Five Questions with Creators: Zack Kaplan

Zack Kaplan

By Zack Quaintance —  Writer Zack Kaplan is on the rise in comics. He’s currently writing three new and exciting series: Eclipse and Port of Earth for Image’s Top Cow imprint, and Lost City Explorers for AfterShock Comics. Both Eclipse and Lost City Explorers have also been optioned for TV, with the latter getting the call pretty quick after its first issue. It’s impressive stuff, and as fans of his work, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more success coming Kaplan’s way soon.

With that in mind, we recently talked to Kaplan for a new feature we’re launching on the site: Five Questions with Creators. It’s exactly what it sounds like. No more explaining, let’s get right to it!

1. I’ve seen in other interviews and your own notes with Eclipse that you’ve had some pretty interesting, what are the most interesting jobs you’ve had (aside from creating comics)?

I mean, people may know I was a poker dealer and a SAT tutor, but I’ll tell you, one of the most interesting jobs I had was a movie trailer surveyor. I did temp work for a data entry company and they would input surveys measuring audience reaction to movie trailers. I punched in thousands of these surveys, and then I asked, hey, who does this? Someone goes to movie theaters and watches how the audience reacts to each trailer and gives it an “Okay” or “Good” or “Great”, and sure enough, there were a ton of people doing this around the country and sending in their data. So I said, “Can I do that?” and they said sure. For about two months, I went and watched movies and before the movie started, I would go to the different theaters and showtimes and gauge audience reaction, which was a completely subjective and random measurement. My own personal evaluation of whether people thought that Mission Impossible movie trailer looked good or great. It was a very random guess, but they reported this data to the studios, and they probably made pivotal decisions based on my keen insights. And I got to tell people I get paid to go watch movies. That was pretty interesting!

2. How do things like having been a poker dealer on the graveyard shirt or having taught screenwriting in the Philippines inform your stories?

I’m a big people watcher. I’ve always enjoyed jobs that allow me to watch and interact with people. Characters in stories are three dimensions, but people are like eight dimensions, and I’ve always found that fascinating. Being a poker dealer, I got to see a lot of interesting people and how they handle the challenges of an involved game like poker, but that was mostly people-watching. Teaching writing is a far more interactive practice, where you have to not just communicate the principles of the craft, but in a workshop setting, identify each student’s needs and address them in a way that helps that student improve. At the end of the day, I think all those experiences help me better understand that people are complex, and I try to capture those complexities and nuances in my writing.

Port of Earth #8 came out this Wednesday.

3. When and how did you first become interested in writing comics?

It began in 2002 when I came back to comics. I had read superheroes growing up, but when I discovered Brian K Vaughn’s Y THE LAST MAN or Greg Rucka’s QUEEN AND COUNTRY or everything Warren Ellis, I realized how diverse and multi-faceted the medium was. I got to see it through adult eyes and gained a whole new appreciation for it. I began reading and collecting a lot of creator-owned comics. I was already pursuing writing in film and TV, but I think that was when the seed was planted: cool writers write cool and original stories in comics. From then, whenever I thought of a story idea, and wondered if it would make a good movie or TV show, I started to wonder about comics. And finally, I took the plunge and decided I wanted to write a comic series too. I spent years trying to land a pitch. When I finally landed ECLIPSE, I still thought I was writing a comic, and it wasn’t until it came out that I realized I was becoming a comic book creator.

4. Your career trajectory has been really cool to watch...what’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who is where you were years ago and would love to eventually be where you are now?

When I finally landed ECLIPSE, I was very nervous. I’m a perfectionist and I wanted it to be great. And that’s simply too much pressure. So, I had to tell myself, Zack, this is not the one. This series, it can be good, you can do your best, but in your life, this one isn’t the one. This is the one that leads to the one. And that allowed me to do two things. Write without such pressure. And realize another important lesson. If I’m just writing good stuff until I get to the one, and none of these are the one, then I’m the one. I’m the product. And as a writer, or an artist, or any creative, I think if you realize that you are building a career of many projects and stories, and some will be good, and some will not, but overall, you are building a long career of creating, that thinking helps. It helps new creators to think small and create a lot of short content to get their names out, it helps inspire creators to work on lots of projects, because you never know which one will be the one. Who knows, maybe ECLIPSE will actually be the one, after all. Maybe not. I’m just busy writing lots of stories now, I can’t think about which one is the one.

5. Lost City Explorers seems to me like a classic teen adventure story for 2018...what are some of your favorite classic teen adventure movies?

Oh, where to begin! GOONIES! INDIANA JONES! Is ET an adventure movie? I think so! How about NEVER ENDING STORY or EXPLORERS? LABYRINTH or BACK TO THE FUTURE? I loved all of that fun, maybe campy stuff from the ‘80s. But I think what inspired THE LOST CITY EXPLORERS was wanting to have my version of those stories but without the 1980s nostalgia. It seemed like whenever people made those stories, they always had a nostalgia to them. I wondered what would a teen adventure look like in modern times. I’ve seen teen dramas. I’ve seen big world teen stories like HARRY POTTER or HUNGER GAMES, but those aren’t our world. So yes, THE LOST CITY EXPLORERS is my teen adventure but in our very own modern times!

+1. Do you remember the worst sunburn you’ve ever had...and do you ever think about it while you’re writing Eclipse?

When I was growing up, I went on a ski trip and got my face so burned, the skin was peeling off. My nose was a mess, and, of course, I came back to high school and they were taking the class pictures. Ugh! But this was years and years ago. The crazy thing is nowadays, it’s not even enough to put on sunscreen once for a day at the beach or a day outside. You have to reapply. The sun is becoming more and more deadly to us. This is happening, and 50 years from now, who knows how bad it will be. That’s what I love about the concept behind ECLIPSE. The sun is supposed to be this positive, happy, plant-growing force in our lives, but everyone secretly harbors a hatred to the sun and the one time it totally burned them. Screw you sun, we never forget!

Click here for a review of Eclipse #9 and here for a review of Lost City Explorers #1.

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

July 2018 New Comic Discoveries: So Much Horror

By Zack Quaintance — Ice cream men, sunlight, sweethearts...there’s not usually anything scary about all of that innocuous and gleaming wholesomeness, but comics is comics, a skunkworks for ideas, and as such an enterprising group of creators has, indeed, made ice cream men, sunlight, and sweethearts scary. This is the central throughline of our three picks for July 2018 New Discoveries (the feature in which we finally catch up with comics we've been meaning to read). All of these stories take the precious, the quaint, the everyday pleasantness of being—and viciously mine them for hidden terrors, which, let's face it, seems appropriate for our recent times.

This is, after all, the odd and acrimonious year of 2018, wherein the news is a horror show and any attempt to understand the direction of the country by engaging with your neighbors is liable to end in a berserker bout of verbal combat. Maybe that’s why I found these three books so engaging...they contained ideas that seemed innocent, but, upon closer examination, were rife with seething dysfunction. If these comics are any indication, such explorations can yield fantastic stories (see also David Lynch, specifically Twin Peaks).

With all that in mind, let’s look now at our July 2018 New Comic Discoveries!

July 2018 New Comic Discoveries

Eclipse Vols. 1 & 2 by Zack Kaplan and Giovanni Timpano

In Eclipse, the sun has become an indiscriminate killer. A mysterious solar incident has occurred, turning sunlight lethal and forcing humans to spend the daytime underground. Old power structures have crumbled; new ones have risen in place. A mysterious group of albinos—immune to the light—have now appeared. They are murderous, engineered by corrupt societal leaders who are now targets of their revenge. Those are the high-minded things I like about the book. On a base this is really freaking cool level, I also dig the creative ways bad guys weaponize the sun, like using mirrors, poking holes in walls, etc. It’s scary and exciting stuff.

This book had been on my radar for some time, especially after writer Zack Kaplan’s other comics—Port of Earth and Lost City Explorers—were met with such enthusiastic reviews by many writers I admire and respect. This book’s concept essentially succeeds by turning the nurturing presence of sunlight into a lethal menace that exacerbates societal ills, ills that were easily ignored during less trying times, ills such as power disparities, corruption, and sacrificing the lives of those deemed inconsequential in service of the higher classes. This concept, of course, needs a grounded character-driven story, too, and Kaplan and artist Giovanni Timpano have definitely crafted one, one that is improving as their run continues. If only there were a fitting adjective to describe the exciting outlook for this book, to say the future of this story is...something. Oh well.

Check out our review of Eclipse #9!

Ice Cream Man Vol. 1 by W. Maxwell Prince & Martin Morazzo

There are so many good horror comics coming out right now (have you all read Gideon Falls? so good!), but, even amid the onslaught, Ice Cream Man by W. Maxwell Prince and Martin Morazzo stands out as exceedingly sinister, like if Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling, Stephen King and sometimes also David Cronenburg had a kid who grew up resenting the dysfunction of the suburbs and was now letting the pent-up angsty darkness flow. This is an anthology (I wish there were more of those...especially on TV, but I digress…), unified by the titular Ice Cream Man, who is, of course, always way way worse than he first seems.

Ice Cream Man Vol. 1 is excellent, and it’s a credit to this comic that through four issues nothing here becomes predictable. Not its structure, its characters, its themes. It’s sort of like The Twilight Zone in that all you know at the start of each installment is things fall apart. This, I think, speaks to our throughline of looking closer for dysfunction in 2018. I hadn’t realized this before, but the Twilight Zone was created after decades of American’s questioning each other, looking for commies or fascists or Soviet spies, etc. With a similar climate now, stories where horror lurks beneath a shining veneer are poignant as ever. Whether Ice Cream Man was conceived with this in mind isn’t relevant—the fear of what's being hidden is both real and compelling.

Sweet Heart #1 by Dillon Gilberton, Francesco Iaquinta, Maco Pagnotta & Saida Temofonte

For the third choice of our New Discoveries list each month, we spotlight a less-known book or a Kickstarter project, and this month it just so happens to be Sweet Heart by writer Dillon Gilbertson, artist Francesco Iaquina, colorist Maco Pagnotta, and letterer Saida Temofonte (the Kickstarter for Sweet Heart #2 runs through Aug. 10, btw). Gilbertson shared the first issue with us, and, man, is it a great fit for this list, turning childhood—and the traumas that occur—into a horror story with a fantastic mystery at its center. Simply put, Sweet Heart is a great comic that deserves to scare and disquiet a larger audience.

Gilbertson’s use of an omniscient narrator is understated when it needs to be and creepy as all get out when a more threatening tone is appropriate. Iaquina’s art is a great fit too, with his monster designs standing out as especially impressive, and Pagnotta’s colors add quite a bit. There’s also an impressive confidence in this book that isn't always present in crowd-funded comic efforts, a sense that the team has an urgent story to tell. The book’s greatest strength, however, is its poignant central metaphor, which I suspect is about childhood illness (or maybe hereditary addiction?) but, really, has a universality to it. Basically, whatever dysfunction was in your house (we all had some), I’m guessing you’ll see it play out here. I recommend supporting this one, for sure.

See all our past months of new discoveries here. And check back to the site next week for our Best Debut Comics of July 2018 as well as our Top Comics of July 2018, too.

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.

REVIEW: Lost City Explorers #1 by Zack Kaplan, Alvaro Sarraseca, Chris Blythe, & Troy Peteri

Lost City Explorers #1  is out June 20. 

Lost City Explorers #1 is out June 20. 

By Zack Quaintance — There’s an interesting dichotomy in AfterShock Comics’ latest series, Lost City Explorers. On its surface, the book has all the trappings of a traditional teen adventure story—bickering siblings, a diverse group of friends, a parent lost to a mysterious realm beneath the city—but rather than lean into the ‘80s nostalgia that has come to define this sort of story in recent years (see Netflix’s Stranger Things), this comic goes the other way, makings its protagonists very much of our time.

For example, the introductory scene depicts a science experiment deep beneath New York City that suddenly goes wrong and swallows its researchers. This entire scene feels timeless, as if it could have happened from 1950 on. Once it has concluded though, artists Alvaro Sarraseca and Chris Blythe give us an establishing shot of modern New York City (with One World Trade Center and all) that next gives way to teens at a Bleachers concert (great band, btw).

The characters in the first scene may as well be ‘80s teen adventurers grown up, while those who follow are their kids, left to navigate a less rosy world. In fact, our protagonist’s fitting first line is, This world sucks. And the scene goes on from there to expertly capture the vast uncertainty of heading toward high school graduation without a blueprint for what comes next. One fantastic panel has main character Hel standing with her toes over the edge of subway platform, musing, Everything just seems so pointless. 

This comic brings the teen adventure genre out of the '80s and into 2018.

This comic brings the teen adventure genre out of the '80s and into 2018.

Essentially, Lost City Explorers #1 seems to have its kids saying, Yes, we remember teen movie nostalgia, but what does that have to do with our plight? It’s an interesting ideological contrast, and I hope the book delves into it more substantially as things progress.

This issue is ambitious, deliberately working toward its (excellent) final panel, which marks the proper start of the adventure to come. In getting there, however, there is A LOT of exposition, dolled out in too-large chunks that occasionally slow the pacing. Kaplan writes great dialogue, but in one scene following a funeral, a character lapses into straight info dumping that feels a little jarring.

I can’t, however, imagine there’s much left to impart in the second issue, and as such I’m optimistic this book will get even better as it goes. For now, though, I’d say this is a solid comic, very much worth a read for fans of teen adventure stories, especially those born after 1994 who just don’t understand my (slightly...only slightly!) older generation’s fascination with the ‘80s.

Overall: Lost City Explorers #1 is a mashup of bygone teen adventure stories and 2018 sensibilities, blending earnest wonder with the blunted expectations of today. It's a really interesting book, seemingly bent on reclaiming the genre from decades past. There is, however, much exposition in this first issue, and I won’t be surprised if #2 is stronger. 7.8/10

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.