Smash Pages Q&A: Tom Peyer on ‘Penultiman’

The prolific writer and editor discusses his upcoming title from Ahoy Press, the state of the company and more.

Tom Peyer has been writing and editing comics for years, but in the past two years since he helped to launch Ahoy Comics, Peyer has been writing up a storm. From the two very different titles that launched the publisher, The Wrong Earth and High Heaven, to subsequent books like Hashtag: Danger and Dragonfly and Dragonflyman, Peyer has shaped the sensibility and approach of the company.

Last year Ahoy released Steel Cage #1, which contained three short comics: Bright Boy by Stuart Moore and Peter Gross, Noah Zark by Mark Waid and Lanna Souvanny, and True Identity by Peyer and Alan Robinson. Readers were encouraged to vote for their favorite, but because of voting irregularities, the company declared that all three would get their own series. Now Peyer and Robinson have their series, renamed Penultiman, launching on May 6. People can read the short comic from Steel Cage for free on ComiXology right now, and Peyer stopped by to answer a few questions about superheroes and the Silver Age, and show off some of Robinson’s artwork.

Where exactly did the idea for Penultiman start?

It started with a scene that forms the climax and ending of issue #1. I can’t go much into it now because I’d like people to be surprised, but it involves a new character, Penultiman’s android assistant, Antepenultiman.

This was originally called True Identity when you had the short comic in Steel Cage. Where did the name “Penultiman” come from?

I have no idea. It just popped into my head and I thought it was funny. We’ve seen characters who represent the ultimate stage of human potential—Captain Comet and Warlock come to mind—but I don’t think we’ve met any who are just a little worse than the best. Imagine being so advanced only to be outclassed. I guess a lot of science fiction that dealt with humans encountering extraterrestrials would have played on that anxiety, but I haven’t seen it played as comedy in a superhero comic.

I love the 10-word introduction of the character on the first page of the book, which reminded me of All-Star Superman, but I also kept thinking about how many comics characters – iconic ones, especially – can be summed up in such a way.

Glad you liked that. I stole that bit entirely from All-Star Superman. I figure Grant Morrison won’t mind. And if he does, we can have a public feud. They’re fun! (But I’ll still be fond of him, only secretly.)

That’s a good observation about iconic comics characters. Yes, I think simplicity is a real asset. I think choosing the right 10 words for each of the great heroes would be a fun game. Hawkman! Go!

Hawkman in 10 words? Um, alien with wings who’s somehow also a reincarnated ancient Egyptian? I really don’t know. He looked cool when Joe Kubert drew him.

He sure did look cool when Kubert drew him. His work on the first appearance of the Silver Age Hawkman—Brave and the Bold #34—is probably my favorite art job ever.

You are a baby boomer and I’m curious how big of an influence DC’s Silver Age books – Superman, in particular – were on you, and how you’ve come to think about comics and stories more generally?

Those comics rewrote my DNA. I still read them. I don’t want to do old-fashioned nostalgia comics—but that doesn’t make the Silver Age any less valuable to me. It launched the Fortresses and Danger Rooms and a million other ideas that even the most modern writers are still mining.

I think the Silver Age will always be special because it was the one period where comics were so timid, so heavily censored—no sex, no drugs, no blood—that the creators had to imagine all of these wild, unreal visuals to pull the readers in. Superman rides a giant ant. The Flash turns into a puppet. A killer robot has J. Jonah Jameson’s face. Censorship is ugly but, in this one case, some of the consequences were beautiful.

I don’t think you write nostalgia comics. (I think a lot of the most hardcore nostalgia comics come from writers closer to my age than yours, which is a whole other issue.) I kept thinking the way so many of those Silver Age comics approached ideas has played such a role for so many creators. You don’t want to make updated versions of those comics, but this particular way of thinking and approaching story shaped you at a young age.

As someone once said, “The Golden Age of Comics is six years old.” And that’s true. When you’re six, seven, eight, you’re still young enough for a comic or a movie or a game or a TV show to make a primary impression, to just laser itself onto your brain forever. And what you reacted to then will always hold a special place. When I look at the first comic that really grabbed me—Superman #140, “The Son of Bizarro!”, cover by Curt Swan, interiors by Wayne Boring—it’s like walking through the Louvre. My own personal Louvre. So that and other comics will always be in my mind, even unconsciously, when I make a creative decision.

Penultiman is a comedy about how we’re often the source of our own problems – or rather, our response to our parents is the cause of our problems. Which not to mock your generation, feels like a very baby boomer kind of premise.

I wish it were limited to the baby boom. I think self-loathing to one degree or another is pretty universal. Unfortunately. Maybe it helps to laugh at it, I don’t know.

The idea of change is so central to Penultiman – both personal change and larger change – which I think is a theme that runs through a lot of your comics work. I interviewed Mark Waid last year for The Comics Journal and he said that you had called him a writer of “the superhuman condition,” which I really liked, and I can’t help but think that you also have a similar approach.

That’s a nice compliment. Thank you. I always loved superheroes but I never cared much about the question, “Will the hero beat the villain?” Because if the hero wins, the writer is predictable, and if the hero loses, the writer is a sick misanthrope. So I’m interested in finding other questions to prioritize. Somehow, my ideas often circle back to a superhero—mask, cape boots, perfect body, great posture—suffering a social embarrassment. It’s not always conscious, but I’m happy with it.

We talked in the fall of 2018 when Ahoy was just starting out and you were launching these two crazy comics series, and now it’s 2020. How has the past year and a half been? What have been the biggest surprises or unexpected things that have popped up?

When you’ve never been involved in running a business before, everything is a surprise. Everything is unexpected. If I knew in the beginning what I know now, I wouldn’t have given two cents for our chances. But we’re still here, and our fan base is growing. Everyone involved should be very proud. Except for Penultiman, who needs to be ashamed or we don’t have a story.

Ahoy has been publishing two to four books each month, introducing new projects and then some sequels. Is this a good level and volume to your mind?

It is a good level and volume. I think growing for the sake of growth would be to risk diluting the product; for us, quality is everything. I know everyone says that, but they’re lying and we’re not.

I spoke with Mariah McCourt recently about her upcoming series Ash & Thorn and she made a comment that Ahoy’s approach is “funny Vertigo,” and I’m curious what you think about that and what you think that means.

To me it means sophisticated material that’s separate from the pack, larger-than-life ideas, high standards in creative work and production—and funny. That’s exactly what we’re going for.

How have people been responding to the magazine aspect, the backups, the text stories and other work?

People really like it! We have one reader who has been telling me for months that he has no interest in them, and even he wrote to praise a poem we ran recently. Another reader wrote asking us to drop the backups, and when we printed the letter, fans wrote in to defend them. I think people appreciate it when they’re not finished reading their $3.99 comic in eight minutes. That was the idea, anyway.

In March you’re wrapping up Dragonfly & Dragonflyman. What’s next, or what are you thinking about next? To the extent that you can, what are you excited about this year that’s you’re working on or that we can look forward that’s coming up?

After Dragonfly & Dragonflyman I moved right into the next season of The Wrong Earth! Jamal will be ready to draw it soon, and I can’t wait to be working with him again. And I’m lucky that these characters have been a constant presence in my life for the last couple of years.

Is there anything you want to say about what you and Jamal are doing in the next Wrong Earth? And are we going to see more Hashtag: Danger and/or High Heaven?

We’re planning a bigger story in the next Wrong Earth, putting both of the planets at risk. So it should feel different in that way. Plus, we’ll shake it up a little so that characters you haven’t seen together will come face-to-face.

Hashtag: Danger and High Heaven will return if sales warrant. They’re both available in collected editions, so buy ‘em by the wheelbarrow, fans!

When are we going to see the other two Steel Cage comics?

I don’t know yet; as you know, our democracy has been corrupted by hostile forces. Until we can root them out, all we can do is stay vigilant! 

Now I’m hoping that this will not be the penultimate superhero you write (see what I did there) but what can people look forward to in the book besides superheroes, outrageous villains, robots and neuroses?

The most evil power to menace Penultiman will be Positive Thinking.

Thanks, Tom.

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