October 15th, 2012
LF Meets... Jack Lawrence
Interview by Bernice Watson
Liberation Frequency was able to grab some time with the creator of sci-fi romp Tinpot Hobo to talk about creating independent comics, science fiction, and what the future holds for comic stores.
Liberation Frequency: October is Sci-Fi Month here at Liberation Frequency, as a writer in the genre why do you think science fiction is so popular? What is it that we love about it so much?
Jack Lawrence: For me, from a writing standpoint and as a fan, it’s the limitless creative options that sci-fi offers. You can do literally anything as long as it fits within the rules that have been established in the lore of the story universe. The swashbuckling/hi-tech mash up of Star Wars couldn’t happen within any other genre (except perhaps Steampunk, though I’d argue that Steampunk is a version of sci-fi). Likewise, the long, drawn out travel times and relentless crawl towards battle in Jack Campbell’s “Lost Fleet” series of books has to be sci-fi, because it’s the vastness of space itself that provides the premise of the entire story.
LF: Tinpot Hobo is a classic science fiction romp that obviously draws on a rich tapestry of literature, film and television in the genre. What were your main inspirations for this story?
JL: It’s hard to pin down and specify where my inspiration has come from for Hobo. My initial urge was to do a cop story, inspired by the police drama TV shows that I love. Having just finished another creator-owned book that was set in a small village, I really wanted to open up the play area a bit, so I decided to make it sci-fi and play in the whole galaxy! I’m really trying to give Hobo its own identity and to make sure it doesn’t look or feel like some other property, so I end up being anti-inspired, if you like. By that, I mean I’m purposely avoiding certain devices and story elements in the book. There’ll never be a sword, whether it be energy-based or not, and nobody will ever beam anywhere!
LF: Where does the name Tinpot Hobo come from? How did you come up with it?
JL: I love the unexpected, and I love something that forces you to ask questions of it. I knew that I was going to name the book after the main ship, and I wanted it to sound different to what you’d expect from an epic sci-fi book. So I was already coming at it from that standpoint; avoid anything that sounds even remotely grand or inspiring.
I’m absolutely in love with the idea that very normal people are capable of doing fantastic, wonderful things. As the ship was always going to be a character in the story, I wanted the name to evoke a certain feeling and it wasn’t the sort of grandiose feeling that say, ‘the Enterprise’ evokes. The ship is clunky, not particularly attractive, and has changed hands probably a dozen times during its life. Choosing the name within that list of requirements was then down to picking a bunch of evocative words and finding the ones that rolled off the tongue!
LF: The universe of Tinpot Hobo seems to be a somewhat ambivalent one, I mean, the Custodians seem like the good guys but they’re actually freelancers with licenses to deal in justice which is kind of a scary thought. Is there such a thing as authority you can truly trust in Tinpot Hobo?
JL: Probably not, but I think that’s true in life. You have to trust to the common decency of people, but that doesn’t always work. As things stand, the Custodians are definitely the good guys, though. The exact ins and outs of Custodian life will be covered at some point, probably in some kind of sourcebook rather than bogging the comic down with it. Being a Custodian involves a lot of paperwork, all cases are assigned by the government, with strict guidelines as to arrest orders etc. The government itself is a benevolent one (a rarity in sci-fi!) so any corruption would be dealt with quickly and efficiently. The truth is, being a criminal in the Hobo Universe is a lot easier, and much more profitable than being a Custodian. If you’re a bad ‘un, you tend to just go the easy route!
LF: Sam Riley is an interesting character because she obviously has a point to prove but she’s also very idealistic, would you equate her journey with Joseph Campbell’s ‘monomyth’? Is Sam our Luke Skywalker here?
JL: To an extent, yes. I don’t think she’s fully aware that she has a point to prove, although it’s clear to everyone else. To be perfectly honest, everything about Sam is me when I was starting out in comics, almost ten years ago. I was bright-eyed and naïve, and put my trust in someone I really shouldn’t have and lost. It was a hard lesson to learn, but a valuable one, and it’s informed everything I’ve done and the way I deal with people ever since. Sam is in a similar situation, but she’s the daughter of a disgraced Star Marshall, and is a highly trained and capable individual. Idealistic, yes, but whether she’s as naïve as she appears remains to be seen!
LF: What are your plans for Tinpot Hobo, is this an ongoing series or does it have a finite story arc?
JL: Ongoing. As a freelancer, I spend a lot of time working on other people’s properties. I need the creative outlet that Hobo provides, and at the moment I’ve got a lot of stories to tell with it.
LF: Science fiction has a proud tradition of strong female characters who challenge traditional gender roles. What is your approach to writing female characters like Sam Riley and M’Shindi Skath?
JL: My overriding aim with Sam and ‘Shin is that they not be portrayed any differently to the men. They’re not there to be captured, or to be rescued. Too often in comics, I think a female character will be a victim in some way or another, to motivate a male hero. Out of my crew, I would say ‘Shin is the all-round best at her job, and good luck trying to push her around! Female characters in comics, with the very odd exception, just don’t really interest me. Yet I adore women in other media, so it must be just down to how they’re portrayed in comics. I want my girls to be every bit as cool as my boys, so that’s what I’m aiming for. Added to that, I’m very particular about how I draw women. Every once in a while, I’m told that I can’t draw women very well. That may be the case, to be fair, but I also think that maybe those people don’t get what I’m going for. I absolutely LOATHE the way women tend to be drawn in comics; top-heavy and ridiculously long-legged. I want to be as far away from that as possible.
LF: You have Whedonesque knack for turning reader expectations on their head in the dialogue, how do you balance indulging in genre tropes against deliberately subverting them?
JL: Firstly, thank you very much. That man is a legend.
Ever since I sat in the cinema at 6 years old watching The Empire Strikes Back and heard Darth Vader say THAT line, I’ve felt compelled to take people’s expectations and say, “No, actually, we’re not going to do that, were doing this instead.” For me, there is nothing better than that OMG moment when something happens that you just didn’t see coming.
As far as balancing it all out, I think you just have to look at everything with a critical eye the whole time. It’s very easy to get carried away. You have to ask yourself, “Is this just silly?” If it is, you rein it in and have a rethink.
One of my finest moments was at a con when a fan of my first book, Darkham Vale, told me, almost with tears in her eyes, that she’d read Issue 3 in the college cafeteria. Upon reading the last page she stood up and, oblivious to all the people in that room, yelled, “NOOO!” That reaction is what I’m constantly trying to recreate for readers. I’m at the stage now, even this early on, where people are coming to me at conventions with their theories about where things are going. That’s a fantastic feeling.
LF: To switch tracks somewhat, as an independent comic creator producing creator-owned publications, how hard have you found getting your work out there?
JL: Extremely hard! But I’m being absolutely honest when I say that getting the book into hundreds of hands isn’t the motivating factor here, so I’m not trying that hard. If a shop wants to take it that’s great but mainly I want to be creating and I want something to sit on my table at conventions. I’m doing it alongside my regular freelance work, and I’m not cutting any corners so it was always going to take a while to get the first few issues done. Once there’s a body of work there, and we’re looking at a trade paperback, hopefully I’ll expand the readership as much as I can.
LF: Did you ever consider producing Tinpot Hobo as a digital-only publication? What made you choose to commit to print?
JL: There are certain things that I want to say I’ve done and self-publishing comics was one of them. Paper was part of that. Of course, it’s entirely possible that there will be no paper comics at all in the years to come so I’m glad I did it while I had the chance.
LF: When reading comics yourself, do you prefer print versions or do you also read digital comics?
JL: Thus far, I only read the print versions, but that’s only because I don’t have an iPad or Kindle or what have you. I spend enough time looking at my monitor; I hate reading PDF comics on it. I will probably make the switch to digital soon though. Tinpot Hobo’s available through ComicsPlus, and their back catalogue is amazing.LF: Recently Liberation Frequency has reflected on the seeming decline of the comic store. Do you think digital comics are a threat to the future of print comics and, by extension, specialty comic book stores?
JL: The unfortunate answer is, inevitably yes. I think there’s enough blame to be passed around though. In my experience most, but not all, comic shops tend to be a bit scary, frankly. I’m a comics professional, and a big nerd who can hold his own on most geeky topics, but even I step into a new comic shop with some trepidation. There’s a lack of accessibility for the casual shopper that’s probably an unfortunate leftover from when comics were very profitable. After watching Avengers at the cinema is the casual reader going to download an issue on their iPhone or go into a shop that evokes ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ when you step in?
LF: If you had to pick any character in the science fiction genre, from film, television or novels/comics, who would be your favourite and why?
JL: That’s got to be Yoda. I just love him. He looks utterly ineffectual at first glance but is as powerful with his wisdom as he is with his lightsaber. And again, the moment on Dagobah when he turns expectation on its head and is revealed as the Jedi Master is wonderful. Great character.
LF: Finally, where can people find out more about Tinpot Hobo and keep an eye out for the next issue?
JL: There are pages on Facebook and deviantART. I’m not brilliant at keeping them updated but I do shout it from the electronic rooftops when a new issue comes out!