Justin Aclin is a busy man. The Editor of Wizard’s ToyFare Magazine (where he is the lead writer of Twisted ToyFare Theatre), saw his debut graphic novel, Hero House, hit stores in May. His latest story S.H.O.O.T. First debuts on MySpace Dark Horse Presents this week. Did we mention he’s a husband and father of two?
We took some time with Justin to find out how he does it all.
I think most of our readers are familiar with ToyFare. The magazine has always worn a humorous tone, with a seemingly “Marvel Bullpen”-esque atmosphere. It just can’t be as fun as it seems. What are some of the more drudge-like aspects of your job that people might not be aware of? Or is it really just a bunch of like-minded geeks running around playing with toys?
It takes a lot of hard work to make it look that fun. ToyFare’s greatest strength has always been its voice and its sense of fun, and that’s something that started with previous editors and writers like Pat McCallum, Doug Goldstein, Tom Root and Zach Oat, and it’s been my greatest goal as editor to continue that spirit. But there’s very little time for actual fooling around and just playing with toys—obviously, every word that’s in the magazine has to come from somewhere; much of it comes from our talented stable of freelancers, and that needs to be assigned out and edited when it comes in, and much of it is generated by me. But at the same time, I wouldn’t describe any of what I do as “drudge-like.” Everything is creative, and I’m getting to cover some of the greatest properties in the world and work with a lot of the incredibly nice people in the toy industry, and obviously getting to write things like Twisted ToyFare and the word balloons throughout the issue can be very gratifying.
Speaking of toys. Who is the original owner of the Mego Spidey that stars in Twisted ToyFare Theater? For that matter, where do you get all the myriad of random toys and figures featured in your pages? Is there just a giant room at the TF offices, full of vintage action figures, or does someone show up to work one day with a Crystar figure who then ends up in a ‘Big Shot’?
The original owner of the original Mego Spidey, although I don’t think we’re still using his, was Andrew Kardon, who was one of the original editors of ToyFare. When they were doing the very first ToyFare special, well before my time, Editor-in-Chief Pat McCallum was putting together the little “Spider-Macarena” strip that became the very first TTT, and it turned out that Andrew’s Mego Spidey was the only Spider-Man toy in the entire office that could bend enough to do the Macarena. Obviously, this was in the days before super-poseability. Andrew apparently had the Megos set up on his desk in twisted scenes they called the “Mego House of Horrors,” and I’m sure that influenced the tone of the strips, as well.
Almost all the toys in Big Shots and that sort of thing come from our toy library. We try to keep as many vintage toys as possible on hand, which is probably why you’ve been seeing a lot Crystar figures and that kind of thing in Big Shots lately. That said, every once in a while someone will have to bring a toy in from home if we need something we don’t have in the office. My brother was looking through an issue recently and saw a picture of a Boglin, from our interview with Boglins creator Tim Clarke, and he said, “Hey, you had that guy.” And I said, “That’s mine! I had to bring it in so we could shoot it!”
Are you a toy collector or does working with toys all day leave you a little burned out?
There are a few lines I can’t help but collect, but the main factor that’s cut down my toy collecting hasn’t been getting burned out, it’s been becoming a parent. Like my friend and former ToyFare editor Zach Oat says, every toy you buy yourself is a toy you’re not buying for your children.
You have a custom figure of yourself. Who made that?
That’s by the incredible toy customizer Jin Saotome. The story behind that is that, for a long time, every time a Wizard staffer left the company, his co-workers would commission an artist to do an original piece for him. I’ve seen some amazing pieces throughout the years by everyone from Jim Lee and Mark Bagley to a Snake and Bacon piece by Michael Kupperman. And the ToyFare staff stayed very consistent for many years, and then in early 2008 I left to take another job. So the guys at the time decided that, rather than commission some original art, they’d get me a custom action figure made. Apparently, the way you make a Justin Aclin is you take a Tom Jane Punisher figure and sculpt a beard on it. But Jin did a phenomenal job, and little Justin currently is riding Battle Cat on my desk, backed up by his sidekick, MiniMate Justin, which was customized years ago by Iron-Cow. Of course, four months after I left, Zach Oat got a new job and they asked me to come back and take over his position, so I like to joke that I only quit to get the action figure. Zach received a custom figure of himself as Iron Man by Kyle Robinson, by the way, and price guide editor Jon Gutierrez got a custom Mego of himself in a Star Trek uniform by our amazing Mego customizer Vince Callaghan.
Let’s talk Hero House. This is your first foray into comic book writing. It’s the story of a college fraternity where the members are all superheroes. Can you tell us a little about how you were able to make it happen? How did you go about shopping it around?
I’ve always wanted to write comic books, and Twisted ToyFare scratched the itch a little bit, but I still wanted to do something a little more serious. So I came up with the idea for Hero House back in 2004 and wrote the script, then I found my artist, Mike Dimayuga, on a comic art message board. Once Mike came aboard the project, we made a pitch packet, which was basically five pages of the comic, plus an outline of the entire story, and I went to Wizard World Chicago that year and started pitching it around to the various publishers there. A few months later, Arcana Comics agreed to publish the series, and Mike and I went to work in earnest on getting the four issues done.
Of course, that process ended up taking nearly five years, working on the art and lining up the rest of the creative team, and by the time we were ready to publish we decided to do it as a graphic novel instead of a four-issue mini-series as originally intended. So it’s no easy task to get something like this off the ground, but the end result is a book in the stores, and Mike and I got to do a signing at San Diego Comic-Con last year, which was pretty incredible.
Can you elaborate a little on your search for an artist? It must have been difficult. After all, it’s not like you had an editor partnering you with someone. This was your script and you had to go out and find someone willing to hop on board. Was your priority finding someone with a style that fit the project? Or was it, out of necessity, more about finding someone ready, willing, and able? What made you decide Mike was the guy for the job?
When I first started searching for an artist I wasn’t sure what kind of style I wanted, but I knew I wanted someone who could handle the superhero action of the series, as well as the characterization that would be revealed through things like facial expressions. I ended up hitting the message board at a site called Digital Webbing, where a lot of artists post their work for critique and a lot of people go to try to put together creative teams. I saw a pin-up that Mike had posted, which was DC Comics’ Hawkman about to hit Adult Swim’s Harvey Birdman in the face with a mace. Each character was drawn in a different style, and his Hawkman had elements of guys like Darrick Robertson and Art Adams, and the Birdman was so expressive it put me in mind of Kevin Maguire. And as soon as I saw it, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. So I reached out to Mike, he read the script and he really believed in the project. And that helped, because it ended up taking several years of his time to make the whole thing come together. Mike ended up being a really phenomenal artist and an absolute pleasure to work with, and he’s gone on to do projects for Image Comics and Devil’s Due, and I hope that we’ll be seeing much, much more from him in the future.
Ed McGuinness did the Hero House cover. Was that something Arcana put together? He’s such an iconic creator in the industry right now, that must have been a kick for you.
It was great seeing Ed’s take on Mike’s character designs. Ed actually was a friend of a friend of mine named Mike Bencic, who has a pin-up in the book. Mike met Ed through his work at Wizard, and he was able to put the two of us in touch. It’s an amazing thing to own a comic book that I wrote, but having a comic that I wrote that has an Ed McGuinness cover just makes it that much more unbelievable.
What would you say are some of your influences as writer? What current comics are you most enjoying?
One of the best things about working at Wizard is that you get to read nearly every single comic that comes out every week, so I’m enjoying a buttload of current comics. Top of my reading pile these days is anything Hellboy or B.P.R.D. from Mike Mignola and company, Incredible Hercules and Prince of Power by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente, Batman and Robin by Grant Morrison, The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, Tales Designed to Thrizzle by Michael Kupperman, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis and David LaFuente and Green Lantern by Geoff Johns.
For Hero House, I was specifically trying to capture something that Bendis was able to do with early issues of Ultimate Spidey, which is make it really a comic book about characters, where the characters happen to be superheroes. The most important thing to me was that the characters were interesting and relatable. My writing’s been influenced by so many comics that I’ve read over the years, as well as a lot of TV series like Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and the Venture Bros. If you’re going way back, I think the biggest influence on me has been The Simpsons. And I mean, the biggest influence out of anything, in some ways. I can say that I wouldn’t be where I am right now if the Simpsons hadn’t shaped my sense of humor.
I was definitely put in mind of early Lee/Kirby X-Men while reading Hero House. Am I off base there?
What I love about the early X-Men is that it took the concept of “super powers as metaphor” to a new level. Suddenly, super-powers became a metaphor for whatever it is that sets you apart from the rest of society, and that metaphorical basis has been propelling X-Men comics for almost 50 years, making them resonate with each new generation of readers. With Hero House, I specifically wanted to explore making super-powers metaphorical for some other, more specific things. So for some of the characters in the book, they’re a metaphor for the freedom that you feel when you first arrive at college, and suddenly you can do anything you want for the first time in your life. And for some of the characters they’re a metaphor for that thing that’s always made you special and set you apart, but then when a bunch of people suddenly have the same thing it’s not enough just to have that one thing anymore. You need to step up who you are as a person and what you do with what you have.
Hot on the heels of Hero House is S.H.O.O.T. First (with artist Ben Bates), which lands at MySpace Dark Horse Presents next month. S.H.O.O.T. stands for “Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce”. You’ve described them as militant atheists who hunt down supernatural creatures of religious significance. Can you tell us a little more about that?
S.H.O.O.T. First is a short story for Dark Horse’s anthology title, and putting out a comic through Dark Horse might just be my proudest professional accomplishment to date. Basically, S.H.O.O.T. is a team that doesn’t believe in things like demons and angels, but makes it their mission to track them down and destroy them. And that may sound confusing, but hopefully it makes a lot more sense in the context of the story, which you can read in its entirety for free on June 2 at myspace.com/darkhorsepresents.
The Dark Horse Presents story is a short story, but I’ve got ideas for an entire universe and series of stories set around S.H.O.O.T. First, and I would love the chance to tell them at some point, especially with Ben Bates, who’s a really creative and dynamic artist [Dark Horse was kind enough to provide us with some exclusive Bates character sketches below!]. Another thing that excited me about the project is that it’s the first thing I’ve written that really deals with issues I’m currently dealing with. Hero House deals with a lot of college issues that I actually did deal with, but I wrote it having already gone through it, looking back on it. With S.H.O.O.T. First, a lot of it is driven by my conflicting feelings about religion and spirituality, which is something I’m dealing with right now, and I think that adds an urgency and relevancy to it. But ultimately it should be an exciting action story first and foremost, and it’s got robots and monsters and cool sci-fi guns. It’s free, so you’ve got nothing to lose by checking it out!
So the title “SHOOT First” is meant to infer that the story will also “ask questions later”? As in: Sci-fi monsters and robots first, existential catechism after? It sounds like a rich well for stories, which are obviously forming in your mind. I hope you get the opportunity to do more in that world.
Right – you can’t have “S.H.O.O.T. First” without the “ask questions later” part of it, and that goes for both the characters in the story and the reader. I want people thinking about the issues the story raises: the characters think that religion is ultimately standing in the way of mankind’s potential—is there any validity to that? They also can come off as kind of cruel if you’re not sympathetic to their viewpoint—do we lose something important about ourselves when we don’t believe in something greater than ourselves? But I didn’t want to write a philosophy essay, and that’s why the characters aren’t sitting around debating these issues. They’re hunting monsters and having big fight scenes with awesome art. But asking questions is an integral part of the story, and hopefully of reading the story as well.
What advice would you give other nascent comic book writers out there?
Any time you read an interview with a comic book editor, they give aspiring writers the same advice, and it’s the same advice I got when I was starting out: you have to create comics. Obviously, making Hero House was a five-year odyssey for me and it wasn’t easy, but at the end of the process I’ve got a comic book that people can judge my writing abilities based on. You definitely don’t need to do anything that crazy, though. Find an artist and start doing a web strip or something. You just need to be able to show that you know how to work with characters and plot. You can’t pitch an idea, no matter how ganbusters it might be, if the editor doesn’t trust that you can’t handle the basics, and no one will trust that without having the proof of seeing something you’ve written. In fact, I’m pretty sure Marvel and DC don’t even accept cold pitches anymore—you have to be asked to pitch by an editor who’s seen something you’ve written and gotten excited about it. So that’s the advice – write something, and try to get it made in some way, shape or form.
With a growing family and a full time job, how do you manage your time to allow for all this other writing?
I’m sitting on a bus, commuting into the city for about three hours every day. On days when I’m not napping or reading comic books, it’s amazing how much you can get accomplished in that time!
Thanks for your time Justin!