Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the recent release of your comic book, Captain Gaia #0! For those who may be unfamiliar, how would you describe the series’ premise, and what inspired you to tell this story?
Johny Tay: Thanks very much, Barbra, and thanks for featuring my work for this interview.
The creative spark for this story came in 2013, when I read about a group of Greenpeace activists who attempted to board and disable a Russian oil drilling platform off the Pechora Sea (near the Arctic). Russian commandos impounded their ship, (allegedly) beat them brutally, and released them only after some months.
Incidents like this made me realize that environmental problems are never just about conservation. They are about politics and social psychology as well.
So, I ruminated: Who in the world would have the power and audacity to rescue the activists in a perfect world?
I decided not to make Captain Gaia another "serious" superhero comic. I wanted a parody; something that plays out like a South Park episode, almost a black comedy that reflects the state of modern politics back at the reader.
And I needn’t look far to find a treasure trove of ideas from pop culture and old cartoons; most obviously, Captain Planet and Dragon Ball.
BD: What can you share with us about your creative process in writing this first issue, and what have been some of your creative influences? Likewise, what can you share about your process in working with your creative team?
JT: The beginning is always the trickiest. Even though this was one issue, the fictional world of Captain Gaia had to be fleshed out to make the story solid. Characters, motivations, and how superpowers worked had to be well thought-out.
What readers see in this one issue is only the tip of the iceberg in the world creation process. For example, when describing how a character looks to my collaborators, it’s far more than just “cool rebellious guy.”
I drafted detailed profiles for each character, their history, and even how their personality influences how they look. This is in addition to providing tons of visual references, of course. Readers can get some insight into the depth of the personalities in the character profile pages within the comic.
Since the story premise was an environmental incident, the obvious character to parody was Captain Planet. But my version of superhero needed to go beyond that. It is obvious that environmental issues cannot be solved by nicely cajoling people and factions to be nicer to nature – this is a time for tough action and little mercy.
This new thinking is represented in Captain Gaia, who personifies a Planet Earth that is fed up with the damage caused by humans. Again, another close parallel can be found in pop culture – the Dragon Ball super-Saiyan whose anger and power has been untethered.
I am fortunate to have found and received the support of two great artists, Giuseppe and Stefano. I am based in Singapore, and they in two places in Italy, so this is a wholly remote collaboration. All the communications are done in writing, and marking up change requests in scanned artwork or page drafts. We managed to overcome all the barriers of geography, and have produced a title that is good enough for ComiXology.
BD: What do you hope that readers will take away from your work?
JT: Apart from being thoroughly entertained by this issue’s action and humor, the moral of the story is quite clear (and in fact, blatantly spelt out in the concluding pages of the comic). The environment does not exist alone and apart from us.
Also, I have been surprised by the lack of pop culture characters and projects that puts focus on the environment. They are few and far between, with Captain Planet being one of them. One of the barriers for their shortage is the difficulty of the subject matter – it’s hard to avoid being preachy and reducing the characters to one-dimensional do-gooders. Captain Planet was suitable for its time but no longer works today.
With this comic, I’m hoping to show that it IS possible to have a conservation theme in a story and still have engaging multi-dimensional characters and good entertainment value.
BD: Do you have a certain number of issues planned for the Captain Gaia series?
JT: I currently have no firmed-up plans to make a full series, though the ideas are already in my head. Issue #0 is the ‘special single issue’ that makes some important statements and can stand on its own.
But in a perfect world, I’d love to have five volumes in a Captain Gaia series, each set in a different continent, focusing on the continent’s biggest conservation issues (like the original, each of the five eco-warrior characters hails from a particular continent and controls a particular elemental power). As well, each volume can then focus on the backstory and struggle of a particular eco-warrior.
BD: If given the opportunity to expand your series into other entertainment mediums, in what format do you hope to see it adapted?
JT: As with all my projects, I never see Captain Gaia as “just a comic,” but an important story that happens to take the comic form at this point in time. The next obvious medium that comes to mind is a gritty animation series, with similar art direction as the Japanese adaptation of X-Men or Avatar: The Legend of Korra. (Incidentally, my version of eco-warriors do not shoot off their powers from their rings; they are accomplished fighters who wear dual bracelets that let them wield the elements like the fighters from the Avatar series.)
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
JT: Actually, Captain Gaia is the first comic in the superhero genre that I have created. My work is quite diverse and covers several platforms.
I have just finished a revised edition of an older title, Seven Years in Dog-Land. This is a serious graphic novel that hearkens to Alice in Wonderland, but in my story, the lead character lands up in an alternate world where dogs are the dominant species and humans are their pets. The new edition is pending review in ComiXology, and I intend to have a print version, as well.
I am also working on an ongoing series of editorial cartoons based on Zen philosophy, Everyday Zen. I have a Facebook Page for single-panel versions, and last year published a short story series with Lezhin, a leading platform for webtoons.
The next project on my radar is a short story (about 10 comic pages) which I hope to submit to a good comic book anthology. This story centers on a conversation between a starving monk and a little girl who is “just passing by” – in their debate they cover “life, the universe, and everything.”
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Captain Gaia?
JT: The special single issue includes character profiles and some notes on my journey, so getting a copy from ComiXology is the best place to start! Outside my own sources, this interview itself is a great source for background of how the project came to be.
Besides Captain Gaia, I have created a diverse collection of comics over the last 20 years. You can get all the information about them from my personal website.