Hitch and Ross Prove "America's Got Powers"

Few things are more ubiquitous these days than reality television. Give your TV a full channel run-through and count how many unscripted or competition shows you come across. Okay, don't actually do that because you'll be gone for a while. Jonathan Ross ("Turf," "Rocketeer Adventures") and Bryan Hitch ("Ultimates," "Captain America: Reborn") join forces in April at Image Comics to tell a tale revolving around the kinds of shows we're inundated with -- but with a healthy dose of super powers. Ever wondered how a show like "American Idol" would work if instead of singing, the contestants were using powers to beat the crap out of each other? "America's Got Powers" hopes to provide the answers.

While Ross and Hitch originally planned to double ship the first two issues of "America's Got Powers" in April, the creators have changed course and announced the first issue will now be double-sized with 38 pages of story -- all for the original price of $2.99. The pair didn't want to sacrifice story or break up a solid introductory issue, so potential readers will get more bang for their comic book buck when reading the adventures of powered teenager Tommy Watts and explore the world he lives and competes in. With so much buzz surrounding the title, CBR News spoke with Ross and Hitch to find out how their partnership began, what kind of reality show they're dealing with and exactly where these super powered people came from.

CBR News: Let's start at the very beginning -- how did you the two of you come together to develop "America's Got Powers?" In other words, what is your secret origin?

Jonathan Ross: Mark Millar brought us together after he hooked me up with Tommy Lee Edwards for "Turf." If this is a hit, I wouldn't be surprised if he comes knocking for his ten percent!

Bryan Hitch: Mark Millar. He knows us both and we'd had dinner at Jonathan's a few years back, along with Dave Gibbons, Brendan McCarthy and Kev O'Neill so we could view his massive collection of '60s Marvel [comics] and the original Kirby and Ditko art that goes with it. Jonathan had been having ideas about comics and stories that led to "Turf," again at Mark's suggestion about Tommy Lee Edwards. Anyway, Mark suggested Jonathan talked to me and this is the result of that. It's not the only thing we have, but those are stories for later. 

Walk us through the world of "America's Got Powers." From what we've been told already, this isn't a world where super powers are new, but where does this "American Idol" style of show fit in?

Hitch: Super powers have been around, but not heroes. If anybody with powers had gone down that route, it wouldn't have worked out well in this world. There is a single, officially sanctioned Super Hero team, and that's a PR/Marketing gimmick for the TV show "America's Got Powers," not an altruistic group of kids trying to make the world better like [the] X-Men or Teen Titans.

Ross: They've been around for about 17 and half years. A mysterious Event kicks things off and a few hundred super-powered kids are the result. The fun part was trying to imagine what kind of impact that might have in reality.
Has the existence of super powered people changed the world, or, seeing as how there are no true super heroes, have they had much of an impact at all?

Ross: Not dramatically -- yet. They are now just coming to maturity, and a combination of parental and governmental pressure have kept them pretty much in their place. But some of the kids are questioning the status quo, in particular the need for and their involvement in the big televised game show "America's Got Powers."

Hitch: The Event that kicked it all off 17-18 years ago was isolated to the San Francisco Bay Area, and whilst it had a huge impact on a relatively small group of people, the larger world remained unchanged. Obviously that status quo is going to shift as our story is taking place at pivotal point.
Tommy Watts serves as a POV character for readers as they get to know this world. What is his motivation for wanting to win the competition? Does he feel a drive to be "the best," is there some sort of massive monetary compensation or does he have some other motive?

Ross: Initially Tommy doesn't want anything from the competition, doesn't even want to be part of it. But as he finds himself taking part -- grudgingly at first -- he changes.

Hitch: Tommy is the only kid born of The Bay Event that doesn't have any powers. He's The Zero. His brother died in the Games and he sells action figures of the guy who killed him. Tommy might have dreams of winning the Biggest Show on Earth, but they're the same unrealistic dreams any kid who holds up a hair brush to belt out as Rihanna song has of winning "Pop Idol." These kids don't have the best lives. Having powers hasn't brought them happy childhoods. If Tommy has dreams of winning, it's only so he can make his life a little better.

Is the show itself built like the talent shows we watch? And how much of the comic takes place on stage as opposed to behind the scenes?

Ross: We don't see that much of the show. The story really concerns the characters in it and what is happening on the bigger stage outside. Some earlier drafts had a lot of show-related mechanics -- meeting the judges, introducing the participants -- and some of that might bubble back up in later issues. But for now, it's mainly the action we focus on.

Hitch: The book takes its name from the title of the show. It's the environment the story takes place in, but it isn't the story any more than "Gladiator" was about The Colosseum. That was Maximus' story, and to follow that analogy, this is Tommy's story, and it will take him through that arena in some form and his experiences there could reshape the world.

Today's reality talent shows are modern day Roman Games, anyway, with fewer lions and less blood. They're no less brutal in their own way. We don't really care about those individuals; we just want them to entertain us. If they lose, we lose interest. Only the winners matter. We were all impressed with Susan Boyle and how she confounded expectations, but none of us should pretend we actually care about her as a person. She's just part of an entertainment program we followed. If she stopped singing today, we wouldn't ever really think about her.

It's sort of like that for these kids. They've been locked away and experimented on, caused a riot and had a small impact on local society. It's only after the Games were conceived and they started kicking the shit out of each other for the public's weekly entertainment that the world took notice.

The world doesn't care about them and only knows what the show's PR tells them, and that may not be the truth. The public only cares about their Saturday night hit show. That's going to change, though. We have a Maximus, a Spartacus, a Susan Boyle; somebody around whom the world will pivot. I don't think Commodus would have stood a chance against The Boyler.

Jonathan's original one line pitch was "'X-Factor' for Super Heroes" and it was a great idea, but as we started putting a story to that idea, it became much less about the show. Once we put living breathing characters into the scenario of the show, it became their story, not the show's story, and the show became an environment. It's the Enterprise to "Star Trek."
Bryan, what was it like populating, designing and creating an entirely new superhero universe after working in established universes for the past few years?

Hitch: I'm fairly immersive in that I work hard at environments and sets so it feels as real and believable as possible. As I said earlier, there aren't really any heroes as such, yet, but there are bright costumes for the show's competitors/gladiators. Those designs don't need to be as specific as each Titan, X-Man or Legionnaire, just bright and eye-catching! The super hero universe might well come in the sequel...

You've always drawn as many pages as you feel the story needs, even when you were working on your Marvel projects. Despite having had that sort of leeway in the past, was it still somewhat freeing to know that you could really open things up since this is a creator-owned property?
Hitch: Actually, initially it was the opposite. As Joe Quesada told me when I mentioned the dreaded words "extra pages," "Dood, it's your money now!" He's right -- it costs to do this, especially so if it's not affecting the cover price. The best economic model for us would have been 20 pages for $2.99, and we tried very hard to do it that way. There was a lot of set-up in the story we're trying to tell, and we wanted it to feel natural. It was originally split over two books to have been out in April, (the original issues one and two), and it never felt as satisfying done that way. We felt it was best to go with our instinct and tell the story the way that felt right, and it didn't feel right to adjust the price and ask you to pay for that choice.

So yes, I've almost always put additional pages in the books I've drawn, but never a virtually-free second issue!

The economics are pretty simple. If millions of people were buying our comics, we could all afford to sell them for a dollar or less. No corporation would ever do that, of course, as they are mostly in the business of making money. If their books sold in the millions per issue, the price would be unchanged or increased to make more money. It's always that way, no matter what the product. With creator-owned comics, the drive is almost certainly the need to tell the stories we're telling. Yes, we want to make a good living, pay our mortgages and feed our families, just like our readers and the retailers we ask to sell our books for us, but the reason the book exists is because we have a story we just have to tell. We aren't looking at quarterly sales charts and share prices. We don't have a board of shareholders or a parent corporation breathing down our necks, scrutinizing our profit margins, asking for more product. We only live by the creative drive to tell all these stories.

What has been liberating is knowing we can make a crazy decision like this because we wanted to, because we felt it served the story best and that it helped make a new book affordable. We could never have done this outside of creator-owned, I think. It feels like we are much more connected to the ground floor of the industry. It's a symbiotic relationship you have, with the retailers especially, and whilst you may be trying to reach readers with your story content, the people who buy your book first are the retailers. As a reader, I loved the big sized issues, a much bigger slice of story. It felt like an event, but you always had to pay more. In giving you twice as much for a dollar less than most standard books, our hope is that it feels like a wee bit of an event to get a big chunk of a massive story and feel like you got more than your money's worth.

That's the kind of simple economics I like.
Keeping the price point at $2.99 seems like a great way to encourage people to check out the book along with the high page count. Financially speaking, though, was there a lot of debate before you decided to stick with the price?
Ross: Not really. We deliberated briefly as to whether we should restructure the book and go with a more conventional and profitable page count, but we wanted to give readers a big bang for their buck, and also hopefully get them hooked on the story. So it felt like the right thing to do. It's also nice to show the big guys that it's not all about the bottom line.
For us, the most important thing is getting the comic books in as many hands as possible. Part of me wishes they were still 25 cents and sold in corner shops and on newsstands. Some of my happiest memories are of picking up a new book by a new creative team and getting hooked with issue one. Thats what we are hoping for!

Hitch: You pay the same for a movie ticket no matter how long the movie, 90 minutes or 180 minutes. I don't really think, just because we felt it was right to publish a double-sized first issue, we should start asking for more money.
Jonathan and I really love the story we're telling, how it unfolds over these six issues and what it can lead to if the book is successful enough to continue as we hope it might be. If putting that much content in the book and keeping it a lower price than many of the books at Marvel and DC doesn't show our level of commitment, I can't think what will.

Was it difficult to make that decision? Not at all. It was very natural; it's how the story needed to be. What we want is for everybody to feel they can afford to try our book and that if they do, they'll get a big bite of story and a great sense of what the whole series is like. Like many retailers, we are a small business and we get that margins are small. The sensible investments, I suppose, are big things like the ones being offered by DC and Marvel. "AvX" is going to be huge, move a lot of books and make Marvel and the retailers some solid income. How do you get noticed in that market without looking like Donkey in "Shrek" shouting "Pick me, pick me!?"

The biggest incentive we could think of is a simple one: A bargain. We're sure you'll like our book, so we're making it a big, substantial read, twice as long as almost everything else, and pricing it so everybody could afford to try it. That's got to be a deal worth taking!

"America's Got Powers" #1 by Jonathan Ross and Bryan Hitch drops from Image on April 11.

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