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A Discussion With John Layman By Mark Allen
John Layman knows his comics. During his tenure at DC's WildStorm Productions, he worked on such acclaimed titles as Astro City, The Authority, and Planetary. He also found time to write his own fan-favorite series, Bay City Jive, as well as the comic adaption of the the incredibly popular Left Behind books. Now Layman is hard at work on June's Thundercats: Dogs of War, a futuristic take on the reborn 1980s cartoon.
Layman talks to Slush about the series, its origin, and the new characters you can expect to see, along with much, much more. Plus, check out art from the book, available exclusively on Slushfactory.com.
MA: How did you break in to comics?
JL: Hoo-boy, that’s a long answer. I was a newspaper journalist who had done a lot of comic book related articles for the San Diego Union Tribune. Since the paper was located in San Diego, and so was WildStorm, I got to know a lot of the folks at WildStorm. I jumped at the chance to be an assistant editor, but that wasn’t really all that it was cracked up to be. I went back to the paper for a year and wrote a comic book column for the paper’s books section. Then, Scott Dunbier came to me and asked if I was interested in a full editorship. As a lifelong comics fan, I jumped at the chance AGAIN.
In almost five years at WildStorm, I edited 200 something books, including Astro City, The Authority, Darkchylde, DV8, Gen13, Planetary and Steampunk, plus many others. I got a chance to write and letter my own miniseries, Bay City Jive, a Shaft-meets-Big-Trouble-in-Little-China martial arts comedy that nobody read, but I am nonetheless terrible proud of. I also adapted the best-selling novel Left Behind into comic form, which gave me the resources to leave WildStorm and pursue a freelance career.
Of course, I haven’t really left WildStorm, as I remain friends with pretty much everybody there. I’ve been lettering the previous Thundercats miniseries, as well as Sam Kieth’s Zero Girl: Full Circle.
MA: Has your background in journalism aided you in the field of comics?
JL: I'm not sure it has, althought it certainly gave me a greater appreciate of what a deadline means.
MA: The Left Behind comic was an interesting work; were you familiar with the series of novels before you began the adaption?
JL: I was aware of them, but I hadn't read them.
MA: What are some of the challenges of adapting a work from novelization to comic form?
JL: Well, in the case of Left Behind, the publisher (Tyndale House) was very clear they wanted the comic to be as accurate to the book as possible. However, where a book can have a lot of people gabbing back and forth, too many talking heads make for a boring comic. My challenge was to keep accurate to the story, but try to accentuate the visual elements.
MA: How did you get involved with this Thundercats project?
JL: I’ve in some ways been involved with Thundercats the comic since the very beginning. I was the original editor, but I left WildStorm as the mini was being developed. And, as I said, I’ve been lettering Thundercats for WildStorm, which has kept me very close to characters.
MA: Is Thundercats something you watched as a kid?
JL: No, as a kid, I was far more interested in my bong than my television. I think the affection I’ve developed from the character came from getting to know them when we were developing the cartoon into a comic.
MA: Tell us about Thundercats: Dogs of War.
JL: Dogs of War had two main points to the pitch. First, I knew it was going to be drawn by Brett Booth before I even pitched it, so I attempted to write it to Brett’s strengths. Most people who know Brett knows he likes drawing animal people. He had a pretty vocal fan base telling WildStorm they wanted to see Brett on Thundercats, and WildStorm listened.
But Brett is also nuts about dogs, and loves drawing dinosaurs, so I went into this trying to make this the “ultimate Brett Booth story” for him to draw. I thought, what would be more perfect a foe for cats than a race of dogs? So the War Dogs were created, a savage race of intergalactic conquerors who are so deadly the Thundercats eventually have to turn to their enemies for help. And, just for good measure, the War Dogs have a race of lizard-men slaves to do their dirty work. I figure Brett Booth fans will go nuts over this book.
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MA: Is the prospect of doing a "future" story with these characters more interesting for you than writing one in the time period with which readers and viewers are familiar?
JL: In some ways I am thinking of this as “The Last Thundercats story.” That was the second part of my pitch, and, admittedly, the more risky. I presented it as almost a “King Conan” type of story, where an aging king presides over his empire. His battles have been fought, his days of a warrior are behind him and his kingdom, in truth, has grown a bit soft.
Why take this kind of approach? If you set it in “cartoon continuity,” the readers know exactly what they are going to get. I’m not saying I’m planning on turning the Thundercats universe on its ear, but I’m going to knock it around a bit. There are people who seek the comfort of familiarity, and others who like to be surprised. As a writer, I much prefer the latter, and I want to give the Thundercats fans a story they haven’t seen before. I always wanted to tell a strong story, with enough distance from the cartoon that non-fans could pick it up, and not be steeped in continuity that literally goes back decades.
For the folks that crave a return to the “present day,” I understand WildStorm already has another Thundercats mini in the works, which will return to cartoon continuity.
MA: I understand a new generation of Thundercats is going to be introduced. What can you tell us about any of them?
JL: The biggest additions to cast are the new Thunderkittens. They played a pretty pivotal role in the cartoon. In my good friend Ford Gilmore’s Thundercats: The Return, the Thunderkittens you knew and loved had grown up. But I thought a kid’s perspective, particularly ones that have some mischievous tendencies, has always been an integral Thundercats, so we are introducing two twin brothers, Wilycat and Wilycub. Wilykit, one of the Thunderkittens from the original series, is now grown up and spends a lot of the new series trying to keep these two youngsters out of trouble, which is a bit of poetic justice.
Another character being introduced is the brilliantly named Bobcat. He’s a palace guard who yearns for adventure, and he’s also got his eye on the grown-up and attractive Wilykit. In the future Thundera of Dogs of War, Thundera has been turned into a Utopia, its enemies vanquished, so the young soldier Bobcat gives us a point-of-view different from the other Thundercats. They’ve all SEEN enough action in “the good old days,” but Bobcat dreams of being part of that action. And, unfortunately, he gets his wish.
MA: How is this storyline going to deepen the Mumm-Ra character?
JL: My biggest complaint about these kiddie shows is they tend to present everything as totally black or white. I suppose this is understandable, since they are originally for kids. The Return was a more grown-up look at the world of the Thundercats, but the bad remains bad and the good remains good.
I’ve always been fascinated by moral ambiguity. So, in Dogs of War, the Thundercats villains have been defeated and enough time has past where they have had a chance to really take a look at their lives. Not everything is so black and white. The whole point of Dogs of War is the mortal foes of the Lion-O and the Thundercats have to team up with Mumm-Ra and the mutants to face a bigger threat. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, right? Except there will be some surprises here. Sure, there will be the backstabbing and betrayal you would expect, but I think more surprising will be that at least one of the bad guys takes a stab at redemption. Whether he succeeds or not, well, you’ll just have to pick up the book.
MA: Do you have a favorite Thundercats character?
JL: I'd say Panthro, because he looks a lot like my own cat, Rufus.
MA: And lastly, what else are you working on?
JL: I have a creator-owned mini-series coming out of Image in July, called Puffed, about an amusement park worker who is trapped in a dragon suit and dumped in “the hood.”
I am writing a three-issue Species mini-series for Avatar to be released in the fall. I’m also doing interviews and text for The Art of Sam Kieth, a coffee-table art book to be released by IDW.
And, in May, I have a short story in both X-Men Unlimited and Noble Causes: Extended Family.