Talking Comics with Tim | Karl Kesel

With the passage of time, pundits/critics frequently reflect upon past era creators (be it Golden, Silver or Bronze Age), quite often finding a newfound appreciation for certain folks. Sometimes I wonder why we have to wait for a creator to be  no longer active in order to garner increased respect. For example, artist/inker/writer Karl Kesel is a creator, who while he has definitely received critical praise over his long career (dating back to 1984), I think his body of work warrants even more attention and praise. I was thrilled when I found out that Kesel relaunched Section Zero (his Gorilla Comics 2000 project with artist Tom Grummett that ended after three issues) as a webcomic at Mad Genius Comics. The news got even better with the revelation that Kesel and Grummett intend to develop new Section Zero content. I am a longtime fan of Kesel's work--particularly his mid-1990s run on Daredevil #353-364 and Fantastic Four #56 (the latter of which we also discuss). My thanks to Kesel's Periscope Studio studiomate, Jeff Parker, for putting me in contact with Kesel.

Tim O'Shea: How and when did you finally decide to resurrect Section Zero--and as a webcomic?

Karl Kesel: I’ve wanted to do a web comic for some time. The tipping point was when my wife and I decided to adopt a baby (we’re still waiting to get one!) and I knew I wanted some sort of legacy to leave my kid. I put together Mad Genius Comics, and hired the talented David Hahn to pencil a Johnny Zombie story. As that was posting, I thought: what next? I had a ton of ideas, but the one I kept coming back to was Section Zero. Tom Grummett and I had started it in 2000 through Gorilla/Image comics, and due to my getting divorced, it had been put on indefinite hold. It was Unfinished Business, and I thought the time was right to finish it.

Of course, what I want to do with Section Zero doesn’t matter if Tom doesn’t want to do it, too— we’re equal partners. I was thrilled that Tom was just as eager as I was to get back to Zero.

O'Shea: In rerunning the original series, Richard Starkings decided to re-letter the pages. What prompted him to make such an offer--and how surprised were you when he made it.

Kesel: Richard is a perfectionist, God bless ‘im! He began by insisting Comicraft finish lettering the entire story arc, and once he looked over the existing lettering, he wanted to “freshen” the look of it. I was thrilled, honored, surprised, and deeply touched. He’s going far, far Above And Beyond here, which is why he’ll always be St. Starkings in my book.

O'Shea: Because Starkings is relettering the pages, you have decided to tweak the script a bit along the way. Can you point out some of the changes you made (other than sharpening your 2000 presidential election comment in the prologue [as you discuss in this blog entry])?

Kesel: The dialogue tweaks came actually about when I thought I was going to have to re-letter the book myself (a disaster in the making, if there ever was one) and also because what the story was about when it was an ongoing series, and what the story is about now that is has a 12 Year Gap in its center— those are very different things. I happen to think the 12 Year Gap has vastly improved the story— but for the book to hold together and read as well as possible, that meant making some minor dialogue tweaks here and there.

One tweak that comes to mind right away is the interchange between Sam and Tina on page 7 of Part 1. They reference something that happened in their past— something we’ll go back to later in the story.

I’ve also streamlined the dialogue a bit— not really changing it as much as trimming it down where it had some unnecessary fat.

And we’re inserting one new scene toward the end of Part 2— that part just started posting on March 1st. Again, something that pulls the story together and works with the 12 Year Gap better. That is one of the plusses to web comics: if the story needs a few extra pages— no problem!

O'Shea: What are you enjoying most about getting to work with these characters again?

Kesel: That I get to work with them again!

O'Shea: As you have grown as a creator, I am curious do you have a newfound appreciation/affinity for certain cast members this go-around compared to the last time?

Kesel: My respect for both Thom “24 Hour Bug” Talesi and Sargasso has certainly grown. They were fun characters 12 years ago, but when I thought “What are they up to now? What have they done since we last saw them?” I was surprised that the characters seemed to step forward and tell me! Their roles were instantly clear to me, and they’re now much more pivotal than they would have been in 2000.

O'Shea: How much of a story bible is there to Section Zero, I mean I was struck by the following character detail: "In the ’80s Sam fronted the punk band “Fort Charles”— named for Charles Fort, the first chronicler of the odd and unexplained— and played CBGBs a number of times, always with thrillingly disastrous results. "

Kesel: There’s no story bible as such, just certain touchstone events that come into my and Tom’s minds that tickle us, and round out the characters a bit more. Given Sam’s age and temperament, it made sense that he’d have been part of the late 70s/early 80s punk scene. That single idea instantly opened the door as to how Sam and Tina met— a story I’d very much like to tell at some point.

I think this is one of the unique things about Section Zero— the characters are anchored in time, and are a part and product of their times, just like we all are. And as time passes, that means their time on-stage is limited, and every story has to be the very best one Tom and I can tell about them.

O'Shea: What is it about Tom Grummett's storytelling and overall talents that makes him such a perfect collaborator for you?

Kesel: His storytelling is crystal-clear, his layouts are dynamic, his design sense is flawless, his characters are always interesting and engaging. He has one of the best instincts for what makes a good comic-book cover in the entire industry. We’re about the same age, so our ideas about what makes Good Comics are pretty similar. I only have to start describing something, and he already knows what I have in mind, and then gives me more. There’s an upcoming scene with a Troll— I was giddy when I saw what Tom had done with it!

O'Shea: In addition to Section Zero, you have also developed another webcomics project--Johnny Zombie. Care to discuss that character's creation a bit?

Kesel: I’ve always “loved” zombies— meaning they’re the only monster that still scares me, to this day. So it was only a matter of time before I did a zombie comic of some sort. My basic problem was that zombies stories are usually pessimistic in nature, while my work is generally optimistic. So I wondered how to bridge that gap and do a zombie story that delivered on both fronts? Johnny Zombie is the result. Since there’s only been one JZ story so far, I don’t want to say too much about the actual concept. That’ll become clearer as more stories come out. And there is a new Johnny Zombie story in the works— I’m aiming to have it on-line come Halloween. Wish it could be sooner, but I’m squeezing all my web-comic stuff in around paying work!

O'Shea: If you could, would you prefer to be a writer full-time, or do you enjoy inking so much you never fully want to step away from it?

Kesel: Writing is mentally exhausting, penciling and inking is physically exhausting. For me. I enjoy bouncing between the two since one helps me recharge for the other. Knock on wood, I’ll be able to do both for a long, long time.

O'Shea: As a former writer of Daredevil, I have to ask--are you enjoying former Gorilla partner Mark Waid's current run?

Kesel: I am THRILLED with Mark’s work on Daredevil. It’s everything my run should have been, but wasn’t because I simply am not the writer Mark is.

O'Shea: I know you inked Neil Edwards on an upcoming Spider-Man Season One book by Cullen Bunn, but what else is on the horizon for you creatively?

Kesel: More work inking Neil Edwards! I’m wrapping up X-FACTOR 237 over his pencils right now, and will then move on to an issue of SCARLET SPIDER he’s drawing. If we become known as an inseparable team, I certainly won’t complain!

O'Shea: How does your work benefit from working in an environment like Periscope Studio?

Kesel: I don’t get down there as much as I should, or as much as I’d like, but Periscope offers a very vibrant, creative space to work in. I learn something new every time I go in, and maybe pass on a trick or two myself from time to time. The people are also all first-rate, and a ton of fun to be with. And when I get a hankerin’ to try a new recipe for a cake or cookies, I know my wife Myrna and I don’t have to eat it all ourselves! Communal food disappears very quickly at Periscope...

O'Shea: When you wrote Fantastic Four 56 (a 2002 tale that which delved into Ben's faith), how surprised were you at how much that story resonated with people? Also, any interest in writing a Ben Grimm/Thing miniseries at some point?

Kesel: Yeah, I was VERY surprised by how much attention that story received! I was just doing my job the best I can, just like always, and suddenly there was all this hub-bub. Good hub-bub, thankfully. It really opened my eyes— a hopelessly white, American male— to just how hungry people are for heroes who are like themselves. I believe people are inherently, deeply tribal and have an ingrained desire to proudly connect with others of their tribe, be that geographically (New Yorkers) or vocationally (Cartoonists Unite!) or through sports (the most obvious and primal example) and certainly through ethnicity, race, and religion. And we identify with any number of different tribes at any given time. It’s what gives us our sense of place in the world. (It can get out of hand, too, but that’s for my “extremism” rant.)

So: Yeah. It’s a story I’m very proud of, and and humbled that it means so much to so many.

Would I be interested in writing more Ben Grimm/Thing stories? Does Dick Cheney want to rule the world by pulling strings from behind a dark curtain? Of course!!

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