The ComiQuad: Chatting with Justin Aclin About SHOOT First

Boom! Wham! Pow! The ComiQuad is a column dedicated to the spandex-laden world of comics and superheroes. It goes up each Wednesday and will alternate between comic book reviews and other comic book news. Reviews shall try to be spoiler-free. Zam!

This week, the ComiQuad reunites with Boston University alum Justin Aclin to talk about his upcoming supernatural comic mini-series, S.H.O.O.T. First.

ComiQuad: Between the Star Wars novellas, Akaneiro, this summer, and now S.H.O.O.T. First, you’ve been keeping busy. How’s your year been?

Justin Aclin: This has been an incredible, unbelievable year. Almost everything that I’ve had come out this year, I either wrote last year or had been in the works for a while. It just so happened that…this surge of material came out almost all at once. It’s staggering and unbelievable.

It seems like Dark Horse Comics has been really supportive.

JA: Dark Horse and specifically my editor, Dave Marshall, who has been my editor on all of these projects, and who went to BU, but transferred to Brown. Another BU connection!

The cover to S.H.O.O.T. First #1, art by Nicolás Daniel Selma | Courtesy Dark Horse Comics
The cover to S.H.O.O.T. First #1, art by Nicolás Daniel Selma | Image courtesy of Dark Horse Comics

S.H.O.O.T. First had started as a short story for MySpace Dark Horse Presents, which was their previous online anthology title, and that came out in 2010. Ever since it came out, I’d been working with Dave and the editorial team at Dark Horse to turn it into a mini-series. In the midst of [fleshing it out], Dave said to me, “Do you want to work on Star Wars? Do you want to work on Akaneiro?”

Even though those projects came out first, they were a result of being more known at Dark Horse because I had been working with them on S.H.O.O.T. First. S.H.O.O.T. First was the wellspring that all of this came from. Now I’m so excited that people are finally going to be able to read it because I’m extremely proud of it.

So, if I understand correctly, this has been bouncing around your head since 2010?

JA: It started in 2009 when I came up with the idea, and then I had the craziest pitching process that I’ll never be able to recreate in my career ever. I came up with the idea one day, I wrote it up and pitched it to Dark Horse the next day, and two days later they accepted it. Nothing ever happens like that. [laughs]

But as quickly as that eight-page story came together, now it’s been over three years trying to put the mini-series together.

How did the concept come about for S.H.O.O.T. First?

JA: It had very mercenary roots so, basically, it started with me saying, “What’s a Dark Horse kind of comic?” Dark Horse, if they have something that they’re known for, it’s teams of characters who fight the supernatural.

They have it with BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense), and I thought Beasts of Burden was a great twist on that because they got all of those elements featuring a team of house pets with supernatural powers.

I was trying to think, “What is a twist on it that I can do?”

The cover to S.H.O.O.T. First #2, art by Nicolás Daniel Selma | Courtesy Dark Horse Comics
The cover to S.H.O.O.T. First #2, art by Nicolás Daniel Selma | Image courtesy of Dark Horse Comics

Any time you see a monster-hunting team, they approach the monsters on the monsters’ own terms. If someone is trying to track down a vampire, they’ll bring garlic, stakes, and crosses, because that’s what you do when you’re hunting a vampire.

But I had never seen a team where they think that the supernatural creatures are kinda bullshit, they’re just going to fight them on their own terms. So that was the twist that I came up with.

I didn’t realize it, but it was kind of dovetailing with stuff that I was going through at the time where I had been moving steadily away from considering myself a religious person to being a full-on atheist.

The more that I dove into S.H.O.O.T. First and lived in the world that I was creating, it really became, for something that started out as a mercenary “what-can-I-sell” kind of idea [laughs], to something very personal. It is a personal comic, but at the same time, I still wanted to write a comic that I wanted to read. So it’s still got a lot of action and fun and crazy ideas.

There seems to be a lot of mythology in this book. What kind of research goes into a comic that draws from so many different types of mythologies?

JA: The way that supernatural creatures function in the S.H.O.O.T., Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce, world is that they’re basically all the same type of creature, and S.H.O.O.T. refers to them as “outside actors.” They can self-evolve into any form, and if they evolve into any form that humans have a belief or faith in, it gives them supercharged powers. The benefits of that faith. Knowing that and knowing they can be any supernatural creature in any pantheon in the world, it can be intimidating.

In the first issue, they’re fighting bottle djinn. So it’s taking the djinn from Islamic mythology, and instead of being genies that come out of bottles, they’re living bottles. They eat people and put them inside themselves. That was us putting our own spin on it.

How has the feedback been regarding the book’s relationship with religion, a generally controversial topic?

JA: I didn’t set out to create a book that’s going to deeply offend anybody. It has it’s own viewpoints and a consistent worldview, and it’s basically my worldview. But I didn’t set out to create a hellfire, “everybody else sucks” kind of book.

It’s not even about “why atheism is right” or “how cool it is”–it actually ends up being a lot about the struggles and things that are made more difficult about living without faith.

It’s funny, when the original short story came out and the concept got out there, I was expecting a lot of controversy from religious people, but that didn’t come. Instead, what I found was that a lot of atheists who were very vocal on the Internet were looking at it with suspicion.

It’s kind of a weird concept to wrap your head around, so I hope that people can check it out and understand where we’re coming from. Regardless of your feelings on faith, hopefully…there are enough cool ideas in there for anyone to chew on.

The cover to S.H.O.O.T. First #3, art by Nicolás Daniel Selma | Courtesy Dark Horse Comics
The cover to S.H.O.O.T. First #3, art by Nicolás Daniel Selma | Courtesy Dark Horse Comics

So people of any belief, or non-belief, system will be able to take something from this?

JA: Yeah, definitely! A reader might not have gone through the specific crises that accompany a lack of faith, but I think that anyone will have hit a moment where they’re not sure of themselves.

Regardless, I always think it’s interesting to read something from another viewpoint and to explore it. Not everyone is going to agree with the worldview that I’m laying down, but the comic is ultimately not about the worldview. The worldview just forms the world that it is set in.

So how’s it been collaborating with artist Nicolás Daniel Selma?

JA: It’s been great. Nicolás is an incredibly talented artist, and it’s been really exciting. The first issue looks fantastic, and every subsequent issue since then has looked even better. I’m chomping at the bit to have people see the later issues.

He’s a very creative artist. The monster designs, the character designs, they feel like real people, and they feel like exciting new takes on these supernatural creatures. He’s not just my collaborator, but also my co-creator on this book. He’s been, I don’t want to say a “godsend” because that would be ironic, but it’s been fantastic being able to work with him on this.

Is there anything else about S.H.O.O.T. First that you’d like to talk about, or that you’d like readers to know?

JA: I end up talking a lot about the high concept because there’s a lot to wrap your mind around, but, ultimately, it’s a story that’s really grounded in the characters.

I think that, by the end of the four issues, not only will people get a lot of huge epic action sequences and surprises and turns, but I think that they’ll really feel like they know these characters. That’s what is most exciting for me. Having been living inside these characters’ heads for a while now, I’m excited for other people to get to meet them.

Do you want say anything brief about the characters individually?

JA: Sure. The team leader is named Mrs. Brookstone. She’s an African-American woman, and we learn on the first page of the book that she’s a mom. She has a son named Ray that we learn she keeps secret from the team. To the rest of the team, she just seems like a constant badass. And she is! Especially when it comes to the battlefield.

Then there’s Lord Byron, who’s sort of this nihilistic British aging punk. He just really enjoys sacrilege and violence. And he’s found a place that enables him to do both at once. He’s kind of a joyful character in that way.

Then there’s Kenshin, a Japanese science advisor to the team. He’s their on-the-ground tech guru.

There’s Bett, also British, and you learn more about her in the second issue. For now, I’ll say that she has a unicorn horn that she wears around her neck at all times, that she can also use as a weapon. She is one of my favorite characters, because there’s a lot going on with her.

And then there’s Infidel, who is the new recruit. He’s the character that we meet in the first issue who is just joining the team. He was a NATO translator living in Afghanistan, and we’re meeting him at [the] moment of [his] crisis of faith. And he ends up falling in with S.H.O.O.T. accidentally.

And then there’s Robot, who is S.H.O.O.T.’s robot.

The first issue of S.H.O.O.T. First comes out in stores on October 16th. For anyone attending New York Comic Con, Justin and Nicolás will be at the Dark Horse booth (Sunday at 1pm) giving out signed copies of S.H.O.O.T. First in advance of its official sale date.

Interview has been edited for length.

Jon Erik Christianson

Jon Christianson (COM/CAS '14) is the zany, misunderstood cousin of The Quad family. His superpowers include talking at the speed of light, tripping over walls, and defying ComiQuad deadlines with the greatest of ease. His lovely copyeditors don't appreciate that last one. If for some reason you hunger for more of his nonsense, follow him at @HonestlyJon on Twitter or contact him at jchristianson@buquad.com!

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