The Death Of Humanity And A Talking Space Whale: DJ Kirkbride Talks ‘The Bigger Bang’ [Interview]
When you look at the cover to DJ Kirkbride and Vassilis Gogtzilas's The Bigger Bang, it's easy to think that you know exactly what's going on in that book. Big guy, impossible muscles, cape, space; surely this is a cosmic superhero adventure. And it is, except that it's not long until you hit upon the formless tentacle monster who rose to power as galactic emperor through his fast-food chicken franchise, and the heavily accented space whale in trouble. That's when you realize that The Bigger Bang is a whole lot stranger, and more interesting, than you thought.
With the fourth issue set for release on March 18, I spoke to writer DJ Kirkbride about the series, how it was built to be something unlike anything he'd ever done, and just what it was about a giant Cthulhu monster in a tiny little crown that made the book so good.
ComicsAlliance: The Bigger Bang is a weird book.
DJ Kirkbride: What? Now you tell me! No, we knew that going in, that this is a weird one.
CA: It's interesting, because it doesn't go where you expect. You see a guy flying around in a cape doing good, so you're definitely speaking a language that comics readers already know, but it ends up being completely different than you think.
DK: It's in our wheelhouse, although I will say that the key difference in my opinion is the fact that the guy we're used to, Superman, was an innocent baby when the explosion happened. This guy, his birth kind of created the explosion. In my mind, that's the key.
CA: For anyone who hasn't read it, maybe you can give us the basic premise.
DK: Well basically, there's this guy named Cosmos, and he loves lasagna and hates Mondays.
CA: That fits, he is orange.
DK: It tracks, it all tracks! It's Garfield fan-fiction. No, The Bigger Bang is a cosmic space opera, greatly informed by my co-creator and artist Vasilis Gogtzilas. Basically, the logline is that the Big Bang created us and all life as we know it, and the Bigger Bang created just one life, at the expense of all of ours. The beginning of the book is the end of humanity, and then we see where we go from there.
CA: And he's a superhero. He has a cape and boots and flies around doing good, but he's motivated by this really powerful guilt from the way he was created, which is what plays out over the course of the series. Cosmos is ultra-powerful and ultra-guilty, Wyan is a soldier who does terrible things because she's following orders, and then King Thulu, who is Cthulhu in a military jacket and a crown.
DK: King Thulhu was created in a drawing by Vasilis, and I was like, "All right, this guy is the bad guy." But yeah, I think part of it is that Cosmos's guilt, the thing that, to me, really makes it interesting, is that it's basically the idea of a kid who feels guilty because his mother dies in childbirth. It's clearly not the kid's fault. That's how I look at it; it's not Cosmos's fault, but in this cosmic sense, in this ridiculous comic, no one knows for sure, and his birth was the cause of such destruction that he can't help but have it weigh on him.
But as far as his decisions go, he's a good guy, whereas Wyan makes some pretty bad choices just by following orders, but even she didn't know anything different until she met Cosmos. I think there's a lot of grey in the book, except for Thulu, who's just crazy and evil and loves power.
CA: It's this idea of someone who doesn't have a choice in a creation, set against someone who doesn't realize she has a choice, set against someone who's manipulating everyone around him to take their choices away.
DK: Exactly. Thulu pulls the strings, and hopefully it's interesting to see how Wyan learns that she doesn't have to follow those orders, and seeing Cosmos get seduced into it and seeing how he's going to fight it. We set out to do this thing in a huge multiverse where we could do anything we wanted, and it really became about three characters out of trillions, but that's how it developed.
CA: There's that bit in the third issue where King Thulu basically brands Cosmos, and it's one of the most sinister things I've ever seen in comics.
DK: Oh, thank you.
CA: Am I right in assuming that's you riffing on the way superheroes have been used as corporate icons?
DK: Absolutely, and not just superheroes, but all public figures and ideas. It can get as ridiculously broad as countries, branding "us vs. them," but for this one, yeah, it's definitely a superhero story. I thought it would be interesting, especially because Cosmos isn't dumb, but he's been very sheltered and he's very innocent. I like the idea of him doing good but maybe for the wrong reasons, and having something even worse happen that he doesn't even know about. All he wants is to be loved, and now he is, but it's at the price of being the puppet of this big evil Cthulhu monster on the throne in a flying space castle.
CA: The first thing that you establish, #1, page one, is that King Thulu's entire galactic empire is this division of his chicken sliders restaurant. He's the most corporate villain possible.
DK: I think the book's really funny, and it's interesting to see how people read it differently. It's certainly over-the-top, and Vas's art is definitely really intensely cartoony, so to me, it had to be funny. There's nothing more nefarious than chicken sliders, in my opinion.
CA: Let's talk about Vassilis and the art, then. If you described this book to me, I'd never picture it looking like this, but having read it, I can't imagine it looking like anything else. You said that he was designing characters even before you knew who you wanted your villain to be?
DK: Oh, 100%. Honestly, he's the catalyst for it all. It's a true co-creation, we did it in a version of the Marvel method up until the end, and it really started with him sending a drawing of the guy who would become Cosmos, a black-and-white drawing of this muscle-man in space. He actually sent it to me and Adam P. Knave, who I co-write Amelia Cole with, and said he wanted to do a cosmic superhero comic. Adam was busy writing a million books and reading a billion books and was just too swamped to take it on, so I said "Well let me see here."
It really started there, and the whole "Bigger Bang" aspect of his creation popped into my head early on. We started going from there, I'd describe a character and he'd draw it. Thulu was a monster drawing he did, and some of the fairytale visuals of the book, like the castle, most obviously, were the tone that he wanted. It's a very dark, dark premise, but there's an exuberance and a fairytale aspect to where Vas was at artistically, and what he wanted to do, that really informed it.
It was a really organic way of doing a book. I'd never done a book like this before. I'd send him descriptions and story and have to rework it based on his art. It was difficult, but in a good way, and I never would've created it without Vasilis, and vice versa. The end results are something that I never would've expected, and now that #4 is done and will be out soon and I've read it all, and it feels pretty satisfying. I'm glad, although I feel like as it went on, we learned how to work together better. Like "Oh, now we know what we're doing."
CA: Was there a particular moment where that crystallized, and it all came together really well?
DK: There are a lot of moments that I really liked. I like a lot of the first issue. I like Cosmos's origin, which was our pitch, which we rearranged so that it wasn't at the start of the issue. I really liked the scene with Larla the Space Whale.
Initially, the scene was Wyan and Thulu's pilots chasing Cosmos, and there was going to be a fight scene, but as Vassilis was drawing it, he laid it out differently and the issue ended up being short. We talked about adding a fight scene or extending the fight, and I said, "Well how about he saves something? A space whale?" And Vas drew it.
That's why we brought her back for #4, I really like that kind of thing, it's the only-in-comics madness of the book. I have no trouble seeing a giant space whale with a ton of eyes talking to our main character. That really came from us just ping-ponging off of each other, and she became one of my favorite characters. She's definitely the most fun to write, with her ridiculous accent.
CA: She explains the premise at the end.
DK: I know! That's what's crazy, I didn't know she was going to exist and then she has the most important line. With Amelia Cole, Adam and I plot it pretty tightly, and we're flexible, and Nate Brokenshire, our artist, changes things sometimes, but we all work together. This one was a much more organic process. We had the basic beats, but it was that type of book where we could introduce a character on the fly who ends up being the one who explains the whole deal to the main character in the last issue.
It's pretty scary. I don't know if you've ever written in that style before, but at first I thought it would feel like a cheat. In the end, it was, in a lot of ways, way more difficult than if I'd sat there and completely written the script and sent it to an artist.
CA: Not to put you on the spot, because you're the writer, but do you know how he draws this book? It looks like it has a lot of Bill Sienkiewicz influence, but some parts are painted, and others look like he's just going in with a ballpoint pen to scratch out eyebrows and explosions. It doesn't look like anything else on the stands, including those painted covers.
DK: I first met Vasilis when he contributed a story to Popgun v.2, and we kept in touch. He and I did a little short story, and every time I see his art, it looks different. In Popgun v. 3, he did a very photorealistic story in pencils, sepia toned. It was a little jarring at first, because I knew what I was expecting, and then when he sent things, some were hyper-detailed and others, I felt like he had some giant canvas and was just moving his arms wildly, getting the action and emotions out. I had to adjust my expectations, and that helped me get into the story more. He's a passionate guy.
We've never spoken on the phone, but our emails back and forth, it's really interesting. Everything he does is on purpose. Every stylistic change, there's a reason for it. In the end, he's very fun to work with because you never know just what a page is going to look like.
CA: Especially with, again, King Thulu being what he is, right down to his hilarious little crown. You can realize where that's going visually from the moment the story starts, it's a climax that fits how the story looks from the beginning.
DK: I'm glad you say that. There were a lot of changes with #4, trying to find a satisfactory ending. We knew what the very ending was, but it was how to get there. Our editor, Justin Eisinger, pushed us. It was a lot less confrontational originally, and then it became a matter of this is how Vas draws. We can go way over the top with it. Honestly, I wish we had a few more pages, because I love that double-page spread, and I would've loved to do more visuals like that, just to show the size difference. It was really cool.
CA: Whose idea was it to give King Thulu's word balloons two tails? That's such a great visual that I don't think I've ever seen before, this visual indication that something is speaking with a voice that's not quite right.
DK: I'm so glad you said that. That was our letter, Frank Cvetkovic. He did a couple of times when Thulu yelled, and did it a lot more at the end. It threw me and Justin off, and he said it's a technique he'd seen in manga before and thought it was appropriate. I'm so glad he did, it completely works.
CA: It's a great little visual trick that I want to steal now.
DK: Frank's great. There are versions of #1 and #2 with way more words in them, and I got some feedback from friends, as well as from Justin, and ended up cutting a lot. Frank lettered those two issues twice, and was really great about it. His letters tie the art and the script together really well, he's getting better every time I work with him, and he's indispensable on this book. I was really happy working with him.