“This is Where I Want My Style to Go”: Chris Samnee on the Art and Experience of Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters

Chris Samnee has a lot of fan art for Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters, the Oni series he created and writes with his wife Laura, with colorist Matt Wilson and letterer Crank! filling out the team. It’s meaningful to him to receive that art, especially considering the source: his own children. The Samnees made Jonna, an all-ages, post-apocalyptic journey of two sisters trying to find their dad (and each other) in a land filled with monsters, as an ode to their first two children. They inspired the title’s two leads, Jonna and Rainbow. So, the fact that its number one fans come from his own household is all he needs to know that the book is a success.

There’s a lot of competition from other fans for that top spot, though. Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters has many supporters, as it is beloved by everyone who reads it — including me. It’s a fun, heartfelt, and brilliant tale that evokes some of the greatest all-ages comics works of all-time — like Jeff Smith’s Bone and Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet — as you read it, featuring Samnee’s trademark art but maxed out in the direction of expressive cartooniness, with Wilson amplifying its greatness with his colors. It was an easy top ten selection for my comics of the year in 2021. As it nears its end, it isn’t slowing down, with the final arc kicking off on April 20th on the heels of its big reveal in the 8th issue.

With that on the horizon and its second volume dropping soon after, I viewed that as an opportunity to check in with Samnee about the experience so far. The cartoonist recently joined me on Zoom to explore the experience of bringing Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters. We discussed the balancing act of drawing two comics at once, the process behind the book, embracing the style that feels right to him, monster design, putting himself in the book, and a whole lot more as we used five different pages from the series to date as a jump off for discussion. It’s a lot of fun, with fantastic insight from one of the best in the business.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re eight issues deep or two volumes in, at least from our perspective, because #9 comes out on April 20th and Volume Two arrives on the 27th. It’s been amazing so far. You’re this far in. How’s the book going from your end? Are you still having a lot of fun with it?

Chris Samnee: I am. It’s a lot of work to try and do this book and Fire Power concurrently. I just finished issue #10 and 11 and 12 are already written and laid out. It feels good to be this deep in. We’ve been doing Fire Power for years and years now. And Jonna started around the same time, but it feels good to be this close to wrapping things up.

Obviously, you’re an artist by trade. Do you feel that the art comes out of you a little bit easier than the writing?

Chris: Well, I think of the story as it’s put together visually. So I know what the pictures are going to look like. The toughest part is just sitting down in front of the computer and typing up the dialogue because I always do my first official draft after I’ve already done the layouts. So there’s temporary dialogue in all the little balloons, or sometimes they’re just blank, honestly. (laughs) And I know that they’re going to say something. I just don’t know what it’s going to be yet.

And then those layouts all get turned into our editor, Zack Soto, and he has to edit them on a wing and a prayer because…you have to just be able to tell the story with pictures and kind of hope that the dialogue’s going to work later, because I don’t turn in the first draft until I turn in the inks of the script. That’s what’s going to end up going to Crank! (Jonna’s letterer). So yeah, we did the layouts in a big chunk. So the layouts have been done since last year.

What is (Zack) editing in the layouts?

Chris: If I’m doing my job right, you can tell what the story is without the dialogue. We want everybody to be able to read it. Originally, I wanted to do it completely silent, but it’s not the kind of tale you can tell in 12 silent issues. There has to be something in there. But yeah, he knows what the story is. We pitched the book, we have the outline, we have the plot, he knows what all the beats are. And I think he just wants to see pictures and to make sure that they read well. When all that is okay, then I do my first draft. That’s the hardest, because then you actually have to be in front of the computer and type something up, which is not my most comfortable place. That’s why I have a new laptop.

This is…it feels like this is my dedicated space for work. And I just have to get my layouts back out and hunker down and put it on paper and make it something. I don’t do the traditional version of a script because I’ve already drawn it. I don’t need to do, “This happens in this panel and this person makes this face.” It’s already done. You’re going to look at the layouts while you look at the script. So honestly the script is just the dialogue, just panel one, silent, panel two, silent, panel three, here’s a balloon, so and so says this. It’s a truncated version of a typical script. All we’re trying to do is make it so Crank! knows what he needs to do.

There’s honestly not a ton of dialogue in these issues anyways.

Is this a 12-issue series?

Chris: It is, yeah.

So, this is the final arc?

Chris: Yeah. There are more stories that I can tell. I’ve got ideas and Laura (Samnee, Chris’ co-writer and wife)’s got ideas of things that we could do. But this was planned from the beginning to be a 12-issue story.Because I did Black Widow back in the day and 12 issues feels like you can make a meaty story without a whole bunch of filler.

One of the things I historically love is the 12-issue maxiseries. It feels like the best to both worlds. You have enough depth that you can get into the story, but it’s finite enough that it stays hyper focused.

Chris: There’s no fat to trim. And it keeps me focused on the main push of the story so I don’t have to keep putting in hints of stories that are going to branch off elsewhere. I really want to just focus in and get to the end and have that one story. There are side adventures or other characters that pop in and out, and maybe we can tell their stories another time. But for now we’re focused on our two main characters and what they’re up to and then boop, boop, boop, A, B, C, and then we’re all done.

So, did you and Laura have the whole plot of the 12 issues figured out before you even jumped into it?

Chris: It’s been years. I can’t say with certainty. I knew how I wanted the book to start, and I knew the last page and some of the middle we had to fill in. I’ve always known how I wanted it to end. And now we’re just kind of working our way toward that. I can’t remember if that was in the original pitch. Things have evolved along the way. Some of the middle stuff has changed, but the basic story points were all there from the beginning. The Gor and Nomi stuff, they were in my designs back in 2014 and I didn’t know that they were going to be bigger in the story until I started drawing them and I couldn’t leave them out. I had too much fun with them. So they started coming back more and more. And I liked them too much to just let them pop in and back out.

You mentioned this earlier, but Jonna is in the midst of a slightly less than five-month gap. Fire Power just came back after around a four month one. You’re still drawing two books. At least one is ending. How is that going? Do you feel like you’ve gotten some breathing room after that?

Chris: No. (laughs) It should feel like I had a nice break, but I didn’t have a break. I just kept going throughout. And the break was just the publication break. I’m still producing. So I haven’t had a chance to rest yet. I’m still on that hamster wheel trying to get pages in. And once I get done inking 12, then I’ll feel like I can breathe again, and I can take a little bit of a break and I’ll just be back to what normal humans do, which is one book a month. But there’s no time to breathe yet. I still have deadlines sitting on my shoulders.

I don’t know if one book a month is even what normal humans do, because I know for a lot of people it’s like one book every six weeks and that’s without writing it or without doing any number of things.

Chris: I think the longest it’s taken me to ever make a comic was the first issue of Black Widow. And that was like eight weeks, and I was feeling really bad that it took so long from then. I don’t think that I’ve stretched anything out quite that far. There have been issues that have taken six weeks.

And some of the Jonna stuff…issue #10 has taken longer than I wanted it to. But as we start the third volume, I wanted it to be in a good place. I didn’t want to just jump in with the new volume and have the readers be completely caught unawares. Yes, it’s a continuation of a story, but I also didn’t want everybody to just feel like they were starting on the third reel and not understand the story. So we jumped back and did some flashback stuff to catch everybody up a little bit. I didn’t want to do like, “Previously in Jonna,” but something to sort of not start in the middle of a story with volume three.

The book I think of most when I think of Jonna is Bone. That’s a series that did well in single issues when Jeff (Smith) was self-publishing it, but it became a monster hit when it was collected. And one thing that’s going to be nice about Jonna when it’s done is you’re going to have all these different variations people can buy. In theory, if Oni decides to do a hard cover, it’s three trade paperbacks and then a hardcover collecting all 12 issues. It feels like the type of book that is going to do well as a series, but ultimately might find an even bigger home when it’s fully done.

Chris: Here’s hoping.

I love Bone. I’ve bought Bone since it was in single issues from Cartoon Books back in the nineties. So any comparison to it, I’ll gladly take. And Jeff has been really great and supportive of me and the book and he gave us a quote for our first volume. I keep an email from Jeff on my board over here. 7 It was like, “We got some nice words from Jeff Smith.” And I was like, “What?! Print!” (laughs)

Let’s get into a page. I always wanted to talk about this page from issue #1 because we talked around it when you came on the podcast. The first issue had two different double page spreads that I absolutely loved, but this one was particularly great because I feel like it really set the tone for just how big and wondrous it can feel. These spreads were total showpieces. But is that showpiece nature a big part of the reason you wanted spreads like this in the first issue? To show how big things could get, and how much they could really capture your imagination?

Chris: For sure. And I wanted a chance to, since they’re giant monsters, I wanted it to feel bigger, as far as scope goes. And there’s no way to make the page taller. So the only other option is to do a double page spread and make it wider. And you run the risk of stretching something out and not making it look taller if you do a two page spread, because you are making it wider, but it can also sort of shorten things, perspective wise. So instead of doing just a wide tall panel on the top, I had to go full on two page spread. Short of doing a treasury size version of the book or artist edition size, I have no other way to make the monsters taller.

But yeah, this isn’t the last of the two-page spreads. There are a whole bunch and it’s just me embracing the print version of the book because I’m a big sucker for actual comics. Digital is what it is, and it has its great things and drawbacks. And one of the drawbacks is two-page spreads don’t work so well on it, but in print they sure do. This is me giving it my all to make something feel big.

I thought it was smart to frame it from Jonna’s perspective because it’s almost like a POV situation where you’re experiencing the wonder at the same time as Jonna, but also framing it from her perspective, that makes it feel so much bigger because you’re like, “Oh my God, how big is this thing? Very big.”

Chris: Very, very big. (laughs) Kaiju size.

I read in RC Coda 8 for Fire Power #19 that there’s an issue of Jonna coming up that has six double page spreads. Clearly you enjoy a good double page spread.

Chris: I do. (laughs) I love them. And in Fire Power, we’re doing a whole bunch of double page spreads. I think issue #22 has three or four in it. Things are getting big in Fire Power and there’s some kaiju size stuff going on there. We’re kind of doing the same thing in Jonna. So I could draw as many giant monsters as possible every month.

But as things get bigger towards the end of the third volume (of Jonna), I can’t do a ton. I don’t want to do 12 panels on a page because it makes things feel smaller. It’s getting big and I hate to overuse the word epic, but I want it to feel big and epic. So the only way I could do that is more double page spreads. So, we have lots of new monsters showing up and new things happening and big, big moments. And I’m trying to sell it as a big, popcorn movie kind of moment.

I just want to say, I love your monster design. It’s always super fun. They’re always very unique and look, even if they aren’t always unique in size. They’re generally big.

Chris: Some are big, some are little. There’s the onion frog. That’s what Zack calls it. He has like a whale chin and, it is what it is. They all have names, but we don’t put them in the book, so it doesn’t matter. But it’s like 10 feet tall and then there’s Red, who is the first one that shows up, the one on this page. Its name is just Red. It’s the size of Godzilla. Some of them are smaller, some are bigger, but Red is the biggest one that’s shown up so far.

I think when we first chatted, I told you I had a theory about this. I had this bird-based theory for where the kaiju came from. I have no idea if that’s the case, but I did want to ask about your design. What’s your approach to designing them? When it comes to Red or the onion frog (laughs) or whatever, do you have any rules for them or consistent elements you want each to have? Or is it more about finding the right answer for the monsters when you get to them?

Chris: More than anything, it’s just the shape of it. I want each one to look completely different in the silhouette. So the frog is just round, Red is all angles and almost like a hammer for a head. They start off as an animal. It’s mixed with a whole bunch of other stuff. So we have what my eight year old calls the Chuggy monster, just a chug chug chug, and I always thought it was like a train. So it’s kind of like a caterpillar or worm, kind of like a sand worm from Dune, but I wasn’t really thinking about that at the time. But mixed with a tiller, so it digs through the dried out soil of the earth. It’s cutting through instead of just digging. And it has the color of…there’s some sort of fish, I can’t even remember what it was. I sent the reference to Matt (Wilson, Jonna’s colorist) as we were going, and I was like, “Can you make it look this color?”

A lot of it is things that bothered me as a kid or things that I was scared of. This is me dealing with all of my childhood fears and just putting it into a comic book. So, all the goopy snot and the snail trails and all the stuff that’s in there, I hated that when I was a kid. So this is just me putting all this stuff in there for these kids to have to deal with. I grew up around tons of different animals I didn’t like being around all day. My parents had chickens and geese and quail and all these different things and the chickens…I didn’t like being around them. They made noise all the time and they were gross and you have to feed them and clean up their poop and I just wasn’t into it.

The first one that shows up is Red because, as you maybe have noticed, there’s no birds in the book. Because the air has become too toxic for birds. The birds aren’t turning into the monsters. Also…I didn’t want to draw them. (laughs) So we have some birds that show up in flashbacks, but not in the modern stuff.

It’s funny because the birds that do show up, you draw very well. You’re a very good bird artist.

Chris: Well, I grew up around a bunch. My dad was a falconer and he had hawks and owls, and that’s why we had so many birds around the house is. Partly it was because we lived in the country and the chickens are how you get eggs and all that jazz. But we also had quail and stuff because that was food for the hawks. So part of the reason I don’t like birds was because you couldn’t get attached to them. Like, “Don’t pay attention to that quail because it’s going to be in a couple of days.”

I did not grow up around birds, so I’m a bird obsessed person. My wife and I, when we visited Ireland, we had a falconry experience which I thought was amazing. But I never really thought about it from the other side. That’s tough times for those quails.

Chris: My wife and I were just talking about it the other day, and from the outside, it probably sounds cool to be able to be around birds of prey all the time and think, “Wow, you get to train it and hunt with it.” And that’s cool for my dad, who did it. And it’s cool for the people who only see it for a little bit when they come over and visit. But for the person who has to try and watch TV with a hawk sitting in the middle of the living room, jumping around as poop squirts out like six feet…it’s not super fun. (laughs)

No kidding.

Chris: So, from my point of view, they’re not great.

It almost sounds like immersion therapy where you’re putting yourself into a position to deal with something that you didn’t love when you were a kid. But it’s not that, you’re just putting your fears into the book.

Chris: Everything that bothered me, or I was afraid of…this is my therapy. Drawing comics is my therapy.

I love this page for a number of reasons, but I want to focus on the two characters at the core of the series. It’s a great page of compare and contrast between Jonna and Rainbow. One is a largely silent physical marvel, and the other is…Rainbow’s not as adept physically, but comparatively loquacious and smart and willing to push herself outside of her comfort zone. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but it’s clear that the nature of Jonna is going to be a big part of this story, given the way that issue eight ended. But ultimately is the core of this series about Jonna and Rainbow’s relationship as much as anything?

Chris: Oh, for sure. They’re sisters and they look out for each other and even though Rainbow is not as physically strong, she still feels like looking out for her little sister.

Your own kids were a big point of inspiration for them, right?

Chris: They were. We only had two when we started on the book and we have three now, so we’ll have to make another book just so we have something for our third one to feel like she’s part of it. But yeah, their relationship is very much Rainbow and Jonna.

My favorite part about this page besides the tree, which is incredible, is the inset panel. I love it. It’s so smart and fun. That’s not something you necessarily needed to include because we could tell without it that Rainbow is following Jonna, but it’s so much better that you did include it. Why is that something you value as an artist?

Chris: Without having a whole lot of dialogue in the book, it’s up to me to get the tone across through the pictures. And this was just one chance for me to still try and keep it light and fun. Having that little inset just felt fun and like something that I thought my kids would get a kick out of. Sometimes I stick something in there just to make my kids laugh.

How much of your decision making on the art side of this comic is based around whether something is fun? Because it feels like that is an important part.

Chris: Oh, for sure. I mean, if I’m going to be drawing it for hours and hours and hours, I have to try and make it as fun as I can, for whoever’s reading it, but also for me, because I’m the one who has to sit here and do it.

When you’re doing your layouts, do you lay it out and then think, “this (inset panel) is something I could add to add some fun?” Maybe it wasn’t in your mind to start with, but you realized this would add something to it?

Chris: Yeah, it wasn’t in the original, super rough layout for the book. But when we started tightening things up for the full-on layout for the plot, I had a sketchbook that was filled with tons of little doodles, and we’d figure out what was a page turn and what was a single page and where all the moments needed to happen. We’d figure out a whole issue, but they weren’t tight enough that anybody could figure out what they were besides me…some of it Laura can figure out. So then I would take those and translate those into a finished layout. My layouts are actually pretty tight. 9

No kidding. Because your pencils are super rough, right?

Chris: My pencils are terrible. We start out really rough and then I tightened it up for that. And then those will get printed out blue. For Fire Power, I don’t do any penciling at all, unless it’s something that has to get designed on the page and then I’ll tighten it up. But for the most part, I just jump right in.

With Jonna, I do pencils. I take about an hour to pencil before I start inking any page. That’s how I used to do Daredevil back in the day. I’d take an hour, figure out what needed to get figured out and then start inking. But Jonna, I do pencil a lot more just because there’s such a gap from the time that I did the layouts to the time that I start inking. I’ll make different choices than I would have six months ago. So I have to get myself in the right head space again and then ink that. But yeah, from the rough layout, that inset panel wasn’t there. It is on the actual tightened up layout, but it wasn’t on the rough from my sketchbook.

So, your process…you have a rough layout and then you have the tight layout and then do you do pencils after that and then inks?

Chris: Yeah. I print it out blue and then I’ll tighten up whatever I need to and then ink over that.

I like that. Because every time you revisit it, maybe you figure out a little something different. Like with the inset panel, you realized that you want to add that in because it brings a little spice to it. It’s like a different version of Chris revising previous Chris’s work.

So, this next page is…the funny thing is I think this spread might actually be before the previous page in issue #3, but I’m going out of order because whatever.

Chris: That’s alright. I can’t keep anything in order. I took a whole bunch of pictures of pages and just sent them to my editor yesterday and it’s like page 19, page two…I don’t draw them in order. The layouts are in order so I know that they’ll work one after the other, but when I draw them, I can never just do page one to page two. I have to do the one that’s fun and do the one that isn’t, and then I bounce around until it’s done.

That makes sense. Do you think about how a book flows when you’re thinking about pages? Like this is a double page spread and it says a lot about the characters really quickly without needing a ton of dialogue. Do you think about how pages and double page spreads exist relative to one another? Or is it just about finding the right solution for a spread like this?

Chris: No, I totally think about them because even before I do the layouts, when we’re doing just our rough idea of what the issue is going to be, we plan out all the two-page spreads because you have to have it right for a page turn. It has to happen on certain numbered pages. You can’t do the two-page spread on an odd and an even page.

You could, it would just be really ineffective.

Chris: Yeah. It always has to be an even number on the left and an odd number on the right. Otherwise you have to put ads in. We don’t do ads at Oni, except all the ads in the back. You can’t do something in the middle of a book. It takes you out of the story.

Totally.

Chris: So, yeah, it’s always been a plan from the beginning of how it’s going to flow.

The rest of this article is for
subscribers only.
Want to read it? A monthly SKTCHD subscription is just $4.99, or the price of one Marvel #1.
Or for the lower rate, you can sign up on our quarterly plan for just $3.99 a month, or the price of one regularly priced comic.
Want the lowest price? Sign up for the Annual Plan, which is just $2.99 a month.

Already a member? Sign in to your account.

  1. He pointed out the printed out email on our call. It’s real!

  2. The conversation between Samnee and Robert Kirkman that appears in the back of each issue of Fire Power.

  3. Chris shows me some of his layouts at this moment.

  4. He pointed out the printed out email on our call. It’s real!

  5. The conversation between Samnee and Robert Kirkman that appears in the back of each issue of Fire Power.

  6. Chris shows me some of his layouts at this moment.

  7. He pointed out the printed out email on our call. It’s real!

  8. The conversation between Samnee and Robert Kirkman that appears in the back of each issue of Fire Power.

  9. Chris shows me some of his layouts at this moment.