It's been two years since Jonathan and Joshua Luna attended a comics convention, but they're planning to attend the San Diego Comic-Con this weekend. They have a lot to celebrate: In 2007, they wrapped up their 24-issue alien-invasion series Girls, and Image released a slipcovered hardback edition of the complete series. This year, they launched their follow-up series, the modern-day fantasy The Sword, which just reached issue 10.
It's the third series (after Girls and the superhero miniseries Ultra) that the Lunas have created entirely on their own, from conception to completed art. It seems odd to describe the collaborations of two men as having a singular vision, but all three series stand out as smart, sophisticated, highly idiosyncratic works in which recognizably real people are drawn into horrifically unreal situations. In Ultra, the friendship between three superheroines is visualized like a relationship between celebrities, who are down-to-earth in private but have public facades to maintain. In Girls, a beautiful naked woman arrives in a small town, has sex with a local man, and lays a clutch of eggs that hatch full-sized clones of herself, setting off a scenario that's half alien-invasion horror movie, half gender war. And in The Sword, a paraplegic girl abruptly learns that her family life is a lie and that a magical sword is the key to her father's true history. The Luna brothers have both taken on side projects, as artists, colorists, and cover designers for Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Reed's Spider Woman, Robert Kirkman's Invincible, and anthology series like Negative Burn and The Matrix. But they work best and most compellingly together on their original series, and they recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss their partnership, their comics tastes and sensibilities, and why the attempted TV adaptation of Ultra just didn't fly.
The A.V. Club: The first collected volume of The Sword just came out. At this point in the story, do you have a sense for the response to this series?
Joshua Luna: It's a little strange, because we don't receive as much feedback as we did with Ultra and Girls. So we're not even sure who's reading it now. [Laughs.] It is kind of different in tone and subject matter. So I don't know. We get the sense that the people who are reading it are enjoying it.
Jonathan Luna: Most of our fans have been altogether kind of quiet. People were very open about Ultra, but with Girls…†I think there was a lot of shame when it came to Girls. [Laughs.] I mean, men would be embarrassed to buy it. To this day, I think Girls was our bestselling book. But yeah, everyone is pretty much quiet.
AVC: Do you think that men and women took Girls differently? The plot divides the genders into separate factions, and who was closest to right and reasonable changed from issue to issue. Did you get gender-separated complaints or praise as you were going along?
Joshua: Oh yeah, we got all of that, pretty much. It's funny how some men could sympathize with one of the worst male characters, and just hate, hate the main female character, Nancy, but there'd be women who would empathize with Nancy and understand why she did the things she did, even though they were pretty vile. We did try to treat both genders equally. Like, none of them got a fairer shake than the other. Hopefully we did that successfully.
Jonathan: [Laughs.] Yeah, I guess it just depends on each person's point of view. But we did try our best.
AVC: Was it gratifying to see people respond by getting emotionally involved in the gender issues, and in gender identification? Does that mean that you did it right?
Jonathan: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean we definitely wanted to challenge the way people thought. And just the nudity alone was, I think, an issue to talk about. I can't think of another book that had so many naked women running around. [Laughs.] But yeah, we love when people talk about different themes.
Joshua: I think one thing I tried to keep in mind when writing the scenes is, I didn't want it to be so consciously, "Okay, I want this scene to bring up this political discussion. I wanted it to be, "What would it be like if this crazy situation really happened?" Just try to treat it as realistically as I could. And if it would bring up discussion after the fact, then that would be great, too.
Jonathan: I don't think we ever did anything just for pure shock value. We tried to not be gratuitous. We tried our best not to put any sex scenes at all in there.
AVC: How do you balance the desire to make it completely organic and realistic, to follow the "How would this actually happen?" muse but still chop it up into neat issue segments, and to plan it out so it can advance as a story?
Jonathan: We've been working in the comic-book industry for about four years, and as time has gone by, I think we've tried our best to make things less organic. Ultra was very organic—there was a plan, but everything wasn't figured out in advance as much as Girls or The Sword. We really figured out a lot of things as we were doing them in Ultra. And with Girls, I think we got a little bit better at that. With The Sword, we're definitely trying to make everything planned-out as much as possible.
AVC: Do you have any sense about why you've heard less fan reaction back from The Sword?
Joshua: I think the latest issue might have changed that. [Laughs.]
Jonathan: Maybe, yeah. [Laughs.]
Joshua: 'Cause we got a little backlash on something in this latest issue.
Jonathan: The Sword #?9, there's a page where there's a panel of Hitler.
Joshua: There's a guy who's lived for 4,000 years, and he's recalling how he's seen a certain type of human that's desired power over the years, and he names off people like Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Hitler. He does say that they all have different ideologies, different points of views. But then we place George W. Bush next to Hitler's image. We're not necessarily saying that he's like him, we're just saying that these are people who desired a position of power.
Jonathan: I think the fact that the two images are sitting next to each other makes some people uncomfortable. We've been looking at forums, and people are complaining about it.
AVC: You actively seek out criticism of your work online?
Joshua: I try not to. And I try not to react too much to it. I think that too much criticism, too much praise, is never good, because you don't want to cater to the audience. 'Cause it's a dangerous path to go. You just want to do it for yourself. You know, you always have to remember what story you're telling and why you're doing it, and not get into a place where you're doing it to please someone. We know you can't please everyone, so we just accept that, and try to create something we really believe in or enjoy.
AVC: What's your work process like on The Sword?
Joshua: First we plotted it out together, the whole story.
Jonathan: Yeah, we already know the whole entire story for The Sword. We know how it will end.
Joshua: And how many arcs it'll be divided into. And we have definite benchmarks of where we want certain story points to be, and where the character has to be at those points. And I think the organic part comes when we fill in those blanks, let that grow a little. When the plot is done, I write the script, and we go over it together again, and he can have notes for me, and I can maybe do a second draft. After that, he does all the art, scans it in, and colors it so I can letter it in Illustrator. After that, it's just proofreading time, and hopefully we make no typos. [Laughs.]
AVC: Joshua, how far in advance do you work in terms of scripting?
Joshua: I usually stay two weeks ahead. Or at least that's the plan. [Laughs.]
Jonathan: With Ultra and Girls, we used to make an issue every four weeks, but we started to realize that we wanted to put more quality into our books, so with The Sword, we started making each one in five weeks. So I start the art pretty much five weeks before we turn it in to Image, and Josh writes the scripts before that. It usually takes him two to three weeks to write the script. If I'm working on The Sword #2, Josh will be writing The Sword #3.
AVC: How long does it take to color an average page?
Jonathan: My goal was, I'd do a page a day, pencils, inks, and colors. That's how I did it with Ultra and Girls. But with The Sword, I started to realize that I would want to put more time into each page. So I will pencil and ink a page in a day, but if I can't finish coloring it, then I'll just finish it the next day.
AVC: Do you actually use physical pencil and ink?
Jonathan: Oh yeah, it's actually pencil and ink. I use a mechanical pencil—I think it's 2H or HB lead. And I just use a normal Micron pen—they're Pigma Micron. Once I ink it, I scan it in. I actually do edit the inks a little bit with a Wacom tablet. And then when I'm done with that, then I start to color.
AVC: Your books all have a very visually distinctive visual quality, with flat matte colors and a lot of texturing, and a low-contrast color set. How did you arrive at that particular look?
Jonathan: It's weird, because in a way, I try to achieve photorealism, even though it's not photorealistic. I try to use natural colors, not very saturated. And I try to use filters to unify the colors. Like for example if it's a cold scene, I'll make it blueish. If it's hot, I'll use a red or orange color scheme. And then obviously I use stuff like Blur to make it look like a camera is shooting it.
AVC: You use motion blurs a lot in your backgrounds—in some cases, your books look less like comic books than like the movie picturebooks that Disney used to make with their cels and backgrounds. There was always a sense that the images were meant to be in motion. Do you watch films for composition inspiration, or stylistic inspiration?
Jonathan: No, I don't, actually. I mean, we do watch a lot of movies, and we're very influenced by film, but I don't sit down and study shots and stuff like that. Again, I think I just have this instinctual need to make the shot look somewhat photorealistic. I like depth. If there's a flower in the foreground that's not so important, I'll blur it to give the shot more depth.
AVC: When you're plotting out your stories together, do you run into conflicts about story direction?
Jonathan: Oh, definitely we disagree.
Joshua: Of course, yeah. It's funny how people say, like, "How do you guys not fight or anything, or get along so well?" We're still brothers. We have disagreements over certain aspects of the story, and how things should go. I think it's just a matter of figuring out what works best for the story. Ultimately, it all has to serve the book.
Jonathan: I like working in this way. I think it's very comfortable. Obviously, we grew up together, and we're very comfortable with each other, and I think one of the most important things is, we're very honest with each other.
Joshua: You don't have to be polite or anything, you know? [Laughs.] 'Cause you have that comfort of being brothers. So if we feel strongly about something, we'll definitely let it out and be honest about it, but I think we both know when to give in and agree on what works best.
Jonathan: And also, if there is an issue, one person can't put his foot down and say, "This is the way it's going to be." It's like, if someone has a problem with something, then it has to be resolved. There has to be some sort of compromise.
AVC: Can you point to any plot point in particular in your books where you really disagreed about how something should go, and had to fight for your perspectives on it?
Joshua: Happens every day. [Laughs.]
Jonathan: Let's see. In Girls, Josh wanted to show Ethan's past with other women. And I don't know, for some reason, I didn't think that was a good idea.
Joshua: Oh great, bring up something of mine that got cut out.
Jonathan: [Laughs.] That's just an example, I mean, I don't know why I thought it wouldn't work. Josh, do you remember?
Joshua: Um, I still think it would have worked.
Jonathan: [Laughs.] Really?
Joshua: [Laughs.] No, I'm joking. I don't remember. I don't remember what you're talking about.
Jonathan: How about with The Sword?
Joshua: Okay. There was an issue of where the demigods were from. Like, there was a conflict between, "Should it be mainland Greece, or Crete?" That was sort of an issue, 'cause Crete was more isolated, so it would make more sense that they weren't so exposed throughout history. But if they were from mainland Greece, word would have got out more. So, things like that. I'm sure there are big things that we're not really recalling. 'Cause that happens so many times that we just sort of move on to the next problem.
AVC: Do you think the closeness of your working relationship has anything to do with coming from a military family and moving around a lot as kids?
Joshua: Oh, definitely. 'Cause you know, when you move around, you always have to make new friends, and before that happens, you sort of have to become best friends by default. So we spent a lot of time just being creative. We always loved to draw and make up little stories. So we just did it together, and it started from a very early age.
AVC: You both attended the Savannah College Of Art And Design in Georgia. Why that particular school?
Jonathan: It was, and might still be, the only school that—
Joshua: —offers a BFA for sequential art.
AVC: So the intent was specifically to learn how to create comics?
Joshua: Yeah. What's weird, though, is that when we went there, we weren't reading comics. [Laughs.]
Jonathan: [Laughs.] Well, we did before. But when we got there we somehow drifted out of it.
Joshua: We didn't really get back into it until, I think, my sophomore year, when I picked up Preacher. I didn't realize books like that were being made. I was really out of the comic scene. I'm sure there were books like that long before, and I had just discovered them. You know, like Love And Rockets, stuff for older people and more mature audiences. And it really excited me, and I got back into it, and I knew it was something I really wanted to pursue, so it was great.
AVC: It's hard to imagine a major in sequential arts that doesn't involve reading a whole lot of current comics. That wasn't a part of the curriculum at all?
Jonathan: Actually, they didn't make us read a lot of comics, but we did study the history of comics. I think a lot of our sequential-art education was based more on the technical aspects.
Joshua: Right, so a class like "Photoshop And Coloring. Some classes were based more on other disciplines, like comic strips, storyboarding, cartooning. It wasn't completely comic books. There were some scripting classes.
Jonathan: I think they just assumed you would read on your own. I don't think there was any required reading, but there might have been suggested readings, things like Watchmen.
AVC: Do the two of you have similar tastes in comics?
Joshua: I think so.
AVC: Is there any title that one of you loves, but that you can't convince the other on?
Joshua: [Laughs.] Hmm… I'm looking at my shelves right now. We wouldn't want to insult anyone, though. [Laughs.]
Jonathan: Yeah, it's very difficult to answer these kinds of questions, because it's a very small industry.
Joshua: But I really don't think there are any.
Jonathan: For the most part, we definitely read similar stuff. Like, Josh will buy books, and I will buy books, and we just share them.
AVC: What's your favorite collective title of the moment?
Joshua: You know, we haven't really been reading a lot lately, because we've been so busy. It's pretty sad. But I've always loved Blade Of The Immortal. I try to keep up with that pretty regularly.
Jonathan: We follow The Walking Dead.
Joshua: Oh right, The Walking Dead. I read the first six or seven books of Death Note. It's addictive: I couldn't put it down.
AVC: Do you read a lot of manga?
Joshua: Not really, aside from Death Note, and another one called Yotsuba&!, I'm not sure if you've heard of that. It's like, slice-of-life. It's about a little girl who just experiences things, as simple as watching a cicada. [Laughs.] But it's really intriguing for some reason. And they're not sure if she's an alien or not, but she just experiences things with this amazing curiosity.
AVC: Separately, you've done side projects with Brian Michael Bendis and Robert Kirkman, among other people. Is there anyone else out there you'd really like to work with?
Joshua: You know, I've always been a big fan of Garth Ennis, because he pretty much inspired me to get into the industry. So I don't know necessarily how I'd work with him, but it'd be interesting just to work with him in some capacity.
Jonathan: I could work with Bendis again. He's great. Alias was actually one of the books that got me back into comics. The fact that it was like a mature take on superheroes, I loved it. I can't think of anybody else, really.
AVC: A pilot episode of a TV adaptation of Ultra was made back in 2006, but it wasn't picked up as a show. Do you know why?
Joshua: Oh yeah. It just wasn't good. [Laughs.] Not to put it down or anything, but it just wasn't so great.
AVC: How was the story altered for television?
Joshua: Not to say that our source material was brilliant or anything… [Laughs.] But it was a big departure from the original material. I think she was originally supposed to be a Latina ex-cop, and all of a sudden she was, like, a turkey farmer.
Jonathan: Originally her name was Pearl Penalosa, and they changed it to "Penny Pendrosa." I have no idea why. Maybe because the actress looked Caucasian? The actress was Lena Headey, who was Queen Gorgo from 300, and Sarah Connor from The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Joshua: Plus, they took out her two best friends, and the whole dynamic between the three girls was, I think, what a lot of people enjoyed. So it was kind of awkward. They just changed the whole tone.
AVC: So it was just about this one woman superhero-slash-turkey farmer?
Joshua: [Laughs.] Yeah, she grew up as a turkey farmer, and she came to the city, and she had two mentors. One was like a mad scientist, and he'd try to train her in sort of a scientific way. Like a Mr. Miyagi type of relationship. But there was another guide who was a superhero, but he was very mysterious. And I think he was called Mr. Cryptic, or something like that.
Jonathan: Cryptic Man.
Joshua: They created a bunch of characters just out of nowhere. And I think the only thing that resembled Ultra was the title Ultra. [Laughs.]
Jonathan: Yeah. [Laughs.] So that's a good thing.
Joshua: Her outfit was completely different, too. It looked like a toga.
Jonathan: Yeah. It didn't look really very superhero-y. It looked like Roman or Greek garb. Just white, flowing clothes, sort of.
AVC: Did they capture any of the comfortable, casual girls'-night-out tone, or did they try to make it really serious or silly?
Jonathan: Actually, I think the tone was kind of similar.
Joshua: Yeah, it was dramatic, and they tried to make it comedic.
Jonathan:† And they actually did shoot the pilot with two other girls, but they weren't superheroes. They were just two human friends. I think they might have maybe become superheroes later, if the pilot was picked up. But I think for the final cut, they actually took the friends out, and it was very odd, because there are very important scenes with these friends, so a lot of other scenes just didn't mean anything anymore.
AVC: Do you see it going anywhere in the future? How long does CBS have the rights?
Joshua: They don't have it for too much longer. Something's about to happen. But I'm not sure if we can talk about it, or if it's something that's actually happening.
Jonathan: They have the rights for about another year.† But we were actually working on it again last year. Can we talk about it? About who we were talking to? Well, we were talking to Stephen Hopkins, the director. We actually had lunch with him in New York City once. He's worked on 24 and The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers.
Joshua: It was great, 'cause we were totally on the same page. He saw how we'd want to see it. So once it got into the whole Hollywood politics machine, I don't know what happened. Supposedly it's called "development hell" or something. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you still upbeat about it? Do you have hopes that someone could do an accurate depiction of your work on TV or film?
Joshua: When I see things like 300 or Sin City, I am hopeful. But for our situation, not so much. [Laughs.] I think you really have to find just the right person, who you're on the same page with. 'Cause I think for Ultra, they brought in a writer who—I don't even know if I should say this—who didn't even want to read the comic.
Jonathan: That was the first one, though.
Joshua: Yeah. I mean, we've dealt with three screenwriters. So I guess we're a little hopeful, but it's always a little tricky, because so many hands start to touch it. And even though you get someone who really likes it, it's a long process.
Jonathan: I'm actually a little bit more excited about adapting Girls or The Sword.
AVC: It seems like Girls would be really hard to bring to film.
Joshua: [Laughs.] Yeah, but we've actually gotten really close. But we probably shouldn't talk too much about that. [Laughs.] You mean because of the nudity, mostly?
AVC: That, and the huge cast and the complicated dynamics. All of which are terrific in the comic, but would probably be the first thing out the window if someone made a film.
Jonathan: I think it could be done, if you did it right. We did have conversations about how to go about it. I wouldn't have wanted to show nudity in every shot or anything. Like, everything should have been done tastefully. You know, use careful shadows and stuff like that. [Laughs.]
AVC: You work in an industry that's still heavily skewed toward adolescent male power fantasies, with women as fantasy objects. And yet you consistently focus on female protagonists who come across as very real people. Are you consciously fighting the tide in the industry?
Joshua: No, I think the fact that we did get out of comics for a while meant we weren't really in tune with mainstream comics when we started making our own. We seriously are making comics from our point of view. We don't consciously say "Let's make something different." It's just how we see, or what we enjoy, or things that we want. We basically just make what we want to see.
AVC: You haven't been to comics conventions for two years, but you're headed back to San Diego ComicCon this month, and more in the immediate future. Any particular reason for going away, or for coming back?
Jonathan: We stayed away because we wanted to put more time into the comics. When we were going to the cons, it made the work really stressful. So it's just all about trying to get as much time as we could to the books. The quality of the books is the most important thing to us.
Joshua: You just get burnt out, too. I think we did one a month for a while, when we were first doing comics. So I think we were just like, "Ugh, let's take a break." [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you get out of conventions when you do go?
Jonathan: You know, it's great to meet all the fans. Like, to hear everyone's personal stories about how they found our books, or what the books mean to them. Our fans are very supportive, for the most part. Earlier, we were saying that our fans aren't as…
Jonathan: …vocal about The Sword. But when they are, they're very supportive.
Joshua: It's also funny to get reactions from people who don't really know what the stories are about. Like, people passing our booth and just seeing covers of naked girls—the stares are interesting. [Laughs.] Which is to be expected, 'cause they are pretty provocative.
Jonathan: We've had parents pull their children away. [Whispers.] "Don't look."
AVC: You've predicted that The Sword will last about two years. Are you thinking about the next project yet? Are there things you want to be working on but don't have time for?
Jonathan: There's one project that we wanted to work on, but we've been so swamped with The Sword that I think we're going to have to wait until it's over. But we have a list of concepts that we want to do. It just takes time to get to all of them. And we do like to spend time with a project—we like to just work on one project, for the most part, so we can just concentrate on it.
Joshua: Not spread ourselves too thin.
Jonathan: Right. I mean we see lots of creators out there who are writing five books, and I don't know if we could ever do that.
Joshua: It works for them, but…
Jonathan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm not saying it's wrong. I just don't think we could do it.