Rich Johnston: Feeling AvengefulA comics interview article by: Chris Kiser
When it comes to snagging the hottest gossip and rumors in the world of comic books, there's really only one guy to go to. For the better part of the past two decades, Rich Johnston has been digging up the deepest secrets of the industry and putting them on public display. After many years of reporting his findings in a regular column for various online venues (including an earlier incarnation of this one, back when we were known as Silver Bullet Comic Books), Johnston founded his own site, Bleeding Cool, which has quickly become one of the most popular sources for comics news on the web.
As his nose for sizzling tidbits has garnered Johnston a fair degree of infamy amongst comics publishers, it has also earned him several opportunities to gain a foothold in the business of comics creation. He's written some notable parody books, such as Watchmensch and Civil Wardrobe, and his serial "The Many Murders of Miss Cranbourne" is currently unfolding within the pages of Dark Horse Presents. In April, Johnston will return to the realm of spoof and satire with The Avengefuls, a series of one-shots for BOOM! Studios that aims to lampoon a certain similarly-titled major motion picture due for release around the same time.
We recently pinned Johnston down in the midst of his busy schedule to grill him on that project, as well as to get his perspective on what it's like to straddle the line between journalist and creator.
Chris Kiser for Comics Bulletin: What was the genesis of The Avengefuls? I mean, obviously it's a parody of The Avengers timed to coincide with the upcoming movie, but how did it come about as a project you're writing for BOOM! Studios?
Rich Johnston: Ross Richie [CEO and co-founder of BOOM!] phoned me up. He wanted to publish parody comics based on the Marvel movies but his go-to guy Keith Giffen was unavailable. So Chip Mosher [former BOOM! marketing director] recommended me. They offered me money, I said yes. It was that easy.
CB: We've got four one-shots in the series, each with a pretty hilarious title that ought to catch readers' attentions on their own. Just in case that's not enough of a draw, though, what else can you tell us about the premise of each book?
Johnston: I'm basically taking aspects of the movies and playing them up for silliness' sake, then mixing in digs at all sorts of aspects of society. So Iron Muslim also parodies comics like Holy Terror by supposing an Iron Man from "the other side," Scienthorlogy takes the god of thunder and makes him a very different deity indeed, Captain American Idol sees the Captain singing and dancing his way across war-torn Europe and The Avengefuls finds a way for them all to work together.
CB: How interconnected are the books, plot-wise? Should we be looking at this as a four-issue miniseries or a set of isolated one-shots? Or something in-between?
Johnston: Every issue ties in to one another, but they can also totally be read in their own right. Naturally I'd love you to read all of them, but if you just buy Iron Muslim, you should be happy enough.
CB: I think it's pretty easy to look at the solicits for The Avengefuls and think, "Oh, that looks like a pretty funny superhero parody," but the fact that two out of the three major character concepts center around religious themes stands out to me. Is there an element of satire at play here, as opposed to simply humor for humor's sake?
Johnston: Oh, absolutely, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Just as Watchmensch satirized the history of the comics industry, and Civil Wardrobe did the same for the tendency of comics to continually redesign and relaunch themselves to ludicrous degrees, so also these books reflect Hollywood, comics and the wider society at large. So, yes, Scienthorlogy takes on much of the Scientology myths and relationships with the media, in a Kirby fashion, while Iron Muslim looks at the way books like Holy Terror and The Infidel try to shape superhero narrative.
CB: I can see how the character of Thor, being an ancient deity himself, would be a natural fit for taking a jab at the modern religiosity of Scientology, but the inspiration behind Iron Muslim seems a lot less obvious. What is it about Iron Man that made him a suitable vehicle for commenting on Frank Miller comics, the War on Terror and all that?
Johnston: The movie set Iron Man very clearly as an American who comes to the Middle East where he is transformed. It's very much a post 9-11 movie. The comic gave me the opportunity to switch that and in so doing, look at how certain people have portrayed Muslims in comics and in movies and play with those portrayals further.
CB: Would you say you're targeting specific portrayals, such as those in Holy Terror and The Infidel as you mentioned, or a vibe that's present (albeit in less extreme fashion) throughout the superhero genre at large?
Johnston: Oh, there's one scene which is a direct take on Holy Terror, with the artist drawing in the Miller style. The vibe is more common in Hollywood as a whole however, if a little more generic, over the last thirty years.
CB: I'm sure that Iron Muslim, simply given the subject matter on its surface, is destined to be the most "controversial" of the four books, but I can't imagine you're playing with kid gloves in the others. Captain American Idol seems like it could be a pretty biting send-up of mass entertainment media. Am I on target there?
Johnston: That's the attempt -- something about the difference from the thirties and forties, where men gained the respect of their country by going to war, while today they get it by dancing on ice. I'm not sure which is more admirable, frankly.
The most controversial however will probably be The Avengefuls, and that's just down to the plot...
CB: That's quite the tease, I have to say! Anything you're willing to disclose about it?
Johnston: It is called Avengefuls. It is a comic book.
I've learned over twenty years that the only way to keep a secret is not to tell anyone. But if you find a copy of Civil Wardrobe, you might get a clue.
CB: Well, I suppose that if anyone would know about the leakiness of secrets, it would be the chief muckraker from Bleeding Cool! How has your role as a journalist who (often quite aggressively) covers the comics industry impacted your own creative efforts in the medium?
Johnston: I've never had any serious intent to write comics. I've just generally taken opportunities when they have been presented to me.
CB: I think because so many comics fans have the desire to break into the industry as creators themselves, they assume someone in your position would have the same motives. The webcomic The Gutters, in fact, just did a strip that rather unflatteringly portrayed you as bashing publishers to their faces while simultaneously pining for jobs with them. What's your response to that perception being out there? Is it a distraction to your work?
Johnston: My intent has always been to work in advertising. And for fifteen years, that's what I did. I was really rather good at it. Then I got hit by the recession and fell into Bleeding Cool. Last year, I gave up the part time advertising job I was doing to go full time on Bleeding Cool. If it ever ends, I'll go back to advertising, if the market has recovered by then.
I thought the Gutters strip was funny. But I think starting a comics industry gossip column or website to get work writing or drawing comics is a very bad idea indeed.
CB: It seems that it would be fairly counterproductive to that end, for sure! Even so, you've had quite a few of those writing opportunities materialize for you as of late. Has your increasing visibility as a creator posed challenges for what you're doing on Bleeding Cool? Specifically, I would imagine that it might place you under a higher degree of scrutiny -- people drawing the conclusion that, because you have a book coming out for BOOM!, for instance, you're more prone to "go easy" on them while you're still playing hardball with Marvel and DC.
Johnston: I've never seen a conflict of interest that I haven't run towards with manic laughter. As it stands, I don't seem to have had any problems. Indeed, I've now got Ross Richie to answer my enquiries after he blanked me for ages. I also hope people know me better than that. I love to bite the hand that feeds me. How else will I get any nutrition?
CB: It's interesting how a lot of your comics work has overlapped quite neatly with your life as a journalist. As Rich Johnston the comics reporter, you're often taking the industry to task for its various foibles, and in comics like Watchmensch or The Avengefuls, you're doing the same thing, only via a different delivery system. Have you noticed a difference between the response you get from folks regarding the comics versus reaction to the web articles?
Johnston: They say you should write what you know. I'm not really one for measuring reader reaction. To be honest, I'm usually writing for an audience of one. I don't notice a difference, certainly.
CB: How about reactions from the subjects you cover? Such as, Marvel's reaction to The Avengefuls versus a Bleeding Cool piece about the company.
Johnston: Haven't heard a peep.
I know Dave Gibbons liked Watchmensch, though. But it wasn't really targeted at him.
CB: Nice talking with you, Rich. Thanks for the insights!
The Avengefuls #1 will be released on April 11.