Jim Pascoe Explores "Undertown" at TOKYOPOP

You may have come across Jim Pascoe's name before. He's scripted "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Hellboy: The Animated Series" stories for Dark Horse. Last year saw the release of "Undertown," a new manga TOKYOPOP is running in their Sunday Comics section in more than four dozen newspapers including The Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligence.

"Undertown" is the story of a boy named Sama who is on an epic quest to find the Sugar Stone, a rumored magical device from a strange alternate world called Undertown. Sama is convinced this stone has miraculous healing powers and is the only thing that can save his father, who has fallen ill.

CBR News sat down with Pascoe to talk about the series, reactions to the newspaper serialization and what to look forward to in the next volume.

You've said this is the most personal story that you've written. How did the story develop?

"Undertown" started as an experiment. After writing the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" comics, I went through a period of lots of property development, lots of pitches. I got to the point where I was tired of working on story outlines, wanted to do less overview and more execution. So I started making up characters and writing scenes for them. It was a lot of stuff from my dreams, really deep, disconnected stuff.

But characters, if they are real, can not resist a storyline, and soon I found a boy named Sama whose quest was bringing all these crazy bits and pieces together. I must have been channelling something, because less than a week after signing the contract with TOKYOPOP, my dad was in the hospital getting a heart transplant. I knew that what I was feeling and what I was about to go through with my whole family had to get into this book. All of a sudden, the book quite literally had a heart.

How did "Undertown" become where teddy bears come from?

"Undertown" has always been the world where teddy bears come from, I just didn't know it at first. "Undertown" didn't begin as a high concept; there was never a point in which "Undertown" was simply "the world under your bed" or some such reduction. As a result, I had to learn about Undertown myself by exploring its characters and its history. The more I listened to Eddie -- Sama's teddy bear who comes alive in Undertown -- the more I discovered why Eddie would come to life in this world.

Tell us about the Insects versus mammals tension and how that conflict came about.

I'm not a very political person. it's all too real for me. But I had been thinking a lot about how since 9/11, arguably since the end of the Cold War, the narrative model for evil had shifted. Stories about a mad man trying to take over the world didn't seem relevant in the modern world where terrorists don't claim a state. What really gets me about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that neither side is absolutely wrong -- there is no "big bad guy" like Hitler was in WWII. And when you drill down it get even less clear cut. It's not just the Jews vs. the Muslims, it's Shia vs. Shiite. It's Hamas in Gaza. The Islamic insurgency in Iraq isn't the same as the Islamic insurgency in Kashmir. This is the true face of war. It's not good vs. evil, it's a cloud of perceptions and prejudices that cannot be resolved like an algebra equation.

Had you worked with Jake Myler before this?

No, I didn't know Jake before "Undertown." I was very lucky that when TOKYOPOP agreed to do "Undertown," my editor Paul Morrissey went out and auditioned artists for the book. Jake quickly proved that he was perfect for this book.

How did "Undertown" end up being serialized in the newspapers?

Sheer force of will. I wanted it so bad, I made it happen. A more practical person might find it easier to believe that "Undertown" has simply been riding a wave of buzz and good fortune since pre-publication when Scholastic Books picked up the book for their book club. It was a huge deal, and things have slowly snowballed from there. I had very little to do with the newspaper deal. TOKYOPOP asked if I would be okay with it running in the papers, and I immediately said yes.

Have you gotten much feedback from people in the few weeks since it was being published on Sundays?

Most of the feedback I've received so far (it's only run for two weeks now) has been online at my official fan club hosted on TOKYOPOP.com. The fan club is called The Undertown Explorers Clan, and we have over 900 members signed up and have received over 70,000 page views. That blows me away! I'm trying to create a grass-roots movement for the strip, asking my fans, if it's not running in their local paper, to write to their editor and ask that he or she pick up "Undertown." The official name from the syndicate is "Manga: TOKYOPOP Presents Undertown."

Unlike previous books TOKYOPOP has run in their Sunday slot – "Peach Fuzz," "Van Von Hunter," "Princess Ai" – "Undertown" is essentially just being reprinted as opposed to creating new content. What were the reasons behind this decision and do you think the story lends itself to be read in two page increments?

My preference would have been to do all-original strips customized for the newspaper format. But Jake's and my priority is finishing the first trilogy, so we couldn't have put that kind of time into it. I'll be honest: I wasn't convinced that reading two pages of "Undertown" would be a good experience -- and any way you look at it, it's not the best experience. But I feel that as much as I look forward to exposing new readers to my story, the most successful opportunity here (at least creatively) is to give fans who have already read the book a chance to dip back in a couple pages at a time. The "Undertown" experience is greatly enhanced by multiple readings, and I'm excited that people will get the chance to discover new things in their Sunday comics section.

When is the second volume being released, and will it come out around the time the newspaper serialization of the first volumes wraps up?

"Undertown Book 2" comes out later this year. I'm not sure of the timing of the newspaper serialization, but obviously we're trying to capitalize on that as much as possible, while still getting the new book out to fans as soon as possible. I know I'm a bit biased, but the second book is so unbelievably awesome. I can't wait to share it with everyone!

How familiar were you with manga before this and what books are favorites of yours?

My familiarity with manga goes back to the 1980s, with the first wave of Viz books like "Crying Freeman," "Sanctuary," "Maison Ikkoku," and "Nausicaa." But it was Dark Horse's publication of "Akira" that really rocked my world. After that, most of my manga came from Paul Pope, who would send me his favorites from Japan. At first I would complain that I don't read Japanese! But Paul urged me to read the books visually. The storytelling is so strong, you can figure out what's going on. This is what I love about comics -- telling a story through pictures. I don't ever want my books to be wordy chunks of prose with some pretty pictures, because that's not comics.

I've only recently been getting into the modern wave of manga; you know, "Naruto," "Death Note," and "Fruits Baskets." I now try to read as much manga as I can get my hands on. I'm currently obsessing over Toriyama's "Dragon Ball" and "Dr. Slump."

The layout and style of "Undertow" feels less like manga, or at least less like shonen, and closer to a European comics sensibility.

That's an interesting observation. Because I grew up admiring "Watchmen" so much, I had a large fascination with the 9-panel grid; I really thought it was a standard, from which all other comics grids could be/should be based. So imagine my shock when my editor Paul Morrissey first told me that his ideal for "Undertown" was an average of 3 or 4 panels per page! Yikes! An average?

I now know the kind of shonen speed that Paul was suggesting. But I wasn't really reading pure shonen stuff. When you look at "Sanctuary," "Akira," and "Nausicaa" -- I mean c'mon, Miyazaki's manga looks more European than "Undertown!" -- you can see where I was coming from.

What comics are you reading right now?

Indie comics, mostly. Dan Clowes, Jim Woodring, Louis Trondheim, that kind of stuff. I always like Mike Mignola's stuff, but after working on Hellboy I have a new appreciation for how good he is. He's really good. Currently I'm really trying to eat up as much manga as I can: a combination of super old-school stuff, like all the Tezuka books, mixed with new stuff like "Eyeshield 21" and "One Piece."

What else are you working on?

I just finished "Undertown" Book 2, and I'm eager to finish the script for Book 3 before Jake finishes the art for Book 2. I really want 2 and 3 to come out closer together. And I have a new series in development with TOKYOPOP. More on that soon!

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