Here’s a fun tidbit: despite being “comics”, often times comic books aren’t very funny. Maybe it’s all this grim and gritty realism surrounding us with dead family and friends and doomsday obsessed villains, but it’s surprisingly rare for a comic to make you laugh out loud these days.
Yet, that’s not the case for Valiant’s “Quantum and Woody,” which spent all of last year being rather uproarious care of writer James Asmus. And now in January, Asmus is joined by Steve Lieber, who spent the past year giving us stitches in our sides in the pages of “Superior Foes of Spider-Man.” With their powers combined, this dynamic duo is set to deliver an all new Quantum and Woody four-issue series entitled “Quantum and Woody Must Die!”, and man oh man can we not wait to read it.
So we did what anyone would naturally do in this situation: hopped on the phone and asked them a whole bunch of questions about the upcoming book.
Read on as we chat about all things Quantum and Woody and comedy, alongside the world’s most hidden joke in one of the bleakest comics, as well as an exclusive first-look at the lettered preview for issue #1, which is out at the end of next month.
I’d like to start with a question singularly for each of you, and then we’ll merge into the larger group discussion. But just to set the stage here a little bit, James, you’ve been doing “Quantum and Woody” for a while now; you had the full twelve issue series and the four-issue “Delinquents” mini. How have you found working with these two characters in the rebooted Valiant Universe?
James Asmus: It’s been incredibly fun and gratifying. I’ve really tried to find that book that scratches the same itch that doing creator-owned work does, and it really just feels like such a natural progression for myself. Valiant has only been incredibly supportive in letting me go to the kind of place I want to go and not having it be an initiative from the top down, you know? They’re letting me tell the stories that I’m excited by, which is rare and is something I really appreciate. And then they keep pairing me up with phenomenally talented and richly voiced artists and co-creators.
And Steve, this is your first venture into the Valiant Universe. Entering into from a fresh perspective for a new series, given that this past year you’ve gotten so many props from critics and fans alike at your comedic work off of “Superior Foes,” how do you find that translates over to Valiant’s comedy series?
Steve Lieber: Well, I’m loving it. I’ve said previously, but “Superior Foes” was the first time in a twenty-two year career that anyone had ever asked me to be funny. Now it’s likely I won’t be doing anything else. And James is a pretty comedic guy; he just throws the kitchen sink at you — the sight gags, the dialogue gags, character riffs and bits… there’s just lots and lots of stuff for me to work with. He’s very generous in letting me go a bit Robin Williams on him, I don’t know how else to put it, and letting me improv off his scripts which I appreciate tremendously. A lot of writers prefer the script that they put out like it’s on a golden pedestal, and they’ll defend that script and not let you do your thing, but James has encouraged me to develop stuff as I find it, move things around, and make things work differently.
So looking at “Quantum and Woody Must Die”, it’s certainly a very audacious title for the series. Both of you having comedy chops, both of you having career in comedy, how do you find the challenge of continuously being funny, of upping the ante of what you’ve already done and building on that to establish new territory in superhero comics?
SL: Oh, it’s chilling. It’s hard. I’ve always heard the cliche that “tragedy is easy, comedy is hard,” and it really is. My drawing is my drawing; the pictures I draw now look like the pictures I’ve always drawn, but having to move things around and make panels smaller and smaller until you get exactly the comic beat takes a lot of work.Continued below
JA: I was recently having a conversation with the folks at Valiant where we were talking about other books I could work on, and the one thing I was saying was that I really can’t do two comedy books at the same time. A book that should be funny takes at least twice as long for me as writing something that’s just an adventure, or action. Individual moments don’t have to be funny, it can be craven, it can be emotional, it can be any number of things — you just have to find the trick that works. But with comedy, it’s either funny or it’s not; you have to just keep hacking away at it until you find something that rings true and is surprising. It’s so much harder than people would expect at first blush.
I’ve spent fifteen years of my life dedicated to comedy of different sorts. It’s probably easier for me now to come up with than maybe some other people, but at this point I love “Quantum and Woody” is doing and I hope what we do is to the standard that’s been set. It’s a joy, and it’s a tremendous burden. [Laughs]
SL: When I signed onto the book and re-read all the previous issues, I realized, “Oh god, I have to keep up with these standards?” Tom Fowler, Kano, Erica Henderson, Ming Doyle… that was terrifying. They’re all really good at this stuff, and I’ve had one good shot at this and I don’t know if I can do it again. Fortunately its come together and I think the audience will enjoy it.
That’s actually an interesting point, because “Quantum and Woody Must Die” is ostensibly a jumping point: new #1, a self-contained mini even though it builds off of stuff that has come before. Keeping that new audience in mind and anyone that shows up for a new #1 or fans of either of your work, what sort tools or tricks of the trade do you bring out to make sure the book keeps in line with the previous story but is open to this new audience?
JA: Well it definitely is a continuation. We’re not disowning or in any way negating the first year of stories that we did. But it also seemed like a great opportunity to bring in new readers, and in order to do that it really felt for me that it was time to move the characters into their lives as superheroes. The first year was about the shock of them getting their powers, and orienting themselves. Now that they sort of have semi-terrible footing as opposed to being entirely out of sorts, now we’re able to press forward.
SL: I feel like my main tool for making sure that everything matches up properly is our editor, who will keep an eye on this stuff and point out stuff like, “Oh, it was only one month where this was like that,” or something along those lines. [Laughs] Honestly, if you’re doing a comic right, pretty much any comic that is structured properly should be able to drop a reader into it at any point so they can follow it. They can pick up on backstory and running gags as they go along, perhaps, but it shouldn’t be a lot of work to make every comic legible to someone who didn’t pick up the first comic.
JA: That’s true, and that’s something that I’ve tried to keep in mind with “Quantum and Woody.” It feels like a book that people keep discovering; every month I’m hearing from new people that just picked it up, so even with the original series we tried to make every issue full of everything you needed to know. One of the tricks was just to make sure that with the story you’re telling, everything means something. An audience can pick up on that without you having to spell it out. It’s just a matter of not assuming investment or knowledge, and making them care every time you do something.
Steve, earlier you had mentioned working with James has allowed improvisation with the script, and this is your first time for both of you working together. How have you found the working relationship like as you get more into the series, or as different aspects of the book evolve?Continued below
SL: It’s been great. I’ve liked everything James has given me, and I’ve had a lot of fun riffing off of it. It’s smart, funny stuff.
JA: I had full confidence the minute I knew Steve was coming onboard, even though we hadn’t worked together. But just being familiar with his work, I’ve seen so much thought and detail and creativity in everything from laying out the expressions to full-on visual gags. And even just in the craftsmanship of telling a good story, I knew I had nothing to worry about; to me, I just get to play around now.
I did improv performance for many years. You only really have to think ahead and work really hard when you’re performing with someone who isn’t has well-seasoned at their craft; then you’re trying to help them, help mitigate the problem. But when you have a partner as skilled and developed and creatively rich as Steve is, you can just play together. My goal is to tee him up for success and then be inspired by the stuff he does to try and pick my end up. Again. Every time.
I’d like to get a bit into the meat of “Must Die”, so we’ll skirt that awkward spoiler-y territory, but with that in mind: one of the things I really like about “Quantum and Woody” is you can take standard superhero and villain ideas and really play it up to an extent you might not see elsewhere. Even with that larger playing field, when you introduce new characters do you find that the habits of superhero comic books weigh in on designing them, or when coming up with new ideas for stuff you want to introduce based on Quantum and Woody’s reactions?
JA: For me, I think of Quantum and Woody as the humanization of superhero comics. In adding very real character flaws and shortcomings, playing off the imperfect nature of real life, it makes old superhero tropes more interesting and lets you have your cake while eating it too. We can have a supervillain that’s something I’ve not seen before while also having it feel more honest, more bizarre, more unpredictable, especially if you give them this skewed humanity that’s probably going to make everything blow up in everything’s faces. I certainly think the book gets a lot of mileage and joy from my love and the reader’s presumed love for superheroes in comics, there’s certainly a lot of fertile ground there, but it’s not just about creating a parody. It’s not just going to be a book that has “our take” on ‘Kraven’s Last Hunt’ or something, you know?
But there are certainly touchstones twirling around from our shared familiarity with it, with the genre. There are touchstones and motifs. I keep wanting to say motifs, so that must be it; there are a million versions of deranged scientists, but our version has the head of Thomas Edison kept alive in a real world scenario shows off the underhandedness of the man that lets us play off of a few things there. I mean, for one you still have your big fancy supervillain, and I’m proud of it — it’s just a little bit more complicated and a little bit more flawed than that.
And Steve, one of the notes I liked when looking at the script for the first issue Valiant provided was the idea of “totally over-the-top 90’s sequence,” that ideal. Is that the sort of thing you find is easier to play with here?
SL: Honestly, I spent the 90’s not looking at superhero comics even though I was drawing one. [Laughs] I was so deeply alienated from what superhero comics had become at that point that I just couldn’t look at them. I kept a longbox of the things coming from my publisher and I’d give the books to my cats to… well, you know. [Laughs]
The approach that I’ve been taking with this book, and this is a reference that will come straight out of left field, but it’s like a band that I listen to a lot called Alice Donut. There are two people in comics who like this band, me and John Layman, and I know they were a huge influence on “Chew,” let alone me. So, as a band they use a lot of really hard punk and metal riffs, but instead of doing them in service of that power fantasy that runs through metal, they do this sort of impotence fantasy: stories about degradation and weakness and having no control. I like doing something similar here, where we’ve got all these riffs that come straight out of superhero comics, and then we kick the legs out from under them by putting them right where they shouldn’t be in this “gods come to Earth” idea. The contrast delivers a lot of juice to the gags we can do.Continued below
JA: I think you’ve just diagnosed my own subliminal impotence fantasy. [Laughs]
I really like that explanation, though. Seeing as we are more down to Earth with these characters, so to say, does that make it easier to just knock them over?
JA: Well, certainly, yeah. It’s so much easier to get humor out of characters with deep flaws. You know how they’re going to set themselves up failure. But I also think they’re really the most human when you see some genuine longing and vulnerability under it all; that actually lets the audience continue to care about them, to want to see them succeed and be invested in their struggle even if they keep embarrassing themselves. But we’re still willing to be on their side.
So rather than these power fantasies that are adjacent, we feel catharsis and empathy through these characters. It’s like watching Charlie Brown get the football pulled away from him — he keeps trying to kick it, and at a certain point it’s both foolhardy and really admirable that he never gives up. He keeps trying to become something beyond what he is.
SL: The imagery I think of to go with the football being pulled away is Daffy Duck as Robin Hood, shouting “Yoinks, and away!” then smashing into a tree, “Yoinks, and away!” and then smacking into the tree again. [Laughs] How often they can go to the well with that same gag, it’s one of the things that speaks to one of the big differences between superhero stories and straight comedy is that superhero stories are driven by the character’s virtues and what they have going for them — where as comedy, or even crime stories actually, are built around what’s wrong with them, or what the character is missing, what they can’t get right. It’s a pregnant idea, something with much more fertile ground to play in.
With recurring gags, for you guys, when defining how comedy works within this medium, do you find you lean more towards witty repartee or sight gags? I see a lot of debate in comedy whether it’s better to be smart or to be hit in the face with a pie; high brow vs. low brow. What do you think works better?
JA: I am a firm believer that the best comedy is intelligently being hit in the face with a pie.
SL: A really, really smart pie. That’s what it’s all about. [Laughs]
JA: The sketch group that I was with for about two years used to end shows in a pie fight with the symbol for pi. It was essentially a scientist trying to study what was funny in a very near-violent, analytical way that was at the same time both very silly and very esoteric. We got huge props from the audience in all parts of the country, people really got into that bit, both for people who wanted comedy to be sophisticated and people who wanted to drink and laugh at something. So it’s about getting something there for everyone, and it’s both a little bit smarter than it needed to be for a joke while delivering our basic human desire to watch someone fall on a banana peel or something.
We’re simple animals, but I think it’s good to feed the higher aspirations. So if you try and pepper in a little bit of all of that, and you can probably tell from this interview, I’m more verbose by nature than I am with my jokes. [Laughs] But I try and round things out, and have a little bit of something for everyone.
SL: I think about it as the world’s least discriminating fisherman. Once I’ve got a latch, I’ll pull anything back. [Laughs] If there is anything I can do to get that laugh, I will do it. I will not throw anything back to the water if I don’t have to.
JA: And truthfully, I also think a light touch… It’s like music. You don’t want everything to be power chords. I think part of the reason the book succeeds is that the humor varies, and we’ll play around and go from a quiet scene into an action sequence, straight-forward delivering that excitement. We’ll have moments of genuine emotion or character building as well, and I think that variation helps keep people interested and unsure of what happens next.Continued below
You can see it a lot in Steve’s work on “Superior Foes” where there’s just this huge spectre of how he builds the riffs and lets them go — and that’s a joy and a total pleasure that shows he’s really in tune with comedy. It makes me amazed that you haven’t spent your entire career doing hilarious books. It’s one of those things that made me go back and look at some of your older books and see if there was just stuff I missed the first time around? They’re not really there, Steve. Your comics are pretty bleak reads! [Laughs]
SL: I’ve snuck exactly one joke in, into “Whiteout”, that I can remember.
JA: What?? What’s that?
SL: It’s a joke that no one outside of people in the Arctic could get. It’s a joke that depends on color, but it was a black and white book, so. Basically, when you go down there you’re issued this extreme cold weather gear, and it’s all the same shade of bright red that’s visible from an airplane in case you get lost in the snow. What happens to every person is, you go there, you find this hangar to put your coat up, and everybody has the same coat. So I drew someone standing in the background and just staring at this huge rack of identical coats, and someone is leaning over to him and saying “yours is the red one.” [Laughs] And no one could possibly get it because the book was in black and white.
I think that actually makes it better, because now you’ve created the super joke that only comes out a decade and a half later. It’s just this super hidden joke.
SL: The sad moment is, when I saw the premiere of the film — they flew us out for the red carpet and all that — the scene where they clip off Kate Beckinsale’s fingers got a laugh.
JA: [Laughs] Oh my god.
SL: There’s a reason it has a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, you know? That was not the reaction that anyone was expecting, though. [Laughs]
So, one of the things I’ve heard about comedy and stand-up is, as much as they practice off-stage, a lot of the times when they go on they’re just workshopping their material to see what works or what doesn’t. With comics, you don’t get that immediate reaction; you do it and then later see what works and what doesn’t. Looking at the past year of your respective works and what you’re hoping for with this book, what do you guys think you’ve learned from what works, what doesn’t in comedy comics?
SL: I do have a bit of a workshop available to me. I’ve got Periscope Studios, a big studio of comic book writers and artists here in Portland, Oregon where we all share a space together. If I’m not sure about the timing on something or if I have two gags and I’m not sue which is more funny, I’ll just walk the room and show it to people here. I’ve had some really talented cartoonists who have helped me in trusting in the bit and making things funnier: Jeff Parker, Colleen Coover, Benjamin Dewey, all of whom have magnificent comedy chops and all of whom have looked over my shoulder and said “Do this one, this one’s funnier,” or “In between these four panels put a floating head in the middle,” stuff like that. Ben Dewey, just off the top of his head, can throw out three or four comedy ideas that I’ll just steal, I’m completely unhesitant at this point. I’ll take from anyone who is willing to give it.
So yeah, I had that equivalent to a comedy troupe or a test audience to work material on.
JA: I just sign up for slots in open mic nights and read the script. [Laughs] No, but I do try and work things into conversations with people, to see what works in the moment, though that’s my least favorite comedic thing to do — to gauge material like that.
But ultimately I have huge trust the editors I’ve had at Valiant. Jody LeHeup, who helped launch “Quantum and Woody” was our editor, and Alejandro Arbona who took over, both of them have great instincts for comedy and storytelling. They’ve been fantastic first audiences to tell me when something’s not working. And in terms of what I’ve learned, I’ve kind of always believed in the real value of putting sincere emotion and vulnerability into your comedy, even when the audience does not think that that’s what they care about at all. It just ups their investment and their reactions; I wasn’t sure if comic book people necessarily felt the same way because there’s a certain bombast to superheroes and chicanery to comedy, where both feel like there’s so much going on and you don’t really need more.Continued below
So honestly, I’ve learned how much people want to love these guys as people, as characters, and how valuable that is to everything as the base for whatever else we want to do. They need to be people you can invest in and believe in as interesting characters. I’m very happy to see that, because I get the most interested in character out of any of the other elements at play in the story. I think that sometimes we get a bad rap about not really giving a crap about character development, just because Batman has been upset about his parents for seventy-five years.
SL: [Laugh] I feel bad for the guy. That’s rough.
JA: Sure, I know, but find some other things to empathize with in your life!
Well he keeps trying to make a family, and then someone keeps just killing them!
JA: [Laughs] That’s true.
SL: And then there’s that poor crippled bat just flopping around on the floor of his study, all cut up in glass. He doesn’t even get up, just sits there watching it die.
JA: Has anyone done a gag alternate reality comic where when the bat flies through the window Bruce decides to become a window repairman? [Laughs]
I have one last question I’d like to ask, and that is: in your own words, why do you think that Quantum and Woody must die?
SL: Sales bump. [Laughs]
JA: It would just prove that they’ve really made it in the comic book industry if they died. We only kill characters that we know will sell a million books when we bring them back to life.
SL: And it proves their humanity. We all must die!
JA: It’s a book about the bleak, inevitable truth. That’s why. [Laughs]
SL: There’s nothing more funny than facing our own mortal coil.
JA: Well if you don’t laugh about it you’ll cry, so we’re taking the more upbeat stance on that.
SL: I was thinking we could make a really serious comic next, like “Quantum and Woody Must Cry.”
JA: [Laughs] That’s it.
Thanks to James and Steve for chatting with us, and take a look below for your first look at a lettered preview for the book, which debuts January 28th, 2015: