Superheroes Meet The Real World: Gray and Palmiotti talk '21Down'

One of the biggest challenges facing writers in today's mainstream comic book world is finding a way to make superhero comic books seem fresh to the current crop of cynical readers. With so many different superhero comics to choose from, not to mention other forms of entertainment to steal away potential readers, the creative forces in the industry know that they must find unique themes or approaches to make their works stand out amid the chaotic new release racks at each comic book store. One new superhero comic that is slowly garnering critical acclaim and creating some buzz in the fan community for being that kind of "different" superhero comic is Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti's "21Down," which just launched a few weeks ago from DC Comic's Wildstorm imprint. While the duo are busy with a number of projects, they took some time out of their work to speak to CBR News about "21Down" and began by explaining the basic premise of the series for readers who may not yet have read the first issue.

"Our central character Preston was given a vague superpower by a mysterious figure known as Herod," explains Gray. "The usual theme of a comic book is superpowers=cool, in the case of '21Down' it's the opposite. Preston neither wants these powers or the nasty side effect that accompanies them, death at 21. His desire to live a simple life is completely eroded when he meets a woman named Mickey Rinaldi. Mickey wants Preston to help her find Herod and gives him a loose set of reasons why. This is something Preston has no interest in doing, but circumstances force him to change his mind. That is the surface plot, which sets the tone for some of the initial story arcs."

Palmiotti says that both writers' dedication to making this series as realistic as possible helps set it apart from your average superhero series. "This title is set in the real world, with real problems facing both our main characters as well as a growing cast of supporting ones. What drives both Mickey and Preston is the need for knowledge and understanding of the world around them. The superpowers, again, are a mixed blessing at best, and are treated that way. Preston's brother, friends and extended family define who he is to the readers, while Mickey stays a bit of a mystery till later in the series. I do not want to find myself in the situation again that I am writing something that I would never read in a million years, and this book is a prime example of what I do look for in a series. This is a grown up world we are living in and I think a lot of what changes in our lives and how we deal with certain things is reflected in the series. There are some very personal insights presented in this book."

"The thing about '21Down' is that you don't know these characters or the situations they face until they happen, that adds freshness and a sense of mystery to the book," adds Gray. "Preston's appeal is his humanity and the ability for people to relate to him as an ordinary guy in extraordinary situations. He has heroic qualities but he's not pushing his ideals on people or rushing into conflict just because he can. Yea he has a superpower, but he doesn't rely on it to be a hero, in fact he rejects it-something you don't see often. Aside from the basic character elements, '21Down' takes you places a majority of mainstream superhero comics don't go. Also, the way its written leaves portions of the story open to a reader's imagination and interpretation."

The first issue reveals that the series protagonist, Preston, only has one year to live, and while that may leave some readers thinking that this series could become somewhat predictable, both writers are confident in the fact that they've created a series that defies expectations. "21Down is a condition that applies to several people in the WSU (Wildstorm Universe)," explains Gray. "Right now the book focuses on Preston and Mickey, but that's not to say that it couldn't apply to other characters a year from now. Also, the timeline we're working with isn't linear so a year for Preston could be longer or shorter than our own." Not content to sit by when there is even the implication of his new series being predictable, Palmiotti, with a lot of conviction in his voice, adds, "Trust me, predictable is not a word that will come to mind while reading this series."

If from the comments thus far you were guessing that Palmiotti and Gray have completely complimentary views of the series, leading to some great creative synergy between the two, then you'd be correct. When asked how the two scribes split the writing duties on "21Down," Gray answers in a very casual manner, as though he and Palmiotti have been creatively linked for years. "I've been asked this question before and people seem to find the answer is a strange one, but basically we brainstorm everything during the creative process," he explains. "Either online, in Brooklyn, in NYC, in cars, movie theaters, walking on the street, wherever, it's actually pretty intense; there is this energy that forms and we feed off of each other. The same goes for the physical writing; we bounce the scripts back and forth, critique every sentence and generally have a friendly competition in the middle of everything. Occasionally one of us will say, 'This idea, sentence, scene, has to be in the script, or out of the script' and we present our case for or against it. There are no hard parts. Its fun and I love working with everyone on this book. I'm lucky to be involved in this and I realize that every day."

In fact, the only complaint you'll hear from this creative team is the inability to cut loose with some of the characters' vernacular and even then, Palmiotti admits to welcoming the challenge of becoming a better writer. "The only difficult part working [on '21Down'] is the guidelines presented to us by Wildstorm. It is not part of the 'adult' line of Wildstorm books, but the subject matter and the way we present it walks the edge. We would love to throw some curses and extreme images in, but I think the fact that we have to find other clever ways of expressing things, really helps make it a better book. If someone just thinks that making a book adult means to add blood, curses and t&a, well…we're trying to prove that theory is wrong. It's about not talking down to the reader or taking the easy way out in a complex situation."

Part of this complex situation is balancing all the fantastic elements of "21Down" with the more human aspects, something that can be tricky when you're writing a comic book series that involves super heroics. "We focus on the characters first," asserts Gray. "We drop them into a fantastic situation and ask how would Preston or Mickey, based on their personalities and agenda, deal with this? Being clever only works if you have genuine emotion and drama to compound it." Palmiotti says that he has the same philosophy and adds, "Also, the super-powers are not that important element of the book...it's the human element that makes this so readable. What makes the newspaper and news so interesting to us? That's real people in unusual situations and how they deal with them. We will never loose focus of that. As far as fresh and vibrant, we like to think these characters both have the energy of a first date flirtation to keep them on their toes. That will always keep them interesting."

After reading the first issue of "21Down," many people were making guesses at the inspirations behind the series, with most guessing the films "Fight Club" and "Unbreakable" being primary influences, and both writers admit that film is a great influence on the series. "The inspirations are too long and varied for me to list," admits Gray. "Some are evident, as you point out with 'Fight Club' and 'Unbreakable,' but we did that for a reason. The market is dominated by a specific genre, superheroes. '21Down' has superhero elements, but its obviously not a cape and tights book so we needed to cut a familiar path in the first issue to let people know how we intended to approach the series without turning off some potential readers."

"Film is always a great inspiration to me because of the storytelling format and the wide range of styles," adds Palmiotti. "Those two movies, 'Fight Club' and 'Unbreakable,' stand out because they both took risks and treated the audience like intelligent beings. They got into the heads of the characters and developed stories that were not disposable. The viewer had to think, put the puzzle together and reflect on what they just viewed."

Both writers also say that if readers enjoyed "21Down #1," then they're probably going to enjoy the rest of the series: the issue was meant to set the tone and direction for the series. "Like I said, the first issue was a launching point to get people familiar with the characters and theme of the book so we crafted it specifically to reach a broad range of readers," says Gray. I think our overall plan is to have fun building strong likable characters and stories. We're going to try a number of different storytelling methods both visually and in the structure."

While Palmiotti agrees, he also wishes that there would have been a bit more page space for both writers to have been able to really cut loose with their characterization and show readers even more of their ideas, but he understands why he couldn't do it all in the first issue. "In a dream world, issue 1 would have had another 60 pages so we could really dissect Preston's life and relationships, but because this type of storytelling would only work for a huge graphic novel, we took shortcuts to let the reader get to know Preston and understand his relationship with the world by creating some verbal tennis between the people around him. Issue one is a very definite example of the mood and pace of the series. I think overall it worked out just fine."

Astute readers also know that issue 1 of "21Down" was not the first appearance of Preston and his crew- they actually made their debut in "Gen13 #0," a month earlier. "Basically, we begged," says Palmiotti of how he and Gray were able to get their series to debut in that highly promoted comic. "We felt that since they were doing the preview for 'Gen 13,' that we deserved to be included some way since we were all making a debut the same month and all edited by Bob Harras. We came up with the 4 page idea of new material so we could not only tease the book…but also get paid for new work and not just a reprint of part of the first issue. Trust me, with Event Comics and co-creating Marvel Knights, I learned a lot! I figure when they do trades of '21Down' and 'The Resistance,' we hope, those pages will all be included. The tease for '21Down' covered the attitude and relationship between Preston and his work buddy Clyde. That and the fact that we got a hooker getting a tattoo on her breast in a non-mature labeled comic made it all the more fun for us."

But if you're not a regular reader of "Gen13," don't worry: the two series aren't really connected to a great degree. "They're barely connected at all except for Herod and judgment at 21," explains Gray. "Because of the age difference between Preston and the characters in 'Gen13,' we tackle very different themes." Palmiotti believes that there's also a thematic difference between the books that helps to differentiate them and adds, "'Gen 13' is the comic version of the world, '21Down' is the real life version. In our world, people get sick and don't die quickly, underwear rides up your ass and good and evil are not defined by a color logo on your cape."

While much of the acclaim for "21Down" has revolved around the writers, artist Jesus Saiz has been receiving a lot of praise and both writers are glad to have him on board. "Being a control freak, the choice of artist came down to a couple and we all agreed that Jesus Saiz was it!" exclaims Palmiotti. "Jesus is all pro and he was managing to do both 'Midnight, Mass,' and '21Down' at the same time…and hand them in looking fantastic. Jesus manages to bring a dark gritty look to the series without skipping a beat with the storytelling. The minute we hired him for '21Down,' he was getting calls from Marvel and other companies for work. Jesus is from Spain. His English needs work. Thank god for agents! O.K., with that out of the way, over a year ago, I was asked if I would be interested in inking the series midnight mass for vertigo by Heidi 'ace' Macdonald. She showed me some of Jesus previous work and I thought it had some good potential. As every issue started coming my way, the work started taking leaps and bounds. By the 3rd issue, Jesus was on fire and we knew 'Midnight Mass' was going to end by issue 8."

"Around that time, Bob Harris approached Justin and I to come up with a series that would work in the Gen13 universe. We needed an artist, and we sold Bob on Jesus…no sweat, right away. He was perfect. The thing about his work is that his characters live in the real world, no twisted anatomy, no 'power' beams, no extreme contortion in facial expressions, none of that. He drew real people with personality and subtle expressions. He understands how storytelling sets up the mood and pace of a story and knows exactly what to pick and choose when it comes time for a difficult angle or situation. Maybe coming from a European approach and background helped him with this part of his work instead of obsessing on quirky line weights or flashy images that seem to still be a very big part of books these days. This training was just the right thing for this kind of book. He is perfect."

This enthusiasm for Saiz's work is echoed in Gray's sentiments. "What can you say about Jesus Saiz other than he's brilliant? He has such a grasp of mood and storytelling that brings everything to life with a unique style and power. Even scenes with no action take on a vivid life. He has a cinematic eye for how scenes should be illustrated to have the greatest impact without losing sight of the story. Cinematic vision and an understanding of subtlety. My man knows creepy."

With the first issue of the series on the stands and the second issue due out in a matter of weeks, both writers are extremely happy with the response so far, thankful that fans are being so honest about their feelings regarding "21Down." "I'm incredibly grateful for the huge positive response I've seen from fans, critics and even other professionals that have emailed me about the first issue," says Gray. "The competition is fierce, the talent and number of quality books coming out now is staggering, so it means a lot to know that people took a chance and really enjoyed the first issue. I have the general sense that the jury is still out on the book, there people sitting on the fence and that's understandable. Obviously we don't have the luxury of a built in audience that will forgive a bad run for the sake of the series and that motivates us. Given the cancellation rate of new books I think we have to work harder to build and maintain an audience. Personally, I welcome that challenge and I think it works out better for the fans."

Palmiotti is similarly pleased with the response for the series, but also sees it as a chance to break through the barriers of ignorance surrounding his abilities as a creative force in the comic book industry, where he's usually associated only with visuals. "I think if people give the book a read they'll see past the stigma that I am exclusively an inker. People forget I co-wrote and created dozens of characters for Event, created characters for BlackBull and co-created Marvel Knights. With 'Beautiful Killer' and these 2 books ['21Down' and 'The Resistance'], I hope to shatter that stereotype. I may have to start penciling books soon as well. There…I got that out of my system, now back to the question. The reviews have been great and fun to read, as well as the online boards feedback. We read everything and learn from them as well."

With the momentum from the first issue propelling them forward, both writers say that they have plans for years of tales in "21Down," but also realize that they will be facing many challenges in the months ahead. "Long term is that we gain an audience that will continue to grow so we can do this title for years," admits Palmiotti. "Right now, this is the hardest book to push because its not a 'superhero' book, but that won't stop us. I think the audience is looking for this kind of title right now and not another take on the same old characters. The series takes an unusual turn at the end of issue 6 and like real life; events change the people, which in turn, change everything." Gray echoes his partner's sentiments and says, "The truth is it's hard to make long-term plans when offering a new concept to a market that is dominated by long established superhero titles. We have mapped out over 2 years worth of unusual and tightly woven stories that challenge the idea of what makes a mainstream superhero title."

The idea of challenging the normal conventions of superheroes- the costumes, attitudes, origins, etc- has been around for some time and has been explored from so many perspectives that one may wonder how exactly Gray and Palmiotti are going to make their interpretation of the "superhero" unique. "It'll probably be the fact that '21Down' is not exclusively a superhero book," explains Gray. "Also we didn't take an existing hero and strip off his costume, increase his vocabulary and draw him into the public eye. Preston, like the rest of us has limitations and an expiration date. The evil he faces doesn't come in the form of iron-fisted despots seeking world domination, but ordinary people who are infinitely capable of more evil and vicious behavior than their allegorical representatives."

For Palmiotti, the answer lies in the pages of "21Down" and he feels it is best for the reader to discover it on their own. "I think if you read it, you will get that answer right away. Its great to get comic fans hooked, but we are also looking for a new audience as well. I already know it's different because I have about a dozen non-comic people reading it and wanting to track down more. Once we get them in the store, its up to them the retailers keep them there."

Overall, the writing duo both feel that this is an exciting time to be part of the comic book industry and are happy to be able to be launching "21Down." "Anytime someone wants us to launch a new title is great with me," smiles Gray. "What make both '21Down' and 'The Resistance' (Plug, Plug) exciting are the teams involved, the energy and excitement that they bring to the projects. Jesus Saiz and Paul Mounts help define '21Down' and the same goes for Juan Santacruz, Francis Portella and Paul again on 'The Resistance.' Although the two books are drastically different from each other, these are all really talented, dedicated people that bring so much to the table that they make it all the more fun. That's what comics should be, fun for the creator and much more importantly, the fans."

"I agree, but we have a difficult road ahead," adds Palmiotti. "We need the great reviews to match the sales numbers. We are in a time where no matter how much people love a book…unless it gets into peoples hands and retailers support it, they are dead in the water. We are starting out in a tough spot where if these books were coming out from another company, we might not last till issue 3, so we need to make some noise."

Palmiotti and Gray both have a lot of work to do on "The Resistance" and "21Down," but before getting back to work, they have some parting words for fans.

"Well, the best thing our fans can do is continue to support us and please communicate to your retailers your needs as well," says Palmiotti. "We need your help to build an audience for titles like these."

"It's all about you and we know it," asserts Gray. "If you like the books, pass them to a friend. Stop by the Wildstorm message boards because we're building a street team and running some cool art contests for anyone willing to participate."

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