Assembling an All-Ages Adventure: J. Torres, Corin Howell and Maarta Laiho Reflect on ‘The Mighty Zodiac’
Released last year through Oni Press, The Mighty Zodiac assembled not just one but two impressive team-ups. Not only did the series join up characters who represent the 12 signs of the Chinese Zodiac --- from tiger to rat to pig to cat --- but also brought us the creative team of writer J. Torres, artist Corin Howell, and colorist Maarta Laiho. Together, they channeled a shared interest in the classical Disney movie style into a series filled with charm and heart.
With the trade collection of the series planned to release from Oni in March, ComicsAlliance reassembled the creative trio to ask about how they first came together as the team, how the story developed from a concept to the final comic, and the challenges of taking a concept like the zodiac and turning it into a story of its own. Along the way, they discuss the series' influences, why it was important for this to be an all-ages story which anybody can enjoy... and why bunnies are the bad guys.
ComicsAlliance: When did you first start formulating the idea that became The Mighty Zodiac?
J. Torres: It started with a trip to Korea (where my wife is from) about eight years ago. I saw these cool stone statues representing the animals of the Chinese Zodiac dressed up like warriors. I imagined them coming to life like in the show Gargoyles and going on adventures.
CA: How did it then go from being a concept to a story?
JT: It took a few years for an actual story to come to me, and I dropped the statues coming to life bit, but it was always going to be an "ensemble cast" or a "team book," so I needed an epic story, a quest. I thought about all my favorite stories in that vein from Avatar: The Last Airbender to Lord of the Rings to those old Justice League of America/Justice Society of America team-ups. I had this other story I never finished that had stars falling out of the sky and needing to be found, so I recycled that idea and it went from there.
CA: Corin, Maarta, what was it that appealed to you about the prospect of working on the book? What did you like about the concept?
Corin Howell: I really loved the fact that it reminded me a lot of the old Disney cartoon movies I use to watch as a kid --- Robin Hood, The Lion King, The Rescuers, etc. --- it really reminded me of my childhood favorites. Also, drawing talking animals is a lot of fun, it felt like I was making an animated movie myself.
Maarta Laiho: It was very different from many of the other types of comics being made, but there was enough familiarity with the concept that it was easy to understand and be attracted to it. Both kids and adults will find it enjoyable. There are certainly enough characters that you can't not have a favorite! (Mine is Ko the Cat.)
CA: What kind of approach did you want to take on the character designs? Is it fair there might even be a little bit of a Disney influence to them?
CH: I did have a lot of Disney and DreamWorks influence for the book --- Robin Hood and Kung Fu Panda were two of the main titles that influenced the designs we were going for. There's a lot of fluidity in the designs and I wanted to keep it that way because I'm also a huge fan of Glen Keane.
J. was also able to provide a lot of background about Chinese culture, and I dug into some research myself. There was a lot of push for proper clothing and backgrounds; like the castle was one of my favorites to research because of how intricate and colorful the structures are.
CA: As a fan of rabbits, I want to know: why did you choose to make the World’s Greatest Animals into the villains of the story?
JT: I've always liked that the Japanese see the dark areas on the moon as a rabbit when most of Western society sees a face or "the man on the moon." I think it started there. Then when I discovered that in the Japanese and Vietnamese Zodiac there's a cat, it kind of cemented the rabbits' role as the "villains."
CA: Was it important to you that this be an all-ages series?
JT: That's just how I roll, as they say. Most of the stuff I write has that sensibility, that "rated E for everyone," Disney/Pixar, fun for the whole family vibe. Not that I don't like writing or haven't written for "mature readers," but all-ages is my jam.
Because I'm hip and youthful, as my use of modern slang clearly illustrates.
CA: Once you all came on board the series, what was the collaborative process like?
ML: Right from the start there are notes with their ideas on how they might visualize certain characters or scenes. After my first pass with colors I got further feedback from everyone on how well they think certain colors or lighting works, especially from Robin with how it looks printed. This is my favorite part because it's the collaboration between everyone that really helps make the book better.
JT: I like to think it all went very smoothly and from my perspective, it was a real treat. Once we were into the art part, it was like Christmas every week as I'd have pages from Rin and/or colors from Maarta waiting for me in my inbox at regular intervals. That's really the best part of the process for me, seeing the art come back and seeing the story come to life. And they're such pros that there weren't a ton of notes from our editor Robin or me. But they might define "not a ton" differently!
CH: We all worked together pretty well, especially as J and his love for cartoons really helped keep things happy. We're all very easy going and like to keep the work fun!
CA: Maarta, what was your approach for the palette and style you wanted for the series? What did you want the look of the comic to be?
ML: I knew I wanted the overall look to have a painted and textured look, to match Rin's amazing inks. I also aimed make the colors very rich with saturation and hues, to give it an animated and almost otherworldly appeal.
CA: What was it about the artistic style, J, which made them the right fit for the book?
JT: Rin has the kind of animation-inspired style that I gravitate towards as both a fan and a writer. I’m really into cartoony art, from the likes of Chuck Jones and Charles Schulz to Darwyn Cooke and Mike Wieringo. Rin's characters are expressive and she knows how to choreograph dynamic action. I knew she was right for the book when Disney’s Robin Hood came up in one of our earliest conversations, and we both agreed we'd be happy if the book looked like that.
CA: How important has editor Robin Herrera been to The Mighty Zodiac?
CH: Really important --- especially when things got rocky with schedules, or if we needed any more feedback on storytelling. Robin was always there to keep things in line. She is fantastic and we're very lucky to have her as our editor. (We love you Robin!)
JT: It would be a different book, not as good, without her. She was great as a project manager, keeping the trains running on time, but she was even better as a creative sounding board and story consultant, which is what you need from an editor. She was a huge asset and I've already let Oni know that I want her in my corner again.
CA: How did you find working through Oni Press for the series as a whole? Why were they the publisher you wanted to approach for this one, to begin with?
JT: Oni has published the bulk of my creator-owned books. They've taken a lot of chances on me. I wouldn't be here without them. I love working with this team and it's one that keeps growing and getting better and better at what they do.
CA: Are there plans for any more stories of The Mighty Zodiac, down the line?
JT: Yes, I'm still working on it and I'm not sure when it will be ready but I've got a working title that gives you an idea of what the clan will be up to next: Dragonquest...
The paperback collection of The Mighty Zodiac: Starfall will be published by Oni Press on March 8.
Notice of Disclosure: One of the editors at ComicsAlliance has a working relationship with Oni Press. The editor had no participation in the commission or execution of this piece.