Roberson, Kowalchuk & Jackson Go Super Spy with "The Strangers"

Chris Roberson is known as one of the people behind Monkeybrain Comics, the digital comics imprint where he writes "Edison Rex" in addition to various other projects including "Memorial" at IDW, "Masks" at Dynamite and the "iZombie" and "Cinderella" comics he wrote for Vertigo. Artist Scott Kowalchuk is best known for "The Intrepids," an Image Comics miniseries from 2011 and for the supervillain sketchblog that he and "Edison Rex" artist Dennis Culver did for years. Colorist Dan Jackson has worked on a wide range of projects from "Angel and Faith" to "Orchid," and "The Strain" to "Star Wars."

Now these three have teamed up for "The Strangers," an all-new project from Oni Press that debuted as one of Oni's Free Comic Book Day offerings. Set in the 1960s, "The Strangers" follows the exploits of a trio of superpowered spies through encounters with the occult and supernatural as they battle the secret organization known only as O.C.C.U.L.T. The creative trio behind the superpowered trio spoke with CBR News about the comic's background, their love of the '60s, design and what comes next in the series.

CBR News: What is "The Strangers?"

Chris Roberson: I usually describe it as '60s-era super spies with superpowers fighting supernatural nemeses.

Where did this idea come from?

Roberson: A number of different places. The proximate source was starting to talk to Scott early last year about collaborating and doing something for Oni and discussing what kinds of things we would like to do. Usually when starting off a collaboration I try to ask the artist what kinds of things do they want to draw, what do they not want to draw, what kinds of things would excite them about working on something. As Scott rattled off the things he wanted to do, it occurred to me that I had bits and pieces of half-formed ideas that I could weld together Frankenstein-style into one cool project that would check off all the boxes on Scott's list and would be a really fun thing to write as well, and "The Strangers" was the result.

How did you the two of you end up collaborating?

Roberson: That was all [Oni Editor-in-Chief] James Lucas Jones' fault. I had been talking with James and [editor] Jill Beaton and everybody over at Oni for some time about doing something with them. I really like what they do, I like them as people, I think they make very attractive looking books and had tried for some time to work out a project that they wanted and I wanted to do and they didn't like any of my ideas, really. They put Scott's name in front of me and said that they really wanted to find a project for Scott and Scott had mentioned liking my work. I knew his work from "The Intrepids" but also the supervillain sketchblog that he and my "Edison Rex" collaborator Dennis Culver did for a long time. It was the dating game. We got set up.

Scott Kowalchuk: I had started work at Oni on another project that they have waiting in the wings. I had been interviewed as I was wrapping up my run on "The Intrepids" and the interviewer asked if they were any writers I would like to work with and Chris was just in the midst of his last part of the "iZombie" run, which was a fantastic book. Charlie Chu, my editor at Oni, contacted me and said we know you want to work with Chris and let's try to put you two in touch and that's where James came into the mix and started liaison-ing between the two of us.

The comic is a period piece, but I'm curious which of you proposed that aspect of the book?

Roberson: That came from both of us. It was one of the points of congruence in our interests as we started talking. That aspect of it was something that I had been working on in various unfinished unpublished notions and pitches and ideas for the better part of ten years. I like the idea of doing a period piece that wasn't set in the actual historical period, but a period piece set in the way the period portrayed itself at the time. It's not the 1960s in the history books, it's the '60s world as seen in "Danger: Diabolik" or "The Avengers" or "The Prisoner" or the Adam West "Batman." I liked the idea of approaching it that way, not as a high concept but just tonally. You wouldn't have to worry about the real world and you could do it in that kind of hyper-stylized, simplified and iconic way that would be immediately recognizable. You would have to waste time explaining where or when you were. It's just "THE SIXTIES" in all caps and you can go from there.

Kowalchuk: What's fun about it, too, is Chris has given it a timelessness to the work. Like Chris said, you don't have to worry about the aspects of that era or that period. Setting it in that make believe world of the 1960s gives us a lot of free reign to have more fun than if we were weighed down by history

Roberson: All that messy reality we don't have to worry about.

Dan, along those lines, talk about the book's color scheme and how you work on a new project like this.

Dan Jackson: It really depends. There's a lot of variation from editor to editor and creator to creator as to how much input they want to have and frankly, how much forethought has gone into the color. A lot of the time I'm left to my own devices. In this case the '60s feel of it was pretty clear; Scott had given a lot of direction to James Lucas Jones for what he was hoping and he passed that on to me. As has already been said, the '60s feel to it needed to be real clear and that hyper-realized '60s thing with bright popping colors and the art itself will determine a lot of how you approach it. Scott's stuff is real clean and so it takes a cell-shading approach really well. That was the approach we decided to take and so far so good.

Kowalchuk: So far, very good. Dan is hitting it out of the park. Everything is so bright and lush. I always think of the sets from the "Batman '66" TV show which were so lush and laced with every color imaginable and how it's really overwhelming but Dan has condensed it down into such a lovely form that it makes the story flow that much faster.

Many aspects of the book, like when the characters use their powers, are conveyed through color. Whose idea was it and how did you approach it?

Jackson: Scott wanted there to be some line art color holds to indicate the supernatural angles that were going on. That much was given to me, but the colors themselves, it was left to me to come up with a palate and approach that helped these character's abilities to be distinct and clearly connected with that character via the color. That's just a matter of making sure you don't make any two characters or their abilities be too similar.

Kowalchuk: Dan's being far too modest. He came up with these wonderful color schemes for our main trio's powers which we see time and again. He gave them a very distinct visual feel with some very specific color choices with no input from me. That was all from him.

Whose idea was it for Verity to have white hair?

Jackson: That was not me.

Kowalchuk: When Chris and I first pitched the series we developed a set of character sketches and I included notes such as how I thought the characters' powers tied into their visual look. The white hair seemed to complement Verity's power, speeding up and slowing down time. Her white hair might indicate an aging effect so that was something I had dreamt up from the start but Dan breathed life into it.

Roberson: Of course I managed to complicate matters. As soon as I started writing the script for the first issue, all this considerable look in designing the characters and their look and everything, as soon as Verity opened her mouth she was 10-15 years younger than designed. I couldn't help it. She was originally a more mature character in the design. I couldn't help but put a younger voice in her, so she had to be slightly tweaked.

Kowalchuk: There was so much tweaking. Chris kept incessantly telling me to tweak Verity. The voice that Chris gave Verity was very different from the original visual, but I do think in the end that it really played well and we have a much stronger cast because of it.

Walk us through the book's main characters. Who are they and what do they do?

Roberson: They are "The Strangers." They are the field team for a gentleman named Absalom Quince who is a wheelchair-bound expert on the paranormal, supernatural and occult and secret histories who rarely leaves his mansion home, Strangeways Manor. When he becomes appraised of strange doings out in the world he dispatches his three able assistants to deal with them. His assistants are people we will gradually learn a lot more about their backgrounds and how they came to be who they are, but the short answer is that they are people who have been made strange by encounters with things from other worlds, things from beyond time and space. That's why they have the strange abilities that they have.

They are Verity Mills, a young woman who, as Scott mentioned, is able to affect the flow of time, speed it up and slow it down both to things around her and herself simply by touching them. Michael Kono, who is an astrophysicist, a Japanese-American gentleman who is able to disrupt electrical systems by touch. An imposing figure named Sandoval, whose powers are more complicated than they appear, but they are probably most easily described as a "death touch." They do more than that, but that's the easiest incarnation.

Kowalchuk: It's the raddest incarnation of them. [Laughs]

They're independent agents in the world and have an opponent of sorts in the form of Capricorn and a group with an acronymic name, as any good '60s story must have.

Roberson: It's absolutely a requirement that if you live in the '60s, if you don't work for an organization that has an acronymic name, then you are working in opposition to an organization that had an acronymic name. Or both. So, O.C.C.U.L.T. -- don't ask what it stands for, it's a big secret -- is just the first of many major plans behind the scenes. Capricorn is one of their secret leaders and he's the one we first encounter in this initial storyline. They are a secret cabal of scientists and sorcerers and politicians who are trying to gain world domination through use of secret hidden and occult knowledge, hence the name.

In the first issue it's clear that the Strangers are still trying to find out what is happening , not just about this mystery but who O.C.C.U.L.T. is and who runs it and what all these strange events mean.

Roberson: Very true. I think that the most interesting mysteries are the ones where the characters are working things out along with the reader and the characters are maybe a step or two ahead of the reader at most. It gives you the most compelling storytelling opportunities. If everybody knows everything and they're just not telling you the reader, that can get insulting after a while. So they have had some limited dealings, but they'll learn more as things go along.

The first issue came out last week on Free Comic Book Day, and the second will go on sale in July. It's an ongoing series, but what are the plans for the book?

Roberson: It's intended as an ongoing. We'll do it for as long as we can. We have a lot of stories we want to tell. The interesting thing that we're doing -- and I say interesting because it was someone else's idea -- in talking with James Lucas Jones, the book's editor, early on he and I were discussing structure and ways to approach issues and arcs. I think it was James who suggested the idea of doing two-issue arcs, which immediately to my mind suggested the structure of the Adam West "Batman" show where every other episode ends on a cliffhanger which is resolved in the following chapter. I loved that idea and so at least for the time being it will be two issue story arcs so that the story that is begun in issue #1 wraps up in issue #2 and the story that begins in issue #3 wraps up in issue #4 and so on. It's a fun and interesting way to approach it.

Kowalchuk: That was a real attraction for me early on, being a fan of that structure and of the "Batman" TV show. It gives us as a new property and a new creator owned property a lot of room to introduce a lot of mythology to our series, which is a really fun way to get readers invested in our characters and our strange world from the outset.

Is the plan to make them, for the most part, standalone arcs as much as possible?

Roberson: Absolutely. Each new two-issue storyline begins fresh and cold. It could conceivably be a jumping on point for new readers. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but yes, each two issues is standalone.

I like the "Batman" comparison. In the first issue you have a page that introduces the characters and there's a page at the end of setting up "Next time..." It is very consciously playing off those tropes and that structure.

Roberson: Yes, and that's a structure [that] will remain in place throughout. For the stories themselves we're working hard to not be formulaic, but structurally there are certain patterns and beats that we'll fall into. For the opening title sequence, which I always call it, the intent was -- and this is from the very earliest bones of the proposal -- is that you should be hearing in your head "The Strangers" theme music. Whatever that is. You should know that you're reading the opening title sequence. The last page of every odd-numbered issue is that teaser right before the closing credits of what's going to happen next. The first page of every even-numbered issue is a quick recap of where we left off last time so you can get right back up to speed.

Stylistically and thematically I think of "The Strangers" as a modern comic adaptation of a '60s TV show that never existed. And the challenge is figuring out how to make it work as a comic that has echoes of a TV show that no one ever saw.

What is it that you love about that period and why do you think there's such affection for the '60s and '60s pop culture?

Roberson: That's something I think about a lot because a fair amount of my leisure viewing are those things. Just the other day I watched the first of the James Coburn Derek Flint films, "Our Man Flint," which is fantastic. I think that period, the mid-'60s, is modern enough to be immediately identifiable but hadn't gotten grimy yet. Everything is in color. It's very much a world I recognize from my childhood. By the '70s, everything was more cynical and dour, dirty, and anti-heroes and whatnot. In the entertainment of the '60s, it's color and high contrast and beautiful to look at and the fashions are cool and everyone's got a good haircut. And it's entertaining.

Kowalchuk: There was a period where there was a lot of optimism post-World War II and you saw that reflected within the era with these hairstyles, fashion, car design, which by the '70s really did fade out of style. When people think back to the 1960s, it's pretty easy to get a very distinct visual because that visual is a really beautiful, timeless one.

Jackson: One of the things that really strikes me about the series is how James Bond-y it feels. If you compare some of the original James Bond movies with the current ones you can really see the difference you guys are talking about. Those characters have evolved over time to become a very cynical, less fun thing. It seems to me that this comic is a throwback to that simpler, more fun approach to storytelling.

Kowalchuk: Plus it doesn't have Roger Moore in bellbottoms. [Laughs]

In the first issue, The Strangers head off to a Carribbean island -- much like James Bond in "Dr. No" -- without giving away too much, tease a little about what happens in the future. Where are they going, what will they come up against?

Roberson: Without giving too much away the next storyline involves the comeback performance of Verity's favorite pop band, whose music has taken a darker turn and the lyrics for their new songs may threaten to bring on the apocalypse.

Is this the Scarabs, the band she mentions in the first issue?

Roberson: Yes, we planted that in the first issue. The third storyline has to do with flying saucer sightings in the American Southwest and it has mysterious ties to the event that made Sandoval a Stranger.

Scott, Dan, is there anything you've especially enjoyed in Chris' scripts?

Kowalchuk: It's easy for me to answer that because I started out as a fan of Chris Roberson's, so honestly, just getting the scripts are exciting for me. From the outset, it's been really apparent that Chris understands the era of the material really well, which makes his scripts that much easier to read. This book is set in that idealized 1960s era and for me, script to script, page to page, it's a real joy to be transported to that.

Jackson: For me it's as much a technical thing as it is an artistic one and that's just that the pacing is really good. From my perspective that makes it that much easier to know what's going on and keep it consistent and to tell the story with color in a way that makes sense. So many times you get an author who isn't great at that and it's a chore to pull it all together. You're fighting against what's being written just to make some kind of coherent flow. You don't have to do that here. It's a rare thing and good thing to have that flow line up right from the start. That's made it fun for me.

Kowalchuk: In comparison to other scripts I've read, Chris writes a comic script. I've read other scripts that have come across my desk and they're written like film scripts, which is a completely different medium. Chris' scripts really take pleasure in the comic book form and take full advantage of what we can do as comic book creators.

Roberson: So basically I'm great is what you're saying. [Laughs]

Kowalchuk: Chris is great. The book's great. What more can I say?

"The Strangers" #1 is available now, and the ongoing series begins in July.

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