Smash Pages Q&A: Justin Jordan on ‘Breaklands’

The writer of ‘Urban Animals,’ ‘Luther Strode’ and many other comics discusses the second season of the comiXology title, world-building, writing a digital title and more.

Justin Jordan is the writer behind comics series like The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, Dead Body Road, Reaver, Spread, Strayer and many others. He writes the Webtoon series Urban Animals, which is wrapping up its third season now. He wrote the upcoming Summoner’s War: Legacy comic launching in April.

Meanwhile the second season of his series with artist Tyasseta, Breaklands, is coming out on comiXology now, with the fifth and final issue out March 23. The first season has just been collected into a trade collection from Dark Horse Comics.

We spoke about the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction, his approach to world-building, writing for digital vs. print, and more.

When I first saw solicits I thought, “Ugh, another post-apocalyptic story.” I’m a bit tired of them, admittedly, but I really loved Breaklands.

I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love post-apocalyptic fiction, but with Breaklands what I was trying to do was, for lack of a better term, post-post-apocalyptic fiction. I can watch something like Mad Max: Fury Road and its viscerally affecting in the moment, but for a lot of stuff I find myself asking, “Okay, but what happens further down the road?” That’s one of the things that I like and frustrates me about The Walking Dead. At the risk of being hipster originalist about it, in terms of the actual zombie outbreak stuff, the George Romero movies and 28 Days Later have covered basically that two iterations of that time that are interesting to me. Not a knock on people that like zombie movies, but for me, I’m interested in how society is adapting to that stuff. That’s what I wanted to bring into Breaklands. Romero got there with Land of the Dead. Breaklands is post-apocalypse and it is after the end of our world, but things have been fairly stable and people are living okay lives. It’s not this hard scrabble existence of the Mad Max folks. 

The appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction for many people is that it’s a blank slate, and you don’t want a blank slate, you want to find new ways to rearrange and reorganize and rebuild things.

Exactly. That’s the idea behind doing this as opposed to making a fictional fantasy world. Sometimes I’ll have ideas that I think would be interesting if Superman or whoever did it, and people say, “You could just file off the serial numbers and tell this story.” Well, I could, but part of the reason this is interesting is because of the resonance of the pre-existing stuff. It’s different if a Superman-like character murders a General Zod-like character versus Superman killing General Zod. Those are manifestly two different things. It’s one thing to blow up Zernobia, the capital of Gwendelharb, but it’s another thing to have aliens blow up New York City. 

So where did Breaklands start?

Most ideas have a bunch of different mommies and daddies, and Breaklands is no different. Sometimes it is interesting to think, “If people did start developing superpowers, what would it look like?” It probably wouldn’t look like a comic book superhero world. That’s not a knock on comic book superhero worlds. I thought about Akira, where you have basically god-like levels of power and people would reshape the world. What if there was more than one of them? The usual way to do things – I am not the first person to tread this territory – is, “I have powers and I’m the special one.” Well, what if you invert that? What if you don’t have powers. That stewed together until I spat out Breaklands. I’ve talked about how I was always a little disappointed at the ways the Jedi and Sith would use their powers in combat. There’s some of that DNA in there. If everyone has powers, how would they use them? Also, I just wanted a world to have adventures in.

You were thinking in terms of a massive world, and I’m sure in your head you have a map and a lot happening just outside the panels.

Oh yeah. There’s a lot of stuff going on that doesn’t make it into the story. That’s part of the fun of it. World building is so seductive. I don’t know if “frustrating” is the word I want to use, but in comics it makes you realize how much real estate you actually have in 120 pages of story. It’s easy for me to say this because I write and don’t have to draw it, but there is a part of me that would love to do this big 100 or 200 issue thing where you dive deep into every part of a big fictional world. To a large extent that’s the appeal of epic fantasy and these ongoing series where you get to explore these big, magical worlds. Magical in the story sense. It’s hard to do that in comics unless you have a very large canvas to do it.

This goes back to Star Wars, but I wanted it to feel like an immersive world. George Lucas is really good at making things feel big and making things feel immersive. The cantina scene in Star Wars is full of stuff that made some awesome action figures, but every bit of it gives this sense of a world that exists beyond what you’re seeing on the screen. That’s what I was trying to evoke. Give a sense that these characters and these situations are just what we’re looking at, but there’s a lot going on that we haven’t turned our eye to. 

I would argue that’s one of the things you’re good at. This sense of what’s going on and the scope of a world. And that sense of scale is hard.

I do think that’s one of the things I’m good at. It’s one of those things that comes in handy in my career more often than I would have expected. I know I’ve gotten a lot of work just based on that. Well, you know, to make a world that exists outside the thing and you’ve thought about what that means, so we’re going to give you work. [laughs] 

I can break down some of the ways you’re able to do that, but it’s this complex balance, and you do it very well.

Thank you. It’s tricky. Internally I’m always fighting between wanting to do that versus wanting to keep the story going, especially in Breaklands. I was working on another thing and people said, “This is an entire season in one episode.” Which was fair. That tends to be my default setting. With Breaklands I was fighting against that. To a certain extent it’s a travelogue. Here’s this cool world, and I need enough story to make it interesting, but hopefully you find the world cool. One of the inspirations behind it was Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder, which is a lovely series, and I always liked in the trade editions how she would footnote and annotate everything. It gives this depth to the world that I always liked. That was some of the feeling I was trying to replicate in Breaklands

I’m curious about working digitally. Do you think about it any differently than writing for print?

A bit. I admire people who will come up with these amazing panel layouts that are really using the page well. I am not that kind of a writer. I don’t go in for a lot of elaborate page layouts, and left to my own devices, I don’t have many double-page splashes. That has worked well for me because comiXology is intended to be guided view, and it’s not intended for double-page spreads. The comiXologyoriginal pitch we sent them had a double-page spread, but we re-engineered it to work as a single page. At this point I don’t even think about it. When we’re doing the art, we have to consider what kind of screen they’re looking at, but you have to consider that in print, too. I was working on a graphic novel, and we had a double-page spread, but it was in the middle of a fairly thick graphic novel, which means that anything in the center of the page people won’t be able to read, so don’t have any important details there.

But you two are still thinking in terms of a comics page and how it should look.

Yeah. Part of that is because that’s just how we think. Part of it is that comiXology is the one who creates the guided view. If they had asked us to do it, it would probably be a different animal. With Urban Animal, Webtoon uses an endless scroll and is optimized to be looked at on a phone, so John Amor and I have to look at the way that works and how we’re telling the story. It is not like a comics page at all. Breaklands is much closer to how we do regular comics. We just tweak it to make sure it works in the format where it’s primarily going to be viewed. But the format where it’s primarily going to be viewed is designed to adapt comics pages, so it works out. Whereas Webtoon is a whole different animal.

The first season of Urban Animal should be out in trade form in another month or two, and we partnered with Rocket Ship Entertainment to do that. A large part of the reason we did that was because the re-engineering to turn the endless scroll that we did into a comic book page was just so much work that we couldn’t both do the comic and get that done. So we farmed it out to someone who has experience doing it because it’s immensely time consuming.

As far as Breaklands, do you have an ending you’re writing toward or a vague idea? How do you plot?

I’ve been in comics for a while now and in general, unless you are an extraordinary outlier, you are lucky to get a lot of issues. I always go into things now with the assumption that we’re not going to get super far. I always have a built-in idea of where I want the story to go. I’m not a meander through the story kind of guy. With Breaklands, volume two does not end definitively, but volume three will. That’s not to say that there might only be three volumes of Breaklands. I would be open to doing more. But the singular plot of Kasa and Adam will end with volume three. Further volumes, should they happen, would be a different exploration of this world. So I know where this iteration ends. I am hoping that we get a third season, but we haven’t talked about it yet. You try to split the difference where it’s not meant to be a complete story, but hopefully the arc is complete enough that it works out. That has served me pretty well. Back when we did Luther Strode, the reason it is three miniseries is that we didn’t think we were ever going to do the next one, so they were all designed to work as their own thing.

That’s out of necessity now. You can’t plan too far ahead.

I look back and when we did Team 7 at DC, which was my first DC work, I had a 25-issue plan. I look back at young – I say young but I was in my 30s, so I wasn’t that young – but I look back at baby writer Justin and go, “Such optimism!” [laughs] 

At the time, you thought two years isn’t that much time, but…

Yeah. As yet, I did 25 issues of Spread and 21 issues worth of stuff for Green Lantern: New Guardians, but most of the stuff I’ve done has been much, much shorter. Both by design and sales numbers! Urban Animal is now probably the longest thing I’ve done. I think we are now at the equivalent of 27 or 28 issues? The third season just ended, and there’s nine-ish issues each season. That’s probably my most substantial body of work on a single thing. Earlier in my career I thought 25 issues was a short run. It’s certainly not now. You get exceptions, but for the most part if you do 25 issues, you’re in the top five percent of writers.

We’ve meandered around a bit, but the Breaklands trade is out and the second season is ending soon on Comxiology. But as a last word, what else are you working on?

I am still doing Urban Animal at Webtoon. The third season is ending and the fourth season will be out sometime this summer.

I’m also doing the comics that are in the Call of Duty mobile game. It’s funny because both of those have such massive audiences. The Call of Duty mobile comics are read by literally millions of people whenever we release them. I’m also doing Summoner’s War, which is an adaptation of the Summoners’s War game. I get a shocking amount of video game adaptation work for somebody who does not play video games. That is coming out soon.

Beyond that, I’ve got two creator-owned things that are unannounced and are well underway, and we’ll hopefully announce those by the end of the year. I’m working on a couple of non-comics projects that are taking up a lot of my time.

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