This past HeroesCon, I briefly met writer/artist Jason Horn. Stemming from that brief encounter, I learned about his webcomic Ninjasaur ["about a dinosaur who is also a ninja (not the other way around)"]. During this email interview we also briefly dug into another project of his--a continuation of a Norwegian folk tale--Gruff, as well as drawing superheroes for children in the streets of Guatemala (and juxtaposing that with his experience at SDCC). My thanks to Horn for his time and for the opportunity to discuss ninjas and David Lynch in the same sentence.
Tim O'Shea: How did you first come up with the idea of making a dinosaur into a ninja?
Jason Horn: I was at my second FLUKE, a small press convention in Athens Georgia, and I’d had the word Ninjasaur in my head for a few days. I was with my friend, Dean Trippe, who I’d met at FLUKE the previous year, and I told him that I had this word but I didn’t know what it would be. He quickly convinced me to convert that ridiculous word into an awesome webcomic. And, with his help, that’s what I did. Ninjasaur is pretty much just what it sounds like, an absurd comic about a dinosaur ninja that fights people/things while saying something sarcastic.
O'Shea: What secret power does Ninjasaur have that he can comprehend David Lynch films?
Horn: It is my belief that every ninja has a unique clandestine power. And Ninjasaur’s power is reading the dreamlike tea leaves that are David Lynch films. Unfortunately that power is completely useless in battle.
O'Shea: Is part of the comedy, at its heart, the absurdity of a dinosaur fighting crime and enjoying the modern trappings of the world (Ninjasaur has an iPhone for example, and has a penchant for infomercials)?
Horn: Yes, but that is but a mere fraction of the absurdity I employ. When I first created Ninjasaur I wrote a long poetic explanation of how his world came to be. I haven’t actually used it yet, but I will soon. In that explanation we find that Ninjasaur lives in a world where everything exists at once. That’s why he’s in this silly world where he can fight a caveman one day and a robot the next. Also, Ninjasaur has an iPhone because every ninja should totally have an iPhone. But it’s also kind of an inside joke because I actually don’t use a cell phone and everyone makes fun of me. But I do love infomercials, especially ones about cooking devices!
O'Shea: How often do you get unique sketch requests at cons, as was mentioned in Timothy Callahan's recent column?
Horn: I haven’t had too many, besides Batman eating a burrito and Superman riding Devil Dinosaur. But that one at Baltimore wins the prize for the strangest request of all time. A guy wanted a sketch of a dwarf wearing a 60’s fireman uniform, running and carrying a severed leg. And this was all from a memory he had from his childhood. Actually it was very much like something from a David Lynch movie. Only Ninjasaur knows what that sketch was really about.
O'Shea: What's been the biggest challenge for you in terms of building an audience for Ninjasaur. Are there certain lessons you've learned along the way that have been critical to your success to date?
Horn: I’m just grateful to have any audience. At every con there will be at least one kid whose face goes crazy with joy at seeing Ninjasaur for the first time. I’d probably spend all my spare time making comics for just that one kid. And the only major lesson I’ve learned is to make more comics. In fact, if I have any “advice” for aspiring creators, it’s to stop thinking about making comics. And stop talking about making comics. Just make comics! Even if they’re terrible, that’s fine. The next one will be built upon the lessons gleaned from that terrible one. The melding of story and images that comics provides might be the best way to tell a story that humans have invented, so get on it already.
O'Shea: How soon do readers get to see Chester again (seeing as he foretold Ninjasaur they would meet two more times)?
Horn: Chester (aka the Ghost in the Library) will be seen again fairly soon. I’m currently writing the next five Ninjasaur books which will tell one large connected story. It will hint at the origin of Ninjasaur’s world that I mentioned before, and we’ll finally see Ninjasaur’s origin. But this will not be your common origin story. I think I’ve come up with a pretty awesome/ridiculous way to present his origin, as would befit a dinosaur ninja. Chester will come into play toward the end of that big story. And it is big. Ninjasaur will attempt to save our world (the real world), by destroying his (sort of).
O'Shea: What attracted you to developing a continuation of the Norwegian folk tale, Gruff?
Horn: After I had made my first few minicomics, I was searching for an idea for an ongoing, larger story. One day a co-worker asked me if I’d ever played Billy Goats Gruff when I was a kid. I had no idea what that meant, but I researched the old folk tale and decided to sketch some goats that day. I drew the goat a few times and eventually sketched him talking to a little turtle (not sure why). I liked the characters so much that I decided to build a story for them that would be a continuation of the Billy Goats Gruff tale.
My graphic novel, Gruff, picks up after the end of the original Norwegian folk tale, which had a slightly more violent ending where the third goat killed the troll. This goat, named Gruff, now lives under the bridge as punishment for accidentally killing the troll when he was trying to protect his brothers. He lives in seclusion, riddled with guilt, and is shunned by his brothers as well as the other animals of the forest. One day he meets a naive turtle who just wants to be his friend. They unintentionally begin to uncover a conspiracy of why the troll was living under the bridge in their forest.
It’s a story about the redemption we find in true friendship. When I was young I made quite a few stupid mistakes (don’t we all). And instead of shutting myself off and wallowing in my guilt, I found friends that were willing to forgive me. That’s what Gruff is about for me. And who doesn’t want to see a goat become friends with a turtle?
O'Shea: How did your trip to Guatemala come about? What were some of the highlights of the trip?
Horn: My wife and I sponsor a Guatemalan child named Oscar through Compassion International. We were part of a group from our church that got to go meet their sponsored child and help with some construction work. Each day after working, Oscar would sit next to me as I drew superheroes for children in the streets of Guatemala. It was amazing. They requested Superman, Batman, Spider-man, and a ton of Zorros! And, surprisingly, quite a few of the Flash. He’s apparently big there. Geoff Johns would be proud.
One of the interesting things about that trip was that three days after I returned from Guatemala, I flew out to San Diego for Comic-Con. It was a startling juxtaposition of being surrounded by the most upsetting poverty I’d ever seen, and then immediately being bombarded with the most overwhelming pop culture commercialism event in the world. It was actually pretty disturbing. But after a few days of hanging with my awesome friends at Comic-Con, I figured out how it was all connected.
These kids in Guatemala see stories of superheroes standing up for people that can’t get justice for themselves. That’s an example that they (and everyone else) can use because some day we will all need to do that for people in need. And these kids in Guatemala wanted a piece of that idea drawn on paper by me that they could take home. That made Comic-Con’s overbearing crowds of sweaty costumes less crazy and more awesome. Even in a real world devastated by poverty, stories of superheroes can still matter. Maybe I’m over thinking it, but getting to be a small part of that for those kids was a privilege.
O'Shea: You recently attended NYCC but did not have a booth. Were you able to network more, given that you were not tied to a table, or was it actually harder to network?
Horn: Without having to sit at the table all day, it’s way easier to get around and see everyone. But in comics, “networking” is just a fancy word for making amazing friends who also happen to make comics. Instead of just making important business contacts, I’ve been making friends with the best people on the planet. For the most part, everyone just wants to help everybody else. So friends you make are important to the business side of comics, but it’s more about becoming part of the community of awesome. And even though I didn’t have a table at NYCC, I still managed to sell some comics. You put me on the convention floor, and I’m gonna get my stories into people’s hands. It can’t be stopped.