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Indie Comics Spotlight: Greg Pak talks Mechs, Code Monkeys, HULK and the movie that started it all

Contributed by
May 23, 2018

Writer Greg Pak is a very busy man. Not only is he writing World War Hulk II, Weapon X, and Weapon H for Marvel, he also currently pens John Wick for Dynamite and his own book, Mech Cadet Yu, which is put out through BOOM! Studios. I even saw him down in Baltimore a couple of weeks ago at WICOMICON with his kids’ book, ABC Disgusting. That he was even able to leave the house was impressive.

Pak isn't just about volume, either. He is credited with helping to remake one of the most well-known characters in comics, the Hulk, in a refreshing new way; his Amadeus Cho, in Totally Awesome HULK, breathed new life into a stock Marvel character in part by making him a young Asian-American hero. He pulled off the same kind of impressive makeover with Storm in 2014 and has also written Batman, Superman, and Teen Titans. SYFY WIRE spoke to Pak this week about how he got into the business, what keeps him there, and his favorite collaborators.

mech cadet cover clean

Artist: Takeshi Miyazawa

You have a very interesting origin story. Where did you grow up and go to school?

I grew up in Dallas, Texas. I studied political science at Yale and then went to Oxford University to study history. It was ostensibly to become a better politician because I had worked on the late Ann Richard's campaign when she was running for governor after I'd graduated from college. But I always was a writer. I'd always been writing since I was a kid and I was obsessed with movies and I was obsessed with drawing and storytelling basically. And so at a certain point I realized I'm not really happy just doing political work. I had the chance when I was at Oxford to get involved with a student filmmaking group and all the lights went on. I went from there to study in the NYU Grad film program and made a movie called Robot Stories, and then moved sideways into comics.

How did you get your foot in the door in comics?

My agent got me a meeting with Marvel on the basis of the success of Robot Stories and everything clicked. You know, it all just kind of made sense. After about a year I had my first Marvel comic come out, which was Warlock #1 which came out in 2004. And I've been writing comics ever since.

A little birdie told me you also happened to star in Robot Stories.

Yes! It's an anthology movie with four different stories and in one of those stories, I play an office worker android. I did theater in high school and I did a lot of improv comedy starting in college, and playwriting, so yeah, in another life I feel like if this whole comics thing hadn't worked out, I’d be in film.

So did your improv comedy lend itself to sequential writing? 

I grew up reading comics, I grew up cartooning, you know, like I did cartoons for my high school paper and various college papers and everything. So I was pretty familiar with sequential storytelling in that regard. And then I also went to film school, which is dramatic storytelling, which is kind of the next closest kin to comics in a lot of ways, but improv absolutely helped in the sense that in improv, you know, the basic idea is you take whatever you have and you build on it step by step.

You work with your collaborators, you don't throw anything away, you just go step by step and build. And the magic of it is that if you just keep doing that, keep saying yes and then you end up finding structure, meaning and, and you make something and it's kind of, that's kind of tremendous. So having that training absolutely prepared me well for the experience of being a writer on a day to day basis, just sitting down and making it happen. You know, if you're gonna write comics, you really can't afford to have writer's block.

Writer’s block never happens on a schedule.

Exactly. A lot of what keeps us from writing or keeps us from creating something is this knowledge that the first thing that we're going to write down is not going to be perfect. And honestly accepting imperfection is the best thing you can do when you are writing, because it's never perfect. That first draft is going to be a mess. The first thing you write down is not going to all make sense. It’s not going to all fit together, but you gotta crank that stuff out so that then you can go in and rewrite and rework it and make it better.

So that experience of improv, that kind of fearlessness of putting stuff out there absolutely has contributed to what I do every day. I think also that when you're working in mainstream comics and working in a shared universe in particular, you've got a whole bunch of other people who are working on stories that are going to be adjacent to [yours]. Sometimes partly sticking to the story you want to do and you can't just run roughshod over that. You've got to figure out how those things work together. So having the capacity to take disparate things and make them make sense and to justify these sometimes potentially conflicting storylines is pretty important. And I think improv set me up for that really well too.

Warlock

Artist: J.H. Wiliams

Mech Cadet Yu is an original character that you created. Where did that come from?

I’ve just always [been] obsessed with robots. My childhood was in the seventies and so I was the perfect age for stuff like Star Wars and there were these toys the Micronauts, which just had a big impact on me, all of this kind of blockbuster sci-fi robot stuff. It just hit me at all the right time.

I was also a huge Ray Bradbury fan. And he had amazing short stories like I Sing the Body Electric, which is about these kids who get a robot grandmother. He was grappling with these ideas of robots and androids in artificial intelligence. For whatever reason, it just really stuck with me. I mean, that stuff really resonated. I just loved it. So I've always had these various stories about robots in my head

And this idea about a kid and a giant robot had been with me for a long time. It was not something that was going to work in my movie because that was a low budget indie film and we couldn't quite build giant robots. But once I got into comics I thought maybe I can find a way to do this. You know, I just had this notion of like, almost like a fable-like thing with a kid.

What’s the premise of Mech Cadet Yu?

Imagine a world where giant robots come down out of the sky every few years to one specific place in the desert and they bond with whatever kids happened to be there. So I started with that and I thought, well, if that was happening then you'd have the military move in and they’d build a military academy and train kids to be the kids to go bond with these robots. So then these robots become part of the military industrial complex. Of course, they're going to have to fight giant monsters, right?

Back then some friends were putting together an anthology called Shattered: The Asian-American Comics Anthology. And I proposed the Mech Cadet story with Takeshi Miyazawa (Ms. Marvel, Runaways) as the artist. Tak is one of my favorite collaborators of all time. He's this amazing Japanese-Canadian artist. We co-created Amadeus Cho back in the day, and he's just the best. And he kind of was the only person that I ever thought of to draw this particular story. He's so good at drawing young people, making them very real and completely relatable.

How did it get from short story in an anthology over to BOOM! Studios?

That ended up being my big Kickstarter project for 2013 and then we kept thinking about this thing, and eventually an editor from BOOM!, Cameron Shiitake, came up to me at San Diego Comic-Con when I was doing a signing. He said, "Hey, do you have anything that you might want to do with BOOM!?" And I shared Mech Cadet with him and he loved it, he immediately got it. 

Code Monkey Save World

Artist: Takeshi Miyazawa

Tell us about how Code Monkey Save World happened. How did you end up collaborating with Jonathan Coulton?

Well, Jonathan and I actually went to college together, so we used to hang out in college and then we kind of fell out of touch for a while. But then, he became the Internet superstar musician he is now, and I started listening to his music. Then one day I bumped into him on the street in New York and we started talking and hanging out again. He's got these songs about lovelorn supervillains and creepy dolls and zombies, and he had one about a code monkey. I was thinking about a supervillain team based on that song. I tweeted him about it kind of jokingly and said you know, this would be a great graphic novel, and he said, “Do it!”

An anthropomorphic actual code monkey is hysterical actually.

Because the song is about what it's like to be a coder and decoders consider themselves... he's called a code monkey. All he does is crank out code and it's basically an office workers' lament, but he does it in this kind of stilted Hulk-speak or Tarzan-speak. And within the conceit of the song, you can imagine it's just a, you know, a human using the code monkey analogy for the way he feels, but when we're talking about doing it as a comic for whatever reason, we both were like, yeah, he's a real monkey.

I mean the Code Monkey Save World project was a ton of fun and it went through the roof. It was kinda crazy. I was just incredibly grateful. Partly just on a business or professional level because I had this proof of concept that there's an audience for the for the weird stuff I want to do.

Do you feel that, when you're dealing with stock characters, you can't always stretch your imagination?

Well, I love working for Marvel and DC and Dynamite and all the other companies I've done work for hire characters with, but I absolutely have lots of creator-owned ideas and work that I want to do. So, you know, having that experience was tremendous and it kinda goosed me to do more creator-owned stuff. I mean, I think the success of Code Monkey certainly paved the way for Tak and me to keep collaborating and for us to eventually do Mech Cadet Yu.

Who came up with The Princess Who Saved Herself? Did that come from one of Jonathan's songs or was that your idea initially?

No, that came from one of Jonathan songs. He's got a song called the "Princess Who Saved Herself." I forget the name of the radio station, but there was a kid's music radio station that would play it. So there's a ton of parents and kids who knew that song. I discovered this after we'd already done the book and was taking it out to conventions. People already knew who the character was! It was great.

I very recently found out that you did another children's book as well, can you tell us about that?

Yes, after Princess, Tak and I did a book called ABC Disgusting, which was an alphabet book about "disgusting" things. For a while now I'd wanted to do kids books. I mean, I go to these cons and it's great because I meet so many fans, but then there are little kids who would come up and for a long time I didn't have anything that was really appropriate for them.

It’s kind of ridiculous, you know, I've been writing comics for all these years, but most of these comics work really for teenagers and above. There wasn't anything that was really appropriate for, you know, say six to10-year-olds.

ABCD-Disgusting

Artist: Takeshi Miyazawa

There's a market for it. Even though the MCU has attracted more adults, having something for kids is always going to make you money.

Absolutely. It was great when I had just my DC and Marvel books and Code Monkey because that was a pretty great range of stuff. But having the kids books on the table at conventions as well, that really hits the sweet spot. So I really do have something for everybody at the table. I think also just as creators, it's smart for us to, diversify in the things we're working on. You know, in the last few years I've done mainstream comics, I've done indie comics, I've done kids books. I and I did my first prose novel. An adaptation of the Planet HULK book as a novel. So, you know, I'm trying to keep my claws in every little aspect of media here.

Since you’ve done a lot of work with children's books, when you were younger, was there a character that really influenced you?

I mean there definitely were. I loved the HULK when I was a kid. I knew him from the comics, but what really captured my imagination was the Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno TV series, which was on TV when I was a kid, and I just thought it was amazing.

There was never a happy ending and that was a big deal for me. You know what I mean? That was exciting and strange and scary and really compelling. I was also a big Lloyd Alexander fan. Alexander was this a fantasy writer from Philadelphia, but he wrote this series The Chronicles of Pyrdain. But it's probably best known as the series that the movie The Black Cauldron came from. That was based on a couple of the books out of the series. It's fantasy based on a lot of the same legends that Tolkien drew on for The Lord of the Rings and there's a lot of parallels to it. I read them all again recently, and they hold up and I was so pleased.

MEch cadet splash

Artist: Takeshi Miyazawa

I think one of the things that has always grabbed me are stories about people who are really trying to do the right thing in a really complicated situation where it's not always clear what the right thing to do is. But they're really trying, you know? As much as I get a big kick out stories about anti-heroes and just ridiculous mayhem, I'm most emotionally compelled when there's a non-ironic effort to do the right thing. Not the stories about princes and heroes destined to be heroes from day one. I've always been most compelled about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances who rise to the occasion, regardless of their bloodline or power. Just a story about somebody who's got the willingness to try hard and you can depend on to do the right thing.

Well, that really sounds a lot like Stanford in Mech Cadet Yu.

Exactly. He's got this big dream but he might actually have the best heart out of everybody, as opposed to, some of the people who have been groomed for working with the Bots.

What is one character that you would just love to write for?

I probably shouldn't say this aloud because I don't want to jinx my chances, but what the hell, I'm going to say it. I'd love to write Captain America someday. I've written for him before in other titles as a supporting character, but I'm writing a book right now where Cap actually plays a big role. I kind of have immediately fallen in love with writing him. So, in the same way I just loved writing Clark Kent when I was working on those Superman books ... I guess it shouldn't be any surprise, but this is another one of those characters who's really trying to do the right thing, it’s what he’s all about.

What's your favorite of all the characters you've written?

I would say Amadeus Cho and Bruce Banner and then Stanford, the hero of Mech Cadet Yu and Clark Kent. I mean, there's a bunch, it’s been incredibly fun. I would also say Storm, Ororo Monroe, I just loved every minute of writing that series. I was thrilled to have a chance to, you know, to do that series for as long as we did. I think that those are, those are my favorites. Put them all in one group together. That’d be amazing.