Jason Armstrong Cooks with Lobster Johnson

A comics interview article by: Tim O'Shea
Jason Armstrong is not like other storytellers. Sure--every creator I interview is excited about their latest project—but Armstrong’s sheer glee at his current Lobster Johnson miniseries nearly seeped through the emails we exchanged in this interview. At first all he wanted to talk about was the five-issue Lobster Johnson miniseries spinning out of the world of Dark Horse's Hellboy (and getting to work with Mike Mignola, who can blame the guy for his focus on the project). But I was a tad pesky and decided to pester him about Ferro City his project for Image that came out in trade paperback in April 2007. And the guy’s maddeningly humble. I’m glad this industry has creators like Armstrong. Be sure to pick up issue 3 of the Lobster Johnson miniseries set to be released on November 7.

Tim O’Shea (TOS): On this Lobster Johnson collaboration with Mike Mignola, as a writer yourself--what kind of lessons are you learning from Mignola?

Jason Armstrong (JA): Well, thank you very much, but I'd hardly call myself a writer HAHA! We basically work in the same fashion; I am provided a rough panel by panel hand written plot with copious amounts of art direction.

More like film editing than previous comic scripts I've worked with. When I do "scripts" for Ferro City (and I use the term loosely) it's usually a point list of plot points and drawings/shots I just want to do.

TOS: On a more fan level, do you wake up some mornings and say to yourself "Am I really working with Mignola?"

JA: Oh totally! It's with a girly glee I pick up the phone to call Mr. Mignola about plot stuff. I still can't believe it! :)

TOS: Did Dark Horse pick you for this pulp noir miniseries after seeing your work on Ferro City? How did the assignment come about?

JA: I think a "friend" in the industry tossed my name in the hat; let's call it "Mysterious Circumstances"... I've been flying under the radar for comic book freelance because I'm doing a lot of animation storyboards. My editor, Scott Allie, emailed me and asked me if I was available, and I was certainly asked to do a few sample pages and provide examples of how "real" I could make my style be.

Based on Ferro City, I think Dark Horse wanted some reassurance I wasn't going to go too "cartoony" with the artwork.

TOS: The advance word on the miniseries promises "...fearsome monsters, mad scientists...". Is Mignola describing the kind of monsters and scientists he wants, or is he giving you the artistic freedom to conjure your own monsters and scientists?

JA: I am being provided some model sheets of the monster characters that Mr. Mignola has already designed, and I am being asked to design some of the more "normal" evil scientists and stuff. If "normal" is the word one might use to describe evil scientists...

TOS: What do you think of Dave Stewart's coloring on your art? Has there been a particular scene that he's really amazed you with what's he done with your art by adding color?

JA: Holy Cow! I've never looked so good -- even when I was younger and skinnier HAHAHA! I've always been glad I've never been asked to do my own colour work -- I could never be this good.

TOS: How does your recent animation work influence your current approach toward comics?

JA: After eight years of animation storyboarding I can't look at a lot of my previous comic work without cringing -- I'm unconsciously applying all the film cutting experience I've had to comics; I think a lot of what made Ferro City work was the "editing" and not the artwork itself (although Image did a great job of packaging the trade paper back -- plug plug!)

TOS: Without getting into specifics per se, as this miniseries delves into the Lobster Johnson character to a greater degree, have there been any physical appearance nuances that you've been able to add to the character? The character's not a blank slate, of course, but it is his first miniseries.

JA: I am trying extremely hard to stick with Mr. Mignola's model. I think a lot of people will already be upset that Mignola is not drawing the series himself; I'm hoping to minimize some of that disappointment.

TOS: While a hero from the past, I was surprised to find out how hip Lobster is, he has his own myspace page. In all seriousness, is it exciting to get to work on a Hellboy main character who has a growing fanbase and has seemingly been unexplored to a great extent?

JA: Totally! Like unbroken ground -- I'm jazzed to work with such a great creative team and I'm trying to soak up as much "Mignola-eese" while I'm working on with everyone at the Dark Horse office.

TOS: Earlier in the interview, you said: "I think alot of what made Ferro City work was the ‘editing’ and not the artwork itself ." Can you give examples of instances where editing improved Ferro City?

JA: Because I'm not married to the artboard (I draw Ferro City in my sketchbook, there are NO artboards), I felt free to reassemble "pages" as I see fit to tell the story. The story still has to read, but I love the "non-linear assembly" I'm using.

TOS: How important was it for you that Ferro City be in black and white?

JA: TOTALLY important! The greytones/black and white feel of the book helps "sell" the pulp noir aspect of the series -- And it was within my ability (HAHA) I totally had a blast working the line art, leaving space for the greytone to "finish" the picture.

TOS: When SBC's Keith Dallas reviewed one of the original issues (issue 2) back in 2005, he said: "When genres are effectively blended ... the result is an engrossing story that cleverly has the conventions of each genre play off each other."
In writing a "robot science fiction pulp noir" how hard was it to blend all these elements?

JA: Perhaps not as hard as you make it sound, Tim. I've been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and Asimov back to back -- it seemed a natural fit. A lot of Asimov's Science fiction is just a mystery or a problem to be solved...

TOS: In this Image message board thread, you said: "Actually, I WAS going to call the series Smithe and Weston, but half way into the first story I figured I could tell stories about anybody if it wasn't titled after specific people" Can you tell us some of the characters you'd like to introduce in Ferro City?

JA: I'd like an opportunity to do more stories with Kate Weston and Kim Che partnered up -- how long will it take the roboticist to discover her partner's a robot? Does he develop as a person? Lots of stories there that might have nothing to do with Smithe at all. I'd love to do a 42G mystery.

TOS: Given that your art style has changed since you did Ferro City, how different would the city look if you were to do that story now? Along those lines, in compiling the TPB were there any tweaks you did to the story?

JA: Has my style changed that much? (fumbles through comics) I don't think it has that much -- I admit my style has been through a big change from the end of my run of Legion. I'm having a good time with the "lost line" inking/greyscale thing I'm doing in Ferro City. Is that what you mean? Or do you mean I'm INKING myself these days. I'm having a great time pushing ink around the page. I DID add a few pages to the front of this first Ferro City TPB; actually, if time had allowed (or space) I would have added quite a bit more. I'm glad I had the chance to add some of the earlier stories I did to the end of the book.

TOS: Now that you have worked on other projects and have stepped away from Ferro City somewhat, what do you think was the moment in the story where you realized (in retrospect) that you were firing on all creative cylinders?

JA: Oh, you're too kind, Tim. I'm just having a good time and I'm glad everyone's enjoying the comics I'm involved in making.

TOS: For folks who enjoy your work and are curious to see other examples of it, where do you suggest for folks to look?

JA: It's been years, but I'm still waiting to have an opportunity to do more Doc Thunder comics (check out an eight Doc Thunder story plus some portfolio work here), but I'm certainly having my "Kirby itch" scratched working with Thad Branco and his Danger's Dozen over at A First Salvo Comics (and my stuff in particular). I've finished about three short stories.

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