An old, shady NSA agent creeps in on a young, adventurous and curious woman one night, asking her if she wants to help keep the biggest conspiracies in the world a secret. Elsewhere, a man who hasn’t slept in a decade recruits an ex-cop to solve a psychedelic murder mystery.
These universes can be found in Deep State and John Flood, two BOOM! Studios-published comics from Pennsylvania-based writer Justin Jordan, with respective art from Ariela Kristantina and Jorge Coelho.
“[Boom!] has been a good working relationship,” said Jordan via Skype interview. “The two books I’ve done for them so far are exactly what I wanted.”
CONSPIRACY THEORIES ABOUND IN DEEP STATE
Deep State, which hit comic book retailers in Nov. 2014 and concluded with its eighth issue in Jul. 2015, is a detective story about the duo of an older National Security Agency agent named Harrow and a younger woman named Branch. There is a distinct similarity between Deep State and The X-Files, which Justin said is a fair comparison. It’s not entirely derivative, however. Whenever Jordan was thinking of the logistics of conspiracy theories and how they would have been hidden, he came up with the concept that turned into Deep State:
“What if you did something that was essentially The X-Files except the heroes weren’t trying to reveal the truth, they were trying to conceal it?”
The series deals with numerous fictionalized versions of famous conspiracy theories, like the moon landing and the JFK assassination.
“I like conspiracy theories, but they are very rarely even vaguely plausible,” said Jordan.
Rather than a passionate belief in their accuracy, Jordan just finds the phenomena of conspiracy theories interesting.
“If you buy into a conspiracy theory, you think you know something that other people don’t and it kind of puts you ahead,” said Jordan. “I think there is a certain rush to having forbidden knowledge.”
The book features artwork from Ariela Kristantina, an artist from Indonesia with a portfolio of work available here.
“Ariela and I have been friends before we started working on the book, and she was my first choice,” said Jordan. “I was lucky to get her.”
Kristantina’s art is scratchy, twisted, and violent, with dark, contrasting colors from Ben Wilsonham.
“I think so far my work has been known, or at least people have told me, for its grittiness,” said Kristantina.
The feeling is mutual for Kristantina and Jordan.
“Justin is able to see things from a different perspective and it makes sense,” said Kristantina in regards to his conspiracy theory-laden plot.
One aspect of the story that Kristantina really likes is the characters.
“When I got each script, because I got each script one by one every month, after reading them and before I drew it, I always wanted to ask Justin, ‘Hey, can I read the next script?’” said Kristantina. “I wanted to know what was going to happen with the characters.”
Setting the ages for the two protagonists was an important, intentional decision.
“I wanted to work in the dynamic of young versus old, which is sort of a recurring theme in the book,” said Jordan.
Even though the thematic underpinnings gets “upended and changed by the end,” the two characters serve as separate, opposing symbols, Jordan explained.
“Branch represents kind of an aspect of chaos, and the youth,” said Jordan. “Harrow kind of represents the old guard: order and stability and stuff.”
The real life version of Harrow’s fictional employers, the NSA, have been under public scrutiny after Edward Snowden’s leaks of government documents through journalists like Glenn Greenwald. The revelations failed to surprise Jordan, he explained.
“I have a fairly solid belief that if technology exists, it will be used,” said Jordan. “Unless we actively act against it, we will come up with excuses to use any technology we have.”
Despite this, the NSA’s spying programs don’t concern Jordan much.
“Even if we legislate against it, it’s probably still going to get used, and I don’t think that even makes me particularly paranoid,” said Jordan. “I also think that in the cases of 99.99999% of people it doesn’t matter at all.”
The book ended with four fewer issues than Jordan originally planned because of poor sales, he explained. He didn’t get to do the story at the length he wanted, but it wasn’t all bad.
“It was kind of a bummer, but I did get to tell the story I wanted, just in a truncated form,” said Jordan.
Also, he still got positive reception.
“I had an awful lot of people contact me online and tell me at conventions that they really wanted the book, and it just wasn’t getting stocked,” said Jordan.
Comic Book Resources writer Marykate Jasper gave the first issue a 3.5/5, saying “[i]t’s intelligent and undeniably well-done,” but that it lacked in characterization. Adventures in Poor Taste writer Nick Nafpliotis gave the final issue an 8/10, concluding his review by saying the following:
“Whether Deep State gets a second season or not (and it should), congratulations to the creative team on a job well done. You definitely won me over.”
SLEEP-DEPRIVATION AND SERIAL MURDER DEFINE JOHN FLOOD
John Flood is a monthly, six-issue mini-series that debuted on August 5, 2015. It’s about a man, John Flood, who is able to stay away at all times thanks to some mysterious government experimentation. The main plot sees him using this ability to dive into a deep investigation of a series of serial murders, recruiting an ex-cop named Alexander Berry with another mysterious past to help.
Jordan’s personal struggles with insomnia inspired him in his writing of John Flood.
“I had the misfortune one time of being up for three days and then deciding to watch Terry Gilliam’s version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” said Jordan. “Which proved to be a bad idea.”
Having dealt with insomnia most of his life, something he has mostly beaten now, he knows what it’s like when things get loopy after too long.
“You get a little weird and whippy if you stay up too long,” said Jordan.
Using the same part of his mind that whips up justifications for ludicrous conspiracy theories, Jordan explained he wanted to think of what could be done to the brain to keep it fully awake.
“What I ultimately came up with in a story sense is this idea that the only way to make that happen would free your brain to constantly be in some sort of REM state,” said Jordan. “So you’re only kind of obliquely interacting with reality, as it exists.”
This all plays into the often psychedelic aesthetic of John Flood, complete with wavy, colorful and abstract imagery from Flood’s perspective. It’s sort of like Jordan’s watching of the average David Lynch film, which he said influenced his writing.
“David Lynch’s films, not all of them but many of them, have this weird habit, at least for me, of making perfect sense while I’m watching them and then become completely inexplicable when I’m done,” said Jordan.
Flood wouldn’t be a pleasant guy to be around in real life so Jordan went to great lengths to make him more palatable.
“Berry’s there largely to serve as kind of an anchoring and counterpoint to Flood. Flood is kind of an irritating guy, which is one of the trickiest bits of writing it,” said Jordan. “Getting across that he is irritating to the other characters without necessarily making him too irritating to the audience.”
This is something particularly hard to do with the medium of comics, according to Jordan. He talked about how someone like the main character of the television show House is similarly bothersome, but it’s made enjoyable for the audience because of entertaining acting.
“Thankfully I got Jorge Coelho onboard and [colorist] Tamra Bonvillain, between the two of them the actually goes a long way to making Flood a lot more personable than he probably would be if you had to actually be present for it,” said Jordan.
Because Coelho lives in Portugal, Jordan has only been with him in person a few times, but the two have known each other online for five to six years, he said.
“I like Jorge’s ability to portray the weird well. He’s got sort of a vast range, and his art doesn’t look like anyone else’s,” said Jordan.
The connection between Jordan and Coelho didn’t stop at their personal interactions. Coelho has worked in the past with Tradd Moore, author of Jordan’s Image Comics series Luther Strode, on a project called Brand New Nostalgia, an online collection of work from various artists.
Coelho enjoys just about every aspect of John Flood.
“John Flood is an awesome character, the supporting cast is great, the action is very well-paced, and there’s a nice balance between the grim stuff and fun stuff,” said Coelho via email interview. “I love its craziness. I also like the way in which, with just a few lines, Justin can convey A LOT.”
Doing the art for John Flood is fun for him, but it’s also a challenge.
“The dream state John Flood lives in has been a particular challenge for me to show an ever-changing point-of-view,” said Coelho.
The very act of drawing comics is something he identifies as difficult as well.
“Making comics is hard; I can’t think of another art discipline that requires so much effort in such a consistent, speedy fashion,” said Coelho.
Despite all of that, Coelho is certainly doing work that Jordan is pleased with. What Jordan described as his most exciting moment working on this book is when he got the art for the upcoming fourth issue, containing a “hellscape dreamland” from Flood’s perspective.
The group is doing work that readers are happy with too. The first issue received positive reviews from Newsarama, IGN Comics, Comic Book Resources, and more. Matt Little of CBR gave the first issue a 4.5/5, calling it “a great first issue of a book.”
“[The response] has been really great,” said Jordan. “Better than I expected.”
BOOM! STUDIOS PROVIDES AN ACCOMMODATING, COMFORTABLE RELATIONSHIP FOR THESE CREATORS
While he’d like to do more superhero comics in the future, Jordan is happy to be doing creator-owned work. When it comes to picking a publisher, BOOM! is an attractive choice.
“They allow me to put out books that would be difficult to get out elsewhere,” said Jordan.
Putting books out through Image Comics, the largest comic book publisher below the big two of DC Comics and Marvel Comics, has its own unique challenges, according to Jordan.
“Image is entirely a back-end proposition, which means I don’t get paid, the artist doesn’t get paid, nobody gets paid until two months after the issue in question,” said Jordan.
It’s a fact confirmed on the FAQ of Image Comics’ website.
“When the creator does finally get paid, they get paid on what their book makes after the cost of printing and Image’s modest office fee, which covers solicitations, traffic, production, and some promotion of the book. We make no more money off of our highest selling book than we do our lowest,” reads the FAQ page.
Essentially, Image Comics is offering better monetary reward for creators willing to take a financial risk.
“I have to be real confident a project is going to make a lot of money to even try and take it to Image, because otherwise, I’m asking an artist to do a lot of work without any promise of pay,” said Jordan.
It isn’t something that concerns Jordan too much personally, but he feels for artists pitching work to Image Comics, he explained.
“I don’t mind doing it because I can work on five or six things. If two or three of them don’t make me any money, that’s just time. I’m still making a living, I still have a roof over my head,” said Jordan. “If you’re an artist who has to spent your entire working time on something and it doesn’t pay you on the back and, then you’re fucked.”
Kristantina and Coelho both have nice things to say about BOOM! as well.
“They’re really responsive. If I’m sending them questions, they’re always there,” said Kristantina. “I can even call them… they’re really easy to communicate with.”
The working relationship with the editors at Boom! is the best Coelho has ever had, he said.
“I can talk to them freely and my questions will always be answered – of course, that may also be because I’ve worked with them the most out of any publisher. But they’re genuinely great people and that helps A LOT,” he said.