Jason Latour on B.P.R.D., Writing & Hilarious Gag Strips

I haven't talked to Jason Latour, on the record at least, since a "When Words Collide" installment a year and a half ago, and since that time he's drawn some fantastic-looking issues and back-ups for both Marvel and DC and released the first three-quarters of his creator owned "Loose Ends" crime series with collaborators Chris Brunner and Rico Renzi.

As announced at the end of last year, Latour will soon be contributed to the Hellboy universe with an upcoming "B.P.R.D." project. And his final issues of "Loose Ends" should be out soon, and he is currently offering a free, downloadable sketchbook on his blog.

Latour is always an interesting guy to talk with, and this time our conversation circled back to his earliest days as a creator, when he was pioneering his way through the webcomics landscape when no one was paying attention, and his experiences in the industry over the past decade give him a unique perspective on what the future might hold for the comic book industry.

Tim Callahan: Okay, I'm all caught up with the "B.P.R.D." trades, and you were right. I needed to get past the first two volumes, because the story doesn't even really kick in until John Arcudi comes in and the whole thing takes on an epic scope. But is that what you like about it? What is it about "B.P.R.D." that makes it one of your favorite comics?

Jason Latour: I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that in all the best ways, it reminds me of the X-Men comics I grew up with back in the late '80s to early '90s. Those books were a lot of running, punching and broken screaming English sure, but at underneath all that the characters seemed to struggle with how to set aside their inner conflicts and insecurities and save a world that preyed on those feelings. I mean, if you had Cyclops love life, you'd be a dick too. A dick with laser eyes.

In "B.P.R.D.," all of that takes a more subtle shape. It probably begins with how it shifts gracefully to one side of the super hero obsession with power levels and how laser eye beams work. The focus on the supernatural and folk lore as a starting point seems to remove the emphasis on "how" this stuff is happening. Most of it is just accepted, or is premised as so vastly unknowable. When you don't have to explain how a character is a ghost you get to talk about what it's like to be one. What matters about being one. It probes for a different depth but for me it has that has the same base appeal of those formative X-comics.

I would never have made the X-Men/B.P.R.D. connection if you hadn't pointed it out, mostly because I see the X-Men franchise (almost any era, when it works well) as primarily focusing on the anxiety of power and difference. The X-Men are, measurably, superior in physical and mental ability to the mass of humanity, yet they play a supportive helpful role in protecting the people who would mock them, or kill them, if given a chance. The X-Men are like shepherds on a cattle drive.

B.P.R.D. is a gang of monsters working behind the scenes to find out about more monsters. There's an underlying sadness to the characters because they lack humanity, at least physically, but they're less shepherds, and more like underground strategists, making sure the bloody lava of Hell doesn't erupt on too many front lawns. They mostly act as clean-up, or slap on large-scale band-aids, for the ongoing monster problem.

In your mind, are there any more direct parallels between the X-Men and B.P.R.D.? Or is it strictly in terms of being an outcast, and the heroes struggling with their own sense of self?

The X-Men hallucinated a lot more. Every issue, someone was ripping their damn face off in a fever dream. Seriously, "X-Men" is merely the book that taught me about team dynamics, so I'll always see things through that lens. I'd suspect that all stories about teams have similar archetypes and themes. I could probably as easily compare it to "Doom Patrol" or "The Dirty Dozen."

For all the weird shapes they take, ultimately what I relate to is the book's humanity. It's hard to worry about being the only fish man on Earth when there's a 90-story mushroom growing next door, and yet you still would. That balance is something comics don't seem to get right as often any more, just the idea that inner conflicts are changed, or amplified or reflected in the presence of external ones. And because the book is clearly moving forward with an end game in mind, you always feel the constant threat and impact of those changes. As a reader, I'm about as unsure of where it's headed as the characters.

What scene, sequence, or story arc from "B.P.R.D." do you find to be the most effective at hitting that sweet spot of intensity of external threat and intensity of inward unease? For me, the balance is at its best whenever Ben Daimio shows up. He's the catalyst for the greatest moments in the series, as far as I'm concerned. Before his arrival, the series seemed less direct, less, I guess I would say, directed. No clear through line of escalation. And then, after his supposed death, the series seemed to deflate a bit -- and now, of course, he's back, and the series has regained some of that energy.

Daimio for President, I guess I'm saying.

I'm in agreement with you on Daimio. He's the guy fighting the most clear cut battle between what or who he is and what he wants to be. His refusal to admit what he's become makes his problem that much more dangerous and relatable. He even seems to open up to accepting himself and his position as one of the team once it's far too late.

Now, you're drawing some B.P.R.D. for an upcoming story. Let's talk about that a bit. First, what's the basic idea of the story you're drawing and what have you found out about the characters or setting by having to draw that stuff? Any insight there?

Well, "B.P.R.D.: The Pickens County Horror" is mostly new characters, but it was interesting just how much the tone of the prior books and the world they've built, informed even a more stand alone-ish story like this one. It stars B.P.R.D. agents Vaughn and Peters, as they investigate a strange howling fog in the South Carolina foothills. If the fog itself weren't strange enough they soon fine themselves coming face to face with a secret vampire conspiracy, one that's laid in wait for a very long time. 

It was like working on an episode of "The Twilight Zone" with Mike Mignola as Rod Serling. He first told me the gist of the story over the phone, and I almost couldn't believe my ears. All of his ideas are kind of brilliantly insane and off kilter and this one is no different. I knew to just to put my trust in him. Why wouldn't I? This was a chance to scribble something new in the margins of a series I love.

Is that EC stuff actually in your sphere of influence at all?

Honestly, not deeply. There are some big exceptions like Toth, and the love I have for Jack Davis's illustration work. The drawings are always immaculate in EC stuff but for me the stories often read more like illustrations with text and not really panel to panel story telling. That always made it harder to digest. But I'm writing this at the time of John Severin's passing, so that coupled with a new project has me eager to pick lot of that stuff up again and re-think it.
Comics wise there probably isn't anything too exotic in my own work. Growing up, every week I wanted to be someone new but largely I'm a child of my era. The late 80s and early 90s seem kind of the last big era of the mainstream cartoonist or tight knit comics team, and that's what I was into. I can't say the difference between writer and artist even clearly occurred to me when I was a kid. I saw comics much the same way I saw the funnies section in the paper. I think it's telling that at some point I shifted gears and tried doing comic strips for a few years. 3-4 panel gags. I almost gave up long form comics for them.

Gag comic strips?!? How many do you think you actually did? Did you have any recurring characters?

My junior year of college I started a strip in the school paper called "4 Seats Left." Under the thinnest veil possible it was about my friends and my life. Bad jokes about pizza and beer and monkeys in clothes, basically Budweiser commercials. After school I put them on the web (remember geo-shitties?) and the premise morphed into a college kid boomeranging from the real world back to living on his parent's couch. His parents being kind of Pre-Ron Swanson version of my own dad and a Paula Dean version of my mom. Hijinx ensued. I'd guess I kept up with it for 4 years or more. I saw it as a much more accessible route to doing comics, it didn't occur to me that the web wasn't ready and newspapers were already largely dead.

I can't wait to see the IDW hardcover collection of that stuff. Make it happen, Dean Mullaney!

So doing those strips taught you how to do comics? Because it gave you a looser line? Pushed your expressiveness and broke you free of your comic book forebears? None of the above?

It certainly helped my craft just to do that many strips. But more so it helped me get over stage fright. I was stuck in this vicious cycle of redrawing the same sample pages over and over. Every time I'd change the slightest storytelling moment or intercut panels or change characters. There were literally 20 versions of some pages. I was utterly twisted into a knot. So scaling down helped to wrap my head around how to think through, if not tell, a story cleanly. In 3 or 4 panels you call upon all the skills you need in order to write and draw a comics story. From there it's more or less about your ambition. It's like a Kevin McHale post move or something, the more you get into it the more nuance is revealed and you just keep pushing it until you either get a little frustrated and abandon it like I did or you become an utter master. Either way the commitment to it changes how you think. I never achieved what I wanted with that strip but thought processes I developed through making one are still a basic unit of measure for me.

Ironically, then, by focusing on a smaller canvas, you actually improved your ability to produce longer stuff, because you were able to refine your craft on the panel level? Pretty interesting, and somewhat counter to what I would have expected. Do you have any interest in ever going back to a comic strip format? Or are you in the long form comics/graphic novels game for the long haul?

Maybe it just seems easier to learn how to write a sentence than to dive right into a novel? I do still dabble in short strips now and then when there are ideas I can't shake or just to see if I can still channel it up. But a new ongoing strip would have to have a long form story driving it. I can tell bad jokes on Twitter. 

Speaking of bad jokes -- let's talk about your writing career! Get it?

Seriously, you wrote one of the best comics of 2011 (according to my list, aka the correct list) with "Loose Ends" and the final issue of that series is due any week now. If you're willing to take a compliment, let me say that it was a hell of a way to make your debut as a writer, with its evocative setting, compelling characters, and ambitiously-layered plot threads. All without narrative captions to lead the reader by the hand. Bold and impressive writing, for sure.

But what many comic book readers may not know is that you actually have a background in writing and literature. Let's talk about that, and how the pieces of "Loose Ends" came together before you handed the script over to Chris Brunner and Rico Renzi.

Well thanks, man. Seriously. But calling what I have a background in literature would be a bit lofty. The earliest draft of "Loose Ends" did begin while auditing a screen writing class in graduate school. I was out of comics and needed something creative in my life so I committed to writing this screenplay. It was a completely maddening process and when it was finished I ended up putting it to good use by throwing it in the corner to go draw comics again.

So you flash forward a couple of years and my comics career wasn't going so hot and I come home from New York for Christmas with my tail between my legs and a copy of "No Country for Old Men" under my arm. I really can't say if it was the book itself or if it was just the tipping point but when I finished it I literally said aloud, "Fuuuck. I have to write something now."

So the first draft of issue #1 was done that night and sent to Brunner the next morning. We kicked around the logistics of it, and kind of came to the consensus that if it were four issues long we could do it. Which was just insanity because here was this flabby two-hour screenplay that needed to be rebuilt as 4 comic books. It just seemed that the answer was to handle it similar to the four-panel comic strips. Nothing put down could be sacred, yet every panel was going to have to matter. That experience of working in a confined space really came into play again. 
That's why Chris and Rico are perfect collaborators. Chris in particular already thought that way about his pages, he was going to treat it as ruthlessly as I wanted to. So having them involved from the start, and throughout, really pushed me to make it worth their time. To try and make it worth a reader's time.

How did you bring publisher 12 Gauge into the picture?

Chris and I'd actually both worked for and knew the publisher, Keven Gardner, pretty well. He showed a real enthusiasm for it from the first mention. He was so clearly in favor of letting us do it our way, it was a real vote of confidence to have your publisher in your corner creatively. 

Anything else planned with 12 Gauge in the near future? What about other writing projects anywhere else? What's the forecast on the writing front?

I've recently had some very encouraging talks about writing for hire and about future creator owned projects. One in particular would be a pretty amazing opportunity. But basically everything is still talking. I think everyone knows the industry is in a real state of flux. The reality is the window for work for hire is smaller. There are very talented, established writers who are struggling to get work. Working in any capacity is increasingly about finding a way to put yourself in a position to do the type of work you're best at despite a narrowing market. So at least in terms of getting paid to work or getting work into print it is often a numbers game. Even when it's not it's always a battle against dwindling time and resources. When you're starting out you have a smaller body of work to demonstrate what you're capable of to an audience or a potential employer. That becomes problematic in that you really need to demonstrate what you can do in order to gain the freedom to create at your best. 

Honestly, I'm lucky to be in the position I'm in. I feel very proud of the work I've done, warts and all. But the reality is that as a writer I've done three issues of work with the 4th yet to come. There are as many people who will see that as unproven as there are who will see it as possessing potential. I'm realistic. I know that things are far from a sure bet for my writing career. It's frustrating to play the wait and see game, but having these conversations is pretty amazing in the face of the current climate. It also helps me sleep to know that even if all the doors close no one can stop me from making a comic. So I'm not sitting on my hands. I'm constantly working and developing things. Playing with new ways of getting my work into people's hands. It may take longer, and it may not be easy, but I don't know what worth doing is. 

Look man, the bottom line is this "Lockhorns" revamp ain't gonna make itself.

If the Lockhorns mega-crossover event relaunch doesn't happen, then you'll still be able to make comics, sure. But ideally -- because I know you're a big "Asterios Polyp" disciple -- you'd want to write and draw something for yourself and let it find an audience? Become, ahem, a graphic novelist? (You have to ask yourself the last question in a British accent while wearing an ascot.)

Just so Bill Hoest knows, my pitch for that strip is "Lockhorns: The End." Loretta finally finishes the job her meatloaf couldn't. 

It's possible that soon anyone not solely doing direct market superhero serial stuff does become in effect a "graphic novelist." Just by virtue of the possible shift to digital chapters and physical collections. All the stories I have are more or less finite, so maybe that makes me more apt to do it. The two new creator owned things I'm considering most heavily now are that way. One is a de-facto superhero book and the other is crime drama tinged, more or less real people. It's a big internal debate as to which I should lead with. Is there a new format worth considering or do I stick with the old direct market first model? What's more viable in which format? 

Print singles used to sort of provide a potential backbone for a book, especially superheroes. You could once say a superhero book would open more doors, raise awareness, and invite more readers to try your other work. You could proceed that way with a degree of certainty. Now that's not necessarily true and who knows what will be the case in 2 or 3 years. A crime drama would seem more well-suited to the wide possibilities digital could offer, but digital just hasn't found its footing yet. I could disappear and do one whole cloth, but I'd risk losing any momentum I've gained in terms of audience visibility, and I'd be gambling that print would still exist when I finish.

It's a bit frustrating, but so long as your head's on straight and you're largely doing the work because you want to do it I think it's manageable. You really have to just believe that once a book exists it will do the work itself.

At the end of the day I think the only brand you have to maintain is one of quality. 

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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