Interview: 'Astro Hustle' Creators Jai Nitz and Tom Reilly Breakdown Their Upcoming Space Opera

(Photo: Dark Horse Comics)

In a world where science-fiction tales are all too common, the creative team behind Astro Hustle managed to put together a four-issue space opera that's both beautiful and thrilling. Following the scoundrel Chen Andalou, Astro Hustle would be the result if Earth, Wind, & Fire and Star Wars eloped — it's a comic that's as adventurous as it is sexy.

Due out this Wednesday, spoke with writer Jai Nitz and artist Tom Reilly to talk about the upcoming mini-series from Dark Horse Comics. Astro Hustle spans a few genres of sorts. How the heck did you end up settling on a sexy 70s alien-filled space opera?

Jai Nitz: I grew up as a Star Wars fan. I saw Star Wars (I refuse to call it “Episode IV”) at a drive-in. On re-release. That’s not something that happens anymore, but it was common in the late 70s and early 80s. People forget that Star Wars and the other huge late-70s cultural phenomenon—Disco—influenced EVERYTHING. Networks and studios rushed to push out sci-fi but it all had a decidedly-Disco bend. Which is fine by me. Disco was Afro-centric, Disco was queer, Disco was LIT. I want Astro Hustle to be a love letter to that message of Disco-inclusion: be brown, queer, and lit. I have the perfect creative team with Tom Reilly, Ursula Decay, and Crank! all on the same page to deliver that vibe.

Were there any previous titles (or creatives) that provided any inspiration for Astro Hustle?

The veneer is all Disco sci-fi from TV and movies. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century starring Gil Gerard. Flash Gordon starring Sam J. Jones (who loves Astro Hustle). The original Battlestar Galactica. Ice Pirates by Stewart Raffill (another fan of Astro Hustle) was a huge influence. The DNA, however, is all American Flagg! by my hero and rabbi, Howard Chaykin and Dreadstar by Jim Starlin. Those comics mean a lot to me.

Even though this is an intergalactic tale, it still touches on issues within the criminal justice system and a caste system of sorts — themes that certainly resonate in real life. How do you plan on tackling these real-life issues as the series progresses?

The theme I come back to my entire career is Justice (with a capital J). My first Dark Horse book Dream Thief (with Greg Smallwood) was all about Justice. Why are somethings illegal while others are just immoral, and some things are celebrated while being twice as destructive to the social contract. That paradox is something that interests me deeply. While Astro Hustle has a lot of that, it’s also about what it means to grow up as the black sheep son of your family. I think a lot of comic book readers are the black sheep of their family.

Already one issue in, you've created a massive universe that's almost certainly won't be explored fully in one run. As of yet, do you have any plans for potential tie-ins or spin-offs?

Astro Hustle is starting off with four issues. The four issues are all oversized and will be 100 pages of story when done. That’s the same as five issues of a standard comic book. We’re giving much more bang for your buck. The first 100 pages will be a complete story but very open-ended. In a perfect world, we’d do 15 issues worth of content and collect it all in one big volume at the end. Also, I want to note for fans and retailers, there are NO ADS in any issue of Astro Hustle. Besides the content we’re providing for the main story, issues 2 and 3 will have back-up flip-book stories featuring new properties. I want retailers to know that every issue of Astro Hustle will sell as an individual floppy comic the day it comes out AND as a back issue. We have some exciting negotiations behind the scenes, and I'm 100% positive that fans are going to be asking retailers if they have copies of Astro Hustle 2 or 3 to get the first appearance of a new character that went on to something special.

*** First and foremost, beautiful work throughout! I have to ask this right out of the gates — when you got the script from Jai and realized you'd have to draw a scene that leads right into an alien orgy, did ever wonder what the heck you got yourself into?

Tom Reilly: Hey, thanks a lot! I had a blast doing this book, and my biggest hope is that it shows in the final product. It wasn’t so much “what have I gotten myself into” as “what will my grandma think if she reads this.” But yes. I reread the script for this interview and still wondered! But that’s just another day making comics. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that that’s not close to the craziest thing that happens in this book. Jai and I have come up with some stuff here that you never knew you wanted to see.

This book is certainly a play on a campy 70s sci-fi classic. When diving into the art, did you look to any certain movie/show/comic for some inspiration?

Oh, for sure. The big ones were Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar. Mix all of that with a hearty serving of Studio 54 disco (only made more apparent by Ursula Decay’s pitch perfect colors) and you have the visual identity of Astro Hustle. I also spent a good amount of time looking at the Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the time, such as Sealab 2020, Space Ghost, and the Jetsons. I thought giving the book a bright, Saturday Morning Cartoon feel helped to make some of the more dastardly and deplorable things these characters do seem that much more dastardly and deplorable. It was also a great way to practice simplifying my designs so that it took me less time to draw the pages. Lastly, this being a series about pirates, I had to take inspiration from Hollywood’s classic pirate movies. Capturing the sense of fun and adventure so present in those films was a must for me.

When it comes to the character design, did Jai give you some free reign over that or was it more of a collaborative effort? Discuss the process if you could.

The design process for this book was incredibly smooth. When I originally received the script for Astro Hustle #1, Jai gave me short descriptions of each character, which were extremely helpful when it came time to establish their looks. At this point, Jai stepped away and pretty much let me do my thing. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I was able to get the looks of most characters down in one take, with the exception of a small handful. With the crystal clear tone of Jai’s script and the help of his character input I just knew exactly what I wanted to do, and thankfully Jai was game for it, and much more. He was open to hearing any suggestions I had, no matter how out there and weird. Most of the weirder ones ended up in the book.

Sticking with the character design, is there a stylebook or bible (of sorts) somewhere that these various alien races are being compiled? I guess it ties into the last question a bit — were these characters, say the group at the beginning, specifically spelt out in the script or were they just written simply as "aliens."

I have various folders, notebooks and empty pads of bristol where the major designs are being held. At some point in my life I’ll set up a better system. As for most of the characters who aren’t integral to the plot, I designed them right on the page. So I guess you could say that Astro Hustle itself could be the stylebook! There are some moments when Jai will have suggestions for a specific character’s appearance, and many “alien” instances peppered throughout the scripts.

Please, please, please say we'll see more of Carbon John, Svetlana, and their bulldog pirate companion!

I’d love to tell you, but I don’t want to get in trouble! You’ll have to get your hands on the rest of the series to find out!

(Photo: Tom Reilly / Astro Hustle)


Astro Hustle #1 zooms into comic stores March 6th.