When some of the most talented writers you’re not reading regularly get together in a cabin in the woods, there are only two possible outcomes: virgin deaths at the hands of hillbilly zombies, or the inception of a brilliant new horror comic. The good news? These boys were fresh out of virgins.
And so begins the story of in Sanity, AZ, a compilation of 28 interwoven short stories brought to light by the demented minds of Joe Pezzula, Michael Drace Fountain, Marcel Losada, and PoP! favorite James Michael Ninness. Now the town’s tale is set to be told… with your help! A Kickstarter campaign for in Sanity, AZ launched last week, but before you invest some hard earned green, PoP!’s giving you a chance to get to know the minds behind the mayhem. So without further adieu…
This isn’t the first time you’ve all worked together. Tell us the team’s exciting origin story – it involved Darkseid, didn’t it?
MARCEL: So… There was a nuclear reactor that Mike Fountain was working at. And as he went to stabilize the gamma rays, emanating from the containment chamber, there was a sudden, frantic alarm-
MARCEL: That frantic alarm, that was screaming that night, was James Ninness. In those days there was no electricity, so James was paid to scream whenever he felt his nuts tingle.
JAMES: I still do that.
MARCEL: Yeah, that was the Geiger counter we had.
MIKE: He does still do that.
JAMES: Geiger balls.
JOE: Geiger balls! That was the original title, I think…
MARCEL: Guys, don’t detract me from my story.
JAMES: No, you know what? How long have we known each other?
MARCEL: Sweet Jesus, way too long…
JOE: Some longer than others. I think I met everybody in 05 or 06 so it’s been seven or eight years.
MIKE: That we’ve known everybody? Yeah.
JAMES: Does anybody wanna tell the story of how we decided to write together?
JOE: I don’t remember. It feels like it’s always been, ya know, this way. We’ve been at it for a few years now.
MIKE: We’d been kickin’ around the idea for a bit… Certainly James is the impetus of “Hey, let’s do something!” And the rest of us are like, “Yeah!” That’s certainly how it began. And in the middle of that we were doing the MeetUps – the comic MeetUps – that Ben was doing in San Diego
JAMES: The ones for Keyleaf.
MIKE: Yeah, for Keyleaf. And during one of those, in the conversation afterwards we started talking about Horror. What’s really scary? What hasn’t been done to death? And what we think is scary.
MARCEL: I’m sorry, you’re talking about whores? Because that was way before I met James.
JAMES: Yes. Whores.
MIKE: No. Hor-ror.
MARCEL: Oh! Okay. And so the conversation turns…
MIKE: Back to virgins. Always back to virgins.
MARCEL: And yeah. I guess the culmination of the group isn’t a bad thing to talk about. James and I met in school. There is no doubt in my mind that without school, James and I would not be writing together.
JAMES: We met at Starbucks but we bonded at school. Because we didn’t like each other at first. You threatened me with a sword.
MARCEL: It wasn’t you. It was people that were taking our parking spot.
JAMES: Oh, yeah.
JOE: You just happened to be near the blade.
JAMES: I felt threatened when you held the sword.
MARCEL: Yeah. You don’t have to reload a sword. That’s a tip for everyone.
MIKE: And it just turned out that the pen was mightier.
JAMES: Oh, zing!
JOE: We all essentially met over Starbucks and coffee, in the origin. And then this story, to pick up what Mike was saying, we talked about it after a comic book MeetUp. It started with a title, which isn’t the current title. [laughs] Do we want to even mention that?
JAMES: Hell yeah! Butterfly, my baby!
JOE: Yeah. It was Crazy Town. We just thought of the phrase and we were like, well what do you mean, Crazy Town? And we thought, hey, there’s this location with all this “crazy stuff”… And we thought, what can we do with this? What do we want to do with this? Have we ever seen this before? And then the spit-balling process began. And I think that’s where the four of us kinda picked up our general work ethic with each other – that spit-balling process. Then the cabin idea came up and we thought let’s get this started.
JAMES: And funny enough, this was the first story we did together. It’s just not the first one we put out. We wrote in Sanity together over a weekend and it’s been in production for over three years in one state or another. But in that time the four of us have put out three other comic books: One called RUE, which is available at the website (www.jamesninness.com); one called The Get Up and one called Con Jure, which are both pitches we’re shopping around right now. On top of that we’ve also done some TV stuff. We did a pitch for an animated show that I don’t think we can talk about yet, and we did a short film script for a local San Diego filmmaker, that is, again, not announced yet.
MARCEL: Don’t forget The Undergrounds, buddy!
JAMES: Oh, yeah!
MARCEL: While we weren’t all the creators of the idea of The Undergrounds, I’d like to think that we created character voices that stayed true in two solid seasons of The Undergrounds.
JAMES: One and a half. We had one and a half solid seasons. There were two seasons, but only one and a half were “solid”.
MARCEL: Yeah… The rest I blame on…the economy.
Explain to our readers just how this whole idea came together. What prompted four guys to go off into a cabin in the woods to write? Y’know, besides butt stuff.
MARCEL: Well, James has kids, so he was willing to get the fuck away from them. [laughs]
JAMES: Any writing or comic venture that takes me away for a weekend is not always a bad thing.
MARCEL: I think part of the idea was-
JAMES: I love my family.
MARCEL: Don’t interrupt! I want to tell a story! So, um-
JAMES: Let me say something else… Just kidding. I have nothing to say. Go ahead.
MARCEL: When we were driving out to the retreat itself, we had a discussion about the name of the groups and about authors… You know how Lord Byron and Mary Shelley and all those people, they would get together and craft something because they had the advantage of being “nobles”. They were wealthy and could go take the time off and go out into the wild and produce something while the servants stayed home and took care of the house. There’s a certain efficiency to that process. When you’re out, isolated with your writing compatriots. You’re forced to deal with different opinions. Something that is normally a individual act becomes subject and critiqued by others whom, hopefully, you have respect for. It becomes kind of a beautiful thing, ya know? I think that’s what we were striving for, in a lot of ways - to follow in the footsteps of our writing inspirations. I know I was.
MARCEL: I was really with the idea once it was proposed because I had wanted to do that so bad. And it really worked out well.
MIKE: Yeah. We had been kicking around the idea of a writers retreat for a while and at the same time kicking around the idea of doing a horror book. They just coincide perfectly that weekend.
JAMES: It was awesome. Marcel brought a shotgun.
MARCEL: Hell yeah! I’m not going unarmed to a cabin in the woods. I’ve seen these movies. I’ve seen how they go down. I’m gonna shoot a bitch if that shit comes up.
Obviously, Sanity is a fictional place, but I think we’ve all been in that town that just didn’t feel quite right. Did the idea for the book stem from any real life travels?
MARCEL: Hell yes! Absolutely. As a motorcyclist, I pass through weird places all the time. And I will say that I’ve been to the town we kinda created. The highway system itself is kinda strange in that it’s kinda like time travel. Every time you stop you end up at the same gas station that has the same Subway and Chevron and Starbucks attached to it – major corporate appeal. But behind that gas station, especially once you get outside the interstates to the highways themselves, you start to encounter these tiny towns. There’s inevitably this thought process, what makes this tiny town tick? Who would live out here? And yet there are people trying to get by. And that’s where we kinda took over with the idea and made this play on the concept of a normal town, or just towns in general.
MIKE: There was one road trip where a friend and I were driving across country and we stopped in Tucumcari, New Mexico – and if you haven’t heard of it, I’m not fucking surprised. We were crashing for a night at the hotel. I walk in and the guy who walks out looks like the Cryptkeeper – skin was stretched tight over his face. He was like, “What do ya want?” I told him I needed a room for the night for me and my buddy and he said, “Together?” So he charged us but he was giving us this weird look. In retrospect I think it’s because he thought we were gay. We went in, we showered, took a nap and when we woke up, two of our tires were slashed. So we ended up spending a lot more time in this BFE town than we had wanted to. We had to find a shop that was open to repair the tires… It was weird because you could look out from the town, which wasn’t hard because it was one street, and think, why did they make this a stop on the highway? This sucks. We need to get outta here!
JOE: I’ve never been on a road trip across the country so I’ve never spent time in those towns. I’ve driven by them, but that’s it. I am from upstate New York and we have these tiny little carnivals outside of major cities, like Saratoga. You get a few miles out and there’s a Ferris wheel and a tiny little rollercoaster and these little shops – it’s fun for like five minutes. Even as a kid you’re wary of what’s going on. And then you see these people that travel with the carnival and their kids and there’s this sense where they look at you in this odd way like you’re invading their home, even though they travel state-to-state, city-to-city. They’re coming to you but you’re invading their territory. They make direct eye contact and for some reason, that can be disconcerting at times from strangers – to me. So there’s an aspect of relocation and disorientation, even if you’re near home, when people communicate in a way that should be normal, but their attitude and the way they present themselves just doesn’t seem to fit your understanding of what they should be. Maybe that comes from watching too many small towns or not actually visiting enough of them. To me, I’m kinda fascinated by that feeling of disorientation from normalcy. For me, you see that a lot in Twilight Zone episodes and that, to me, was an interesting aspect of storytelling for in Sanity.
JAMES: I’ve actually been in towns like Sanity. I lived out in the desert for some reason I don’t remember. And during that time I still had a lot of friends and family in San Diego and Orange County, so I drove back and forth a lot. And there aren’t many routes – there is the eight and there is the ten. On both of those highways there are a ton of one-road towns that are made from garage doors with no streetlights. There are liquor stores jam-packed of stuff that expired years ago. I’ve seen this place. I’ve talked to the people. There is a vibe, like Joe said, that makes you feel like an intruder. I think the normal response to that is to get defensive. But in this book, we tried to break down that wall and to look outside from within. Obviously we took liberties to exaggerate our characters… But yes, I have been to Sanity.
Would this book be happening in a world without Kickstarter? How helpful is it, as creators, to have a barometer for future endeavors’ success? Does crowdsourcing run the risk of conversely stifling creativity by shutting down projects that might otherwise have found a fanbase AFTER publication?
MARCEL: Uh, possibly… And I’m totally jumping on this one because I love the idea of crowdfunding. But if it doesn’t get produced in the first place than you certainly can’t argue that it wouldn’t have found its place in the later market. And this is one of those projects where we don’t have the capital for what we’re looking at. Unless [the artists] decided to be super cool and just donate their time and effort into doing it because there are so many people involved in this project. That may be what separates us from a Robert Kirkman who is doing fantastic work and started making his project with a limited circle, whereas we have a small army of people working on this thing-
JAMES: Twenty-two people.
MARCEL: Yeah… There’s no way we’d be able to do this without crowdfuning. And that’s why we’re so involved in the marketing and pre-production and the actual production. And that’s the thing that separates us from some of the other projects out there: We’re already mid-way through production. We’ve gotten some produced and we need help to finish. In the modern context, does crowdfunding affect the way things get done? Naw, man! If you’re able to get people excited and they’re willing to “vote” for your project with the almighty dollar, then why is that a bad thing? I don’t see how that could be construed as anything other than the ultimate manifestation of a capitalist society, in a positive sense, to fund artistic endeavors.
MIKE: Yeah, ya know, first of all, the first part of the question – we didn’t originally want to use Kickstarter. We had pitched it to Keyleaf and they were interested. From that perspective, we were in production without crowdfuning, but then whem Keyleaf went under we had a book we still wanted to do something with. We had the talent that Keyleaf put together and we decided that we were gonna finish it. I can’t say it’s a unique case, but it seemed like more than a shot-in-the-dark, hopes and dreams kinda project. From that regard I don’t think Kickstarter has the potential to stifle creativity. Just because if you believe that strongly and you don’t find a way to meet your goal you either lower your goal or find another way to get it done. With that perspective, this seemed to be the most logical way to attain the funds we need and getting the book out in a timely manner.
JOE: I don’t think Kickstarter stifles creativity, like Mike was saying. If you don’t make your goal you find a more creative way to get it made or get it done on your own for less money. I know people who haven’t reached their goal on Kickstarter and yet, a year later, something will come out. It may not be what they wanted, but they conquered the challenge to get it made and had to refocus their efforts. It’s something to strive for but it’s not the end of a project.
JAMES: I think we’re a rare case. Most of the comic Kickstarters I see are one of two things. They’re either a completed project, meaning you support them and you get the finished book – we fall in that category. We collect the money and produce the book and that’s it – the beginning, middle and end. We’re done. All of the money we’re asking for is to pay the artists for the art. We, the writers, aren’t actually gonna get a penny unless we hit our stretch goals. So we can’t really be stifled because we’ve done our part. The writing is done. The flipside of that is, there are some Kickstarter projects out there that are to fund issue one. And what I see happens a lot is they raise enough money to make issue one, but you don’t get issue two. Say they asked for six thousand dollars to make issue one. If they are selling that issue online for a dollar, unless they get six thousand sales (which they probably won’t), they don’t have the funds to make issue two. Does that mean their creativity was stifled? I dunno. They didn’t get to produce so, in a way, yeah. We already did one Kickstarter last year for two pitches, which was successful. We learned a lot from that. With in Sanity, we’re doing the right thing by asking for what we need to finish the book. It’ll be all done. So, yeah. I kinda agree with everyone else, is what I’m saying, in a long-winded way.
MIKE: I do like the fact that the project we’re funding is done. We’re not starting something, we’re finishing it. This will give us the means to put a completed project out there. Finished. Done.
Why go the comic book route, as opposed to a prose novel or film?
JOE: I think it is the form of storytelling it allows. It’s visual. It’s literal. Like a film would be, obviously, a lot more expensive and prohibitive, and a novel wouldn’t give you the visual stimulation that a tale like this deserves.
MIKE: I think that, given the story we’re telling, in that it’s an anthology of stories about a town, I feel that the graphic novel process works a lot better for us because the collaboration between the writer and artists has already begun. Whereas the collaborative process for a novel, with four writers, with the butting heads… I think it would have taken a lot more time than a weekend in the cabin, or Marcel would have run out of shotgun shells.
JAMES: I think there is a peak medium for every narrative. I believe that every story has the best way to be told. Some movies should only be movies. Some books should only be books. I think in Sanity, AZ, like Joe said, is a visual story. Now, to be fair, we knew it was a comic before we started, so we wrote it as a comic. Had we been trying to make a film, we would have written it as a film. I think the reason we decided to make a comic is that we were all exploring the medium. Nobody was great at it. I had been dabbling, but my forte was short prose in college. It seemed like a nice middle ground for us to meet and explore together.
MIKE: I would agree with that.
That said, in a day and age of comic properties making the jump to the big screen, is that a consideration while creating? Or do you just tell your tale and hope that it might later be seen as marketable in some other media?
MARCEL: This is one of those questions that deals with art versus, what should we call it…economic gain? And, you know, I feel strongly that we [laughs] definitely aren’t worried about the economic gain. We deal with the art and hope that it strikes a chord. With this particular project, I feel like we stumbled across something that is more succinct. And in a way, and this is one of those things I’ve kinda been wrestling with academically or intellectually on my own, these kinds of stories that we tell in in Sanity, are the next progression of the zombie genre. Zombies are doing incredibly well. Zombies are awesome. But at the same time, there will come a day when the zombie tradition is kinda done. Things like Walking Dead and Day Z will take a backseat. We will want a little more than just mindless, consumer-produced horror stories. I feel like the small town America has so much to offer and so much to share akin to what has already been begun with that genre. Kinda like the next dimension of it. Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong before. We’ll see…
JOE: I think anything is possible in terms of a story like this making a jump. I can certainly imagine some of it on the big screen but I’m not sure it would do the stories justice. And I’m probably one of those types that would wanna retain control over the filmmaking process. Who know? There is a lot more to be told here. But it wasn’t the intention to make a movie-
JAMES: I don’t think that conversation has come up at all. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that.
JOE: I’ve brought it up once or twice. Maybe we should film this for the Kickstarter, or maybe make this a short.
JAMES: Yeah, but that’s different. We’ve talked about making short films out of them, but have we tried to make it a film or transmedia in some way? Nope. I was just making a comic.
JAMES: Having said that, I’m a sellout. If Hollywood comes to me tomorrow and says we’ll give you guys a million dollars each to make this a movie, I’m down. And I will go back to the cabin to write that film script. So, I’m down to do it, it just wasn’t part of the plan.
JOE: I don’t think there is a question there. It’s more of, there was never an intent to make it more than a comic.
JAMES: Right. I agree.
JOE: And that should never be the intent of what someone writes, I don’t think. “Let’s make a movie like this so we can tie in a comic…” Every story should be told in a certain way and we should stick to that. This was and is a comic.
MIKE: I could definitely see certain stories or pieces of in Sanity, AZ put on the big screen, but right now we’re hoping to make a comic. Why would we be hoping to make a movie if we don’t even have the comic? It’s not even in my mind. If a studio did offer money, like James said, then yeah, I’m down. But right now I’m trying to get a book made.
You each find your way to Sanity – what fate would befall each of you?
MARCEL: That’s good. I like that.
MIKE: I’ll answer about Marcel.
JAMES: Do it.
MIKE: I picture Marcel running through an orchard back to his motorcycle. I don’t know if he makes it out, but I certainly think he stops in town for gas and tries to escape. He may get lost in the orchard.
MARCEL: Okay. My turn. Who am I talking about?
JAMES: Oh, Lord.
MARCEL: [laughs] I see James taking up residence here. I see him reigning everybody in. He’d have a harem of sorts. It wouldn’t necessarily be the harem he wants, but the harem he needs. It’d be the harem he could tell everyone they need once he’s had it. So, yeah. That’s, honestly… Yeah. He might even make it to mayor someday.
JAMES: Okay, my turn? Who am I talking about?
JOE: Oh, boy.
JAMES: Oh, Joe… Joe would die. There is no question in my mind Joe would meet some terrible, terrible death. The thing is Joe is naturally a hypochondriac and stresses about everything. So what would probably happen is, Joe would stop for gas, pull into the gas station, go inside to pay, and then some of the locals would start fucking with his car. He would try to be non-confrontational, but he would speak in half-sentences, trying to get them to stop, but he would be too flustered. Before you know it, his car would be taken apart, he’d be asking the locals for help or for a phone because someone stole his shit. Next thing you know, he’s in a basement with some hamsters, doing some weird shit, bleeding out and he’s dead. That’s what happens to Joe.
JOE: Wow. That hurts.
JAMES: No it doesn’t. You know I’m right.
JOE: Mike would probably give too much sass to the waitress and get a little tang to his burger and probably die of dysentery in the desert.
JAMES: Steal some girl’s lollipops?
JOE: No no, he don’t go down for lollipop, he just wants extra burg.
MIKE: Dysentery in the desert? What a shitty way to go.
JAMES: Oh, Mike…
Wow. That was… amusing. And bleak. And now that you’ve all killed each other off, it seems as good a time as any to wrap this up. So, while we wait for in Sanity, AZ to drop, where else can the PoP!ulation find you and your works?
JAMES: Check out my website, jamesninness.com. You can find RUE there and when the Kickstarter is done you’ll be able to find in Sanity, AZ there as well.
JOE: Because we will make our goal!
JAMES: Yup. And we’ve got a ton of cool rewards: digital comics, the trade paperback, posters, thumbdrives, postcards, all kinds of stuff. You can guest blog on our sites. We can Skype each other. If you’re really rich we will fly out to hang with you. You can get original cover art by Big Chris Art. I can’t really talk about the stretch goals, but I can say that they will improve the quality of the final product. So tell your friends. Tell everyone.
MIKE: And don’t be afraid to follow us on Twitter and say hello. I’m @akatzenshai.
JAMES: @jamesninness, here.
JOE: I’m @joepezzula.
JAMES: Big thanks to everyone at PoP! for talking to us!
MIKE: Yes, Thanks!
JAMES: And that Jango Fett video is fucking awesome.
MARCEL: Hell yeah it is! So badass…
Thank YOU guys, for everything!
So there you go, PoP!ulation. Everything you need to know. Now click the link and help get in Sanity, AZ Kickstarted – NOW!