Today’s Wednesday Spotlight interview is with Otty Justason and Sonya Somers, cool Canadian couple and creators of Zukahnaut!, one of my most favorite webcomics :) They’re also fellow Underdogs, and part of an unofficial group of comic creators I talk to a lot on twitter (don’t forget you can follow both me and the official account). It was Otty’s birthday this last week (check out the fan art I, Dan, not the artist, drew him), so I’m moving my interview with him and Sonya up the queue of like 10 interviews I’ve recently completed ;)
D: First off, I want to share the intro/bio you gave me word for word, because it’s pretty funny and adorable:
Otty Justason and Sonya Somers are a pair of Canadian artists who were lovers for six years before deciding on a project to finally collaborate on. They met in 2006 through a mutual friend at the end of a two-year stint where Otty had traveled 6000 miles — from ocean to ocean and back again — looking for something worth stopping for. Sonya was halfway through college, studying Animation & Graphics in Miramichi, New Brunswick. They fell in love and ran away to the other side of the country together. Now they make comics.
O: I thought I asked you to chop out the boring bits? Yes we are disgustingly in love but nobody ever wants to see such foolishness. Tell people we have onion fights!
D: Somehow I don’t think those are mutually exclusive with you two ;) Anyways, on to the real questions.
D: What was your inspiration for Zukahnaut?
O: I started forming the idea of Zukah in 1998 when I was eleven years old. He was born out of frustration, fear and a desperate desire for something fresh. Every single story I was being fed starred the same sort of protagonist: young men pre-packaged with remarkable powers or skills, with unbreakable resolve and handsome faces and zero percent body fat and perfect teeth. And if they weren’t some of those things, then there was more than likely a prophecy about them, that they were some sort of Chosen One destined to blah blarghitty blah bleebloo. These were the heroes I was presented with. These were what “good guys” were.
And yet despite being the “good guys,” more often than not they were acting out of pure self-interest. Is there a villain plotting the collapse of the civilized world? Our Hero wouldn’t care. He wouldn’t get involved at all until something would happen to bring the matter to his own doorstep. The villain may be plotting to drop a nuke on every nation’s capital, but the hero’s only here because that same villain ran over his dog in act one. I don’t care how strong or skilled or brave you are. Revenge isn’t heroic. Helping people is. And you don’t need to be young and pretty and fearless to help people. Anyone could be a hero. Everyone should be a hero. I wanted to get that point across. I came up with the most unconventional protagonist I possibly could.
Zukah is not young and virile. He’s not attractive, fearless, or particularly skilled. He’s not the Chosen One. He’s not driven by a need for vengeance. He’s a guy who’s decided after a lifetime of bad decisions and all-around inadequacy that he wants to give life a try as a good guy. He’s a weak person fighting against his nature, a coward feigning bravery. Half of his bluster and bravado is to convince himself more than anyone else. It’s all a front and he’s ashamed of himself for not being the hero that he’s trying to appear to be… But gradually he’ll realize that acting like a hero and being a hero is, in every way that counts, exactly the same. You are who you are… but people only see what you show them.
D: Why webcomics?
O: I’ve loved comic books my entire life. They’re the most powerful medium in the world. Webcomics have the potential to be the B-Movies to the Hollywood of big publishers whose books you can buy at the LCBS (even if most of them end up equating to YouTube video blogs).
S: With comics you can do anything. There’s no effects budget like live action movies, there’s no sweatshop of alcoholic animators per episode to feed like cartoons. Webcomics just seemed like the way to go. Printing physical comics is expensive and then you have to convince people to spend money on them to see whether or not they like it at all, which can be a massive barrier.
D: How did you get started in webcomics?
O: I rolled over in bed one night and I told Sonya “it’s time.” I handed her one of the dozens of scripts I have littering the place and when I got up the next morning I bought the domain name. Getting started in webcomics is the easiest thing in the world! The trick is keeping it going. Luckily we have material to keep this up for years and years so all we have to focus on is producing it at a steady pace.
D: Did you just get lucky that together you can artistically collaborate or was that planned?
O: It sounds strange, but even though we were both artists I never gave much thought to collaboration. We just seemed wildly incompatible creatively. I liked to spend my time drawing and writing about these musclebound tortured souls raging against demons literal and metaphorical, and she liked to create Disney-esque stories about stray dogs and babies and maybe the occasional satyr.
S: I used to read through Otty’s notebooks that he had filled with all of these characters and their stories, and though I really liked them I didn’t feel as though I could add anything to most of them. Zukah stood out, though. He was easily the most versatile character, able to be plopped anywhere and still work. You can tell any story with Zukah and I loved that. When I wanted to draw one of Otty’s characters I would almost always choose Zukah (or Darius because he was awesome, but I didn’t think I did him justice). When he told me it was time to start the webcomic he opened my sketchbook, pointed to a Zukah drawing and said “him!”
D: You’ve mentioned your personal drive for the creation of a “hero” like Zukah. How has audience reception been?
O: Most commenters seem to find him affable enough. There are some readers who have been following Zukah since before the comic began, through the days when I used to pull him out and use him in online role-playing games, and that’s where you sometimes get people in the comments saying “can’t wait for Zukah to [some reference to an obsolete version of the character]” from. I think what we’re trying to do comes through on the page for the most part.
S: One reviewer called him annoying.
O: Not unfairly. I wouldn’t want him hanging around me as he is where the story picks up.
D: How do you think stories like Zukahnaut can be a benefit to your readers?
O: I think it’s important to show that no matter how far gone you are there’s always the choice to turn it around. Strip away everything else and Zukahnaut is all about the power of choice. The next decision you make outweighs every other decision you’ve made in your entire life; the decision you make after that is worth even more. The value of each successive choice is exponential. A bad person can be a good person if they simply choose to act like one, and that choice is available to every man, woman, and child. It’s not easy – and we see Zukah struggling with it – but nothing has the power to take that away from you.
D: What has been your favorite part about producing a webcomic?
O: Having free reign to tell our story the way we want it to be told. Where else can you find a comic about a fat, ugly, bald, aged, foulmouthed alien with a lifetime of bad decisions behind him cast as the protagonist?
S: Seeing the response, definitely. I love finding out what readers think of every single page.
D: What Canadian stereotypes are well founded, and which ones are completely bogus?
O: I don’t even know any modern Canadian stereotypes. We wear touques and say “eh,” I guess. Nobody really thinks we have winter all year ‘round or live in igloos anymore, do they?
S: We don’t all have one accent. It’s a big country.
D: What about all Canadians being super nice? True or false?
O: I’ll say this; I live in a place where a couple of years back people went into the streets and did their best to burn the city to the ground because their hockey team lost a game. People were murdered, buildings were smashed, police cars were set on fire, and buses were flipped. Over a hockey game. And yet when their favourite band comes to town they’ll stand quietly in the audience like bored sentries. Canadians are generally miserly with everything including their passion and energy.
Are people polite? Sure. They’ll apologize to a homeless man when they accidentally step on him. Then they’ll keep on walking when a nice person would buy the guy a donut or something. Good manners don’t cost anything and it’s no coincidence that they’re the only thing you can expect the average Canadian to offer you.
S: Most people are super-polite to your face. Canadians like to mock people when they’re not around so nothing gets accidentally accomplished.
D: Do you find that Zukahnaut has a large Canadian audience, since you’re both Canadian?
O: About 15% of our audience is Canadian. 60% is from the US and most of the rest is the UK-based.
D: Any advice for creators and readers of webcomics?
O: For creators, do not wait until you are “ready” to start something. People die every second on this planet and nobody is safe. Start on the first draft right now and don’t stop until the thing is done and you’ve delivered it to its audience… because even if you survive tomorrow, not all of them will.
And readers? When you find something you love, love it loudly. Tell the world about it. You could save a friend’s life by introducing them to the one thing they desperately needed to know about today. You could save a creator from closing the door on your favourite story just by letting them know what it means to you. I love you all for everything you’ve given us. Thank you.
Thanks again, Otty and Sonya. Everyone, any questions for the pair? They’d probably answer them. Also, make sure you check out their webcomic, Zukahnaut! :D