Ninjas, Dinosaurs, Comics & More

I've known writer/artist Jason Horn for a few years now, but we've only ever bumped into each other at conventions. During that time, we've found a common ground in our appreciation of absurdity and off-kilter humor, and in our mutual distaste for what seems to pass for "Comic Book Stand-up Comedy." (Yes, that it a thing that exists.)

Jason, with his thick glasses and fierce red beard is a regular presence behind the tables at east coast comic cons and can even be seen wandering around San Diego during some summer months, plotting his next opus. He has worked on a couple of highly-regarded books (helping to color the "Scott Pilgrim Color Special" from Oni, writing one of the stories in Image's "Comic Book Tattoo), but he hasn't yet put his own creator-owned projects into the direct market or the bookstores. He's produced hundreds of comic book pages but has, thus far, only sold them as minicomics or put them online for free as semi-regular webcomics.

Now he's making his move toward comics with a spine, shifting his focus this winter to publishing "Ninjasaur: Volume One," with funding through Kickstarter.

In this two-part interview, Jason and I talk about comics and movies and other things we like, and how someone with a degree in graphic design goes about making his mark on the comic book landscape.
You've been producing comics for years -- your most widely-read work was probably your half of the contribution to the Tori Amos anthology -- and you have been carving yourself a webcomics niche with "Ninjasaur," but I mostly know you from your convention appearances where you always set up a nice spread of minicomics and original prints. You're putting together a book-length "Ninjasaur" collection, I know, and that's what we'll spend some of our conversation talking about, but why don't we backtrack a bit first, because I don't know how this whole project first began.

Where did "Ninjasaur" come from? When did you hitch your wagon to that particular creation, and what had you been doing up until that point?

Jason Horn: For those that don't know me at all, I'm a 33 year old cartoonist/graphic designer that has had black glasses and a beard for fifteen years. Before that, I was beardless, didn't wear glasses and had a mullet. I went to art school (fully mulleted that first year) and learned graphic design. But what I really wanted to learn was comics. My small art school didn't offer comics courses, so after graduating, I decided to teach myself by making minicomics. I went to FLUKE, a small press show in Athens, Georgia, where I met Dean Trippe.

We collaborated on a few projects, such as our story in the Tori Amos anthology, and one day I told him about a comic I wanted to do. I had thought up the word Ninjasaur, but didn't know what to do with it. Dean convinced me to turn my sarcastic dinosaur ninja idea into a webcomic. I've been writing, drawing and coloring "Ninjasaur" as a webcomic since 2007 and I'm finally putting out a trade paperback collecting every story (with many extras).

When you want to art school, why did you want to learn how to make comics? (Even if the school didn't offer any such thing.) What kinds of comics were you reading at that time, or earlier in life, that made you interested in the medium?

I grew up on a small farm in Kentucky. I watched Super Friends and dressed up as Batman for Halloween, but there weren't a lot of places to get comic books. So, like a lot of kids, I got my comics at gas stations. Spider-Man, Superman and Batman were my main focus. But other than Batman, I didn't really like reading them. I just loved the art.

I always loved to draw, but I would usually draw cartoon characters like Yosemite Sam or Garfield. I think that's what formed my cartoony style. In the mid '90s, after the style over substance comics from Image, I stopped collecting. Black and white indie comics like "Too Much Coffee Man" and "Optic Nerve" got me back into it. Graphic design wasn't nearly as interesting as the prospect of telling a story with pictures. It doesn't even come close.

"Too Much Coffee Man" and "Optic Nerve" seem about as disparate to me as Batman and Garfield. What was it about the work of Shannon Wheeler and Adrian Tomine that interested you enough to follow their work?

They were both given to me by friends. "Too Much Coffee Man" was great. But actually there were other stories in those comics that didn't feature Too Much Coffee Man. There were backups (or something, I haven't read those comics in ten years) about a regular guy with relationship problems. Those stories, along with Tomine's "Optic Nerve" showed me that there could be comics about real people with real problems. They were a lot like the mid-90s indie films I loved. They got me into Top Shelf's books. Books like "Box Office Poison" and "Owly" convinced me that I could use comics to tell the kinds of stories I wanted to write and draw.

Whoa whoa whoa, now you're jumping from the 90s indie film scene to "Owly"? "Owly"?!? Explain yourself, sir! What 90s films did you latch on to? What does Owly have to do with any of that?

It's a little known fact that "Owly" is based on Miramax's co-founder Harvey Weinstein. (That might not be accurate. Check with Andy Runton.)

It's funny how clear the connection is to me. Before I got into indie films, I liked Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal movies. Then I saw Luc Besson's "Leon," or as it's known in America, "The Professional."
See?! I went from Steven Seagal to knowing the fancy French name of a movie.

I got into the dialog driven films of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and my favorite, Hal Hartley. Their movies got me interested in storytelling. That's the connection. Wes Anderson movies got me interested in eccentric characters that populated a unique world created by the storyteller. Indie comics were doing the same thing. I never wanted to make a movie, but I still loved to draw.

Time for us to take a path down Hal Hartley-land! What's your favorite Hal Hartley film and why? Give us some details about the movie too, because it's possible that a few CBR readers may not have been hanging out at arthouse cinemas 15 years ago.

For anyone that's not familiar with writer/director Hal Hartley, he was one of the founders of the independent film movement of the '90s. His films were deadpan comedy/dramas that featured very literate characters who spoke in over the top philosophical speeches. Like most directors of the genre, he used a lot of the same actors in all of his films. My favorites were Martin Donovan, Bill Sage, the late Adrienne Shelly and indie film queen, Parker Posey.

Martin Donovan should go down in history as our generation's greatest actor. He's the star of my favorite Hal Hartley film, "Trust." Donovan played a moody teen loner that befriends Adrienne Shelly's character. His character in that movie was the Holden Caulfield of the '90s, for me anyway. "Trust" is about teenagers trying to deal with their dysfunctional families while also realizing that growing up might just mean compromising your beliefs. It's amazing.

"Trust" is, by far, my favorite Hartley movie, and therefore the best of the bunch. I'm glad to see that you made the correct pick! So, to bring it back around, you're saying that "Ninjasaur" is the Hal Hartley version of a ninja dinosaur comic? I suspect you may not actually be saying that.

Hal Hartley is way too cerebral for "Ninjasaur." I don't think the kids would dig it as much if Ninjasaur spouted that heady dialog. Those indie films were just rungs in the ladder that lead me to create a wise-cracking dinosaur ninja.

Well then, how did you get involved in creating an all ages comic, then? Was it some master plan gone awry!?!?

All those personal indie films made me want to make a graphic novel like "Optic Nerve" or "Blankets." But, obviously, that's nowhere near where I ended up. I did write a graphic novel that was along those lines. But when I was about a dozen pages into the pencils, I realized that drawing ordinary people is hard and not fun.

So I decided to try another cartoony silly minicomic. That's when I created Ninjasaur.

The ridiculous thing is, I never intended to create an all-ages comic. That first "Ninjasaur" mini was more for my friends -- and people my age. Then kids started buying it at conventions. That's when it dawned on me: kids love dinosaurs and ninjas. Of course this is an all-ages comic!

Let's talk about process for a bit. You're trained as a graphic designer, but you're doing comics, so I'm curious to see how that skillset overlaps, and what you've had to learn along the way. How do you produce "Ninjasaur," and what did you not know how to do when you started?

I did not know anything! And I'm not being modest. I had no idea what I was doing. Still don't, compared to my crazy talented friends.

Reading comics doesn't teach you how to properly tell a story with pictures. It's such a unique medium. Trial and error is the only way to go. That and reading Eisner's and McCloud's books.

My style is pretty simple. And I don't just mean my slick cartoony drawing style. My storytelling is very basic. I don't design complicated panel layouts, and I rarely (if ever) break the panel borders. In college I wanted to draw comics like The Maxx's Sam Keith. I still love Keith's work, but his panel layouts can be wild and unpredictable. Kids, and even comic reading veterans, can easily get lost when trying to read complex panel layouts. If the reader's eye doesn't know where to go next, you've failed to use this medium to effectively tell a story. So, early on, I started designing my comics with readability in mind. The work of Mike Mignola and Guy Davis are some of the best examples of simple but effective storytelling.

Most of my process is the same as any comic artist. Except I ink all digital now (which is actually becoming very widespread these days). I thumbnail and do my rough pencils with real pencil and paper, but I'll even tweak those in Photoshop before my final tight pencils. After the pencils, it's all digital. Working in Photoshop every day for the past fifteen years has given me the skills to quickly manipulate my work.
Then it's on to coloring, which I love. I wanted to be a colorist there for a while, but once I started making my own comics, coloring wasn't enough.

Let's back up a bit and talk about something we've skipped over: the writing. You do have some art training, and you clearly approach comics visually (a dinosaur ninja is visually iconic, for sure), but what's your approach to writing Ninjasaur or any of your other comics? Do you script out stories in advance? Do you have a sense of where you're headed when you do one strip every week or two? What's the Jason Horn method of comic book writing?

Since I have a full time job, I only get to do a few comics a year. That means I have a while to think about the writing. I can't always draw, but I'm always writing in my head. I generally break down writing in two stages.

First is the plot, which I can work on for years. My last "Ninjasaur" story featured a villain named Professor Deadbones. I created him four years before I actually wrote the dialog and got to draw that story. Sometimes I'll tell kids what might be coming up in a future story. If they look super excited, that's the story idea I go with.

Stage two is dialog, which I'll write and rewrite until it sounds like something someone would actually say. Even if that someone is a katana swinging dinosaur.

With my serialized graphic novel, "Gruff," I have a very thought out outline that covers what happens in every chapter. Every so often I go in and add bits of dialog when I come up with something good. A lot of times, I write in bed to get myself to sleep. This can be bad because sometimes I don't remember ideas. But if it's a really good idea, I'll remember. Since Ninjasaur has been standalone stories, it hasn't follow an outline. But I just finished the first issue of a five issue continual Ninjasaur story, so now it has an outline as well.

My finished scripts have full dialog and bits of panel descriptions. But as I start to thumbnail the stories, the entire script can change. I'll move bits around and add panels all the time. And I'll rewrite dialog up until the lettering is done and I'm ready to print. I love the thumbnail stage. It's sometimes the hardest, but it's so fun. Figuring out all the logistical problems, angels and timing is the most creative fun you can have with the medium.

"Gruff" is about what? For that matter, what is Ninjasaur about, past the name?

"Gruff" is my continuation of the old Norwegian folktale, "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." My story is about friendship and redemption. The original folktale ends with the largest of the goat brothers, referred to in my story as Gruff, killing a troll while protecting his two smaller brothers. As my story begins, Gruff's brothers have abandoned him and he now lives in seclusion. Gruff lives in Sugar Saw Forest, a peaceful home for animals that live in fear of their dangerous neighbors, the trolls. The leader of Sugar Saw is a corrupt and paranoid owl named Caza. He has allowed Gruff to remain in their forest, but at a price. As punishment for the crime of harming a living creature, Caza sentenced Gruff to live under the troll's bridge.

Despite a warning to stay away from Gruff, a young, naive turtle named Meeks befriends the grumpy goat. Gruff is guilt ridden over what happened with the troll and initially resists the friendship he finds with Meeks. He secretly feels undeserving of the kind turtle's affection. They start to accidentally uncover a conspiracy involving Caza and the trolls. Eventually Gruff and Meeks overcome their differing personalities as they fight for their lives and try to save their forest from war.

It's a graphic novel I've been serializing in minicomics for five years. Each comic is thirty(ish) pages and has a fancy handmade cover. The minicomics have a kind of "old world object" feel to them. Even the paper appears aged. They take way too long to construct, but I kind of dig that part.

Beyond the obvious name implication, Ninjasaur has been about building a fun world where everything exists at once. A reviewer wrote that Ninjasaur gets to play in a "smash the action figures together type world." So Ninjasaur has fought ghosts, cavemen, mad scientists, aliens, a robot samurai rhinoceros and (in the next story) a dead robot luchadore. But now, after a hundred pages, the story is going to be about more than just silly fun. Although silliness will still be present in every panel, I'm attempting to thread the needle and try to make it "about" something.

The five issue storyline (starting this this month on Ninjasaur.com) will deal with time travel, creation myths, meta storytelling and Ninjasaur's mysterious origin. I've been planting seeds for this storyline for years. Ninjasaur doesn't know his own origin. He was taught martial arts by a Japanese man he refers to as sensei. When Ninjasaur was young, and about to complete his training, his sensei disappeared before he could tell Ninjasaur where he came from. In part, this story will be about loss, about losing a loved one.

I know how ridiculous it sounds to try and tackle a serious issue in a silly comic, but I'm going to do my best to make it work. The story starts with Ninjasaur finding out what happened to his sensei, and he begins a search for him. This leads up to me finally getting to tell Ninjasaur's origin. I think I've found an interesting way to tell his origin in a manner that would befit a dinosaur ninja.

NEXT WEEK: Jason comments on the rise of digital comics, how conventions may (or may not) be affected by that cultural shift and what made him decide to give Kickstarter a try!

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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