Interview: Zack Giallongo On His Debut Graphic Novel 'Broxo'

Earlier this week, we posted an exclusive trailer for First Second's fun - but heartfelt - new barbarians versus zombies book Broxo. Now we've got a chat with the author of the book, Zack Giallongo... Though he's worked in mini-comics before, this is a remarkably assured debut OGN for the writer/artist, well worth checking out:

MTV Geek: Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of Broxo? It almost feels like we jump into a fully formed world right from the start, but I imagine that's a lot of hard work and outlining before you even got into the process...

Zack Giallongo: Yeah. Even though we only see a small glimpse of the region for a short period of time, I had to know what was possible on Peryton Peak, what the world beyond is like, and what had gone before in Penthosian history. I had thought, in the beginning, that I had a handle on it, but my editor, Calista Brill, had me step back and do some really serious world building before I went ahead with the story. There are hints in the final narrative as to what the rest of the region is like, but it all exists in notes and drawings. The Five Clans are all fleshed out as well as their history and customs. I love field guides and bestiaries, so over the summer I took my notes and created something like 15 D&D Monstrous Manual-style entries for the various creatures on Peryton Peak and posted them to the MacTeen blog.

To me, fantasy worlds need to be explored and realized in order to make them seem real. It was important to me to have specific rules in place. Despite this being a "fantasy" story, there are no elves or unicorns or magic. Sure, there's sort of some ritualistic-type magic going on, but no one is casting spells or anything. I kind of don't like magic in stories. It can feel lazy. My friend Matt Loux created the map based on a sketch of mine in the beginning of the book. I love that stuff, and I explicitly put areas on the map that are not even mentioned in the book itself. Let the fanfic begin!

Geek: This is also remarkably assured for your first graphic novel ever... How'd this come about on a practical level? And what's the experience been like so far.

ZG: Well, thanks! I've been making mini-comics since about 2004, so I guess that was a decent training ground as far as learning the mechanics of comics and what looks good in print. I had a reading audience for those comics numbering in the high-tens, but I still attended a lot of conventions when I could. I had met Marketing Coordinator Gina Gagliano at a party and we became friendly. She encouraged me to submit something to First Second, and I did. Time went by and there was interest in me, it seemed, but not in Broxo. But then Calista Brill came on as a new editor and saw the Broxo pitch. I guess she took a shine to it because after some serious conversatin', First Second decided to take a chance!

The experience has been great. I love working with everyone on that side of graphic novel-making. From the start, I had said that I wanted to work with an editor. While I knew my story and characters, I never claimed to know the best way to handle certain elements. I think a good editor is a creator's best friend and I see so much stuff that could be really, really good if only it had an editor. The process itself was a very long one and I learned quite a bit. My first draft had the pages thumbnailed out on single pages. Calista suggested that it would be good to think in double page spreads and thumb the book out that way so as to really get a sense of what the final reading experience would be like. D'oh! Broxo ended up being about 2.5 drafts.

Geek: There's a slow reveal of the mythology and supernatural in this book... Can you talk about that arc a bit?

ZG: I think the slow reveal is important. As I said before, this isn't a world where magic necessarily exists, and certainly isn't commonplace. Zora herself is a skeptic and comes from a very agnostic people. Different groups of Penthosians explain things in different ways, and even the Perytons' own mythology might not be true. Yes, we see some of the legends explained in the book come to fruition, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the tellers of those legends are correct or truly understand what is happening. I know how murky that sounds, believe me, but I guess it's a bit of my own personal worldview coming into play, there. I take issue with certainty.

I do love the supernatural elements. It can be tricky to have fantastical things happen in a fantasy book, I think. The characters in Broxo are generally just as thrown off by the appearance of ghosts and zombies as we would be in the real world. Well, a lot of us, anyways. I think that's why the slow build is crucial. I often like to think of this as a world very nearly like ours, only things evolved a little differently. We don't have any single-horned bear/cat/apes on Earth.

Geek: Okay, specifics, what you can tell us: who is Zora, and who is Broxo?

ZG: Zora is the 16-year old princess of the Granitewing Clan, and the youngest member of her family. She's tough and skilled in archery, swordfighting, and artsy things like poetry. She's a little bratty at first, but in an independent sort of way. If she wants to do something, she's going to do it. You can walk with her, or get out of the way. She's very smart and a good problem-solver.

Broxo is 14 and wild. He's scrappy and a good brawler. He also has a lot of emotional sensitivity and often talks to inanimate objects, as well as plants and animals. Some talk back, some don't. He's a bit self-centered, but that just comes from the over 10 years of surviving on his own. Zora is the one who opens up the idea of having responsibility to others, though she herself has not always taken that advice.

Geek: Why call the book Broxo? Particularly when Zora seems like the main window character?

ZG: We do see a lot of the book through Zora's experience, but really only about the first half. Although she's the spark and the catalyst for the events, Broxo is really the lynch pin. He's the point where everything in the story intersects, and I think of the two, he has the largest amount of growth. Certainly, his world changes the most. There's a point in the book where he has a pretty serious meltdown for this reason exactly.

Geek: What else can you/do you want to tell us about the other characters? I hesitate to spoil anything, so up to you, of course.

ZG: This is definitely a book that needs to be handled delicately, for fear of spoilers, huh? But I'll talk about the villains, of which I feel like there are three.

Gloth is the easiest, and he actually came to the story quite late in the creation process. Simply put, he's a beast. He's driven by hunger and a desire for dominance and you know exactly what to expect from him. He is absolutely dangerous on a visceral level. I got the chance to write a little story that takes place a few months before the book for First Second's "Between the Panels" exclusive for San Diego Comic-con that explored Gloth and Broxo's relationship. Gloth is sneaky and crafty, but I think he gets what he deserves in the book.

Ulith is a very, very complicated character and I've been pleased that readers seem to understand that. You never know where she stands, and that's unnerving. Make no mistake, she's done some heinous things (errr.... trying not to spoil!), but there are explanations. Not excuses, mind you. Explanations. Poor Ulith is really very tragic. She was given a talent she couldn't really control and had she been loved a little differently throughout her formative years, maybe things would have gone differently.

The third (and fourth) are Ulith's companions, Kol and Krol. They seem like pretty insignificant side characters, but that's where their real villainy comes in to play. As far as I'm concerned, their actions are the most evil. In the first chapter, Zora flings them into the mud. Egos bruised, they return to their master, Ulith and begin filling her head with all sorts of doubts, fears and distrust. Really sinister creatures who know exactly what they're doing. Ick.

Geek: Did you have any specific inspirations for this book?

ZG: I don't know that I had any specific inspirations, necessarily. Inspiration tends to come from all around and from various points in time. I knew I wanted to meld an adventure story with small, human interactions. There are obvious influences on the book that people pick up on, like Bone and ElfQuest and Disney. But I think there are deeper influences and inspirations that are a little more obscure. Mostly, I was consumed by Rankin/Bass' 2D animated movies when I was a kid: The Hobbit, The Return of the King, The Flight of Dragons and The Last Unicorn. Those works have had a very profound effect on me and I even used screengrabs as examples to communicate the different color palettes for the book. But I'm also very interested in the kind of character interactions you see in non-fantasy settings. I love the dynamics between the characters in Seinfeld, the Muppets and Chuck Jones cartoons.

Geek: This is clearly a very focused story, but it seems like you've only just started exploring the world. Do you have any other stories to tell about this land, and its clans?

ZG: Absolutely. For starters, I have an outline for what happens to Broxo and Zora after this story. If I had my druthers, it'd fit really nicely into maybe a 5-volume series. But who knows. Beyond that, I've also self-published a couple of mini comics that take place in the same land, but about 80 years or so before Broxo. They're titled Grune and Birds in the Bushes and are about four refugees from different Clans during war time. I'm working on the third and would like to do maybe 8 issues, total. Right now, I'm sold out, but I usually have them at conventions. There are also direct references and callbacks in Broxo to some of the characters there. I'll point them out if you ask me at a con.

Geek: What else is coming up for you, now that you've finished this. Going to try to run for President out of nowhere and win, maybe?

ZG: Who would want to be President? Those guys age about 20 years in just 4.

Anyhoodle, this is the frustrating part, because I've got a lot of irons in the fire, but I can't tell you about them yet! I will say that there isn't anything Broxo-related at this very moment, but I'm ready to go if the readers and the folks in charge are. I'm also working on a graphic novel for a popular sci-fi franchise you've likely heard about. I can say no more.

Broxo is currently on book-stands everywhere, and you can look forward to what we assume is Giallongo's OGN set in the universe of "The Cape" soon.

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