Smash Pages Q&A: Mat Groom on ‘Inferno Girl Red’

The co-writer of Marvel’s ‘Ultraman’ discusses his latest graphic novel, which is currently up on Kickstarter.

After writing Self/Made and working with Kyle Higgins on Marvel’s Ultraman comics, Mat Groom is focusing his love for tokusatsu superheroes and boarding school dramas into a new project — Inferno Girl Red, which is currently up on Kickstarter and has already surpassed its goal just two days in.

The 100-page graphic novel is about a pragmatic girl named Cássia with a secret legacy and a magical dragon bracelet that gives her the means to stop the ancient cult attempting to offer her home, Apex City, to their demonic dark lord. Unfortunately, the bracelet is powered by belief, and Cássia doesn’t have much of that to spare.

Groom has teamed up with artist Erica D’Urso, colorist Igor Monti, letterer Becca Carey and design group For The People, with Higgins serving as editor. We spoke about the project, how it came together and what the best boarding school dramas are.

I was hoping we could start by talking about your secret origin — how did you first discover comics, and since it’s relevant to this project, how did you discover tokusatsu superheroes?

Oh, both are tied to my television viewing habits, actually, and are probably very familiar to anyone in my age range– Batman: The Animated Series, and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

Because of the former, I sought out my first comic store (it was one town over), and picked up my first trade paperback—and in that one trade I got exposed to the work of Grant Morrison, Devin Grayson, Mark Millar, Mark Waid and Howard Porter. And I got exposed to characters like Huntress, Big Barda, Orion, Zauriel, Plastic Man, Steel, Shaggy Man, Metron, Steel, 4-D, Oracle, Aztek, Black Lightning, Jakeen Thunder, Wildcat, Triumph, Dark Flash, Dr. Alchemy… and that’s a far from exhaustive list. I was thrown in the deep end, but I was hooked and never looked back.

Because of Power Rangers, I started a watch-and-review podcast of the show with a close friend (which we still do, almost a decade later), met Kyle Higgins, and began exploring tokusatsu (I’m currently working my way through Kamen Rider Build).

I guess it’s kind of fitting that I’m drawing on the drama and action of these two now (plus a healthy dose of teen angst) to create a graphic novel—about hope in the face of darkness, and action in the face of apathy!

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about British boarding school dramas — which, admittedly, intrigued me the most about the description of this project. With me being in America and you being in Australia, I’m guessing our pop culture habits have some differences; I don’t think I can name any British boarding school dramas off the top of my head (unless Hogwarts counts). How did you first become a fan, and are there any you would recommend to someone who hasn’t been exposed to them?

Hogwarts totally counts! And would’ve been a reference point for the book I’d be using all over the place if the series’ author didn’t reveal her ugly colors since it ended.

But she wasn’t the only one to blend fantasy with boarding school drama—the Discworld book Pyramids has that going on with the Assassins Guild, and there was a great Star Wars take on it with the Young Jedi Knights books by Kevin J,. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta (though they’re non-canon, now). X-Men kind of exists in this realm, when there’s heavy focus on the academy—the Wolverine and the X-Men run by Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo plays in this space a whole bunch.

What I love about this genre, what drew me to it when I was younger and why I still think it’s such a useful construct now, is that it’s such a pressure-cooker environment for teen drama. Your teenage years are such a naturally dramatic time of your life, especially when you’re at school—and if you almost never go home from school, as is the case with a boarding school, then you never leave that drama world, you know? You’re just stuck there, and that drama can build and build—until it explodes, and in our case, it explodes in technicolor blasts of energy and dragon-powered punches.

If you want to explore the more serious, “adult” version of this genre, I’d recommend the novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (they made a movie, but I’d go for the book). Or if you want to explore it in the comics space, try Fence from BOOM!

I know that you and Kyle Higgins have written together previously, but what’s it been like working with him on this — and working with him as the editor? Is it that different from how you work with him as co-writer of Ultraman? And I’m really enjoying Radiant Black, so I was wondering if you wanted to say any more about the connection it shares with Inferno Girl Red?

Honestly, it’s not so different from working with him on Ultraman—because we’re friends and have a pretty informal working relationship, it’s not a big change. Really, it’s just that, instead of us both driving the story and giving each other feedback on our ideas, it’s more one-way: I’m driving the story, and he gives me feedback (and all sorts of valuable advice).

And in terms of the connection with Radiant Black —I guess what I would say that there are a lot of advantages to doing creator-owned comics. A lot of freedom to do what you want… be they small things, or big things. Both have their merits. But the big things are particularly fun.

How did you first meet artist Erica D’Urso, and what made you decide that she was the right artist to bring this world to life?

We were actually introduced to Erica through Francesco Manna, who is the artist we work with on Ultraman. He knew we were looking for an artist for Inferno Girl Red, but I’m not sure if he knew just how hard—an almost year-long search. But as soon as we saw her work, we knew it had what we were looking for—huge, explosive action; genuine, heartfelt emotion; an undeniable sense of style and an authentic understanding of teen culture.

What we wouldn’t know until a bit later is that Erica is just about the best collaborator a person could ask for—so enthusiastic and hardworking and wildly inventive. There’s no way this book would be what it is without her (or colorist Igor Monti or our letter Becca Carey, for that matter).

With projects like Self/Made and Ultraman, you’ve worked more in the miniseries format, but this one you’re doing as a graphic novel. I’m curious about what the difference has been, if any, in your approach to the story. Also, did you consider taking this to a publisher, or was it always your intent to crowdfund it?

The answer to those questions are actually closely tied together! The difference is quite significant—I’m a big believer that you should always write to your format, and that every chunk of story you offer up should have a beginning, middle and end (even if it’s part of a larger story). I had a great time playing with this form in Self/Made, and look forward to doing more of it, but I always envisioned Inferno Girl Red as a novel, a story that isn’t broken up into those 20(ish) page chunks that need to be able to stand alone to some extent. Really, I wanted some storytelling breathing room, and for people who might be new to comics to be able to read a story in a structure they might be more familiar with.

And we did shop this around to some publishers, but found that they wanted ownership of the IP or wanted us to release the book in the single-issue format to recoup the investment faster. But neither of those options would’ve allowed us to maintain our vision for the book. So we decided to take the project to Kickstarter, and see if the community would invest in our vision. I’m hoping it’ll be an exercise in validating something I believe to be true: that the market can support superhero comics in a range of formats.

In terms of the Kickstarter, can you share some of your planned rewards or stretch goals?

For rewards, we have a Kickstarter-exclusive hardcover edition of the book—this will be the only place you can get the book with this cover, and with this concept art backmatter!

We have prints by 15 incredible artists—including Nicola Scott, Darko Lafuente, Eleonora Carlini, Tiffany Turrrill, Doaly, Serg Acūna, Eduardo Ferigatio and Nicole Goux. And one of those is a Radiant Black / Inferno Girl Red team-up piece, with Erica collaborating with Radiant Black artist Marcelo Costa!

Nicola Scott’s Inferno Girl Red print

We have an opportunity to own the original art of Nicola Scott’s Inferno Girl Red piece. We have opportunities to cameo in the book! And we have one thing that I’m not going to mention yet because it might not be quite ready to reveal on launch, but it’s exceptionally cool and I truly can’t wait to reveal it.

As for stretch goals, I’ll have to be a little vaguer because it’ll obviously depend on how the campaign goes, but we have some plans in motion. To upgrade the book. To add more story (in multiple ways!) And to add in fun extras. If there’s appetite to go over the goal, we’ll absolutely make it worth everyone’s while!

So, in closing, what is the elevator pitch for Inferno Girl Red? And what do you hope people will take away from it?

Okay, elevator pitch! Here I go:

“A teen girl named Cássia, who has had a challenging life, gets a chance for a fresh start when she’s invited to prestigious and cutting-edge school in the near-utopian Apex City. But that fresh start is put at risk when an ancient cult, and their army of demons, rips Apex City out of reality.

Now, a magical dragon bracelet has rocketed into Cássia’s life and affixed itself to her arm, giving her and the city a fighting chance at survival– but only if she can muster the faith in herself (and the future) required to wield the belief-powered bracelet… so she can live up to a secret legacy, defend those she cares most about, and rescue Apex City as Inferno Girl Red!”

As for what I hope people take away from our story—I hope they find it inspiring, I hope they find it thrilling, I hope it makes them think a bit differently about the challenges we’ll all be facing in the years ahead… but I KNOW they’ll at very least get 100 pages of truly gorgeous, eye-popping art!

You can find and back Inferno Girl Red on Kickstarter.

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