Writer Justin Gray has a long history of taking characters that haven’t enjoyed the spotlight in years and bringing them back to life in ways that please both critics and fans. Along with his oft-collaborator Jimmy Palmiotti, Gray has rejuvenated a plethora of DC Comics characters. His run with Palmiotti on “Hawkman” was met with many critical accolades, and his “Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters” became a surprise sleeper hit when released. In addition, Gray’s work on the ongoing series “Jonah Hex” defied every naysayer who said it would be cancelled within a year, and has become a critical darling that has drawn in some of the biggest creative guest stars in the industry, including Darwyn Cooke, J.H. Williams, Jordi Bernet, Phil Noto and Luke Ross.
Now Gray is aiming his pen at two more DC characters: Power Girl and Terra, the latter being a new character and not the famously treacherous Teen Titan.
In this in-depth interview, Justin Gray talks to CBR about the upcoming Power Girl ongoing, the Terra miniseries, and clues us in as to what’s coming up for Jonah Hex.
CBR: Justin, how do you feel your writing has changed or evolved over the past few years?
Justin Gray: I’m in a unique position right now in that I’ve realized taking certain kinds of jobs isn’t always in my best long-term interest. Of course if I want to keep working, I have to find a middle ground because you can’t turn down too many offers otherwise the phone stops ringing.
The best work, at least the work I feel most comfortable doing, is when I’m given free reign to write from the guts rather than a spreadsheet. I feel I have streamlined my approach to stories through the experience of writing single-issue comics.
Let’s start with “Terra.” Now how long has this project been in development?
I’ve lost track of time when “Terra” is concerned. It feels like forever that it has been finished. A few years have passed but the work has been completed well in advance.
What took so long to get it on shelves?
Character placement and timing had a lot to do with it. The timing changed with regard to where and when Terra would appear in the DC Universe after this mini, so it was held back until the plan for her character fully developed.
Why Terra? She’s always been one of the more “fluid” characters in the DCU and has gone through several incarnations and revamps.
There are no uncomplicated answers are there? The story is, we approached DC with a new character. This character had an origin that DC felt would be better suited to not only Terra, but it would also open up a part of the DC Universe that hadn’t been fully explored. With regard to the character of Terra, I loved the Titans and the run that produced the character. Things being what they are in the DC Universe, you have a lot of characters with continuity issues. The real challenge was to uncover a way to have this new Terra fit with the previous. No easy task.
Just who is the new Terra?
I can’t say too much without giving it away. She’s a heroine in the classic sense. At least she is when we write her. I have no idea what direction she’ll take beyond that.
As you said, the miniseries has been in development for quite awhile. How much has “Terra” changed since you first imagined it and put pen to paper? Why the changes?
Surprisingly, given the time involved and the fact that Terra is a corporate property, there haven’t been very many changes to the original concept. Some of the story elements were altered as time passed and [co-writer] Jimmy [Palmiotti] and I were able to go back in and add to it.
Let’s talk about “Terra” artist Amanda Conner. What makes her right for the book?
Everything. Amanda is a fantastic artist with a keen understanding of character, presentation, humor, drama, expressive behavior and environment. When Amanda illustrates a story, she inhabits it as if it were reality and not fiction. She doesn’t shortcut backgrounds, story or anything. She’s just amazing and I think you have to appreciate art to fully understand what she brings to any project.
There is a great deal of freedom and surprise working with Amanda because she’ll turn in pages that contain elements you’d never have thought of but the fit the story perfectly.
And are you planning on continuing with the character after the “Terra” miniseries wraps?
Jimmy and I would like to use her as a reoccurring guest star in “Power Girl,” but that depends of how DC plans to use her elsewhere.
Have you always been a fan of Power Girl?
I’ve always been a fan of boobs both big and small. Is that not what you meant?
What drew you to the ongoing series?
Jimmy and I both like the character and we enjoy working with characters that don’t have a fully defined history. Again with the continuity-driven DC Universe, Power Girl is another example, like Terra and Hawkman, where the history and origins have been reworked and rewired many times. Poor Hawkman, can we give it up for the Winged Wonder and his identity crisis?
Anyway, we have Power Girl with a clean slate and room to develop her further as a unique character and not a Supergirl clone. Power Girl has a masculine side and a cheesecake side. Working both those angles without making her look stupid or making her a caricature is fun. I like who she is, how she views the world and what kinds of trouble we can get her into. The drive behind this series is that it should be seen in IMAX.
What plans are in the works for the first few story arcs?
Can’t say because I don’t want to hint at the ideas we’ve been developing. “Power Girl” will be a big popcorn movie, like I said, IMAX visuals combined with DV cam personal moments. Poor Amanda has been in hell with the scripts so far. I’m sure she loathes the idea of drawing ten thousand invaders.
If you could make one villain Power Girl’s nemesis, who would it be and why?
That’s already been done and you don’t know the person. She doesn’t have many of her own villains; most are connected to the JSA.
What sort of supporting cast will the book have?
People you’d never expect. Squirrels and stuff like that.
How long do you plan to stick with the book? Is it open-ended?
Until we get bored or cancelled.
Moving on to “Jonah Hex,” what’s coming up for Hex?
How’d you get Darwyn Cooke and J.H. Williams onboard? For that matter, how do you get all the amazing guest artists to contribute to your book?
Good stories that don’t involve drawing superheroes? I think that is a big part of it—and a love of the character.
Did you ever think "Jonah Hex" would have lasted three years and still been going strong when it first hit stands?
Hell no. I thought we’d be lucky to hit 12 issues, so we wrote the best we could and when it hit 24 we worked harder and now that it has passed 36—yes, we’re going to work harder to keep it going. Fortunately there’s a movie in the works and that helps us.
Why do you think the book has remained so fresh and such a critical hit all this time?
Everyone involved at every level is dedicated to putting out the best book possible, editors, artists, colorists, letterer—there isn’t anyone that we’ve worked with that wasn’t passionate about each issue of Jonah Hex. That enthusiasm shows in each issue. There is also an accessibility in the one and done format, there are very talented artists and “Hex” stands alone outside of continuity. Writing “Jonah Hex” is an exercise in creative freedom and an example of what kind of work Jimmy and I do when we’re left to our own devices.
Looking back, what has been your favorite “Jonah Hex” story so far?
My favorite is always the one I’m working on at the time. Once the story is out there I tend not to dwell on it. The funny thing is that the issues I personally like are never the ones that people connect with as much as others.
How long do you guys plan on sticking with the book?
Until they pry it from our cold dead hands.
What other artists would you love to lure in for an issue or two?
That’s a huge list and we’re working on it. I don’t want to bore people by throwing a bunch of names out. I am very happy and blessed to have worked with amazing artists over the last three years. When you look at the talent, at least when I do, I’m astounded at the people I never imagined I’d work with.
What other comics are you itching to get your fingers on, both with Palmiotti and scripting solo?
My own. I’ve been under contract for the last two wonderful years, but I’d like to get back to developing original ideas.
Lightning round time! What is your biggest strength as a writer?
There are several, but I’m working on them. I could be more outgoing because a lot of times that seems to be more useful than the writing.
If you could only write one comic for the rest of your career, what would it be?
I haven’t written it yet. I don’t think of writing one thing, I think of writing lots of things like film, TV, Video Games. I think interactive media is the future.
Who would be drawing it?
I don’t know. Someone really awesome I guess.
Favorite comic book movie of all time?
I hope it will be “Jonah Hex.”
Weirdest convention experience?
Meeting David Foley and his family in a bar in Toronto.
If you could only be remembered for one thing in your career, what would it be?
I only hope I create something that has a life of it’s own. I think the work is more important than celebrity.