Noah Sharma: Thanks for talking with us, guys!
Jackson Lanzing: Of course.
So, diving right into it, with Hacktivist, especially with Volume 2, you’re kind of dealing in the worlds of corporate ethics, hacker culture, and government transparency. Especially in the world today, is it ever kind of scary going down those rabbit holes.
Jackson: 100%. Yes. But if we let fear get in the way of us telling stories, we’d never tell stories. So, I mean, the short answer is absolutely. And every once in a while we look at each other when we have to do a google search that like, ‘is gonna put us on a list’.
Collin Kelly: Oh, yeah!
Jackson: And we’re like, aaahhh. Alright, ready? Here we go! And you press the button and you’re like, alright, well now someone knows.
Collin: It’s like I had to know this information, so, y’know, this has to get searched. The scary thing was when the book first started launching and then we started getting splashback from Twitter of not like your normal Tumblr fans but people who had like really strange Eastern European handles and they’re saying like really cryptic weird, scary shit. And you’re like, “Oh, man, if you don’t like this book, you could just dox the hell out of me. Like you could just ruin me. But at the same time, you can’t be afraid of that kind of fan engagement. It’s like you want to come at me, that’s gonna be your right. And, as creators, we’re gonna have to stand for it.
Jackson: When Hacktivist, Vol. 1, Issue #1 came out we actually had a contingent of the – and then the Anonymous community is a massive amorphous entity. As we talk about in Vol. 2, it is not an organization the way people like to think of it as.
Right. It’s anonymous.
It is anonymous and that’s very much the point of it.
That’s the good and the bad.
Jackson: Yeah, exactly.
So we had some guys come at us on Twitter pretty aggressively in a way that I’d never seen, with lot of personal insults, a lot of that stuff, really tearing apart certain elements of the way the hacking was done in the first issue. And actually they were mistakes that we made on purpose, that we paid off later. It all has to do with operational security or OPSEC. It’s a long story and I won’t get into it, but essentially that day we engaged. We didn’t run from it, we were like, “Okay, what do you mean by that? What are you trying to like- Okay, awesome. What is it that you’re- Let’s talk about- And we got through this whole really great conversation with them that by the end of it we had an ally. We had a guy who was very influential in the community who now knew that we, if we didn’t know what we were talking about, we certainly wanted to know what we were talking about and were interested in engaging. And he ended up being one of our main consultants on the second volume when we turned towards things like Anonymous. So that was a fun-
Collin: Making enemies into allies: the Collin/Jackson story.
Jackson: That’s true! That’s how we started. We’re enemies turned allies, so it only makes sense.
Turning to DC, we talked a little yesterday and you guys told me that Azrael was not necessarily in the original pitch for Batman and Robin Eternal.
Jackson: Yeah. He was on the table but wasn’t built into the outline.
So, what was it about that character that you were like, “This is our guy. This is what we want to do.” ’Cause you guys were pretty- You did other stuff, but you were pretty laser-targeted on that thread
Jackson: It’s true.
Collin: So, going way back, I’m a massive Azrael fan. Like I own all the issues and, really, I think it just comes down to that the red and gold is rad. Like I think at the time that’s all I understood. But I also really connected to this idea of, y’know, a guy who just really wanted to be kind of a quiet nerd but kept being forced to be a hero. And that really resonated with me. So Azrael as a character was someone I personally really loved and then Jackson-
Jackson: I absolutely hated him.
Of course you did.
Jackson: I grew up on “Knightfall”, and in fact I wasn’t allowed to read a lot of comics as a kid because of like violence and things. My parents had like really specific rules about what violence I was allowed to take in, but I read “Knightfall” as a novelization. That’s how I read it. And so I didn’t understand any of the iconography, right? All I knew was what I’d read as a character and the character I thought was just insufferable. I thought he was just an ass and he was really weird and he was really confused. And like, I’d never really gotten it, but for years we had this argument about whether Azrael is dope or lame. Like constantly.
Jackson: And so I think what it was was the challenge- ‘Cause a lot of our work comes out of arguments between us, something where I feel one- Cause I’m an optimist, Collin’s a pessimist.
So we argue about this stuff a lot until we have something that we’e like, “Oh! Shit! We both agree! That’s got to be good.” And that’s what happened with Azrael.
We were in the room and they mentioned, “Oh, Azrael’s something we’re interested in bringing to the story, but only if it doesn’t,”–to their credit–“only if it doesn’t overcomplicate the story. Only if it doesn’t mess with stuff.” And we knew that Tim and Jason were gonna go off on a mission and they needed a plot line. They needed something that they were gonna chase down, people to encounter, all that. And we also knew, having read the first Eternal, that sometimes you have to like, as a writer, target over to these threads. You have to have a thread you own.
So the main story – which James and Scott were architecting and which I thought Genevieve Valentine like really lasered in on – like the main story stuff, there were writers who were handling that, and were gonna handle that awesome. We were brand new to DC Comics. We don’t want to shove ourselves into the middle of the A story and be like, “We’re gonna own this” cause we can’t. What we can do is figure out a take on Azrael that we both like, and if we can do that there’s got to be people out there who’ve never been into Azrael before who will get it
Collin: Yeah, and then, y’know, I was able to bring in the core fanbase. Like if you love Azrael, like you’ll dig some of what we do. And Jackson really represented the new face of Azrael fans. We were able to create this kind of amalgam character that represented what we both loved, infuse it into essentially the B plot of Batman and Robin: Eternal, but do it in a way that was really vibrant and really cool-
Jackson: And was supported by all these great writers. I don’t want to take full credit-
Collin: Oh- oh god no.
Jackson: It’s an awesome room full of people who contributed amazing ideas. But, yeah, our main contribution to that book is conceptualizing this new Azrael in a lot of ways.
Collin: Plus he uses a sword super awesomely and it is actually completely in line with the new historical European martial art, HEMA Longsword, which I practice. So…
Jackson: That was actually the conversation in the room. They were like do you really wanna leave the guy who, like- you can’t leave Azrael on the table for people who aren’t the guy that is a swordfighter. Like you gotta do this.
Collin: They wanted to give him the arm blades. And then I was told later that Chris and Mark – Chris Conroy and Mark Doyle – were having this conversation and Mark was like, “Look, the arm blades are way cooler.” And Chris was like, “Look! If we give him arm blades and not the sword, I think Collin might quit. I think Collin might just give up right there.”
Why is this a choice?
Collin: Right. Well and now-
Jackson: And now you’ll see, in BRE he fights with Dick and the sword gets broken and he deploys the arm blades, so, like-
Yeah. And that’s a great moment.
Collin: It is! It’s great.
Jackson: Yeah, it really worked out. So I think the big change – and that’s the thing I go back to – the only way that we really reconceptualized him- ’Cause he’s still the same guy. He’s still Jean-Paul Valley. Still works for the Order of St. Dumas. He’s still got the same sort of armor and coloring. And he’s still faithful. That’s the part that I always thought was interesting was the idea of a religious superhero, right? Collin, in the middle of the meeting, one of the writers room meetings on BRE, we were all talking about Azrael and then we needed to move on. And one of the last things that was said was how it’s gonna be really tricky to write a Catholic character and a Catholic organization and be portraying them so fundamentally corrupt and so fundamentally evil. Like maybe this is just a little too attacky and a little too real world for this. And Collin goes, “He could be Gnostic…”
And we all sort of like, “Huh.” And he goes and he just writes it down, on sharpie, he’s like, “Gnost,” on like a big piece of paper. And then we just keep going. And the whole time I’m just looking at that thing. And it stuck in our brain.
And then we’re on a train the next day to San Diego Comic Con. We literally broke the story and then headed to Comic Con. And we were all writing our outlines on the way to Comic Con on this train. And we’re heading there and Collin and I sat there and basically just read. We read every source we could on Gnostic Christianity to try to understand. Like we already knew a bit about this and we’re both research junkies, so as soon as we get on something we’re like, “Alright. Let’s understand every facet of this.” So, over the course of a few hours, we just took in as much as we could.
Collin: And we wrote it all down. So we wound up writing like a ten page essay on Gnosticism and-
Jackson: And we turned it in to DC! We were like, “This is what the Order of St. Dumas is now.” It’s real different than the Catholic-
Collin: Like we know- we know we just showed up-
Jackson: I know! Yeah!
Collin: -And like you guys have no idea who we are, but here’s an essay of what we’d like to do. Ha ha!
Jackson: And to their credit, Chris sent us an e-mail back being like, “This actually sounds really cool. I think we can totally do this.” And they let us commit to it. And, you know, James was incredibly supportive, Scott was incredibly supportive, and then now the character I think has sort of fed back into the DCU in a cool way that we’re really happy to have been a part of.
Awesome. In Batman and Robin: Eternal, Jean-Paul kind of had his life torn down. Like Jason escaped him, Tim tore down his beliefs, Dick kind of even stole his revenge out from under him. Where does he go next and how does he deal with that?
Jackson: We’re- we’re actually going to be exploring that directly in the Grayson annual. In Grayson Annual #3 we are gonna find Azrael in his own story, we’re going to find him on his own quest, and I will leave it to you to discover what that is in that issue. But ultimately what we want to do is make sure that this guy has his own mission and his own appeal. At least for the time being. I think he’s also going to be involved in Tynion’s Detective Comics. So, in a lot of ways, James is going to be the next phase of what happens with Azrael and what he means. We’re gonna have our last statement on it I think in Grayson [Annual] #3.
Awesome. Well, so then coming to Grayson, you guys have worked in film for a long time and screenplay. Especially coming from that world where theoretically you have an actor who’s going to put their spin on something down the line, was it hard to nail down a voice like Dick Grayson’s that has been there forever and seen so many writers?
Collin: It was a thrilling challenge. Let’s put it like that. The interesting thing about Dick–and it took us a while to break this because he is such a fascinating character with so much history and we have so much respect not only for him but for the fans of Dick Grayson, which are just this really vibrant culture of people who really engage with this, what we’ve discovered is, basically the most perfect dude. Like he’s smart, he’s charming, he’s empathic, he’s emotional, he’s learned at the foot of the darkest detective but hasn’t let that darkness shadow his own bright attitude. What we learned is that he has very few actual flaws, which makes him an insanely difficult character to write.
Jackson: And it’s funny because we’ve even been warned about that from like Kyle Higgins and from Tom and Tim for years. Like I knew Kyle through his whole Nightwing run. And he used to say that, he’s like, and he still does, where he’s like, “Yeah, writing Dick is really hard ’cause he doesn’t have any problems and he doesn’t have any flaws.” You have to give him things around him to challenge that. Grayson, to me, is such a good book and such a great premise because it forces Dick into a situation where he is flawed. Because he’s not a good spy. He’s a really good superhero, but he cares too much, he feels too much, he has too much of a sense of right and wrong, he has too much of a sense of justice. All of that Batman training and all of that good-natured good person of him all, it really messes up his ability to be a good spy. That’s why I love the Old Gun story where he encounters Tiger for the first time and thinks that he can talk his way out of this and talk everybody into putting down their guns. Until he goes, “No, they’re all spies, we’re all gonna shoot each other, Dick!” Like that’s what-
Collin: Yeah, murdering is part of the job description. License to kill. Not license to make friends.
Jackson: Yeah. And so that flaw, that’s the thing that we found that’s interesting to write about Dick. And then in terms of the voice, I actually found that we took to it pretty quickly and pretty easily. I mean, fans can tell us if we’re right or wrong about that, but I found that I- We both really like wisecrackin’, positive, I mean, if you read Joyride it’s like full of wisecracking, positive, fun, adventurous kids. So thinking about Dick as just like the most mature version of that- Uh, yeah, you just always gotta make sure he’s not being mean. I think the big thing- the big temptation you always gotta get around with Dick Grayson is like he’s just never gonna be- he’s not gonna be a dick.
Jackson: So you gotta always, you gotta live by the Will Wheaton rule, like, don’t be a dick (with Dick Grayson).
We now know that Agent 37 is gonna go back to Tim Seeley and be Nightwing again.
You guys have obviously tried very hard to do justice to the set-up that he and Tom King left for you.
Jackson: It was our 100% priority.
Collin: Because we love that book more- That was the book-
Jackson: It’s my favorite book.
Collin: Yeah, it’s just-
Jackson: -at the Big Two.
Collin: Yeah. It was awesome.
So, now that we know that there is not going to be more Grayson in the foreseeable future, or at least not in that form, is there stuff that you, like if you had had time to just make this your own, is there stuff that you were like, “This would be the funnest thing!”
Jackson: Well we have a whole series, y’know, when we got brought in initially, we wrote a fill-in story for Grayson that now probably won’t go ’cause, y’know, Grayson’s ending. But we pitched out a bunch of stories. We sat down and talked out like, okay, what would we- But none of them were arcs. We never had the delusion of grandeur, “Oh, we’re gonna take over this book.” We never thought that ever. So-
Collin: Yeah, we honestly thought that they were just giving us an inventory issue to be like, “Well, these guys actually know what they’re doing,” and then it turns out that no, no, no, that was a real job.
Jackson: And then they turned it around to, “Hey, y’know, do you guys wanna land this ship?” Um, so I think pretty quickly we put it out of our minds that, “Oh, we’re ever gonna put our particular stamp on this character beyond what we can do within the Tim and Tom context.” So what I would say is by the time you get to issue #20, it’s a Lanzing/Kelly story. Like it really is. Like issue #20 is a very us kind of issue. And it’s got shades of Tim and Tom. And it’s all their set-up and it’s all paying off the stuff they set up. But I think it’s as much a personal statement from us about Dick Grayson as it is an homage to what they did.
Collin: And then after we wrote all that, they were like, “Surprise! You get to write an annual.” And we were like, “Are you kidding? We get to write an annual? Oh!” Like- like that’s the victory lap, right? So we were like, “Well, what can we do?”
Jackson: Huge page count. Lots of different artists.
Collin: Yeah! And they were like, “Yeah, we’re thinking about using a bunch of different artists, so can you find some way to tell a story that mirrors that?” So we landed on this idea of just taking all these little bite size stories that we would love to tell with Dick Grayson and getting them all in there as like kind of like a Black Cases file. Like it’s all these adventures that we’ve never seen. And we have this really interesting way to thread it all together, but we were essentially able to tell five different Dick Grayson stories, Agent 37 stories, in one annual. With different artists and they’re all different tones and it’s like this really interesting way to look at Dick from a bunch of different directions.
Jackson: And then having those perspectives be established DCU characters. So that it’s not like, “Oh, here’s a bunch of characters from Grayson remembering Grayson.” It’s like, “No.” In the interest of doing what Tom and Tim, I think, have stated often about Grayson being a book that elevates Dick Grayson’s status in the DCU and makes him something more than just an ex-Robin or more than even just Nightwing. And I think you’ll see in Nightwing he’s now more than just Nightwing, right? They’re really trying to step up what he means and who this guy is.
He is going to encounter John Constantine. He’s going to encounter Simon Baz. He’s gonna encounter Azrael. He’s gonna encounter-
Collin: Harley Quinn! Jackson: Harley Quinn.
Jackson: And each of those are gonna be by different artists, with different tones. And you’re not going to be seeing Harley Quinn through Agent 37’s eyes, you’re going to be seeing Agent 37 through Harley Quinn’s eyes. That Dick Grayson is the passive protagonist of the story, what you’re actually seeing are a whole bunch of people encountering him, and what it means to encounter Agent 37 after the growth that he’s gone through over Grayson. So being able to say, ‘This is a really a character that means a lot in the DCU now as this spy character and here’s all the way that he’s impacted them and taught Azrael a lesson and taught Simon Baz and taught’, well, maybe doesn’t teach Harley Quinn a lesson. Maybe Harley teaches him a lesson, but like there’s something- John Constantine is in love. You just find those things that you get to tell and that was really fun.
Collin: And it was just so fun because we get to tell the story of like Agent 37 in a war zone, Agent 37 at a dance party, Agent 37 in a super sexy situation, right? So we like get to look at all these cool aspects of it and it really was like a victory lap. It was a blast.
Jackson: Another thing we broke – on a plane this time. We were stuck together on a plane just sitting there and we got the e-mail as we were getting on the plane. We’re like, “Alright, let’s just brainstorm: who are the four characters we would love this guy to meet?” And we’re such a fan of what Tynion and Doyle have done on Constantine, such a cool modern reinvention of that character. I’m loving the Harley Quinn books and obviously she’s so, like, in the conversation right now. It felt like, especially given their mutual connection to Batman and their mutual status as sidekicks that it would make a really cool story. You know, and obviously we wanted to be telling Azrael stories ’cause we feel a certain kinship with him now. And then Simon Baz, that was a place where we knew we wanted a Green Lantern story. And it was a matter of which Green Lantern do we use? And we found it was best to use one who really didn’t know what the hell he was doing yet and Simon fits that really perfect.
Alright. Let’s get on to Joyride.
So, Joyride is all about a couple of teenagers who steal a spaceship to escape their shitty totalitarian Earth. They’re off in space as of issue # 1. It’s all set up for some pretty crazy adventures. How much are we gonna be dealing with Earth going forward?
Jackson: It’s a big conversation for us. A lot. But not maybe in the way that you think.
Collin: Yeah. We have very little interest in ever going back to Earth. That’s the entire point, right? Earth sucks. We don’t want to go back. But what we do want to know is, y’know, we’re going to see Earth through the eyes of these characters as they’re continuing their adventures, as they’re going on the joyride. You can’t grow without looking backwards. So they need to address the fundamental issues that happened when they were growing up on Earth. Those formative years taught them how to be who they are and gave them the damage that they have. So, in order to grow past that as they’re going on this journey, they have to reflect back on where they came from. So we are going to be seeing Earth in terms of the context of their feelings and their emotions and their journeys and their memories. But, if we don’t ever actually go back to Earth, we will be two super happy writers.
Jackson: But what I will say, cryptically, is that the first page of issue #2 takes place on Earth. Like after they’ve left. So we are interested in what is happening there without being focused on it. And there is a plot thread that’s going to start at issue #2 that we’re gonna carry through issue #4 and I think you’ll see how we use that to reflect back on Earth, starting issue #2.
And the other thing is that these are kids, they’re teenagers. Like I was like, eleven in 2001. So-
Yeah! Yeah! I was thirteen, fourteen.
So, like, I remember the Bush years and like that feeling of security vs. freedom being both very scary and kind of very facile. Like it just felt so simplistic and unnuanced and, like, “Ugh. Why are adults dumb?”
Yeah. Yeah. Like yeah.
Obviously they’re living in a serious totalitarian world, how much do you think is them having nailed it on the head and how much do you think is- ’Cause we never actually-
Jackson: Oh, absolutely!
Like how much is this Uma being like, “NO! You’re wrong!”
Collin: Sure, sure. Yeah!
Jackson: A lot! How much-
Collin: How much is just teenage angsty rebellion and how much is actually on point?
Jackson: I think that’s the conversation about Uma. I think over time that’s the thing we’re interested in getting into, yeah. Because as two kids who came up as teenagers during the Bush years, that was a great time to be a rebel because everything was broken. So you could say, “Fuck the system!” to any aspect of the system and you were right. And it didn’t matter if there were good people in that system, if there were people who were trying to do the right thing, if there were people who were like- And I think you can go back and look at a lot of that and there are good people in that ecosystem who were trying to do the right thing. But they were surrounded by a system that was designed to anchor them towards- And even maybe that system thought it was doing the right thing, right? But when you’re on the ground then you can be a teenager and just be like, “Fuck all that!” then like you can, man. That’s great. Do it.
Collin: And there’s a certain aspect of privilege. Like if you are one of the privileged. If you have that privilege, then the system is in your favor. And it’s not so bad. Right? But the question is what happens if that’s not you. ’Cause if you’re not one of those privileged few and you’re a marginalized part of society, then it hurts every time you look at what you don’t have. Every time you’re told to go, like, “This isn’t your place,” it’s like a slap in the face. So, rebelling against that kind of cruelty only makes sense.
Jackson: Yeah. We’re interested, I think, in looking at what it means to be a teenager and that’s what Joyride is all about. So when you have the slow understanding that you don’t understand, that’s being a teenager. That’s growing into adulthood, y’know?
So, I think we’re very interested in taking them on that journey but no time fast. Like Joyride, from a character perspective – right now we’re at four, but we wanna be ongoing – we would like to be able to tell a much longer tale with these characters so that you can see how they’re gonna grow. Because we know where they end.
At least we know a lot of the points along the way of where they end, so we’re very interested in seeing what becomes of Dewydd and what becomes of Catrin and what becomes of Uma as space changes them and as it evolves their understanding of them.
Collin: But I also wanna point out that “Earth sucks” is not a red herring. Earth does suck.
Jackson: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s not like you’re going to learn, “Oh, my gosh! We were wrong the whole time!”
Yeah, no. There are moon cannons.
Jackson: There’s a gun on the moon that just blew up Toronto. Like, it’s not a good place.
So, finally, you guys are working with Marcus To again on this project.
Jackson: Yeah, we are!
Jackson: Co-created by Marcus. He’s as much a part of it as we are.
Yeah. And, I mean-
Jackson: If not more.
And the origin story that you told the BOOM! panel was really p amazing. But you also mentioned that you’re really working in like a different style than Hacktivist where you guys a more of a screenplay type thing where you- where Marcus panels everything out. How has that been in comparison to all your other work in comics and film?
Jackson: Uh, it is like jazz. It is the least stressful scripting process I’ve ever experienced.
Collin: Yeah. It’s everything- If we take a screenplay, all the fun that we have in screenplays, we’re able to remove all the formalism and all the stress that you have in paneling a comic script, we remove all of that meticulousness. So we end up just getting to write the freest, most fun action we can tell with the most punchy, delightful dialogue, hand it over to Marcus, and know that he’s going to take all of those disparate elements and tell a visually compelling, emotional story that then we can go back in and kind of lay out the dialogue as it falls.
Jackson: It was Marcus’s idea, but I kind of feel that we like pulled one over on him. It was like, “You get to do all the work.” There’s this really interesting aspect of it where I do feel like we hit a point with this book where it’s just fun to write. That there’s no stress, that there’s no question marks, there’s no like, “Oh, how do we do this?” If you’ve got writer’s block just throw some new weirdness at the wall and see what it does to your characters, like we outlined very meticulously, so it’s never a matter of having a problem between us. We communicate often…very often and we have a-
Collin: And robustly!
Jackson: Yeah. And we have a very solid outline that’s paginated that we know what each person is handling. ’Cause we write separately, or like separate sequences, and then we rewrite each other, that’s how our process goes. We don’t like sit over each other’s shoulders. So, we all know what we’re doing. We all know where it’s going. We all know what we’re trying to give Marcus. And it just becomes a question of how to get there in the most fun way possible, the most delightful way possible.