Catching Up With Joshua Williamson

The second half of 2011 has seen Joshua Williamson's name pop up in several places throughout the Previews catalog, hopping across genres and audience cohorts.

September saw the creator's take on a classic Robert E. Howard character come to life in Dark Horse's "Savage Sword;" "XenoHolics," Williamson's ongoing series with artist Seth Damoose, launches in October from Image Comics; a new all-ages series of graphic novels titled "Sketch Monsters" also debuts in October, drawn by Vinny Navarrete and published by Oni Press; and Williamson will take to the seas in November for a tie-in to the massively popular Playstation 3 game "Uncharted" from DC Comics.

Comic Book Resources caught up with Williamson to chat about his current slate, from his creator-owned work to video game worldbuilding, to his goals for the coming year.

CBR News: Joshua, you've already spoken with CBR about "XenoHolics," so I'll just touch on that briefly. With the flurry of projects you've got going on right now, what made you want to launch an ongoing series? And why was this concept the one to do it with?

Joshua Williamson: After doing a bunch of OGNs, short stories, one-shots and stand-alones the last few years ,I really wanted to try my hand at something bigger. There are a few more minis and OGNs down the line, but I felt I needed to take a swing at one of our industry's biggest staples: the ongoing. The last time I tried an ongoing it was with "Necessary Evil," and that only lasted nine issues. Almost two years ago, I was in Brian Michael Bendis' comic writing class and he mentioned that I should do another creator-owned Image book. Something that was mine. I had already done a few Image miniseries, but knew that I was going to do another Image book and that I wanted to do something that was different. Not just for me, but for readers. There were a few other books on deck that I was talking to artists about, but when Seth Damoose and I met up at C2E2 and started to talk about aliens, I knew I had something unique. We both liked the "X-Files" and wanted to do something fun and weird. That gave birth to "XenoHolics." I felt like I had a big story to tell with this world and characters and it an ongoing was the way to do it.

You mention the "X-Files" influence in that story, but you're also quick to note that, in "XenoHolics," "the truth out there" is revealed almost immediately. Why is this so important to the way your story is constructed?
Well, without giving away too much -- it's all mind games. I do say the truth is laid out, but what "truth" is that, exactly? The book itself is a mystery, and does some visual slight of hand here and there. As the reader reads the book, he is going to be presented with certain things but will later learn that it wasn't exactly what he thought it was. One of the main things that bugged me -- and that I think bugged a lot of people about "X-Files" -- was that they never really gave you any nailed-down answers. Or it took them years to get to the good stuff, that being aliens. This is a book about aliens, so I wanted to assure readers that aliens will be around. Now, what kind of aliens is another story all together.

The preview pages show a pretty light, cartoony style. How does this help set the tone for the type of story you're telling in "XenoHolics?"

We wanted to tell a fun and weird story, and Seth's art is great for that. This is by far the best stuff he's done. Seth's art is able to show a humorous take on something that is already sort of out there. Really, people can take one look at the art and be prepared for the type of story they're going to get. It's our job then to pull the rug out from under them. 
Moving on to "Sketch Monsters," then, the all-ages series of graphic novels you're doing with Oni. How would you describe the story of that book?

"Sketch Monsters" is about a little girl named Mandy who has problems expressing her emotions, so she draws them in her sketch book instead. One day, her emotions become too much to hide and they escape in the form of sketch monsters and start to cause trouble. Mandy has to deal with her emotions and find the monsters.

Do we know what's behind Mandy's sketchbook, or is that a mystery of the series?

It's part of the mystery for book one. I look at some classic kid's books like "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "The Magic School Bus" or "Sideways Stories from Wayside School," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" -- hell, anything written by Dahl.

There is a level of disbelief, a go-with-the-flow imagination in the stories, and things just happen. But, we will explain her magic sketchbook in a later book. First, we just wanted to focus on Mandy and her Sketch Monsters.

How does she go about tracking down and catching the monsters once they've escaped? What does catching them entail?

The thing about Mandy, and this is part of the humor in the first book, is that she sort of seems like a cold and uncaring person, but she really has a big heart. She just has troubles showing it. Tracking the monsters isn't hard, as they leave quite a big mess in their wake. For example, the "Love Monster" leaves heart-shaped footprints wherever it goes.

To catch them, Mandy has to show her feelings on the outside -- not to fake it, but to really express what she was feeling when she drew that monster.

There's a monster called Happster who helps Mandy is her quests. Is he one of the monsters from her book, or is he something else?
Happster is totally one of Mandy's drawings. He represents her happiness and acts as her guide on this little adventure. He is like a mix of Genie from Disney's "Aladdin" and Fozzy the Bear.

How did you come together with Vinny Navarrete for this project? What does his style bring to the stories you're telling?

I've actually know Vinny for a long time. College, roommates, he was the best man at my wedding, etc. We've actually worked on a few things together, the biggest probably being "Dear Dracula," another kid's book that we did at Image back in 2008. We both went to Oni with a few books, and this is the one that stuck, which we are both super happy about.

Vinny is a genius. He understands storytelling, color, art and kid's books. Vinny's main goal is to make something that kids will enjoy, using amazing art. This book, just like "Dear Dracula," is a true collaboration between us because Vinny offers up so much. He is involved in every step of the development of the book, so we often go back and forth on, well, every line of the book. Vinny has a unique art style and perspective, so he brings a kind of fun and imagination to every page.

You're planning this as a series of graphic novels. Do you have a sense of how many volumes you'd like to release, or about how often they'll come out?

The goal right now is one a year. We have the first three planned out and we are hard at work on volume two now. This is one of those things that. if successful, I'd keep going for many years.

For something complete different, you've also got a story in this month's "Savage Sword," the Dark Horse anthology of Robert E. Howard characters. What can you tell us about your story, and which Howard hero are you writing?

He isn't the most well know Robert E. Howard character, but Steve Harrison is a police detective that used to get into borderline supernatural investigations. In our story he is investigating a murder involving a poisoned wine. The title of the story is a little pun called "Pinot NOIR."

What appeals to you about this character, and REH's stories as a whole?

Noir and Pulp are two of my favorite genres, and I found it interesting that a writer most known for telling swords and sorcery had this gritty and dark character in his library. I've always been interested in Robert E. Howard's characters, especially Conan. But to me, even more interesting was Robert E. Howard, the man himself. He loved to write these dark and tragic manly men, like Steve Harrison and Sailor Steve Costigan, and he wrote more about them than any other character. Steve Harrison is this no-nonsense detective in the early '30s who is a very forward-moving character. He just keeps going, following leads, until he gets to the bottom of his mystery. That appealed to me and I jumped at the chance to write him.

Is this a done-in-one story, or will it run through several issues?

Done-in-one short story, but I'd love to do more with the character. Patric Reynolds is the artist on the short. Relatively new to the scene, Patric has done a few things for Dark Horse, like the "Serenity: Float Out" one shot, an "Abe Sapien" one-shot and the "Let Me In" movie tie in. Patric is a local Portland artist, and he and I have been talking about working on something for a while now, so when this came up, a chance to do a pulp noir story, we were both excited.

Of course, your project with the biggest name recognition has got to be "Uncharted," which is a pretty major video game property. How did you get set up with this project?

Oh, "Uncharted" is huge. It's insane, how big it is, which is part of why landing the project was a long and fun process. The great Ben Abernathy, editor at DC Comics, and I had talked over a few beers about how much I loved the game and was interested in the comic. I had to try out for it with a few other writers, and honestly, I didn't think I was going to get it. I was a huge fan of the game, but that wasn't enough, and shouldn't be, so I did tons of research and worked hard to put together the best package I could. After seeing my pitches and reading some of my previous work, Naughty Dog and Sony picked me. I've been a big fan of the Naughty Dog brand since "Crash Bandicoot," so this has been a huge honor, working with them to add to their terrific "Uncharted" franchise.

When is your story set, in relation to the game series?

It for sure takes place before "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves," but if it's before or after the first game, I can't say. I know that sounds confusing, but we wanted to make sure the book's timeline was a bit ambiguous. If you've played the games, there are plenty of nods to them, and you can see where it falls in line. One major thing from the second game is revealed here.

Is it difficult writing Drake, a character with a well-established voice, outside of his home medium?
Yes, and no. Being a bit of a smart ass, Drake has a lot of amazing one-liners, and sometimes those are better executed in the game. One of the more challenging aspects was the exposition. In the game you can get away with exposition a bit, but in comics, it ends up looking like an info dump. But one of the things that is admittedly easier about writing a character with an established medium is that you can hear his voice. It's all there, in the game. How he talks, his syntax, his sarcasm and his cockiness. All you have to do is play the game and listen. Eventually, I had it down.

I understand you did quite a bit of "research" for this series. Are there things you see in the game as a writer that you didn't notice as a player?

Ah, man, I did mountains of research. Not just on the game, but also on Drake's ancestor, Sir Francis Drake, and his history. Our story ties into real facts from Sir Francis' past. One of the things that's cool about the game is that they take real historical facts or lost treasures and find a way to merge them together and involve some mystical elements. Finding the right pieces to make that work was interesting.

One of the things I started to pay way more attention to as I worked on the comic and played the game was Drake's motivations and how he sees himself. It's interesting how Drake shows a lot of confidence in himself, but on the inside has his doubts. He's really a great character. He has flaws, but in the end does the right thing and is a true hero.

But, man, does Drake kill a lot of people in the game. If you counted all the people you shoot and kill in the games, he's a mass murderer. He could give Frank Castle a run for his money. We tried to tone that aspect down a bit in the comic. [Laughs]

What can you tell us about Drake's adventure in this series?

Well, without revealing too much, at least no more than the solicitations, Drake finds out that the infamous North Pole explorer and pilot Richard Byrd hid the Amber Room for the Russians from the Nazis -- in a very hard to reach place. Drake and Sully compete with a rich couple with ties to Drake's past in a race to find the Amber Room. Along the way, Drake and Sully encounter dangerous obstacles including fire squads, the Russian mob and a certain femme fatale Drake is meeting for the first time, but one fans of the games will recognize. I can say that she has been a blast to write.

For fans of the games who don't normally read comics, what would you say to get them interested in this series? And for comics readers who haven't played the "Uncharted" games, what does the story hold for them?

This comic is a great side-story that accompanies the game and enriches the back story of some of its characters. We actually get to reveal how two characters meet! We tried really hard to make it so the tone and feel of the game was there, in comic form. To stay true to the characters as much as possible. The comics medium has a lot to offer gamers and they should give it a try.

That being said, we also wanted to make sure that people who has never played the game, who might have no idea what the story of the game is, could pick this up and jump right in. It's a fun, action adventure story with great art by Sergio Sandoval and covers by Adam Hughes and Tony Harris. How can you go wrong? If you're looking for a book that isn't a super hero tale but is still action-packed, "Uncharted" is the book for you.

Games and comics have a lot in common, so I hope books like this continue to bridge the gap and people try out both media and see how awesome they are.

Before we wrap things up, any parting thoughts?

This year, I had many goals -- work on something with Oni and Dark Horse, to launch a new ongoing, to do a miniseries at DC and to write a single full issue at Marvel. "Uncharted" is the mini and I just turned in the script for the Marvel stand-alone. My goals for 2012 are much bigger, so hopefully, if I keep working hard, I'll land them.

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