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Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

BAKER'S DOZEN for 03/03/2010
Send in The Clowns
Greg Houston on The Vatican Shuffle, part one

It's one of the best, but least-known perks of my job. That thrilling sense of discovery I get when I encounter an artist whose work is so striking and original that it just grabs me from the first instant I glimpse it.

Over the years, I've been lucky to have had that exciting first contact scenario repeat itself several times. Even better, I've often then been given the honor of introducing those fine new creators, folks with names like Brian Azzarello, Jim Rugg and Andy Runton, to a wider audience.

Well, I'm here today to introduce you to yet another monster talent, Greg Houston. His work is on display in The Vatican Hustle from NBM. It's a graphic novel that is startling, brilliant and laugh out loud funny. It's a book that acknowledges its influences boldly, even as it transforms them into a raucous, outrageous and bold style that is strangely familiar, yet totally original.

Much like its creator, now that I think about it…


Bill Baker: Greg, how do you describe Vatican Hustle to those poor souls who haven't seen it?

Greg Houston: Whew! Well, you're starting off with a softball! [General laughter] That is tough…

Vatican Hustle
is not for everyone, I suppose. It may be offensive to some folks, but hopefully people will see that it's fun.

It's a love note to Blaxploitation films which, of course, I grew up with and absolutely adore.

It's just a lot of ugly characters doing a lot of stupid things. Maybe that's the best way of putting it. [More laughter]

BB: Well, let's talk a little bit about the lead character, Boss Karate Black Guy Jones. Who is he, and what's his world like?

GH: Boss Karate Black Guy Jones, I actually created the character in 1986, give or take. I was at Pratt Institute, I was bored one day, and I decided I was going to do…

I had stuff just lying around, as art students do. And I had this brownish paper, and I some pastels, and I thought, "Oh, I could do like a cool movie poster type of thing!" And I think I had some Letraset type, too, which is the thing that really put it over the top.

And I created this Blaxploitation movie poster for a film that didn't exist, and it was called Boss Karate Black Guy Jones. I think it was something like, "It's 1974's answer to Billy Jack. He's twice as bad!" And it had these crazy character names-that's where the Letraset came in, because I loved doing type at the time. And so I put like these names and stuff all over it, and "Fish-Eye Jackson" and stuff. I put it on my wall, to annoy my roommates more than anything else, and it stayed there for quite a while. And years went by, and I thought, "Gee, I should do something with that character someday."

Finally, an opportunity came up to do a graphic novel and I thought, "Gee, Boss Karate Black Guy Jones-he's the guy! He's my guy! There's a lot that I can do with him."

He's a character that you can push the story forward with; he's somebody that can react, as well as act. He's colorful, and he's got a lot going on in terms of his look. And I just thought, "This is the thing."

Now, who Boss Karate Black Guy Jones is, is, in fact, sort of an amalgam of all these great characters from these terrific films I grew up watching. When I was a kid…

I live in Baltimore, and I grew up here. And when I was a kid, channel 11 used to run these "Picture for a Sunday Afternoon" kind of movies, and inevitably they would have Shaft or Slaughter or something like that. And I was just fixated. I loved them. So, I thought about who these great characters were. So I took a little bit…

I really can't say specifically "this, that and the other," but I took a little bit from Richard Roundtree in Shaft, and a little bit from Jim Brown in Slaughter, and a little bit of Black Belt Jones and Jim Kelly, and put them all together to create this super Blaxploitation character. And I think his world, he lives in the contemporary 2009, 2010 time; whenever you get the book, it's in that time.

But I think, in his world, it's a very 70s world. It's a very groovy place.

BB: What is about that particular genre of films, Blaxploitation, that you really get off on?

GH: I don't know. I love all sorts of genres of film. I hate to say that I like Blaxploitation better than horror, because I like horror so much, as well. But Blaxploitation's just…

First of all, I really respect the "Do It Yourself" attitude that the filmmakers had. It's fun to make fun of them, and it's fun to appreciate how goofy they are, and sometimes how poorly they're acted, and things of that nature.

But the truth is I really do respect their creators. These are true auteurs. I really do respect their "Do It Yourself" ethic. These guys weren't getting the opportunity to get heard in Hollywood, so they were making their own product. And it's fun. It's brash. The clothes are outrageous. I mean, they're mind-bending clothes. Color combinations that you would never, ever see on a sane person-and yet it works! It's so terrific, and it's so over the top.

When I was a kid, like most kids, I liked comic books. And I think that, to a large degree, these are comic books come to life, right there on the screen. And I like violence-not in real life, but it's fun to watch. And that's great violence. It's the kind that's…

It's done by stunt men who are kind of paunchy, and not really that into it, and there's a lot of ketchup thrown on people's faces. It's so ridiculous that it's hard to take it seriously, but it's just a great collision of all these crazy things, all in one movie. In fact, I just spent Friday night at a friend's house watching, for like the millionth time, the great film Black Shampoo-which is so audacious, because it has a hairdresser as the main character who goes and starts kicking [the collective] ass of the mob. [General laughter] It's great!

These films, it's just like there are no boundaries. They're really fantastic.

BB:
What lead to your decision to do a graphic novel in the first place?

GH: When I graduated from Pratt, to be honest, I really didn't have an interest in comic books at that point in my life. I'd grown up with them, as all kids do, and then I sort of moved on to other things.

I would occasionally come back and see something [interesting]. One of my roommates was a huge comic book fanatic, and he used to show me stuff all the time. There's some great stuff, you know? I remember The Flaming Carrot was one thing, back in the 80s, that I enjoyed. But I'd kind of gotten away from it.

And I had some friends who, upon graduation, had gone to work for Marvel. And they used to say to me, "Gee, I would think you'd be great on a graphic novel." But my work is kind of complicated, and the thought of doing something…

The repetition, drawing the same faces over and over again, was really kind of off-putting. And I don't consider myself a writer. I mean, I think it'd be insulting to people that are actually good writers to consider myself a writer.

I'm an illustrator. I'm a professional illustrator, I have been since 1988, and the market's gotten tough.

I had a wonderful instructor at Pratt by the name of David Passalacqua. And he used to say, "Don't feed the alligator," which roughly translated meant "Always have your own thing going." So when the market isn't there for you, you maybe can create your own market. And it got to the point where I just thought, "Maybe now's the time. Maybe now's the time to bite the bullet and sit down and try to do a graphic novel."

BB: So, where'd the story come from, and what was that development process like?

GH: I had a story that I had written. The whole Pope section of the graphic novel is, in fact, a three page story that I wrote for a satire class in college. I just thought it was a funny story. It was just that little bit about the Pope getting up and going through his day, and kind of ending the way the book ends, with him and his buddies dumping garbage on the guy's lawn. And I always liked that story. I wasn't sure I could do anything with it, in and of itself. It was very short.

And then I thought I had this great character with Boss Karate Black Guy Jones. So the trick really was, "How do I marry these two stories?" And, once I figured out how to do that, then I thought, "Now I've got something I feel confident I can show around."

Not that I was confident that anybody would be interested in it, but I felt good about it. [Laughter] And so that's what I took out to the marketplace, and NBM was gracious enough to give me a home.

BB: Yeah, I mean, the obvious meeting point between the Vatican and Blaxploitation films is pornography, isn't it? [General laughter]

GH: Absolutely! How could it not be! [More general laughter]

My question is, "How was this not written already? How was it that I got to it, and no one else had already gotten there?"

BB: You mentioned earlier that there might be some readers who could have a bad reaction to the book, or readers who might harbor some misunderstanding of your intent, how worried are you about blowback for your portrayal of pornographers, hobos, mafia, clowns, the lead character and the Pope himself, not to mention the Pottery Barn? [More general laughter]

GH: Well, I hope Pottery Barn likes it, because I like Pottery Barn.

Well, you know, I don't want to presume that all the world's going to see my book. But, for all of those who do… And it'd be great, by the way, if everybody saw it. But, for all those who do…


I know there are some people who are probably going to be offended by this. There are a lot of people who are in fact Catholic who are not happy with a lot of things that happen in the Church. And my issue is not so much…

How shall I say this?

I meant what I said in the book. It's all in fun, but I don't apologize for any of it. The fact of the matter is that a lot of atrocities happen as the result of the Catholic Church, and people in it, looking out for their own best interests, rather than for the parishioners and their flock-the people they have responsibility for.

But that's true with all religions. I'm picking on the Catholic Church in this particular book, but really, I have a real problem with organized religion in general. I believe in spirituality 100%, but religion is really a man-made thing. And a lot of people, unfortunately…

A lot of people are in it for the right reasons. I don't mean to damn everybody with this book. But there are a lot of people who aren't; and I think those are the ones who are at the point of this particular spear.

And I think they're big enough to take the hit, you know? I think the Catholic Church is big enough to take a little poke from me. [Laughter] I don't think it's going to bother them so much.

But my bigger concern is people who are regular folks like you and me, who happen to believe in Catholicism or the Catholic Church or religion, and who are doing it for the right reasons, because they might get their noses sort of bent out of shape a little. And, those people, that's my bigger concern. I would apologize to them for offending them, but not for what I'm saying.

BB: Right. Plus, as sharp as your satire might be, there's a real sense of fun to this book.

GH: I hope so. I mean, I'm not like Mort Sahl or somebody [similar.] I'm not coming out trying to change the world. I'm not a political satirist or anything like that. It was just a fun…

It was opportunistic. You know, the Pope is a big target. No one had really, to my knowledge, at least, had really explored this kind of thing. And I thought, Black Karate Guy Jones needs a bad guy who is worthy of him.

My favorite thing about the book is the fact that there are these two trains sort of about to collide, but that never happens. The fact is there is no payoff. [General laughter] They just sort of face each other down, and then nothing happens, which I think is kind of funny. [More general laughter] Other people may disagree, but I think it's funny.

But, really, it did lend itself to this. There are so many trappings that…

Just the ridiculousness of the Pope in this, sitting in a La-Z-Boy watching G.L.O.W. on his Zenith I think is so outrageous. I don't think anybody would really, really take it too seriously.

But, under the silliness, I guess there is a little bit of a point-which is religion is not my favorite thing. [Laughter] So, maybe it was a little easier to take that down.

BB: And if, you know, thousands of the faithful want to buy this book just to burn it, I'd guess you'd have to put up with that, wouldn't you?

GH: Absolutely. I think that NBM would be happy with that; I can't speak for them, but I think they may be [OK with that eventuality].

What is funny, though, is how you sometimes go online and you'll see that a certain thing is listed among other items? Like, if you go to Amazon and look right at my book, they have "suggested items you may want to purchase?" And I guess, since Vatican is in the title, it lists things like The Bible. [General laughter] OK, it's not really The Bible, but all these sort of very serious, religious kind of things that someone who's a little more serious about religion might be interested in.

I'm not sure that's a great idea, or that Amazon is going to sell a lot of stuff relative to this. But you never know. Somebody might get something out of it, you never know.

BB: Well, given that you were working with something that you'd previously developed as a story, at least in a partial way, how did you approach creating Vatican Hustle? Did you write up a full script, work from a bare bones outline, or did you just dive in and start drawing, just put pencil and ink to paper and let it come naturally?

GH: Well, I had the story-the Pope story, as I mentioned-it was already written out. It was three pages, so, not a lot. I took that, and then I had the characters, more or less, who I wanted to work with; Boss Karate Black Guy Jones, certainly.

The issue then became structuring. I mean, it wasn't so much, "What kind of plot device would be interesting [to use]?" The issue was more "How do I get these two things together?" And so I outlined it, and just tried to figure out how many scenes [it would have.] The thing about doing the comic that I found challenging...

I hadn't done this before. I mean, I had done comics while I was in college, but I hadn't done anything on this scale, and certainly not in a long time. And, obviously, the pacing is important, and structuring it so that you don't get too bogged down in one scene for too long.

I have a lot of talking heads, so it's tough. When you structure the dialogue, you want to make sure the dialogue is coming in a way so that, when you illustrate it, you have people set up, literally, on the page so that their word balloons aren't crossing over, back and forth. You want to have it written in a certain order; there's a lot of stuff to take into consideration. It's not just writing it out-or, at least, that's the way it was for me.

So I was really trying to structure it so that I would have the characters appear every so often, and not be there all the time and get boring. I'd move them off and bring another character in.

Once I got the structure down, then I went in and started to write the scenes, and wrote it as a script. And then, once I had that, then it was just a matter of actually blocking it out in terms of little thumbnail sketches, which NBM had asked me for. That's the worst part, really. And so I sat down and did that. It's really useful, but for me, that is the tedious part.

But, once I had that, the book was there. It's just a matter of then going through and making sure that what works in the thumbnail actually works on the page. There's some altering that goes on, here and there, but that's pretty much the way it went.

And then I did a second graphic novel, also for NBM, and I did that the same way. And it was much faster once I had an idea of how to do it, once I had a program I could plug into.

BB: How radical were some of those alterations you mentioned earlier, when you moved from the thumbnails to the page? And did you have any changes you had to make because of the way the words and the images interacted, or the flow of the story?

GH: No, surprisingly, there weren't. What I will say is that there were some spaces where I filled in some dialogue, because there really wasn't much going on, and I thought, "Maybe it isn't a bad idea to have a word balloon here." It wasn't a lot of dialogue [added], and it certainly wasn't important dialogue, but still, a little window dressing, like "That's great!" or "Groovy!" or something. [Laughter]

But, other than that, it pretty much was as it was in the thumbnails.


And that's the end of the first half of my extended talk with Greg Houston. Look for the second half in two weeks.

In the meantime, why not check out Greg's The Vatican Hustle at your local comics shop? You can also order it directly from the publisher via www.nbmpub.com, Amazon and most of the other online booksellers.

And don't forget about Greg's own website, www.greghoustonillustration.com.

Finally, if you've already up to speed on all the above, why not check out Monkey Genius And His Bikini Assassin Squad And the 349 Other Best TV Shows of All Time, his book about all the great bad shows he grew up watching and obsessing over.

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