Weighing in at 256 pages: Jarrett Williams talks Super Pro K.O.
Jarrett Williams has been doing his webcomic Lunar Boy, for a few years now, and this July will see the release of his first full-length graphic novel from Oni Press — Super Pro K.O.! The first digest-sized volume will weigh in at a monster 256 black-and-white pages, and it combines old-school wrestling (or rasslin’) with slick manga-style artwork. You can check out a 27-page preview of it here.
I learned from Oni’s Cory Casoni this weekend at WonderCon that Williams is already hard at work on volume two of the graphic novel series … Casoni said Williams is about 60 pages into the next volume. Williams took some time out from drawing it (not to mention his Lunar Boy pages) to talk to me about the graphic novel, wrestling and how he came to tag-team with Oni. And he even provided us with an original piece just for this interview (up top), which was really awesome of him. I have to wonder if he sleeps with a pencil in his hand.
My thanks to Williams for his time, and to Casoni for setting the interview up.
JK: So what exactly is Super Pro K.O.? Is it a wrestling comic wearing a manga mask, or more of a manga series that’s been dropkicked into a wrestling ring?
Jarrett: Haha, It’s a bit of both actually. I’ve been a fan of manga since I was a kid. I think most of the young cartoonists out there grew up with a huge awareness of Japanese comics. And we directly felt the impact of it when it really caught on. However, I was lucky enough to also have a family that was really big on pro wrestling. Well, at least my cousin, little brother and I. We watched it faithfully growing up. Everything from Mid South Wrestling, to WCW, to early WWF, I’ve pretty much seen it all.
I’ve wanted to tell a pro wrestling story in comic form for a long time but I just wasn’t sure how to approach it at first. I wanted to capture the fun/spirit of pro wrestling. And I definitely wanted to present it as athletic and over the top. And I have a lot of retro influences in the way I approach drawing comics so I figured capturing that 1970’s early 80’s time in wrestling would be the best way to go (and allow me to create all of these fantastical characters). So after playing around with ideas for a couple years while I drew other comics, I finally decided to just sit down and draw the badboy. And that’s how SPKO came to be.
JK: Who are some of the characters we’ll meet in the book?
Jarrett: There’s a huge cast. And I think SPKO vol. 1 really does set the stage for this entire world I’m trying to show off. There’s this pretty messed up Heavyweight Champion called King Crown that’s definitely not the ideal leader of the pack. But his wrestling moves are devastating so he deserves the title. There’s Mr Awesomeness 2, a 2nd generation wrestler that is a mega-star in the heavyweight division. And of course, there’s El Heroe’, the world famous luchador who lives quite the lavish lifestyle. And that’s just a tip of the iceberg. There are also the tag teams, valets, referees, and commentators too. I really wanted to give the whole picture of this company SPKO. And it just so happens to be Joe Somiano’s first day in the company after working his way up through the indies wrestling scene. So the reader sort of sees the company through Joe’s eyes. And since Joe’s pretty green on everything at SPKO, the readers will catch a lot of things Joe’s too blind to see, for the good and the bad. But it’s cool because each volume of SPKO gives me the chance to show other wrestlers on the roster and how they’re critical to SPKO being the mega show it is. I can have larger than life characters that TV won’t even allow for so I’m really trying to push the cast as far as I can.
JK: Besides, obviously, professional wrestling, what are some of your other influences on this book?
Jarrett: I’ve pulled from a lot of places here. And anyone with a keen eye will see my inspirations, comics and otherwise. I was a huge TMNT fan as a kid. It was the first comic property I became obsessed with. I had the sheets, curtains, and my mom was cool and would even hang turtle action figures from my ceiling fan.
My folks were pretty supportive of me reading comics, so I had access to everything. I was a big reader of newspaper in New Orleans, The Times Picayune. So I saw Curtis, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes. The newspaper was where it was at! But I also read Archie, and lots of X-Men and Spiderman. When I got into manga and anime though, it really blew my mind. I loved Ranma 1/2 and Dragonball. That early VIZ stuff has such a glowing appeal to me. To hold something from so far away was just the coolest feeling. I grew up being that one guy in my class that was really into Sailor Moon. It was a big secret I was ashamed of for the longest time. I had a pal who would send me all of these Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth bootlegs from California. But I also dug Robotech and Battle of the Planets.
It’s weird though, I always responded to older things as a kid. So I would also watch Betty Boop and Felix cartoons on AMC back in the day. There was something about those Max Fleischer cartoons that really captivated me. And don’t even get me started on video games. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how the hours playing Gameboy, GameGear, SNES, or N64 really shaped the artist I’ve become. Seriously, I’ve learned so many elements of storytelling from hours invested in a video game. So you’ll get a feel for all of those tastes in one way or another in SPKO. In fact, there’s a pretty “not-so-subtle-to-me” but “maybe-a-little-subtle-to-you” Speed Racer shout-out in volume 1. And there are others too but I don’t want to spoil everything just yet
JK: I believe this is your first deal with a publisher, correct (as previously you’d self-published)? How has the experience been so far? What have some of the challenges been, both in getting the deal and in working with an editor/publisher?
Jarrett: Awesome. Easily, one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. I began self-publishing when I was 19. I had this web-comic called Lunar Boy that was like my baby project. So I I started going to comic conventions and really getting into that scene. And I highly recommend that route for any young artists. I met so many creators and so many publishers. And many of my best friends are in comics too because of it. Super Pro K.O! is my first published book by an actual “publisher” though and I’m 25 now. The challenges were ridiculous. It’s crazy. I don’t even know where to start.
The “deal” was the hardest part for me. I got so many rejections from my web-comic so I knew that wouldn’t be the thing published off the bat. In fact, I remember Chris Staros, editor at Top Shelf, actually saying he’d like to see me do something completely different than Lunar Boy, that I sorta’ had pigeonholed myself too early in my comic career. It was great advice. I needed to try telling other stories beyond what I was comfortable with. So that was the spark that got SPKO off the ground, I just wanted to challenge myself.
The “deal” wasn’t the easiest thing for me to get either. But I was okay with that at first. I just began working on SPKO and trying to figure out the dynamics of that world. I figured if I invested in it wholly readers would catch wind of it. I’m glad my first book is something I’m truly passionate about from the “comic side” and “pro wrestling side” and every other “side” in-between.
I began drawing SPKO in late 2007. I Got some feedback about 70 pages in that it just wasn’t going in the right direction from my friend Shawn Crystal. So I started over in August of 2008, script and all. And it sucked!!! But I knew Shawn was right. There was a pretty huge stiffness in the way I was approaching pro wrestling over all. So I stepped back and just began really immersing myself in the spectacle of it all. I started analyzing what made it so over-the-top, and really got into the lives of a lot of those performers.
And as with most things there were the weird hardships on the personal side of things. Life brings so many challenges in general and I guess it’s your job as a cartoonist to sort of manage the baggage and still get the job done. So I learned a lot about time management. I had to cut my video games playing time down. I just couldn’t manage it with my drawing schedule. And I also found lots of shortcuts to working more efficiently. I started pre-cutting all of my pages and ruling them out first. So there wasn’t so much stop-n-go. Saved me lots of time just being able to draw the final pages whenever I felt like. And surrounding myself with positive people was the key too. All of my friends pretty much understood that I would lock myself away to work. It was cool because at anytime I could call my superfriends/artists Hunter Clark and Mike Getty in the wee hours and just talk. They understood the challenges too and it kept me so level-headed about most things.
I had met with James Lucas Jones at several comic conventions off and on. He sort of showed me he was interested in SPKO but I knew pro-wrestling anything is a hard sell. But I started touching bases with him pretty often and updating him and the team at ONI on my progress with SPKO. I think I learned a lot during that time. For the longest time, publishers seemed so mysterious and intimidating to me. But everyone there was super cool, cool in a way that made me feel comfortable showing them my stuff. I pretty much knew I wanted to publish SPKO with them. It seemed like a perfect fit for their library of comics to me.
I’ll be honest, the next year and half was a blur. I was trying to manage drawing SPKO with finishing grad school, dating this girl and then not dating this girl, and also dealing with the realization that there were only 24 hours in a day. There was never enough time for anything it felt like. I’m still learning how to balance things especially life stuff. I hope it’s one of those things I get a whole ‘lot better at.
I had saved up some money working a retail job during my undergraduate time at SCAD (The Savannah College of Art and Design) and I had an un-maxed out credit card. So I decided to make 2009 the year I worked on SPKO 100%. I quit that retail job and focused all my time on SPKO. And I mean crazy hours, and lots of all-nighters. I usually work better in the AMs anyway. And I maxed out my credit card making my way to a bunch of comic conventions and showing my stuff around. It was totally worth it for me (though I wouldn’t recommend it). I ended up traveling to San Francisco for APE last year and then driving up with my fellow cartoonist pals 4 life, Kevin Burkhalter and Patric Reynolds to Portland, Oregon. The trip up there was a big deal for me. I knew that I was pretty immersed in this whole comic world for the good and bad at that point. The cool thing was that SPKO was almost wrapped up and I wanted to see how the whole ONI Press operation was run. They had let me know that they were down for publishing SPKO by that point so I couldn’t wait to get up there.
I was super impressed with the team there. I got a feel for their production process and that whole side of comics usually unfamiliar to us artists. They were so about their comics and creators. I felt really comfortable with the idea of being a part of that family. Well, the picnic ended when I was given a deadline of Halloween to have the book done, which eventually was extended to November 15th. I made a HUGE mistake and had a lot of my text go beyond the “safe area” for printing. And I hand-letter everything so I had to go back and rework a good 100 pages. That, too, SUCKED. But I’ll never be unaware of that cold mistress that is the “safe zone” again. But don’t get it twisted, I’d do it all again. I learned so much about the comic pipeline and operations. SPKO was totally a labor of love and I think all of those challenges make for a pretty wild comic.
There’s this part in SPKO where El Heroe is singing a song completely in Spanish. If any reader takes the time to translate it, it’s all about deadlines and the love/hate relationship I have with them. My world was Super Pro K.O for a good 3 years total just to get it afloat. It’s cool just to get it out there for everyone to see now.
JK: As far as wrestling goes, who are some of your favorites, past and present? How long have you been a fan?
Jarrett: Easily been a fan over 20 years. But there was this time when I didn’t watch it as faithfully (between 2002 and 2004). But I always read up on what was happening from the dirt sheets online. My favorite wrestlers are usually the bad guys / heels of professional wrestling. I’m talking about the Million Dollar Man, Razor Ramon, Shawn Michaels, Psycho Sid, and The Undertaker. The Ultimate Warrior was the stuff when I was a kid. But villains got to do all the fun stuff in my book. HHH’s antics in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s were awesome! The Rock was the greatest but I really dug Kurt Angle and his whole Olympic/ Grade A milk gimmick too. There really aren’t many Kurt Angle matches I can’t watch. Same for Chris Jericho. And Stone Cold was just amazing. The way the crowd popped just from his entrance alone really amazed me.
I always dug Tag Teams too. How cool would it be if you and your best friend could tag-up and go kick ass? So I loved Harlem Heat, the Hardy Boys, 3 Count and The Dudleys. I’ve always been a fan of Women’s Wrestling too so I really dug Victoria aka Tara, Jacquelyn, Trish Stratus, Mickie James, and Melina. And I think Factions were the coolest thing about wrasslin’ like the NWO, D-Generation X,The Four Hoursemen, and The Hart Foundation. Presently, I’m really into a lot of the new stars like AJ Styles, The Pope D’Angelo Dinero, C.M Punk, Dolph Ziggler, Motor City Machine Guns, Cryme Tyme, and Kofi Kingston. I think the wrestlers of today are so wildly different but that’s what makes wrestling so cool. Each generation’s batch of wrestlers has a distinct look and feel. The 80s guys look nothing like the stars of today though you get a hint of the past sometimes.
JK: And what about the recent Wrestlemania card? Who were your picks for the big matches?
Jarrett: Hahah. All of my picks were way off. But that’s usually the case. Being a wrestling fan means always feeling like you could make it 10 times better than what’s currently going on. But I did predict that John Cena would defeat Batista. Who didn’t see that coming?
JK: What else are you working on?
Jarrett: I’m dabbling in a couple side comics, mainly some All Ages stuff. It’s weird because I feel like this big kid so most of my comics cater to that. I have some pantomime comics I’m trying to get out there soon. I think alot of the European Comics I’ve been reading are really selling me on simpler (but deceivingly complex) stories.
But I’m also working on volume 2 of SPKO as we speak. I really want to keep that momentum going. I love this universe and there’s such a great story I’m trying to tell about these wrestlers and their lives in and outside the ring. It’s a lot of fun getting lost in this comic for me as an artist. I feel like I have a lot of dues to pay as a cartoonist, and I’m glad I get a chance to do what I love right out of the gate! This is totally a dream project that I think will surprise people. I think the size will surprise readers (I draw pretty chunky stories) and the craziness of this world will hook you (it’s a fun piece of retro goodness).
Now if you excuse me, wrestling’s on….