Zander Cannon on the World of ‘Kaijumax': The Monsters are Running the Prison [Interview]
Set in a prison for giant monsters, Zander Cannon's Kaijumax caught comics off guard when it debuted a few months back. Although the giant monsters really are held hostage on a prison complex, this was a story that took their plight surprisingly seriously, and yanked harshly at the heartstrings as readers followed --- and fell in love with --- a creature called Electrogor. Almost immediately after the first issue, Kaijumax seemed to become Oni's next big series.
A huge part of this is the world created by Cannon in both art and script, as his Kaiju Complex is filled with a massive range of strange, interesting and feisty characters, living in a system which that them to form gangs, create rivalries, and seek empowerment. They're also robots, aliens, lizard people, and giant goats. After only three issues it seems set to hit "best of 2015" lists with a vengeance, so ComicsAlliance spoke to Cannon to find out more about his monstrous creation.
ComicsAlliance: For those who haven’t yet read the first issue: what actually is Kaijumax?
Zander Cannon: It's the shortest pitch summary I've ever had for one of my comics: a prison for giant monsters. It was kind of a revelation for me at a recent convention; all my other stuff required a couple sentences and a lot of, "Well, it's kind of like this..." and, "But it's not like that...", whereas with Kaijumax I could just say, "It's a prison for giant monsters, with gangs and drugs and stabbings and stuff." And that, whether because of the simplicity or because of the insanity, made at least certain people just light up.
When I was pitching the series and publishers like Oni were showing some interest, it really occurred to me that there was a lot there in that simple idea, and I made sure that when I started writing it that it really delivered on the jokes and situations that you kind of assume would be in there. It's easy to over-plan or world-build too much and be too in love with your mythology, but I wanted to be certain that every scene came out of that bizarre crossover/mashup concept, and every issue is just what you'd hope a giant monster prison comic would be.
CA: In interviews you’ve said the series was firstly inspired by Ultraman, which you watched with your son and really bonded over. How did you move from that initial spark of an idea into developing this full-on as a comic series?
ZC: The original thing I wanted was just a story about a Monster Island equivalent, to develop the personalities of all the monsters and see what they'd all talk about if they had human intelligence. But as a writer, I knew there wasn't much there, so it was just another scrap of an idea in a drawer somewhere. I was talking with Ryan Browne (God Hates Astronauts) while he was in between projects, and we discussed working on something together. I doubt I would have had the impetus to really jump in otherwise, but the sort-of benign stress that comes from needing to come up with a solid concept from a couple random ideas is pretty fun, and it forces you to do good things.
So I figured the best way to get a bunch of monsters on an island and keep them there would be a prison, and with that would come all the prison drama tropes. Obviously, you could play it straight and talk about the challenges the humans would face keeping them inside, but again, I wanted it to be about the monsters and their personalities, so I opted for the more peculiar style I ended up with. From there, it was a lot of brainstorming and pretty much the most fun research you could ever ask for.
CA: The lead of the series is a lizard-y Kaiju called Electrogor, a new inmate who just wants to get home to his kids. How did he come to take center stage for the series? What interested you about starting off with him as the protagonist?
ZC: Design-wise, I wanted to make him very familiar as a classic movie monster, so I gave him the basic silhouette of the latter-day Godzilla monsters, where he's leaning forward and counterbalancing himself with this tail, T-Rex style. Then I wanted to really differentiate him from Godzilla and Gamera and the rest, so I made him insectoid/crustacean-like, and made the stuff on his back into pods instead of spinal plates --- and then of course colored him bright orange.
I felt like that general familiarity had the effect of making you not ask logistical questions of him as a reader; you know that he's basically a movie kaiju who stomps on cities or attacks boats or whatnot. But all the other little things about him: the pods, the exoskeleton, his eyes, his goo-barfing attack; those are the things that make you kind of want to know more, hopefully. From a story point of view, he's not so different from every other prison movie protagonist; wrongly accused, or given too harsh a sentence, and with something he cares about very deeply.
I felt like he needed to be more sympathetic than the usual would-be escapee like Andy Dufresne or Clint Eastwood's character in Escape from Alcatraz, so I gave him kids on the outside that depend on him. It's a pretty well-worn trail, but I felt like the things that are strange and new are front and center in this comic, so I wanted the story to be very familiar.
CA: How did you decide which kaiju would appear on the island with him? Were there certain types of creature you knew would fit into certain roles?
ZC: One of the big things about prison stories are the gangs, so I felt like there needed to be at least a couple gangs that would both correspond to different types of kaiju and to existing prison gangs. Once I got on that track, the big counterpoint to the Japanese movie-style kaiju had to be the Cryptids (which are, of course, another thing that I love). Putting together which monster was what really just came down to what relationships I felt like the story was going to pursue.
I wanted to have a 'we-came-in-together' tentative friendship (Electrogor and The Creature from Devil's Creek), I wanted to have a gang rivalry (the J-Kaiju and the Cryptids), I wanted a corrupt guard (Gupta), arch-enemies (Zonn and MechaZon), an abusive 'protector' (The Mountain and The Creature from Devil's Creek), a no nonsense warden and a straight arrow guard (Kang and Jeong), an altruistic doctor (Dr. Zhang), an aging crime boss and his foolish son (Ape-Whale and Whoofy), the tough-talking addict scion of a crime family (Zlook), and so on.
I worked outward from prison characters to monster characters for the most part, but occasionally I took a monster concept and twisted it into a prison story. And as I watch new monster movies every day, there are more and more types of characters I'm trying to fit in as we go.
CA: How do the various designs come together for the inmates? Do you ever run ideas past your son? In fact, does he ever run them past you?
ZC: You know, it's interesting. I hardly every design characters before they show up in the story. In fact, I design the front of them when they show up, and the back of them when they turn around, which might be a whole issue later, or never. This is kind of bad comic-making practice, but 1) the characters are meant to hearken back to existing characters, and so I know their general shape as I'm doing layouts, which is where designs really come in handy, and 2) this isn't a sci-fi action thriller monster movie, so if they end up looking goofy or awkward instead of impressive or terrifying I think it still works just fine.
My son is seven and he and his friends will occasionally make me some designs to put in the series, although I've yet to do it.
CA: In your head, do you have backstories and possible ideas worked out already for many of the inmates, or do you like simply to draw them in and leave that to the reader’s imagination?
ZC: It depends. Some I have quite elaborate backstories for, and some I just draw in the background for a gag or a change of pace. The funny thing is: I'm the sort of writer who compulsively makes backstories for characters, so all I really have to do is draw a character I kind of like the look of, and I'll lie awake in bed that night thinking about what his deal is.
CA: What’s your process like as writer-artist? Do you script very carefully and stick to it, or do you leave room for the art to expand on particular plot points or moments?
ZC: I plot very carefully. I get the stories sorted out long in advance, then put them in a tight order and then I lay out the issue visually, no dialogue. The dialogue is so specific and idiosyncratic and filled with offhand mentions of extremely obscure things and jokes and stuff that I have to work out the flow of the emotional story before I start wading through with the specific words. I also feel like, nine times out of ten, my comics pages flow better if I structure them by what they show visually first, and then go in with the dialogue later.
One good thing about that is that I have the little twist or reversal for every scene right there in front of me visually, so I can then make absolutely sure the dialogue sets it up well instead of meandering around the point like I sometimes do. The nice part of this system is that, counter-intuitively, this makes it easier for me to change. You would think that the art would be hard to mix around and adjust, but since I work digitally, I can copy a panel here or there or redraw one section and it's not too tough.
So to answer your question, I do sometimes let scenes breathe somewhat if I feel like I'm not getting across what I want it to say, and Oni is flexible about the page count so adding a page is no big deal. And I've moved scenes around and taken them out of one issue and put them in another as I developed a sense for how much can reasonably fit into an issue.
CA: A lot of the strength of the series has been in how straight you play the unreality at work here. Is it difficult to balance the tone, artistically, keeping the feel of a real prison whilst working in the humour?
ZC: Initially, it's just a matter of staging a lot of the classic prison scenes in the book (with a coat of kaiju paint, of course), like manipulating someone into one's debt, or plotting an escape, or a fight in the yard. But that sort of stuff only lasts for so long, and at a certain point I had to really look hard at what the real themes of the book were going to be.
One of the things I had to really get into my head about prison fiction --- as opposed to things like police procedurals, which I was more familiar with --- is the pervasive sense of hopelessness and self-negation and gray morals that sort of steer everything. And with a dreary outlook like that, I feel a constant pressure to cram every last joke into every last panel to keep it just this side of being the most depressing comic of all time.
When you have two completely opposing forces like that I think it makes for an enjoyable mix. Sort of sad and funny and disgusting all at the same time. It is hard. I've gotten used to it, but it's a bizarre zone to work in.
CA: As a reader, it’s hard to know how dangerous the series will be. Although it's jokey, there are some real moral dilemmas and threats present in the prison. Will Kaijumax head into darker territory as this first miniseries moves forwards?
ZC: It's hard for me to gauge. I feel like the first couple issues really set the stage for how the stories are going to play out; there's some violence and some cruelty, and naturally those things are also going to amp up as we get to the end of each season. But the book is and will remain pretty PG-rated, in that there's no 'real' swearing and we either cut away from the violence or make it preposterously over-the-top, but the intensity of the interactions of the characters is going to ratchet up somewhat over time as we have more invested in them.
CA: What’s your plan for the world of the comic as things move forward? Is the plan to expand out and play with the ensemble cast?
ZC: I like that the silliness that the series has established implies that there's a greater world out there where kaiju rampages are kind of treated like low-level drug pushers or gang bangers. Because of that we've got a couple plans percolating for some other projects, and of course, for the series to continue as long as people will buy it. I always feel like there's something really interesting happening when your style can basically be adapted to a number of existing story structures.
I'm looking forward to seeing what we can come up with.
Kaijumax #1-3 are available now. Today is the final day for comic shop pre-orders for Kaijumax #4.