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. 1 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 2 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)
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. 3
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.
Chris: So, yeah, it’s always been a plan from the beginning of how it’s going to flow.
This is kind of a weird question, but do you want Jonna to read quickly? It reads fast, but in a very good way.
Chris: I think calling it a fast read is tough.
I don’t mean it in a negative way.
Chris: No, no, no. I understand where you’re coming from. It’s just, when somebody says it’s a fast read, hopefully that means that they were excited and had a chance to go through it quickly to get to the end. I like the idea of that. I don’t like the idea of like, “Oh, well I read this issue in five minutes,” and people feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth.
Now there’s not a lot of dialogue in the book. And I think that’s typically what slows people down and gives them a chance to absorb a story in the way that they expect. What I’m trying to do is get you to read just the pictures and be able to set the pace yourself, which is tough. It’s not people’s usual way of reading a comic. If they say it’s a quick read, I hope they’re not trying to get to the end. The point is, I want you to be absorbed in the story and get a chance to follow the art that’s telling the story. So, it’s a tough line to be on. So yeah, I love and hate when somebody says it’s a quick read.
I get it. The fascinating thing is Jonna reads great in multiple ways. You can read it in the faster way, but I also love this page because I can read it multiple ways. I love just looking at Jonna’s approach to movement. My wife makes fun of me for how interested in efficiency I am…I find efficient paths to be incredible, which is why I find parkour to be interesting. And Jonna is like the queen of parkour. (laughs) She’s the greatest parkour person that has ever existed. And I love just looking through this page and figuring out Jonna’s approach and how you put that together., I’ve read issues of Jonna where I would reread the same pages multiple times. Not because I didn’t understand it, but because there’s so much you can appreciate there.
Chris: I want it to feel like a movie. In a movie, you’re not in charge of the pace. You just get sucked into it and you follow along with whatever the director and the editor want you to do. So I’m trying to lead the eye and slow you down, but there’s only so much that I can do. So I’m glad that you’re going back and seeing that it’s good from different points of view. Honestly, you could read this page in a minute and that’s fine, but if you paid your four bucks or whatever for the issue, hopefully you’ll be able to go back and upon rereading see other things, or if you’re taking your time, you can get whatever you need to get out of it.
I’ve heard people say if you gave 10 different artists the same script, they would come up with 10 different ways to do things. And there was a way that you could have done this that was with panels instead of with this continuous image of a sort. I love that you went with a continuous image, because it is the coolest possible version of this sequence. I appreciate you going the cool route. I imagine there’s a way you could have done this spread with panels where it’s multiple pages and you still show Rainbow catching up. But you ended up with this. What makes this your preferred route as a storyteller?
Chris: For this page, I almost did Rainbow in boxes and Jonna not. But it made it a little confusing to follow, honestly. So, I ended up putting them both as, like, ghosts throughout the panel, so you would follow them. There’s a scene in a later issue where Rainbow is swinging through the rafters in the underground city.And for that, she’s constrained to the panels, but Jonna isn’t. So, I want Jonna to feel other. She can navigate the same way that monsters would through this world. So, she’s not constrained to panels. Whenever she does something big, it either turns into a two page spread or she can bounce through the page in a way that Rainbow can’t. But Rainbow is stuck inside of this world and Jonna is a part of it.
I probably thought too deep on that one.
No way. I love it. I also just love something as simple as the fact that it looks like Rainbow is trying so hard to keep up and it’s a breeze for Jonna. This is just what Jonna does.
Chris: And you’ve got to think, they’ve been apart for a year. In that time Rainbow has been bouncing around from camp to camp and has just struggled her best while looking for her dad and for her sister. And Jonna just became part of that world. She has been feral and just doing her thing and totally surviving as a dirty little kid in the woods.
I want to bring up your artistic partner in crime here, Matt Wilson. He’s obviously one of the best in the business, and I love how he handles this page. I’m not as adept in knowing what is difficult and what isn’t in colors, but it feels like the constant change of lighting on these pages could make it a sneaky challenge. You’ve been working with him forever. What makes him such a perfect collaborator, both on this book and beyond?
Chris: I mean, getting these colors back…When we got these, I was like, “Oh man. Matt just took a huge leap.” This feels like exactly what I had in my mind. And sometimes he does exactly what I want and sometimes he goes beyond. This is beyond. I was hoping it would look great and then it looks great, but then this is like, “Oh, well this is going to be the wallpaper on my phone.”
This was one of the places where he really brought his A game. I think he does that throughout. I see a lot of people just like color and they just do whatever primary colors they want, and you just hit A, B, C and move on. It’s just like you color it and then it is what it is. But Matt is a storyteller, and he’s able to pick the colors that are going to make you feel something and not just have something colored in. He’s our third co-creator on this. I don’t know how it would work if it were just black and white. Originally, I was thinking black and white.Cooler minds prevailed. Laura was like, “I think we really need it to be in color.” And I was like, “Well, if it’s going to be in color, then Matt has to do it.”
It was funny when you showed me that black and white page…it felt incomplete because I’m so used to seeing Matt’s colors on you.
Chris: Yeah. There’s a bit of a disconnect. Sometimes after I’ve looked at it for five weeks or whatever, and then the colors come in, it can be like, “Oh wait, what? What book is this?”
This one is just Jonna being an absolute boss. (laughs) I love Jonna’s posture and face as she approaches this monster because it’s so casual and confident. It’s so, “I know what I’m doing.” And everyone else is probably like the guy in the second panel, who is like, “Whoa, what are you doing?”
Chris: Like covering his kid’s mouth. “Oh no.”
Jonna just is going up with complete confidence because she knows exactly what she’s going to do.
Chris: This is their first monster punch.
Your character acting feels very instinctual at this point. It feels like you have confidence in knowing the right way to do things and the right way to bring these characters to life. How do you approach character acting like this?
Chris: I put myself in their shoes. They’re little paper actors and it’s just a play in a comic book page. I’m not a character actor. I wouldn’t be good on a stage. But this is where I can act. So that’s all that’s happening. Jonna is confident. This is an everyday thing for her. So she hasn’t gotten a chance to show off before and this is her chance to show off and give everybody an idea of what she can do. And that’s what is going on later.
I love to think of this page and how the different characters would handle it. Like Rainbow on that page would be so different. Of course, the reason why Rainbow would be different is because she’s off somewhere not trying to fight a monster.
Chris: She’s got the common sense to hide under a rock.
I would absolutely hide. I would be out of there. I would just run.
When you’re in the layout phase and figuring out an issue or a page, like this one, I mentioned this earlier but how much of a factor is trying to deliver a different reading experience than what you’ve done elsewhere? Is it that, or is it mostly just trying to find the right solution for this page?
Chris: It’s honestly the latter. I’m not really trying to reinvent at the wheel. I’m just trying to get the story across in the most straightforward way as possible. There are times where I’ll get a little too artsy fartsy and try something weird and have cockeyed panels. And if my kids can’t read it, then other people’s kids aren’t going to be able to read it. So, there are some things where I kind of rein it back in, but that’s only in the service of clarity, not just because I feel like doing something weird.
Are your kids your first test readers?
Chris: Laura is the absolute first. And then if she’s like, “I don’t know if that works or not,” we get the kids in and it’s like, “Can you tell me what panel to read first?” And they follow it, then we’re good. If they (get confused), then I need to fix it.
That makes sense. Do you do that in layouts or when you’re done with the page? Hopefully not when you’re done with the page.
Chris: In the layouts. We did it once in the inks because I was confident that it would work. And then Laura was like, “Hold on a second. I don’t know if that works,” while I was inking the page and we had our middle (child) come over. I think she was seven at the time. And (Laura) was like, “Can you tell me what panel to read?” She got stuck, and I was like, “Oh, okay, well I have to draw the bottom half of this page again.”
At least at least you hadn’t inked the whole page.
We brought this up earlier, but one thing I really enjoy from the series is how much you get to play with scale. There’s this scene where Jonna is smaller than the size of a claw, basically, but then there are other things you do, like when Jonna gets captured and she’s the bottom of this cage and you take the shot where it’s her from a low angle and you can see just how massive this cage is.
Chris: She’s just a little bitty thing,
Just a little bitty thing. I love that you do that, but what does that bring to this story in your mind? Is it just about contrasts and setting up how big these monsters are and how big and scary this world is? Or is it more than that?
Chris: Part of it is to set up the scale of how big the monsters are, but also to show how little (Jonna) is in comparison to them and the fact that it doesn’t matter how small she is…she can still fight them. I always thought it was cool when little bitty Superman would punch a huge robot.
And way back in the beginning of trying to think of what Jonna was…I don’t know if you watched Ultraman, but he starts out as just a normal size guy and he grows huge and then fights a kaiju as Ultraman. They’re on even footing. They’re just two guys in suits and they are punching away. But if he was still the size of that little bitty guy, that’s what I thought was interesting. What if he stayed that big and he still got superpowers and he still had to fight them, but he was just the little bitty thing. And that’s what Jonna is. Jonna is teeny tiny Ultraman fighting giant monsters.
Or, if you want to go old school, I really liked Magnus Robot Fighter. Pre-Valiant, when Russ Manning did that. I had the reprints of the old Russ Manning stuff. And I always thought that was really cool to just have a regular guy and his power was he could punch through metal. I always thought that was rad. He’s just a regular dude until he fights robots, and then he just tears them up. Jonna’s just like a little bitty person who can fight anything.
I imagine Magnus Robot Fighter would be very disappointed when he had to fight actual people because that power would be useless in that situation. He’s just a normal guy. (laughs)
Chris: Or he’d just punch right through a bunch of skin and bones.
This last page I absolutely love. I have this fascination with people in extraordinary situations doing ordinary things, and I love that this recognizes the fact that Rainbow is a person who gets hungry. It takes a moment to slow down and show a character doing something that’s unrelated to the plot, focusing on something related to character, which is hugely important. Also, it shows food, which I love to see in comics, and you make some appealing looking food. I don’t know what those are in the bottom left corner, but I want to eat it.
Chris: They’re essentially…they used to have legs. So, it’s, like, the guts of a cockroach. Once we got rid of the legs, it looks like a baked potato.
It does kind of look like a baked potato. I would still eat it even after the explanation. But this isn’t typically a scene most comics would include, at least in part because of page counts. I love that you do. It seems to reflect what you value as a storyteller. Why is this kind of scene something you value?
Chris: I want Rainbow to feel human, and humans have they eat and sleep and they get tired. And Jonna doesn’t have so much of that. She falls asleep. She gets tired when she fights monsters too much and she’ll eat whatever is around. In issue #1, she eats this weird little creature. She’s like, “it’s no big thing.” It’s just whatever’s going to keep her going. She’s not really worried about food so much. And she eats in this issue. She eats the porridge or whatever that they make in the pot, but it’s not really something that she has to have to keep going. But Rainbow is very human. She needs the things that we all need. And I wanted to show that she’s vulnerable in the same way that we all are, and the whole world is different.
It’s a chance to show the world and how different things are, but also how similar they are at the same time. So the food is different and the people look, or their clothes, are different…but feel familiar. So this was just a little bit of world building over a couple of pages while getting a chance to show that Rainbow is human and needs the same things that we do.
I love your world building. Even in Fire Power #19, when the dragon hits the town where Master Shun is, that whole area just feels so alive in a similar way. You always do such a good job of bringing environments like this to life. If this was more of her just wandering around and trying to do something without all the depth to the environment, she would feel like the only real thing in an unreal world.
Chris: This is my chance to draw some Studio Ghibli style food too. All the Miyazaki movies are a huge influence on me and on this story and they always make the food look so good in all those. And the food is kind of gross here, but I still wanted it to look really appealing.
Do you have a favorite food scene in Ghibli movies?
Chris: In Ponyo with the ham and the honey and the tea. I love that. All of that. The whole scene.
I love when Sophie’s making breakfast in Howl’s Moving Castle, the bacon and eggs. I hate to say it, but it’s against cooking best practices to have that crowded of a pan. At the same time, it looks so good.
Chris: All the stuff with Calcifer is what my kids love the most. Calcifer is their favorite in Howl.
I’m not going to say Jonna is your baby, but it is your own thing. It’s you having control in a way that you’ve not really had for a while. Does Jonna let you do things in your art and storytelling that you previously wanted to do but couldn’t?
Chris: I want to say no, but that wouldn’t be true. I’ve always been able to do what I wanted to do, whether it’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger or with Daredevil. Everybody has let me get away with what I’m doing on the page. But I always sort of felt like I was holding myself back. Like, inherently, I want to draw cartoonier. It just feels right to me. But sometimes the story isn’t right. So I just drew a Cable the other day that felt like the best one that I’ve ever drawn because I wasn’t trying to hold my cartooniness back. And with Jonna, I can go as cartoony as I want. Nobody can tell me I’m doing it wrong.
When I was first getting into making comics, I was really into anime and really into manga, and when I would show my portfolio at shows, they’d say, “This is fine, but you’re never going to get work with this style.” And I kind of moved past that and started absorbing more American comics and sixties comics. All that stuff helped inform what my style has become. And always in the back of my mind, I still feel like a manga artist. That’s part of my style, but there’s a whole bunch of things that are…it’s a melting pot of different influences. My style is everything that I’ve read up until this point.
With Daredevil, it was simpler. I let the art breathe a little more and that started to feel good. Thor, I feel like was about as cartoony as I could get. That felt really good. That’s just not the appropriate style for some things. I’m trying to get the tone of the story across in the art, but also have fun with it. But Daredevil started getting closer and I felt like this is where I’m supposed to be leaning. And then I did Black Widow and that did not feel right at all. I had to try and make it as real world as I could, because that’s the story. That was the tone of the story that I wanted to tell. And then I kind of jumped back into a simpler thing with Captain America and that started to feel good again. And I was like, “I think I know what my next leap is going to be.”
And that’s where hopefully it comes across as fun and not a step back. But this is where I want my style to go. Fire Power, when I first started, the first designs I turned in…it was really simple and cartoonier and more European than what it ended up eventually turning out to be. And I was really leaning into that and I wanted to do an action manga with European sensibilities and American storytelling. And somewhere along the lines, (Robert) Kirkman said, “That doesn’t look like your Captain America stuff.” And then I figured out what he was looking for. So I pulled back on the cartooniness. Jonna is where I really let it go. I let it fall out of me.
I often find that artists I talk to are trying to simplify their art. They’re trying to get it down to fewer lines, trying to streamline the process, but also to get more out of less because it can be expressive without a ton of lines. I always think that’s interesting because that’s theoretically in conflict with what readers want out of comics. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily totally true anymore. I feel like simple is this loaded word for comics where it can sound like an insult. But when you talk to artists, they’re like, “Yeah, I want my art to be simple. I want to get as simple as possible while still expressing the complexity of the situation.”
Chris: Less is more. That’s the Toth thing that I’ve been trying to live by for 20 years. I’m trying to pare it down to the essentials and be able to tell the story with as few lines as possible. In Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, he showed that the more simplified something is, the more you can put yourself in their shoes. And the more lines you put on a page, the more complicated you get, I feel like you’re separating yourself from the reader. The simpler you can make it, the more they can make it their own.
So, Jonna is very much as simple as possible so that hopefully you can find yourself in it, or you can see your kids in it and make it hit home a little more than if something were completely realistic and other. Because the whole world is already other enough, I wanted to make it simple so you could find yourself in it.
The last question I was going to bring up to you is kind of related to that. There’s dialogue on this page, but not a ton from Rainbow herself. The last three panels I really love because it’s just her stomach making a sound, her whistling, and then her hesitating with her hand. It shows how she’s going to steal the food, but she is uncertain about it, even though she is hungry. It does a whole lot, primarily through actions and art. I know that you had a dream of making the entire thing silent, but with Jonna, are you trying to keep it as silent as possible and let the art do the talking?
Chris: I am, yeah. We’re in three or four different languages now, but yeah. Hopefully you can read it without words, no matter what language it’s in. It’s middle grade, but I want it to be all ages. I want your four-year-old to be able to read it or a 44-year-old or a 104-year-old. I want everybody to be able to read it and still figure out what’s going on and be able to follow the panels. And if you just want to breeze through it and not read the dialogue, hopefully it will still make sense.
I love all of the details on the page, like in the foreground on the top panel on the right side, I’ve always tried to figure out what type of food that is because in my head it looks like cinnamon rolls. Either that or I just want cinnamon rolls. I don’t know which.
Chris: They are cinnamon rolls. (laughs)
I love it.
Chris: And those are like dinosaur eggs from Jurassic Park on the very bottom on the right. And cinnamon rolls and there’s fish and lizards…and I mean the little horned lizard here, that’s saying, “chiii,” I mean, it’s just a lizard, but it has an extra set of legs and a weird, shaped head.
It’s very cute when it’s going, “chiii.” I even love the guy that’s walking away from us, that’s in the middle as Rainbow’s going through the page on the top panel, that character feels like he has a story. You kind of will a story into existence where readers are like, “What’s the deal with the guy with the orange hat with the shadows on it?” I love that because it’s like we talked about earlier, when 12 is done, this story is done, but there’s more you could touch on. I’m not saying you’re going to make a story about that guy, but you could.
Chris: A lot of the stuff that just floats by in the panel or in the background of one panel is already in my sketchbook. There is backstory to a lot of these characters, or there’s at least enough of a design that I feel like I know who it could be. And it’s just part of the world that makes it feel bigger and more lived in, if they look like they have some history. There are people from all over the world and all different things have happened to everybody to make them all live through this a little differently.