Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly are the writers behind the Vault Comic series Zojaqan, a time-bending fantasy epic, with artist Nathan Gooden. They’re also the co-writers behind the upcoming Vault Comic series Dark One, co-written by legendary fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, with art by Gooden . I sat down with Jackson and Collin at Emerald City Comic Con to talk all things Zojaqan and Dark One.
Tim: Zojaqan was an early Vault release. What made you want to go with a newly formed publisher?
Jackson: Because they were the kind of people who would publish Zojaqan. It’s a weird book. I liken it a surrealist painting. We’re not necessarily interested in explaining terms on that book. It’s about what the main character is going through and what you take from that. You decide what the answers are. You decide what those questions are. The book is very much designed to let you experience it emotionally, not logically. That’s not a thing that would be an easy sell at any of the major publishers. We know that. We’ve worked in comics long enough to know. Especially because we mostly do a lot of pop and superhero stuff, stuff that’s more accessible, that if we were to do something weird and inaccessible, it either meant we were doing it at Image with a mad financial risk on something that we knew wasn’t gonna have return. Or we could tell the story somewhere that wanted to do a book like that and wanted to work with us. At the time, Vault was newly formed.
Collin: At the time we wanted to approach it… We wanted to see how closely we could make comics into a tone poem. We’re exploring topics that are really intense, really mature, and really emotional. We didn’t want to be prescriptive. We wanted to create a meditation on a concept. At Vault, there’s a whole bunch of PHD’s behind these guys. They’re a smart group of gentlemen, not just from a publishing perspective, but genuinely as humans. That’s what got them credit, doing something that challenges the reader to engage emotionally and intellectually.
Jackson: What was great is that they already had Nathan Gooden, who was doing art direction already for them. He’s a member of the family. He’s part of the Vault organization. The first time we met Vault, we saw him sitting there sketching and literally, I was like “I’m doing a book with you.” His work was already amazing and he was just getting started. Really with Nathan because we were getting him at the beginning of his career, which I think is going to be a long one, we were able to step up and say, “Here’s a bunch of really challenging concepts and page layouts. Characters and designs. This is your place to cut your teeth. We’re gonna give you a giant canvas to do that.” Because he was already in the Vault organization, that was an easy sell for them. It was nice and it all kind of worked synergistically, so that we could make a singular book like Zojaqan at a place that would really support that singular vision.
Tim: The two of you have been writing partners for some time now. Can you elaborate on your working process.
Collin: Absolutely. It always starts with the kernel of an idea, wherever that might be coming from. We then start interrogating it. Externally what that looks like is two dudes yelling at each other for hours and hours. Getting incredibly heated. Getting incredibly passionate. Getting incredibly personal as we start to really interrogate and rip concepts apart to find what it is that each of us is driven by, until we find that rock bottom core, where it’s like, “I FINALLY UNDERSTAND YOUR PERSPECTIVE.” “I ALSO UNDERSTAND YOUR PERSPECTIVE.” From that point, it’s an amazing idea, that essentially locks into place. We take it to outline.
Jackson: Once we’re doing pages, the system is pretty much identical every time. We write an outline. That outline is generally done by one of us after all that argument. It’s supposed to reflect that argument. If it doesn’t, the other will come in and do a pass on that to make it reflect on that. We’ll keep each other honest and have an outline that supports what we’re doing. It could be a really dense outline for the right kind of thing, or for something like Zojaqan, it can be relatively light. We’ll then take that outline and we’ll split it up into manageable chunks.
For any given 22-page issue of Green Arrow, say, each of us will take 11 pages and we’ll do those 11 pages. We’ll generally split the book right in the middle. We’ll ask each other what we’re more interested in writing. “Would you rather do the fight scene up front or the character stuff in the back?” We’ll always have a different answer. Sometimes, we trade off who gets first dibs. We’ll sort of figure that out. There’s always something good. It’s never like, “I got stuck with the bad pages.”
Collin: If there are bad pages, there’s already been a problem.
Jackson: Right. If one of us really doesn’t want to write something, then we’ve fucked up. The process for us then becomes how we do that. We sit down and either write together or separately to get those pages done. We have day jobs. We don’t write all day. We are able to write because we have a disciplined schedule that allows us to write outside of work hours.
Collin: Every Thursday night and every Sunday all day for the last 11 years.
Jackson: It works. But it’s a process. So what we do along that way is come back together and we say, “Okay, here’s what I like about your pages.” I’ll read over his pages and I might change a few words or lines I don’t like. He’ll do the same thing to me and then we’ll share them back and combine them. If there’s really anything like, “I really liked the line before,” we talk about it and interrogate individual ideas. Then we’ll have a draft. It’s a lot like the process a normal writer goes through: outline, write, rewrite. It’s more externally.
Collin: Exactly. Rather than staring at a mirror in your own eyes like, “You’re terrible. You’re the worst!,” you have someone else sitting next to you to do that. It’s delightful. I think the key, which I was thinking about recently, the key is… This is a really good point. Hold on.
Jackson: I believe in you.
Collin: It’s so early. Man. I guess I don’t remember.
Jackson: There is no key to it.
Collin: I’m gonna come back to it and I’ll remember.
Tim: Zojaqan has been out for nearly two years now. When should we expect the movie announcement?
Jackson: (Laughs) Ask Vault? I don’t know. So, A) I think Zojaqan has only been out for a year. B) Zojaqan #1 has been out for two years. The trade’s only been out for one year, since we launched the trade at Emerald City last year. But, here’s the thing with Zojaqan. It wasn’t designed to be a movie. We try never to design our comics to be movies or television. If it happens, it happens. But we write movies. More money in our world comes from writing movies. We love that. It’s its own challenge and set of circumstances. The reason we do comics is to free ourselves from the constraint of the Hollywood engine. When you work in movies, you start to make a lot of assumptions about what you can and cannot do. Coming to comics is like freeing yourself from budget and also freeing yourself from your first reader being a dude in a suit in the 30th floor of CAA. This is a really different world and it lets you tell freer stories. Which to us is a giant buzz. We just love that. I would love to see Zojaqan become a movie. I think it would make a gorgeous beautiful weird fantasy movie.
Collin: If Ava Duvernay and Jim Henson Studios want to get together and make Zojaqan as a film, they will get all the money in the universe. They will blow everyone’s minds.
Jackson: But also the point of that is it has be someone of Shannon’s experience. Frankly, we’re two straight white guys who wrote a story about a 40-year-old black woman, who has gone through her own experience falling into this fantasy world. Now, we can represent the fantasy world all day long. We came up with that. That’s ours. Her experience, her lived experience, we dig into in Zojaqan in a more humanist way, but when you make that a film, it becomes specific. You’re going to want somebody from that culture, from that understanding to be telling that story. What we hope is that a really great woman of color comes in to direct this thing. That we get a really great star who wants to inject her own personality into Shannon. I hope Zojaqan, as a movie, is a huge evolution on what Zojaqan is as a comic. The comic operates as an abstract, but which they can interrogate some new ideas. That’s what I hope about a Zojaqan film. Which means we’re not in a rush to do it. I’m sure the right person will come along at the right time. I believe in it. But I’m not rushing forward with it.
Tim: Switching gears to Dark One, how did you both get set up with Brandon Sanderson?
Jackson: I was standing right there. (Points to the con floor) Right there.
Collin: Which is on the corner of the booth.
Jackson: Right. Audio. I was standing here at Emerald City Comic Con, which is Collin’s wedding anniversary.
Jackson: So, he doesn’t show up every year. I try to show up every year, so one of is here. I was here last year because I was getting married and I was like “I need some extra cash.” So I came up to Damien and I said, “Just so you know, I’m getting married this year. Collin and I don’t have a lot of books coming out right now. We have stuff next year, but I’d love to figure out something to do with you guys in the short term, if you have anything that’s sitting around.” He goes, “Well we do, but it’s not short term.” I was like, “Well maybe not then.” He goes, “Yeah, but have you heard of Brandon Sanderson?” “Yeah, dude, I have very much heard of Brandon Sanderson.” He’s like, “Well we’re talking to him about a thing and he’s here at the show. I know he liked Zojaqan, so if you’d like, we could put you in a room and you could talk to him about what we’re doing.” I was like, “…”
Within a couple of hours, I was sitting across the table from Brandon Sanderson. It was as simple as that. He and Nathan Gooden, the artist from Zojaqan and the artist on Dark One, sat down and talked about it. It was clear from the get go we had a similar idea of how to make this happen. It wasn’t the first time that Collin and I have come in and worked with a more powerful creator on something, by which I mean somebody who can leverage readers and money. We did it with Alyssa Milano on Hacktivist. We do it in movies all the time. This was a chance to do it with Brandon which was a really exciting opportunity.
Collin: I think to Brandon’s credit, even though he is this amazing world-builder and writer, he realizes that comics is a different medium. He understood his own limitations and was like, “I need to bring in people. Not only Vault as a publisher, but I need creators who speak this language and can help me execute my vision in this space so it’s not just a visualized novel.” That’s not what we do. To his credit, he’s awesome. He is one of the best collaborators we’ve ever worked with. His story sense is obviously impeccable, but he also gets what we’re throwing down. Even when we deviate or change things, he sees our approach and what we’re trying to do and he understands the value of it and he gets excited.
Jackson: He has been extremely supportive. To back up a second, Dark One is not an adaptation of a Brandon Sanderson novel. Which is what other Brandon Sanderson comics up until now have been. Dark One is a whole new story. It is not connected to Cosmere. It is its own thing. We are starting from scratch and getting to create a fantasy world with Brandon Sanderson. It’s created by Brandon; we’re not creating this universe. What we’re creating are the moment to moment story beats that exist inside this universe. We came in and there was this really robust outline of what Brandon wants this to be in many mediums. Dark One doesn’t stop at comics. It starts there.
For us, how do we make the best damn fantasy graphic novel anybody’s read around. How can I just make the book that when you want a fantasy graphic novel, you want to pick up Dark One? It starts with Nathan and he’s just incredible. This book is going to show people more than Zojaqan did what a future talent he is. It’s also a chance to learn how Brandon does his work and learn how to service the kind of stories that he tells and bring our special energy into the material.
Collin: I think one of the things we’ve really been able to bring to it is a really humanist story. It’s a story of this young man, who’s always doubted the world around him, who doesn’t know where he fits in. He doesn’t understand what his own brain is telling him a lot of times. I feel we can all relate to that. Sometimes you’re just like, “I have a bad brain.” It comes through a journey of self-discovery that sometimes your bad brain is not necessarily a burden but a matter of perspective. Being able to write a fundamentally humanist story about understanding yourself, that’s the core that we were kind of able to inject and bring into this that just sits beautifully in the center of Brandon’s utterly awesome fantasy world.
Tim: You kind of touched on it, but how is co-writing a graphic novel world which is simultaneously being adapted to other media as well?
Jackson: Again, surprisingly easy. It could be very complicated if there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen and everybody wanted to have their say, but to Brandon’s enormous credit, he and his amazing team have done the opposite of that. They have stayed out of the process except when they are needed. They’re dealing with TV and the bigger side of this. They have the mountain. We have a pebble. But they’re letting the pebble be. And just supporting the decisions that are being made and helping us make it as good as possible. They set a great road map so it wasn’t like we were flying blind at all. We took that road map and turned it into a 30 page outline. Our outline was extremely robust on this thing because we had to tell Brandon every scene. But once he approved it, he approved it. He didn’t change his mind. He stuck to his guns and has continued to stick to his guns through the process.
Collin: It’s been really interesting because we also come from film and television, so there’s some red flags that we pinged even in the conceptualization, where we’re like, “Look, this is a great idea, but logistically that character is going to be very difficult to pull off or that concept is going to be really hard for TV.” Which was great because we could kind of blend that perspective at the start. To his credit, he stepped back, thought about it, and reconceptualized. He was like, “How about this?” Which was fucking awesome. He is obviously precious and protective of his concept.
Jackson: As he should be.
Collin: But he understands that everything needs to flex and grow. Because we have the momentum, essentially the comic is the pole position, we get to take the lead on a lot of concepts. Like the three of us get to take the lead on these concepts where Hollywood needs to start getting its own little ideas in. We love you Hollywood. But being able once again, like with Zojaqan, in comics you can tell the story as it was meant to be told.