‘Voracious’ Creators Markisan Naso and Jason Muhr on Dinosaur Sandwiches [Interview]
The series tells the story of chef Nate Willner revitalizing his career by using time travel technology he inherited from his uncle to cook and serve dinosaur meat in the present day, and it's been a success both for Action Lab and for indigenous representation in comics. ComicsAlliance talked with writer Markisan Naso and artist Jason Muhr about the book's influences, the research involved, and handling another culture's representation with care.
ComicsAlliance: A lot of comics include time travel or dinosaurs, but this is a first for me: one that’s also about cooking and chefs. What was the impetus for going in this direction? For me, it made it pretty clearly a slam dunk as a book I wanted to read --- the idea of dinosaurs and Top Chef.
Markisan Naso: The idea to combine cooking and dinosaurs first came to me when I was at a party and a friend asked me the classic question, “What superpower would you have if you could?” I immediately told her I’d want the ability to manipulate time and space because it would allow me to acquire lots of other abilities. I could travel to the future where technology is advanced enough to create an invisibility cloak, or enhance my reflexes. I could probably get a lightsaber or a spaceship shaped like a cobra… basically anything I thought of.
I also told her I’d go back in time with my new tech and make a dinosaur sandwich. I have no idea why I didn’t say I’d go see the pyramids being built or something like that, but I didn’t. Apparently pillaging the future in my mind made me really hungry!
So I jotted down “dinosaur sandwich” into a notebook that night and, 10 years later, I just started writing a comic based on it.
CA: Do either of you have any experience in cooking or the food industry? Are you just fans of food?
MN: I don’t. I’ve never even worked fast food. But my parents are really good cooks and that rubbed off on me. I do most of the cooking at my house now.
Jason Muhr: I also primarily do the cooking in our home. Otherwise, just a fan of food. We both try hard to make the dishes in the book interesting, both in concept and visually. I work hard at getting the grill on the cooked meats just right. Although, Google Image-searching on how to properly cut up a cow or pig carcass has burned a lot of images in my brain that won’t ever go away.
CA: How was Nate’s restaurant, Fork & Fossil, designed?
MN: When it comes to design, Jason and I talk about everything from characters, to dinosaurs, to the mountain house, to the restaurant. But then he goes off and makes it all better. He even draws floor plans.
JM: We discuss the book a lot over lunch at restaurants, so we get a lot of inspiration then. I feel like small, trendy restaurants in local neighborhoods are very popular right now.
I took a trip to Portland right before starting the book, and it seemed like every block had a Fork & Fossil-esque place on every corner; trendy décor and amazing food inside an unassuming place. I added a lot of different textures to the interior like hardwood and stainless steel. But also had to add lots of cool dinosaur “trophies” on the walls. If the Fork and Fossil were in my neighborhood, I’d definitely be eating there a lot.
CA: How do the recipes at the end of each issue get decided on and presented?
MN: Putting recipes in the back of the book was something we wanted to do from day one. We just thought it would be fun to feature dinosaur dishes based on actual recipes. We always let readers know what the real meat is, just in case they don’t have a Triceratops leg lying around.
We started with one of my recipes and then I just asked friends to send me some of theirs. Now I’m trying to get some Chicago restaurants to contribute.
As far as presentation, that’s all Jason. It was his idea to do them as recipe cut-outs and to draw all those tasty images.
JM: I dig books with “bonuses” at the end, so I love adding the recipes, and some of the sketchbook material that’s coming up in future issues. I’m a total process junkie.
CA: What were some sci-fi influences for the time travel in the comic?
MN: Doctor Who is a big influence, but probably not in the way you think. I grew up with Tom Baker and never missed an episode. I also really enjoyed the David Tennant episodes. But watching the show for years made me think a lot about the Doctor’s limitless ability to go wherever and whenever he wants. As much as I love his adventures, it’s rare that I believe he’s ever in any real danger. If he wants he can just reset time every second. So, when I started writing Voracious, I knew I wanted to make the time travel in our book limited. I came up with the idea of a time dive suit, which can only travel to one fixed point in the past or the future, and then back. You can’t use it to go anywhere you want.
I also liked the idea of having a transfer medium that Nate has to find in order to get the suits to jump. In old school science fiction, there always seems to be some kind of catalyst like that. I thought water would work well because it was something Nate could search for in the Cretaceous. Water also gave me the idea to model the suits after 1950s deep sea dive gear.
JM: Setting limits on Nate’s ability to time travel really does add an element of danger, as you’ll see in later issues. It’s also an interesting visual. Our colorist, Andrei Tabacaru, helps out a lot by adding really cool time travel lighting effects.
CA: Jason, what was in your head when designing the dinosaurs? Was there any specific reference, or a reasoning behind taking a specific visual approach --- scales versus feathers or quills, for example?
JM: Markisan will send me visual examples of the different species featured in every issue and I’ll do some research on my own. I comb through tons of examples and try to zero in on the coolest version of a type of dinosaur. Adding feathers or bold colors doesn’t work for every species, but we try and do it when we can, to add variety and uniqueness to the various dinosaurs.
Andrei also adds a lot to the look of dinos. We let him go crazy with the patterns and colors, and he always comes back with great stuff. We also try to introduce the readers to species they may have never heard of before, as you’ll see in a later issue. I’m a big fan of the Therizinosaurus in issue #4, the Edward Scissorhands of the dinosaur world.
CA: Are you worried about readers nitpicking details of the book? After all, both the topics of dinosaurs and food can attract a certain attention to detail in their fans.
JM: Nerds gonna nerd, right?
MN: We love nerdery! But no, we aren’t worried. Jason and I aren’t paleontologists and Voracious is a work of fiction, so when it comes to dinosaurs it’s possible we may not be completely accurate every issue. But hopefully readers will appreciate how much research we actually do for the book. Most comics or movies play it pretty loose with dino science. I mean, the biggest star in the Jurassic Park franchise is a T-Rex, and that guy didn’t even exist in the Jurassic period.
When I write Voracious I do my best to include actual dinosaurs from the Cretaceous period. I’ve even tried to take it a step further and only use dinosaurs that were roaming Utah at that time as well. Like Jason mentioned, some of our dinos have feathers and bright colors because science says they were likely descendants of birds. And whenever a new dinosaur is introduced, Nate’s suit computer identifies it by scientific name as well. You can actually learn stuff by reading Voracious, James!
I love that there are new discoveries announced almost daily that give us more insight into how dinosaurs may have looked and how they lived. We try our best to keep up with all of that too.
As for the recipes, we aren’t worried about nitpicking there either. Taste is pretty subjective. Besides, no one has any idea what seasoning goes best with Ankylosaurus ribs.
CA: A theme in Voracious is loss and how to deal with it, both for Nate and his grandma. What kind of work goes into balancing that with the more action-oriented aspects?
MN: Yes, loss is something all the characters deal with in our book. You mentioned Nate and his Grandma Maribel, who’ve both lost beloved family members. And Nate has lost his desire to cook when our story first starts.
But the theme actually runs deeper than that. Captain Jim is no longer an Army Ranger, which has been an important part of who he is. He’s suddenly lost that identity and doesn’t really know how to handle being a civilian. Starlee secretly loved and lost Nate when he went to NYC to pursue his dreams. And even though she has rekindled her affection for him and seems like she’s got a good handle on her life, that lost love had a big impact on the choices she’s made in the last few years. That’s something we’ll start really exploring in issue #4. And even though Tony is dead when Voracious begins, we know he felt a deep longing for Maribel and the family he lost long ago.
You’d think that balancing character work with the action scenes would be a challenge, especially in a book with a weird high concept like cooking dinosaurs, but it really hasn’t been. It’s a lot of fun to write both the action and drama. Jason and I also kind of have a rule --- every issue needs to have a scene that has something to do with cooking and a scene that features some kind of dinosaur fighting action. Then I pretty much fill in the rest with talking and sass.
CA: Nate is grieving; is a goal of the book to explore the ways we can distract and/or heal ourselves through something else?
MN: Definitely. Nate is a guy who has suffered a lot in his life and he’s spent most of his energy trying to escape his past. He continually tries to only look forward, beyond the tragedies he’s endured, but doing that means he’s never really stopped to heal the wounds.
In issue #1 his sister is killed and he suddenly has to not only deal with her death, but all the pain he’s suffered since childhood. I don’t know if anyone has really noticed this, but in that first issue we intentionally have Nate forced further and further back in time. Nate has to return to his hometown of Blackfossil where he is haunted by memories of his sister, he has to suddenly interact with all the people he left behind years ago, and he is reminded of the death of his parents when he was young. He’s then forced to deal with the remnants of his Great Uncle’s secret life that was built before he was even born, and then he’s catapulted back about as far as he can possibly go… 70 million years in the past!
Nate’s whole life has become this kind of pain machine into the past, and he doesn’t have much control over it. He doesn’t want to go backwards at all. The only time he would willingly do so would be to save his sister, but the time dive suits won’t let him. So, he’s continually trapped in this life he thought he left behind for good. And he doesn’t handle it well.
As the book goes forward, Nate has to learn to accept the losses and the pain he’s suffered, and then rebuild his life. Cooking dinosaurs jumpstarts his healing, but it’s really the relationships and the trust he has to foster with the people in Blackfossil who love him --- the people he’s run away from for the last few years --- that will ultimately make the difference in his recovery.
CA: Voracious is a rarity; a comic with an indigenous lead. Was there any reason you decided to include an indigenous lead character?
MN: Well, I’m a brown man, so I just felt the first comic book I wrote should star a person of color. Making Nate Native American felt like a natural fit because I wanted the book to be set in Utah. Comic book stories rarely take place out there, and that state is a hotbed for dinosaur fossils. The Southwest also happens to be rich in Native American history. My wife and I often travel to New Mexico, and we are absolutely awed and inspired by Native American culture. So everything kind of fell into place nicely.
JM: Our entire cast is pretty ethnically diverse, which feels like a more realistic representation of the world in 2016. I think everyone should be able to see someone like himself or herself represented in the fiction they read or watch. It’s not a specific mandate of the book, but we do like to explore racial options when we introduce new characters.
CA: Is there any specific care you take in approaching writing an indigenous character? This could be avoiding tropes or doing research, for example.
MN: I have done some research on Native American cultures and language for the book, but I can’t say I’ve taken specific care when I write Maribel or Nate. Voracious isn’t really a typical story starring Natives. It defies tropes in a lot of ways.
Jeffrey Veregge actually put it in perspective for me recently. For those who don’t know him, he’s a Native American artist who did an awesome “Happy Meal” variant cover for Voracious #3. He also does the amazing covers for Marvel’s Red Wolf, and he consults on that comic. When the first issue of Voracious came out he tweeted that our book is a great read and Native Americans need more stories like it.
And you know, it took me a second to process that. But I soon realized what he meant. Voracious stars a Native American lead character in a fun, sci-fi dramedy. He’s not in that traditional Dances with the Last of the Mohicans role. Those portrayals can certainly be fantastic, but it’s ultra-rare that we see a Native cast in a role like Voracious; where heritage doesn’t completely define him or her. Nate’s just an average guy who happens to be Native American caught up in a crazy adventure.
I didn’t even think about that portrayal when I started writing this book. It was just subconscious. I was raised by parents who made me believe I could be whatever I wanted. They never let me feel remotely limited by my ethnicity. So I think the characters Jason and I created benefit from that. They benefit from the kind of people my parents are and what they taught me.
A Native American can be an amazing chef. Or a time traveler. Or the funny lead in a romance. That’s what Jeffrey meant. Characters and people shouldn’t always be defined by tradition, or pigeonholed by repetition and prejudice. The fact that Voracious kicks down that wall a bit makes us immensely proud.
CA: In issue #2, there’s a moment where Nate’s grandmother, Maribel, is overwhelmed by memories of loss and trauma in her life. Part of the discussion of indigenous stories in media is the extent and the way in which things like trauma are presented. I’ll admit it is a complex and sensitive subject, and something I think and write about a lot. How did you two work with this scene? What was the discussion like for how to present it?
MN: There wasn’t a specific discussion on how to present Maribel’s trauma from that perspective. Her past is a mystery in the book that is slowly unraveling, just as she is slowly unraveling psychologically, so right now we are just trying to present that breakdown in a unique and enigmatic way. Readers have only seen flashes of her former life and the losses she experienced. But eventually we’ll reveal exactly what happened to her. When we get to those scenes, we will have to take some care with the presentation.
As for that scene in issue #2, I did have a very specific vision for the falling feather and how it gets progressively bloodier as it drops. It was important to me that the scene illustrate the memory as intense, but fragile within Maribel’s mind. I thought the falling feather could convey that delicate sense of deep, layered loss she feels. Maribel’s character is the most complex in Voracious, so I do tend to spend more time writing her scenes, especially when we’re inside her head.
CA: What are the challenges of approaching these sensitive subjects, as non-members of the group in question, particularly in a comic where a guy cooks and eats dinosaurs?
MN: I think that any time you tell a story that depicts trauma affecting a specific culture, you have to be sensitive about the portrayal. As a person of color, I definitely think about mistreatment, prejudice and violence against minority groups.
I’m not Native American so I can’t know exactly how Natives feel about the many atrocities committed against them throughout history, but when I look at my heritage I do see similar struggles. I have a lot of African and Indonesian blood running through me. The Dutch colonization of Java that began in the early 1800s, for example, has a lot of parallels to the European colonization of America and the mistreatment of the indigenous people.
So, that kind of history written in blood and tragedy is something I’ve studied to better know where I come from, and to understand the effect it had on the place my Grandfather was born. I don’t think that kind of legacy is required for an author to pen a story about cultural adversity… but personally, I do feel it helps that I can identify with people whose ancestors went through similar experiences.
Regarding the other part of your question, I think there is a challenge in creating a comic like Voracious because it does have a wild, high concept about eating dinosaurs, straddles genres, and offers various degrees of emotional depth like we’ve been discussing. You’ve picked up on a lot of the structure, cultural elements and character development in the book, James, but other people will probably read Voracious and just enjoy it for the adventure, humor and the sandwiches.
I think that’s what Jason and I are really going for --- a crazy, fun book with characters you care about and can relate to. But if you want to look deeper you’ll see that there are many layers to our story.
CA: What are the plans for the comic, in the short-and long-term?
MN: Right now our plan is to finish the second mini-series! Action Lab gave us the green light to continue the book, so we are very excited. The current mini wraps up in June. A trade paperback collection will be out in August and then Voracious returns this winter with a new, five-issue series that picks up right where the first arc ends.
We pitched our book as a 15-issue, three arc story, so long-term we just really want to finish it. We’re new creators, so we didn’t really know how the market would respond to us, or to a weird book about eating dinosaurs, but issue #1 is almost sold out, readers seem to love the issues so far, and we’ve received a lot of critical acclaim for the book. We are really happy by the response and so is Action Lab. But, let me tell you, before Voracious #1 came out, Jason and I were definitely concerned that we might not be able to keep going, and the book would end prematurely with a big cliffhanger.
JM: The thing I love about the book is that you think it’s about one thing, but as soon as you read the last three pages of issue #4, you’ll realize the story gets so much bigger and crazier. When Markisan originally pitched me the raw concept for the book, he explained that it really has two hooks --- cooking dinosaur meat, and this thing that happens at the end of the first arc that sets up the second and third.
I’m so excited about everything I’m drawing for the second arc, but I can’t preview a single panel because every one is a spoiler. We’re a good deal ahead on book and we can’t wait for people to read it, so they can share in the awesome stuff we’re cooking right now, no pun intended. We’re really pumped to continue the book, because anything less would feel unfulfilling, given where the story ends at the end of the first mini-series. I don’t think anyone will see what’s coming next!
Voracious #4 is out June 8th, 2016 and the first trade paperback will be released in August.