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Interview: ‘Primer’

We just posted a preview of Primer, the new graphic novel coming out on June 23 from DC, and now we have an interview with writers Jennifer Muro and Thomas Krajewski.

Creating an entirely new superhero seems like it would be a challenging task, because there are so many possibilities. How did you decide what Primer’s superpowers would be? What about her weaknesses?

TOM AND JEN: We’re both huge superhero fans, and wanted to create an entirely new superhero who would really stand out. Eventually we realized that there are so many superheroes with amazing powers, we said to ourselves, “What if we give ONE character ALL of those powers?” That way the character could do almost anything. The idea of super-powered body paints was tossed out and it immediately felt right, and the best way to give Primer multiple abilities. We were surprised it hadn’t been done before, and we loved the visuals it would create, so we dove right in. We compiled a list of every superpower we could think of, then narrowed it down. As for her weakness, it is an emotional one: the power that her birth father holds over her. He mentally controls and manipulates Ashley (aka Primer), and she tends to do whatever he asks. She incorrectly feels like he’s her only true family, so she wants to please him, even at the expense of hurting herself. It felt very human, and something a reader might relate to—the idea of being controlled by someone who makes you feel small and hopeless. So even though Primer may come across as a confident and cool hero, she still has these personal inner demons that hold her back. This kind of weakness and dynamic just really helped to flesh her out.

How did you want her to be a throwback to traditional superheroes, and how did you want her to be different?

TOM AND JEN: Our favorite traditional superheroes are the ones who just really want to do good and help people who can’t help themselves. We wanted Primer to be just like that—someone with a good heart and selfless attitude. And in another tradition, just like Batman’s painful past inspires him to do good, we do a similar thing with Primer. Her heroism is born out of something that hurt her, and she wants to protect others from being hurt like she was. Design-wise, we wanted her to look different from any other traditional superhero out there, and the paints allow Primer to paint herself in any way she wants. So she never looks the same way twice. Wonder Woman and Green Lantern and the like all have standard variations of the same costume, but Primer has no standard look. The possibilities for her appearance are limitless. Whenever she goes out to fight crime she throws on a new wig, chooses three colors/powers, and paints herself in any way she wants: rainbows, lightning bolts, geometric designs, classical paintings, pop culture references, etc. This way the reader will always be excited to see what Primer will look like next—it’s new and awesome every single time.

The paints work in a very specific way, with rules (no more than three colors at a time, for instance) that make a lot of sense in the context of the story. How did you decide what those rules would be?

TOM AND JEN: Once we settled on giving Primer thirty-three superpowers (down from one hundred), we realized if she used them all at once then she’d be invincible and unbeatable—and what fun is that? So we decided to give Primer a limit to the number of paints she can wear at one time. Three paints seemed like a good number. If she puts on a fourth, her body can’t take it and she “overloads.” Every hero has to have their Achilles heel, just like Superman has kryptonite. So now Primer can be beaten if a villain exploits her physical weakness. As for another “rule” regarding her paints, something happens in the book that makes Ashley the only person who can use those paints and their powers. We decided on that simply to make her feel, and be, truly special. No one else can do what she can do, and we think the readers will love that aspect of it, and fantasize about being Primer themselves. 

Ashley comes from an abusive background, and there are moments where you show her feelings about that, and you also show her abusive father. That’s pretty scary. But there’s also a lot of humor in the book, and Ashley clowns around a lot. How did you balance out those two sides of her personality?

TOM AND JEN: We feel that Ashley is genuinely happy and funny, and she loves to show it, but like in real life, negative influences and relationships can hinder a person’s joy. And she masks some of her pain with sarcasm and humor. We wanted to balance her party-like spirit with her criminal father’s mental abuse and control over her. Our intention was to create a fun and inspiring book that anyone can read, so we actually lean a lot more on the humor so that it doesn’t come across as too scary.

Everything about this story has a Saturday morning cartoon feel to it – Ashley stops a crashing plane and has a helicopter thrown at her, Yuka just walks out of a top secret lab with the paints. Did you have a particular comic or cartoon in mind when you made this story?

TOM AND JEN: Not particularly, but a huge part of our childhood was indeed watching Saturday morning cartoons, so yeah, it probably subconsciously influenced this book! However, we also have an extensive background writing for Disney, Nickelodeon, Netflix, and Cartoon Network, and we had already written countless jokes and action scenes for many established, popular superheroes. So writing in that fun and colorful Saturday morning cartoon style just came naturally.

Kitch and Yuka are a lot of fun! They also aren’t typical superhero grownups. How did you create their personalities?

TOM AND JEN: Thanks! Kitch is inspired by a character from a movie, in which a husband is a stay-at-home artist whose wife was a kick-butt police officer. We always liked the idea of playing against stereotypes, so we made Kitch an art teacher and his wife Yuka a scientist. We also decided to make Kitch the more comical foster parent so that young artist Ashley (aka Primer) would relate to him even more. We needed Yuka to be a bit more serious so that not everyone in the house was cracking jokes, so as a whole they balance each other out. 

The character designs in this story are really fun. What inspired them, and how did they change as the story evolved?

TOM AND JEN: The designs for Ashley and Primer were inspired by the idea that a hero can come in any shape and size. We get a lot of readers saying that they love that Ashley doesn’t have a stereotypical hero body, and that was a conscious decision on our part. The stereotype that you have to be super muscular or shapely in order to be a superhero is incredibly detrimental, and also wrong. We also talked a lot about every character with our artist Gretel Lusky, who has amazing instincts, style, and knows how to interpret our ideas perfectly. We suggested the base look for each character, some with more specifics than others, and then Gretel offered a lot of her own amazing ideas and takes as well. Gretel is so good that almost all of the characters don’t differ too much from their original designs. But Ashley/Primer took the most work, since she’s the star of the book. There are so many fantastic unused Primer designs, and hopefully someday we can share them!

Taking in a foster child is very difficult, especially when the child is older and the parents have never had children before. Clearly Ashley and the Nolans hit it off right away, but there’s some friction, and at one point (when she steals the paints) she really betrays their trust. How did you think about their relationship when you were creating the story?

TOM AND JEN: We couldn’t make Ashley’s relationship with her foster parents too sweet or perfect because it wouldn’t be realistic, and it would be boring. Plus, she’s still hurting—and also, like some teens, a bit mischievous! When we meet Ashley in this book, she’s already been in a few foster homes, and none of them worked out for her. Ashley and her former foster families are both to blame for that, but we feel like maybe this was time for Ashley to catch a break and meet a foster family that is a far better match because we didn’t want to create a story with too much dark or edgy drama. We save all that for the storyline with her father. A lot of stories are about hope and inspiration, so by giving Ashley two very good foster parents, we feel that a reader might aspire to be like those foster parents, as well. 

Finally, there’s a huge hint on the last page that there’s more to the story. Will there be a volume 2, and if so, how are you thinking the characters and their relationships will evolve?

TOM AND JEN: We would love a Book 2, so we’re hoping! As long as readers love the first book and ask for more, then it might happen. We have story arcs for both Books 2 and 3, to complete the trilogy in a really fun and satisfying way. As for how the characters’ relationships will evolve, Ashley/Primer will face tougher challenges in both her personal life and her superhero life (and she’ll face tougher new supervillains, too). She’ll be constantly learning and growing, and as always, making a few mistakes along the way. She’s thirteen years old, so we’d like to see just how she would tackle her teenage years, especially as they’re impacted by her duties as Primer. How will she balance school and friends with fighting off something like an alien invasion? She’ll also grow closer to her new foster parents and her best friend Luke, but on the flip side, she’ll grow farther away from her birth father, who’s in prison. For now. He may be a crook, but he’s a smart crook who’s cold and calculating and manipulative, so he’ll show up again to force Primer into making the toughest decision of her life. But we’ve said too much already…

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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