Telling The Stories In Our DNA – Johnnie Christmas Talks Firebug

by Hannah Means Shannon

Firebug originally appeared as a serialized story in the indie comics anthology magazine Island, edited by Brandon Graham and published by Image Comics. The story of a fire goddess wandering the world gradually spanned over 100 pages, written and illustrated by Johnnie Christmas (Angel Catbird, Sheltered) and colored by co-creator Tamra Bonvillain (Doom Patrol, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur).

Now, with added bonus material, Firebug is coming to a trade collection of over 130 pages in March 2018, bringing the comic into a single volume for the first time so we can get a concentrated dose of this powerful narrative.

Keegan has been born a volcano goddess, but it’s unclear whether she’s a danger or a help to the world she has been born into. She and her friends are in search of the ancient city of Azar in order to unlock the secrets of her destiny, but they face the threat of a rising tide of monsters and also of an ancient cult who wants to expunge Keegan from the world. Firebug takes mythical elements from around the globe and blends them into a story with big stakes and a solid emotional core, conveyed through art that is nuanced, engaging, and has a feel quite unlike like anything else you’ve seen.

We are very pleased to have Johnnie Christmas on the site today to talk about Firebug.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What made you choose this unusual mythology as the focus of your story? Were Polynesian or Hawaiian traditions particularly in mind? It seems like we retread a lot of the same mythological stories in prose and comics, and though they may still have meaning to mine, it’s very refreshing to encounter something less common, so thank you!

Johnnie Christmas: Thanks Hannah! I really wanted to say something different with Firebug. Yes, when I decided to do this story on a volcano goddess, I instinctively thought of Pele, of Hawaiian myth, as a jumping off point. But as I started digging further, my research took me down other alleys as well, the orishas of Nigeria, for example. And other creation/destruction myths from all over the world. Which are, sometimes, surprisingly similar. It seems to be in our DNA to tell these kinds of stories.

HMS: Can you tell us a little bit about the main characters in Firebug and what made you want to spend so much time with them as a creator?

JC: Our main characters are: Keegan, Griffin, Adria and Amina. I wanted each of these characters to have their own motivations, their own path. Each one of them is the hero of their own story. So naturally tensions run high when those stories intersect and desires are at cross purposes. I wanted them to be sympathetic, imperfect characters, who are naturally the most compelling characters. I like the idea that any of them could be seen as the “hero” of our story, depending on who’s reading the book.

HMS: Did you set out to establish a specific aesthetic in Firebug that was a little different from the other things you’ve worked on? How do you think Tamra Bonvillain influenced and develop those trends?

JC: I wanted Firebug to have lots of fun visual elements that I felt could work together: ship breaking yards, punk rock, and Venice. For whatever reason, those seem to make sense all together in my head.

At the start, I wanted Firebug to have a water color/Chinese brush look. I was looking at the work of Liu Maoshan a lot then and, yeah, very much wanted it to look different from anything I’ve worked on. So I reached out to Tamra and she was game to use a water color technique as a jumping off point. The final book looks nothing like what influenced it, which I’m very proud of. It’s unique.

HMS: Firebug is what you could call a “big picture” story, one that addresses the destruction or salvation of the world. What were the challenges or benefits of working on a story with such scope?

JC: Stakes stakes stakes!

“Big picture” stories have big stakes, so big we can all relate to them: “The world might end if…” That snaps one into focus on the double.

The challenge there, is it can be overdone, as it is in movies, etc. So the challenge is how to get that universal to feel personal. Have “The world is ending” as a metaphor for “Your world is ending”. In Firebug, there’s a lot happening externally for our characters, but the real stakes are in what’s happening to them internally.

HMS: As a creator, do you think the needs of comics storytelling have changed at all over time, or even more recently? Are there basic aspects of comics storytelling that you feel are “tried and true” and you try to hold on to?

JC: I don’t think the needs of storytelling have changed that much. However, I do think the style in which we tell these stories do. “A good story, well told”…I think the “well told” part is where style comes in. So if there’s anything I try to hold onto it’s that: tell a good story, but tell it in a way that’s true; if I can relate to it, probably someone else will too.

HMS: As a reader, what kinds of stories do you think you would most like to see hitting the shelves in comic shops and book stores in the next few years?

JC: I would very much like to see comics for every reader. With literacy rates as high as they are in North America, there should be a good comic you can put into anyone’s hand. As an example, why aren’t there comics for readers in nursing homes? That’s an entire readership, that likely grew up on comics. From reprints of comics they’re already familiar with, to new slice-of-life comics that relate to their current experiences.

Instead, the effort has been to focus on a very narrow portion of available readers, when everyone loves stories.

Everyone loves stories.

Everyone loves stories.

If we embrace that, we’ll have a shot at a healthy and robust industry.

HMS: What was the differential for you here, both writing and drawing, on Firebug, versus stories where you’ve been working purely on the art? How do you approach doing both, and how do you think it influences your storytelling?

JC: The main difference is the shorthand. Since I’m in my own head, I know what I mean, I can create in a much more instinctual way. I approach a lot of the writing, however, as though I’m writing for someone else. I would ultimately have to [do that] anyway, as I work with a colorist and a letterer, and they need a workable script.

The pros of collaborating with someone on solely the art end, or solely the writing end, is that it can be quite fun bouncing ideas back and forth.

HMS: Do you draw inspiration from other types of media for your work in comics? What kinds are energizing for you?

JC: Visual storytelling mediums like film and TV are pretty inspiring. However, novels are probably the most engaging!

Big thanks to Johnnie Christmas for taking the time to answer our questions so fully on Comicon.com!

Firebug will arrive in comic shops in trade paperback format on March 7th, 2018, from Image Comics.