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Jason M. Burns: Conductor on the Underworld Railroad

A comics interview article by: Matthew McLean
Jason M. Burns is a writer/creator within the comic and film/television industries as well as Assistant Publisher at Viper Comics. He began his career as an entertainment journalist and band manager, officially making the leap into comics in 2004. His projects include The Expendable One and A Dummy’s Guide to Danger. He sat down with SBC to discuss his upcoming project, The Underworld Railroad and his role at small independent publisher, Viper Comics. Be sure to visit The Underworld Railroad website for access to a PDF of the story's first chapter.

Matthew McLean (MM): Why don’t we start by talking about your current project, The Underworld Railroad. What’s it all about?

Jason Burns (JB): I love to play with history in a lot of what I write so I loosely based this book on the Underground Railroad with the idea that for every great idea there is a greater source of inspiration. The Underworld Railroad is a system of safe houses set up around the globe for lost and bewildered spirits who attempt to outrun the devil. When a person dies, their soul is either welcomed to heaven or escorted to hell, but for those wrongly accused in life, there is a waiting period to get into heaven... and within that time the devil can claim them if they are not careful. Humans act as links in the Underworld Railroad chain, offering refuge to the spirits as they wait for their clearance into heaven. While that's the overall premise, this particular story finds a longtime link in the chain (Bruce Boyd) trying to help a spirit when the devil appears. It's a horror/adventure with some comedic elements. Turns out the devil has a good sense of humor. Who would have thought?

MM: So for those framed for wrong-doing in life, it has repercussions into the afterlife? How does that work exactly?

JB: Not so much repercussions. Think of it more as a credit report. There's a waiting list, and with so many of the purest souls possible entering those pearly gates, those with tarnished lives here on Earth have to wait their turn.

MM: Does that exclude the idea of an omniscient God?

JB: I didn't want to get too much into the religious aspects with the book to be honest. They talk about heaven and hell and how it exists, but they don't necessarily define it in a Christian sense or any other for that matter. There is a god and there is a devil. There is good and there is evil. But at the end of the day, what it is, nobody really knows. Bruce Boyd even says that towards the end of the book… how he's fought for souls to enter heaven even though he's never been there himself. He starts to question his role.

MM: Will that questioning play a role in the conflict of the story?

JB: It ultimately culminates in the end of the book and how things are left between Bruce and the devil, so no, it doesn't directly play into the conflict. It's more a result of the conflict.

MM: In mythological/religious circles, limbo is envisioned by folks in different ways. How did you convey your vision for Limbo to artist Paul Tucker--and how did things turn out in the end?

JB: The beautiful part was, Paul's work spoke to the story without me having to translate it for him. The feel, tone and texture of his art fit perfectly to my vision of the book and what the world looked like. For me, he was the greatest compliment to the story I could have asked for.

MM: Do the participants of the Underworld Railroad ever run into souls bound for Hell?

JB: That aspect is never touched on in this particular story.

MM: So if it isn’t giving away too much, in The Underworld Railroad the devil takes the form of a woman. Why did you make that choice?

JB: It just made sense to me. Who better to manipulate a man than a woman? That concept is as old as the first story ever… Adam and Eve. The devil is resourceful and she ("he" or "it" if you prefer) knows how to get what she wants. It's not her true form, but it's the one she uses while walking Earth.

MM: So even the corporeal form of the devil is a lie?

JB: Correct. It's just the form the devil takes in order to achieve its goals. Lucy (the character the devil goes by on Earth) is only what she wants Bruce and the others to see.

MM: Sounds like bad juju. Hopefully great juju for the book. Let’s make a quick jump of subject to your work at Viper. You’re currently the assistant publisher at Viper. What does that role entail? Do you feel that having the job bolsters your storytelling skills?

JB: While we all have our hands in everything at Viper, my job mostly entails the implementation of PR, the editing of books, working with creators and artists during the production stages, and most of all, seeking out new projects/properties. It changes day to day, but for the most part we all work closely to ensure that we put out quality books… whether they're all ages or more mature reader content. We're not out to follow trends, but instead, always looking stay ahead of the curve by producing the kind of things you wouldn't see at other publishers.

In terms of this job bolstering my storytelling skills, I'd have to say absolutely. Anytime you spend this much time on something, you get better at it, so for me, I now see what works and what doesn't in this medium from a creative standpoint. I was just looking back at some of my earlier concepts recently and I can see why they never got picked up… it was because they just didn't have that oomph. That's what we look for at Viper… stuff with oomph, and by seeking out oomph, it's made me better at oomphing myself. (That sounds so dirty.)

MM: Well, as long as we've broached the subject, why don’t you lay it out for us. What’s ‘oomph’?

JB: Two parts "oom", one part "ph". Kidding. Anyway, oomph is something that hasn't been done before, or if it has, you bring it to us in a way that transcends the genre or world your story takes place in. We don't want to do the same stories that have been told over and over again. Not that there is anything wrong with those stories, it's just not what we look for. We like premises that make you scratch your head and go, "Are they really publishing that?" only to read it and go, "Holy crap, I wish I published that." We like ideas that are outside the box. In fact, we like ideas that don't even come in boxes. Deliver them to us in piggy banks or time capsules… anything but a box!

The same goes for those writers looking to make the leap into screenwriting as well. Look to your most creative concepts and build them into big tent pole ideas that producers and studios will want to latch onto. That’s why Hollywood is picking up everything in the comic book world because it’s where the most original content is being found nowadays.

MM: While we’re on the subject, how did you make the jump from screenwriting to Viper Comics?

JB: Completely by accident. I was an entertainment journalist working on a story highlighting the rising interest in indy comics. I interviewed Jessie Garza, President of Viper Comics for the piece and we hit it off. We ended up staying in touch and he read a few of my screenplays. Next thing I know he was asking me if I wanted to take part in a Dead@17 anthology and before long they were putting out a bunch of my stuff… most of which started out as film concepts. Now, interestingly enough, a lot of my properties are being picked back up for film and TV. Funny how everything has come full circle.

MM: Speaking of which, one of your earlier projects The Expendable One is currently being made into a movie. How did that come about?

JB: Really, it just kind of happened on its own. The producers (Marc Evans and Trevor Macy) over at Intrepid Pictures just really dug the vibe and overall feel of the book, so they came to us and said they wanted to make it. At the same time, I was also in talks with another company to turn it into a television show, but in the end, Intrepid seemed like the right fit for it. The book is essentially a horror comedy, and it's graphic, and they didn't feel it needed to be cleaned up to make a PG-13 type film. They wanted to keep it the way it was in terms of tone, and for that reason alone, it made the most sense to have it with Intrepid.

MM: For fans of the book, can you say where the movie version of The Expendable One is in production?

JB: It's in the script stage currently… second draft I believe. I have faith that if and when it ever makes it to the screen, it will have its share of oomph and audiences will go and see it.

MM: Back to the 'oomph', A Dummy’s Guide to Danger is a great example of a story that transcends its own genre. It’s a pretty standard buddy detective yarn except for one of the buddies being a ventriloquist dummy. That certainly adds some novelty, humor and weirdness to the formula. I have to ask – where did the idea of that come from?

JB: The idea originally came from an old ventriloquist dummy my sister used to have. I hated it…was absolutely terrified of it. So, when I was working on a buddy noir story, I wanted to give it a twist, and decided to reach into my past and pull that dummy out, only this time, make him a good guy. Some would say it's therapy in a lot of ways.

MM: Any future projects you’d like to talk about?

JB: I have a number of books due out, including a sequel to The Expendable One called The Expendable One: The Boob Versus the Boobs (August), a Goonies-like all ages story called The Sleepy Truth (October), a one-shot called Borderland based on the upcoming Lion's Gate film by the same name, a horror tale called Rabid (Winter), a sequel to Dummy called A Dummy's Guide To Danger: Lost at Sea (Winter), and a couple of really exciting things for 2008 that are still a little too far off to talk about, but are some really cool things that I think people will dig. I’m hopefully giving oomph some justice!

MM: Thanks for taking the time, Jason. Good luck.

Be sure to visit Matthew McLean’s website here.

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