Jonathan Ross Talks ‘Turf,’ the Future of Comics on the iPad
If you don’t know the name Jonathan Ross it means that 1) you aren’t from Britain where Ross is a ubiquitous household name for his work as a television presenter, and 2) you haven’t yet heard about his new comic, “Turf,” whose first issue came out from Image Comics this week. Drawn by Tommy Lee Edwards (“1985″), the four-issue miniseries takes place in New York City during the Prohibition era, and features a cast of characters ranging from vampires to aliens, who find themselves colliding in the midst of a brutal gang war.
ComicsAlliance talked to Ross at the recent Wondercon convention, where he impressed us with his encyclopedic knowledge of Silver Age comics, shared his ideas on what the iPad means for the future of comics, and explained how “Turf” calls back to his love of old school comics — and why it’s more than just gangsters vs. vampires vs. aliens.
ComicsAlliance: You’re a longtime comics fan –
Jonathan Ross: It’s probably my one big passion. Comics were always my first love as a kid, and always have been, except for a brief period when punk rock took over around 1976 or ’77. Either side of that, comics all the way.
CA: Is “Turf” the big comic book idea that you’ve been carrying around all these years?
JR: No, oddly, I’ve had too many ideas, like a lot of comics fans. I think my story is a fairly commonplace one. When I was a kid I’d do my rip-off version of Spider-Man and the stuff I’d imagine sending in to DC and Marvel and never did. I had my own X-Men book, which was “The Mutant Army,” which I’ve got some artwork for somewhere. And when “RAW” came out in the ’80s, I started drawing one-page strips that made no sense. I’ve always dabbled, and I’ve always drawn, primarily…
I got friendly with Mark Millar a few years back, who first contacted me in 1977 when he wrote his first book, “Saviour,” where had someone who was sort of the yuppie Antichrist, and he based it on me. We didn’t know each other. This was long before “Chosen,” it was this black and white indie thing, low print run. It wasn’t great. And he said to me, I’m really sorry, we put this book out and we don’t want to get sued. And I said no, I love comics. It was perhaps the most unflattering portrayal of me – it wasn’t really me; it was basically Satan, but he had a talk show. So that’s how I met Mark. Then a few years later I saw these books that I liked… that said Mark Millar, and I thought, could it be the same guy? And I checked, and it was…Couple of years later I was reading all these ’70s books and came up with a whole line of comics and new characters. And not one of them was Turf, by the way. I told Mark about it, and he said, you should just write something. Just do something, and I’ll put you in touch with these guys. So I wrote three books, one which might happen still, one which was a weird superhero thing, and one was “Turf.” The one that was least fleshed out was “Turf.” I sent all three ideas to Tommy [Lee Edwards], whose work I loved on “1985,” and he initially liked the superhero thing, but then he changed his mind and said, “I want to do ‘Turf.'” And I’m thrilled he did, because it’s given us the chance to work together as a team, and also, it really suits his style.
CA: There’s a noir feel to “Turf” that I enjoyed, and it’s been interesting to see this resurgence in comics that are noir or noir-influenced.
JR: Yeah, I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s just a kind of feeling that people – superhero books, it’s hard to always keep going back to that. That’s one of the things that I love about Image [Comics]: the books are so disparate. The diversity here is off the scale. I’ve got loads of Golden Age and Silver Age Western [comics], I’ve got romance books. I’ve really started getting into romance books, recently, the ’60s DC ones. Really great, bold, weird covers and strange stories. They’re like Douglas Sirk movies. There’s a lot under the surface they can’t say. It’s strange that men who were basically more worried about health insurance for their families could put this on the page. So yeah, I love the diversity, and I love that Tommy and I are trying to do something that isn’t really keeping with the speedy, graphic comics – it’s more text driven than anything.
CA: Did you feel like you had a learning curve at all as a writer, adapting to the fact that the visuals in comics can do a lot of the talking for you?
JR: Well, bizarrely, some of the pages I drew first… And I was pleased with it until I saw what Tommy could do, and then I said, I’ve really got to stick to writing. The learning curve for me has been learning to cut back on the text, trusting Tommy more, and giving it more space. I want to put so much in there – too many in there. We could have done ten books with this and it probably would have felt more paced than a lot of comic books. You read a lot of them where nothing happens. I don’t like that.
CA: Yeah, if you going to pay something like $3.99 for a comic, you want to feel like you’ve gotten something.
JR: Well, ours is $2.99. We could have gone $3.99, and really for the amount of work we put into it, it would probably be justified. But I want people to read them. If I had my way, it would be 12 cents and be sold at newsstands. I love the comic book stores I go to and the freedom and sophistication that the direct marketplace has given comics – well, theoretical sophistication, since it’s used for T&A and violence, mostly. But there is a lot of great stuff out there.
CA: What was your original pitch for “Turf”?
JR: The simple high concept pitch was “Vampires vs. Gangsters vs. Aliens in New York.” It just seemed like a natural fit. I love those 1930s gangster movies, “Angels with Dirty Faces” and Jimmy Cagney and Bogart, of course. I love the idea of Bogart and Cagney meeting Dracula. Dracula was on the Broadway stage in the late ’20s, and the movie came out in ’29 or ’30. But in that period, with all those Universal horror movies, they were always set in Europe, Romania, Germany. It was almost like they didn’t think the supernatural could exist in America.
CA: What does it mean to set a vampire tale in America? How does that change it?
JR: It changes it because I like the idea that they would have come over like all other immigrants to Ellis Island. And I love the idea of a vampire family – I shouldn’t give too much away. In the end of book five, there’s a kind of coda; the gangs have kinda laid waste and there’s rebuilding to be done, and these voodoo guys show up from Haiti with zombies. I don’t know if I want to write a sequel, but I’ve written this prison breakout where [the zombies] deliberately allow themselves to get caught. So the zombies are in the prison system, where some of the gangsters, and one of them g
ets given the electric chair, which of course doesn’t bother him. That’ll be in series two if we do them. There are a lot of ideas, but it’s all about reining them in for the structure and tying it all together.
I spent about six months plotting [“Turf”], and there’s an actual point to it, which there isn’t always in comic books. When I go to the movies, I love popcorn movies – the big, cheeky summer movies where you just see cars explode and people punch each other, and you go home and say, “that was fun.” But I like it when someone tries to say something… And what’s always fascinated me about crime is how these guys commit crimes, but how they justify it to themselves. Because they’re people too, and they tend to have relationships and yet they do these unspeakable things to other men and women for money, and yet they have families. Most of them are lost, and don’t quite know why they’re doing it, or they’re doing it for reasons over and above what they seem to be.
CA: So it’s vampires vs. aliens vs. gangsters, but it goes deeper than that as well?
JR: You hear the pitch, and it sounds like a kid with ADD. But it’s ultimately more about the need for family and the need for trusting each other, the need to get along rather than just doing what you want. There’s one evil character that just gets more evil, the cop you see putting out a cigarette on a dead hooker after he’s finished abusing her. I’ve made him about as evil as you can be. You see what made him that way, what lead him down that path, and he’s given several chance to change his ways and do the right thing rather than satisfy his own needs…
There is some sex in some of the books, and – the violence is more extreme and more explicit than a movie of that period, but no more than you would see in a modern horror action movie now. I think you have to do that if you’re playing to a modern audience, but the sex – we’re deliberately not showing women naked for the hell of it. In book three, Susie’s been caught and she’s tied up under the mansion… and I said, it’s a woman in bondage, but let’s not make it salacious. And it’s good, because Tommy’s on the same page. She’s going to hopefully look like you would have looked in a 1940s movie, so she’ll be quite sexy, but it’s classy. And it’s more fun as well. She’s hopefully a proper person. She’s not in it just so we’ve got T&A.
CA: Now, you’d mentioned wanting comics to be cheaper, and they’ve just released the iPad, which seems to offer a new way to buy and distribute comics in a less expensive way.
JR: It’s funny, do you know Johnny Ive, the [Apple] designer? I met with him in a bar yesterday, and he gave me an iPad.
CA: How do you like it?
JR: Well, I’m in a hotel with very slow wireless, so I tried syncing it and I had to download all these upgrades for iTunes and Quicktime and Safari. So just before I ran down to do this, it finished updating, and I haven’t had a chance to play with it. The Marvel app, apparently, is awesome. I already use an app on my iPhone called Comixology, and that’s great. That’s how I’ve been reading “Elephantmen.” These guys [at Image] said they were going to put [“Turf”] on Comixology as well. This is the way forward. You wouldn’t want a comic on Kindle. I love my Kindle, but the images and photographs are terrible… Apple beat them to it. We’re so used to the vividness and brightness of images on a screen now. When you look at family photos [in print] they look like they’re missing something, because they’re not backlit. But you look at them on your computer, and they’re awesome.
CA: I know some people in comics are concerned —
JR: I love comic books, and I don’t think [print versions] will ever die, because there’s something about that size, and turning those pages. Just like novels in paperback or hardcover. They’ll never die. People like holding on them and having them. I know people in my generation – but probably less so yours, and less so the one yet to come – don’t really trust digital. Because you want to know when you’ve bought it that you’ve really got it. If it’s on your computer, it could be wiped too easily.
CA: And you can’t trade it with friends.
JR: That’s kind of a psychological barrier. But the comics stuff I love reading [digitally] because I’ve got this massive collection; storage of comics is a real pain in the backside… When I’m away and I don’t have a book, I’ll just download, say, some vintage “Fantastic Four,” just to look at them again. And it’s a really nice way to look at them. Even on the iPhone, the panels on the older books aren’t really that different from what they would have been. You look at [Steve] Ditko with his five panels a page, and that’s the size they would have been. It’s almost like he knew. [laughs] But you still want the books, because it’s not the same. At least with the older ones. With the new books and the way art is created and printed now, they don’t look that different. You’ve got digital coloring, it’s laid out in Photoshop, the lettering doesn’t look that human anymore… I’m not a fan and neither is Tommy, so that’s why we deliberately wanted ours lettered.
CA: And maybe it is a bit of a generational thing, but I tend to be a bigger fan of the collections these days than the singles.
JR: The collection you will look at again, and the collection will have the extra stuff as well. But that’s what makes the industry exciting and vibrant right now, because the potential of that is really only just being tapped now. I think graphic novels have helped, knowing that you get that whole story. I’m sure that’s broadening the appeal, and why you’re getting more women at conventions. There’s something about that men and that borderline Asperger’s where you want to number and collect and codify, and you want the ones that are hard to find. Whereas if you actually want it as a reading experience and to engage with the story as literature or as an emotional thing, you just want the whole book.
CA: And the experience of going into a bookstore is different than going into a comic book shop.
JR: I think – I’m hoping that [“Turf”] will do really well in bookstores, and that’s part of why I’ve written it so densely, because I wanted it to feel like a novel. I was joking with someone who said it was a battle of vampires vs. gangsters vs. word balloons. That was deliberate. The [comic] books I loved most in the ’80s were ones where you felt like you got a read out of it, and now you don’t.
CA: You mentioned before being interested in superheroes — is that something you’d ever been interesting in doing with Marvel or DC?
JR: Well, I’ve got a S.H.I.E.L.D. story that I’ve kind of written, and I’m going to see Joe Quesada and pitch it to him. Now Johnny [Romita] Jr. said he’d draw it for me — it’s a “What If…?” story set in the ’80s, and there’s an idea I’ve come up with for the final book that I don’t think has ever been done in comics before. But I don’t know if it’s going to happen. And the other book I had [talked about] with Tommy I may do with Frank Cho.
CA: Wow, only the best, huh?
JR: Art is still what draws me to [comics], because art is so important to it. The story’s got to be great, but if you assume when you pick up a comic that the story is going to be good enough, it’s the art that sells it to you. It’s got to be great art for me. Even though I’m obsessed with Marvel in the ’60s and ’70s, I can’t go back and read “Thor,” because I so loathe Vince Colletta’s inks on Jack Kirby’s pencils. It’s heartbreaking. The art is so crucial to me. I don’t know if I could do a book if it was an artist whose work I didn’t love.