Stargate’s Alexis Cruz Ventures Into Graphic Novels With “The Unprofessionals”
Fans of the Stargate film and subsequent TV franchise know Alexis Cruz as Skaara…
…but I know him as Alexis Cruz, actor and massive comic book geek who along with his best friend (the equally awesome Colin Rankine) created The Unprofessionals, a graphic novel that gives an urban look and feel right from book’s cover. Being the inquisitive (read: nosy) geek that I am, you best believe I hit up old pal Alexis and HIS pal Colin (who also serves as the series’ writer) to get some answers! I think you comic book darlings will be very, very pleased.
Why did you create The Unprofessionals?
AC: I needed to expand as an artist and years of percolating ideas came to an eruption when I did a film called Sightings last year, which was extremely cathartic. But to really take the first steps in the vision that was forming I needed my best friend, Colin Rankine, who is one of the most gifted writers Ive ever known, so I tracked him down to a remote cave in the deepest jungles of San Francisco and after an Apocalypse Now montage and killing a three headed dog, I convinced him to forge me a weapon by which we could turn back the demon hordes of hell. I have really long term ambitions for The Mythmaker Group (our imprint) and I knew it was critical that we begin with a story that was both engaging and manageable at our nascent stage. Most people want to make a movie their first time out, but I wanted to return to comics because as a medium it was always my first love, and as a business would allow me to collaborate directly with other creatives while not drowning in the executive responsibility of a feature film. The ultimate push for The Unprofessionals was that it was a story about two best friends with a dream who teach themselves, for better or worse, to do something most people would consider absurd and that through it, we discover who we are and who we can count on. And so it became an absurdist criminal procedural, which in it’s analogies gave us a very clear map. At the end of the day, one of my dreams was to be the first to publish my best friend’s work, without whom I’d likely be nothing more than a vapid bullhorn of little substance; As an actor-director-creator, I am only as good as my collaborators and they’re only as effective as how I bring them together with a vision towards a common goal. The Unprofessionals grew beyond it’s own story and became a vehicle for us to reinvent ourselves creatively. For our artists I think the idea of waging war on the status quo by tearing it a new one resonated. Together, we decided that The Unprofessionals was the the right story for us to express ourselves and slit throats. It’s Hip-Hop as a comic book.
CR: Alexis approached me last year with a scheme to break into comics. He had a lot of the relationships and resources in place to make it happen, but he needed a story. When we met in high school, we were both pretty intense, cerebral dudes, and we spent a lot of our teenage years making up stories and analyzing & interpreting stories we both liked. So, in looking for a story to break into comics with, he asked to see my laundry list of works-in-progress. Out of the huddle of time-traveling beatniks, haunted Roman soldiers, pariguayo serial killers, kids with jetpacks, and so on, he picked The Unprofessionals, about a pair of homicidal nerds who break into the murder for hire business. I didn’t actually think it had much promise, but the obvious parallels made me laugh, so I went with it. I think Alexis has been trying to figure out ever since if he’s supposed to be Jake or Leo…
What do you love about comic books?
AC: The narrative freedom. Setting aside publishing demands, sequential art lets us apply our narrative skills as writers, artists (and in my case directorially) without limit. At it’s simplest, I was raised on comics as much as TV and though my professional life from an early age was in TV and film, my imagination was nourished by comics as much as any sci-fi creator today has been influenced by Asimov, Serling, Roddenberry, etc. I think there’s a sense memory of how all of that fantastical content embedded itself into my mind as a child along with some of the romantic notions that would grow regarding literature, and the feel of a good book in your hands. Most assume that as an actor, I’m concerned with how you see my performances on screen but really, in order to do that I tend to prioritize drawing on the experience of a moment as a selfish thing before translating it to something for you to receive. With comics, it was as influential an example of the nexus of art and literature as any, and continues to be. My real passions have always been art and literature (for which I also credit Colin for shaping while we were teens), and movies have been my way of expressing that with the particular talents I happened to be born with. I love film and television, but sequential art is a medium where all of the creative senses are literally bound together with a few staples and there’s a kind of purity in that which I could never let go of.
What are your top five comic books?
AC: I grew up primarily on a diet of X-Men beginning with Chris Claremont and then through Grant Morrison’s run, finally ending in the House of M storyline which led me to reconnect with my once lukewarm Avenger’s fandom with Disassembled. I think as a minority it was easy to relate to the X-Men over the more status quo Avengers in my early years, but now as an adult I’ve a greater interest in the stuff Bendis has been doing since his rise at Marvel (can you tell Im a marvel zombie?). His run with Alex Maleev on Daredevil was breathtaking and again, following my sympathies with the underdog, Daredevil was one of my all time favorites titles since it delved into a lot of issues regarding handicaps, legacies, catholicism, the crazy women in his life, NYC (which I continue to have a complex love/hate relationship with), and the idea that Matt Murdock keeps being invited to the Avengers and keeps turning them down; I find that hilarious. Ultimate Avengers was probably my pick for best “This HAS to be made into a movie!” and apparently I wasnt alone in that. On the broader scene, I loved Watchmen for it’s place in comic book history, though I sharply disagree with the creator’s overestimation of it. It’s like saying the Beatles still are the greatest band of all time, you know? It’s just bullshit, and yes, I dug the movie. Deal with it. In the more immeadiate, Hybrid Bastards by Tom Pinchuck and Kate Glasheen for Archaia still holds up as a great inspiration for me with a ridiculous narrative that was amazingly executed. Do I sound fake if I don’t mention Neil Gaiman? I mean, what he’s done with comics is sort of assumed right? It feels pretty cliche to cite him as an influence and I’m no hipster.
Who is your CB hero and why?
AC: I think fictionally it gets down to Moon Knight who I’ve taken a renewed interest in since starting TU. Non-fictionally I owe a great deal of thanks to Tom Pinchuk, Dennis Greenhill, and Dexter Odani (who was the first person to encourage me to go into comics with an unshakable conviction that made me forswear all my material possessions in order to make a comic). Artistically, Bill Sienkiewicz, Alex Maleev, Kent Williams, John Bolton, and Jim Lee (as the father of modern commercial superhero-dom, except that when he first did it, it set the bar and wasn’t lame) are probably my top “must buy” heroes as a fanboy. Nightcrawler (swashbuckling, devout, dreamer) and Jamie Maddox (The Multiple Man) are the more analogous CB heroes to myself, and I’ve always found Cyclops terribly underrated and horribly mischaracterized until Claremont came back to him in X-Men: The End, to off-the-record, set the record straight. The artists on The Unprofessionals are by far though, my real and truest CB heroes. They came guns loaded and even amidst our combat casualties and friendly fire, they’ve remained steadfast and classy. Edwin Vazquez, Erik Reeves, Chris Moreno, Kate Glasheen, Michael Montenat, Christian DiBari, Troy Peteri, and the folks at Red Stylo have thrown down some of the best work of their careers and it’s an indescribable honor to launch our first graphic novel in their company.
What makes The Unprofessionals stand out?
AC: It’s based on a true story. Colin addresses it a bit better than me, but its an example of what can be accomplished when you accept having nothing left to lose and that everything you’ve ever wanted to gain is illuminated by that acceptance. It’s freedom incarnate and the book opens with a quote by Ernst Von Soloman, “They are just like nature – instinctively good and instictively cruel. All the strength of life lies waiting within them”. I sort of equate that to, “it’s all fun and games till someone gets hurt”. We wanted a story that played out like a modern greek dramedy where the Letters represent a kind of male choral voice while the Colors represent a feminine choral voice (the latter being, in essence, the violent femme of Jake and Leo’s sociopathy). From Edwin Vazquez’s visceral “scratch” style to Kate Glasheen’s honey-dipped carnality, the art of The Unprofessionals is uniquely suited to Colin’s “anti-noir” tale of heartfelt sociopathy. It’s expressed through the talents of nearly a dozen visionaries who love what they do and aren’t afraid to give the middle finger to those that don’t. In it’s design, The Unprofessionals is something of a four part, layered narrative or symphony where we use the dialogue, lettering, line art, and colors as distinct voices with each adding to the harmony of the whole. Mostly I think we’ve succeeded, and in the places where we fail, we fail – no apologies. It’s our first book, but we made one, so cut us a break. Or not, whatevs.
CR: I think it’s from the heart in a way that a lot of books, in this era of franchise building, are not. It’s about some screwed up dudes who always have each others’ backs, even when they are hating each other’s guts–so it describes a friendship that few people are lucky enough to have, and most of us (I think) would like to have. It’s also about having a mission in life, a driving purpose, but no idea how to execute it, and just plowing into it and forcing it to happen. It’s about an artist forcing his way into the museum. It’s carefully plotted to be an absolute trainwreck. Beyond that, we have lined up the most talented people we could get our hands on and every single one of them is a Big Deal.
Why watercolor over traditional?
AC: Hand craftsmanship is traditional. What it’s not is conventional. At every step, Colin and I asked, “ok, how can we do this differently from what’s expected…and survive?”. Its as much a statement about defying convention as it is about the final commercial package. In terms of the art direction, I knew we needed to substitute in the mind’s eye for the 3D we’re accustomed to with digital media and it had to visually compete in a market that encourages voyeurism over craftsmanship. I also wanted something that represented stillness in motion/motion in stillness. To me, that was the key towards courting your imagination while we throw you in the back of our white van and go for a ride downtown. In fact more than modern digital coloring, it takes the original color feel of old comics and breathes new life into them. There’s fluidity and texture in watercolor that really hits it’s stride on a printed page and in the context of this story, it’s informative. Look, we don’t have much money so we’ve had to fall back on the only thing we do have which is a passion for craftsmanship. We’re not old hats at this to know we might be “doing it wrong” and we’re not fearful of letting our artists cut loose. There are a lot of coloring styles that would have been fine I guess, but I don’t think any of them really stood out or brought anything to the table and instead we have a funky return to a traditional sense of the art of making comics as a means of expression rather than money or propoganda and it’s awesome. It fits the narrative. Dont get me wrong, I love money and I love me some good propaganda but we needed an Artist, not a colorist.Not only did Kate Glasheen fully embody the voice of the bloody muse but stunned us with a well thought out and compelling vision of the narrative as a living, breathing thing. It’s was never meant to be a storyboard for a movie, but what it became was live theatre in your hands. The bottom line is that we just got lucky. It’s sort of our thing.
CR: I’m not sure we did choose watercolor over digital (“traditional” is the wrong word, I think), so much as we chose Kate Glasheen. Kate chose watercolor and we were all dead right in our choices. I did not give a whole lot of thought to the colors at first–I’m color blind and don’t feel qualified to judge beyond an up/down vote. But I knew that I didn’t want that real photoshoppy look where everything is gruesomely highlighted and shaded and gleaming, like it’s been sprayed down with cooking oil. That stuff has its place, but this was not a book about guys in lycra bodysuits. So I think we pictured flat, simple colors, but we couldn’t really find any examples of what we wanted it to look like. We kept coming back to idly click around on Kate’s website, just because it looked like nothing else we’d seen. Kate is utterly, ineradicably KATE, you know? It just kept nibbling at us until it clicked: we NEEDED Kate to shape a lot of the sub-textual stuff, give it form without me standing next to the reader and pointing at it.
(In issue 1, watch for the color pink. It dips in and out of Chris Moreno’s line art, indicating a kind of secret character that is shocking and creepy–like a ghost haunting the art.) Also, I think in this day and age, anyone making comics by hand deserves to be talked about.
When’s the release date?
AC: The release date is now and a chapter 1 digital download is available at Sociopathic Bromance and via our small press publisher, Red Stylo Media. It’s probably fair to note that Red Stylo has become as much a trusted partner as a publisher where Enrica Jang (Azteca, Shakespeare Shaken) and Erica Schultz (M3) have saved our over ambitious asses with their skills and dedication to our vision. Our imprint is, The Mythmaker Group which my partners and I founded as our IP development company but in terms of being “Published”, we’re doing it all ourselves. Which is a bitch at any stage but particularly when you’ve got a lot of options to sell out with. We started on Kickstarter and became the 8th most successful comics project in 2011 and I think its important that where The Unprofessionals is concerned, we continue to hold true to that spirit of independence and DIY production. The entire 6 chapter graphic novel will be completed by July of 2013 with releases of the chapters and the final collected book on the market by next Fall. Part of the plan is that each chapter’s completion and release paves the way for the next one’s production (SO FOR GOD’S SAKE, BUY OUR BOOK!) In the meantime, we’re releasing each chapter as a numbered (of 500) and signed, Ltd Ed TPB, that you can only get directly from us at various signing events like San Diego Comic Con, New York Comic Con, etc. though we’re planning on making whatever inventory remains available via our website thereafter. It’s really a very premium book; a beautiful narrative that alone or in it’s completion will be at home in your backpack as on your shelf. Production value for this small press run is a priority for me so what our audience is getting is the finest rag we can muster. That’s not to say we’re not open to getting picked up by a big publisher like Image, I mean that’s part of the progress right?