Friday, April 2, 2010

Deep Discussions with Decapitated Dan: Justin Zimmerman

Welcome back kiddies. This time I have lured Justin Zimmerman into the depths to pick his brain about The Killing Jar. For those of you who don't know about The Killing Jar it is a neowestern horror story set in a small Colorado town. The story so far has been an action packed thrill ride and I don't think it will let up anytime soon. So sit back and relax as we find out why we should all be reading The Killing Jar and what the future holds for Justin and storytelling.

Decapitated Dan: Hey Justin, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about the Killing Jar.

Justin Zimmerman: No problem, Dan.

DD: Lets start off simple. Who are you and what do you do?

JZ: My name is Justin Zimmerman, and I am a 32-year-old writer and filmmaker. I’ve also been a professor, a Big Brothers / Big Sisters caseworker, and an after school counselor in my day. I am a working man. And you’ll be able to tell that I was a professor, because my answers will be ridiculously long. Sorry about that. (Mom, at least I’ll see you at the end!) Anyway, I’m on Facebook…as is The Killing Jar and my website is and you can see my shorter film work at

DD: Seems to me you have a nice background in film. Want to tell me about it?

JZ: My BA is in English with a minor in Film Criticism and my MFA is in Film Production, which is a terminal degree. I was probably one of the last classes to use entirely analog material. I shot, edited and finished on film. I recorded sound on a Nagra and mixed in an 8-track reel-to-reel sound environment. Sometimes we even used real paper to write down our thoughts! Anyway, I gravitated toward documentary and sound work in school. When I graduated, I directed a doc – the Calling – that was broadcast on national public television and a personal doc – One of Five – that won the IFP/Chicago film festival non-fiction award and was featured in film festivals all over the world. I was also working full-time as a caseworker and then as a professor. Flash forward five or so years and I was making my living working in the doc world – creating projects for the world’s largest image provider, Getty Images, for example. So, the more I was creating docs for my living the less I was interested in focusing on that creatively. So I started writing. A lot. And in 2010 I was signed to a literary agency!

DD: How has filmmaking helped and/or hurt your approach to making comics?

JZ: Film of any kind is as much about previsualizing as it is capturing. This fits remarkably well with comics. And film is an inherently collaborative medium. But I still do a great deal of pro bono doc work. Meeting people – understanding the world around you – is the key to any kind of writing, frankly.

DD: What was it that got you into comics? Reading and creating?

JZ: I grew up with comics. I instantly loved them. I remember finding ElfQuest in the library and just being sucked in. And back in the day when you could get the three packs of random comics in the daddy would pick those up for us kids. I was there for some comic changes too…watching Transformers evolve as these British folks came in and suddenly made everything super cool. And Captain America replaced. That was important. And Image. And Superman dead and Batman broken and the big DC revamp. And Spider-man clones. And my first graphic novel was Sandman: Season of Mists…and I bought every single Vertigo book I could find. I could go on and on. I love this stuff. These days I read many different kinds of books, but I follow one writer through every title…and that’s Warren Ellis.

DD: So lets talk about your book. What can you tell me about The Killing Jar?

JZ: The second feature length script I ever wrote – waaaay back in 2007 - was my roadmap for the series. I’ve always loved comics, but wanted to make sure I had a piece that would fit that storytelling aesthetic. The Killing Jar WAS that property…I could tell from day one. I also knew it was going to be a real learning experience for me. Fortunately, I’m married to a graphic designer and work full-time so I knew with budgeting, I could put out a regular book. And on the eve of our first trade paperback and into our fourth issue, here we are!

DD: Where did this idea come from?

JZ: A dark and twisted place in my head, heart or soul, evidently.

DD: Any influences that lead you to come up with this story?

JZ: I state on The Killing Jar Facebook Fan Page that: “If Sam Peckinpah directed Night of the Living Dead, if a bloody Old Testament story was ghost written by Kathryn Bigelow and John Carpenter, if God’s favorite film was The Outlaw Josey Wales...I wouldn't have written The Killing Jar.” That about sums it up.

DD: How did you bring the creative team together?

JZ: My wife was drafted. We bought all our fonts. I paid for the logo. An acquaintance of mine – Tony Wallace – was pitching an incredible animated series called Sunstorm Saga around. I saw the prepro work and asked about one of his artists and he recommended Russ without reservations. I was so impressed with Russ’ work that I paid him in advance for 6 issues…roughly half of the first series. To keep the quality of a grainy, B+W 16mm film, I decided to post all the pics straight from the pencils myself and to keep the cost down, I letter the book too. I talked my incredibly talented - but incredibly deadline wary - friend Tom into digitally inking intertitles. I recently hired a local artist to color posters for each issue. Harold’s doing a great job. And I shoot the cover photography on 35mm film myself. That’s the whole book! I’m a working guy, so budget is incredibly important. You’ll see above I paid where I felt it warranted but do quite a bit of work myself to keep the cost down. In the end, The Killing Jar was a great choice for my comic foray because the technical limitations – no color, for example – were identified at the beginning of the project and fit the aesthetics of the story. We’ve forged a great relationship with an online printer / distributor called and there you have it!

DD: The book has a good mix of action and suspense so far. Do you find that these styles are easy to write?

JZ: Well, I love the genres, but I also love writing in the 22-page vein. Part of the big problem in the film to comic world is that you’re supposed to fit the entire feature into an easily digestible 3-issue series. That’s all anyone will publish. Forget it. There’s no pacing, no style. With The Killing Jar, each issue is self-contained. But it’s part of a whole story…and that story will methodically be revealed. Characterization is SO important to this book. And what’s horror and suspense without interesting characters? Friday night at the cinema, sadly. I’d also stress to any aspiring story-bible to comic or feature to comic writers to be prepared to adapt continually. Over a third of every issue is rewritten once I get the pages in…and that’s AFTER I break my larger arcs into 22 page self-contained issues. I can’t even begin to think about how much gets cut and / or shifted during THAT process.

DD: Who is the main cast of The Killing Jar?

JZ: The first arc is all about meeting Anna, our protagonist, her dead father’s .38 police special and her little brother Michael. They live in a dying town called Saguache. Three drug-runners come through for a resupply, set their sites on her for a kind of initiation and all hell breaks loose. By the end of issue #3, a couple state troopers show up, we get our first glimpse of drug-insane townspeople and in issue #4, we start to learn what’s gone so wrong in Saguache, who’s running the show and what it’s truly going to take to survive. There’s conflict and compromise, backstabbing and violence and in the end of The Killing Jar, there’s not much of any kind of cast left. Which is how we like it in Romero / Peckinpah land…

DD: Why did you choose to go with a female lead?

JZ: Why not? Seriously, it’s incredible to me that when you decide to tell a story in these genres, females have to be sexed out centerpieces, supportive sidekicks or constantly in danger and thus continually rescued. Astute readers will see that I play around with the female in danger tropes in the first arc, but that Anna is anything but a helpless protagonist. She is a confident, thoughtful and thoroughly capable woman…like most of the women in the world. That’s not to say that she’s perfect. In fact, she will be challenged and changed by what happens throughout the comic internally and externally. And that’s not to say that The Killing Jar is hung up on the idea of political correctness. The people that want to kill Anna in the first couple issues are vitriolic and horrifying in both action and words. But she’ll stand against them, and I’d bet on her.

DD: Some are saying that this is a western / horror, do you think it fits into these categories?

JZ: Oh yeah. Neowestern, though. In other words, the Road Warrior was a Neowestern in the sense that evoked Shane so perfectly. And as far as horror goes, there are plenty of horrific happenings, but it’s as much internal as it is external. There’s plenty of social subtext with all the blood…if you’re looking for that kind of thing.

DD: What can you tell us about the future of this series?

JZ: I’ll keep writing them. They’ll keep coming. Hopefully people will buy them.

DD: Do you think there are more stories to explore within this universe?

JZ: Absolutely. In fact, I’ve already released a photography-based annual that fits in to the second arc. And while the end of The Killing Jar will be satisfying, there’s always more to tell…

DD: You have any plans on creating other titles?

JZ: Always. But it’s really important – at this stage – not to dilute too much. I’m doing an experimental little one-shot called The Robot Library that we’ll release later this year and I already published a doc / comic hybrid about the Korean War called Dr. Holman’s War in 2009. But in the comic world, my focus is on finishing The Killing Jar comic…which will be in 2012, at this rate.

DD: So what has it been like so far self-publishing this book?

JZ: Exhilarating, frustrating and educational. I went through three revised printings of the first issue alone before we felt like we were doing it right. It can be an expensive hobby, though certainly not as expensive as indie film. But my opinion has always been that if you’re doing personal creative work for the money, you’re in the wrong field. And I remember when Wayne – who used to run the comic store when I was in middle-school discovering comics – self-published his comic. He had to order like 5000 copies or something. Those days – thanks to outfits like ComiXpress – are over!

DD: Do you find that there are a lot more obstacles to overcome?

JZ: Hopefully not! I’ve had my fill.

DD: How has the fan support been so far? Do you notice more people coming on board?

JZ: We’ve been relatively quiet about the book so far because the first arc is so important to be out there. It lays the foundation for everything that follows. And we also wanted to be well on our way with issue #4, where the stronger horror elements are introduced. We’re there now. That said, we’ve received a lot of praise, criticism and strong reactions from those on board so far…and we’ve appreciated it all! Hopefully now that we’ve got a solid character base and a strong record of work behind us, people will be ready to enter the world of The Killing Jar.

DD: So why should people be reading The Killing Jar?

JZ: They shouldn’t. It’ll mess ‘em up.!

DD: Thanks so much for your time Justin.

JZ: Dan, thanks for being so supportive of indie books. I don’t know how you get to ‘em all! And Dan, could you let me get a quick shout out to my mother in here? Mom, everyone quit a couple pages ago, but I wanted to thank you for reading all the way to the end. Mom? Mom?!? Oh, the glorious life of a comic writer…

If you would like to know more about The Killing Jar and Justin please go to . If you would like to purchase issues of The Killing Jar please go to as issue #3 and the Trade Paperback will be available the first week of April. You can also meet the crew behind The Killing Jar at Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland on April 24 and 25.

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