An Interview with Justin Piatt and Zack Dolan of Unlikely Heroes Studios, Creators of ‘Super!’

super-unlikely-heroes-studiosEarlier this month Anne reviewed the very first issue of Super! from the up and coming publisher, Unlikely Heroes Studios. Spoiler, she loved it! So much so we asked Justin Piatt and Zack Dolan, the team behind Super! as well as Unlikely Heroes Studios, to come talk to Anne about Kickstarting their first issue, the trials of self-publishing, their opinions on the current comic market, and more. Take it away, Anne!


For anyone who hasn’t yet read Super!, tell us about yourselves and the comic?

Justin Piatt: Super! is a new original superhero comic that focuses on fun, storytelling, and awesome art. Our story follows Blitz, who fights for a no-name superhero team in Cosmopolis, an American city that’s sort-of the unofficial superhero capital of our universe.

Zack writes and pencils. I write and letter. Laurie Foster inks. Everardo Orozco colors. Tara Kappel inks and assists with the pencils. Together we’re Unlikely Heroes Studios… and that’s it. We all do a few extra jobs on the publishing end of things to make things work.

 

You and Zack Dolan have really thrown yourselves into your work with Super!. What was your impetus for creating the comic? What invested you so much you decided to give it your all like this?

Zack Dolan: I think we were both just guys that loved comics, and the media that came from comics like the movies, shows and games throughout the years, but were both dissatisfied with how the comics themselves have been treated by their creators and publishers recently. We decided instead of just complaining about it, we’d create and publish our own comic that would be genuinely good and for the readers and fans, not for marketing scams or as an obligatory launchpad for movies and nothing more. We think people want to love comics, but the big league publishers are making that hard by randomly rebooting their universes, killing beloved characters to boost sales, random heel turns and senseless plots, and massive crossovers that force you to buy ten books to understand the single comic you actually wanted, only to find it was going to be erased in the NEXT reboot at the end of the year. It seems like the very least important thing in the whole equation to them is the story.

We made Super! specifically to be the opposite of comics like that. A comic that cared about its own characters, its continuity, and its fans. We wanted to make a comic that didn’t feel a need to apply a double standard to a female hero, or a black hero, or a homosexual hero. It’s a STORY about CHARACTERS, not stereotypes. Sure we mock the goofy tropes and terrible editorial and creative decisions of comics, but we don’t just want to sit on the sidelines and laugh derisively, we want to make a comic that’s better too, a comic that anyone can read and not feel like they are being condescended to, ignored, or outright insulted by.

 

You guys really nailed it with your Kickstarter – you got nearly twice the amount of money you asked for! What was it like working with that program, and seeing so many people as into your ideas as you are?

JP: Prior to the Kickstarter all we’d done was make a comic, but afterwards, we had to figure out the nuts and bolts to becoming a publisher. Getting out those advanced issues to our Kickstarter backers was the trial run for getting the first issues to Diamond a few months later. I’m not sure how we could’ve been expected to make that transition otherwise.

Not only did we grow from it, but we really didn’t know if anyone would be interested in Super! at all. We’d been ignored or rejected from most independent publishers – and with no real industry experience for any of us, there were some shaky moments. Then, through Kickstarter, we were told that people believed in us so much that they were willing to pay something that it could take months to get. We took those Kickstarter pledges seriously and really put our all into making it a great experience for everyone involved.

Also, almost half of our Kickstarter backers were from outside the United States. This is one of the main reasons we went with a Spanish translation. It was translated into Simplified Chinese as well but I’ve got no idea when I’ll find the time to get around to the lettering!

 

Your comic “proudly goes against the dark, serious tone” that’s been pretty prevalent in comics. What made you decide to do that?

ZD: How many grim dark futures set in the grim darkness of eternal grimness can there be? So much angst and brooding and it’s all just so damn serious for stories about men who wear underpants outside their regular pants. I LOVE comics and superheroes, but come on now, we have to laugh. Besides, can you think of a single one of your favorite movies or shows or whatever that you didn’t laugh once? You have to have fun or you’re doing it wrong.

JP: We all have a pretty vivid sense of humor and it spills into the comic.

 

Can you tell us about your influences? Comics, heroes, or creators that really inspired you and drove you forward?

JP: I probably shouldn’t be admitting it, but I got into comics in the early 90’s with Jim Lee’s X-Men reboot, and I read a lot of early Image comics and Marvel books from that time period, but none of them really lit a fire in me. I’m not sure how a kid was supposed to follow the X-Cutioner’s Song saga. That had such a stupid ending that I just stopped reading them, but I kept up with the characters because of the cool trading cards, games, and animated series.

Later, manga showed me that one artist can be in charge of a series and that would be that – it would succeed or fail based on what they did. This changed when Zack introduced me to Preacher and told me that independent books did this all the time, so I’ve been having a blast rediscovering awesome comics that I never knew about. Astro City is gold. Umbrella Academy is a lot of fun. Can’t wait to read Bandette.

But in terms of writing inspiration, for comedy, it’s TV. Trey Parker of South Park is a master. The Whitest Kids You Know and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia are hilarious.

super-unlikely-heroes-studiosZD: I was raised on comics pretty much as early as I could read. Both of my brothers were lifetime comic fans with wildly different tastes, so I got a very wide range of things I was exposed to. Everything from your mainstream classics like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, to stuff you gotta dig real deep to find fans of like Groo the Wanderer, The Tick, Mazinger Z and Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer. I also grew up on a steady diet of 80’s cartoons like Thundercats, Silverhawks, Transformers and the like. And I mean ALL of them. That probably explains my leaning towards light tone, big action and flashy designs. I personally am a huge fan of Superman, I feel he is almost never written by someone who has any idea what to do with him, and that’s why he gets a bad reputation as being unrelatable, but when done right, Superman is awesome. I love Batman, Spidey, Rorshach, Iron Man, Marv (from Sin City)and The Thing a great deal as well. My personal favorite comics in no particular order would have to be The Watchmen, Superman Birthright, Kingdom Come, The Dark Knight Returns, Preacher, Astro City, The Golden Age, and the original Sin City. All of these comics changed my perception of the limits of comics as a medium and what can be done with characters when they are treated with real respect.

I have always been a huge fan of the art of guys like Alex Ross, Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby, Arthur Adams, and Jim Lee, but I guess everyone is really. I am a big fan of Mark Waid, Alan Moore, Kurt Busiek, and Gail Simone. I loved both the art and wrtiting of Frank Miller from the 80’s, but not so much now. I feel much the same about Garth Ennis. Preacher was brilliant, but I don’t care much for what he’s been working on lately. Of course, I love Stan Lee, he may not be a perfect writer, but the guy really changed the world with some good ideas and talented friends. I also take a lot of influence from anime and manga artists like Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Masamune Shirow, Shinichiro Watanabe, and old school masters like Go Nagai and Osamu Tezuka.

As strange as it may sound, two huge influences are Trey Parker and Matt Stone from South Park. The way that show can seem like lowbrow humor at first glance, but it can be tense, dramatic, and sneak a serious moral lesson in there, all while being pant fudging hilarious.

Also a huge inspiration in my life was a teacher from Atlantic City High School named Joe Duffy. I met him at a time in my life when I was content to doodle lazy copies of the mangas I was reading or from the instruction booklets of the Squaresoft RPGs I was obsessed with at the time, and he forced me to expand my horizons and take my art skills to the very best I could be. He taught me that if you have a chance to be the best at something, you are obligated to try as hard as you can to achieve that. He made me practice and refine my technique over and over and refused to let me settle for the easy way and always drove me to keep improving, no matter what, because you can always be better than you are.

 

Tell me about your world building! The idea of a city that is practically infested with all these wild Supers, heroes and villains alike, is pretty interesting. We got a glimpse of what daily life in Cosmopolis is like with all these guys running around – will we get to see more?

ZD: Oh yes, absolutely. This is a world where superhumanity is so common that there are people with powers that can’t even break into the hero/villain biz and seek employment elsewhere. Window washers who can fly, bulletproof bouncers, delivery men with super speed. Cosmopolis is a town where people who can control plants open gardening and landscaping businesses because there’s already four plant guys that no one cares about in line already to get the spot on the superteam.

 

Do we get to see the world outside of Cosmopolis?

ZD: Again, absolutely. As many comics seem to forget, it stands to reason there are superhuman heroes and villains in Mexico, Thailand, Russia, Japan, Australia, Egypt, and Germany as well. Superheroes aren’t just a uniquely American concept in media, so our world will reflect that. The various cultures’ idea of what makes a superhero will very much influence the kind of heroes and villains they produce. I personally am so tired of the “well, he’s arabic, so put him on a magic carpet and and get him a scimitar” school of international character creation. Our story is one with a long universal history that takes place before our story, we even have a little fun addressing how ludicrous the attitude toward ethnically diverse heroes was in the early days, and it’s about messing with preconceived notions and showing people that a hero is made up of far more than the marketing demographic label they were saddled with to boost sales.

JP: I think our first issue is so long because of how much we had to build the world. Cosmopolis is nuts, and it’ll be a lot of fun showing it off – and the Supers that inhabit it. That said, you will get to see the world outside Cosmopolis as well. I don’t want to give anything specific away, but issue six is the first issue where the world outside of Cosmopolis will get some serious attention (and I can’t friggin’ wait!)

 

Blitz looks to be the focal character of the series, and it was noted in-universe that a female superhero is very rare. Will the scarcity of superheroines be explored? And what made you decide on a female protagonist?

super-unlikely-heroes-studiosZD: It’s not that superheroines are rare, it’s that they aren’t well known. They live in a world where they aren’t “marketable” unless they slut it up or otherwise bend to the whims of focus groups and media execs. In the real world, you never see female fronted superhero movies because for some insane reason they think that men won’t like it because it’s a woman and women won’t like it because it’s about comics, not trusting the audience to just make their own decision if you make a good movie. So, this is reflected in the story as heroes who don’t look good slapped on magazine covers or toothpaste ads or kid’s backpacks don’t get a lot of press, and they have to fight their way into the spotlight.

 

We got to see the rest of Max Archer’s team, as well as some glimpses of another team, the People’s Champions. As advertised, there’s quite a load of Supers out here! Will there be issues that put other characters besides Blitz in the spotlight?

ZD: Blitz is first and foremost the hero and main protagonist, but we make sure to give time to each major character, flesh them all out so they feel real, even if it takes a little time. They all grow and change like real people, they have character arcs and struggles and personal motivations and goals that they reach or fail to reach and that changes them. We will be spending time with each of these characters from their point of view to get this across. No one is just window dressing. You’ll get to hear the inner thoughts of everyone at some point, depending on where it’s best for the story to focus on.

 

I guess this question is pretty obligatory, but: who are your favorites to write and draw?

ZD: The Fire Ant is somebody I really like to draw – I mean I like to draw everybody on the main team which is why I designed them that way. Writing, probably Max and Blood Death, just because of how bat-shit zany it can be. No matter how tough it is to slog through the writing sessions, one completely pants-on-your-head insane line from those two makes it all worth it when you get it right.

JP: My favorite to write for is easily Max Archer. His charisma is just enchanting!

 

Do you have the entire series planned out from start to finish? Can you tell us anything that we can expect?

JP: Yeah, start to finish, we know how this will play out. I can tell you this, when it’s all said and done, issue one is just scraping the surface. We’re in for a wild ride!

ZD: Yes, we promise that as of right now, this very moment, we know how our story is going to end. We swear right here in front of everyone that will NOT pull a “Lost” on you. We will not meander along to squeeze a few extra dollars out of you. We won’t give anything away here, but you should know that our heroes have much bigger challenges ahead than they could have ever guessed. And they’ll be meeting them in their own unique and absolutely bugger-nuts crazy way. You’ll see their humble beginnings as inexperienced nitwits and obnoxious childish morons, you’ll see their miserable, crushing failures and their glorious victories, and you’ll finally see the people they become. And like Justin said, as proud as we are of issue one, when you’re finished, we sincerely hope that you’ll look back on issue one and say, “Man, that was NOTHING compared to the things they pulled off by the end!” This is just a fraction of how awesome this thing is gonna be.

 

With Super! and Unlikely Heroes Studios, you guys are running your own comic label. For a lot of fans, that’s the dream’s dream. What can you tell us about the job?

JP: I swear I didn’t set out to be a publisher, but it kind of just worked out like that. There’s a great feeling knowing that no one can tell us to stop making our book. But there’s also a lot of responsibilities that have to be taken care of – so we’re kind of doing everything. So far, doing it ourselves has ensured that everything that goes out is up to a high level of quality, but I can totally understand why other publishers have a lot more bodies to spread the work around!

 

super-unlikely-heroes-studiosAre there plans to expand Unlikely Heroes’ titles?

JP: At this point, no, but the success of Super! will determine that. Super! is our main priority, and if Super! is our only book we won’t be complaining.

 

About how much work do you guys put into Super! and Unlikely Heroes per day? Per week?

 

JP: Too much! For Zack it’s about 70 hours a week, but for me I’m probably half that. I really wish I was joking about that, since we’re working for free and working other jobs on top of that. Eve, Laurie, and Tara put in ridiculous hours as well!

 

Super! has gotten a really great critical reception, and I’m sure it’ll only keep growing. Do you have any plans for yourselves after it eventually wraps?

ZD: Survive. If we make it through this thing alive, I’ll be immensely proud and if I never do anything else, I won’t really care. This was my dream to make, and after that, whatever else comes my way will be fine.

JP: Not at this point. We’ve got some ideas that we’ve kicked around for what we might do when we get to that point, but we’ll see how good ideas look in a few years when we get to that point, and how fun the whole experience was. But right now, I’m just focused on getting there – telling our story and keeping our team together. I’ve felt for a long time that Zack, Eve, Laurie, and Tara are the most talented artists in the business – they can be modest all they want but I wouldn’t be doing this if I believed anything otherwise – and if we can see this through, the end result will be something truly special and make a lot of people really, really happy.


Super! #1 is a 52-page book in full color, retails for $2.99, and is now available in stores as well as on Comixoloy. For more info please visit Unlikely Heroes Studios.

 

About Anne Mortensen-Agnew

Anne Mortensen-Agnew is a painfully lawful good, lifelong superhero enthusiast currently residing in Los Angeles. She attended Loyola Marymount University, netting a degree in English and Screenwriting, which she uses to legitimize constantly talking about superheroes. She has twice written term papers about Sailor Moon. Talk to her about them. When not writing for Kabooooom!, she spends her time reading Marvel comics, complaining about DC's editorial staff, and writing comics of her own. You can find her sitting on her couch, or on Twitter @AnneMAgnew

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