INTERVIEW: The Kids Are Alright in Danny Djeljosevic’s ‘Kids Rule!!!!’

It’s basically impossible to label Danny Djeljosevic. He’s a comics writer, and an editor, I suppose – but he’s also done some of the msot varied work I’ve ever seen in comics. Able to turn his style on a dime, his various past comics work has shown a writer who can get lost in a particular tone, genre and voice – and then flip it absolutely for the next project he does.

Perhaps best known for the webseries The Ghost Engine which he created with artist Eric Z, his latest project sees him once more completely transform his writing style for a new anthology collecting together three short comics with a number of artists. The book, ‘Kids Rule!!!!’ came out earlier this week as a digital download through the site he co-founded, ‘Loser City’. I really enjoyed it, and would recommend you head over there and give it a buy.

Now granted – I’m already a big fan of Danny Djeljosevic, and I’m pretty certain I’m not the only one. So for anybody else not already acquainted with his work, Danny was kind enough to answer a few questions about the new book for this site, as well as go deeper into the idea of Loser City in general. Read on, readers!

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Steve: What’s the idea of Loser City? It’s a cross-medium brand which arranges music gigs, publishes comics, and does all sorts of other things?

Danny: We got comics, pop culture criticism, poetry and fiction, apparel, and we organize concerts in the Austin, TX, music scene.  “We Aim to Fail Big,” as our slogan says. My main focus is the comics and the apparel, while Morgan handles the articles and the concerts, as he is a pillar in the Austin music scene. I live in San Diego, so I got no hand in that. Our dude David Fairbanks is in charge of the creative writing.

Steve: How did it come about? What made you decide to bring it to life with [co-founder] Morgan Davis?

Danny: Loser City began as me wanting to have my own label to put out comics. Not just my stuff, but work from my friends and people who I like that are also willing to stoop to my level. I admire people like Chris Roberson, Ryan Ferrier, and Charles Forsman and Zack Soto, all great comickers in their own right who also publish the comics they want on their own terms in interesting ways. I don’t believe in “breaking into comics” in the traditional sense — at least, I don’t believe that you need a gatekeeper to get stuff out into the world anymore. YOU should be your only gatekeeper.

When I hit up Morgan to help me design covers for some Loser City comics, he happened to be trying to get a pop culture magazine off the ground. So he proposed combining our respective projects into one SUPER PROJECT, which helped Loser City become a reality in a much stronger way than I probably would have done on my own. Strength in numbers and all that. Also, it helped that I ended up with an unrelated day job that allowed me the ability to pay for things like web design and comics printing.

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Art from Kids Rule!!! by CJ Camba

Steve: One of the elements, as mentioned, is comics publishing – and you’ll be putting out an anthology of work called ‘Kids Rule!!!!!’ soon. This features three stories, with you writing all three and art by CJ Camba, Zak Kinsella, Marissa Louise, and AJ Bernardo. How long has this been in the works? When did you first start planning the stories?

Danny: Basically, Kids Rule!!!!!! is a collection of three short stories that previously lacked a home. Two were submissions to bigger anthology comics that never got off the ground and the third was intended for a Loser City magazine that kind of dissolved once we got the website running. So, to answer your question… I guess it goes back to 2010, when the first story was pitched and written?

The idea of putting these three stories in one package came in the fall of last year, when I got the urge to create the comics version of an EP, just a short-but-strong release. Music is a big part of Loser City; for the comics, we try to go for an “album” aesthetic as opposed to a “comic book” aesthetic — you can see it in the gonzo-ass cover of Kids Rule!!, for one thing.

Exclamation points vary depending on what my power levels are at a given moment.

Steve: How did you meet and pitch them all on the stories? What about their style made you want to work with them?

Danny: The first story, “New Wave Cthulhu,” was inspired by the Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” which has at least one lyric that suggests Ric Ocasek is gonna murder a girl (“I needed someone to bleed”). CJ and I were trying to work on something for a little bit, and when the original artist of this anthology submission dropped off the face of the earth, I had a story that fit in with CJ’s excellent linework and horror comic pulpiness. And he can make really distinct human characters as well as monsters. We’re working on a one-shot that will further show this off.

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“No City Above” is the oldest story of the three, a dystopian sci-fi thing where bright colors only exist on television and the denizens of a domed city believe there’s a much nicer city built above their roof. With Zak, we were (arbitrarily?) paired together by the editor of the original anthology, but he’s since become a friend and we really want to work together on something new — he’s got a really distinct, playful style but can pull off some horrifying shit when you least expect it.

The story languished for a few years until I had this idea for the EP, and after that I hit up Marissa Louise, who I had recently met at a convention, to color the thing. Her bright coloring style appealed to me, and she really impressed me with what she brought to “No City Above.” She rules.

The third, “No New Movies,” is the most art-y thing I’ve ever done. It’s kind of a Drake fan-comic, but also a thing about aesthetics and our existence as beings with a sense of sight? Also I was partially inspired by my boy Geoffrey’s blog post about Drake as “a harmful parapersonality” — this idea of living your life based on emulating the stuff you’ve seen in the past. It’s not so much about Scarface as it is about “Scarface as a how-to guide.” So, it’s about New Jack City.

AJ drew that one and, dude’s gonna be huge when people find out about him. I gotta get something new poppin’ off with him A$AP.

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Art by AJ Bernardo

Steve: His work stands out particularly, with a really striking sense of colour, design, and sequencing. How do you find the collaboration process? Do you really nail down ideas in a script, or do you try to leave as much space as possible for the artist to experiment and play around with the story?

Danny: There’s nothing worse in comics than boring scripting, where the writer isn’t really thinking about how the finished page is gonna look, or that the art might be making some of their dialogue superfluous. These days I make comics by thumbnailing the entire story before writing a single “Page 1, Panel 1.” But I also open my scripts by telling an artist, “These are mostly suggestions, so if you have a better idea, let’s talk about it.”

AJ’s story is a good example of that. I came to AJ with the script — “an art-crime type thing,” as I pitched it to him — along with spot coloring ideas and a handful of references: Sohgo Ishii’s Otomo-based short Shuffle, New Jack City, and a Drake video. And his interpretation of all that blew me away.

Like, check it — there was a sequence where I wanted to do a Wolfenstein 3D thing, where every action panel had an inset panel of the main character’s face looking increasingly pained and damaged. AJ decided to do one better by drawing two beautifully frenzied 24-panel pages that convey the same idea, including the Wolfenstein effect. And, surprising no one, it looked WAY better. I loved it.

So here’s my method to writing comics — indulge your egomania, but then let your collaborators in. I love going back and forth on how to pull off a page. I love lettering a comic after the art is done to get the words to fit better. Every aspect of the process should be in dialogue with one another. Get that assembly line shit outta here.

Steve: How did you decide on the order of the three stories – was ‘No New Movies’ always to be the one that concluded the collection, or did you play around with them until you found a rhythm which appealed to you?

Danny: I watch too much pro wrestling, so I think of it in terms of arranging a good event card. You want a cool-down match before the main event or it’s gonna be too much for a viewer to handle. In wrestling, this translates to “do something lame and half-assed,” but the stories in Kids Rule!!!!!!!!! are all bangers, so I looked at the visual styles to properly sequence them.

“No New Movies” was the most distinct and punchiest, so that had to be the last one. “New Wave Cthulhu” has the easiest hook — Lovecraft with shoulder pads — that needed to be the first one. “No City Above” has the brightest colors and a more positive feel, so it’s a good fit to separate the dark horror story and the black and white crime thing.

None of these stories are particularly cheery, now that I think about it.

Steve: This is all quite the departure from your last work, the long-running webcomic ‘The Ghost Engine’ with Eric Zawadzki. Having completed that run, was this a deliberate move to a shorter-form series of stories? Did you want to turn and try something completely counter to your previous work?

Danny: The Ghost Engine was the first major comics work I ever did, and was very much me trying to figure out who I am as a writer. I still am — I ALWAYS AM — but I believe I have a better idea now than I did back then. These stories weren’t made to run counter to that stuff, I just think they have a different function and context and means of production. It was also something we intended to be a very ”Image Comics” type release, so it was tailored to a certain aesthetic and audience where these stories are not.

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From The Ghost Engine

Which isn’t to knock The Ghost Engine – I still think it’s entertaining and I’m really fond of the character work I did there, as well as Eric’s expressive art. We’re gonna be selling a print and digital collection of it soon through Loser City, but Eric Z and I are also working on a new thing that better reflects who we are but also feels like The Ghost Engine in some ways. When we work together we work a certain way. It’s like being in a band and doing side projects.

And I’d hate to do a bunch of comics that all felt the same, y’know? Some cats pretend to look versatile by doing weak shit in a bunch of different genres, but I want to adapt to each story.

Steve: How have you found writing to that length? These stories are all around ten or so pages each. Is it difficult to compress a story, or do you actually prefer the shorter space?

Danny: Making short stories is a good way to “hone your craft” regardless of medium. And, in comics, where nobody is ever going to publish your thick-ass graphic novel, it’s a realistic short-term goal. It allows me to make a bunch of stories with a variety of artists and work in spaces / genres / modes I might not want to spend extended amounts of time in.

I love the challenge of compression. I lived through the mid-2000s where you paid $2.50 for 22 pages of a dude putting on his pants, so many of my favorite stories are the ones where a ton of shit happens. Let’s not waste anybody’s time — mine, the artist’s, or the reader’s. “Days of Future Past” was only two issues and it’s one of the most influential cape books of all time. The first couple volumes of Casanova ran 16 pages per issue, not that you’d ever notice. I’ve read Final Crisis more times than some people have friends, and there’s enough content in that book to fill five years of regular folk’s comics.

These three stories in Kids Rule! were ones I could successfully keep at that length. I’ve got a couple that were meant to be shorts but I had to expand to one-shots to let the action breathe or to keep the story from feeling rushed.

Steve: There are hints of 2000AD at times (it’s hard not to make that comparison when talking about comics featuring short, hyper-compressed bursts of sci-fi) but for the most part, it seems you’re explicitly looking to draw influence from other mediums – music and film most notably. Is that a fair assessment?

Danny: Word. I feel like I’ve read too many western mainstream comics, so I have a tendency to look toward literally any other medium and bring in influence from there instead of the well that others writers go to. I’m not looking forward to the grip of creator-owned True Detective knockoffs we can expect next year. I want to bring something to the table besides Frank Miller and Alan Moore.

And a lot of the stuff I’ve been working on lately has been produced like, I dunno, a college research paper or something. So I’ll come to a project with a shortlist of items I’m playing off of — a couple movies, a bunch of songs, maybe a manga or something, the occasional REAL BOOK. Not in a Tarantino way, though — I use that stuff as guidelines.

Music is essential, too. It’s what’s going into my ears as I write. Not to get all Fauxnogram, but so much of my writing is a type of alchemy, trying to transmute sounds and its ensuing feelings into comics.

Steve: This isn’t the first release from Loser City, is it? You’ve previously released a collection of your work with Mike Prezzato?

Danny: Correct, the first release was Hurlants, which has some more clear 2000AD inspiration. That’s how Mike P and I got together, actually — he was looking for someone to write 2000AD type sci-fi shorts for him to draw and I was the only person who actually understood that concept. Hurlants is a black-and-white anthology of every garage comic we did from 2009 to 2013 — five in total. They’re fun, goofy shit, and you can very clearly track our progression as creators. And it’s got liner notes where Mike and I look back and comment on our old stories.

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Artwork from Hurlants

And yes, I am fully aware of the absurdity of kicking off a hot new publishing venture by dropping a B-sides collection from people you’ve never heard of. WELCOME TO THE AGE OF INSTANT NOSTALGIA

Steve: What are your goals for the branding over the next few years or so? Do you have any other projects in the works right now?

Danny: We’ve got a couple more books slated for the coming months. I already mentioned a print and digital collection of The Ghost Engine (with a brand-new, exclusive epilogue story!). Mike P and I are working on a more longform comic called Omega Boys, which is basically “David Cronenberg’s X-Men,” set in the early 1980s. And — I’m turnt up for this one — I’ve got a futuristic roller derby manga one-shot that’s currently being drawn by Diana Naneva. It’s called Final Derby.

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First look: Diana Naneva’s art for ‘Roller Derby’

As far as long-term goals, I want to hopefully put out a couple things that I wasn’t directly involved in as a creator. That might be my reach exceeding my grasp, but I’d at least like to get some more one-page comics by people that aren’t me. There’s another short anthology at the zygote stage that should feature a variety of creators.

On a more tangible note, we’ll be tabling at Rose City Comic Con (September 21-22), so if you’re in Portland, please give us money.

Steve: Where else can people find you online? What else are you up to?

Danny: Loser City’s cosy little place on the net is loser-city.com, but my Twitter is @djeljosevic and my Tumblr is djeljosevic.tumblr.com.

Outside of all that, I shoot a weekly video update for my local shop, Southern California Comics, where I tend to ramble about the latest releases.

I’m easily googled… not that I’d recommend it.

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