Interview with Eisner-award winner & NY Times bestselling writer John Layman

Interviewing John was more like having a nice whisky and chat with a good friend. He is a true fan of comics and has written under many different publishers such as DC, IDW, Image, Oni Press, and this list goes on. It’s very possible you have already read some of this work but if you haven’t heard of him yet, now is the time to jump in. He has just begun his “Apocalypse Trilogy” of comics which started this month with the issue #1 release of Leviathan. His second in the trilogy, Outer Darkness, just got announced, and the third in the trilogy we hope to hear about very soon. The trilogy will be symbolically linked, have tones of satanic witchcraft, and be part love story. For some more excellent Layman writing, I suggest checking out his completed series Chew published by Image which received two Eisner Awards and two Harvey Awards. More about Layman and his projects are in the interview below, but be sure to follow @themightylayman on Twitter for up to date news and some really funny Tweets.

Lindsay Garber: With Out of Darkness, your latest project which you have been teasing us with relentlessly…

John Layman: Yeah!

Lindsay: …For so long now. It’s set 700 years in the future, and I bet there is some really cool technology in that comic book coming up.

John: It’s weird, because the whole concept of it is, it’s Star Trek as horror for the tagline. We have figured out that when you die there is no Heaven, no Hell. Your soul gets flung into space, and everything that has ever lived, is out there, and it’s slowly corrupting and getting pissed. They’ve got the technology to keep you alive. You can re-grow a new body and live forever, but if you get killed, you are out there. They can bring you back, and retrieve your soul, but you have to be someone really important to the war effort.

Lindsay: Wow.

John: You have to join the military to get a guarantee. So if you are a private, and you get killed, you are guaranteed within two light years. If we are in a ship, and we see your soul, we are obligated to come get you. But if you are a general or someone more important, then they’ll fly 100,000 light years, or a million or whatever. The higher you are in rank, the more important you are, the more resources they will spend to get you back. Hopefully you aren’t out there for so long that you get corrupted into something horrible.

Lindsay: Some of the creatures are amazing looking. Pretty freaky, especially how they can jump into others bodies at certain points.

John: There is a lot of possession, the tagline is something like “Engineers and exorcists, scientists and shamans, experts and red shirts.” It’s equal parts Geordi La Forge, and an exorcist to make sure no one gets possessed. The typical navigator, but also an oracle with her crystal ball, and tarot cards. It’s a mix between super high tech, and a weird black magic stuff.

Lindsay: I like what your saying about possession, and black magic. In your new series, which issue one came out this month, Leviathan, there is a Ouija board that brought upon this Godzilla like creature to totally annihilate a group of people and anyone else that gets in it’s way. Is there some ongoing theme about possession?

John: Well John Carpenter did what he called his “Apocalypse Trilogy”. I think it’s, The Thing, Prince Of Darkness, and In The Mouth Of Madness, which is thematically linked with the end of the world. This is kinda my apocalypse trilogy. Three books: Leviathan, Outer Darkness, and this other one which is slowly developing, which are all very satanic, black magic, or witchcraft. However they are also love stories. I’m working on all three of them, as if they are symbolically linked that way.

Lindsay: You are speaking my language. I was born in October, I love all horror, and all those types of things. That’s exactly what I want to hear. I’ll just throw my money at you, at the end of this conversation.

John: Well cool, I’ll take it.

Lindsay: Also the crew that you have illustrating the different comics all have their own very interesting illustration style. Especially Leviathan. I fell in love with the way Leviathan is drawn. At San Diego Comic-Con this year, Image had an enormous banner of it on the side of their booth. That’s how I feel this comic should be read. So much energy, and so much detail in every page, I want to read it on a billboard, and be able to see all these details.

John: I want to have a collected intellect. Like an afluence edition. It’s kinda tailor made for that. Nick Pitarra is this super detailed madman.

Lindsay: I kinda want to bring back the monicle, and just observe every detail of the page.

John: Well Chew was like that too. Rob Guillory wasn’t as detailed, but he drew a lot of little crazy stuff in it, and Nick Pitarra is kinda the same way.

Lindsay: I haven’t checked out his other stuff, but he is a New York Times Best Selling artist, for The Manhattan Projects.

John: You haven’t read that yet? A couple years ago, it was one of my favorite Image books. I think Head Lopper is at the moment. It’s fantastic. The last arc was not my favorite. They took a hiatus, and the arc never really grabbed me. The first actual 25 issues, you aren’t going to find better comics. Jonathan Hickman is smarter then me, you can see that in his scripts.

Lindsay: I’m definitely going to be making a note of that. Can you tell us a little bit about how you chose the artists for Outer Darkness and Leviathan?

John: Well, Nick Pitarra and I have been buddies, you have “Con” friends. Nick is one of those guys who say, “Oh we should work together” over beers or weed, and I’m like sure Nick, we are working on this book, and then he calls me up and says, “Hey man I got a hole in my schedule, we are taking a break on The Manhattan Projects, do you want to do something?” So, I need to get something up and running fast! We are scrambling, and decide that this is a very artist driven project. I gotta get what would be the best Genre for Nick’s style. We both loved Geof Darrow, and Geof Darrow is The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, Hard Boiled, and Shaolin Cowboy with super detailed kind of stuff, and kaiju book by Nick would be awesome to show what he could do. Then I thought, what’s it going to be, another lizard mutated by radiation, or what ever. The hook was going to be that the lizard was from hell, summoned by black magic. Instead of radioactivity, or nuclear fallout, whatever the typical twist on the kaiju trope.

Lindsay: Yeah, I loved the trilogy that you are speaking about. It really speaks to me. Speaking of this dark magic and possession. Have you ever used a Ouija board, and would you if someone dared you?

John: I would. I don’t get freaked out by stuff very often. I wouldn’t take it to seriously, or expect much out of it.

Lindsay: Would you want something to happen, if you did?

John: Totally, I’d love for evidence of something in this world, because I’m not really a believer in anything. I would love it if a ghost or a demon haunted me. It would at least be proof of something.

Lindsay: Your writing process, with how you’ve been answering these questions, and how you’ve been writing these trilogies. I know that Leviathan will be a ten issue series, unless it goes longer, and you already have the two story arcs named: Till Death Do Us Part, and Honeymoon In Hell, so obviously you plan ahead. When writing this story or others, do you come up with the ending first and work backwards, or do you use a different method.

John: Yes, always. I get the high concept, and then I figure out where it’s going to end, and it gives me a direction to move towards. It’s kinda the only way for me to do it.

Lindsay: You have a great way of working with these artists. It’s like you let them fill in the blanks. You must have a lot of trust in these guys.

John: Again, in Leviathan’s case… Leviathan is very artist driven, and Nick likes to decompress. I’ll write a three panel page, and it will come back a five panel page. Rob Guillory and Afu Chan, both Chew and Outer Darkness are a symphony and the notes are very precise, and everything in it’s place. Where as when I worked with Sam Kieth and Nick it’s more like jazz. You set a riff down, and you let them do their thing. Some books are more artist driven, or more writer driven, and I didn’t want to diminish Rob or Afu on Chew or Outer Darkness with this, but it’s more precise, if that makes sense, then on Leviathan which is just a weird jam. If that makes sense. It’s kind of an excuse for Nick to draw crazy stuff.

Lindsay: Especially his portrayal of Donald Trump in his bedroom had me cracking up! All the small details.

John: Yeah! The funny thing was, that was Nick again. I pitched one panel of a President who kinda was Trump, and Nick turns it into this giant gag. That’s what Nick does. He decompresses, and takes what ever you do and turns it up. He gives you 120%. You write something, and he turns it up to 11, and gives you something even crazier. Nick to me is a huge embodiment of cocaine. I’m not saying he does cocaine, but he is like cocaine. You talk to him, and the longer you talk to him, the crazier he gets. As an example, at the end of Leviathan #2, we are supposed to have a radioactive T-Rex show up, and at some point we thought, “What’s crazier then a radioactive t-rex? A radioactive T-Rex with two heads?” Then we get the art back and the radioactive T-Rex has three heads. That’s Nick right there.

Lindsay: I am loving the Leviathan series, and I’m very excited for Outer Darkness, from what I’m hearing and what I’ve seen. I’ve very excited for the type of monsters, and especially in Leviathan after that hint for issue #2. Are there any other significant monsters from history that I might recognize?

John: I think, people think that this just a giant monster comic, and then in issue #2 we have dinosaurs, and in #3 we have a possessed little girl and an exorcist, in #4 we have a mech. Each issue is sort of different, and it eventually circles back around and Leviathan is the thing that matters the most, but it changes in tone from issue to issue. Which is just an excuse for Nick to draw crazy stuff.

Lindsay: I want to talk about Chew, issue #1 when Tony’s partner took an axe to the face I was automatically hooked. I’ve followed it through the 60 issues and the Poyo specials that spanned from 2009 to 2016. Recently, you tweeted that there was going to be a three issue mini Chew being written? What can you tell us about that?

John: Yeah, not really. I’ve written it, but I can’t release it for a while, because I’m not allowed to. We have to wait for a certain period. It sounds weird, why do you have to wait on a book you own… but it will make sense when I do it. We are looking at next Christmas for when we can put it out, and it’s a long time to wait. Our 10th anniversary is coming next June, and Rob and I were saying we should do something, and I was like, “I don’t know what it is.” Rob is always saying “Lets do another Poyo special,” but I wasn’t really happy with the last Poyo special. I kinda feel like the joke has run it’s course. So until I can find out the right Poyo story, I don’t want to do a Poyo story for the sake of doing a Poyo story.

Lindsay: I’m sure people will follow it. He is badass.

John: I know, but I want to be proud of it. So I have to figure out something.

Lindsay: I hope your proud of it, you have two Eisner awards and…

John: I don’t mean Poyo in specific. I look at the third Poyo, Demon Chicken Poyo, and I don’t feel like it was my best. I need to get a story as good as the first two, and better then the third, so I don’t look back at it, and for it to not be my favorite.

Lindsay: You have Rob for Chew, Nick in Leviathan. Do you think you would work with those artists again in different stories?

John: Yeah, I have been working so hard for Rob and I to get a project at DC and Marvel. Like, “Hey let the Chew guys do Batman or Plastic Man, or Spider-man or Deadpool” and it hasn’t happened yet. Rob and I didn’t mean to take a break. I thought we would go from Chew to some established stuff, but it didn’t happen. So Rob was like, lets do something, and I dropped the ball, and he finally said, “I’m gonna do my own thing.” So he’s doing Farmhand, but the plan was always to get back together to work on something.

Lindsay: That’s good to hear, with each story, it appears that you have this versatility to somehow draw out the best parts of every artist that you work with. That’s not an easy job, but you do it really well. So I’m interested with other stories, these artists can come back to play, or if there are other artists that you are also looking at?

John: I’m working with Joe Eisma on Charlie’s Angels, and it’s just me and Joe having fun. You do try to write to the artist’s strengths. Like Sam Kieth and Nick Pitarra are going to go off on tangents, so you can’t be to precious, you can’t go off on “Oh I said this was a three panel page!” You have to drop it. You want the artist to be themselves and not feel like they are working for you. You keep them excited and then you get the best work. Every artist is different, and you’ll have a different relationship with each artist.

Lindsay: I love the artists you’ve worked with so far.

John: I got lucky with Afu, Afu was kind of a blind date. We were looking for an artist for Outer Darkness forever with establishment people. Then Robert Kirkman chimed in with people I’ve never heard of. He pointed out Afu Chan who is incredible. You never know what your going to get, but he has been amazing. He follows a script to a “T” but does all this beautiful stuff. I’m enamored with his art. Nick is super detailed, where Afu is sparse. But every line is important and he colors his own stuff, and brings it to life with color and textures.

Lindsay: I’d like to talk a little about Charlie’s Angels, which is an interesting one for me. I didn’t grow up with them, mine was the movie with Cameron Diaz, not that long ago.

John: I watched those recently and they are really parody. We went back and forth on what type of Charlie’s Angels did we want to do? If you want to make fun of them, that’s what the movies do, so I thought I’d go the opposite direction and be true to the source material. Make it feel like a true episode, which was cheesy and hokey, but fun. The difference with a comic book, is that they didn’t have the budget to fly to Paris or East Germany, or have Jimmy Carter as a guest star. We also have the advantage of looking back at the 70s. When the show was going on, they had no idea that the 70s were going to be cheesy or the porn star mustaches, or the velour suit. We can make fun of this ridiculous period of time, while still playing the source material straight.

Lindsay: So that’s where new fans and old can get into this series, it’s stuff that can go all over the world, since it’s a comic book, but it’s true to the brand from the 70s with Jill, Kelly, and Sabrina. Who do you think you connect with the most? Jill, Kelly, or Sabrina?

John: Here is the thing, in the TV show they were pretty interchangeable. TV Shows in the 70s didn’t have a lot of different personality. So one of the things I did, as the series goes on, was that Jill was the sharp shooter, Kelly is the tough one, and Sabrina is the brains. TV was a lot more two dimensional back then. I’d have to say I like my Kelly the best, because she is the most fun. I have just tried to make them all have their own personality.

Lindsay: I see that the third issue just came out, I know the fifth is set for October. Is it a five issue series?

John: Yeah five issues.

Lindsay: Will we see more?

John: Probably not. When it’s work for hire, I like to scratch nerd itches, like Mars Attacks, Xena, or Twilight Zone, just to have it on my bookshelf. However, once I’ve done five issues, I don’t want to be the definitive Charlie’s Angels guy. I don’t want to write 50 Charlie’s Angels when I can write a story arc and then move onto something new that I haven’t done before. I’m not saying I wont come back, but I’ve only signed on for five issues.

Lindsay: You’ve written under many publishers: DC, IDW, Image, Oni Press… the list goes on.

John: I’ve written for everybody, I think except for Boom and Vertigo. Vertigo is splitting hairs. Also, some of the new ones and smaller companies in recent years.

Lindsay: I was just wondering is there a comic you haven’t written for yet, that you’d like to write your take on it?

John: I’ve got a bucket list. I’d like to do Archie, Star Wars, Plastic Man, and They Live. That’s the current bucket list right now, if you talked to me a couple years ago, Aliens and Judge Dredd were on there. Then I got to write Aliens vs. Judge Dredd vs. Predator. Godzilla was on my bucket list, and then I wrote Godzilla for IDW. I was a huge Mars Attacks fan, and I wrote three trades on Mars Attacks for IDW.

Lindsay: That’s impressive.

John: My bucket list is constantly changing. Right now Star Wars, Archie, Plastic Man, and They Live. I keep telling comic book companies to get the They Live license and let me write it, because it’s one of my favorite movies.

Lindsay: You are clearly passionate about comics. You read comics on your free time, you have a list that you love. Can you tell us a brief overview of your journey into knowing you wanted to be a writer for comics and how you got there?

John: Sure, I was a child who saw Star Wars in the theater with my dad in 1977, this is pre-VCR, pre-home video. You can’t press a button and get what ever you want on the internet. In a small town in California, all I wanted to do was see Star Wars again and again and again. When I left the theater you had no way to see it. It would eventually come out on VHS a couple years later, but I wanted more Star Wars. There was the corner 7-11 that had Star Wars comic books, so I could read new adventures of Luke and Han. Then I started reading Rom, Rom: Spaceknight, Young Warriors, Micronauts and then I discovered super hero stuff. I had to have been 11 years old when I wanted to do it. One of the books I discovered early on was Cerebus, are you familiar with Cerebus?

Lindsay: The black and white line art of the character who almost looked like a hippo?

John: Yeah, he is an Aardvark, Cerebus the Aardvark. It came out for 300 issues. I started around issue 36, I don’t think it ended well. The writer stopped caring about entertaining, and started preaching at you when he found religion. So when Cerebus was great, it was great! When I was reading peoples work in the 80s they all aspired to have their Cerebus, their own creator owned book, that they could control. A novel with a beginning, middle, and end that they would own. That’s all I ever wanted to do, was to have my Cerebus, which was Chew ended up being. In the pre-internet days, you can follow people on Twitter, it’s easier to figure out, not easier to get into comics, but at least it’s easier to know the pitch process. A 14 year old in Northern California pre-internet, I didn’t know how to be in comics. So I wrote short stories, and go to a convention in San Francisco once a year, and go to the comic book store in San Francisco which was 45 minutes away. Also I was an English major, because I figured that’s how you learn to write. When I graduated from college, I moved to San Diego because I heard there was a comic book convention there. I eventually got a job at the newspaper as like a Jimmy Olsen, doing the weather page and delivering mail, with freelance articles. I would freelance nerd articles. Like when Judge Dredd had a movie staring Sylvester Stallone, I’d write a story, because none of the reporters knew who Judge Dredd was. Also when Spawn had an HBO show, or when Comic-Con came to town. They’d always want you to get the local angle, which was Jim Lee’s company. So I’d call them every year and say, “Oh what are you working on, what’s the new trend in Comics?” I knew what the trends were anyway, but here’s the article, lets get a quote from Jim. After a few years of that they hired me. I was an assistant editor, and then I went back to the newspaper for a year, because they gave me a column in the book section, on comic books. This would have been in ’94, so I was one of the first comic book columnists in America, because people didn’t take it seriously. Then a year later, Wildstorm comics called me back, saying, “Hey, we shouldn’t have let you go. We have a full editorship for you.” I came back, a few years passed, and then DC bought us. Then suddenly I was a DC editor, and things were a little less free-wheeling, under the Time-Warner bureaucracy. By then I had been in comics for five years. I said, “I know how to write a script, I know people, and I’m going to make the jump to freelance. So I did, and I’ve been doing this since 2001. You start with really small gigs. My first gig was writing some Species comics for Avatar that never even came out for $100 an issue. Then the next gig is $250 an issue. Then you start getting page rate. Then I got to write Gambit for Marvel. Each gig got a little bigger. Then ten years after I’ve done freelance, Chew made me an overnight success. At least that’s what people thought.

Lindsay: I knew about you after Marvel Zombies, that is the first time I read something of yours. Then I found Chew issue #1 which ended up being a dollar at the comics because they wanted you to get into issue #1.

John: Yes.

Lindsay: So I picked it up, and I connected, “Oh yes I know this name.” Chew was such a great series. I loved how long it ran, because I could rely on it. I had more story coming. It was a familiar family. I can continue reading, and continue the story and see what they were up to.

John: That’s what Cerebus for me. There were times in my youth were I would buy 12 comics a month, and there were times I would buy Cerebus and nothing else when I was a starving college student. There is a series that ran for 300 issues, it was always monthly. It always brought me back to the comic book store. We weren’t that regular, and we only put 64 issues out. We are a lot more regular though then most mini comics these days.

Lindsay: I’m so happy to be talking to you because it gave me more faith in the comic shop. Now they can pull up everything I’ve bought and read and I get better recommendations, but before that it was hit and miss for me. Chew gave me more faith in going into the comic shop and being there more regularly and even meeting people there. The whole comic book industry, everyone is so nice as a fan. When I go to Comic-Con and I’m waiting in line for an autograph from “So and So” the people in line are such genuine and awesome people. It’s a great community to be involved with, people who like comics, and fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons, and Magic…

John: It’s weird, because online can be so ugly with comics, but we almost need conventions for this, because everyone at conventions are cool. There are some professionals I put on a pedestal and when you meet someone like that and they turn out to be cool, there is nothing better then that.

Lindsay: It’s amazing, and a small world. Like with my buddy. I was just talking to Geoff the other day about your comics, and he goes, “Oh I know him, I worked with him.” I was like, “You’re kidding me?” It’s a small world. The people I meet, and have compassion toward comics and Dungeons & Dragons, are some of my best friends. I hope everyone gives comics a chance if they haven’t already.

John: It’s a nice nerd world that we live in.

Lindsay: Are there any upcoming events or comics that you’d like to share with us to look out for?

John: The only thing I’m doing is the North Carolina Comic-Con in Durham on November 9-11, two days after Outer Darkness #1 hits. From my Facebook page you probably know that I try to do as many foreign shows as possible. I love to travel. Chew is in 12 languages now. I went to Uruguay this year. If I get invited to somewhere I’ve never been. That’s my first priority. Especially if it’s a different country. I don’t care about making money as much as the cool experience of it. My only appearance this year is Durham convention in November. I’ll probably do a lot more American shows next year to support Leviathan and Outer Darkness. I’ve been laying low while waiting for this book to get announced.

Lindsay: I’m looking forward to hearing what your third item in the trilogy will be.

John: It may be a while. It’s only because I’ve written the first issue, but it’s a weird way to do it. I would rather write three complete scripts and then reverse engineer it, rather then just write a pitch. So I’m waiting to write three issues, then I’ll have an idea about what the book is. Then I’ll decide who I want as an artist, and where do I want to take it. It also seems like it’s going to be long. It’s got to be at least 20 issues if I keep it lean, but more likely 25. It’s intimidating to jump into something that big especially with having just jumped into Outer Darkness having just been announced, with 36 issues at least, plus specials.

Lindsay: You have a lot on your plate.

John: I see people like Cullen Bunn and Brian Bendis, who write six books a month, and most of them are excellent and Jeff Lemire, and I don’t know how they do it. I feel like I don’t have a lot on my plate compared to those guys.

Lindsay: Well what you got, I’m definitely interested in. I’m going to check out Outer Darkness on November 14, 2018, and Leviathan is already out. Also, after talking to you today, I think I’m also going to check out Charlie’s Angels.

John: It’s a lot of fun. It’s not going to win any Eisners, it doesn’t aspire to be super high art, but sometimes I scratch a nerd itch by working on a property I was fond of with an artist I like, with an editor I like. Plus I get paid. It’s the best case scenario, except for when there is a deadline and you actually have to write it.

Lindsay: Deadlines everyone’s worst enemies. Thank you for your time!

John: Thank you!

Make sure to pick up his new book Outer Darkness #1 on November 14, 2018!

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