Independent comics bring something new and dynamic to the medium itself. They are a space where both infinite and specific creativity is not only possible, but it’s mostly essential to a work’s success. Case in point? Young Offenders! — a young adult superhero comic illustrated by Mike Becker and written by Mark O. Stack. In a world where many of the planet’s greatest superheroes went missing, and heavy-handed government organizations aim to police those who remain, a disparate band of young superheroes step up to do the good that needs doing.
Young Offenders! is a heck of a comic. Becker’s action is kinetic. Meanwhile, Stack’s character work is striking. It is utterly expansive and vibrant — alive beyond the immediate confines of page and panel and book (and it also literally shares a world with some of Stack’s other comics). If your interest is piqued, here is a handy preview.
With the success of Young Offenders!‘ first issue, Stack and Becker have now launched a Kickstarter for issues #2 and #3. Ahead of that, we sat down with both to discuss their comic and their creative methodologies and processes, among other topics.
AIPT: I’d like to begin with a question for both of you. Comics are often a collaborative medium, and like team sports, they’re a balancing act between each member of the team’s own skills and needs and the team as a whole’s skills and needs. How do your processes and styles as an artist and a writer intersect with each other? How do they differ? How do they gel, where do they clash, and how do you enhance your teamwork and resolve those clashes?
MOS: Mike is the kind of creator who will look at anything you send him in terms of character descriptions, plot outlines, or script pages and come back with questions and ideas about how to take everything further. We built this story together from the ground up with me sending him character concepts (some taken from my own previous work) and vague scene and plot ideas a year ago and him coming back with what seemed like ten different sketches for each character and concept. In other projects I’ve done, I’ve definitely had instances where I’ve been more of an overt project manager who is very specific about what he wants a book to be in terms of visual identity and storytelling. But since Mike and I built Young Offenders! together from minute one, I’ve been able to let go of that. As a consequence, the book’s first arc that we’re looking to complete on Kickstarter became much bigger in terms of scope than anything I could have imagined when I first emailed Mike about it.
And because I didn’t have a lengthy period of development before Mike came on, he was able to establish the visual identity and the storytelling style almost immediately before any script pages were finalized, so pages were written to fit the characters as he drew them from my descriptions. It’s a pretty organic process where I think we only had one real disagreement during the production of the first issue based on a new design Mike suggested for a character, The Lark. The new costume design was good, but I essentially told him that I thought he had gotten it right the first time. That’s the thing about Mike, though: his mind doesn’t ever seem to rest! He’s always coming up with new permutations of what he’s working on at a given moment, and I think it lends our book a really organic feeling which makes for a nice compliment to the big action and high drama of these young superheroes coming into their own.
MB: It’s really rare to find a good collaborator and teammate, so I feel really lucky to have connected with Mark so immediately. We share a mutual enthusiasm for comics, stories, and art that really put us on the same wavelength. In terms of how the collaboration works, Mark has been the best cheerleader and coach at the same time. He had the seeds of the project when he brought the project to me, but has been infinitely generous in how he’s shared his toys and let me really take ownership of his characters on my own. And he really lets me get away with a lot of stuff. I can come back with a page that is an entirely different layout than the script implied, and he’s just always on board. The Lark redesign I proposed was one of, if not the only, times he pushed back on something I suggested, and ultimately he was right. We’re both just incredibly talented, and perfect creative geniuses so that makes it easy to work together and create the best comic book of our generation.
AIPT: I’ll continue with a question for Mr. Becker. Young Offenders! moves between the civilian and the superheroic modes repeatedly in its first issue. Do you approach those aspects of the book differently as a designer and illustrator? If so, how? How did you approach the book’s world as a whole?
MB: Yes definitely. When the action is happening and it’s “superhero time,” I really exaggerate the dynamism as much as I can. Breaking panel borders, bigger and bolder shots, where it’s all about movement, and power versus when the characters are taking a break and hanging out, I slow it down and do a lot more medium shots, more standard panel layouts. I’m trying to capture the rhythm of the story in the visuals, like a musical soundtrack. The orchestra is swelling when there’s nuclear blasts and hellfire, but when they’re figuring out their next moves in their Headquarters, they’re hanging out, so it’s more like lo-fi chill study beats.
As a whole, we both wanted the world to feel like a superhero universe with history and lore. My personal favorite thing about superhero fictional universes is that anything can happen and everything is permitted. Aliens live in space, vigilantes patrol cities, demons, and magic are real; you can have multiple coexisting mythologies and genres and it all fits. And Young Offenders! gives us a cast of characters that allows us to put that concept on display and feel natural.
When you get into comics, your only option is to enter a pre-existing world that’s been going on for decades. And that’s something Mark and I share in our experience as readers and creatives is that sense of discovery. So one thing I did at any opportunity is try to insert micro-bits of world-building and lore teasing into the art. The Defenders United Headquarters is the best example. It’s the “Avengers Tower” or “Justice League Satellite” of this world’s big gun superhero team, so I used that recognizable element of superhero lore as a launchpad. The DU vanished in this Crisis, so it’s been abandoned, things are destroyed, so it’s kind of turned into a mausoleum. That gave us a way to visually show the ramifications of this Crisis event that happened in this world’s recent history. And I love a good homage, so you’ll see some art in the background that puts the DU characters in place of some recognizable Justice League covers, to give the clever-eyed readers an idea of who those characters were in this world and events or stories that have happened.
AIPT: Next, a question for Mr. Stack. One thing I was struck by reading Young Offenders! is the way that you introduce the world’s status quo – it’s changed dramatically in a very short time. Throughout the first issue, you reveal the state of the world as well as some of the massively consequential events that make up the recent past. How do you maintain the narrative and structural balance between current events and flashbacks as a writer?
MOS: Readers enter this world and meet these characters about six months after a big event that featured the stars falling from the sky and the big-time superheroes disappearing. That’s all we wanted to say about the world upfront. To me, the primary appeal of this comic was always going to be the characters. I’ve loved superhero team comics since I was a teenager because I really enjoyed the balance and clash of personalities in heightened circumstances. A Brian Michael Bendis adventure story is less about the threat they’re facing and more about these people having to work and live together. With Young Offenders!, we have this inciting incident that brings our cast together, a nuclear-powered monster/supervillain dropping into their city, and I wanted to get to that as soon as possible so our readers wouldn’t spend the entire time waiting to get these various personalities on the same page together.
As a consequence, the overt world-building and backstory details were moved to the background until after the characters had a chance to display their personalities and bounce off of each other a bit. There are references to superheroes disappearing with our very brief opening page, Mike putting in a billboard focused on the missing heroes, and characters making reference to how things have changed in the past six months.
We wanted to approach it almost like this world had already been established, so there’s maybe a bit of unearned confidence from us in terms of how we sprinkled in details about this superhero universe and the big world-changing events that have hit it. But I think we were able to create enough intrigue with the details we put in before getting to a deeper explanation near the end of the first issue of the mystery and threat behind these big events. It was important to Mike that when we did eventually flashback to those big events we’d been alluding to that they have a completely different aesthetic. The colors in those panels are just wild, and it’s because we were trying to create the impression of a whole superhero event comic like Secret Wars or Final Crisis occurring just off-panel.
By the time readers find out what’s been going on and why these young heroes are deciding to stick together as a team, they’ve already seen them interacting with each other and making the altruistic choice to help others several times over. I think it grounds the really big stuff we reveal at the end to enter the world at ground level with these mixed-up kids adrift in the world after what’s happened. It’s something Mike and I definitely identified with in the storytelling because we felt similarly in the early days of the pandemic lockdown. We thought readers, even if they didn’t have all the details of why and how would almost instinctively connect to this world because of that communal experience.
AIPT: Mr. Becker, how did you approach the flow of Young Offenders!‘ assorted action setpieces? How do you map them out as far as choreography and geography? Are there any tools that you use as an artist for action, either in planning or execution that you’d like to dig into?
MB: With any page, it’s my job to identify the hierarchy of importance of the events. You can’t have a nine panel grid of splash-page level action. Mark gives me just enough in the script to let my imagination fill in the blanks. With battle scenes, I think it’s more about the action itself, and being energetic and dynamic instead of beholden to consistent in-universe geographical location. Though I try to keep that consistent when I can.
Using the fight with HERC, the super soldier, as an example; I wanted things to ramp up fast. So after a few pages of espionage, where panels are kind of similar sized and straight on medium shots, things start to escalate visually. We get a big close up of HERC, taking up a lot of the page making him look like a literal road block. Then on the next page, the most exciting shot is when Jane is throwing her knives, so that got the most real estate on the page and there’s no panel border at all. HERC blocks her knives in a smaller panel at the bottom of the page, he’s not really phased and it’s a nice square panel that bleeds off the page to pull the reader’s eye quickly into the page turn where we flip to Jane swinging out of the panel in a high-momentum effort to get a good kick in!
I exaggerate the “cartooning” during fight scenes to emphasize the action and bend shapes to create that energy of movement and to contrast it with more static shots when things aren’t as high octane.
AIPT: Mr. Stack, on a related note, how do you approach writing the team as individuals vs. writing their team’s character? How have those dynamics shaped each other as you’ve worked on the book?
MOS: Part of the fun of putting this together was that a lot of these characters come from other comics I’ve done. Colin, for example, comes from a story with my long-time collaborator Anne Marcano which is more of a young adult story about kids in high school coming to terms with feelings of grief. That’s pretty different from Young Offenders! So putting all of these characters together in one book was incredibly fun for me because it was a totally new context. With Colin, he’s a couple years older here in Young Offenders! #1 than he was in his debut, so exploring how his personality changed was a lot of fun for me. Because most of these characters come from different stories, writing them as individuals meant some serious time was spent trying to distill them to a core concept or expression that was consistent with prior characterization but also approachable to new readers. They all have to be equally capable of moving into the background or stepping into the spotlight as the story dictates.
Writing the team together either when paired off at the start of the first issue or finally all assembled was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I found that Esperanza was a character who really drove the characterization for others because her “mean girl” personality meant she always had a comment ready for someone that would then give them a chance to define themselves more for readers in response. It was just as important for me to get in a scene where Colin asks Victor, the musician, for an autograph in the middle of planning a rescue mission as it was to have an action sequence where they all used their skills and powers in sequence. Issues two and three are going to continue exploring some already established dynamics (like between Colin and Jane, the two legacy heroes on the team) and new ones (like mean girl Esperanza and the bubbly Elaine forming an unexpected bond) in response to what we feel really worked in the completed first issue and what we realized we missed an opportunity to explore.
AIPT: And to close things out, a final question for both of you – what has been the most surprising part of working on Young Offenders! together? Has it moved in directions you were not expecting? Have the characters revealed new facets that you were not expecting? What has the conversation between you and your comic been like?
MB: It’s all been a series of pleasant surprises for me. This was the first comic book I’ve gotten published, so the whole project was new and exciting, and a trial by fire learning experience. So beyond how well we work together and how much I trust Mark and Jodie to support the project, we crushed our Kickstarter goal, and have already started magnetizing an audience. Seeing a book I made in people’s hands and on shelves? It’s still surreal.
More on the creative side, I have really adopted these characters as if they were always my own. I draw them in my sketchbook pretty frequently now, and I feel like I keep having these “Aha!” moments where I unlock a deeper understanding of who these characters are. I also went in with a clear favorite to draw, and now I really can’t choose. When Mark and I were talking about the story in #2, I felt like I knew so much more about who these characters really are and how and why they react and interact the ways that they do. That’s what I’m most excited about in this second chapter, is getting to explore the team chemistry and flesh out these personalities.
MOS: The initial plan for this comic was just to do a real quick 16-page story. The first 16 pages of #1 are basically all I thought we would do when this started. I didn’t know Mike when we started collaborating, so I wasn’t thinking about the possibility of doing something longer or more long-term. So the biggest surprise was definitely when we started lobbing ideas back and forth to the point that we realized we might have something larger on our hands. It was so much fun that we expanded the first issue by a lot of pages. More than doubled it. Our next Kickstarter is to complete the first arc, and it would theoretically be okay if there wasn’t more after that. But I don’t think that will be the case. I don’t see this as just a “fun pandemic project” anymore.
We have plenty of gas left in the tank because we can see pretty clearly now where these characters want to go and what they really need to get there. For example, there’s our character of Jane, The Lark, who was conceived as more of a classic type-A leader character before we discovered that… she’s not really a great leader. There are a lot of cool directions to go with that discovery. Do we see if she can grow into a leadership position? Explore her difficulty in stepping back? It’s exciting because in many ways I’ve realized that the expectations I had for her as a character align with her father/mentor’s expectations for her as a hero, and there’s interest in further exploring her feelings about being measured against those expectations and whether she even wants to keep trying to live up to them. The world is open and ready to be explored through these characters.
The Young Offenders! issues #2 and #3 Kickstarter is live now.
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