Chicago, Day 1: Corporate Take-Over: Henderson & Salvaggio talk Tokyopop's "Psy-Comm"

It's no secret that Manga has been hot, is still hot and shows no signs of cooling off any time soon. Visit your local Tower or Virgin records store and you'll see Manga occupying more and more shelf space, all while shelf space for American comics seems to be dwindling.

One of the leaders in the Manga game is Los Angeles based Tokyopop, publishers of books like "Mobile Suit Gundam," "Battle Royale," "Priness Ai" and others. While those titles and others continue to sell through nicely, the company has expanded their horizons a bit by not just reprinting Japanese Manga, but creating original, American Manga. Announced today at Wizard World Chicago, one of those titles is "Psy-Comm," coming from Tokyopop later mid-2005.

"Psy-Comm" is written by Jason Henderson and Tony Salvaggio. Henderson you may know from his Image Comics work like "Sword of Dracula" and "Sylvia Faust." In addition to "Psy-Comm," Henderson and Salvaggio teamed up together on the upcoming Humanoids title "Clockwerx." The duo met while working at Maxis Games in Austin. Salvaggio was providing the art for some games while Jason wrote the fiction and back story. The two became friends which is when Henderson learned just how big a fan of Manga Salvaggio really is. "No-one - and I mean no-one - knows manga like Tony does," exclaimed Henderson. "When the Alamo Drafthouse makes you their anime guru, you gotta know your stuff." For Salvaggio, "Psy-Comm" will be his first published comics work.

CBR News sat down with Salvaggio and Henderson for an extended look at Tokyopop's "Psycomm."

Jonah Weiland:Hi Guys, let's start out by having you introduce the book. What is "Psy-Comm? Talk a bit about the themes you'll be exploring in this book.

Tony Salvaggio: "Psy-Comm" in a nutshell is about Mark Leit, an extremely popular psychic soldier in a world where his job is to earn ratings in the wars he fights against other Corp-States. One day, fed up with the emptiness of his life, he decides to save an enemy soldier-a young girl who reminds him of someone who died-and they have to run. The decision causes the whole world-crazy psychics, armies, enemies, and friends-- to come gunning for them rather than risk the status quo.

In the world of "Psy-Comm," Corporations have replaced countries and wars are fought for ratings and population control. Human life isn't nearly as important as what goods you have and what markets the Corp States control. Even certain crops are owned by Corporations now that they have patented the only strains of GM (Genetically Manipulated) fruits and vegetables that have taken over their organic counterparts. At its heart however, the book centers around the three main characters and issues of friendship, betrayal, and how hard it is to escape from everything you know, even if you know it's the right thing to do. Of course when we feel this way, we usually don't have to battle tanks, psychics and a host of governments to say, break up with someone, but it sometimes feels like that I suppose.

The crux of the story is our protagonist and his escape from the fame and fortune he enjoys as commando for the Corporation State he is affiliated with, along with one of the enemy psychics who he feels the need to rescue before she goes down the road he has been down. We also have some tongue in cheek takes on present day corporations and how those things might play out in the future.

Weiland:Now that we have an idea of what's happening in this book, talk about the characters that populate the book a bit, starting with our lead Mark Leit.

Salvaggio: Okay. Mark Leit is 18 years old with the gift of being able to see possible futures. He's honed this ability to the point where he is aware of possible dangers, so he can get out of harms way more often than not. His power makes him extremely valuable as a strategist, but it also comes at the price of risking becoming comatose. He is very famous among the fans in his Corp state but he is haunted by the death of a fellow psychic commando that he had a crush on. Tired of being used, and suffering from the effects of battles and the constant use of his powers, he decides to make a break for it when he unexpectedly encounters an enemy bearing a remarkable resemblance to his former comrade.

Mark's best friend and mentor is David Gerrold. A telekinetic and camouflagist, David has enjoyed the limelight winning wars and territory for the Electromedia (the media and electronics Corp-State, that also has stakes in soft drinks and other popular commodities) Corp-State he serves. Now he is fighting to be the one to bring his best friend in and determine who the best is once and for all-or make sure both of them can die trying.

And then there's Snow Lucente (16), a young psychic in the Mars/Samson Corp-State who has the ability to alter gravity-she can affect the speed and heaviness of herself, others, and anything she throws. She's been trained to hate her rivals from Electromedia but realizes that Mark is actually trying to save her from a life that is all to short. The fact is that she so closely resembles Mark's former friend and boyhood crush, it makes him want to take her away, but their relationship deepens as the story goes along. She's no "damsel in distress" though, and can hold her own as she becomes more and more experienced during their run from the Corp-State world.

Weiland:Tony, what's the genesis of "Psy-Comm?" What path did it take from concept to green-lit publication?

Salvaggio: The basis of the story comes from a song I always dug called "Veteran of the Psychic Wars." I've always liked the atmosphere the song had, although there wasn't so much a story there as an inspiration. As a musician I get a lot of inspiration from music, tidbits of songs here and there. I had this idea of psychic commandos kicking around for quite some time, but never had the complete idea of what it should be about. Before he got so busy with his multiple Image projects (and after we had wrapped up two issues of the other comic he and I have co-written) we would have pitch meetings and discuss projects we wanted to try to pitch and what publishers might bite at them. We didn't know if we would be able to get them in front of anybody, but we had these pitches written up to go at any time. Jason and I talked about "Psy-Comm" and he helped me flesh it out and our discussions led to the pitch that eventually made it in front of [our editor] Mark Paniccia.

[Jason and I] hang out all the time anyway, talking about stuff we dig and cool things we see and read. Our goal was to put together projects that we would want to read if we weren't making them ourselves. Luckily Ed Dukeshire, the editor of Digital Webbing's projects, told Jason that Tokyopop was looking for new material and we jumped at the chance to try to pitch some ideas to them. Out of the material we sent, Tokyopop ended up wanting to do the one we wanted to co-write, which leads us up to today.

Weiland:Did Tokyopop come back with any notes for you based on your pitch? Does the finished piece differ much from the original pitch?

Salvaggio: We got some notes back, tweaked a few things here and there, but over all it's really close to the original pitch. Mark and the Tokyopop team dug the idea, hooked us up with an artist and we were off. We just got through turning in the script. I still have to pinch myself sometimes, because I enjoy manga and anime and have for as long as I can remember. Getting to be at the launch of this Original Manga line is a dream come true.

Weiland:Manga's still a very hot seller and numerous publisher are now trying to get in on the original Manga thing. What is it that truly defines Manga in your eyes and what do you guys think about the long term viability of original, American Manga?

Salvaggio: To me manga has always been comics from Japan, not specifically the art style (although that is a huge part of it), but more the action, the craft and style in general. To me it boils down to pacing, and the way the story is told that separates a lot of manga from their Western counterparts. All of this is up for debate. I will say this, I think to say that manga is only Japanese might be shortchanging creators a little bit. The best manga creators watch and are influenced by American and European films, videos, anime, and music from J-Pop to American rock stars. One thing I think that people are hesitant about in American manga is that they don't think that we can do it because we aren't steeped in Japanese culture, and therefore we're cashing in or being poseurs. If you wanted to discount things based on culture, that would be a shame. Loudness, the Pillows, Balzac and Yakko Kanno and the Seatbelts all seem to have some pretty strong western musical influences, but for the most part, you can't say they are "too Japanese to Rock."

I think that like any new art form (well new to us anyway) American manga has a chance to last as long as anything else. And, like any other art form if it resonates with people, it will survive the hype and the "cash in" factor. Then the real talent will rise up from the people who are doing it to cash in and the medium will take off. It has to be done sincerely though. People can sense if you are being a poseur and they won't buy it, at least not for long. We have to give props to people like Tim Eldridge and Ben Dunn and the people who produced the "Robotech" comics back in the day. They had a passion and love for what they were doing, but there just wasn't enough exposure. There was no market for people who could draw exactly like manga artists of the time. Now you've got tons of people like me and even younger people getting anime and manga all the time. They grow up with it and adopt it into their lexicon of art and pop culture and hey, eventually you get something that is phenomena all to its own.

I think that for the above reasons there is a good chance it could be become a viable future for American comics. I don't think this will overtake Marvel and DC or get rid of regular sized comics. I think 20 foil covers and crazy pricing will do that for them if things progress like they are now. I love my American super heroes as much as I like my over the top manga heroes. I like to think that they can all get along in this world. It seems to work for Dark Horse; they sell "Berserk" and other manga right along with their other comics and seem to do fine.

Weiland:Jason, anything you'd like to add here?

Jason Henderson: There are so many differences! One is the breadth of audience. I was at a party the other day and these teenagers, guys and girls, were playing games and tossing these manga back and forth. They were totally into it, and I realized, my young neighbors also read it-these little ten dollar paperbacks. Why? They like the stories. They don't care if it's in color, they don't care if it gets bent, and because it's 15 pages long there's no argument about whether the story is "decompressed." It's different and there are people reading it. So I'll keep doing comics, but I want to do this as well. I want to make it a constant trip back and forth, in fact. I want to do "Sword of Dracula" manga, for instance.

"Psy-Comm" Book 1 is 150 pages long, nine chapters, and it's really different as far as writing goes, compared with, say, "Sylvia Faust," which is just starting from Image, or "Sword of Dracula. With those I'd gotten pretty comfortable with one way of working: I'd do a screenplay-style script, the artist would draw a comic from it, then I'd "pre-letter" and the letterer would finish the letters. That way, I could re-write to fit the art, which I like because it makes it a more collaborative piece of work. Manga doesn't work that way-this was panel-form-panel scripting, like Tony and I did with "Clockwerx" for Humanoids.

We're definitely Americans, and our manga is American. But you won't find a team with more respect for the opportunities the medium affords.

Weiland:I understand that art for "Psy-Comm" will be handled by Shane Granger, one of the winners of Tokyopop's Rising Stars of Manga" contest. Talk about him a bit.

Salvaggio: Mark P. assigned him to our book and it's been nothing but cool ever since. He's a newcomer but he has some really solid skills with the pencil! After talking to him on the phone and through email, he is a cool guy as well. He has taken our direction really well and is always open to making things work for the comic. I have sent bare bones sketches back and forth to him and we seem to always be on the same page. When I got to check out his story in Rising Stars of Manga, I really dug where he was going and could see him adding to the Psy-Comm story. I can't wait to see the finished panels on some of the sequences we have planned.

Weiland:Did you have any reservations about working with an artist new to the industry?

Salvaggio: At first I was a little wary because even though my 2-D art skills are rusty, I went to college with some really gifted sequential artists and I read tons of manga. I hold manga art up to that same standard and I am pretty picky sometimes about that. When we got Shane's samples and a preview he did for us, I was sold. I've seen Shane's growth since the Rising Stars book and even since he started on our book. Now he's part of the team, I couldn't ask for much more. Mark has been right on about Shane's abilities and I see now why he wanted him on the book. It's nice though, we're all new to the original manga idea and Tokyopop has been behind us 100%."

For more on Tokyopop's plans from Wizard World, click here.

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