With Last Sons of America, writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson and artist Matthew Dow Smith will soon launch a series that blends science fiction with crime fiction, creating a world where wannabe gangsters work for adoption agencies, shuttling children from impoverished countries to the United States to satisfy a population unable to reproduce after a chemical attack.
Due in stores starting in November, we've got the first conversation with Smith and Johnson, who tell us what it is about Last Sons of America that makes it an absolute must-read for comic book fans, and an early look at the book in the form of two of the issue's covers and the solicitation text for #1.
What's the balance to strike here? Obviously it's a serious subject matter, but to give it some levity is what gives this project its personality.
PHILLIP KENNEDY JOHNSON: I knew early on that this was primarily a story about two brothers, and as I wrote them, the characters and their relationship dictated what the tone was going to be. We're dealing with human trafficking and the monetization of children. On the face of it, a dark, sobering, Cormac McCarthy-esque approach might have been the more obvious path. But focusing on the brothers, and seeing this world through their eyes and their relationship, was a way to tell an exciting story without letting it get too bleak.
MATTHEW DOW SMITH: It is a dark story and a grim subject, but one of the things that really attracted me to the project was how Phillip balanced it all in the script. Yeah, it's not a safe or happy world, but there is levity, and there is this interesting relationship between the two brothers at the heart of the story, and there's even a sweet—if incredibly misguided and colonialist—kindness that leads to an act that gets the brothers into some really, really terrible trouble. Some writers would probably just wallow in the grittiness of it all, but Phillip brought these little touches of humor and humanity to the story, which I think makes it something really interesting and unique.
Given the fairly volatile conversations about race and immigration in this country right now, what made this project feel like it needed to be the next one for you guys?
JOHNSON: Race and immigration are part of our story, but Last Sons of America is less a reflection of that current conversation than the issues of human trafficking and illegal adoption, which are important issues for me personally. The idea of adoption as commercial enterprise is a very real, very complicated issue. We've seen a lot of it in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. And human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.
This is an exciting time in the comics industry, when amazing creators are telling personal stories about issues that matter. This is a story I've wanted to tell for a long time.
On that note, what went into the decision to include an interpreter, rather than just using translation brackets?
JOHNSON: We actually go back and forth on the brackets throughout the series, depending on what the situation calls for. One of the brothers, Jackie, doesn't speak Spanish, and another primary character doesn't speak English. The way they figure out to communicate is a really fun aspect of their relationship, and we wanted to preserve that by keeping the Spanish in there. There are other times when it matters that Jackie doesn't understand something that's being said, so we'll leave that dialogue in Spanish, too. But there are other times when Julian's having a conversation in Spanish and we need to understand, so those conversations are in translation brackets. We go for authenticity whenever possible, but in the end, those decisions always serve the story; the reader is never left behind.
SMITH: Foreign languages are always tricky in a comic book. And yeah, there are ways around it like translation brackets, but as a reader, those have always felt artificial to me. It's like watching a foreign movie that's been dubbed into English. It takes me out of the story. I love Phillip taking a more naturalistic approach to it in this book, though it probably makes the editing more complicated. Try spell-checking a foreign language. I have a hard enough time with English.
The names Jackie and Julian have a really Elmore Leonard vibe to them. While the promotional material from BOOM! draws that comparison, I have to wonder: is it something you were aware of during the creative process?
JOHNSON: My "day job" is music, and Jackie and Julian are named for two jazz saxophonists: Jackie McLean and Julian "Cannonball" Adderly. When I was developing the brothers' backstory, it made sense to me that their dad would be a jazz musician. Regarding Elmore Leonard, I wasn't consciously trying to "channel" him for this story, but I confess, I read something by Elmore Leonard every single month. He's one of the writers I go back to regularly to remind myself what's possible.
SMITH: Phillip and I haven't talked about influences at all on this one, though I know we're both fans of Elmore Leonard, and I'm a huge fan of Gregory Mcdonald, who wrote the Fletch novels. They both take a similar approach to crime fiction that allows the absurdity of it all to come through, and they're both really good with dialogue. I don't think we're allowing anything to get too absurd in this story, but Phillip does have the same gift with dialogue. There's a rhythm to it that probably owes as much to his background as a musician as it does to Leonard. But it does make laying out a panel a little tricky. Cross talk is murder for layouts.
The characters in this book live in shades of gray quite a bit. Creatively, do you feel like a story like this benefits from a little black and white as well or do you think that can pull people out of the reality of the world?
JOHNSON: I've always found gray characters to be much more interesting than pure heroes and villains. Even the most admirable characters in Last Sons of America are flawed, and even the ones who are hardest to sympathize with believe that their actions are justified. They're living in a world where every kid has monetary value, and the characters all have their own way of dealing with that. They come into conflict, definitely, but hopefully, they all think they're doing the right thing according to their own morals and motivations.
There's a lot of very coded talk in the first issue. A fair amount of "Well, they're so much better off..." kind of thinking that just permeates the issue. What was the thinking there -- was it to humanize the characters who say it? To demonize them? As social commentary? Or just creating the world?
JOHNSON: Our main characters are part of an extremely questionable industry, and there's a lot of justification that happens…either one person trying to convince another that something is the right thing, or someone trying to convince themselves. As you said, there's an awful lot of gray: Family versus stability, abandonment versus poverty, ethics versus pragmatism. Right and wrong aren't always as clear as you might expect in a story like this.
SMITH: This is another one of those things that really attracted me to this script. You've got Jackie saying how these kids are better off in the U.S., which works on one level as what he tells parents to give their kids up, but on another level, he's saying that to himself to justify what's he doing. I love that Phillip brought things like that to the script. That extra layer that makes everyone a little more interesting.
There's a LOT going on in just the first issue of this book. What can you tell us about the big picture of the series, once the world is established?
JOHNSON: At its core, Last Sons of America is about a very small group of people, but the backdrop is vast. A generation after a chemical weapon called Agent Pink was unleashed on the U.S, the once-richest country in the world can't have babies anymore. In each issue, we'll learn more about the profound effect this has had on the world. What would a kid be worth in a world like that? What kinds of kids are worth more? What lengths would people go to, to meet that kind of demand? Who benefits, who suffers, who are the opportunists? How would organized crime and the drug cartels react? Through the events that happen to our characters, we'll show you the answers to as many of these questions as we can.
Who are our "heroes" here?
JOHNSON: The truest answer is that there are none. Probably the noblest character is Julian, who honestly believes in the work he and Jackie are doing, and is trying to put America back together… but his methods are far from perfect. Jackie is only there out of loyalty to his brother, but finds his moral compass shifting throughout the story. Another primary character, Sara, is fearless, and is just doing what she thinks she has to do, but in looking out for her own interests she finds herself in a position to help a lot of people. Matthew had a good way of describing it: This story isn't about heroes, it's about people finding their way.
Phillip, what does Matthew bring to the table? What makes him THE GUY for this title and this world?
JOHNSON: I've been a huge fan of Matthew's art for a long time, but just in the last couple of years, it's taken on a photo-reference realism that lends itself extremely well to the kind of stark authenticity we were going for. That realism, combined with his angular drawing style and his knack for great layouts and cinematic panel sequences, make him absolutely the best artist for this story. (He's also a talented writer, which is super annoying and rude.) With Matthew on art duties and BOOM! Studios publishing the book, I'm working with a dream team.
SMITH: It's easy to say that it's been a blast working with Phillip, and it has, but it's been a really interesting experience. I don't take on a lot of creator-owned projects, and when I do, it's usually something I write myself. But Phillip just has these amazing ideas. Every idea he's ever mentioned to me has been something I dearly wish I'd thought of myself. This project just happened to be the first thing he pitched to me and I fell in love with it instantly. And not to give Phillip too big of a head, but when I took it on, I was a little nervous since this was his first full-length comic, and even though he was open to me helping tighten up the script, I haven't asked him to change a thing. It's a fantastic script, better than scripts I've seen from pros with a lot more projects under their belts.
How much does character design play into really establishing this world? I mean, it's not much different than the "real" world and most characters aren't going to have "costumes," per se, like you get with humor strips where the clothes are reused or superhero books.
SMITH: Well, it's the real world—even if it is a few years into a not so bright future—and we wanted everything to look and feel as authentic as possible. I think if we pushed it further into the future and gave everyone jumpsuits, we'd lose that sense of familiarity that gives the story its real punch. Though I would love to do a proper retro-future story someday with proper retro-future flying cars and three-head aliens. But we wanted to keep this one grounded in reality. The only people who have something even close to a uniform are Jackie and Julian, who basically dress like the Blues Brothers, because as far as I'm concerned, the Blues Brothers are the height of cool. Of course, as the story progresses, their clothes take more and more of a beating, which is always fun. Whatever emotional toll this story will have on them, the physical toll on their clothes is just as bad.
Any final words on LAST SONS OF AMERICA?
JOHNSON: Kidnapping, drug cartels, little people, lots of guns, Big 'Stache, alarmingly fast-acting sedatives, The Merc, and at least one Hawaiian shirt, probably with blood on it by the end. It's an exciting read about an issue that matters. And the art looks amazing, obviously.
SMITH: Well, the writing's really good.
Last Sons of America #1 (of 4)
Publisher: BOOM! Studios
Writer: Phillip Kennedy Johnson
Artist: Matthew Dow Smith
Main Cover: Tonci Zonjic
BOOM! 10 Years Incentive Cover: Brian Stelfreeze
Incentive Cover: Matthew Dow Smith
Format: 32 pages, full color
On sale: November
What's to Love: We were instantly taken with newcomer Phillip Kennedy Johnson's inventive high concept story and mature characterization. Throw in a crime thriller element and Matthew Dow Smith's moody art and Last Sons of America can be the perfect answer to, What if Elmore Leonard wrote Children of Men?
What It Is: When a biological terrorist attack makes it impossible for anyone in America to conceive children, adoption of kids from other counties explodes. Brothers Jackie and Julian are adoption agents based in Nicaragua. They usually do all their options through legal means, but they're facing increasing competition from straight-up kidnappers. One desperate move from Jackie could put them in the cross-hairs of some very dangerous people.