I’m not sure what writer J. Torres expected when he stepped into the after hours gathering of Comic Book Addiction’s Ladies Night. We were very polite as he joined our circle to give us a behind-the-scenes look at the comic creation process and introduce us to his latest work, The Mighty Zodiac from Oni Press. Occasionally, we’d let the true nature of our monthly gathering slip. If Torres, with some trepidation, mutters something about the therapeutic benefits of murdering SIMS characters, our obsession with all things Brian K. Vaughan, our references to Garth Ennis’ disturbing series, Crossed, or the unconfirmed existence of a dungeon in the comic store basement, there may be some truth to his words…
But mostly, I’d like to think that we were a good and attentive audience, especially those who are still new to comics and all that the medium has to offer. Such presentations are quite common for Torres, who has been writing comics since a very young age. His first published work, Copybook Tales, is a semi-autobiographical slice of life comic about growing up in the ’80s and handling college in the ’90s. The title comes from the workbooks commonly used in Montreal, Quebec where the Filipino-born writer was raised. Though his initial forays into comics involved art that was considered to be pretty good by elementary school standards, Torres admits to being “too lazy to get serious about art.”
Copybook Tales was independently published in the ’90s and had a small readership, but, Torres notes, “you never know who’s going to move up in the world.” As it turned out, his readers included people who now hold sway at companies like Marvel Comics, Nickelodeon, and DC Comics. Thanks to such connections, Torres’ freelance comic and animation resume now boasts titles such as Batman Strikes, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Avatar the Last Airbender, Legion of Super Heroes in the 31st Century, Black Panther, X-Men: Ronin, X-Men Unlimited, and most notably, Teen Titans GO! However, his first paid writing gig was scripts for Rugrats newspaper comic strips. Back in the days when fax machines were regularly used, the submission process involved sending in four to five scripts per week with hopes of selling one or two for $50 each, then watching the machine slowly spit out a reply with notes and a big “Y” or “N” on the top.
Torres has come a long way from the days of staring hopefully at fax machines. While he has worked on more mature titles, he has a fondness for kid’s literature and proudly proclaims be a big kid himself. His latest project is The Mighty Zodiac, an adventure featuring characters representing the Chinese zodiac. Explains Torres in a Comicosity interview:
“It all started with a trip to Korea about 7-8 years ago. At a museum, I saw these cool stone statues representing the animals in the Chinese Zodiac dressed up like warriors. I imagined them coming to life and having adventures. It took a few years to develop the story, but I eventually pitched it to Oni, and last year I started working on it with Corin Howell and eventually Maarta Laiho.”
Torres shared copies of an Oni Press sneak peek sampler that includes a short The Mighty Zodiac story, and took the opportunity to give us some insight into his process. He describes the story and imagery as Avatar the Last Airbender meets Disney’s Robin Hood, a description that instantly clicked with artist Corin Howell, who handles both pencils and inking for the book. Torres and Howell have already developed a kind of shorthand that allows Torres’ script writing process to become leaner and leaner as the story progresses. This is not always the case with writer and artist, but ideally, Torres explains, most writers try to keep their scripts sparse in terms of descriptions, allowing the artist to bring their own artistic interpretations to each panel. Digital comics and the introduction of guided view has placed some limits on an artist’s creativity, so Torres tends to encourage artists not to get too crazy with design lest elements get lost within the format. Sometimes the connection between writer and artist doesn’t work out as well as one hopes, but other times, Torres says, “it’s fulfilling to see what comes back” when his words are brought to life by an artist’s pencil.
Writing for his own creation leaves Torres at the mercy of inspiration. It can take him anywhere from three weeks to a month to complete his own stories, while working on a book with established characters and background, such as Teen Titans GO! goes much faster thanks to the existing shorthand. From there, scripts are passed on to the editor for review and, assuming no rewrites are needed, the penciller takes over, usually producing a page per day, which are then passed on to inkers, colorists, and letterers. The entire process takes about three months to produce a 20-page book.
While he didn’t give us the finer details of what kind of notes an editor might return to him, Torres did describe a few moments when an editor’s suggestions really helped to strengthen a story, or avoid potential backlash, such as when a Dr. Light story he was writing for DC might have caused confusion during their Identity Crisis storyline, or when Starfire eating toothpaste could have encouraged kids to do the same, or when an editor suggested delaying the death of a character until later in the story when it would have greater impact.
Finally, Torres gave us a peek into his writing process which involves getting his writing done before the kids come home, and the easier said than done requirement of turning off all online distractions. But, while the internet is a detriment to the writing process itself, creators–especially independent creators–need to put themselves out there on social media. “You have to make noise,” Torres stresses, or else you’ll miss out on potential customers. Of course, dropping by to chat about comics with is also a great way to spread the word. Hopefully, we didn’t scare Torres too much…!
Be sure to check out The Mighty Zodiac to see the fruits of Torres’ labours–issue four is available now. With thanks to Oni Press and J. Torres for providing us with these preview pages: