Now Is Awesome: Joe Keatinge & Khary Randolph On The Resurrection Of ‘Tech Jacket’ [Interview]
This week Image Comics released the first issue of Tech Jacket by Joe Keatinge and Khary Randolph. And while this may be the first time many of today's readers have heard of the title, it's actually been lurking around the edges of the Image line for over a decade. Created in 2002 by pre-Walking-Dead Robert Kirkman and artist E.J. Su, the eponymous Tech Jacket is a wearable cache of the most powerful weapons in the universe, bestowed irreversibly unto teenager Zack Thompson when he encountered a dying alien. Naturally, Zack used his newfound abilities to become a galactic warrior of great worth and protecting Earth from universal threats with more enthusiasm and wide-eyed wonder than other Earthborn space cops you might have heard of.
The original series ran for only six issues but the story was later continued as a back-up in the pages of Kirkman and Ryan Ottley's Invincible. Then, earlier this year, Keatinge and Randolph produced a trio of digital issues that revitalized the concepts and characters and paved the way for this new ongoing series.
With issue #1 on sale now from Image and Kirkman's Skybound imprint, ComicsAlliance spoke to the creative team about what drew them to these characters and concepts, and what plans they have in store for the series.
ComicsAlliance: How would you describe this series to your friends?
Joe Keatinge: I love big sci-fi — whether it’s big in scale like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or big on action like, well, everyone’s heard of Star Wars, right? — but my favorite part isn’t so much the big part, the massive concepts on a scale unlike any other, but the small reactions to it. The human bits. Tech Jacket gave me the opportunity to do something exactly along these lines — to create an increasingly massive scale blockbuster with the focus on a guy who would never star in, say, the latest Transformers. Zack’s no Captain Kirk. He’s barely a Star-Lord, from what the Guardians of the Galaxy trailers have shown thus far. He lives with his parents, for crying out loud. His Dad is the one operating his satellite.
But the thing that attracted me so much to Zack as a character I’d dig writing is how despite the fact he’s not really qualified to do what he’s doing — he’s not Hal Jordan by any means — he shows up every single day and does the job and pushes himself well beyond what he’s capable of, getting better and better even though he’s quite actually killing himself in the process.
CA: Who populates the world of Tech Jacket?
JK: So, there’s Zack. Community college drop out with the most powerful weapon in the universe. There’s his dad, Ed, who’s kind of a doofus, but means really well and is always there for Zack, no matter what. His mom, Lynn, who’s the one with her sh*t most together in the family and the one who keeps them altogether. Then there’s Zack’s girlfriend, similarly named Lin (I dunno what’s going on there psychologically, but that’s what it is), Princess of the Geldarian race who built the Tech Jacket Zack now yields. They’re the connective tissue throughout the first arc. Everything which happens surrounds them, even if it’s not direct. There’s also a bunch of new characters, but I’ll save their intros for the comic book.
CA: How much freedom were you given with the base concept? Are you strictly tied to the continuing continuity of the earlier books?
JK: A lot of freedom. Skybound’s amazing to work with. In terms of work-for-hire projects, they’ve pretty much the best deal in the business, definitely the clearest communication with absolutely zero bullsh*t. That said, Tech Jacket’s obviously near and dear to Robert, so he had some specific pointers for Khary and I, but after that he was, as editor Sean Mackiewicz said about approving the outline for the second arc, “letting [our] freak flag fly.”
CA: How about the designs for this new incarnation? You seem to have revamped the basic Tech Jacket armor a bit.
Khary Randolph: Well, the great thing about Tech Jacket is that EJ already did all the hard work! [laughs] It's a great design and he gave me a lot to work with. I wouldn't say my version of the character is a redesign, rather more of a refinement. I come from an animation background so I'm always looking for ways to streamline and simplify the character so that it's easier and quicker to draw. The one major thing I did was give him big clunky space boots, to try to emphasize the fact that this guy is all metal, so he should have a bit of weight to him. Plus, they kinda look like old school hi top sneakers, so that's my little nod to hip-hop culture. But in general, if you look back to the original series, his outfit is continuously changing and refining. It's not the same outfit from EJ's 1st issue to his last, so I just view it as ever morphing and changing, just like Zack. They grow together and will continue to evolve in the future.
CA: And are Kirkman and Skybound closely monitoring you as you go, throwing in ideas and overseeing everything – or do they just kick you out of the nest, and sit back to watch you fly on your own?
KR: Speaking from an art standpoint, they're pretty hands off. They're busy guys and apparently they're crazy enough to have some kind of faith in me to not %&^ things up. The main note I get is "YOU'RE BEHIND, MORE PAGES.”
CA: How did you guys end up getting hired as the team for this title?
KR: I got a call from Robert out of the blue. We've been friends for a long time but we hadn't communicated in a good while, so when he called I was taken by the surprise. He pitched the idea to me and I was immediately on board, since I was already a Tech Jacket fan. Once he mentioned that Joe was attached, it was a lock. I already knew Joe's work from Glory and I was really into it, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
JK: That’s funny you mention that — while I was technically “in” before you what solidified it for me was you coming on board. I’ve been a fan of Khary for a really long time — he’s one of those guys who seems to be able to draw anything from the gigantic science fiction blockbuster action stuff to the small character moments. Dude’s amazing.
CA: Khary - Father-son relationships, futuristic machinery, and spectacular outer-space battles… There's such a range of elements built into this series, have you had any particular favorite moments? And is there anything you're just itching for Joe to throw in, so you can have a chance to draw it?
KR: My favorite parts, and I think they show, are designing new characters and action sequences. I'm very much into capturing a specific vibe for this book, which I've described in the past as something along the lines of an '80s Saturday morning with the budget of Akira. That's the kind of stuff I love and that's the scale we're aiming for. There are some great moments in the next few issues that I'm pretty proud of, but I don't want to spoil them just yet.
That said, I appreciate the quiet moments too. I like interplay between characters and being able to show off a wide range of emotion when I can. It's not always all about dudes punching dudes in the face.
CA: And Joe, have your ideas for the series changed or adjusted as you've begun to see Khary's work coming in?
JK: As Khary mentioned earlier, we had a little bit in the can before he came on board, but once I knew he’d be the guy I was working with its certainly changed the way I approach the series. In the trade of our first mini-series he described it really well as a “Saturday morning cartoon with the budget of Akira” and I feel that’s extremely apt. I’d go further and say it’s the way you remember them being. I remember Silverhawks being one of the greatest space operas of our time, Thundercats on the level of Lord of the Rings. I’ve purposely not gone back to check those out again to retain that idea you have as a kid and apply it to my work, especially Tech Jacket.
CA: Are there plans for a physical edition of the three digital issues that relaunched this title earlier this year?
KR: The trade that packages up those three digital issues comes out the same time as Issue #1. Synergy!
JK: Like I said earlier, man, Skybound’s the sh*t. They know what they’re doing!
CA: Have you had to make adjustments in your storytelling styles between the three initial digital issues and this new incarnation? Has the process changed at all, now that you're working in a more traditional 22 pages/month print format?
KR: The funniest part about all this is that I drew the first three issues of the regular series, stopped to draw the digital mini, and then hopped back on the regular series again. You can kind of see this too, as I look a little more comfortable in drawing the characters in the mini than I do on the first issue. But yeah, I didn't approach pages any different as far as physical versus digital formats.
CA: Do you guys a long-term gameplan for this series, or are you simply getting it rolling and hanging on to see where it takes you?
JK: We’ve got a very solid outline for the first two arcs, but with the nature of comics, I like allowing the freedom for things to go in different directions.
KR: I’ve never had a long term gameplan for much of anything in my life... [laughs] I'm having fun with this thing and I'm willing to see where it goes. What's important for me is having a consistent body of work that tells a fun and entertaining story. Anything else is entirely out of my hands.
JK: Well, you’re doing that “fun and entertaining” part very well, man. I appreciate it.
CA: Joe, are you approaching this book as a "big ideas" sci-fi story like your revamp of Glory, or is this giving you a chance to flex your muse in some different directions?
JK: I guess it’s technically a “big ideas sci-fi” story, but it’s not like Glory. This is a gigantic space opera featuring all sorts of aliens and gigantic space ships, giant lasers. That kind of thing. Glory was more taking a different approach to warrior myth, especially as conveyed in superhero comics, to the point it’s so far removed from superhero comics I’m not even sure it qualifies as a superhero comic book anymore. So, sure, they’re both sci-fi, but very different elements. Tech Jacket’s Chris Foss, Glory’s Arthur Rackham.
CA: So what's your approach to crafting this story? Are you working from the big concepts on down, or starting with the characters and building up from there?
JK: Yeah, there’s obviously a lot of big sci-fi influences, as we’ve gotten into before, but the biggest thing is really filtering all these relationships through a gigantic space battle. It’s less about the alien Tech Jacket beats the crap out of, but more so why he’s doing it, how his parents react to seeing their only child be sent to the hospital time and time again when battling stuff larger than they can comprehend...
CA: Khary, you seem to have refined your style a bit for this book, making everything slightly more stylized and exaggerated, giving off a vibe that's '80s TV anime by-way-of '90s comics: like Joe Madureira and Mike Wieringo riffing on Robotech.
KR: Yeah, totally. I unapologetically wear my influences on my sleeve. I was raised by '80s cartoons and '90s comic books. So a dash of Transformers and Robotech, a pinch of Joe Madureira and Masamune Shirow, and throw in the more modern sci-fi motifs of video games like Mass Effect, and that's pretty much what you see.
CA: The original Tech Jacket series tied closely into a shared Image-verse. Will this new series do the same, or are you just planning to play in your own space-sandbox for the time being?
KR: We have a story to tell that I think will define Tech Jacket as a star in his own right. I don't want him to come across as a second stringer or Invincible's little buddy. But that said, I did love how interconnected the early Image comics were, so team ups are always fun. I'm game.
JK: Yeah, we’re really looking to define Tech Jacket as Tech Jacket wholly, without the need of anything else, but in the future... Who knows?
CA: And lastly… Can you drop any hints about what we have to look forward to in coming months?
KR: The scale will keep escalating. On a massive level. I've seen the plans for later issues and I honestly have no idea how I'm going to draw any of this stuff. And that's part of the fun.
JK: Exactly. Sh*t’s going to get real.
Tech Jacket #1 is on sale now in finer comics shops and digitally from Image Comics and ComiXology.