Monday, May 7, 2018

An interview with Ben Bequer and Joshua Hoade, authors of Blackjack: Villain

1. So, please tell us about the Blackjack series for new and prospective readers?

B: Blackjack is the story of a guy who has everything going for him yet still makes every mistake in the book. It’s not so much the story of a mustache-twirling villain as much as how easily a person can go from good to bad with just a few errant choices, and how hard it is to travel the road back from damnation.

2. I understand Blackjack was originally inspired by a roleplaying game?

B: Book one followed a similar paradigm to an RPG game that I ran for some friends using  the old Aberrant game system. In that game, my co-writer/editor Joshua Hoade played the Blackjack character in a similar fashion to what you see in the book. It was an attempt to give my players an experience that they’d never had before: to play a real villain.

3. How would you describe the main character?

B: Blackjack is a mess. He’s smart but he does dumb things, he’s well read but sometimes he’s unbelievably ignorant and he’s skilled and talented but he’s lazy and never met a short-cut he didn’t like. He’s not a villain in the traditional sense, his villainy presents itself more in a lack of dedication to the things the rest of us find important about society. In essence, he doesn’t know how to “people.” He’s also got the worst luck in the world. 

His first attempt to be a super was as a hero, trying to stop a bunch of bank robbers. Using his archery as an extension of his power, as an effort to avoid using his undetermined strength, he misjudged an explosive charge and almost killed the bank robbers. Showing up on the scene, the hero Atmosphero saw a guy with a bow, dressed in black and figured he was the bad guy, and the rest is history. Josh described Blackjack’s luck beautifully, “Blackjack’s true super power is mind control - to make people think the worst of him.”

4. I love the supporting cast, especially Apogee. How do you come up with so many colorful superheroes?

B: I’m married to Apogee, writing her is almost therapeutic. As far as the other characters, they come to us from the weirdest places. Cool Hand Luke was nothing like the original guy in the RPG game. I sat down to write him and it was like something possessed me. Now, Dr. Zundergrub was almost exactly as he was in our game - including his final betrayal. We find inspirations in a lot of other different places, including friends of ours, characters we play in our games, and even famous people. Dr. Retcon, for example, was inspired by Michael Gambon. First, his performance in the movie The Insider. It was a small role and he’s on-screen for only a couple of minutes, but it struck me how great a villain he was. Oh, and there was this interesting picture of him wearing a purple suit that seemed to speak volumes.

J: Invincible, The Boys, and The Incredibles were also big influences in crafting the world that Blackjack lives in. We wanted something lived in, a world pretty close to ours, with one huge difference. The heroes weren’t these secluded individuals. They were everywhere, doing everything. We put a lot of thought and talk into making sure the line between hero and villain was thin. 

5. Who were the inspirations for Blackjack and Apogee? Assuming they have any among the many comic book heroes and villains.

B: Well, Blackjack has a lot of qualities from a lot of different people. Josh, as I mentioned above, was the originator, but the real character is more a mixture of my worst impulses combined with a lot of the life experiences of my father. He’s a good man, and has been a great father, but I think lacking strong parental experiences himself cost him dearly - leaving him a fractured person. His life has been a struggle to heal the wound of losing his father at the age of 9, his country at the age of 17. Most of Blackjack, though, comes from my own experience, my own struggles.

Apogee isn’t just my wife, she’s also a reflection of all my experiences with my wife, all the hard lessons I’ve learned. I’m sort of exploring our relationship in a similar fashion. Apogee is probably the biggest challenge to a guy like Blackjack, a guy who’s completely unready for a serious woman, and nothing in the fourth book is as much fun as writing their story. Josh and I have had a ton of fun exploring Blackjack’s natural progression through their relationship.

And this brings another thing to mind that I think is a big factor of the Blackjack series: we take pleasure in writing the stuff that most stories seem to fast-forward. In the typical movie or book, the protagonist comes to a moment in their live where they have to change dramatically. This scene is usually done with a quick ride across the Hudson on a ferry. Cut to the next scene where the lead character comes into work with a new attitude, and everything changes. Another example is the typical Romance Comedy. 

In the first act, the guy spends his time trying to woo the love interest. In the second, they’re together and things quickly unravel (because he’s too much of a man-baby). She inevitably leaves him. Then comes the smashed third act where the lead stops smoking dope, gets a job and cleans up - leading to getting his girl back. Well, that’s not how things really work. Most books and movies don’t have the time to show how hard and slow real change comes. With Blackjack we’re able to spend time with some of this stuff. We’re going to take our sweet time with Apogee, with his turn to good, and with the world’s response to all of this.

6. After the two leads, who are your favorite characters in the universe?

B: I love Cool Hand Luke, Mr. Haha 2000 and Influx, though we didn’t get to see too much of her. I love the villains in all three books - Zundergrub, Mighty (and Dr. Z again) and Brutal. I love Claire (and no, you haven’t seen the last of her). I love all the guys in Battle and I love all those crazy heroes and villains in the 3rd act of Book 2. Bubu is inspired by one of my oldest, dearest friends, but my favorite character of all is probably Superdynamic. He’s the guy that’s the real hero of the story and as we follow his story through the upcoming books, he’ll start to take on a meatier role.

J: I have a soft spot for Haha. His detached, clinical sociopathy speaks to me. He’s also hard to get right, so when we do, I feel like we accomplished something. Battle, as a group, are my people. I love them as individuals, and hope we can also do them some justice in the near future.

7. Supervillains are a very common protagonist in superhero fiction (Soon I Will Be Invincible, Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, my own Supervillainy Saga). Why do you think so many superhero writers want to do stories from the perspective of the bad guys? Why did you?

B: Well, I didn’t have the foresight you guys did. When I started to put Villain together, it wasn’t blaze new trails or to do something different than everything else that was around. I’d recently lost my best friend to kidney disease and was in the lowest point in my life. Writing the story was a form of therapy. He was Cool Hand Luke, so writing his final scenes were very emotional. Blackjack one was meant as an homage to my dear friend and I never intended or even hoped for any sort of financial return. I never tried to get it traditionally published, and it was only the advent of Amazon’s self-publishing model that made it possible. The overall success of the series still leaves me in awe, and I’m eternally thankful to those that have supported us throughout. The positive response has kept me going as I learn this business and as my partner and I make a pivot toward a Patreon ongoing story model. A full Blackjack book is still coming to Amazon every year and a half or two, but with Patreon we’ll be able to involve our fans with the entire process of crafting the book, from ideation of characters to final publishing.

J: The villain perspective has gone mostly unexplored in the world of comics. There are exceptions, but readers gravitate more towards their heroes. There is a philosophy that says villains are better in small doses, but as the market for superheroes continues to explode, it was a natural turn that people would be interested in the flip side. Like Ben said, we were ignorant to that while working on Blackjack: Villain. If it was a passion project for him, it became an obsession for me. He started sending me pages, and I was smitten. There was so much going on in that first book, both on the page and behind the scenes. I shouldered my way into the process, and Ben was kind enough to let me contribute. 

8. Assume there's an Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny for all comic book characters, how do you think Blackjack would fair and what superhero or villain do you think would finally take him out?

B: Blackjack does good in big scrums, but against serious heroes in a big showdown? I’m not so sure. Say we put original Blackjack in the Marvel Comic Universe and put him in a ladder versus all-comers - I think he doesn’t make it past a guy like Colossus. I think Thing puts him down, too. he doesn’t make it to the higher tier guys. Now, post-Shard World Blackjack (aka Blackjack Prime), is at the highest power levels of Marvel. Blackjack’s power level is a source of a lot of criticism - and rightly so. But people have to remember that Blackjack is in first person, we’re getting his own feelings and thoughts on things - which might not always be accurate. Also, what happened to him in Shard World is, as of yet, unquantifiable, and something we intend to explore further in the upcoming book, Messiah, and in further sequels.

J: Blackjack takes a punch better than anyone. He will need a whole new body, but everyone of those goombas will die.

9. What's the most difficult thing you've had to deal with being a self-published author?

B: I’d say the transition from writing as a hobby, as a passion project, to writing professionally. It’s something that we’ve only gotten a handle of recently, the idea of writing and editing every single day, of putting 40+ hours weekly. I tell you what, I wrote Blackjack 1 in about a year, B2 in about 18 months, and B3 took even longer. Well, B4 is going to go from idea to first draft in 3 months. After that, it’s in the editor’s hands.

As far as publishing itself (that was the question right?), I’m thankful to Amazon and their staff for making the whole concept feasible, and for making the process as painless as possible. Self-publishing has some additional pressures over traditional publishing, such as handling your own fan base, promoting your next book or compilation, and the preparation of a proper manuscript. It’s a lot harder for someone starting out, who can’t dedicate a majority of their day to it.

J: Finding a balance. I work a full-time job and this has become part-time job. Plus kids and family obligations and all the other things that crop up. When life is nipping at your heels, writing and editing like it's the most important thing in the world is challenging.

10. What's the next book in the Blackjack series going to be about, at least as much as you can learn from a blurb?

B: Blackjack: Messiah is the next logical step in our lead character’s growth as a person and as a super. He’s making a turn for good, and has some important people in his corner, but he still has some “red in his ledger” and needs to atone for all those sins - something that he isn’t very good at. He’s also starting to deal with the aftermath of his and Apogee’s experience in Shard World, and the strange changes that they’re going through - not all of them good. Blackjack has become a polemic figure in his world, adored by those who love a ruffian, hated by those he’s wronged, and pursued by strange forces curious to harness the strange energy emissions that he and Apogee possess - the same kind that created supers in the first place.

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