Okay, first things first. Have you bought Ballistic yet? Have you back-ordered #1 and pre-ordered #2? Because this comic is selling out everywhere FAST. I hit up artist Darick Robertson for a chat on what is rapidly becoming the runaway hit of 2013.

ls1Here’s the blurb, if you’ve missed it until now:

Synopsis: Welcome to Repo City State, where everyone’s an asshole… even the air conditioners.

Darick Robertson (Happy, The Boys, Transmetropolitan) and Adam Egypt Mortimer’s (director of Grant Morrison’s upcoming Sinatoro) madcap, psychedelic, transreal, utterly-wacko buddy adventure about Butch and his best friend Gun, a drug-addicted, genetically-modified, foul-mouthed firearm, as they attempt to elevate Butch from air conditioner repairman to master criminal in the twisted, post-eco-apocalyptic Repo City State, a reclaimed trash island built entirely from DNA-based, living technology with bad attitudes.

Ballistic marks Darick Robertson’s return to the hard sci-fi worldbuilding of his classic Transmetropolitan but mixed with The Boys’ ultra-violence and the lunacy of Happy. Mortimer’s mix of speculative science, pulpy noire, and drug-addled adventure cooks up a strange brew of Lethal Weapon by way of Cronenberg meets Dr. Who if written by Odd Future.

Here’s my review here on the Beat of the first killer issue, and my sneaky review of #2 as one of my must-buy comics of September. It’s Grant Morrison’s favourite comic of the year. It’s my favourite comic of the year – possibly of the decade.

It’s madcap, it’s genius, it’s psychedelic and sexy as fuck, and I want MORE.

A collaboration at the still relatively new Black Mask Studios between Adam Egypt Mortimer and Darick Robertson (a hero of this devoted Transmet fan), this comic has got me rather excited – you may be able to tell. So time to sit down with Darick, who has brought some images with him, to find out how Ballistic came to be.

How did this collaboration between you and Adam come about?

DR: I’ve been friends with Adam for years. We met when we were both living in New York, and he was at MTV Animation. He and I got to sharing ideas and in 2007 he told me about his idea for a guy with a talking gun as we rode in a pedicab in downtown San Diego to go see the Aquabats perform during Comic-Con.

You have a huge body of work behind you, for both independent publishers and larger corporate types – what attracted you and Adam to work with the relatively new Black Mask Studios?

DR: Adam introduced me to Matt Pizzolo last year at Comic-Con. Matt had a lot of interesting ideas and wanted to publish and market comics with a different approach than what’s currently being done. I was interested in his approach and Adam felt strongly about Matt’s plan, so we decided Ballistic would be a good fit at Black Mask. My friendship with Steve Niles and huge respect for Brett Gurewitz was persuasive in my decision as well.

Looking at the hugely detailed scale of the world of Ballistic, and the mix of organic shapes and technological wonders, I’m spotting a little bit of Moebius as an influence – maybe? What influences have you drawn upon for this project?

DR: I love Moebius’ work and his landscapes and free flowing architectural ideas were an inspiration when I started working on this. Heavy Metal from 1980, and the magazine itself, were very influential when I was a teen. I recall the sequence from the animated film where Taarna is flying over the city on her winged bird creature (Moebius designs) and at one point she flies through this massive skeleton of some long dead behemoth.

Moebius' skeleton designs from Taarna in Heavy Metal (1981)
Moebius’ inspired skeleton designs from Taarna (Daniel Goldberg & Len Blum), Heavy Metal (1981)

Just the scope of that made my mind explode. That’s what I loved about Moebius’ work. He drew fantastical stuff, but those crazy worlds were full of people who seemed to just be going about their business. I also loved that dystopian New York that Goldberg and Blum’s “Harry Canyon” lived in, and Canyon as anti-hero.

Scene from Harry Canyon, Heavy Metal (1981)
Scene from Harry Canyon (Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum), Heavy Metal (1981)

With Ballistic having such a fantastical aesthetic, where do you begin when bringing concepts like “the high finance cells – where nests of transactors soaking in baths of liquid capital shift billions of assets ever second” and pongbits to life? Do they just spring to mind or are there discarded sketches en route to the final look?

DR: Adam and I see this world pretty vividly in our minds. Adam has brilliant ideas and when I’m putting them into action, I look to nature for construction inspiration. Conch shells, honeycombs, strong patterns and structures that are not man made creations. If you were growing a world, one only needs to look at the world as it’s actually growing to see what works.

I know that with Transmetropolitan, some of the key ideas such as Spider’s cat and his glasses came from yourself, while with Happy the lovable design of that brilliant little creature was your creation – how have the discussions between you and Adam worked out when creating everything from the key concepts to the little design details?

DR: I had a strong feeling that Butch should look a bit anachronistic, as should the car. I wanted something about him to feel grounded and familiar as I knew how twisted and strange this world was going to be, and that Butch would be our guide. Adam and I discuss everything, and sometimes we go back and forth until we have a clear idea of what he’s seeing versus what I’m seeing. In the early days of getting this off the ground we would Skype and I sketched about 5 different guns before we got to the design that is the basis of Gun as we know him in the book.

Gun! from Ballistic
Gun! from Ballistic, by Darick Robertson

The whole world of Ballistic bowled me over from #1, but it’s definitely Butch and Gun that really seal the deal on this story. What was the design process behind our two heroes? I noticed that in #2, Butch is starting to look a bit less dorky (and a bit more dashing!) while still looking like an everyday kind of guy, and Gun has had to communicate a wealth of emotions since the opening pages!

DR: Well, I’m getting to know Butch as I get scripts, and that makes my character assessment evolve with each issue. No matter what character I design, they will evolve as they start performing within the book and I get to know them. Butch had some evolutions. At first I kept making more dumpy and as I got to see how clever and cunning he is, and considered he had young actresses dating him , even if they shoot him down, he must have some charm and appeal. They guy I was drawing initially wouldn’t get a girl like Gennie to have dinner with him. So as he evolved and I saw he was clever, I wanted that quick thinking represented. I like the idea that he actually looks like a repairman as well. Butch reminds me of friends I grew up with in my 20’s who were aspiring musicians and actors but had their day jobs, so they’d have eye makeup on and still be wearing their work clothes. I wanted Butch to have that rock -n- roll greaser look to him.

With Gun it became a challenge when the first issue was underway, to make him perform, and come to life. I had no idea that he would be so involved and animated until I was reading Adam’s early drafts, so I came up with the extended arms and dreamed up this retractable body. Adam initially had him in a holster and I started imagining that he wouldn’t be comfortable in a holster, as he has a face, and in a strange way, a holster would demean Gun. So I saw this opportunity to have him be his own holster and cling to Butch’s leg and when he goes into action, literally connect with Butch and suggested the adrenaline addiction Gun has. The tattoo with the conduits was an idea I had so the the two could interface, and Adam came up with all these other things the tattooed arm can do. Adam wove these things into the plot in a very cool way.

Ballistic has Diego Rodriguez on colours, who if I may say so, is absolutely killing it on your inks. Amazing work!

DR: Diego is an absolute coloring rock star. He has great enthusiasm for the work and really is the secret sauce of the quality in this book.

I’ve just re-read #2 and the colours are such a huge part of how this story comes to life. How did Diego join the team?

DR: I had worked with Diego on covers for the relaunch of Drew Hayes’ Poison Elves relaunch, and editor/APE CEO David Hedgecock brought Diego on board to color those covers. I saw Diego’s talent immediately and was thrilled that everyone agreed to bring him on for Ballistic and that he was up for the job.

Cover to Poison Elves #2, by Darick Robertson and Diego Rodriguez
Cover to Poison Elves #2, by Darick Robertson and Diego Rodriguez

And tangentially, are you stoked to be inking your own work?

DR: Yes, but it’s slower than just penciling. I’ve been inking my own work for some time now, on The Boys, Happy! and even as far back as Marvel on Wolverine, Punisher, and Spider-Man (Sweet Charity).

I don’t always have the time I need, but whenever possible I like to ink my own stuff as there are things like that city spread from Ballistic #1 that I wouldn’t put an inker through and don’t want to give up the project to someone else.

The insane detail from a Ballistic #1 splash page, by Darick Robertson
The insane detail from the city spread in Ballistic #1, by Darick Robertson

I like artists that ink their own stuff. I aspire to live up to my own tastes and standards. I also like having the last look at the digital files before they go to the colorist and letterer. Indie comics like Happy! and Ballistic mean that the creative team essentially edits itself, so that quality control is something I care very much about.

The first issue came out on July 10th, with #2 due out this Wednesday (September 11th) – will Ballistic continue on a bi-monthly schedule? Looking at the amount of detail on each page, even without taking into account the planning and inking, this must be a huge undertaking for you.

DR: Well, San Diego Comic-Con happened right in the middle of drawing #2, so hopes of a monthly release were lost. The world that I’m drawing is so dense and trying to bring to life, that despite my best efforts, it’s just not something I can pump out like an established world of characters that I’m more familiar with.

I am in a reactive position when it comes to story, and I don’t always know what it is that I’m going to be asked to draw, so predicting how long something will take is a challenge I can’t always rise to. Now that the world and characters are coming into focus though, I find issue 3 is moving along faster than issue 2 did.

I firmly believe this though; that these smaller comics take longer to find their audience, and ultimately will be read as collections. Years from now, when I’m done with this, someone will be picking it up for the first time. They won’t care when it was released, they’ll judge it on it’s quality there and then, so I want it to be something good, not something just rushed out. Transmetropolitan ceased monthly publication in 2002 and I’m still hearing from new fans that are just now discovering it.

On that note too, Ballistic is currently positioned as a five part complete mini-series. Are there plans and enthusiasm to take the series further if possible? (I’m guessing that some of that may come down to the trade performance?)

DR: We have plots for future stories in mind, but when Ballistic is done I will be diving into OLIVER with Gary Whitta for Image and wrapping up my DC projects that have been coming along as I took on ‘Ballistic’.

I know that Happy is coming out in a new edition at some point with 10 new pages, and with the success of The Boys and of course the now-classic Transmetropolitan, are creator owned properties where you are happiest working?

DR: It’s a challenge. The money is different and I have to sacrifice more to get these creator owned books out, but yes, I love creating something new and knowing that if it gets developed, I have a piece of it that’s truly mine and if fate is kind, I can benefit from it in a way I can’t with other people’s properties. I still like Superheroes, and would be delighted to draw for Marvel, DC or Vertigo, but I find myself wanting my own creative control, wanting to write and collaborate more of my own stories. In many ways, that’s where the happiness lies.

There are obviously a lot of creators in recent years now investigating that side of comics, but it’s fair to say that you’ve kept a foot in that camp the whole time.

DR: Strangely it’s where I started with ‘Space Beaver’ in 1986 and where I’ve come back to after years with Marvel and DC. I was hoping to land a monthly book at Marvel in 1997 when Warren approached me about Transmet and I was deep into the Wolverine series I did with Rucka when The Boys was proposed. Creator owned, original books just seem to be where my calling is.

Finally, for the up and coming artists out there, I was curious about your actual working process. I read that while you finish some things up digitally, you work with traditional methods – could you expand upon that a little?

DR: Yes, I like to tweak the final digital files and add effects to my work with Photoshop, but the actual art is still done on paper with pencils and inks. I draw with a light blue pencil, very aggressively and loose, just to map out the story beats and page designs. I show that to the writer, get their feedback, make sure we’re on the same page creatively (literally and figuratively!) and then go to inks. I like to focus on key figures and faces first, making sure the ‘acting’ is tight, then spend devoted time to backgrounds on a second pass. A lot of the drawing I do in ink. Years of penciling made me realize that it’s the same process with a different tool, and I like the spontaneity the process captures on the pages the audience sees.

Ballistic #2 cover, rough and inked
Ballistic #2 cover, rough and inked

Thank you for making my brain so happy! 

DR: Thank you for your enthusiastic support!

Ballistic #2
Writer: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Artist: Darick Robertson
Colourist: Diego Rodriguez
Letters: Crank!
Cover Artist: Darick Robertson
Production Artist: Vincent Kukua
Producer: Matt Pizzolo 
Publisher: Black Mask Studios
Diamond Code: MAY130919

Release Date: September 11th

Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.


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