No. 1 With A Bullet: Jorge Corona and Jen Hickman on collaboration, cultural relevance, and color theory
Image's No. 1 With A Bullet was an uncomfortable series to read, because it so resembled the absolute mess of media—social and otherwise—in our day. Following the misadventures of assistant-to-a-star and social media darling Nash Huang, the book mixes the situational horror of a stalker story with the existential horror of living in our abrasive, privacy-free modern age.
The book owes much to its conception by writer Jacob Semahn and artist Jorge Corona, but the near-flawless execution of the finished product is a notch on the belts of Corona, colorist Jen Hickman, and letterer Steve Wands. The visual storytelling and aesthetics so accurately capture the essence of the concept, most notably the dizzying nakedness that we all feel when we find more of ourselves online than we intended.
We spoke to Jake recently on the podcast, and this week, I had a chance to correspond with Jorge and Jen. I learned a lot from talking with them, and I hope you will, too.
Brian Warshaw: We chatted with Jake a few weeks ago, and he said that this was a project that meant something to you guys—a so-called “passion project”, perhaps. But you also put in six issues-worth of hard work to finish the book. How much of that work is the result of passion, and how much is accepting the objective reality of having to get things done and trusting that it will be worth it in the end?
Jen Hickman: For me, there can't really be a huge difference—work is work, and it has to get done. But definitely, for this project, when it came time to sit down and color, I was always really excited to dig in and do the work. Hopefully, that passion came across!
Jorge Corona: Sometimes, I believe that there is no way to work in comics without passion and hard work. Regarding this book specifically, the story that we crafted had a lot of real world relevance, especially topics that we considered were fundamental for current events and social interaction in general. I think a lot of the passion came from making sure that we handle them in a respectful way.
BW: Have you two worked together before?
JH: I have fond memories of sitting in class watching Jorge draw a pinup of Hellboy fighting some Nazi tentacle monster, and deciding I wanted to try my hand at coloring it. I distinctly remember getting very stressed trying to make the pink tentacles and the red...tentacle armbands? tentaclebands? play nice together, because it felt weird to have two similar colors next to each other. How far I've come since then!
JC: This is the first time that the team as a whole has worked together, but individually, we’ve been working with each other for almost six years now. Jake and I worked on Goners (Image Comics) at the same time that Jen and I were working on Feathers (Archaia). Since then, we’ve all collaborated one way or another on different projects.
BW: What did your collaboration look like on No. 1? Was there a lot of give and take, or was it more a sequential process?
JH: Most of it I got to just run wild and do whatever I wanted once the inks got handed to me, which was awesome. But there were definitely moments when Jorge was doing something in the inks specifically for a particular color effect, so he'd let me know. And then I'd usually go a couple rounds with feedback from Jake and Jorge until we were all happy with the colors.
JC: After an initial conversation about what we each wanted to bring to the table in our own individual stages of the process, it was a pretty straightforward dynamic. There were definitely emails going back and forward in certain stages to make sure that things that were set up in the script, linework, or colors were kept in the final product; but, having the experience of previous projects helped, trusting that we were all doing our best for the book.
BW: Did Jake provide much input along the way? Feedback after completed pages?
JH: For me, not very much—just the occasional note. Less and less as the series went on and we all started to mind-meld.
JC: Jake and I were in constant communication as the scripts were written, and if there was anything I thought could work better differently, we would just talk about it. After those initial runs, it all went down without almost any notes.
BW: Jorge, your aesthetic is exaggerated and distorted, and I think perfectly-suited to a book exploring the concept of truth in a post-Twitter society (among other things). I've seen your work in DC's We Are...Robin, and, more recently, Nightwing. There are obviously some layout/storytelling differences between all of these books, but are there particular aesthetic effects that you bring to bear in NOWAB that are unique to this book?
JC: One of the main things I try to do with every book I work on is to make sure that I give the visuals an individual style that represents the theme in a more accurate way. For We Are...Robin and Nightwing, I was definitely pulling from more traditional superhero comic art. For No 1 With a Bullet, the style was much more exaggerated, in order to hit the psychological low points that Nash goes through. The storytelling was a bit different too. I made sure that emotions and interaction between the characters took front seat.
BW: Jen, so much of the visual interest in the book comes from your color, even at a high level. If I quickly flip through an issue, there’s lots of variation—page to page, but also within individual pages. There’s never a sense of stagnation. How much of that came from the natural progression of scenes, and how much of it was you deliberately setting out to keep things moving on your end?
JH: It was a little bit of both, for sure. I was always trying to make sure the reader connected to Nash emotionally, so that drove the color shifts primarily; and then I also wanted to really push things with the colors. I repeated palettes a fair amount, actually, but I'm glad that didn't come across as static or boring!
BW: I’m not a visual artist (if it isn’t yet apparent from my questions), and I’m prone to read more into things than what’s there. All the way back in issue #1, there are two sets of pages with back to back nine-panel grids. Other than the first page in the first sequence, there’s some distinct color alternation going on panel-to-panel. It doesn’t seem to be linked to lighting alone. Jen, was there something in particular you were trying to achieve, besides maintaining visual interest (which you do!)?
JH: For that sequence, I was really trying to help define the reader's focus from one panel to the next, so the variations were all done in support of that. I was also thinking about visual interest, for sure, and wanting to get away from the monotony of having each character adhere to the exact same colors in every single panel.
BW: Can you (Jen) talk a bit about how you chose color for this book—your “color theory”, if you will? Did you have an overall series approach? How did you keep each issue fresh while preserving the identity that you established in the first one? I guess that last question is a good one for Jorge, too!
JH: My primary goal for the book was to underscore Nash's emotions, but that's pretty abstract. I also wanted to play around with using unusual color palettes, and keep the world feeling a little out of control, a little unreal if you will, to make sure that the plot's twists and turns were always supported by the colors. One thing that I did to support my goal was to use local colors for calmer moments in the story, even if they were tinted a little, so that the really outrageous palettes would pop more. As far as preserving the identity set in the first issue goes, I actually would repeat precisely a lot of the colors I used there, only I'd incorporate them in new ways or add new accent colors to established palettes. For example, the purples in the middle of issue #1, when Nash and Violet are spending a quiet night in together, get reincorporated into Nash's memories in issue #5, and faded/twisted somewhat when Violet leaves her in issue #2, and again when Nash is struggling to reconcile her memories of Violet with the horrible things coming out of her mouth in issue #6. Also, her name is Violet, so yeah. I think the colors come across as way more complex than they are, honestly!
JC: This book was a lot different from any other that I had worked on before. From the themes to the mood, I wanted every aspect of the visual identity to serve the emotional journey that Nash travels through from beginning to end. One of the things that Jake and I talked about from the get-go, was that from him I would receive scripts that resembled screenplays more than [conventional] comic scripts. The benefit of that was that we would both play to our strengths. On my end, I could set the visual pace and layout more freely. That allowed me to play with visual resources that I repeated throughout the series, setting familiar layouts and patterns that would hopefully help the reader navigate the story along with the characters and not be removed from them.
BW: Jorge, I love how the grid swirls out of control with the jumper in issue #1. It’s visually interesting, but in some ways, it's a great fake-out—the man jumping feels like the "unraveling point" for Nash, but that's really a few pages away. Were you going for that (the fake-out), or do you see that moment as the actual beginning of her nightmare?
JC: I feel that, in the first issue, even though it is not obvious until later in the story, the jumper is the first moment the No. 1 Fan affects Nash's life directly. The reveal of the sex tape at the end of the first issue is when Nash starts losing control over her own life, but the ominous events at the rooftop bar are when the man who takes advantage of it all first manipulates events to his desire.
BW: The final issue came out recently, and things are wrapped up (sort of!). Jake had his “last word” for Nash and Violet, and tied up the ends he set out to. Was there anything that you guys wanted to close the loop on visually? Do you feel like you were able to do that?
JH: I'm incredibly happy with where the colors landed at the end—I repeated the palette in issue #1 where Nash and Violet are happy together, and I also repeated the teal from issue #2 when Nash's stalker is standing inside the closet, and I feel like that repetition definitely underlined the kind of ending Jake wrote.
JC: I think one of my favorite things to do in that final chapter was to show different settings and characters that we had seen since the beginning and present them in a very different light—the closet being the most obvious one. It was an image that we had seen since the earlier chapters, but it took on a dramatically different meaning by that very last panel. That, I think, was my way of tying up every end.
BW: What other projects do you guys have in the pipeline? Working together again any time soon?
JH: I hope we find a project to work on together at some point! Not to be dramatic, but at this point, Jorge's the only person I really want to color besides myself. Right now, I'm working on a young adult graphic novel with writer Samuel Sattin, out from Lion Forge late next year. I'm also drawing another book that I can't really talk about yet, but I'm super excited for the moment when I can!
JC: I’m always looking for an excuse to work with either Jen or Jake. For now, I know we all have different projects that we are taking care of, and hopefully there will be another chance down the line. Jen and I (along with artist Morgan Beem) share a studio space together, so at least that way I get my Jen fix—now I need to figure out a way to convince Jake to move. As for future projects, I have an upcoming Image book that will be announced soon with Skottie Young doing the writing that I’m really excited about!
Many thanks to Jorge and Jen for taking the time to answer my questions. If you can't find No. 1 With A Bullet in your local comic shop, check it out digitally, or look for the trade paperback, coming June 6.