Comics were 12 cents when James Quillen’s grandmother took him to the corner drugstore for lunch. She bought him a comic book to bring home, and she used it to teach him read. By the time high school arrived, he was writing his own comic stories. He went on to college and then the Navy, all while amassing an enormous collection of comics. But it was Scott Snyder who pushed him into writing once again. His class taught James structure and focus. Houwei’s story is a result of that class.
His short story, “Bigger World: A Houwei Story,” will appear in the Cohorts Anthology.
Tell us about yourself, James Quillen. How did you get into comics?
It started when I was just learning to read: my grandmother bought them for me and we would sit and read them. It only grew from there: collecting, wardrobe, owning a comic shop, and then finally taking Scott Snyder’s comic-writing class. I fell in love with Superman and anything related to Superman. All those science-fiction aspects that were the hallmark of most of the DC Comics were the attraction.
You mentioned submitting comics to publishers in high school, and that they told you they were a good effort, but you needed “life experiences.” Did you know what they meant as an adolescent? How about now?
In high school, I began creating super-heroes to have them be part of the worlds that were in the comics. I researched how comics were created and sent unsolicited scripts to DC Comics. I was lucky someone noticed, and a few editors wrote me back. I think about those stories, and they were simple. I understood the advice about needing “life experiences” was more about understanding the depth of the characters that I wrote about. Good advice, but it was still being not good enough yet, and there was really no way, or rather no classes to take to be a better storyteller. From there it was college, career, etc. But there was always that area in my brain that was creative. Then Scott Snyder announced the writing class, and that was all I began thinking about. The proverbial foot in the door was kicking me to do something I always wanted to do.
Who are your art heroes? Writers, artists, etc…?
My ultimate favorite artist is Mike Grell. A close second is Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. I grew up with Curt Swan doing Superman, but the structural dynamics was exciting. Of course they were doing Superman, which made me love them even more. The only writers I was aware of were Cary Bates and Elliot S. Maggin; both were mostly doing Superman titles. Then of course Alan Moore appeared, and I understood or at least realized the emotional aspect of storytelling. “For the Man Who Has Everything” remains the best Superman story ever, in my opinion.
“Bigger World: A Houwei Story” is not the only Houwei story, correct? Can readers find the other Houwei works you have created, or will they in the future?
In the Scott Snyder class, the students developed their own anthology called Tales From The Cloakroom. From the time the class was announced, I started big. Creating a universe for my pitch, which ended up being too much. Six-page stories are super hard to write. I was all in on doing a super-hero story, but my biggest problem was scale. Students shared publishers that were looking for stories, and that’s where Houwei actually flouished better. Altruist Comics in Canada was looking for a back-up for Bullet Adventures and they accepted my pitch, then Tales From The Cloakroom Vol. 2, and an upcoming anthology from Paganini Press called GODS Untold.
Tell us about Houwei. What inspired you to create this story?
All the while working on stories for Scott Snyder’s class, I was still in need of an artist to work with. I had remained friends with one from college, actually the only artist person I knew. He was still doing art, and we started talking about him doing the art for my class project. I was writing a lot of scripts for it and was continually told to narrow down my scope. Six pages was truly hard, and I needed an angle. Altruist Comics was looking for a back-up and I pitched Houwei to them. My artist friend from college, Blane, with his husband, Vincent, had adopted Atticus. If Blane could do the art, then how about a story focused on Atticus and his super-hero dad. It had all the aspects I needed. Vincent being from Taiwan was perfect for the backstory to be rooted in Chinese mythology.
Tell us about the themes of “Bigger World: A Houwei Story.”
From the Scott Snyder class, a theme or rather the structure I began to develop was to have the emotional pieces laid out first. The Cohorts theme for the Oneshi Anthology needed a team-up. I had created lot of characters looking for one to click for the Cloakroom anthology, and Andraste fit exactly what I needed. I wanted to have characters that were real: Andraste is a normal person, as in a size 10 instead of Disney size 2. Andraste is also based on an actual person.
With my Cohorts setup, I also brought in the villain from the original story. The Hollows had destroyed Andraste’s universe, so for her it’s protecting her adopted world. But for Vincent, they are just monsters that need to be dealt with. Finding out these monsters used to be people is almost too much. Andraste understands what needs to be done; Houwei is being forced into a bigger world where the monsters are real. It’s a moment of growth to understand you’re helpless and must sacrifice to protect others.
What comic book character do you identify most with, and why?
I would say Superman, or rather Superboy growing up. It was always that aspect of being a different person in different situations. He seemed to really be the only character that always had to be careful about what he said or did. He was more like a real person in that respect.
You are the writer of Houwei; tell us about the artist you work with.
Roger Targanski is truly awesome. He’s actually been the third artist that I’ve worked with. Houwei’s designer is Vlad Gernet. He did the first Houwei story, and as we were starting the second story, he was diagnosed with a cyst growing in the wrist of his drawing hand. Surgery was necessary, but I had already arranged a few more Houwei stories. Roger was an entry, along with myself, in the Top Cow Talent Search. I had contacted him to do a cover piece, because he was awesome! So when I needed an artist for “Bigger World,” he was available.
Are there any other creative works you are working on?
The Paganini Press anthology GODS Untold just wrapped its Kickstarter. The story there isn’t Houwei, but Houwei related, featuring Andraste and when she first came to Earth in 60 AD. Altruist will have more Houwei back-ups for short, character-driven stories with Atticus. There is also a short for Alan Bay for SmallGuyDoodle’s next anthology called Space, Galaxy and Alien Meatballs.
Where can our readers find you online?
I’m building my website with Vlad Gernet (whose surgery went very well, but he’s not strong enough to do full art just yet). Right now it’s a placekeeper, www.jsquillen.com, and being slowly built. I’m also on Facebook, which is more family & friends related, but is the primary way of contacting me.
And thanks times a zillion to our pal Chris Byers for their help with these interviews!
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