Smash Pages Q&A: Jack Foster on super villains and ‘Gun’

‘I loved the idea of watching a person who as they get better at what they’re doing, they’re actually getting worse.’

Gun is a superhero comic that doesn’t look or feel quite like any other comic. Jack Foster self-publishes and distributes the comic through his own Reckless Eyeballs Press. It’s a book about superheroes (“capes”) and super villains (“guns”) and told from the point of view of a villain. Or someone trying to be a super villain, at least.

The first story arc involves a group of small time criminals coming into a windfall, and like all great stories of criminals who get one big payday, it all goes very wrong very quickly. The first arc was noir, but the second story arc has a different tone. Picking up a little later, the arc is an over the top exploitation involving a game called Slaughterball. A game that Foster describes as “half Death Race 2000, half Cannonball Run, with a little touch of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World with super villains.”

The book manages to be what one might expect of a book centered around villains, but it also manages to subvert them at the same time. It’s about characters and conversations. There’s violence, but for the most part the book manages to eschew that. Foster paints the book in watercolors which means that it doesn’t quite look or feel like other comics and the result is something that feels familiar but manages to be surprising, funny and at times, beautiful.

How did you come to comics? Were you always drawing?

I read comics as a kid. I got my first comic off of a newsstand in a 7-11, loved them, and then in high school I made my own comics. I would make a comic and copy it on a copier. It cost me about 45 cents to make, it was 12 pages, and then I would sell it around the school. I would take a list of who wants orders and then I would print to order. I made I think 80 bucks one day. It wasn’t a bad little cottage industry. Because I’m self-publishing, I still do a lot of that. When I was a kid I would take 8 1/2 by 11 pages and fold them in half and then I would get legal size paper so it had a flap and little bells and whistles. The P.T. Barnum part of making comics is also in my blood and I really do love that I get to get my hands on all of it self publishing.

So fast forward to today.

Well, I had to make a living. [laughs] But I kept drawing. I was always coming up with ideas. I got interested in making movies and I dabbled in that. I should say I’m 43 and I had written two scripts that had gone nowhere. I had twenty different comics ideas that I had never developed very far. I was making art, but in a very indirect way. You have to pick one thing. You can’t just scattershot through the world. You have to pick one thing and focus. I’ve always loved comics, so I was like, just do it, make a comic. I landed on the idea for Gun and he really spoke to me. I loved his world and I was like, this is the one I think I can really go the distance in. After that it was just staying focused on Gun.

What was it about him and his voice?

You have to understand I started working on this ten years ago so Wicked had come out but Dexter hadn’t. The idea of telling a story about the bad guy was still novel at the time. Now when I talk about Gun people go, oh, that old saw. [laughs] At the time it was original. Conventional wisdom had always been you go to San Diego Comic Con, you take your portfolio, you show it to a bunch of editors and that’s how you get work. I’m a writer too so I made a five page story and it showcased different styles of art that I can do. It was basically someone interviewing a bad guy. His voice just came out. I didn’t have to work on it. I just instantly got that guy. I loved the idea of watching a person who as they get better at what they’re doing, they’re actually getting worse. I think that’s fascinating. It’s interesting the way that people trick themselves into thinking they’re getting better when they’re actually descending.

There’s a great sequence in the second issue where Trevor and Olive are talking about the constellations and he’s expressing this anger about getting older and not accomplishing anything. I felt like that’s the heart of the character and the heart of the book.

It absolutely is. Issue two is my favorite for a lot of reasons but in that sequence I feel like you get everything you need to get about Trevor. Olive is a more hopeful character and she has a more hopeful take and also just toes the line, whereas he is a contrarian and has a very contrarian take. I think it also reveals his feeling for the world. The intro of the first story does this, where everyone thinks they’re going to grow up and become a rock star and it’s just going to be limousines and champagne and girls shouting your name and you wake up one day and you’re 40 and the limo never came. Trevor didn’t have a Plan B. You don’t go from supervillainy to “I guess I’ll take the job at the bank.” The stakes are really high. I’m a guy who was 40 who wanted to make comics. For me those stakes are high. [laughs] Either this happens soon or it doesn’t happen at all. It’s very personal in that sense. I think what you’re picking up on is definitely there.

A lot of comics which center of the villains can be high concept, like, what if Batman is a villain. You seemed to start by thinking about what kind of character would want to be a villain.

Yes. I think that when people first started taking the villain’s story off the shelf, that’s the first place you go to. I don’t think that “evil” is so good, either. They’re not in such high relief. You look at some of the thing happening in the political climate right now and you go to people’s whose agendas and ways of approaching the world are so obviously hurtful, wrong, and askew – but you talk to them and they think it’s you. [laughs] They think they’re the victim. When you want to talk about bad guys or people following their own moral compass, they’re not Evil with a capital “E”, they’re people who are driven or dominated by these knots inside themselves that they can’t untangle and in a lot of cases I think those are very rich stories. There’s a lot more at play and there’s a lot more at stake with a person who’s really wrestling with ideas that are just radioactive.

The first arc is in some ways a classic noir story of small time crooks who happen upon a big score and then everything goes wrong. They’re not good guys but they’re not evil. They’re really their own worst enemies.

Exactly. They can’t get out of their own way. Olive, who I really think is the sympathetic character of the story, cannot stay out of her own way. Trevor cannot stay out of his own way. For a lot of the zany side characters it’s the same thing. I love that about people. [laughs] It’s great from your outside perspective to look and see, I’m glad I’m not caught in that cycle.

You took this concept and placed it in a superhero world so effectively in part because you were thinking in terms of character.

The superhero genre has really taken its licks – and that is fair. But I think every really good superhero story – and Gun, also – is about a person or people who have one thing that they believe about themselves so much they will it to be true. I think that’s true of Trevor, I think that’s true of Olive, it’s true of Batman, it’s true of nearly every supervillain. I got stung by a bee as a kid and now I’m going to be called the beekeeper and everything I do is going to have a bee logo on it and all my crimes will involve honey or hives. That’s how it exists in the comic book world, but that’s also how it exists in the real world. That is a story of anybody who has gone back to college to get a degree in nursing or has lost a ton of weight or has decided to change how they present their gender. It’s a huge concept but if you can bring it to the human level where it makes sense under the cape under the mask then that’s gold. That’s the stuff of all the best comic book superhero stories.

What comics did you read growing up reading that stuck?

I worked in a comic book shop so I got it all. [laughs] When I was a teenager I loved the X-Men and the New Teen Titans. When I started to go to college I got introduced to Dan Clowes and Charles Burns and Chris Ware and more sophisticated narratives. I feel like as I developed comics were on a parallel path developing too. In my heart of hearts I know the vernacular of Wolfman-Perez, but at the same time I love the very small, beautifully rendered character studies you read in Chris Ware’s work.

Walk me through putting together an issue of Gun.

I like to have the script in place. I had the script for the first three issues done before I started drawing. It took like seven years to do them. [laughs] I’m the writer so I can say I think this would work better if the balloon was smaller or I don’t want to cover this art up and I can do some editing, but I like it to still be locked in. A criticism I always hear is that the book is way too overwritten. Respectfully I don’t agree but there’s a ton of text in there. Once the script is nailed down, I have an idea of how much can fit into a page and these are the beats you really need to hit in the book. As I’ve done more Gun I think I’ve gotten a little better at that. I have a layout in mind of how the book should go and then I get more granular. Like on this page should I have five or six panels. The writing is fairly easy and not very time consuming, whereas the art takes forever. [laughs] Nothing drives me crazier than getting a page or a panel done and realizing for whatever reason it doesn’t work and then it gets scrapped. [laughs] There was a lot of that on the first issue and I try to make sure that doesn’t happen any more. I work directly on the page. In the beginning I would do the inks on bristol paper. Watercolor paper has that pebbly texture which is beautiful on the art but very hard to ink over. It’s just very rough and not a good surface for inking so I would do pencils and inks on bristol board which is nice and smooth and literally print that onto watercolor paper and then paint over that. I’ve gotten better and I’m able to pencil and ink on that and then paint. A “good” page takes two or three days and a monster is four or five days.

You like playing with page design, especially in the double page spreads.

Well, yes, but you have to argue for why are you reading this and not watching a TV show. I think the argument is in the art. Yes you could see this play out cinematically but the composition and the way it emotionally affects you when you look at it, that’s what the art is bringing to the table. That’s why it’s still necessary as a book.

You wanted to do something that could only be a comic. Did you have a model for how you wanted the book to look?

That’s an interesting question because I worked at a comic book store, I have read comics my whole life, I have taken this medium inside of me. I’m not tasked by an editor to write this story, I’m not doing this as a favor for a friend, this is a story I want to write and tell in the way that I want to tell. So now here’s my shot. What do you think comics should look like? I’m a watercolorist so I always wanted to do watercolor. Beyond that, it’s like a cover song. Anyone can sing Don’t Stop Believing, but what can you do to make it yours? What can you do that will make it distinctive?

Have you always worked in watercolor?

I always loved comics, but I went to art school and watercolor my medium. I was on two separate paths. I tried I’ve been writing since I was very young, not just of comic books, I’ve written poetry and I enjoy writing. I also like to make art. I love the medium of watercolor, I love what people do in that medium. In comics I get to do both in this really nice marriage.

Reading it I was reminded in terms of style of those great painted comics from Epic and then Vertigo.

It’s funny you say that because when I pitch the book I always say it’s a throwback to those old Epic books. Comics really reached me at a visceral level with George Perez and Arthur Adams and then there was a level up where you can have comic books but they also intersect with fine art. Those guys you’re talking about – Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave McKean, Kent Williams, Jon Muth, the Hamptons. I don’t think I’m working on a fine art level with Gun, but I think it gives it a little bit of both worlds. The watercolor is not subtle. You know looking at it that this is a painted analog thing, but a lot of it is very conventionally comic book-y at first blush, too.

The first arc is one story and then with the fourth issue we pick up a little later with a different kind of story. Do you want to explain what Slaughterball is?

In the first story we meet Trevor and Olive and some additional characters and we’re introduced to this world. We leave them sort of back where they started. Slaughterball picks up a little later. It’ll be six issues. I feel like I got the road under me so I got a little ambitious with the storytelling. Essentially it’s this underground sport for super villains. They fight for control of this bomb called the slaughterball and they have seven days to get it to either of the two end zones – the west coast or the east coast of America. If they don’t, it detonates. It’s half Death Race 2000, half Cannonball Run, with a little touch of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World with super villains in the style that Gun likes to do where they’re loose screws fighting over what one of the characters calls a “murder bobble.” [laughs] Then you have these ancillary characters like the director who thinks this is going to be his masterpiece producing it for ESPN 6.

A director that in no way resembles Orson Welles, it should be mentioned.

Not even in the anagram style name! [laughs] And then you have this gonzo journalist. While I was working on the concept, I was listening to this great book about Orson Welles’ last movie that he never actually completed. It was too much of a masterpiece for him to actually finish and he’d been working on it for sixteen years. I thought it would be perfect to have this guy who is completely obsessed who is at the helm of the least artistic enterprise you can think of. I think that makes completely perfect narrative sense.

You also have an aging gonzo journalist whose voice is central.

He’s what brings Trevor in. He has to do his thing which is get on the inside and report from the inside and Trevor is his way in. He’s clearly a Hunter S. Thompson-type and honestly he’s the most delicious fun to write. I did a deep dive in Hunter Thompson’s work and his letters because I didn’t want to write in his voice but I wanted him to have it in my head when I was writing. I’ll tell you, that is a very interesting trip to take for two or three weeks. [laughs] Once you get in, it’s hard to come out. I know the passages are a chore for some comic readers cause they’re very lengthy and very wordy and that is not what a lot of comic people like, but they’re some of my favorite parts of the whole book. I’m thrilled by them.

You said that the first set of stories felt very noirish and for this I wanted it to have an exploitation feel, straight to video, and I wanted the writing to have that slightly over the top-ness. I wanted it to be not just over the top, but over that.

Like the scene where Trevor goes, what kind of car do you have for me? A van?

Oh, but that’s real. The car has to be a character and I was looking around because the obvious thing is to have something really cherry like a Challenger or a Mustang. I found out about Dodge van races. This is a real thing in Japan. Dodge van racing. [laughs]

So the fourth issue is out, where are you in fifth issue right now?

I am past the three-quarters mark. Which is always good because you feel like you got the lion’s share of the work done. It’s also bad, because all the problems I encounter I kick down the road, and then at the end of the road, it’s a lot of problems. I think that there’s a way in which Gun sabotages your expectations, but in doing so introduces you to something you like more. Like you’re like superhero book, but it’s about super villains. But then as you get into it, they never wear their costumes, they don’t use their powers, they spend a lot of time talking, and they’re not bad people. [laughs] You have this great premise of slaughterball and it can have extras getting fricasseed in every scene but I think it’s more fun to have this hodgepodge of loose screws driving at night constantly trying to get to the next location, just talking. All the weird shit you talk about on road trips. [laughs] I think it’ll be very unsatisfying if you want more of the Death Race mashup, but I think it’s extremely satisfying as far as character study work and the relationships that are at play. At the close of the last issue we bring Olive back and I know I’m too close to it, but I think the book is always better when she and Trevor are in a scene together.

I do like Olive.

I’m so happy to hear that.

So weird screwups driving and talking, so it’s like a seventies Burt Reynolds movie?

Exactly. [laughs] That’s the goal right there.

Except they have superpowers which they may occasionally use.

“May occasionally use.” Yes. [laughs] Do you remember the old Wonder Woman show? For a lot of reasons – mostly budget, but also storytelling – she would spend the show dressed up like Diana Prince and then for this amazing two minutes she would twirl and it would be this heightened reality. But it would only be for a couple minutes and then go back to normal. The superhero parts of the book occur infrequently, but when they do I want you to go, oh yeah, this is a superhero book. But Olive spends most of the first story in a hoodie.

Is there anything you’re really excited about in the next issue?

There are a couple characters that I like. They might not necessarily be the characters that people themselves like. I was talking to a friend of mine and he was saying, I don’t really like Trevor. I was like, hunh, I tried so hard to make him charming, it’s funny you don’t like him. Trevor is very good at deflecting and I think when you’re writing it’s very easy to just have him say something funny and stop there. But if you push past that, what’s the sincere thing that he could possibly say? I think that there’s a really interesting explanation for how he became a villain. Not quite a secret origin, but in that vein. We finally get to see him put it all out there instead of playing his cards close to the vest.

Do you have an endgame for the book and the characters?

I do. There’s a definite arc. I have it plotted to 50 issues. I think of these arcs as islands of stories and when you link them together and you see a through line for Trevor and Olive. Trevor and Olive fall into that category of people who are very strongly drawn to each other, but are also very bad for each other. [laughs] I think if you were to ask Trevor what he wants he’d say, I want to be Bonnie and Clyde, and if you were to ask Olive she would say, I want to get out of this life. So you have two people who are not serving each other’s better angels and what is the tension of that coming together or pulling them apart.

One thought on “Smash Pages Q&A: Jack Foster on super villains and ‘Gun’”

  1. I appreciate the article and further insight into Jack’s mind of the book and the characters. Definitely a big fan of the book and I am looking forward to more of the current storyline as well as further stories.

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