Being Powerless In A Powered World: Justin Jordan On Breaklands From ComiXology Originals

by Hannah Means Shannon

Dropping this week from comiXology Originals is the fourth issue of the manga and anime-inspired comic series Breaklands which explores a world of psychic abilities in the aftermath of titanic devastation for the inhabitants of an unusual world. Written by the prolific Justin Jordan, whose works span a variety of genres and approaches, and illustrated by Tyasseta, with colors by Sarah Stern and letters by Rachel Deering, Breaklands turns a number of storytelling tropes on their heads as we follow a main character who is powerless in a world of powered people, but the protector of a younger brother who may possess powers beyond comprehension.

Justin Jordan speaks with us about his career, the decision he made to work with comiXology Originals to bring Breaklands to the world, and what made this a story that he felt compelled tell.

Hannah Means-Shannon: You’ve done so much in comics that it’s impossible to put the themes that you cover into one box. You’ve even worked with a wide range of artists in very different styles. However, I still feel that Breaklands is surprising compared to your other projects, even in terms of art style. Is it new territory?

Justin Jordan: Yes, a bit. When I’m putting together projects, I’m looking not just for a great artist, but for an artist who is great for that project. When I did Spread, I wanted a grimy, grindhousey-kind of style for that thing, and not every artist can do that. Kyle [Strahm] could. John Bivens has that kind of style, too. But with this, I wanted to do something visually different, and I’ve referenced the story as “Mad Max meets Akira by way of Princess Mononoke”. So we had those influences. But I also wanted a distinct animation cell look to it, with that bright coloring, and Tyasseta and Sarah Stern, the colorist, really nailed it. That’s by design. I have a pretty wide-ranging taste in art, and I’m restless, which is why I do so many different kinds of projects.

HMS: You do a lot of work, and have a lot of ideas that fuel that work, clearly. I’m sure you could keep busy for quite a while with just the ideas you have now.

JJ: I have enough ideas in the list now that I would be dead before I hit the end.

HMS: Even for readers, not everyone likes to read so many different genres and so many different approaches to storytelling as are represented in your work so far. But maybe that’s a cool thing, because it could tempt readers to try new things if they are already fans of your other work. Then we get more exploration rather than sticking with niches.

JJ: Yes, I hope that’s true. Well, from a business standpoint, there’s probably something to be said for sticking with niches. My comic career has gone well, but I do stuff that is “off brand” reasonably often. And Breaklands probably qualifies. I think you get a sense of my sensibilities in all of them, but I range from fairly brutal to…not.

HMS: People who know you may already know the answer to this question, but I’ll ask for the readers: So, it doesn’t make you uncomfortable that your personal “brand” is not as narrow as most writers? Does that affect you?

JJ: Yes, it affects me. No, it doesn’t bother me. In a comics career, you have hits and misses. I’ve had a couple of big hits, like Luther Strode and Spread, and Reaver, from Skybound, is doing really well. Reaver is very much on-brand. I know from a business standpoint that I would probably have sold more books overall if I had stayed in my lane. But I’m just so creatively restless that I can’t do it. I know that I should. But I’ve made my peace with that. It keeps it fun and it keeps it interesting.

HMS: So, has the idea for Breaklands been around for a while in one of your lists, or is a newer concept?

JJ: Yes, it’s been around for a few years, which is not that old for me. I think I started noodling with it about three or four years ago. I was just looking around to try to find the right artist. I talked to a couple of different people. I talked with Raul Trevino, who I had done Sombra with at Boom! Studios. And it finally landed on Tyasseta with good timing, because around that time I was talking with Chip Mosher about possibly having something for comiXology Originals. Since I thought it would work well with the market there.

HMS: What about the comiXology Originals paradigm appealed to you?

JJ: The digital sales aspect of it is interesting to me. If you find people on Facebook who are interested in buying your comics, they have a hard time finding a way to buy single issues unless they actually go to a comic shop. There are ways around that, but if they are not in the direct market audience, it’s hard to get them into it. But everyone has Amazon. Or even Amazon Prime, where if you’re a member, you could read Breaklands free.

So that was interesting to me, as well as working in a slightly different market than for other comics. Breaklands is a great book, but I think it would not have done as well in the direct market as it may do in this market.

HMS: The different art style on Breaklands, with the film, anime, and manga influences, does seem that it might find a digital audience more easily.

JJ: I think so. I also think it’s the kind of thing that might appeal more to people who are doing Webtoons, where I have a comic, Urban Animal, and that kind of thing. It’s not true of all platforms, but Webtoons is very anime-focused. So yes, when I was thinking about the project, I was thinking about digital natives, and comiXology. The market aspect of that was a factor. And further down the road, I’d like to market the trade to the readers of Urban Animal.

HMS: To ask you actual questions about the plot and the themes of Breaklands, we’re dealing with psychics, right?

JJ: Yes.

HMS: Is that hard to make arresting and interesting in visual storytelling, since it’s all happening inside peoples’ minds?

JJ: Yes! But throughout, I was constantly trying to find new ways to do that. Like in Star Wars: A New Hope, they just drop you right into the middle of the story, and don’t explain things. They don’t really explain the Clone Wars or explain the Jedi. One of the things that Star Wars has done so well is create a lived-in world where you feel like a lot of story is going on outside of the story that you’re actually following. So, what I’m trying to do in Breaklands is to do that, without really explaining what peoples’ powers are. You have to kind of infer what peoples’ abilities are, and for many of them, there’s not an obvious visual component for their powers. One character is pyrokinetic, but she doesn’t throw balls of fire.

In the first issue, you see the Rumblers, and what they do is that they take telekinetics, lobotomize them, and strap them into their cars to use them as engines. And that’s why their cars float.

HMS: That’s horrible.

JJ: It is awful. They are terrible people. And the lead guy is a telekinetic, and his thing is to make a finger gun, and point, and send people flying. But you don’t see any energy or force. So I had to do a lot of thinking about how to visualize all this in an interesting way. It does have to lean heavily on stuff that has a physical effect we can see.

HMS: It sounds like people’s powers in Breaklands are almost a form of technology.

JJ: They absolutely are. That’s one of the concepts of the book. We pick up about 150 years or so after people have basically started developing psychic powers. Most of these were really weak. You could float a quarter or something like that. But a few of them, maybe half a dozen in the world, were Akira-level, “I-could-just-rewrite-reality-level” psychics. And they started doing exactly that. And they eventually killed each other. But in the process, they just rewrote the world.

So, there are people who are weird looking because at some point in their family line, these psychics screwed with their genetics. They reshaped mountains. It’s a world that’s very unlike our own Earth. But now, 150 years in the future, everyone has psychic powers. And that has effectively replaced technology in many forms.

If you want to keep something cold, you go to the guy in your town who does that. He can drain heat from stuff and keeps a storehouse, rents it out, and is effectively a human refrigerator. One of the main characters, Toy, drives an armored truck, essentially, but it’s steam powered, and she creates the heat that drives the truck.

That’s one of the remits of the world—that they are handling much of what we would do via technology with these peoples’ inherent powers. Which is a problem because our main character doesn’t have powers, so she’s not a good fit for this world.

HMS: That’s a great flip on expectations for a central character.

JJ: It’s the literal opposite of a superhero story assumption where someone is one of the few people in a world who has powers.

HMS: And also, how do you have value in the world of Breaklands without powers?

JJ: Yes. Basically, if you were to stop the world for a week, we’d be screwed. Much of what we accomplish is built on momentum. If you had to rebuild from scratch, we’ve already depleted much of the oil, much of the metal, and stuff like that. Beyond scavenging, a lot of the tech and buildings would not last for more than 100 years. So, in this society, as people developed powers, they just used that and built away from the previous world. It’s not that they couldn’t build technology, and there is technology that exists in that world, but it’s just easier for people to build around the abilities that they have.

If we all inherently had the ability to run 100 miles an hour, would we still build cars? Maybe not. Maybe that wouldn’t be an efficient use of technology.

HMS: Can you tell us a little more about our central character and her motivation? She’s on a journey of conflict.

JJ: Sure. The main character is a girl called Kasa Fain, who is about 17 years old. And she has a younger brother, who is about 8 years old. Their whole lives they have lived kind of outside of society. And recently, their mother has gone missing, so Kasa has been trying to hold things together. While Kasa has no powers, her brother is potentially a god-level power when he comes into it. He’s not there yet, but he will be. Implicitly, their mother knew that, and was keeping it secret.

Eventually Kasa is far enough away that her brother gets into shenanigans that attract the attention of the Rumblers. Who are roaming petty criminals, greaser assholes. They kidnap him because they realize what he is. And once everyone in the world knows what he is, everyone wants him. Forces start converging.

Then we have a girl who has no knowledge of the outside world, no powers, and only a bow and arrow, has to go and get him.

HMS: So it’s not just that she has no powers, but she’s very naïve about the world?

JJ: She is. She’s not an idiot, but in terms of experiencing things, she really doesn’t know how these aspects of society work in anything more than an academic sense.

HMS: Well, don’t give too much away here, but what can someone like that do in a world of this kind against people with all these powers?

JJ: She has to find clever ways to use what she’s got. And she also has to build a crew of people. At the same time, one of the things she’s able to take advantage of is that so many different kinds of people want her brother. So, she can say, “You definitely don’t want them to get him. Help me.”

Check out our preview of issue #4 below!

Breaklands, issues 1, 2, 3, and 4 are available now from comiXology and are free to read for members of Amazon Prime.

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