics on a global scale then I think you're going to have a lot of fun reading Twilight Experiment. " And if on the superhero spectrum, "21Down" is the "realistic" end and "Twilight Experiment" is the more "flashy" end, Gray says, "'Monolith' is somewhere in-between, somewhere the big budget fantasy and homegrown super DV Cam. I know I shouldn't make a film reference, I understand that comics are not film, but I don't visualize in panels. My head doesn't work that way. 'The Monolith' will have big budget visuals but also have a texture unlike the other books we work on. Part of the appeal of writing a book like The Monolith and having it set in the DCU is the fact that long established characters don't know what the Monolith is. There isn't a history and a prescribed way for these characters to interact. Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, these characters all know each other and we know how they work and relate to each other. Monolith allows us to throw some curveballs at the legends. There are some very funny situations that can come out of that.

While Gray has mentioned politics playing a role in the emergence of the Monolith creature, don't expect this to be a political book like some past Gray & Palmiotti work. "I think we learned our lesson with 'The Resistance,'" laughs Gray. "The social climate in this country shifted from an optimistic questioning of authority to chest beating patriotism."

The vast amount of ideas that fans are seeing from Gray must seem astonishing to some and he credits that level of inspiration with exposure to new writing, in every kind of medium. "I consume a vast amount material, I'll read anything regardless of subject matter, I love film and make an effort to see the most obscure new releases around where I live, fiction- non-fiction, science abstracts, mechanical manuals it's a wonder my head doesn't explode. Everything interests me on some level. Jimmy is the same way, which is why I think we have such a comfortable working relationship. We have different perspectives on wide variety topics and different sensibilities, but somehow it gels.

"The same goes for our public personalities, which are very different. I'm much more introverted, social situations aren't my strong point unless of course there are drinks involved."

While Gray has explained in the past the process he and Palmiotti take to co-writing, he says the duo will try something different with "The Monolith." "The big difference from other books is that we're doing arcs differently. I'm still getting a feel for the medium since most of what I've written is either novel or screenplay length. With 21Down we normally work on a six-issue arc. After the origin story, Monolith breaks down to three issue arcs, which has been a great learning experience. We're splitting up the writing chores in a slightly different way this time around by alternating arcs."

Fans have also noticed artist Phil Winslade attached to the series and while the artists on Gray/Palmiotti's series have always gone over well with fans, this is the first big name they've brought to one of their series. "Don't ask me [how we got him]. Jimmy knows everyone!" laughs Gray. "Everyone knows Jimmy. He had a couple of artists in mind that he felt would suit the story and his vision of how it should be portrayed. Phil was at the top of the list. Phil read the script for issue one and was hooked to the point where he refused to see the script for the second issue until he finished the first. He didn't want to ruin the story for himself. That was a huge compliment. When Phil started handing in the roughs Jimmy and I were in awe of what he was doing. We could tell instantly that Phil not only got the book, but also enjoyed drawing it. Believe me it shows in every panel."

Gray freely admits it's hard from him to narrow down the reason to try this series as opposed to some other new comic you're looking at. "I dislike the question, 'why should someone pick up this book as opposed to picking up another book?' Yes, it's difficult for me to say why anyone should read anything, or watch anything, wear or eat anything--opinions vary, tastes differ. I know 'Monolith' is a solid interesting story, the artist is brilliant, the characterization is there and the sense of wonder is there. We busted our collective ass on making it the best it can be; the rest is up to marketing. When you're creating and writing new characters in this industry it means your back is against the wall long before the first issue ever hits the stands, you have to make every issue count. Luckily that's where I feel comfortable out here taking risks with people I respect and admire."

Arthur Lender contributed to this story.

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