By: Nicole D’Andria
Justin Gray has taken us to the west before with Jonah Hex and All-Star Western. Now, he returns to the western genre with Billy the Kit, a rabbit gunslinger who wants vengeance against a tornado god.
The world of Billy the Kit is created by writer Justin Gray (Standstill, TheAdventures of Penelope Hawk) and illustrator Barry McClain Jr. (Harriet Tubman Demon Slayer). The colors are done by Slamet Mujiono (Robyn Hood).
The Kickstarter is trying to raise $6,000 and will need to reach its goal by August 30, 2018 at 11:00 AM EDT. Rewards include a digital ($5) and print edition ($10) of the 32 page comic, prints ($15), personalized postcards ($20), a limited convention teaser ($27) and even more goodies. You can back the Billy the Kit Kickstarter here.
I spoke with co-creators Justin Gray and Barry McClain Jr. about Billy the Kit in detail below.
Me: How would you describe the character of Billy the Kit and the world he inhabits?
Gray: This is an interesting book because on one hand this is a world populated by talking animals, mystical creatures, and Tornado gods, a world that is mature, hyper violent and yet I want the characters to have human qualities. Billy is interesting because he has an unwavering faith in the things his father told him as a young rabbit. When we’re young most of us look at the world through the lens of one or more parents. For better or worse they shape how we look at the world and usually what they say is gospel, at least until middle school when we start developing our own world views.
The thing is, like most of us, Billy’s father simplified reality with the best intentions and as we know reality is incredibly complicated. When his father and the rest of his family are murdered Billy is immediately confronted by the reality his father wasn’t preparing him for. In his commitment to righting a wrong Billy becomes obsessed with the fact that the world is often cruel and full of injustice. He feels that it is his duty as his father’s son to bring justice and balance to the world. I guess what I’m also saying is this isn’t meant to be a funny talking animal comic even though there is a dark sense of humor in play.
Me: Why did you decide to make Billy a rabbit?
Gray: I wanted to do another western but I didn’t want it to be like anything I’ve done previously. I envisioned Billy as a mythical folk hero that personifies the frontier virtues of courage, strength, and humor, but also mixing in some Spaghetti Western and Manga influence. As a child I loved Watership Down; it was dark, terrifying and not at all what I thought it was going to be. It has had a large influence on what I plan on doing with Billy in terms of tone and using animals to comment of humanity. Again, I am trying to create a book that has layers and defies appearance.
Me: And why did you choose to have the villain of the story be a tornado god?
Gray: The majority of tornadoes occur in the United States and they, like other forms of weather, can be labeled an act of god. That term always triggered my imagination and one day I envisioned these terrible gods living inside the eye of tornadoes. Tornadoes can cause massive amounts of damage and casualties often showing us how fragile our human made environments are. Plus I wanted this book to be different and incorporate large elements that make the medium of comics so exciting and different. We’ve come to a point where we can make the comics from 30-70 years ago look real on screens so I’d like to see some comics that can’t be filmed for another 30 years.
Me: How did you go about finding the creative team for the book and how did you know they were the perfect people for it?
Gray: Barry McClain Jr. and I have been talking to each other online for years and Barry is a great guy even without discussing his considerable talent. He is in love with making comics, he is outspoken, he is raw and unfiltered at times, but above all else he is passionate with a work ethic that I deeply respect. That passion shows in his work and it explodes on the page. For that reason it took me a long time to find the right character and concept that could bring us together in a way that was going to excite readers and inspire each other. I wanted to work with him on something where he was contributing to the script more than interpreting it. I’m a big believer in finding the right people for the right job.
Slamet Mujiono was recommended to me by Pat Shand, a friend and fellow writer who has dozens of projects going on at any given moment. I mentioned I was looking for someone that needed to be a good fit for Barry’s style. Slamet exceeded my expectations. He inherently understood this was not a cartoon or kids book and crafted a palate accordingly. There is no understating how important a colorist is not just to the look but to the storytelling. I’m very proud of the work these gentlemen have done.
Me: There’s a Kickstarter exclusive variant of the issue as well. Can you give us some more details about the bonus materials in this exclusive?
Gray: I wanted to do a limited edition print on demand version that included the script and Barry’s initial character designs. It is our hope to take Billy to a publisher and be able to start telling tales long-term so some of these KS rewards are going to be available in very small quantities. Barry and I really want to develop a core group of followers on this book that can help us reach out for a larger audience and that’s why we’re offering these kinds of incentives and even original artwork, which we’re going to add one more piece of art in the last week.
Me: You’ve written a lot of western stories before; what is your favorite thing about writing this genre?
Gray: I like romantic iconography, I like the idea of people having to rely on each other and themselves to carve out an existence. There’s a lot about the time period that was terrible and harsh, but there’s also this sense of rolling up your sleeves and getting things done. To me the western is both simple and deeply complex.
Me: There are a lot of archetypes in westerns. Based on your personality, which archetype do you think you’d fall under and why?
Gray: Some say our names play a role in shaping who we are as people. There’s some truth in that for me because I loathe injustice so I definitely understand and rationalize some of the frontier justice archetype in westerns. I feel that people who work hard and do the right thing should live long happy lives. We know life isn’t fair and I think that reality is prevalent in who we are as human beings. There’s a reason so many stories have been told around the idea of justice. Life is very complicated, I keep saying that, but I think we want to experiences moments where truth, justice and the American way aren’t just abstract ideas or tee shirt slogans. I feel that way quite often.
Me: You have Jonah Hex stories included as rewards for the Kickstarter as well. If you had to pick, what was your favorite Jonah Hex story to write and why was it your favorite?
Gray: I don’t believe I can pick a favorite. The Darwyn issues and the Tony issues stand out for obvious reasons. I miss both of them so that heavily influences how I feel about some of the stories.
Me: What is the number one reason you think people should pledge money to your Kickstarter?
Gray: I honestly feel this is a book worth their time and investment for all the reasons I listed above. Ironically this book is also about optimism and there is so much negativity and narcissism in the world it is exhausting. It seems like comics in the age of internet culture has become less about content and more about conflict and I hate that. I can’t even look at comic related social media without feeling sick to my stomach that this is the hill so many flags have been planted on. That said I find it refreshing to write a character with unwavering faith in something bigger than himself and a commitment to the value of doing what is right regardless. Oh, there’s also a lot of profanity by Luther the Goat who is I think going to be a character people really like.
Me: You’re an illustrator for the book, but it sounds like you contributed a lot to the script before the art as well. Can you tell us in what ways you did this?
Barry McClain Jr.: Being co-creator I have the chance to build Billy’s world from the ground up. Justin really did a great job of setting me up in terms of direction but he gave me total freedom to create. Everything in the book was just me taking in Justin’s vision and everything I’ve learned from watching cartoons after school and western shows with my grandma really.
Me: There are a lot of really fun looking character designs. What was your favorite character design to create and why?
McClain: Thanks. Billy was the most fun. Because I got to put all the things I felt a cowboy and a bunny would have in a pot and stirred. I gave him a satchel for dried carrot chips on the trail. Two magical pistols, one with a compass on the side so the shot won’t miss, ya know? Just fun stuff!
Me: Despite there being talking animals in this book, it’s a mature story. How did you approach the artwork knowing talking animals can usually come off as being “just funny” or not being taken too seriously to create this more mature comic book?
McClain: That was a huge challenge for me. But luckily I love life art aside from cartoons. As cartoony as my style may seem. I take great pleasure in humanizing characters. The animal aspect pulls you in at first but how human the story is makes you stay. So, I did not want to be cheesy to convey emotion but still wanted to maintain a sort of old-school Disney/Warner Brothers magic to it. I’m just happy we pulled it off.
Me: Justin mentioned he really admired your work ethic. How would you describe your work ethic and in what ways has it developed as you’ve been working in the comic book industry?
McClain: Aww, that was nice of him. Frankly, I just try my best not to embarrass us all with the book being late or acting like kids over creative views. Or simply just not being a nice person in general. Look, we are all doing the job we wanted since we were kids for money. That alone should be motivation to pencil out a full page a day. And this is coming from a full-time father. I get the job and get it done. No exception.
McClain: People should back this project because it’s what you want comics to be. Fun. We have no hidden agenda. No trick covers. The story and art are to put you in the middle of a fantasy you won’t want to stop reading. And not to mention that I drew it, Slamet colored it and Justin wrote it. That’s reason enough to pitch in a buck or two!
Me: Thanks for taking the time to share some good ol’ western fun! If you’re reading this and interested in backing Billy the Kit, check out the Kickstarter here.
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