Science fiction as political critique has a long history in comic books. The latest evidence of that comes from collaborators Matt Bors and Ben Clarkson, whose new series Justice Warriors debuts from Ahoy Comics this month. I spoke with Bors and Clarkson about the development of the series, the history of police in comics, and whether or not their satirical series is predicting the shape of things to come.
You’re both listed as co-writers for Justice Warriors, so I’m curious — what’s the collaborative process that you use for each issue?
Matt Bors: We talk a lot with each other about the world of Justice Warriors and the ideas all originate in conversations or text messages. We will write up an initial outline that turns into page-by-page breakdowns. From there I’ll usually draft the script and we’ll keep revising multiple times before turning in the first draft. Things are changing in pencils too—better layout ideas—and I’m lettering the book, which is even more of an opportunity to add a last minute punch-up or make sure the rhythms of the page are in sync.
Ben Clarkson: No part of the book is really untouched by the other. Through the whole process we’re passing it back and forth.
Justice Warriors is a work of satirical science fiction, where there’s a grand tradition. How would you describe your own angle on satire and political commentary for the series?
Bors: We’re approaching it with an idea of emphasizing the violent and absurd, with jokes on every page, really a lot of them, but with the goal being the overall vibe of the world overtaking the reader, not one punchline or message. For me, that is straying from the approach I used in political cartooning—in a healthy way.
Clarkson: I’d say I’m doing my best impression of Paul Verhoeven. There’s a mixture of subtle jokes, sociology, and over the top violence and broad comedy. I try to draw the book, minus the fish cop and talking poo, as a high budget Michael Bay movie.
Partway through the first issue, the individual panels are interspersed with screens, which reminded me of some early work by Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller. Are there any existing works that you see as direct forerunners of this comic?
Bors: Frank Miller’s use of TV screens and media dumps is certainly a reference point. I’ve used news anchors and pundits in my political cartoons for as long as I did them. It’s a great way to convey information and pencil in some details of a society as bizarre as Justice Warriors.
Clarkson: Yeah, Miller’s TV stuff was a big inspiration, mixed with TV shows from Robocop. It is this hyper mediated society, where we get to see lots of little portals into their insane culture.
How did you go about establishing ground rules for your fictional universe?
Bors: I think you start with the initial premise, that Bubble City is a prosperous, crime-free city domed off from the Uninhabited Zone which is in fact inhabited by millions of mutants in a never-ending neglected sprawl. And that boundary is upheld by the police. Virtually anything can happen here—any mutation or variety of crime you can fathom exists in the UZ. And from there we can jump off into a thousand stories—and plan to.
Clarkson: Bubble City is like any fictional Utopian city, it’s a place to tell stories about right and wrong, crime and punishment, in and out, have and have not. It’s a place where you can zoom out and tell stories about how nations interact, how humans use their environment, or zoom in to tell a story about the sociological origins of crime. Or you can watch a fancy guy slip on a banana peel. It has so much freedom and so many stories pop out from this tension between the uninhabited zone and the bubble. It can be zany, it can be harsh and violent.
I don’t know exactly how we created what we have. Some of it was patched together from Asimov, some came from Super Troopers, and a lot came from trying to make each other laugh.
At the end of the first issue, you include a list of comics that blend superheroes and policing, from a Captain America arc to Gotham Central. Was creating a comic about police — even a satirical one — particularly challenging right now?
Bors: In one sense, it may be easier because views on police have started to shift to where more people get a critique of the institution. It would maybe be more challenging if we were specifically addressing the events of the last few years. That is in here, to be sure, but the relationship between the Bubble and the UZ is the core and that represents the policed and unpoliced communities, but also workers and owners, where goods are extracted from and where they go, and the organized vs. the chaotic, the straight and the weird. Cops are the jumping off point.
Cops have been such a big part of movies and popular culture. You stand back and really look at the whole, we’re clearly obsessed with it from Westerns on up through modern police dramas. It’s the place where you explore what is allowed in society and who is permitted to use violence.
Clarkson: I think the real challenge is will people feel comfortable with us really poking fun at cops. There’s very little media, or storytelling, out there that is truly critical of policing as an institution and its role in our lives.
Cops and their pivotal role in the social order are worthy of reexamination. It shouldn’t be controversial to point out that cops deal drugs, work with organized crime, and suffer from corruption at every level. We try to incorporate that stuff into how our world works, and poke fun at it.
The opening scene involves the sale of baby formula, at a time when formula shortages are making national news. Are you worried about your book’s more satirical or dystopian elements being overtaken by reality?
Bors: Well, we made the smart choice of having the baby formula raid be led by parasitic starfish that attach themselves to mutants and make them commit crimes. So it’s a few steps removed. But if we get to a place as a society where mutant elk are robbing ration depots, well, I hope a few remember our little comic book.
Clarkson: Issue 2 has some things that are going to happen this summer. Buy all the issues to see what will be happening for the next 4-5 months.