Between the BalloonsWelcome Listenerds!  This installment of Between the Balloons, I had the wonderful pleasure of talking with Aubrey Sitterson.  Aubrey is a current writer at IDW and hosts two incredible podcasts.  We talked about so much is that we will be bringing you the entire interview over three articles.  This installment we discuss his everything from how he came to work at IDW, licensed comics, and his upcoming run on GI Joe.

Ryan Mount (Two-Headed Nerd): You were first an editor at Marvel and then Image, how did you end up writing for IDW?

Aubrey Sitterson: I’ve written comics – and a bunch of other stuff – pretty consistently since leaving Marvel. Short stories at Marvel, DC, Image and Oni, as well as original graphic novels for Roddenberry and Viz Media. My work with IDW came about because of something unrelated though: My wrestling talk show, STRAIGHT SHOOT. Senior Editor John Barber knew that I was very, very, very much interested in something I call “fight-based storytelling” – the type of fights-as-story approach seen in professional wrestling and kung fu movies. So, when it came time to find someone to write Street Fighter x G.I. Joe…they came to the right dude!

RM: IDW is really known for its licensed comics.  Most people tend to view licensed comics as an entry way for kids and adults into comic reading.  As a current writer for IDW, what role do you think licensed comics and IDW has in the modern market?

AS: So, first off, at the risk of completely derailing things, I want to take issue with the “licensed comics” vs everything else distinction. People tend to say the phrase with a certain amount of, if not disdain, then at least condescension. General fan opinion seems to be that since there’s a separate IP-owner involved with them, “licensed books” have a lower quality ceiling than other books. That, however…is absolutely ludicrous.

Reason being is that in 2016, when any work-for-hire book you can think of is part of a larger, transmedia empire…every property has someone watching over it to make sure that the integrity of the characters and brand are intact. If you think that working on a G.I. Joe book, I’m subject to more scrutiny or editorial oversight than someone working on Iron Man, Batman or Star Wars – all massive movie franchises – you’re out of your mind. If anything, we’ve got more freedom on G.I. Joe, as Giannis Milonogiannis and I have been tasked with coming up with a new vision for the property.

All of which is a long way of saying this: I think that the distinction between licensed books and other work-for-hire books is an arbitrary one, and the idea that their primary function is, or should be, as a set of training wheels to get people ready to read Spider-Man or whatever…that’s completely off-base. The role for licensed comics is the same as any other comic: Be smart, be compelling, be awesome.

RM: Truly, how different is your approach to story-telling? You tell your long form narrative on Skald and your comic stories, but is your overall approach much different?  What are some things you like and dislike about each way you tell stories?

AS: Tonally, thematically and even structurally, it’s easy to find similarities across my work on different projects and even in different mediums. There are definitely certain tactics and approaches that I use in pretty much everything that I do, with much of it coming from my foundational beliefs of what stories are and how they work best. That’s probably a subject for another interview though…

With each of my projects, I definitely tailor my approach to the medium I’m working in and its particular restraints. It’s actually among the first things that I think about when starting a new project. Something that I really love about comics, for instance, is how finite an amount of space there is. 20 pages per issue, around 5 panels per page and only as much dialogue as can fit without encroaching on the art. It’s what makes comics a difficult medium, but also what forces conscientious creators to find innovative, exciting ways to tell their stories.

With an oral storytelling medium like I utilize on SKALD, there are a ton of very unique pros and cons. I have to be extra cognizant of the fact that people are going to be listening to SKALD on the go, so it’s important that I pace things properly – something I’ve definitely improved at over time. Personally, I have a really difficult time listening to audiobooks because they’re audio versions of text that was never meant to be read aloud, so writing something that doesn’t sound good is a pitfall that I’m very careful to sidestep. More than anything, there’s a “feel” to SKALD, one that has gotten easier for me to tap into as I’ve progressed. It’s all about imagining how it will sound when I speak it and making sure that it’s in keeping with the voice that the story requires.

RM: One of the reasons I listen week in and week out to Straight Shoot is that you really seem to find the good in all wrestling, even when it is not the greatest.  In the age of snarkiness and twitter culture, Street Fighter x GI Joe provides plenty of high energy and a tone that sometimes gets lost in all the doom and gloom of comics.  Is that something you have to actively work on to put out or you naturally just a positive person?

AS: I think there’s this culture-wide misconception about the nature of criticism, with far too many people believing that it is synonymous with “being critical.” Thing is, if those “make a list of all the things they didn’t like and call it a review” folks had actually read any critical theory, they’d know that there’s a lot more to it than that.

It’s not that I love every moment of every wrestling show I watch – far from it. But I made a call early, early on with STRAIGHT SHOOT, deciding that there’s more to be learned from talking about what works and why as opposed to just complaining and backseat driving all the time. I don’t think it’s that I’m a super happy-go-lucky guy – the vicious, hateful nihilism of SKALD should dispel that notion – but rather that it’s a lot more fun, challenging and enlightening to pick something apart with the end goal of figuring out why it works, rather than why it doesn’t.

With Street Fighter x G.I. Joe, I approached the entire project with an eye toward a rather difficult goal: Pleasing fans of both franchises. To do that, I needed to find the areas where they overlapped and then play up those aspects of the properties as much as I could, and that meant leaning into the big, bombastic, colorful, sometimes cartoony action that is a hallmark of Street Fighter and a big part of my personal favorite take on G.I. Joe: The 80s cartoons. I’m sure there’s someone out there that would want a grim & gritty take on the properties, with Blanka gouging out Quick Kick’s eyes or whatever…but it certainly ain’t me.

I think there’s this really unfortunate idea that “smart” comics have to be grim, vicious and “adult,” but it’s just simply not the case. I’m really thrilled to have had an opportunity to issue my rebuttal to that notion through Street Fighter x G.I. Joe.

RM: Currently you are writing the Street Fighter x GI Joe book, when does the next issue come out?

AS: The final issue of the best series of the year (at least until the G.I. Joe ongoing starts up) hits stores on July 27, 2016! GET EXCITED.

RM: While promoting the book on the Straight Shoot podcast, I noticed you tend to talk about being able to download it immediately from Comixology.  Are you a big fan of digital comics in general? Or is it just the ease of having it right at your fingertips that drive up readership?

AS: These days I buy stuff both digitally and in print, with the choice really coming down to whether I have space for a physical copy and if there’s a tangible benefit to having it on my shelf instead of on my tablet. Truth is, I’ve only got so much room for stacks of paper, and after moving across country a few years ago, I’m acutely aware of how heavy all that stuff is. That said, there’s some stuff, like Simonson’s Ragnarok or Ziritt & Rangel’s Space Riders, that I just absolutely have to hold in my hands.

If it’s something that I’m only going to read once, or there are a ton of issues that I don’t feel like lugging around with me to wherever I’m going to be reading, I tend to prefer digital comics, but that’s not why I push the Comixology angle so hard on STRAIGHT SHOOT.

Most of the people who listen to STRAIGHT SHOOT aren’t comics folks. They aren’t used to going to the shop on Wednesdays, and many of them live in places where there isn’t even a comic shop convenient to them. Rather than risk them throwing up their hands and downloading a torrent of the books, I prefer to push them to a place where they can obtain the comic digitally, legally, instantly in a single click.

RM: Looking back on the history of GI Joe, it is one of those rare properties, where the characters can be molded to tell the story the writer wants to tell.  Similar to Batman.  For example: Batman, had the animated series, classic detective stories, campiness of the 60’s, and very different film franchises.  GI Joe is nearly identical.  You have the cartoon.  Then the comics.  And even a couple of movies and GI Joe is capable of being anything in the creator’s hands.

RM: Is that one of the things that drew you to the project or just gets your excited to work on the franchise?

AS: Absolutely. I love franchises like what you’ve described, whether it’s G.I. Joe, Batman or, another of my all-time favorites, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These concepts are extremely malleable and work no matter what tone they approached with, which is exactly why they’ve stood the test of time.

In the comics, ever since Larry Hama’s groundbreaking Marvel run, things have very much followed in his footsteps, with a rather realistic approach to these concepts, one that places a high value on real world veracity. Giannis and I, however, as much as we love and respect Hama’s work, we recognize that we’re never going to out-Hama Hama and that G.I. Joe has gone about as far down that route as it can.

With that in mind, with our hearts overflowing with love for the G.I. Joe toys and cartoon series…we’re going to be pushing things in a different direction, one that is explosive and exciting, reveling in science fiction and fantasy weirdness, all while retaining the essence of these beloved characters. It’s going to be like Challengers of the Unknown. But with guns. It’s a different flavor for sure, but it’s exactly the shot in the arm that the franchise needs.

RM: Are you building a small cast like Costa’s run or do you think this will be a full out team book like you are currently writing?

AS: There’s most definitely a “core team” that we’ll be dealing with, including all the obvious choices, as well as some less popular faces just to keep things fresh and mix it up a bit. But that being said, one of the best things about G.I. Joe as a franchise is its exceptionally deep roster – the fact that there’s already an existing character to deal with practically any task you can imagine, from demolitions to transport to lasers to space travel. It’d be a waste to do a G.I. Joe book without drawing on that roster, so you can and should expect to see a lot more than just that core team.

RM: Will it be similar to your current take on the franchise?  Perhaps to get more specific, your run on the characters right now, harkens back to more action based comics and more appropriate for all ages.  Should we see that style carry over onto the new ongoing?

AS: I hesitate to say that G.I. Joe will be “all ages,” because that term carries with it some very specific implications and at the end of the day…this is still a book where people are running around shooting massive guns at each other. That said, Giannis & I have absolutely zero interest in a “grim & gritty” take on G.I. Joe. While many of the characters will have flaws and, like any good team book, there will most definitely be some strife and conflict amongst them, the heroes of G.I. Joe will always be aspirational. This isn’t going to be a book where the good guys are pretty much the same as he bad guys, but with different costumes.

Some people might say that this type of approach is naive, dated or somehow inferior to a fictional world in which all moral issues are tinted grey, but I think that’s shamefully lazy thinking. I firmly believe that it’s possible to do a book that addresses serious themes and issues, but in a way that avoids the violence and misery porn that so many creators seem eager to fall into. And come December? We’re going to show you exactly what I’m talking about.

RM: What else can you tell us about your upcoming G.I. Joe run?

AS: Ever since I was a teenager, this is exactly what I’ve been working toward: An extended run on a comic series, the opportunity to develop something complex, meaningful and exciting. I’m fortunate to not just have the opportunity to build something new, to not just build it with the full support of IDW and Hasbro, and to not just do it with a world-class cartoonist like Giannis, but to get my hands on a franchise that is as beloved as G.I. Joe.

This series is going to be a quantum leap forward, not just for me, not just for Giannis, not just for G.I. Joe and the new Hasbro universe…but for comics. To my mind, the two things that separate good comics from great comics are depth and subtlety, and while those might not be the first things that come to mind when you think about G.I. Joe…they are always at the forefront of our team’s minds when building out this series. G.I. Joe is going to be something new, something different, something wild and something smart and you? You’re going to love it.

Thanks for checking out Part One of my interview with Aubrey Sitterson.  Make sure to keep reading over at twoheadednerd.wpengine.com for Parts Two and Three where we will be talking RPG and Wrestling!   Check out some of Aubrey’s work, with GI Joe x Street Fighter issue #6 at your local comic shop and Comixology on July 27th!  Also make sure to check out Aubrey on his podcasts SKALD and Straight Shoot, available wherever you listen to podcasts!