Published on May 12th, 2015 | by Greg Payne0
The Pitiful Human-Lizard: Jason Loo’s Local Hero
The Human-Lizard is, as an up-and-coming superhero character, not at all pitiful like his fascinating comic’s semi-joking title might suggest. A second-generation, self-styled crimefighter, the eponymous hero joins the limited ranks of Torontonian caped crusaders thanks to a handy side effect from a paid drug trial in his first issue and hits the ground running from there. Lucas Barrett may be an office drone by day, but by night he patrols the club district or museum row, crossing paths with such original characters as the Mother Wonder (a Jamaican-Canadian mother gifted with flight and super-strength) and Majestic Rat (telepathically leads an army of…well, you know). Along the way he tentatively begins a romance with schoolteacher Barb, who has some secret identity issues of her own…
This is a comic that wears its local origins proudly on its sleeve. Set among the non-touristy neighborhoods of Toronto, the eponymous hero‘s daily life—be it romantic travails, family encounters or monster battles—unfolds against a richly-realized and honest portrayal of the city the Human-Lizard calls home. Everything that makes up the character of this city, from its multicultural mosaic to its comedically voracious (and many have argued, villainous) mayor, informs the storytelling and the artwork. The unfolding tale most harkens back to Spider-Man’s first few years, which portrayed Peter Parker’s home borough of Queens as a place where yes, there were criminals to rout and enemies to vanquish, but there was also a relatable sense of a community nestled within the big city. Which isn’t to say it fails to deliver on the superhero thrills, far from it. There’s just a richness and variety in character that gives the book an unexpected depth.
Launched in 2014 via a wildly successful crowdsourcing campaign, The Pitiful Human Lizard is the brainchild of writer/artist Jason Loo. Need to Consume met up with Loo at the iconic Silver Snail comic shop, site of several issue launches so far, to talk about the influences on his work, the ideals behind his characterizations, and his own other comic-related efforts to enrich the life of the city. We spoke shortly after the third issue was released; as this article is published, Issue #4 is hitting the stands.
NTC: So I was re-reading the books this week, and one thing that really stands out for me is your use of the city as a setting. All the people fit into it organically; it’s a recognizable Toronto, but it’s certainly not a glamorized one. Could you talk a bit about the creation of the city in the book?
JL: The inspiration of me wanting to tell a story set in Toronto was definitely reading a lot of Marvel comics from the sixties and seventies, like when you read The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man and they were all set in New York City. Especially like…Luke Cage, which takes place in the less glamorous parts of New York City. I looked at their formula of, like, fun comics to read that were exciting, and just tried to transfer that to today’s times. Because, you look at most of the titles that are out there, and most of them are so adulterated, I just wanted to just make it…fun. And I guess when it came to portraying people from Toronto, I tried to portray them as honestly as I can. That inspiration was definitely from reading a lot of Optic Nerve by Adrian Tomine, stuff by Daniel Clowes…I found it to be a nice challenge to tell a story from different perspectives, not just from the Human-Lizard’s.
NTC: You mentioned the old style of comics, the covers and the back pages pay specific tribute to that era, from the style of the covers to the fake advertisements…
JL: You have to go all the way.
NTC: …is that your favourite era of mainstream comic books?
JL: Oh yeah! There’s a comic book store that’s just down the street from me, they have a huge load of Silver Age and Bronze Age comics, and every week I’ll treat myself to a good vintage comic read, and even if it’s not a key issue, like just an issue featuring the Hulk hanging out with the Watcher or something like that, I just get so entertained by that because the thing is, when you look at Marvel Comics, how it is now, it all started somewhere. So you’ve got to go back to the source material of what made those comics so fun and dynamic and interesting at the time, what makes them so fascinating. And those were the formative years of those classic super heroes. So I wanted to see how their success worked, and try to transfer it to how I can make a successful superhero based in Toronto.
NTC: Your artwork also harkens back to…a lot of comics today are very busy, there’s a lot going on but yours is minimalist to a degree. I don’t mean that negatively, there’s not a lot of wasted space.
JL: Oh yeah. It’s definitely not like the Image look, where it’s very highly rendered, or like a David Finch look. My goal is to tell a story, and if I can tell the story with simplicity…I don’t want to put too much detail when it’s not really that necessary, just drawing enough for the readers to understand what’s going on. You know, I put enough details to set the mood for the scene and to give the readers an idea of where the story is set by drawing the backgrounds as accurately as possible, but not drawing brick-by brick.
NTC: Something that really strikes me about it is…you mentioned mood, and there is a certain melancholia I get from it. There’s a muted, darker tone to the colours, it seems to be a city that’s lived-in, and worn down and maybe a bit tired. And that’s something your characters inhabit as well.
JL: A little bit. I’ve never thought about…when I was choosing the colour tones, I never thought of portraying the city as something that’s used up or lived-in, it was mainly trying to come up with more mundane colours, a more mundane look compared to the more flashy superhero take that you normally see in any conventional superhero comic. Like this is more down to earth and more grounded, so that’s why I go for a more earthy tone.
NTC: One thing I like about the humour in it is that people seem very blasé about all the craziness going on around them. Like the scene in issue 1, I think it’s in Yorkville but I have that wrong, where there’s a monster battle going on and people are sitting…
JL: …at the patio, yeah.
NTC: So is that a comment on something you find particularly Torontonian?
JL: Basically, yeah! I find that whenever there’s some accident down the street, people don’t run away from it, people kind of walk closer to it and inspect it with their cell phones and take photos. They’re just very casual about it. We’re not very panicky and stuff, but I think that’s almost like a universal reaction compared to how Hollywood big budget action films would portray people. I don’t know, I try to give an honest portrayal of Torontonians, and how they would deal with this big situation
NTC: Let’s talk about the characters a little bit, starting with Lucas, the Human-Lizard. I see a little bit of Watchmen in there, in that he’s carrying on the tradition of his father in kind of a new way.
JL: Watchmen was actually never an inspiration…I created the Human-Lizard character when I was in high school, and at the time I was reading lots of Starman, by James Robinson. And yeah, Jack Knight was a second-generation superhero, and I just found it interesting to see a second-generation superhero who was reluctant to continue on his father’s legacy, and he’s very unconventional about it, like he doesn’t wear a costume at all, and I just wanted to do my own take on that.
NTC: I like the family dynamics. It’s a really affectionate family, like the scene in the Chinese restaurant where he plays “Happy Birthday” on the harmonica is one of my favorite scenes…
JL: It’s the only song he knows on harmonica! (laughs)
NTC: How did you go about building this family? Is it based on…
JL: Yeah, partly…the likeness of Lucas’ mom is definitely inspired by my own mom and there are some parts, some of the behaviour of his dad is similar to my dad as well. I thought this would be a nice way to tell a superhero story because you never see, like, superheroes hang out with their parents. ‘Cause most of them are dead!
NTC: They wouldn’t be superheroes otherwise.
JL: Yeah, but I figure…there are other drives and motivations to make an individual want to become a superhero, and it doesn’t require the death of their parents. Their parents can be part of their life, too. Same with mine, I try to keep in touch with them at least once a week. (laughs)
NTC: Speaking of parents, let’s talk about the Mother Wonder. I like her a lot, she’s got a fun family dynamic, and she’s very cool when she’s doing battle with the various monsters that keep popping up. So how did this character come together?
JL: I wanted to come up with a different spin on the conventional all-powerful superhero that best represents the city. I mean, you look at Superman, and he’s like the perfect person in Metropolis…I wanted to make it a kind of Superman/Wonder Woman type of superhero , but at the same time I wanted to portray Toronto as a multicultural city. I didn’t want to make this character caucasian, I wanted to break the mould of this character’s identity by not…I mean breaking the mould by breaking the default mode of setting the character as Caucasian, and just make that character more unique. One…make her Jamaican! Another was to make her a mom. And why I chose to focus on her being this mother figure was because, having friends that are moms, and also working in the library in the kids’ department, interacting with other moms, I know that being a mom is a tough job. It’s very challenging. Now what would make this perfect superhero character even better is, not only is she facing fighting monsters and the supervillain of the week, but she’s also juggling being a mother of three and also a wife to her husband.
NTC: The other character I want to ask about is Barb, who is cool in the detached sense, but you can see that you’re building her up slowly, it’s a real slow burn with her. How far in advance have you planned her arc?
JL: Barb is definitely going to be a regular part of the Pitiful Human-Lizard series, just like Mother Wonder, but Barb is going to have her special section. Like, what you saw in issue three she had her own seven page solo issue that followed after her date with Lucas, and in issue four she’ll have another seven page solo. Barb is…she was inspired by an amalgamation of all these girls that I’ve had first dates with, that I’ve wanted to know more about because they seemed interesting, but I wish I could have known more about if I had another date with them. And that’s what Barb is: if I explored that character, that date even further, like maybe they had some interesting story behind them, and Barb was that person. This is another example of one of the challenges I’ve given to myself in trying to tell a story in a different perspective, and what’s great about Barb is that I really go in-depth exploring this new, interesting character who, at face value, she seems very normal, just average, but when you peel the layers, you find more about her history, like how she got these powers and how she had to deal with them.
NTC: I like her speech at the end of issue two, which is kind of a subversion of the usual “why I do what I do” speech. Was that a conscious…like, this is a speech we’ve heard from a lot of characters, but you’ve put a twist on it.
JL: I try to give a real voice to all the characters when they’re interacting that’s true to the characters. Because whenever I develop these new characters, I write up at least a page or two of their background and their motivation, and when you have that ground base of who and what they are, the dialogue that comes out of their mouth just comes out naturally. Like that moment when you see Barb, who is not really into the flashiness of the superhero…I figure what she would naturally say. Like most of the dialogue that comes into comics…I try not to make it contrived or forced, because if it is, I’ve got to rewrite it, because it’s got to come out naturally. I want to come up with these well-developed characters that everyone can relate to.
NTC: Talking about the artwork…when I first read it, my initial impression as far as influence went was Ditko, if only because of the body forms, which reminded me of his early sixties stuff, but there’s a lot more than that going on. You mentioned the sixties and seventies, bronze age stuff…are there any particular artists that have influenced your style?
JL: Yeah! Sal Buscema, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko. Steve Ditko I became more influenced I think…in issue three. Like, I was really studying him in issue three. Who else? Um…I’m forgetting…there was another Buscema…John Buscema. And now I’m getting more into stuff like Jim Steranko, but also from the very start there’s a bit of Adrian Tomine, Daniel Clowse, and I also look at Chris Samnee, he’s a modern day artist who does stuff like Daredevil, he’s been another influence of mine.
NTC: You crowdsourced to raise money for the first issue. What was the impetus for this method of fundraising?
JL: I wanted to have creative control over the intellectual property. I felt that if I were to create the book and then look for publishers I would spend months going through the whole process of finding a publisher, and if I do get that deal, then, you know, go through the editorial…I didn’t want to alter the story. This was…I’ve worked on every step of the creative process. Writing, drawing, lettering, promoting like, I’m a bit of a control freak, I like to see everything through. It’s also trust issues. It’s hard for me to trust people whenever I hand over my baby and might have to wait on them, or they might screw something up. I get nervous whenever I hand my books to the printers, when I look over the proofs and stuff I get nervous that they might screw up. (laughs) I wish I could run my own print shop and see things through at that stage…
NTC: Hand-deliver the books to the shop…
JL: Which I already do, yeah! At local comic shops, but yeah…
NTC: Let’s talk about some of the other comic-related things going on. Tell us about the comic book workshop that you’re teaching.
JL: So I was approached by Pamela MacIssac, who runs the Thinkspace, which is located on St. Clair Avenue in St. Matthew’s Church, but a good part of the church is like, a community centre. So I’m running this eight-week course on how to build a comic book. And this is for…eight to twelve year olds. I’ve done all sorts of comic book workshops for the kids at the library and I’m only given one or two hours, which is really not enough to come up with a solid product. So in this eight week course, we spend one hour working on our characters and another hour to do some creative writing, to write a script, and another hour to do the layouts, a couple of hours to do the pencilling work. But in each course there’s also some take-home stuff, so they’ll be working on their project at home as well because at the very end of this eight week session they’ll be completing a six page black and white comic.
NTC: Did you go to art school yourself?
JL: Yeah, I went to Sheridan College for Interpretive Illustration.
NTC: Finally, I originally met you through the X-Men of Toronto, can you talk a bit about the charity work this group does?
JL: X-Men of Toronto is a charity organization that helps out other charity organizations, where we do some fundraising or some clothing drives, food drives for local charities that mean something to us. We try to organize a charity event at least once a month, and while we’re dressed as X-Men characters, like, when you’re dressed as a superhero you’re looked upon as a role model for kids so that’s what we aspire to be.
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