War & Peace: Talking Tokyopop's "Psy-Comm"

You know Tony Salvaggio from CBR's own "Calling Manga Island" column. You know Jason Henderson from "Sword of Dracula." And if their combined enthusiasm is any indication, you're about to know artist Shane Granger very well, too. Their new Tokyopop graphic novel, "Psycomm," hit shelves this week and since CBR News spoke to the team in depth last year, it seemed appropriate to catch up with the team during their big week. First things first, Salvaggio was happy to provide a primer for those interested in the book.

"'Psy-Comm' takes place in a world where countries have been replaced by corporate states that vie for territory and branding on every continent," he explained. "The corp-states are always at war in a bid for population control and propaganda. The new stars of these wars are the corp-state trained Psychic Commandos. These Psy-Comms are the stars of their corp-states, and are the media spokespeople for products and the corp-wars. Mark Leit and David Jerold are the golden boys of the Electromedia corp-state. Mark's power is one we call 'capillarity.' He can see the possible futures that branch in his mind, and with enough concentration, he can weed them out to pick the best ones. This makes him extremely useful for planning on the battlefield (and his power in general allows him to dodge dangerous situations most of the time). David is a telekinetic with some psychic camouflage abilities, and is an all around ace when it comes to combat. David and Mark have had their friendship tested and tempered on the battlefield, even though Mark has come away more emotionally scarred. When Mark meets a young psychic from another corp-state during a mission memories are brought up that he can't contain, and Mark begins to question everything about the corp-states and his place in his world."

When we spoke with the team last year, they seemed confident in the direction of the book and while it's basically remained the same, Salvaggio says they've tried to make it even better. "We've had the chance to tighten up some of the key plot points and Shane's art has ratcheted up and up throughout the book. He has done some pages that just blow me away. We've gotten some great feedback about how much people dig the plot and they like the feel of the art as well. I think the feedback has been pretty positive, but mostly it's just made us take a look at the book and try to make sure it rocks."

War, and the military in general, is viewed quite passionately by the American public, coming into focus with "the war on terrorism." When asked about that influence on the book, Henderson admits there has been some impact. "It would be hard not to, but that's as much because as readers we all tend to abstract what we read and apply it to the world around us. But one of the things I love about writing is that you can approach a fiction piece the way a composer of a Broadway play approaches all the songs. One character sings a completely convincing song about why love stinks, while another sings an equally convincing ode to love eternal. So yes, there is satire about how war is treated. Does it mean we think there's an exact correlation between everything in the book with reality today? Not really, because in the end the work has to function internally over anything else. You could write fiction to be a political polemic, but it sure wouldn't come out like 'Psy-Comm,' which is way too in love with rock-em sock-em battle to honestly despise war. That's what makes war stories so complex-- the very fact that the imagery is so satisfying in fiction subverts the author's desire to indict war."

Salvaggio says that his goal is to keep the book fun, without getting entrenched in current events. "War is definitely a sticky subject over the past few years. I kind of try to stay out of politics in most of my writing, especially action adventure stuff. I like writing fun, escapist stories because a lot of the world is so depressing in a lot of ways. As a kid I read to get away from everything. That being said, there are definitely political points in Psy-Comm to be sure. We touch on the potential of a continuous pointless war purely for the gain of the elite, we've got darlings of the media and the soldiers who hope to be media darlings, and how the grooming and training of these psychic combatants for mass media consumption plays out. We didn't get to put as much of it into this book, but there are other things like patents on GM crops and how that can be an issue. Electromedia for example owns Corn, not a kind of corn, but actually the plant itself, due to patenting and genetic tampering and extermination. Things like this aren't far away if we aren't careful. I try not use these works as a soapbox, but having cautionary examples like this helps to ground the book in a lot of ways."

While the creative team may be somewhat green as a unit, Salvaggio says that his friendship with Henderson, and their mutual admiration of Granger, have helped to create strong creative synergy. "Well, Jason and I have been friends for years and so we tend to get along well when we are writing," said Salvaggio. "There is a great synergy of style that is totally different than when we work on things separately. 'Psy-Comm' is something that exists because of collaboration; it's the sum of its parts that makes it happen. When Shane came on board there was some adjustment because Jason and I have a lot of verbal shorthand from hanging out and watching and reading a lot of the same things. It didn't take long for Shane to start pitching in and adding his take to things. Shane also brought a great "outside our head" take on a lot of elements and really has made the book stronger. His art just shines. I have often said that he is the look of 'Psy-Comm.'

I can't picture the team without him in it, he's the guy that makes it work visually. Shane really has jumped in on improving things and tightening them up, plus there are a couple of characters closer to the end of the book that are totally his creation. We fleshed them out together but they're Shane G. creations. One of the best things about working with Shane is that he will do panels that are totally different than how I pictured a scene in my head, but it will be as cool as or cooler than I imagined. I really enjoy team based projects, and I've had a blast on this book and moving on to book two, it's like putting the A-Team back together again for the next mission.

"Of course I have to give props to our editor Bryce for doing a great job in developing the book and giving direction. Our inkers and toners have done a great job as well, from the chapters I've seen on our preview page. Way to rock!"

Granger has a similar enthusiasm, noting that this is his first big professional gig and has created it's own set of challenges. "Well, I'm brand new to comic books and manga, even as a reader, so I had a lot of learning and catching up to do while working on 'Psycomm,'" Granger told CBR News. "So, most of my evolution as an artist during the course the book was just learning the basic mechanics of sequential storytelling. I also had to learn about all of the essential tools needed to draw comic books. At the beginning of the project I did not have a computer, photocopier, digital camera or light table, so good reference material was hard to find and use. If there is any improvement in the art its probably because I finally broke down and bought the necessary equipment.

"I enjoy the collaborative aspects of it; talking on the phone with Bryce, Jason or Tony about story ideas and such. It's a lot more fun than any other job I've had. Of course, the scale of the project can be overwhelming at times; it takes a lot of hard work to complete just one graphic novel. Drawing a whole series is a huge commitment."

For Henderson, it's not just the team he's working with, but the medium itself that has brought out the best in the times spent on "Psy-Comm." "I just love comics because I love the alchemy of teams," Henderson told CBR News. "We support one another and scuffle and make the work stronger. To make a good comics team I think every man has to say, 'wow, partner-- that suggestion you just made is an improvement. It's better than what I wrote first.' And around and around. Teams are a blessing because they diffuse ego in service of the work.

"Just this week we started working on 'Psy-Comm 2' and it's just like the team coming together. Shane occupies this place as the artist and visual leader of the work, and we listen to every word he has to say. The great thing is because he comes in the art stage, usually, he can bring in a fresh, critical eye and even turn the script around with us. "

Seeing as this is Salvaggio's first published work thus far, and the publisher is a big name in the bookstore market, there's a lot of pressure on him to succeed, but he's cool with it. "This is my first book in print, but the second I've written for a major publisher. Jason and I have a book at Humanoids Publishing that is still looking for the right artist. It was actually done well before 'Psy-Comm,' and was our first book to take the things we dig about manga and anime and put them into our own story. However, Tokyopop is even bigger than that, and there is a certain expectation from fans of Japanese manga and anime have come to expect. The stakes are high for Tokyopop as well since they are developing these books in what can be a sometimes hostile environment from the hardcore manga fans. It's a lot of pressure but I approach each book as if it had the same amount of pressure put on it. The main pressure is on the team to create the best book we can so we can make ourselves proud, give readers something to enjoy, and have them come back so Tokyopop will want to do more books with us. When you have this kind of distribution, marketing, and expectations behind you, you'd better make your book shine!"

Manga-esque comics produced by Americans have seen mixed reactions, as the use of Asian storytelling techniques has not always been used as effectively as some readers would like, but Henderson says that "Psy-Comm" shouldn't be dismissed because of it's origins. "Tony can speak much more eloquently to this than I can, but I like to think we're the gialli of manga-- you know, like the Italians who loved American horror and wanted to sing that song in new work. But they could never make an American horror or an American western-- instead people like Bava, Argento and Leone said 'let us sing the American song with our Italian tongues.' And what you got was this excited, brave work that was fresh and full of respect and comment on American work. We're doing that-- we love manga, and we sing our manga song in American tongues, and we're excited to listen for the echo."

Salvaggio adds, "There are some obvious differences in the way that manga in Japan is published, the format, (now everyone is doing manga-sized something or another, but it wasn't really until Viz was doing it back in the day that it really started catching on, now the size that Tokyopop and others have adopted seems to be the norm), and production that is primarily black and white (once in the US only indie comics were black and white with a few exceptions). In Japan, manga-ka are often seasoned by being published in weekly anthologies for years, or as assistants for more famous manga-ka. This is one of the things that some people hold against Americans who are just starting out. Many of them are not seasoned or haven't 'paid their dues.' Of course, talent is talent to me so, while I agree that it helps to have this experience, I'm glad that companies here are taking the chances on talented, previously unsigned talent.

"I hate to make sweeping generalizations about manga because it really is vast, but I can tell you what has always resonated with me. Some of the hallmarks that struck me when I first started reading manga were that the stories usually had a finite length as opposed to the superhero comics that I was reading. There is a certain style and pacing of action and character development that defines what I think of as manga as well. To me, you either get it or you don't. It's kind of like Jazz to me, there are lots of styles, none of them are right or wrong per se, and you can either get in the groove and play it (or like it) or it's not in you. But man oh man will people tell you if they don't think you "get" it! A Japanese friend of mine recently visited from Tokyo and was looking through a bunch of OEL manga from Tokyopop and to him it had a lot to do with the flow of panels and action as well. He instantly caught American artists' styles because to him they looked more static; a couple of artists actually fooled him. That is pretty cool. I'm hoping I can create manga style stories at least as well as Italians made Westerns, Asia has re-made the horror genre, and thrash bands took the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and created awesome music."

On a less positive note, Tokyopop has seen a lot of criticism in comic book blogs and from established creators, citing the new contracts as unfair and unethical, claims that Salvaggio is happy to respond, saying, "There's been a lot of 'he said, she said' crud all over the net, with many people talking about things they heard someone had heard. Some vets of the industry have offered genuine help to creators who may not be savvy of what the real world of contracts and companies is like, and that has been cool. Without going into the confidential details, we read the contracts over thoroughly (Jason is a lawyer, so that helps) and we thought it was pretty fair considering what we're getting out of the deal as well. I've dealt with the entertainment industry in video games, music, and now comics and, while it doesn't offer full ownership of the IP, it seemed to us like a fair trade off. In my dealings with Tokyopop, they've been bluntly honest about questions we ask and I've never gotten that smarmy Hollywood/Large Company Overlord feeling from anyone. Like I tell everyone, don't sign anything blindly, and if you can get a better deal, stop griping and get it. No one has held a gun to any creator's head as far as I can tell. Definitely if this is your magnum opus, protect the hell out of it, and never let it go for cheap. If you can afford to wait around for the best deal, that is cool. However, if you never publish anything, 100 percent of nothing is still nothing. Of course, these are my own views, I don't have any real reason to defend Tokyopop if they were treating people crappy (I've dealt with enough lunacy in the games industry), but the OEL people I've met and talked to candidly have had pretty good dealings so far (with the exception of one team I know, but that is still up in the air last time I checked)."

With the NFL season in full swing, Henderson uses a football analogy to explain his view. "I just wanna play football, Jerry. For me, the Tokyopop deal was a great, great way to break into a new genre. And I'll say this; Tokyopop have been square and responsive and everything you want in a client or a partner."

When you next visit your LCS (local comic shop), Salvaggio urges you to check out "Psy-Comm," with the hopes that you'll be as excited as he is for the second volume. "You should check out our book if you are a fan of action and adventure, corporate conspiracies, star crossed romance, and you want to read stories that we've put our heart and soul into," said Salvaggio. "First and foremost I have been a fan of anime since I was 3 or 4 ("Speed Racer") and have been reading any manga (all genres) I could get my hand on (my Japanese friends joke that I know more about anime and manga than they do). I write the stuff I would want to be reading if I wasn't creating it. The stories that have the elements my friends and I dig in the stuff we read and watch. I think it shows in the final product and I'm really proud of my team's efforts. Jason and I have agonized over making this a great book and Shane has done some fantastic art. I truly believe in this book. In the OEL lineup, we're definitely in the Shonen/Seinen niche. So when you've had enough great shoujo stories form other creators and want to escape into action and science fiction, Psy-Comm is there for you. If you want to see what a comic influenced by Blue Oyster Cult's "Veteran of the Psychic Wars", manga and anime like "Grey", cool heroes and interesting female characters who aren't just long legged eye candy, I think we have you covered as well.

"Right now I am pacing the floor like an expectant father. 'Did we do everything right? Did we take the right classes and spend time on the right things? I hope that they think our baby isn't ugly!' that sort of thing. I'm hoping that people dig it and want to come back for volume 2!"

Hawkman #8

More in Comics