The crossover between comics and religion usually means the occasional appearance of vague devil figures or angelic superheroes, their potential for resembling real religious ideas obscured by the trappings of genre entertainment. But this week, Dark Horse Comics is unleashing a belief-inspired superteam whose point of view holds more specifics than the average funnybook with the MySpace Dark Horse Presents tale "S.H.O.O.T. First." And CBR has the FULL story in advance of this Wednesday's debut!
The 8-pager, by writer Justin Aclin and artist Ben Bates, introduces comic fans to the Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce, a group of demon, ghost and devil hunters who also happen to be militant atheists. "Even though it's an acronym, they do indeed shoot things," Aclin told CBR News of the kick-off story for the S.H.O.O.T. team. "The idea of a team of atheist paranormal hunters came about because I knew I wanted to do that paranormal action thing that Dark Horse does so well, in books like 'B.P.R.D.' and 'Beasts of Burden,' but I wanted to find a new twist on the concept. And the idea that the team doesn't really buy into the mythology of the creatures they're after fit the bill for me. I think, also, when I came up with the acronym, a lot of stuff fell into place. Who doesn't love a good acronym?
"I always knew there was a limit to what I could do in 8 pages, especially while introducing six characters and a couple of antagonists. So the goal all along was to see the team in action and hopefully enjoy seeing them operate, but hint that there's a broader world that we're only seeing the tip of. It's a self-contained story, definitely, but I wanted readers to get to the end and immediately want to see more."
Before its release, "S.H.O.O.T. First's" skeptical look at religion via action comic earned some blogosphere attention with its high concept spurring some to smile and others to question. "I wanted it to get people thinking and talking, because the underlying theme behind the entire story is the conflict between belief and disbelief," Aclin explained. "It's a conflict you can feel as an individual, and we're definitely seeing a conflict between these ideas as a society. So I knew it was going to be kicking up some discussion, if it was doing its job properly. What's surprised me about the reaction so far is how much of the skepticism towards the story has come from atheists! Maybe I should have expected atheists to be skeptical, but when the ostensible heroes of the story are atheists who are taking out religious supernatural creatures, I expected any blowback to be coming from religious people! I think atheists don't get to see themselves depicted in a meaningful way in comics very much, and they're sensitive to the perception of being misrepresented, which I totally understand.
"And not to sound like the producers of 'Lost' or anything, but a lot of the questions that people are asking are questions they're supposed to be asking - why are they killing these creatures, and is it justifiable or is it murder? If they're not the supernatural creatures they claim to be, what exactly are they? How does S.H.O.O.T. know they're not what they claim to be, even in the face of direct physical evidence in front of them? All I can say is that these aren't deficiencies in the concept, they're questions and mysteries that are built into it."
And building is something the writer would like to do given the chance. "Obviously, it would be pointless to be raising these mysteries if I didn't hope to answer them someday. I've outlined a miniseries or graphic novel for S.H.O.O.T First, and if it gets a chance to go forward, you'll get a much better sense of the world that the story is set in, as well as the answers to specific mysteries like the semi-cliffhanger that the MySpace Dark Horse Presents Story ends on. I really just want to see it happen, because I know there are a bunch of cool creatures and action sequences in it that Ben Bates would just knock out of the park. Ben - who actually works as an intern at Portland's famed Periscope Studio, home to artists like Steve Lieber and Jeff Parker - is currently living one of his lifelong dreams by drawing the 'Sonic the Hedgehog' series for Archie Comics, and you can see from his art and character designs on the 8-pager that he's got some serious chops.
"The character I'm most looking forward to fleshing out is Mrs. Brookstone. Everyone's origin is briefly laid out in the story, but hers is a mystery, even to the narrator. But there's definitely more to her than just being a bad ass, and that's a story I'd like to be able to tell. And, obviously, Lord Byron is a blast to write. He's an aging punk nihilist with sci-fi guns and a Mohawk. That's just good fun."
"S.H.O.O.T First" isn't the first comics work Aclin has had on the market by a long shot, though many comic readers may yet be unfamiliar with the writer's name. As the editor of the action figure-focused "ToyFare," he's spent years as the head writer of the popular "Twisted ToyFare Theater" fumetti comic, and earlier this year his original graphic novel "Hero House" with artist Mike Mike Dimayuga hit via Arcana publishing. "I came up with the high concept first, which is 'A college fraternity for superheroes.' But once I sat down and actually started working on it, it became all about the characters," he said. "Our main character is named Nate Hedges, and he was a very popular teen superhero named Turbine the Turbo Teen in his small hometown. But when he gets to college, he's suddenly in a city where there are other superheroes and he no longer has that thing about himself that's made him special in the past. So he's at a low-point when he gets approached by the university president, who's concerned about this super-powered frat they have on campus, Epsilon Epsilon Psi. He makes Nate an offer to improve his grades if he'll pledge the frat and make sure they're not doing any super-powered hazing."
From there, the story divides its time between college hijinx with Nate's brothers -Â the ghostly Poltergeist and the brawny Brutale and the literal party animal Animale - and straight superhero thrills as a conspiracy plot bubbles up early on. "The president is pretty mustache-twirling from the very beginning. There are some twists built into the narrative, but that is not one of them," Aclin laughed. "But there's also a mystery involving a theft of some sort of weapon from an on-campus science lab that ends up tying into the Eps. And by the end, Nate has to figure out exactly where his loyalties lie...I think his situation is relatable. Even if you've never been in a frat or never been a superhero, when we meet him at the beginning of the story, he's gone from his area of comfort where he was in his element and the star of the town as a teen superhero to college. He's not sure where he fits in there. Everyone can relate to feeling like that at one time or another."
Overall, Aclin aims to keep his balance between comedy and action comics healthy with the latter providing the grist for his genre story mill. "With doing 'Twisted ToyFare Theater,' I pretty much get to do stupid comedy every month in a sequential format. So that itch has been scratched for me," he said of his comics starting point. "I sat down thought, 'If anyone is ever going to read this and if you're known for anything, you're known for comedy. So you don't have to make this stupid and joke-a-minute, but it has to be a little bit funny. Something a TTT fan can pick up.'"
So "pick up" the full "S.H.O.O.T. First" story below, check out more comics this week in "MySpace Dark Horse Presents" on Wednesday and learn more about Justin Aclin at AclinCorp.com.