If you talked to someone from the late ’70s and asked them what the future might look like, they’d probably say we would have colonies on the moon, a galactic federation, and an abundance of chrome.
Well, it’s 2019 and none of those things are a reality. Without the rose-colored glasses of the past, the future kinda sucks.
Black Nerd Problems had the opportunity to talk with co-creators Jai Nitz (Suicide Squad, co-creator of Diablo, Dream Thief), and newcomer Tom Reilly about their new series Astro Hustle from Dark Horse. The book follows loveable loser Chen Andalou, the Prince Harry of a very distinguished family, as he wakes up from an accidental cryo-sleep that lasted 60 years!
So much of our sci-fi today is rooted in the dark potential of technology and space exploration. The hope and wonder of the unknown seems like a distant memory. Astro Hustle is hell-bent on reaching into the past to bring back that once-prevalent optimism, and the fun that accompanied it.
Black Nerd Problems: Astro Hustle is a space opera, but it’s a very particular version of space. I couldn’t help but think of the original Star Trek while I was reading it. It’s definitely a view of the universe from someone living at least 40 years ago. What was the inspiration behind this specific version of outer space?
Jai Nitz: My plan from the jump was to show inclusive sci-fi. I wanted there to be men and women of different races and colors on the page. The original Star Trek comes to mind. My pal Nicholas Meyer (writer/director of Wrath of Khan) gave us a great quote about the book. He’s a big influence. The biggest influences were disco-themed shows and movies like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Flash Gordon, and Battlestar Galactica. Mix in some Ice Pirates and Jetsons, and you’ve got a foundation for what we’re building.
Tom Reilly: I looked for inspiration from multiple sources for Astro Hustle, but the big ones were Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. I also looked at Hanna-Barbera properties like Space Ghost and The Jetsons. There was also definitely a good chunk of Star Trek ’66 thrown into Astro Hustle. More “Kirk fighting the Gorn” than the serious stuff, but it’s in there. Jai and I also drew from the progressive inclusion seen on the original show. We treated the universe as a massive melting pot, with all different kinds of people, creatures and robots coexisting. Everywhere you look you’ll see someone or something that is new, and I think it helps make the universe we’ve created seem endless.
BNP: There’s obviously a lot of mystery surrounding the protagonist Chen Andalou. But what can you tell us about developing him as a character, and why you made certain choices with his characteristics.
JN: I originally wrote the book with Chen’s identity being a mystery for several issues. I showed the first issue to Jim Shooter (Hall of Fame story editor, former EIC at Marvel) and he told me point blank that he didn’t care if Chen lived or died. I needed to tell him WHY Chen was important in the first few pages of the book. So, I rewrote the opening and did just that.
TR: Chen is a classic case of someone who’s from a famous family. No matter how much he tries to get away from it, by extension he will always be someone of note. The Chen you see on the page drew inspiration from multiple differing sources. There’s some Sung Kang (Tokyo Drift is my favorite Fast & Furious movie, don’t tell anyone), the charisma of Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood, and even some Sinbad thrown together to make Chen. Jai did a great job of realizing Chen as kind of a loser, but one you can’t help but think is pretty cool. I think we all know someone like that.
BNP: And what about the supporting cast? What inspired their backgrounds and looks?
JN: Most are characters I wanted to write blended with actors I know. I took my inspiration and sent it to Tom Reilly and he added more layers to the cake.
TR: Jai had some specific character information for the major players in the book, and those short descriptions went a long way in terms of me coming up with their looks. It might not be prudent to say this, but I designed the majority of the characters in one take. I can only think of a couple that I had to revisit. It just shows that Jai and I were on the same page pretty much from the start.
BNP: Who is your favorite character to write/draw, and why?
JN: My favorite to write is Chen because he’s a screw-up. It’s fun to write characters who screw up all the time.
TR: My favorite characters to draw actually make their appearance later in the series. Everything about them is ridiculous. You’ll have to ask me again in a couple months when I can talk about them!
BNP: Who would you cast in the roles of your main characters?
JN: For Chen, I’d like to use my pal Chris Larkin from The 100. For Captain Roberts, I’d use a friend who gave us a great quote for the book, Jonathan Frakes. For the Duchess, I’d use my KC homie, Katherine McNamara.
TR: I think I would cast Ryan Potter in the role of Chen. In an out of left field choice, I pick Richard Gere as Captain Roberts. I think he could pull it off. I want Eddie Murphy as Carbon John, and Vanessa Hudgens as Svetlana. Put them all together and make a really weird movie, please.
BNP: What would the soundtrack to Astro Hustle be? I definitely feel like disco would be on the tracklist. But any specific songs or groups?
JN: I’d want to use some funky disco. Lots of Grace Jones, Nile Rodgers (Chic), Earth, Wind & Fire, KC and The Sunshine Band. And then I’d want some modern techno-edged disco like Daft Punk and “house brass” funk from Too Many Zooz.
TR: Definitely a whole bunch of disco. If I were to give you a specific song, it’d be Vincent Montana Jr’s Warp Factor II…at least the first two minutes of it, that’s some groovy stuff. There’s also places in the book where some sweet Isaac Hayes music would be appropriate. For the more action-packed segments of the book, some grindhouse-type music.
BNP: What’s your process like working together? What’s the most rewarding aspect, and the most challenging?
JN: Tom and I are in constant contact. Much more so than my other collaborators on other projects. I send Tom a script and then wait for his feedback. He’s got ideas about how (as Walt Disney used to say) to “plus it.” Then I push back to “plus it” more and more, until we get the best combination of words and art to tell our story.
TR: Like I said before, since the beginning of this project Jai and I have been on the same page in terms of what we want to see in the finished product. That makes it easy to bounce ideas back and forth and get to a final iteration of something. It also helps that there’s no ego involved in this process. Jai first came up with this book a few years ago, so he definitely had ideas going into this about what he wanted to see, but he had no problem with me coming in and tweaking some stuff and probably doing some things in a manner different to what he envisioned. When you take all of this and add Ursula’s fun, bright colors, and Crank’s perfectly placed lettering, I think you end up with a pretty darn good-looking comic book.
BNP: What would you say are your biggest influences as a writer and artist? Either from comics or any other medium.
JN: As a writer, I look at the comic greats: Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Howard Chaykin, Jaime Hernandez, Richard Corben. But for more modern people who inspire me? Zander Cannon is the best cartoonist producing comics today. Phil Hester is my mentor and always a source of inspiration. Local guys like Dennis Hopeless and Cullen Bunn give me a lot of energy. I think Fred Van Lente is the most criminally underrated writer in all of comics. Outside of comics? David Simon, Nic Pizzolatto, David Milch, John Millius, and Quentin Tarantino.
TR: For old school artists, Alex Toth is the big one, and Italian cartoonists like Fernando Tacconi are also big influences. These artists knew that sometimes the hardest part of drawing was leaving something out of it. The way they’re able to convey form, light, and shadow with minimal linework as they do is something every aspiring artist should take a look at. As for more modern artists, Mike Mignola and Chris Samnee are big ones for me. Chris’ use of spot blacks in his work is probably the best in comics today. You can be taught to use this technique effectively, but not on the level that Chris utilizes it. I’m also a huge fan of Greg Smallwood, who does things that I just haven’t seen before on the printed page. I had the opportunity to work with Greg on this book, so that was a total bucket list moment for me. He did the colors for each of the covers, and we even got a sweet variant cover from him for issue 1. On top of being a great artist, he’s also a great guy.
BNP: What do you hope readers take away most after reading this story?
JN: I want them to see the world around them: bright, colorful, brown, queer, and big… but with a sci-fi-aspirational quality.
TR: It’s most important to me that this is a book people just have fun reading. I wanted to take the sense of fun and adventure from all of the classic Hollywood pirate movies and make it part of the DNA of this book. I think it shows that everyone on the team had a blast making this book. That’s what I want everyone to see when they read it.
BNP: What part about developing this story has been the most fulfilling for you?
JN: Working with/discovering Tom. Working with/discovering Ursula Decay, our colorist. Working with old pals Crank! and editor Patrick Thorpe. Coming home to Dark Horse.
TR: Honestly, just getting to do it in the first place. I mentioned before that Jai came up with this idea a few years ago, and he knows a lot of the great artists in the business, so for this to find its way to me, and for me to be able to take my first step into the comics industry with this, is a dream come true.
BNP: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced working on this book?
JN: A lot of companies/editors didn’t “get” the book. Patrick Thorpe at Dark Horse did from page one. He has fought to get us picked up and published at the speed we wanted. That means the world to me that he has fought for us.
TR: The places where I’ve had the most trouble are on the production side of things more than the actual drawing of the book. The stuff nobody tells you about, like the aspect ratio and formats of all the pages. I didn’t know that all of the different comics companies used different aspect ratios for their pages, so I started drawing them at the completely wrong size and scale. This is where our editor Patrick Thorpe and all the great people at Dark Horse that we’re working with really threw me a bone. They were extremely helpful — and better — extremely patient while I worked out these kinks.
BNP: What can readers look forward to over this 4-issue run?
JN: We are telling the story of a man who grew up the black sheep in his family. And what it means to go from being a petty crook to the most important person in the galaxy. And how a life-long screw up would handle such a mantle of responsibility. And talking animal space pirates.
TR: I think our team came up with a fun, action-packed story that deals with bombastic, out-of-this-world scenarios as well as more grounded, real-world topics. Everybody brought their A game to produce a book that looks good, reads smoothly, and gets better as you keep reading. Every issue ups the ante, and you won’t want to miss how it ends!
Astro Hustle boogies into comic book shops on March 6th, 2019!