In recent months, writer Mat Groom (alongside co-writer Kyle Higgins and art/designs from Francesco Manna, Michael Cho, and Gurihiru) has killed it on both The Rise of Ultraman and The Trials of Ultraman. But Groom’s not done playing around in the big bad world of tokusatsu-inspired comics, and after joining forces with artist Erica D’Urso (Captain Marvel and Xena: Warrior Princess), he’s launched a Kickstarter for a brand-new creator-owned graphic novel.
Inferno Girl Red expertly combines the “high school super-heroic drama of Into the Spider-Verse with the dynamic storytelling and world-building of Japanese tokusatsu superheroes.” It follows the young Cássia Costa as she protects her hometown of Apex City from an army of demons bent on bringing their dark lord back to Earth. Groom and D’Urso are joined by colorist Igor Monti, letterer Becca Carey, and another familiar face, Kyle Higgins, as an editor.
Ahead of today’s Kickstarter launch (the campaign runs through May 5), we had the chance to speak to Groom about the story, his interest in tokusatsu media, loving your characters/creations, and working with Higgins, D’Urso, and the rest of the team, among several other topics.
If you’re interested in backing the project, you can do so here.
AIPT: What’s the elevator pitch for this story/graphic novel?
Mat Groom: That depends on the size of the building that the elevator is in!
If we’re talking the Empire State Building, and it was a busy morning, I might go with:
“A teen girl named Cássia, who has had a challenging life, gets a chance for a fresh start when she’s invited to prestigious and cutting-edge school in the near-utopian Apex City. But that fresh start is put at risk when an ancient cult, and their army of demons, rips Apex City out of reality.
Now, a magical dragon bracelet has rocketed into Cássia’s life and affixed itself to her arm, giving her and the city a fighting chance at survival– but only if she can muster the faith in herself (and the future) required to wield the belief-powered bracelet… so she can live up to a secret legacy, defend those she cares most about, and rescue Apex City as Inferno Girl Red!”
But if it was like a ‘only elevator in a small town’ situation, I’d probably just breathlessly yell:
“It’s got superheroic high school drama like Ultimate Spider-Man and there’s some tokusatsu inspiration in there and some British boarding school-style drama in there and it’s about hope in the face of darkness and action in the face of apathy and please, please back it!”
AIPT: You’d mentioned (in some press materials) about things not really “clicking,” or seeming feasible, until you met Erica D’Urso. What did/does she do that helps in terms of getting things off the ground? Have you had something like before, where the art really brought the story to life or wrapped it all up, as it were?
MG: You know, it’s really interesting– the only thing I have to compare it to is Self/Made, which I co-created with Eduardo Ferigato, and that was equally significant but also quite different?
With that, when Eduardo first sketched Self/Made lead character Amala, and I first saw it, it was like he’d plucked her out of some sort of shared consciousness space and rendered her. My reaction was like “Oh, yeah, that’s Amala, he just looked at a picture of Amala and drew Amala,” despite that being the first ever picture of Amala. If that makes any sort of sense.
With this, when Erica first drew Cássia for Inferno Girl Red, it was much more a light bulb moment. I had a good idea of what the story was about, and what I wanted us to achieve, but it wasn’t until Erica brought her vision of Cássia and Apex City that I really got the character, and her world. And of course a massive part of that is just Erica’s lived experience and perspective. As well as being a truly phenomenal artist, Erica is a woman– and a cool woman at that — so she brings so much to the project that I, a deeply uncool man, just can’t.
AIPT: Alongside Ultraman, this is at least your second “dive” into Japanese tokusatsu. What about the culture/genre that is so appealing to you in general? Does this series connect at all, at least spiritually or with your larger intentions, to Ultraman?
MG: Oh, there’s a range of things. I certainly didn’t want to just ‘do’ tokusatsu — it’s a big inspiration, obviously, but we’re drawing from a few different narrative forms to try and build something new. But of course tokusatsu is the more unfamiliar one in America, so it stands out– and I think that’s why I’m so drawn to it. It suggests so many radically different ways of approaching things.
Visually there’s a lot to be inspired by, but I think what resonates most with me about toku is that it really flies in the face of the trend towards ‘grounded’ superheroes. Great tokusatsu proves that you can be wildly creative and inventive with your conceptualization of the fantastical elements, as long as it’s grounded in terms of the meaning and the emotion.
In terms of how Inferno Girl Red is similar to our take on Ultraman, I think they both embrace the tokusatsu idea of a hero having a specific mission, which you can see particularly in something like a Kamen Rider. Unlike most of ‘our’ heroes who often are most concerned with ‘crime’ and generally fight a never-ending battle to maintain the status quo, many tokusatsu heroes have one particular goal, a finite quest, and in pursuing that quest they’re out to change the world, out to make it a different (and hopefully better) place. So there’s some overlap there.
AIPT: And speaking of Ultraman, your co-writer Kyle Higgins is also an editor of this book. How is it working together in this context? Does it make it easier or more complicated to work with a friend and a frequent collaborator?
MG: I think the truth of the matter is that Kyle would be an influence on the project whether he was credited or not. We chat story regularly, and his experience (both in storytelling and in the production of comics) is invaluable — so having him credited as editor is our way of recognizing his mentorship role, and guidance. In practice, though, it’s not terribly different from our working relationship on Ultraman, except that instead of us both driving the narrative and feeding back on each other’s ideas, I’m driving the narrative and Kyle’s in more of a guidance role.
AIPT: Working in the realm of tokusatsu and kaiju, obviously fight scenes and city-wide battles are a huge deal. How do you plot some of these, and are you trying to do something new and interesting with this specific scope?
MG: We’re not likely to be doing any literally-giant-scale battles in Inferno Girl Red (this project is probably going to hew closer to Kamen Rider than Ultraman), but we’re certainly looking to embrace the giant scope and scale of tokusatsu. For example, as I mentioned in the elevator pitch, one of the early events in the novel is that Cássia’s entire new home city gets ripped out of existence. Although we want this story to feel personal, it isn’t a ‘street-level’ book — from the fights to ideas to the vibe, we want everything to feel larger-than-life.
AIPT: Why go to Kickstarter? Why is that platform still essential to even someone who has done great work and made solid connections with the likes of Marvel and Image?
It really came down to the fact that we wanted to do a novel. While I appreciate you saying I’ve done great work, I’m certainly a long, long way from being a known quantity in the industry– and after exploring a range of options, we found (because of that) we really had two options: release Inferno Girl Red as single issues and keep editorial control of the intellectual property, or release it as a novel but give up that control to a larger entity. I love single issues (and I loved playing specifically with that form in Self/Made), but this particular story was always intended to be a novel. And we’re all so invested in this story we couldn’t bear to give up control of its destiny. So neither option was really acceptable to us.
For myself, I didn’t need an advance. Writing is much easier than art, and I’ve been able to script Inferno Girl Red around my day job and writing Ultraman. But it wouldn’t be fair or feasible to ask Erica to illustrate (and Igor to color, and Becca to letter) the book without pay– that’d be the better part of a year’s worth of work without income to support themselves. And I certainly don’t have the cash to cover it. So that’s how we arrived at the crowdfunding option.
I’ve got to say, though, I’ve really loved the experience thus far. As of this interview being conducted, we haven’t launched yet, but I’ve already gotten a lot out of the community side of it– from people who have expressed their excitement (or even drawn fan art) at us even teasing the campaign, to the incredible work done by comics artists we’ve approached to do prints for the campaign. I’ve backed quite a few Kickstarters before, but being on this side of the fence– it’s a massive amount of work, but it’s quite rewarding too.
AIPT: In some of the press, it’s clear that you have a lot of affection and interest in Cássia, the GN’s heroine. Is it better for you, as the creator, to care deeply about these characters? Does that make it harder to make scary, important things happen to these people?
MG: Oh, that’s a super interesting question! I think you need to love your characters in the same way you need to love your story, and you need to love all stories. What I mean by that is that you need to be really invested in what your specific story means and what it represents, but you also need to love that stories work because they’re about stress-testing meaning, really getting to truth that can only be unearthed via tension and conflict.
So, yeah, our whole team has a lot of affection for Cássia — but a lot of that affection comes from our belief in her ability to learn and grow, and to become a better version of herself through all that she endures.
I guess like anyone you love, you love them because of the potential inside them and trust in who will they will develop into as time goes on (and as the world changes around them), not because you want to preserve the current version of them in amber and want them to stay the same forever. As a writer, it’s the same, except that you need to play a bit more of an active role in the change process.
AIPT: Another “hook” of the series is that it’s also influenced by British boarding school fiction. How hard is it to balance some of that deliberate emotional work in something that seems so grand and profound in scope? Or do these things work more hand-in-hand?
MG: I guess looping back to the tokusatsu influence question from before, one of the biggest lessons I think you can learn there is that these two things aren’t mutually exclusive at all. One of the things I love about that sort of boarding school drama is that the setting is like a pressure cooker for emotion, it takes regular teen angst and drama (that already feels larger than life, especially at that age) and compounds it at every opportunity. Then the tokusatsu lens gives you this outlet valve for that emotion to shoot out of, but the condition of using said valve is that all emission must be in the form of dazzling, explosive, technicolor action. So not only are the two parts compatible, I think they’re wildly complimentary.
AIPT: You teased some connection between Radiant Black and Inferno Girl Red. Can you offer a little more? Is this the start of some grand Groom-Higgins-Verse?
MG: I can’t say much. I can say that there are advantages to being in control of your intellectual property. And to having a great working relationship with the creators of a very compatible series. And also that the Inferno Girl Red/Radiant Black team-up print that Erica and Marcelo Costa did together looks mighty fine…
AIPT: If someone reads this and wants to get more into tokusatsu, what are some other books, movies, TV, etc. that you could recommend? Anything that inspired this GN specifically?
MG: Oh I’m so very glad you asked this because I’ve really needed to get this off my chest—go watch Kamen Rider Build,! I always thought that ‘the moral cost of involving yourself in a war’ was kind a worn-out theme, but Build approaches it in a way that really took me by surprise– it tackles phenomenally serious subject matter while still managing to be heartfelt and funny and inventive… and, also, sometimes he turns into the combination of a thorny rose and a helicopter. Perfect TV show? Well, nothing’s perfect. Except for Kamen Rider Build, the perfect TV show.
AIPT: What can you say about the rest of the creative team here? Do you prefer some of these “people-heavy” books versus, say, one artist and one writer?
MG: One of the main reasons I love comics is I love collaborating, and I think if we’re asking people to invest in this, it should have everything done by top-tier talent, so… no, I don’t mind big teams at all!
I spoke a little about Erica before, and some people might be aware of her talent from her Captain Marvel, James Bond, or Xena work, but I truly think this is the best work she has ever produced and I think that’s at least in part because this is her first creator-owned book. Erica’s ability to design characters and worlds whole-cloth is truly remarkable and I’m so glad she’s getting a chance to show that off now.
Igor Monti, our colorist… I’m pretty sure he’s practicing some sort of dark magic? Because what he does with color and light doesn’t seem like a thing that can be achieved via any techniques or technology that I’m aware of. If you’ve read Mega Man: Fully Charged you’ll know what I mean. We wanted to create a vibe that was less ‘what are comics now?’ and more ‘what will comes be in ten years’ time?’ and Igor was a huge part of us making any sort of headway towards that goal.
Becca Carey, our letterer, has really impressed me for similar reasons. We wanted the lettering to be as bold as the rest of the comic, to capture earnest and heartfelt moments but also the wild and intense energy of two supercharged titans at war… but have it feel considered and stylish instead of hokey. And Becca nailed it. But if you’ve read Radiant Black, you know how good she is at that balance.
For the design work, I brought on For The People — they’re a design and branding studio from Australia whose work I am very familiar with, because… I do some of it! Working there is my day job. And getting to merge my comics life and day job life has been a really fun experience, especially since a range of people that I’m very fond of, from our creative director to our newest and youngest designers got to contribute. And to bring the question around to the start, I think it really benefitted from those extra perspectives — Inferno Girl Red is, proudly, a team effort. It’s been shaped by a whole host of different life experiences and talents and perspectives and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
AIPT: Why should anyone contribute to and want to read Inferno Girl Red?
MG: Because it’s a genuine passion project from a team of creators who a pouring their heart and soul into it, and there’s no other way for this project to come to life other than community support. Because I think it has something really meaningful to say about what it’s going to take for humanity to persevere. Because the talent of the people involved is just off-the-charts. Because you can get gorgeous art prints from people like Nicola Scott, Darko Lafuente, Tiffany Turrill, Eleonora Carlini, Nicole Goux and many more. And because– well, look at that art! C’mon! What are you doing still listening to me? Go make sure you can get 100 pages of that gorgeous art!
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