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Jonathan Ross: The 'Powers' that Be…

Comics have got talent – as Jonathan Ross and Bryan Hitch clearly demonstrate. Now they've teamed up for America's Got Powers

A few hours before and Britain’s most beloved/controversial media personality (delete according to your tabloid newspaper of choice) has been involved in a bit of a skirmish. Someone’s been bad-mouthing comic-book fans and Ross has seen fit to give him a good pummelling. Don’t alert the Daily Mail just yet, it’s all in good fun, with Jonathan entering a boxing-ring in the main entrance area of the Kapow! event and practising some full and half nelsons with a twist.

Comic Fans: 1, Flamboyant Wrestler: 0…

Ross has been an unapologetic comic-fan from an early age and as his profile rose he’s taken the opportunity to segue that into raising the exposure of the comics industry. From an acclaimed documentary about reclusive industry veteran Steve Ditko through to explorations of manga and anime, then penning the well-received genre-mash comic Turf, he’s established some serious fanboy credentials.

“I’ve always enjoyed talking about comics, but I’ve never been evangelical in the way that some people have,” he offers. “It’s…golf… I don’t like golf, I’ve nothing against golf, but it isn’t for me. I see the pained look in some people’s faces when I'm working with them and I corner them and start talking about comics, about the importance of Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby. I’m employing them, so they can’t move away from me (laughs), but I’ll be taking for ages! I try to hold back on that…”

This year he formed part of the Image panel at the Kapow! event – hosted by Impact’s John Mosby – and was asked whether he thinks that the rise of comic popularity (now a cornerstone of film, television and multimedia) has left the mainstream not quite knowing how to handle that appeal. Do newspapers celebrate that fact, indulge their inner fanboy or still run articles illustrated by photos of people in ill-fitting Klingon costumes?

“That’s all part of the appeal – I like  seeing people in ill-fitting Klingon outfits. It’s all part of this community.. the ‘be whoever you want to be…’ aspect and that we can ALL get along with anyone…except Twilight fans!” he laughs.

Wrestling-duties aside, his latest project is with another industry figure, artist Bryan Hitch – the man responsible for the look of The Authority, The Ultimates and indirectly getting Samuel L Jackson a nine-picture deal with Marvel.

Image Comics’ America’s Got Powers is a satirical, sharp-edged look at a continent that’s turned a cosmic event into a ratings winner. Seventeen years ago, something very strange happened over San Francisco. A glowing crystal appeared in the sky and every pregnant women (whatever their stage of pregnancy) in a five mile radius gave birth, all to healthy children… actually, MORE than healthy. These children were found to have some varied superhuman abilities. Some argued they were mankind’s last best hope, some argued they should be locked up. Others… saw the business potential and now America’s primetime show is a cross between the ancient gladiatorial arenas and a Cheryl Cole commercial. It’s clear the meek can go to hell, the programmers are inheriting the earth via primetime.

But one child apparently didn’t get powers. Tommy Watts watches his peers slug each other in the arena, all he can do is walk the line between wondering why he didn’t get any ‘gifts’ and quietly thanking his lucky stars he’s didn’t… unlike his brother who died in the arena. But something is about to change, not just for Tommy but his family, the mega-corporation that runs AGP and, maybe, just maybe the entire world. Ross and Hitch, two fan favourites, approached the ideas in a very collaborative way and decided Image was the publisher they wanted…

 “I know it’s a bit different for me (access-wise),but if you talk to Image it’s on a very human scale. You go in and have a chat and kinda immediately know that if they like your idea and if it’ll get made,” he relates. “With Marvel and DC they’re a bit on guard at the moment with the aspect of creators’ rights. There’s a weirdness and though they’re nice guys you’re talking to people who are representing a massive multi-billion multimedia empire. That being said, I love a lot of the stuff Marvel and DC are doing… especially X-Men Vs Avengers and some of the New 52.”

Despite his enthusiasm and knowledge of the business, is there any trepidation when Jonathan is sitting there in front of a blank piece of paper or monitor and it’s all still ahead?

“I love a blank page. I prefer that starting point, I hate the deadline and that people are waiting for the book. But, y’know what, the nicest thing about this comic-book convention is that the first book is out. When we first announced it, people kindly pointed out that they thought we were ripping off several other books – none of which we’d actually heard of. But it was great… because now I knew the things we should AVOID as we went forward, so it DIDN’T feel like those other books. At the end of book one, there’s a revelation and you think you know what’s happening with one of the characters. So, we were able to go ‘Let’s play with that so it’s not predictable…’ so we changed entirely what’s happened. So what looks like a trope-y moment from that has now become something that was unexpected, even to the writer and artist!” he laughs. “That’s a useful thing about feedback. Of course, SOME things DO need to be fixed in place, but elsewhere there’s a little ‘give’.”

Ross notes that would-be writers always have to overcome one thing – the realisation they won’t get it perfectly right from the start, that the finished product often needs an evolving process. Indeed, whether you’re making an action-film or writing a comic, the finished and polished result is going to be the end-point of the process, not the beginning that’s essential…

“I think if you’re doing your writing and you have an idea, I really wouldn’t worry about it looking like the finished idea yet, just write down what you think first. My wife, as you probably know, is a screenwriter (Jane Goldman – X-Men: First Class, Stardust etc) and she says the hardest thing is to finish that first draft. It’s not going to be good, it’s not going to be great or the thing you want people to read. But FINISH it. When you look at it again, there’ll be things in there that you like. You can work on it.  Everything I do goes to three or four drafts. Don’t beat yourself up…” he notes.

Some action and mythology-driven television shows have, supposedly, long-term bibles and roadmaps relating to where they want to go. When working on comics, do Jonathan and Bryan work forward from an original idea starting-point or find a place they want to get to and work backward from there?

“With what I’m doing at the moment, you know you have to have barriers in the way of the characters all the way through. You need some surprises. You don’t want to be too linear… you don’t want people to get book one and know where you’re going to be by book six. That would be the worst thing in the world,” he nods. “You want them to be reading it and by the end of book two think ‘Everything I thought I knew has just gone out the window!’ That keeps the reader interested and you, as the writer, interested while you’re writing it.

Beyond comics, Ross has a renown love for television and films. He recognises the growing links of the multimedia evolution. He says its inevitable that there’s cross-pollination between the two and it’s a matter of how you approach those aspects that dictates the result.

“I read a lot of stuff. If you really want to write you should read all the time. Not to steal ideas, but you can see how other people do it.  I love Game of Thrones… it’s incredible television, it’s very well adapted from  George R R Martin. He worked in television and applied a lot of structure, the highs and lows of keeping the characters interesting. He put his television structure knowledge into the book, which is now going back into television,” he continues. “I DO think it’s a great time for tv, but I’m wary of some comic creators who I sometimes think are just writing stuff because they want it to be made into films and television. It’s okay IF they want to do it… but if you’ve got people willing to follow you, just concentrate on doing a good comic-book and say what you want.”

“The medium of comics is so much freer than it would be in TV or film because there’s no budget constraints except the artist’s time and ability, but you can write ANY ridiculous scene you want – as improbable or as huge as possible and it will be accepted. You see Thanos wielding the infinity Gauntlet and you don’t think “What’s that silly glove with coloured beads on it?’ IF they were to do that in the next Avengers movie – and I hope I haven’t spoiled it for anyone – that concept might not work as well on the screen…"

Jonathan's writing and Bryan's imagery bring this comic alive and give it more to say than simply being mere parody. It's sharp satire with a commercial twist – perhaps not unlike reality shows themselves. It's easy to see why this has been a top-seller, not just because of the name-recognition factor involved. The second issue of  Image's America's Got Powers is now in all good comic-shops… run, don't walk… fly, don't run.