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An Interview with Justin Pierce of Killroy and Tina

Tina is an average teenager, well other than the fact that she's mysteriously bonded with Killroy, an alien with immense powers and oh yeah, someday Tina will become the Mistress of Time and Space in her continuum. Justin Pierce's Killroy and Tina is a delightfully funny, yet action-packed tale that is published on Graphic Smash.

Okay, which of the characters is your favorite? Killroy, the Darkseid/Darth Vader-in-training? Perrenially and justifiably paranoid Tina? Brandon, he of half a brain but means well? Qwerty? Fulcrum?

I actually think my favorite to write currently is Qwerty. Aside from being this awkward, silly goob, Qwerty has some pretty complex things going on - he's essentially a pawn in an oppressive empire, but Qwerty's an honest guy who genuinely believes he's fighting the good fight.

They're all pretty fun to work with though, because each person is a snapshot of me at any given moment, and their balance helps keep the story on track without letting it get too pretentious.

I know you have the ending of K&T planned. What has surprised you along the way, though? What side excursions have you taken that you didn't originally plan?

I found it surprising how characters developed their own complex personas - or at least, forced me to develop some for them. Tina was always intended to be a goody two-shoes, but her perfectionism has cost her friendships and made her sort of a recluse. Brandon, on the other hand, is actually a clever guy, but he doesn't want the pressures or responsibility of being seen as "intelligent". And Wraith was just intended to be an amorphous wisp of black smoke, but even he's paved his own distinct characterization.

The other main thing I realized is that, while doing an epic sort of comic isn't really *hard*, it is time-consuming, so you need to cut out the fat. As a storyteller I like to think I'm learning to streamline, but I still do tiny subplots, like when Killroy went job hunting, or when Wraith inadvertently started a cult. Sometimes they're subtle foreshadowing, and sometimes they're just a way to space out Big Events. The longest excursion was probably a paintball storyline from around Summer 2002. Looking back, I don't know if I should have done it, but it was a good means for developing the characters, even if it didn't drive the story forward much.

Tell us a little about yourself. I know you're a graphic designer and have a relationship with the creator of Intershadows. What else can/will you tell us?

Well, since I'm involved with the lovely and talented Kathleen Jacques (creator of Intershadows), I've made a lot of trips to Canada, even though I still can't figure out the damned Celsius scale to save my life. I'm a Lefty both in dexterity and politics and can't stand Bush Jr., but in my very liberal hometown of Madison, I'm a comparative moderate.

A little side note about my job: besides designing artwork for advertisements and suchlike, my other main job function is to coordinate all of our company conventions -- ship convention booths across the country, meet with our conventions reps, update convention schedules and generally make sure conventions run according to plan, all year-round. So while everyone else in this webcomics gig seems to want in on as many comic/scifi/anime conventions as possible, the mere thought of MORE conventions gives me an instant migraine.

Who are your artistic influences? (And given how Killroy originally looked, I think you have to say, Jack Kirby. Who else?)

Oh totally. ­ Kirby's the king, and I wish Stan Lee would point it out whe people keep giving him credit for Kirby's old stuff. Curt Swan and George Perez were also some of the "Old Guard" who affected me. I read the most comics in my teens though, so many of my major influences were 90s era superhero artists like Mike Mignola and Tom Grummett. Grummett especially was an influence - his classic, slick look works well with both comic relief and sober drama. I remember picking up some Adventures of Superman comics when I was fourteen, trying to draw exactly like Grummett, and failing miserably. I picked up dribs and drabs from others too, like Steve Purcell's obsession with putting barely noticeable gags in the background.

Who are your storytelling influences? (And your humor influences...)

Oh man, that's a tougher one. Historically I've been drawn to writing that can balance humor and plot intelligently ­ people like Douglas Adams, Matt Groening and the Coen Brothers. There seems to be a rumbling sentiment around the webcomics community that you should either be plot-driven or gag-driven, and never the twain shall meet -- that if you started out funny, you shouldn't be serious, or vice versa. To me, that couldn't be further from the truth. Real life doesn't work that way, so why should storytelling? Humor becomes a cherished relief in a serious storyline, and drama becomes more striking when it catches you off-guard. It's often a difficult balance, but that shouldn't discourage anyone from trying it.

Incidentally, the superhero genre is perfect for that dichotomy because it involves stoic demigods who dedicate their lives to service, and also run around in their underpants. So, superhero comics, definitely ­ big influence on storytelling, unintended influence on humor.

I also have an obsession with Mystery Science Theater 3000 that's probably unhealthy. I mean, the show's been cancelled for five years, so I guess I should move on, but I can't.

How has your experience with Graphic Smash been? What advantages are there to being part of an anthology? What disadvantages? Any frustration at having to keep your archives hidden?

Getting paid is a decided advantage over not getting paid, so that's nice. Killroy and Tina spent half of its life on Keenspace and half on Graphic Smash, but I never noticed any drop in readership after the Graphic Smash move, which actually surprised me a bit. In a way, being on an anthology worked pretty well. ­ I heard from a number of people who subscribed for Fans! or Digger or whatever, and stumbled onto Killroy and Tina some lazy day because they paid for access, and now they check it regularly.

It does get frustrating having the archives locked up when I want to refer to an old comic and know a good chunk of the readers can't see it, or when trying to pimp the thing out to new readers, but I think I've only gotten one "sellout" complaint since joining Graphic Smash, and that was over a year ago. Modern Tales isn't some cutthroat, massive corporation, and I think people realize that.

If you had K&T to do all over again, would you change anything?

I'd probably streamline a few earlier chapters to speed up the pace, and hone my drawing skills religiously to save embarrassment, but nothing major beyond that.

If K&T were animated, who would you want to do Killroy's voice? Tina's? Brandon's?

As fun as James Earl Jones or Ving Rhames would be for Killroy, I'd have to go with Michael "Worf" Dorn, because he can freely toggle between menacing and awkward, and Killroy really needs a guy like that. Plus, Dorn is Killroy's voice in my head when I'm planning out the comics. Using the same logic, I think of Felicity's Kerri Russell for Tina's voice, and Topher Grace as Brandon. Qwerty was modeled largely after Paul Shaeffer, so Shaeffer's got the role if he wants it, but I guess he's got some other job.

What other webcomics do you admire? What do you see as the future for webcomics, especially long-range semi-serious projects like K&T?

I admire a ton of webcomics, but very few do I check right when they update ­ Dinosaur Comics, Ascent, Intershadows, Narbonic, and a few others. I read several dozen in sporadic gluts - Scary-Go-Round for example, I'll wait a while and catch up on two months of backlog.

As for the future of webcomics, oh man­ I don't even know what the future holds. I think we're going to see more experimentation with the webcomics medium, because it's not the "Wild West" anymore. A few years ago, webcomics as a *concept* was experimental. Webcomics are standard now, and there's a mold for people to break. I'm hopeful that the massive wave of Penny Arcade imitators has ebbed. I just realized there's like four different metaphors going on in the previous paragraph, so I apologize for that. Stuff like Killroy and Tina is hard to predict -­ I think epic stories like that will work independent of any trend. They'll just show up when the creator has a tale to tell, and the passion to carry it out.

So once you finish K&T, what's your next project?

Wow, that is SO far off I can't even fathom. I've always wanted to do a few stories with no dialogue (which can therefore be read in any language). It's also been a dream of mine to unearth some old-timey Golden Age superhero that's fallen into public domain, and give it new life.

There may even be a chance I can fit the latter in Killroy and Tina somehow­ we'll see.