Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the upcoming release of your creator-owned comic, Tartarus, with Image Comics! What inspired you to tell this sci-fi story?
Johnnie Christmas: Thank you! It started from the seed of an idea, an orphan (Tilde) learning she’s the daughter of an infamous warlord (Surka). What a legacy like that means when some folks think of your mom as a freedom fighter, but most think of her as a tyrant. Then, throw in some cool cutting edge sci-fi, smuggling cartels, warrior monks, mythology, and it has everything I’ve ever wanted in a comic. Those ingredients also allow us room to weave in threads of symbolism, alchemy, and even visual elements of tarot into the series.
BD: How did you come to work together on Tartarus, and how would you describe your shared creative process in telling this story together?
Jack T. Cole: Johnnie checked out my work since we were fellow exhibitors at VanCAF 2015 and proposed working on a project at some point. The shared process of the story has been a lot of discussion about what sort of technology we wanted the world to revolve around, and the mythological and social themes we wanted to explore.
BD: Likewise, Johnnie, what can you tell us about your transition from illustrator to writer for this comic, and did you find the new role provided you with new challenges or tools as storyteller?
JC: It’s been an easy one, to be honest, because even when I write for myself, I write full script. I’d say the biggest challenge is making sure my descriptions are crystal clear, so that they aren’t confusing for Jack, for Jim (our letterer) or Stephanie (our editor). Which is no different than the clarity I had to bring to bear while writing my previous book, Firebug.
BD: At Fanbase Press this year, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Tartarus’ story will connect with and impact readers, and why do you feel that this story was important for you to bring to life?
JC: My first goal is that I hope Tartarus entertains. I want people to be as excited to read each new issue as we are to make it. But for impact outside of its entertainment value, I like that we have a majority POC cast, majority Black cast, most of our leads are women, yet the focus of our story isn’t racism or sexism. The focus is on these incredible characters facing challenges in an awesome sci-fi world.
Here, I’ll lean on Toni Morrison when she said, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” Our characters are free from the damaging “definitions” of our reality. They’re not defined by our external definers.
Morrison goes on in regards to racism: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.”
The characters in Tartarus live free of those distractions. So, too, our reader can escape to new imagined worlds, escape to and envelope themselves in (at least for a little while) a place where this world’s definitions also don’t define them.
JTC: My desire with any artistic undertaking is to be immersive and in that way to hopefully expand the scope of the human imagination. I hope a reader coming to Tartarus will leave with another facet with which to think of the universe, and hopefully with that brain muscle of theirs flexed. I think it’s important to stay imaginative; it keeps you open to seeing things in new ways and recognizing the incredible even within the commonplace.
BD: What makes Image Comics the perfect home for Tartarus?
JC: At Image we’re free to craft the story precisely the way we want - the format, the presentation, all of it. Seeing this book look and feel exactly how we want it, to have our vision executed exactly to our standards, I can’t begin to describe how rewarding that is. We wanted a double-sized first issue, so we did it. We wanted to max it out with fun extras - a map here, a schematic there - and we did it, and they’ve supported us in doing so.
JTC: I don’t think I could say it any better than Johnnie! We’ve also been able to expand scenes out past the 22-page mark to give moments more time to play out and such, too.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
JC: I can’t quite talk about those yet, but hopefully soon!
JTC: Tartarus is all I got for the moment.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Tartarus and your other work?
JC: I’m online at johnniechristmas.com, Twitter (@j_xmas), and Instagram (johnniexmas). They can also shoot us a line at tartaruscomic (at) gmail (dot) com.
JTC: And my Twitter and tumblr handle is @newjackcole.