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Film, Comic Books
Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) is a tongue-in-cheek action comic about a highly skilled government operator who takes on a group of … oh, what does it really matter who the bad guys are? Bottom line, they’re bad guys, and O.M.W.O.T. is more than happy to chop, kick, shoot and otherwise eradicate them from existence. As Fantagraphics puts it:
Cartoonist Benjamin Marra brilliantly satirizes American’s obsession with justice — and disinterest in consequences — via a highly stylized, hyper-masculine style that evokes 1980s independent comics and, to a lesser extent, the blissfully ignorant aesthetics of 1990s Image Comics like Todd McFarlane’s Spawn and Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood. Gushing with violence, sex, and international politics, Terror Assaulter batters down the boundaries between psychedelia, political commentary, and aggressive expressionism.
Those familiar with Marra’s work (Night Business, Blades and Lazers, The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd) might remember he released the first chapter of this story as a stand-alone comic in the fall. Wanting to know more about the comic, I chatted briefly with Marra.
ROBOT 6: How does the upcoming Fantagraphics book differ from the comic you were selling at Comic Arts Brooklyn this year?
Benjamin Marra: The Fantagraphics book will be much longer. The first issue of Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) will constitute the first chapter in the story. There will be three more chapters in the upcoming book, for a total of four chapters.
Can you tell me a bit more about the format? Will this be hardcover or paperback? Will each chapter be stand alone or is there an over-arching story?
The book’s format hasn’t been finalized. But I imagine it will be paperback, full-color in the standard comic book dimensions. Each chapter will be a part of a larger, overarching narrative.
I’ve been a big fan of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series of books as well as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. I’m a huge fan of Steranko’s run on Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. as well. Rambo, First Blood: Part II is never far from my thoughts. All are about a lone gunman with his own code. Ken Landgraf’s art has been an enormous source of inspiration for me the past several years. Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps has been a creative specter, haunting me since I read it, and finally had an influence on my hand. I’d also been following the story of Raymond Allen Davis, the CIA agent working in Pakistan. I’m always very curious about the shadow wars being conducted by Special Operations and the CIA in the war on terror.
All of those stories and artworks were swirling around in the ether of my brain, never coalescing. It wasn’t until I saw Arizal’s American Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum’s son, Chris Mitchum, that I was truly inspired to make Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror). I wanted to make a comic to replicate the experience of watching that film. Other Arizal movies I was particularly inspired by are The Stabilizer and Final Score.
Italian exploitation movies from the ’70s are always an inspiration for me as well, and I wanted the dialogue in Terror Assaulter to have the same feeling as a dubbed European film. I wanted it to feel like there’s something lost in the translation. I also wanted the tone to feel like the material itself thought it was smarter than it really was. Having O.M.W.O.T. in the title reflects the abundance of acronyms in the military, and, of course, is a direct nod to Jack Kirby’s OMAC.
To that end, one of the things I found great/fascinating in the issue of O.M.W.O.T. I read was every character’s utter insistence on describing exactly what was going on in the visuals, so that if a character gets chopped in the neck, he says “You chopped me in the neck” and so forth, so that everyone’s commenting on the action in the most straightforward, mundane manner. Can you talk a bit more about how you came upon the idea to make the dialogue so stilted? It’s almost as if you’re violating one of the unwritten rules of making comics.
The most important thing in creating successful comics is having the words and pictures communicate separate narrative ideas. Both of them are iconographic languages, but they function as two distinct sources of narrative information. Their synthesis or where they collide is what makes comics a powerful form. I’m consciously breaking this rule. The majority of the panels in Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) have the image and words communicating similar, or the same, ideas. One of the things I love about some ’70s European Horror movies is how characters would simply declare their current emotions as well as act out the emotional state. For instance I remember a scene (I can’t remember which movie, though I’m inclined to guess it was directed by Lucio Fulci) where a woman and man are backing away from a zombie, slowly crawling toward them, in a garden. The woman, clutching the man in fear says, without much passion, “I’m so frightened!”
A lot of those movies were made cheap and fast. It’s the way comics should be made, I believe. I attribute their lack of grace and subtlety to the time and budget constraints. They didn’t have time or money to refine anything. There’s an inelegance, clumsiness and rawness to how those movies feel, evidenced in that kind of dialogue. There’s also a humanity. I want my comics to do something similar.
I believe every medium favors a cheap and fast approach. Overthinking can kill art. Decisiveness and confidence are benefits to creativity. Specifically to comics, though not limited only to comics, most comics we know and study were produced under monthly or daily deadlines. Creating comics quickly under a deadline is a part of comics’ heritage and affects their aesthetic. The same could be said for cheap quality. Most of the comics I look at were printed on the lowest quality paper publishers could find. I prefer the look of comics that were created under pressure of time and small budget to the ones that were labored over, refined and “perfected” for months or even years, printed on beautiful paper. Art is more interesting to me when the artist has been constrained by some outside element — money, time, etc. — and had to make choices based on those limitations. Those limitations breed creativity resulting in interesting art. But comics also favor the cheap-and-fast approach simply because of the time it takes to generate them. Comics require a lot of time to draw them. In order to tell the all the stories a creator may have to tell, and remain engaged with the material, it’s best to work fast.
You describe O.M.W.O.T. as an homage to the influences listed above, but is it fair to describe it as a satire as well?
Absolutely. It’s a satire of American foreign policy over the last decade, neocon philosophy, the state of American masculinity and sexuality, and male power fantasy in comics.
The most striking thing characters like the Terror Assaulter (and Jack Reacher, etc.), is their absolute certainty. There’s never a shred of doubt in those type of stories that the hero is 100 percent right in all of their decisions and actions, no matter how grotesque or violent. That certainly makes them ripe for this kind of satire.
I agree it does make them ripe for satire. However, I prefer to have heroes be overwhelmingly confident in their choices. I prefer heroes who have a authoritative zen mastery over their reality. That’s what makes them heroic. I don’t like reading stories with heroes written as indecisive or over-emotional, or as self-questioning wimps, doubting their abilities. As a writing choice, in creating a character’s arc, it’s too easy to start with your hero as indecisive or inept and then have them learn to accept their fate as a hero and discover their power. It can work from a storytelling standpoint, but it’s boring. I’d rather have the hero vulnerable to satire than ride down the obvious track.
I found your color choices for Terror Assaulter to be interesting. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I chose the palette based on my options for having it printed on a Risograph machine. Even though it was four color, I didn’t want the colors to create a full spectrum of color options, as I believe they can get muddy and unclear on a Risograph. I wanted them to be strong, flat and clear. I chose primary colors to get close to the American flag. The unintended result was a very Pop Art aesthetic.
I briefly considered it, but I’m not going to change the color scheme. The palette is too much a part of the DNA of Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) now. I can’t imagine it any other way.
By my reckoning, this is your first comic that you’re not self-publishing. How significant is it for you to be able to be published by Fantagraphics, specifically in relation to your goals as a full-time cartoonist and artist?
I’ve worked with smaller publishers — Sacred Prism/Secret Prism and Colour Code, who published the first Terror Assaulter. And I have an unfinished graphic novel Picturebox commissioned before it shuttered. But, yes, this is my first project with a bigger publisher. It’s very significant for me the terms of my publishing career. It’s a crossroads for me. This book will be my first long-form comic book narrative.
With regard to becoming a full-time cartoonist and artist, I’m not sure those are goals for me. I’ve thought a lot about what it would take to become a full-time cartoonist. I’ve done the math and the numbers don’t seem to add up. My day job at MLBAM is also an incredible job. I enjoy the people and benefits, not to mention the work in new media design. It also allows me to pursue telling my own stories, rather than sell my services to help others realize their own. It could be a situation would arise in the future where I could embark on a full-time cartoonist career. But I’m not planning on it.