‘Breakfast Club’ Meets ‘Pacific Rim': Jarrett Williams Talks ‘Hyper Force Neo’ [Interview]
Jarrett Williams has an enthusiasm for comics that comes through in everything he does, whether it's tabling at conventions or crafting high-energy action stories on the comics page. It's that enthusiasm that's made me a fan of his, and when I found out that he was doing a new series about a Super Sentai-esque team of teenagers in giant robots fighting aliens in the future, "excited" doesn't really cover it. That book is Hyper Force Neo, and in April, the oversized 48-page first issue is hitting stands from Z2 Comics to start a brand-new ongoing series.
To find out more, I spoke to Williams about his influences for the title, how a trip to Hong Kong helped to shape the future that he presents, and why Hyper Force Neo actually has a little bit in common with Richie Rich. He also offered us a look at the story's roots in his teenage sketchbook!
ComicsAlliance: I think it's fair to say that Hyper Force Neo is riffing on some pretty familiar Super Sentai-style concepts --- giant robots, transformation sequences, evil aliens with plans for world domination. What was it that made you want to do a story with those elements, rather than sticking with a more familiar Western superhero setup?
Jarrett Williams: Hyper Force Neo is the story of a group of junior-high kids who discover these odd, star-powered Neo Keys around their city. They use them to transform and protect Blue Earth from aliens called the Dark Edge. It’s a fun book that’s quirky, stylish, and a little flashy. My publisher referred to it as The Breakfast Club meets Pacific Rim and I thought that was a funny comparison.
I drew some inspiration from some traveling I did last year. I had an opportunity to go overseas to Belgium and then Hong Kong. I spent most of my time on the flights in between destinations just typing away on my phone — thinking up various new comic ideas. That’s where the seeds for Hyper Force Neo were planted.
When I got to Hong Kong, it was this combination of the old and new that struck me. After walking through the HK airport with all of its’ light displays and advertisements, I was handed a ticket. I redeemed this ticket at a kiosk where they gave me a cool gift basket with a rubber duck and some other touristy tokens — all oddly cute in nature. Then I arrived into Hong Kong near Tsim Sha Tsui. I observed these really sophisticated, modern buildings right beside a few slummy ones where AC units were dripping all over the place and locals were hanging their clothes on wire lines like my folks did in New Orleans growing up. I loved it!
The people were also the nicest I’ve probably met in my life. There was this interesting dynamic of being at dinner and everyone sort of talking among each other, sharing plates of food, and discussing traditional HK customs. This would be followed by quick shifts of everyone opening their phones and updating their social network statuses, but then jumping right back to more traditional table etiquette. I kept thinking, “I should tap into all of these contrasts in a comic.” It was a really inspiring experience for me. I think about it everyday.
The energy and over-the-top nature of Sentai definitely appealed to me early on. I watched all of that stuff as a kid along with all of the American kids programming that prevailed during the 80s and 90s. I loved Archie, Harvey cartoons, and X-Men --- I was really obsessed with collecting those annual trading card collections. Disney and Nick were also my jam. I was introduced to anime via the Sci-Fi Channel. A friend called me one Friday night to tell me some crazy cartoon was on, which turned out to be Akira. I remember us being on the phone in shock at how cool it was. That was sort of the beginning of a new obsession I guess. From here, I’d spend lots of Saturdays in Suncoast looking at anime VHS tapes I couldn’t afford. Thankfully, Blockbuster gave me some more economical options to choose from. Ha!
I enjoyed how anime and manga had characters magically transform when the situation called for it. And they were always pretty flashy and stylish too! I definitely knew I would approach the Hyper Force Neo transformations the same way. That stuff’s just fun to draw.
Initially, I was a little intimidated by the idea of having to draw giant robots but they’ve actually become some of the standout pages in the book. Some of those pages take me forever to complete, especially with all of the details. But again, I wanted to make them fun as hell to draw and feel like active characters too. I also designed them so a kid could easily link a Hyper Force Neo character with their giant robot.
And as far as the aliens, I’ve always been interested in that idea. I flipped through a lot of my old, high-school sketchbooks in the early stages of development. The characters I drew were always fighting aliens. I was totally into astronomy and the NASA club as a kid so the idea of life on other planets still interests me. What’s cool is that the aliens in HFN learn to take on human forms too so it makes for some fun interactions at the local school.
The comic definitely has the American superhero influence too though. The kids in this world are obsessed with this hero named Super Slime Hero Man. He’s a bit more like the classical superheroes we’ve come to know. The Hyper Force Neo kids all collect his comics. And since I designed this as a monthly comic, I did a little thinking about what I liked and disliked about some of the monthlies I collected growing up. I drew inspiration from a lot of areas.
CA: So when you thought about what you liked and disliked about monthly comics, what did you come up with? How did that inform your take here?
JW: One thing I really enjoyed about comics such as Archie, Uncle Scrooge, and Richie Rich was the whole accessibility thing. You can pretty much jump on as a new reader without fear that you’ve missed too much. At the same time, they also contain some fun little adventures and I would end up looking for issues I missed anyway. Since Hyper Force Neo does have a continuing story, I worked hard to try and make each issue still feel a bit self contained too.
I also wanted to bring a bit of a children’s book flare to the monthly comic scene too. I love series like Where’s Waldo, Richard Scary, and Berenstain Bears. Some of the designs of those spreads are amazing. I enjoy those moments that just force you to stop and analyze a larger, bustling scene. So you’ll see a lot of those kind of page layouts in Hyper Force Neo, too. My colorist, Jeremy Lawson, has done a great job to help me capture that vibe as well.
CA: Why did you decide to set it in a high school?
JW: I’ve really wanted to tell a story that takes place in a school setting for sometime. I knew I wanted Hyper Force Neo to be an all-ages comic. I imagined younger readers being able to connect with these heroes who have to juggle their lives at school and secret identities. In my other comic, Super Pro K.O., all the characters are in their 20s and up. It was a nice change of pace to write a story revolved around just being a kid.
In general, high school was a nightmare for me — not so much the environment but just being that age and not feeling like I had control over anything. I still have a lot of conflicting emotions about the experience and that time in my life. I was a loner and an art kid in the truest sense. I spent most of my time drawing or thinking about comics, cartoons, or video games. I actually translated quite a few of my own awkward experiences into this comic — or at least more light-hearted variations of those experiences.
I was going through my old sketchbooks before this interview. You can see an early version of Dean from the Hyper Force Neo crew from one of my sketchbooks in 1998. I must have been 13. I would draw a lot of this stuff during class, but I still managed to make decent grades.
I think revisiting this stuff has really helped me connect with the whole teenage vibe of Hyper Force Neo in general. At its essence, these kids are just trying to figure out who they are and why they’ve been given such a huge responsibility.
CA: I think the idea of going back to ideas we had as teenagers is something that a lot of creators would shy away from, but I like that you went in thinking, "No, this stuff is great!" Was it just about recapturing that energy?
JW: I think most creators and those in our culture can relate to feeling a bit out-of-place at various times during school. Just the conflicting emotions of being a teenager and figuring out who you are, what you stand for, and how to live with whatever’s unique about you. As a writer, it’s been interesting to use those moments to really round out my characters.
On the flip side, there are a lot of cool sides to being a teen that I drew upon. I remember really being extra excited about fast food, new video game releases, comics, albums, and movie announcements. Ha! So you get that side of the teen experience here too. I remember buying my first album (Harlem World by Ma$e) or having a pen pal mail me VHS tapes of uncensored Dragon Ball Z and Magic Knight Rayearth episodes (I was waaaaaay too excited to binge watch it all that weekend). So I’m trying to capture that fun and light-hearted side of the teenage experience too.
CA: One super-specific thing about your work that always catches my eye, and I believe we've talked about this before, is how you include these flourishes, like hearts and emojis, in the word balloons themselves. Can you talk a little about that? Is it something you picked up from manga?
JW: Ha! I would say I get it more just from everyday interactions with my friends and family. Emojis are pretty much a part of how we communicate as humans now. I imagined emoji-speak would be even more prevalent in terms of how people interact in the future which is why I tossed those in to the comic too.
CA: When does that come into the process? Do you have them there as notes in the script, or is it just something that you add in as the actual drawing of the pages goes on?
JW: I actually don’t have them in my scripts at all! Ha! I’ll just be drawing or inking a scene and think, “Man, it would really be funny to throw in a 'heart symbol' or 'annoying face' emoji here." Combine that with solid characterization and it all meshes together really well. That’s the fun of writing, hand-lettering, and drawing my comics. I can really edit on the fly as needed.
And along those lines, I’ve thrown robot blips, beeps, and all sorts of odd visual stuff in as well. Robots who sound more like humans have normal word balloons. Some of the colored word balloons imply a robot with a strong robo-accent. I want readers to get lost in those details and hopefully discover things months down the line too. The comic pages are really dense for that reason. We already live in an era of information-overload so I imagined that would be times ten in the future.
CA: Is there ever a moment where you think about scaling back some of that information overload, or does it all come naturally as you go, adding pieces here and there?
JW: Totally! I have to remove stuff all the time. I usually call them “hot mess” pages or panels that just don’t work as well as I planned. Or sometimes, I’ll have an idea for page 15 while I’m working on page 3. So I tend to jump around a lot when I draw an issue in general. That gives me time to think over proper solutions without getting hung up for too long. I also don’t pencil the entire issue all at once. I pretty much pencil and ink one page at a time just to keep from getting caught up on the scale of what I’m doing. That knocks the edge off for me.
CA: Is there anything you've ever added on a whim that you ended up bringing back for a bigger role later?
JW: Yeah. The robo-helpers that follow the group around began as something exclusive just for them. In this world, mini-robot helpers assist the group by charging up their Neo Keys. They’re pretty much companions and take on the role of being an additional buddy that regularly interacts with you. They also require some nurturing and have various personalities. They learn more info about the world by eating little snack bags called Digi-Bits. I just thought the idea of robots eating was kind of funny. But then I began thinking, “Why wouldn’t the majority of kids and adults have a robo-helper in the future?”. So that concept definitely expands and continues to do so in future issues.
Hyper Force Neo #1 is out in April from Z2 Comics, and can be ordered with Diamond Order Code FEB161982.