This past week I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacob Semahn, the writer on the upcoming supernatural mystery series Goners from Image Comics. Before working on Goners, Semahn was a producer on American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. He is currently working in animation for Man of Action and has written screenplays for Marvel’s Avengers Assemble and Ultimate Spider-Man shows. The basic premise of Goners (from the Image Comics solicit) is a “bold new historical fantasy mystery about a very peculiar family, the Latimer Family, who have been humanity’s lone defense against paranormal assault throughout history”.
Sound on Sight: What got you interested in the comics medium? What was the first comic that you remember reading?
Jacob Semahn: The first comic I ever read was Infinity War #1. I picked it up at 7/11 when I was a kid. I think I might have been nine, maybe eight. It was on the spinner racks when they used to have those. And it had all the heroes on the cover. They were all surrounded by Adam Warlock. And I remember being into that idea that you could all your heroes in one comic, and it was really cool as a kid to see all those icons. I picked it up for that reason and got hooked after that and started reading a bunch of stuff after that. It was the era of Valiant and Image starting so I read a lot of that.
SoS: It’s kind of cool that you’re writing for the company that you liked when you were younger.
Semahn: Yeah, I remember I got into McFarlane on Spider-Man. And when he started doing Spawn for Image, I followed over for that. I read Liefeld’s Youngblood and all that kind of stuff. That was the year they moved over to Image, and that was my time to actually start reading comics. It was a really weird coincidence. I also worked in a comics shop from high school to a year after college.
SoS: I did a little online research and saw that you had an interesting background in TV, like producing American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance and also some animation. How did these experiences shape you as a comics writer?
Semahn: Well, animation would be the easiest tether to make a connection to. With animation, you’re writing for bigger audience. You’re writing for kids as well as adults. It’s kind of one of those things where you have to learn the road map of how to tell a story. Every episode of a Marvel show has a theme and a story concept. You have to fill in an ABC story with act breaks, teasers etc. That would be the easiest connection to how it informs my story telling in comics, but for producing Idol and SYTYCD , it helped with being organized. It’s a more difficult process than I assumed at first of writing an independent comic book because you have to herd everything. You have to herd all the talent together. You have to make a deadline spreadsheet and keep open lines of communication with everyone. And then you have to work out the contracts. I learned how to do these things in my years working on these shows. That helps in being organized, and animation helped in the actual creative side of things.
SoS: So you’re a writer with Man of Action, and they’ve created a lot of kid friendly stuff, like Ben 10 and Generator Rex. But their comics are more for adults, like Sex and The Bounce. How does your creative process change from doing more all ages work , like Avengers Assemble, to more adult work?
Semahn: It’s definitely different. It’s one of those things where I’m a child of the 80s. I grew on Monster Squad and The Goonies, and while those things were PG-13, they were very adult and had real threats to kids. Nowadays, you can’t really have that. You have to tone down the aggression towards children. If you have that kind of aspect to your film or TV show, it will usually make the threat not as deadly. Though we’re stepping away from that with Harry Potter, which is great. But for a while, there were kinds of villains that were kind of “feeble”. But now we’re getting back to that 80s mentality where kids have to become the hero and save the day. Working in cartoons, you still have that fine line of answering to other people and answering to shareholders of these properties. You definitely have to work towards the numbers, and with that, you have to play a little bit on the safer side. It can’t be as explicit as what you want to do. With comic books, especially this one for Image, it’s ours, and we can do whatever we want with it. We definitely approach that line that’s a little more threatening, like Harry Potter and the old 80s stuff.
Semahn: What they should expect from Goners is an escalation. It starts off as a very deep mystery. I don’t want the audience to be any step ahead of the characters. I want the characters to find what’s exactly going on with the audience. It’s going to be a bit of a slow mystery for the first couple issue, and then the rest is going to be a thrill ride of these kids uncovering deep seated, sins of the father type, family history. They’re not going to be the same after that .It’s going to be a little different. I wanted the mystery to have an explosive world of impact, but it comes from a family. It comes from these kids who trusted their parents, and they realized what they knew as a child, and what the world knew about them as celebrities has spun on their head a little bit. It will have a lot of impact on this family, and they either have to stick together and follow this legacy or make their own path.
SoS: Since you’re obviously not a kid any more, how do you get in their mindset while writing them in Goners?
Semahn: I remember so vividly what it was like being a kid. I remember how it felt and how dumb the things I would say and think would be. Everything was so dramatic. When you’re a kid, everything is world ending no matter how big or small it is. I remember all those things and am truthful with how I felt. And that’s how it informs my characters. I definitely go into a world where you’re on the run, but any moment a light switch could flip on in your head, and you’re thinking, “Oh my God. My parents are dead” or “This happened to me”. And then you’re hit immediately with sorrow and sadness. I remember having elements of that when I was kid, like when I moved to a different state. It was fine, but then in the middle of driving to that other state, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was never going to see my friends again. It was end of the world dramatic. Of course, you’re going to see your friends again. It might be years later, but you’ll see them again. It was very sad; hot and cold with no warm in between.
SoS: It’s cool that you still have those memories. From what I’ve read about Goners, it mixes horror, mystery, and reality TV. How did you mix these vast differently things together in one comic?
Semahn: I’ll admit that the reality TV will be more important in later stories. But for now, I just wanted to get the stage set for the world. I want it to be a public display of this family because they’re celebrities, and right now, the easiest way to be a celebrity without being a movie star or creative type is to have a reality show. And I feel that in this day and age (even though the world is a little atemporal) that we make celebrities out of reality stars. I feel you can be a house flipper, an interior decorator, a plumber, or chef and have your own reality show and be entertaining. I figured that having a family doing this over the centuries and then having to make money, I feel like this is how you make money. You do your job, which is saving the world and investigating things that go bump in the night, and also have it being filmed so people can see what you’re doing, and you can make money off that. It was the easiest way for them to be working class, entertainers, and save the world. That’s why I chose the reality television slant. It’s more of a horror comic than anything else because the reality television mainly followed the parents, and the rest of the story follows the kids on the run.
SoS: Right now, there are a lot of supernatural and horror TV shows and comics, like Sabrina and
Semahn: What sets Goners apart from everything else is that it’s a return to the world of kids in over their heads. You can have adults in over their heads, but at the same time, adults are capable of more complex thinking and not so raw and emotional. A kid is very, like I said earlier, end of the world. There are lots of thing they’re not able to process. The threats are a little bigger and more grandiose, and they have to make their own way and grow up quickly to save the day. They’re the ones who can save the world. It’s not adults or hunters, like in Supernatural, who get to drive around the country and do their own thing. This is kids trying to find out what life is like outside their celebrity bubble. They’ve been homeschooled, and all of a sudden, they have to be out in the real world interacting with people. They’re very famous and are being tracked down by paparazzi as well as monsters. They’re really being hunted by everything. Zoe and Josiah are 12 and 17 respectively, and they have to grow up without their parents now. It’s more of a Monster Squad type feel where they have to survive while figuring out the next step in growing up and becoming an adult.
SoS: That sounds unique. So what kind of research did you do for the paranormal parts of Goners?
Semahn: The cool thing about Goners is that I’m delving into more obscure mythology. I’m going into indigenous, tribal mythology for a lot of the North American supernatural threats. It’s so rich and such an untapped source. I would find these out through a lot of books that I’ve been taking notes on and thinking about what would be a cool monster for these different types of environments and stories. For example, some monsters hunt for placenta fluid so it would work with a story about a baby or a pregnant woman. I keep a database of these characters, and actually our artist Jorge Corona is doing this thing called “Gonetober” and is drawing one supernatural, mythological character and putting it on Twitter with “#Gonetober”. They’re 31 characters I gave him and wanted to see drawn. He’s been doing little sketches every day and posting them. That’s where we come from. We come from a place where we want to see obscure things. We don’t want to just see vampires and werewolves all the time.
SoS: So how did you and Jorge Corona meet up and decide to do Goners together? How did you pick him to be the artist?
Semahn: I have a graphic novel coming out from Image in six months or so called Infected. It’s an semi-autobiographical graphic novel about my life as a germophobe. I’m a hardcore germophobe after almost dying in a hospital. The comic is an anthology series like Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, and I would get ten artists to draw little vignette stories. One artist was Dane Cypel, and he had gone to the Savannah College of Art and Design and told his friends to say “Hi” to me at the Man of Action booth at New York Comic Con two years ago. Jorge and some of his friends came over, and I looked at their work. I saw Jorge’s portfolio, and said, “I have something for you, but I have to tweak it a little bit.” And I sent off the script for Goners. We talked about our take on the world and how it looks. We really meshed well. All our sensibilities are similar, and this was the guy for the book. He dropped off the map for a bit when he was working on his masters classes, and then one day he turned in the entire first issue drawn and inked out of nowhere. It was like Christmas. Then, I pitched to Eric Stephenson for Image at Emerald City Comic Con this year. It’s been pretty golden. We’ve been very lucky in the timing of everything.
SoS: So we’ve talking a lot about monsters from different folklores and mythologies. What spurred your interest in these creatures? Books? Films? Comics?
Semahn: When I was a kid (and now), the biggest inspiration for me as far as monsters was Stephen King horror. I remember watching It on TV in 1991 and being terrified even though I pretend like I didn’t care. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked on horror. I remember renting these horror movies every day from Music Plus, a video store on the West Coast that went under before Blockbuster came around. You put down $99 as a deposit for a membership, and I rented horror movies. My mom plopped down money for the deposit, and every other day I would return the tape and get a new one. I went through the entire collection of horror they had there. My mom was really cool and one of those people that would look at me, and go, “You’re a kid that knows this doesn’t exist. It’s not going to warp your mind in any way.” I thank God for her every day because these films informed who I am as a writer. I’m very interested in supernatural elements in everything I do whether it’s small or big. I think part of it is that my mom let me rent all that stuff. I’m thankful for that.
Goners #1 is coming out on October 22 from Image Comics.