Interview: Talking Terrible Lizard with Cullen Bunn and Drew Moss

Let's run down a short list of items, shall we?
  • A scientist messing with the time continuum? Check.
  • A teen daughter who is alone on a science/military installation? Check.
  • A dinosaur showing up and immediately befriending the daughter? Check.
  • Giant monsters battling it out? Check.
Yup, that's going to end up on the Panel Patter radar, all right. It's just the tip of a very well-crafted iceberg called Terrible Lizard, a mini-series out right now from Oni Press. Issue three hits stands and your favorite digital device today for $3.99. Thanks to Oni, I was able to conduct an interview with two members of the creative team, writer Cullen Bunn and line artist Drew Moss. Along with colorist Ryan Hill, they've crafted a fun romp that's easy to read issue to issue but still has a strong overall plot. A bit of love for kaiju mixed with telling a story about a teen who needs friends, this is one I'd easily recommend to anyone and is likely headed for my 2015 favorites list.

While I have less experience with Drew Moss's work, I can tell you that Cullen Bunn's other comics, including Army of Darkness (out now from Dynamite), are a lot of fun to read, and I'm happy to have the opportunity to talk with Cullen and Drew about Terrible Lizard. Here's what they had to say about the series, structuring single issues, being frequent collaborators, why they like horror comics--and of course, their favorite dinosaurs!

Rob McMonigal: For our readers who aren't familiar with you, can you please tell us a little bit about your creative histories? 

Drew Moss: Well, I am an illustrator from Virginia that has worked on titles such as The Colonized (IDW), The Crow: Pestilence (IDW), Creepy Magazine (Dark Horse) and various other anthologies and  single issues.

Cullen Bunn:  I guess I’ve been telling stories since I was a kid. My dad was one of those natural-born storytellers… a “Big Fish” sort… and I wanted to be as much like him as possible. I never had his gift of gab, though, so I focused on writing and drawing. When I was in kindergarten, I wrote a “comic” called “War of the Monsters” featuring Godzilla, King Kong, Mothra, and a bunch of other big monsters. Later, I created a superhero called “Matter Man” and wrote and drew an issue. I still have that around somewhere… but I think it was pretty bad, even for a kid. When I was in 5th grade, I wrote and drew several issues of the “X-Lazer Knights” (with a “z”) that I gave to my friends every couple of weeks. I only wish I still had those. Later, a friend and I started Hero Comics and published a handful of mini-comics I sold at conventions.

So, working in comics has always been a goal for me.

I also tackled novels and short stories. For a while, I had no idea how to break into comics, so writing prose seemed like the best creative outlet for me. There are a couple of dozen horror short stories out there with my name on them, as well as a Middle Readers horror novel, “Crooked Hills,” and some short story collections.

I got into comics in a big way when Brian Hurtt and I created The Damned for Oni Press. That horror-meets-gangsters story opened the door for me. I followed that with The Tooth and The Sixth Gun (also for Oni) and I’ve been working pretty steadily in comics ever since.

McMonigal: I know our Scott Cederlund is a big fan of Sixth Gun. (Look for an interview by Scott with Cullen Bunn and the creators of Sixth Gun: Days of the Dead here on Panel Patter soon!) 

But let's talk dinosaurs! A girl and her time-transported T-Rex" is such a fun concept, and the execution through the first two issues, balancing light-hearted fun with the danger of such a creature running loose in the 21st Century. How did the two of you come up with the concept and sketch out the plot?

Bunn: Terrible Lizard was born of a love for Saturdays. Saturdays when I’d wake up early, before sunrise, and sit on a couch with a stack of yard sale bought comic books like Devil Dinosaur or old issues of Famous Monsters, waiting for cartoons to start. Saturday mornings spent watching Godzilla and Thundarr and Herculoids and Land of the Lost. Saturday afternoons spent watching Godzilla or Harryhausen movies during the afternoon matinee.

McMonigal: You're speaking my language, Cullen! (I'm actually afraid to re-watch Herculoids in case it doesn't hold up.) But let's focus on dinosaurs.  Everyone has a favorite dinosaur: What's yours?

Moss: Stegosaurus all the way.  Giant back spines, and spiked tail!!! Kick Ass!!

Bunn: When I was a kid, I had this massive T-Rex model. It was bright orange and I would have it battle my Shogun Warriors. At one point, a plastic plate on its head fell off and was lost, leaving this gaping hole in the dinosaur’s skull. So, I placed Micronauts in it and had them pilot the T-Rex. So, yeah, the tyrannosaurus is my favorite. Maybe I went through a raptor phase when Jurassic Park came out, but the T-Rex reigns supreme.

McMonigal: Is that why you picked everyone's favorite two-fingered menace for Terrible Lizard?

Bunn: You know those old movies where a stop-motion T-Rex battles a stop-motion triceratops? THAT’S  where the decision to use a T-Rex came from! That and Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur. I really just felt like the T-Rex made the best choice for a dinosaur-fighting dinosaur in this book. That’s an iconic dinosaur.

McMonigal: Who came up with the name Wrex? It's perfect!

Moss: Cullen all the way.

Bunn: I came up with that during the pitch. I wanted something that was cute and off-putting when applied to a T-Rex. And it made sense because the big lizard’s wrecking everything around him. It also helped with his puppy dog like personality, which Drew does such a fine job of bringing out.

McMonigal: I definitely agree, Drew does a great job with giving Wrex a visual personanity! 

Okay, bear with me, this is a little long. Jesse is a very engaging human focal character. She's stuck in an atmosphere that's very isolating, even as scientific wonders (that she's not allowed to participate in) are performed around her. Wrex is a lifeline for her, and I think it's a really nice touch that she's so desperate for a friend that she overlooks the danger he presents to her--and everyone else. How did you come up with her character, and what did you do to ensure she wasn't just another generic human sidekick for the main, monstrous, attraction?

Bunn: I think all kids go through this phase where they feel alone. Like they are on the outside of the world looking in. Beyond that, I just wanted Jess to be a character who would appeal to boys or girls. She’s a spunky troublemaker who, surrounded by the military and all these regulations, really plays by her own rules. She’s as much the main character (maybe more so) as Wrex himself.

McMonigal: I'd agree on that. Part of why I asked is because she stands out. Now, let's go over something really awesome. Please explain the concept of a giant gorilla with a lobster claw arm from issue two. I'm dying to know more about what went into its creation!

Bunn: I honestly don’t know where that came from. I’m not sure if I wrote it into the script or Drew just drew it. I tend to like monsters with lobster claws or crab legs, so it could have been me. But Drew and I have very similar tastes in our monsters, so maybe it was him!

Moss: I think it was just something we just thought would look cool.  I remember doing sketches when pitching the project and Cullen really let me go crazy with the visuals.  It was very freeing and made Terrible Lizard just more fun to do.

Giant Gorilla with a Lobster Claw. 'Nuff said!

McMonigal: The fun definitely comes through in the art and story. Speaking of that, I feel like Terrible Lizard is extremely well-paced, with each issue providing a complete part of the story and knowing just what to leave the reader hanging on from month to month. The cliffhangers have been extremely effective, especially in terms of the visual structure. Not everyone does this. What do you do to make this a "read now" story instead of "wait for the trade?" 

Bunn: My goal with any comic I write (and I don’t always succeed) is for each issue to be as complete as possible, to have a beginning, middle, and end, but to also have a significant hook to get the reader excited for the next issue. I think that’s how I prefer to read comics, so it’s just my natural inclination in writing them.

McMonigal: It's definitely my preference, too. As a horror fan, I know this isn't your first collaboration, since you were the lead story in Rachel Deering's In the Dark horror anthology. Can you talk a little bit about how the collaborative process works between the two of you?

Bunn: And actually, the strip in In the Dark was our second collaboration! Few people know this, but Drew and I did a comic based on my Middle Reader horror novel Crooked Hills. It was a short story featuring witches and the mythical creature Rawhead and Bloody Bones. I’m pretty sure you can find that online. When Drew illustrated that story, I knew I wanted to work with him again!

As for the collaborative process, I write full scripts, just as I do for every other artist. With Drew, I think we talk on an almost daily basis. Most of the time, we talk about stuff unrelated to the book we’re working on, but sometimes we even talk about work!

When we do talk about our projects, it could be as simple as Drew sharing concept sketches or scans of a panel he’s working on. He teases me with that stuff!

So, Drew and I will discuss a particular issue while I’m outlining and scripting, I then write the script, Drew puts together concept sketches and thumbnails for me to drool over, and then he just rocks the issue. My scripts are never “marching orders” and Drew is one of those guys who can take what I’ve written and make it so much better.

Moss: Personally I love working with Cullen.  He is easy to talk to and is open to ideas and suggestions.  And it goes both ways.  Cullen has the best ideas!!!

McMonigal: Obviously, I'm a fan of Cullen's ideas, too, but I'd like to get into the art for a bit. The visuals on Terrible Lizard really impressed me. It's not easy blocking out a battle between two giant creatures and have it flow naturally over the course of multiple smaller panels, to say nothing of being in complete control of scale and our perspective on what we see. How do you make a book with monsters and humans work from the picture-side of the storytelling?

Moss: At times it can be a challenge to force the sheer scale of something when you are holding it in your hand.  Making people actually feel the weight and size of something when it is really only 10 inches of comic book in your hand.  Juxtaposition plays a huge role with the composition

McMonigal: Another aspect of the visual elements of Terrible Lizard is the body language and facial emotions, both on humans and monsters. Cullen mentioned this earlier. I'm thinking particularly of how, without words, you can see a change come over the soldiers assigned to watch over Jesse and Wrex. It greatly improves the reader's understanding of the world, but I'm sure that takes time to get right. What goes into the thought process of this part of the comic's creation?

Moss: With Wrex I thought of what Cullen mentioned early on in the creative process that Wrex would act kind of like a puppy with Jess.  I pulled a lot of Wrex’s mannerisms from my Shar pei, Mowgi.

McMonigal: *Sigh* I won't ask if you feed your dog after midnight. Instead, let's broaden the focus for a bit. Both of you also worth with other creators as well. How do you adjust your collaborations from person to person? Are there some commonalities, regardless of who's involved? Does that enter into your thought process when approaching a particular project?

Bunn: Honestly, I approach every project the same in terms of how I write the script. Only on rare occasions do a change my scripting format or technique for a particular artist. When I was thinking about Terrible Lizard, I knew Drew would be awesome for it. And before I got into scripting, we talked about some key scenes and characters Drew was excited about. The differences in collaboration show up in how the artist works with me. Like I mentioned, Drew and I talk quite a bit, and that improves the books we’re working on. Other artists just want me to leave them the heck alone!

Moss:  I really like the way Cullen writes his scripts.  He is descriptive to the point of not being controlling but more informative.  He allows me the freedom to add or take away panels and is very easy to get ahold of and talk to.  I was talking to Cullen on G Chat every day for a while! (laughs)

McMonigal: You aren't the first creative team to allude to the power of Google in the creative process! Continuing to talk about your work, both together and separately, I've noticed, both from my own reading and looking up your creative history, that you are both drawn (no pun intended) to horror comics, both light-hearted and serious. Why horror? 

Moss: To me, it is what I grew up with.  I would pick up old horror mags from the grocery store as a kid along with Cracked and Mad Magazine.  Then in high school in the '90s I was introduced to Bernie Wrightson and my world changed.  I have been a horror fan ever since.

Bunn: Honestly, I’m not sure where the love of the horror genre came from for me. During my most impressionable years as a reader, I read a lot of Lovecraft and Stephen King and Clive Barker, so there’s that.

McMonigal: I probably started reading King before it was healthy for me to do so. Cullen, I'd like to focus on you for a bit here. It also seems you are mostly a part of mini-series or one-shot projects? Is that an intentional choice, and if so, why?

Bunn: Actually, I tend to gravitate toward longer stories, but most of my submissions are for limited runs. Even The Sixth Gun was originally submitted as a 6-issue limited series. I believe it’s a good idea to have an endpoint in mind with a story, but to have potential to return to those characters and that world in the future if the readers demand it.

McMonigal: It seems like you are just about everywhere right now. I've really enjoyed Empty Man (BOOM!), Godzilla Cataclysm (which of course features a very different take on giant monsters and comes from IDW), and the first issue of the new Army of Darkness series (Dynamite). How do you make time to work on so many projects at once?

Bunn:  I work 60+ hours a week. Every weekday from 8:30 to 5:00, sometimes at night and for a few hours on the weekend. I’ve tried a lot of different techniques and working environments to see what yields the best results for me. I keep a pretty well-organized to-do list and I go into every day looking at which projects are top priorities. That said, I’m cutting back a little in 2015. This past year has been a good learning experience for me in terms of how much work I can comfortably handle.

McMonigal: I'm sorry to have a few less projects from you this year, Cullen, but it's certainly understandable. One last question for you, Drew. What's the most fun part about working on a horror project from an artistic perspective?

Moss: Playing with light, facial expressions, body language, and composition.  Storytelling with horror can be very subtle at times and others over the top.  Using light to set moods and contrasting sized or panel tilts to make the reader unsteady.  You can go too far and take the reader out of the reality you are creating but if you do right it is just…magic!

McMonigal: Thank you both so much for taking the time to do this!

Terrible Lizard #3 is out today from Oni Press. It's $3.99, and available at your local comic shop or favorite digital device. It's the perfect time to start, with two issues to catch up on, and two more to follow!

Speaking of following:

Cullen Bunn is on Twitter (@cullenbunn) and you can visit his website here. He promises new books coming up, including another collaboration with Drew Moss!
Drew Moss is on Twitter (@drew_moss) as well!