Once upon a time, I was a college student who loved improv shows. My campus had only one troupe, then-called Possible Side Effects, and I went to every show they put on my freshman year. The team was made up of great people, many of whom I'm happy to still call friends.
Last month I heard: one of the sweetest, funniest Possible Side Effects guys, Jim Festante, was releasing his first book - a comic through the ever-impressive Image Comics.
It came out last month. Called The End Times of Bram and Ben, it is a hilarious take on life post-Rapture.
So then of course we had a moment. It went something like this:
Me (dorkishly): OMG you're a writer? Because OMG I'M A WRITER TOO!
Jim (much less dorkishly): Yes! Cool!
Me (stil a total dork): You wanna come on my blog?
Luckily Jim said yes, and gave a great interview about the Rapture, guns and ammo, and pre-school superheroes. Read on for more fun!
LR: First and foremost, where the hell did Bram and Ben come from? What’s the history behind the initial idea?
JF: My co-writer James Asmus and I love End Times material: namely, the awful(ly wonderful?) Left Behind series. They’re so ridiculous. Either the characters are super good and have thus been swept up into God’s bosom during the Rapture, they have a teensy, minor character flaw that is eventually overcome so they can join the rest of the good people in Heaven, or they’re demon-loving Satanists waiting for the Antichrist to give them their marching orders! There’s no in-between. We wanted to approach it from the point-of-view of, OK, if this really happened, let’s be honest – not a lot of people would be “good” enough to be taken. Certainly not any of our friends! But we do consider ourselves (flawed but) essentially moral, good people.
LR: Why a comic? Why not a novel or a series of short stories? What made you choose that particular medium?
JF: I come from a performance background, so most of my writing is either sketch, TV, or movie-based. I’m good with dialogue but too impatient for all those in-between words. We originally intended to do the story as a webseries, but found ourselves drawn to the more supernatural aspects including angels, demons, the Antichrist, etc. Stuff we’d need a budget for. We didn’t have a budget. So instead James, who is an accomplished comics writer, suggested we try to go that route with it instead. It’s a new medium for me and I had a lot of learning to do, but it’s such a fun and engaging way to tell stories.
LR: Tell me a little about the process of scripting, then getting artwork, then eventually publication? What did you think when you started seeing the artwork and the whole thing coming together?
JF: We’d get together a couple of times a week and write for 3 or 4 hours. We’d figure out what the arc would be for each book (there are 4 in the mini-series) and the overall story, then get to the dialogue. Anything that made the other person laugh was a good indicator we were going in the right direction. We’d pass the scripts off to our consulting editor, Sebastian Girner, an ex-Marvel editor who made sure our story made sense – he was invaluable. Our artist, Rem Broo, is a Romanian living in Berlin and English is his second language, so I was a little nervous about that at first but he’s amazing! You get it into your head that “I’m the writer, I’m the funny,” but the artwork Rem sent back to us was filled with so much of his own humor, it’s made for an even better collaboration. Coming from an improv background, I’m all about collaboration.
LR: I love that Bram goes to heaven based on a clerical error – that made me laugh. So tell me…if the Rapture happened today, would you be here on Earth tomorrow, barring clerical errors?
JF: This alone keeps me earthbound (shows Leah his tattoo through the computer screen… somehow). The “rules” you can’t break are numerous and damn near impossible to follow. But as I said, I consider myself a good person. I’d like to think god (if there is one) would give me the thumbs up after I kick it. There’s an interesting discussion that’s been going on in our mostly religious society about whether we need religion to give us morals. I’m firmly on the side of “no.” I do think we can be compassionate, forgiving, good people without the threat of Hell/damnation/punishment (beyond, you know, laws) hanging over our heads.
LR: Any concerns, with the debate over gun control raging right now, about the scenes depicting a roomful of guns?
JF: I think it’s important to show. We have a huge section of the population stockpiling weapons specifically for some kind of apocalyptic scenario. Tipul (said stockpiler in our comic) is that point-of-view for us. He’s pretty unstable and has some far-out ideas, he’s definitely not a character that makes you think, “Hm, I should be more like Tipul!”
LR: The tone of the comic is more than a little irreverent (which I LOVE, by the way). Any interesting…um…feedback from any readers yet?
JF: Surprisingly, it’s been widely accepted! We were expecting some sort of backlash and outside of a couple reviews saying, “Well, it’s not for everyone…” we’ve not heard much along those lines. I think it’s because we approached it with the intention not to bash religion but explore what it would mean for people if the Rapture actually came to pass. It’s more of an “OK, this is what some people believe, so let’s explore what that really means beyond Left Behind’s obvious stereotypes.” If anything, it’s more about our titular characters Bram and Ben dealing with the fallout, finding themselves rejected by God and wondering what their next course of action should be.
LR: What was it like, sitting on a panel at ComicCon? I know lots of people for whom that’s a dream, and you’ve already done it!
JF: So cool. You’re sitting up there with people whose work you really admire, representing a publisher who’s on fire with some of the most interesting, creative, and daring books out there… it was an honor. I felt like I got to sneak over and sit at the grownups’ table so I mostly kept my mouth shut and let the big kids talk about their processes. James and I are going to a couple of other conventions this year, including Emerald City, Wondercon, and SDCC, and I can’t wait, especially if NYCC was any indication of the kind of creatives and fans I’ll get to meet and interact with.
LR: OK, favorites time! Favorite book?
JF: Oof. Gun (with sandalwood grips) to my head, Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series. I read them all every couple of years. Although this past year I did them as audio books (technology!). I’m a sucker for heroics. Plus, Arthurian legends in a Wild West setting? I can’t get enough of them and was surprised and thrilled that King released a new one last year. Those books are so influential for me; they make me want to be a better storyteller. More recently, though (and for a lot of the same reasons), I love Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. It’s fantasy without a lot of the tropes – solid writing, engaging characters, and lots of adventure.
LR: Favorite comics?
JF: I love Hellboy. I’m a huge fan of Lovecraft (and the types of stories within that mythos) and Mike Mignola blends his books with the occult, humor, and action masterfully. And the guy is an amazing artist – what an asshole, you’re not allowed to be that talented! I’m also really loving Fatale, Saga, Gambit (go, James!) and Adventure Time. God, I love Adventure Time – he doesn’t write the comics (which are still really great) but Pendleton Ward is an insane genius.
LR: Favorite movie?
JF: Harder question! I’ll go with a movie that, like Dark Tower, I return to every couple of years – Groundhog Day. When a movie is funny, thoughtful, and reminds you to be a better human being, we all win.
LR: Favorite band/album?
JF: I’m so white. Radiohead. But Kid A/Amnesiac are two of the most beautiful albums to me. I’m also a big Pink Floyd fan – growing up in theater, I was super into musicals… and Pink Floyd. That’s the only “cool” thing I can point to when examining my adolescence. Otherwise it was all computer games and jazz hands. Now there’s a title for an autobiography…
LR: And finally….tell me something about you or the book that I didn’t think to ask. It can be anything.
JF: I once helped foil a bank robbery as a preschooler. There’s my next comic book – Super Preschooler! His only weakness is bedtime! And everything else (preschoolers are notoriously weak)!