Lowell Dean marked himself out as a huge talent to keep your eye on with the brilliant, bloody, boozed-up WolfCop and its sequel, and now the impressive Canadian has turned his attention to the world of comic books. Teaming with artist Javier Martin Caba and practical effects genius Emersen Ziffle to bring readers the Atomic Victory Squad – a team of superheroes with an array of very real issues ranging from addiction, to depression, to gender identity, and more – Lowell has taken to Indiegogo for some assistance in getting this project up and running. And so, we grabbed some time with the charming duo of Lowell and Emersen to get the downlow on AVS, some of the campaign’s stunning perks, discuss WolfCop, and chat about upcoming feature SuperGrid.
STARBURST: Atomic Victory Squad sounds like such a cool concept, with a lot more going on than just the usual tights ‘n’ capes. How did the first kernel of this idea come to be?
Lowell: Well I’ve been developing these characters since high school or earlier. I’ve always loved superheroes, but there’s a big difference between the heroes I love and the heroes I make. I love Superman and Batman, but whenever I would draw something it was always a little more messed up. That actually made me think I shouldn’t make comics because I was like, “Instead of Superman I’m making a cow, but I care as much about him as much as people care about Superman.” So I was always just making really weird things and I kind of forgot about it. A few years later, Emersen and I were always working on stuff, and he really wanted us to develop something that was our thing, something completely independent. He asked what I had, and I showed him some Atomic Victory Squad.
Emersen: We had been working for other people so long, but we weren’t always in control of the properties we were working on. You invest your heart and your soul into these things and they have their own legs that you can’t control. I’m not terribly creative as far as coming up with original ideas, but I’ve always been around Lowell. I get to sort of accent the work he does. I picked his brain and said, “We’ve got to do something that’s ours. Lowell, you’ve got to finish this stuff. You’ve got to make something of this stuff.” That is ultimately where we’ve come with this. It was such a crazy, brilliant concept. It’s just so cool.
While comics have undoubtedly gotten better for it over the past decade or so, was Atomic Victory Squad created as a reaction to mainstream comics not really addressing topics such as mental health and addiction?
Lowell: I guess. We’re getting a lot more fringe stuff. For me, it was more animation that made me want to do this. I’ve wanted to make these characters since I was a kid, but I never thought I could do it. You know the story where nobody thought they could make an independent film until they saw Kevin Smith make Clerks? It’s kind of like that for me, because when I saw The Venture Bros. for the first time, I was just, “What is this show?” It’s so weird, the animation is so cinematic, but it’s also not pandering. It’s very interesting and it had its own personality and sense of humour. I just thought it was so fringe, it was something I would want to make. I started pitching it as an animated series, but I didn’t get much luck because obviously I’m just a schmo who’s never made an animated series before – and I had some really bad drawings I had done. After that, I had kind of put it on the shelf. A couple of years later you get BoJack Horseman, and I was just, “This is perfect. This is a cartoon that has so much darkness in it.” It just felt there was this groundswell for mature animated characters, whether it’s a cartoon of a comic book. I think it’s a twist on it. The best comics and the ones that have lived forever have always touched on that. I mean, Marvel has created a great niche by having human flaws. Anybody who grew up with Spider-Man knows that the best part is not necessarily him fighting Doc Ock, it’s about him missing a test to do it. And then there’s the X-Men. To me, [AVS] are almost moulded on the DC ideal. But given that the disfunction is amped-up-to-11, it seems more Marvel. For me, it’s weirdness. It’s weirdness and it’s tragedy and it’s not a blanket statement about being outsiders. Each of them is facing something very specific that might not make them gel together. It’s not like they can all huddle up in a group and say, “We’re all together, we’re all the same.” No, they’re all different to each other, they all have to work out how to deal with each other first.
At the moment you have the Indiegogo campaign for the comic book, but, in an ideal world, is an animated series the perfect endgame for AVS?
Lowell: 100%, yes. When I see these characters in my head, they’re moving around in this universe. My dream would be an animated series. They constantly tell you to write and do what you can do or write what you know. I don’t just want to be sitting round for twenty years thinking I have a cartoon I want tot write. This is in our control. Emersen can create cool perks, we can afford to make a comic book and give the world a taste. It’s that age-old thing of no-one knows until you tell them. So we’re going to tell the world about these characters until they get it.
Out of AVS, are there any characters that each of you lean more towards or look forward to working with more than the others?
Emersen: One of my favourites is Gary the Mime, just because he’s so unassuming and it’s a throwaway concept until you realise that whatever he mimes becomes real. That has infinite possibilities. We see a little bit of it in the first issue, but just imagining where we can go with a concept like this. We don’t know what he thinks, but it’s pretty limitless. That concept is going to be so much fun to illustrate, to draw, to figure out. And he’s silent.
Lowell: And is he actually doing it or is he just insane?
Emersen: He might just shoot a guy and his head explodes, but he’s just pointed his finger at him. I just love that character.
Lowell: For me it is kind of like picking one of your favourite kids, but I think right now, for me, it’s gotta be Invincibull because he’s the oldest. Actually, Bubble Myers I made up when I was seven-years-old. I think Invincibull because he’s got so much weight on his shoulders.
Bubble Myers is a character who’s a recovering drug addict, which we guess is something you didn’t think of when you were seven-years-old. So, when did you start to develop the personalities of these characters, the flaws, the very human traits?
Lowell: I’d say the flaws and traits started coming out in the last five years. When I was seven, Bubble Myers was an intergalactic explorer. He was a football player, but he’d always piss people off because he was too cocky. That morphed in to addiction issues later. Five years ago, I started thinking about how to push these characters further – the things that make them stand out, how can I make their weaknesses be strengths? For example, She-Girl is such a cliché. On the surface, she’s everyone’s favourite superhero. She’s oversexed, too tall, too blonde. To me, I just loved flipping that on the head. No, she’s not every character you heard of or thought of. She resents how you look at her. She resents how she’s been designed. Like Invincibull, she longs to understand humanity but she also kind of hates them.
The Atomic Victory Squad itself is made up of Invincibull, Gary the Mime, Zoozanna, Bubble Myers, She-Girl, and Triangle Master, but were there any other characters that ultimately didn’t make the final cut for the team?
Lowell: Yeah, totally. The team actually had a couple of different members that I pulled out just because they were a little too redundant. Again, I had made them up when I was eight, so there were just a couple that were too derivative of something like The Flash. So you know, if we’re going down this road, I’m pulling out anyone who feels like they’re a little too close to a real superhero. I’m letting the characters be their own archetypes. There are other characters in the world, so I didn’t have to lose them – I just moved them somewhere else – and one big change was Invincibull. His actual original name was Mega-Moo. Just as we were about to launch the comic, Emersen was Googling to double-check that nothing was out there. I honestly made him up 15 years ago, but we saw this milk product that’s Mega-Moo. Okay, so let’s come up with another funny name.
When you were putting the team together and looking at the personal side of each characters, was there anything you wanted to touch on that you haven’t chance to yet or that you’ve got planned for the future?
Lowell: For sure. I just wanted to create a team of characters who each have something to say. We barely scratch the surface in issue #1, but these characters, each of them is designed to represent some kind of issue. I like to say how Spider-Man’s thing is “With great powers comes great responsibility,” these characters are the opposite. They all have genuinely cool superpowers and any superhero team would be happy to have them, it’s the emotional personality side that prevents them from being true heroes. These would all be rejected from the Justice League of our world because they don’t respect human life or they have substance abuse problems or they fly off the handle because of the way people look at them. The issue isn’t their abilities, the issue is their personalities; they keep getting in their own way.
Emersen, you guys worked together on WolfCop, but how is it for you to be coming in and playing with Lowell’s baby?
Emersen: Everything I’ve ever done with Lowell, I’ve always sort of sat in the wings. Then he just pipes up with an idea and I’m just, “Yeah, that’s so great. Fuck yeah, let’s do that!” But this specifically, I was in a slump as far as work; I was just, “I just wanna make things.” I wanted to make collectible maquettes. I can come up with something, but I wanted something that was grounded in some sort of backstory. So for me, it was all about building this thing that we could market and show the world that “We’ve got a whole world behind it, so let’s take it further.” Working with him, it’s so brilliant. There’s all these sort of seeds he plants. I have a very visual sense of style, and I can suggest things, but we just kind of bounce off each other in a very productive way. We go for coffee daily and we’ll just talk about how something can be framed or marketed or what we can do with simple concepts. I’m just passionate about what he does, and I give what I can offer from SFX and fabrication and being creative in film. That lent itself to this whole thing. And especially with how crazy this project is; it’s endless creativity that you can throw around. It’s great.
To flip it then, Lowell, how is it to hand over your characters to other people? Is there a certain sense of vulnerability to that?
Lowell: God yeah! Try doing an Indiegogo. That’s the definition of vulnerability. If we don’t hit our goal, it’s like nobody cares. It’s a weird thing making things and creating things. At a certain point you’re really insecure and you don’t want to tell people the idea – it just lives in your head – then you turn a corner and all you want to do is tell people about it, put it out there, let it be what it’s going to be. It’s the same with WolfCop. I’d tell people about this wolf that’s a cop. People would laugh but then say, “Seriously, you’ve gotta make that!” It was the same with Emersen with this. He’d say, “Seriously, you’ve gotta make this!” We were drawing it, he and I just doodling, and we realised we needed to bring in someone else. For better or for worse, this had to come to life.
How long have you guys actually known each other for then, and how did you first meet?
Emersen: I was approached years ago. I had done a few indie films – doing the make-up effects – and I remember getting a phone call in my parent’s basement from Lowell saying, “Hey, I hear you’re in to SFX.” He phoned collected, so I thought it was a prank call. I was like, “Who is this? What do you want?” And then I put a little demo reel together and he was, “Holy shit, you can do some cool stuff!” It was 2010, I think, that we started working together. Then we were inseparable after that. We obviously did our own things here and there, working for other people.
Lowell: We both like the same things, we respect each other, and we want to take on new things. We want to keep doing this. We’re addicted to this.
Emersen: It’s our passion. We just keep making things. We’ve done crazy make-up projects, and also simple love story things, very random stuff, and we just seem to draw off each other’s energy.
Even with the greatest friends and the greatest of working relationships, there are always at least some minor arguments or blow ups. Have you guys had any butting of heads, or is it always relatively smooth sailing?
Lowell: I’m sure throughout production we’ve had a few moments – when you’re making a movie it’s literally the moment you have a gun to your head – but I don’t think we’ve ever had anything serious. I don’t think we’ve ever yelled at each.
Emersen: I think we’ve been like, “What the fuck, dude?” I’m definitely the more sort of sarcastic jerk, so I’ll always try to rile Lowell up. He’ll be, “I’m so angry,” and his version of angry is sternly asking someone to move out of the way. I’ve never seen him lose his shit. I don’t think we’ve ever come to blows, which is quite cool.
Lowell: I think that’s why we continue to work together. I don’t come to blows with people, I just stop working with people when they drop the ball. And Emersen doesn’t drop the ball.
And what can you tell us about the perks involved the AVS Indiegogo campaign?
Emersen: There’s some badges, which we’ve been handing out at Fan Expos just to drum up attention, but we’re also going to be doing some goofy stuff that we haven’t even shown yet; collectibles that have some relation to what’s popular with kids but we’re going to put an old flair on it. Things called Squishies, little squishy foam things. These are just to drum up attention. And t-shirts, which were all created by myself. I love that sort of analogue artistic expression; putting my hands on something. I just love making things, so whatever I could do that’s cool and fun to people, that people respond well to, I’ll make and design. That’s my big role for this campaign.
Lowell: He’s just playing it cool!
From your point of view, what would say was the coolest perk on offer right now?
Emersen: I’d say the fact that you get to be drawn in the comic and featured as an actual character that’s in more than one panel. We really like the idea of interacting with our fans and the people who are passionate with this project as they discover it. We just love the idea of working with Javier [Martin Caba] and coming up with cool ways to put in characters. And it’s not just throwaway things like we’ve seen in campaigns in the past, where people get illustrated into the comic but it’s very much just a passing thought; it’s there, they’ve ordered their perk. We really wanted to make them featured. We’re so much in to fan engagement. If you get that perk, we will engage you and say, “This is what we’re thinking, this is what we’re going to do. Send us some photos of you like this and we’ll put you in there in a really cool, badass way.” A good friend of ours, Trevor, he’s already been featured in it, he’s already been drawn into the comic. It’s such a badass shot and it looks just like him. That, to me, is my personal favourite other than obviously getting to make a bunch of cool stuff.
Lowell: It’s all cool. I think the perks Emersen’s making are just so above what you’d expect for a little campaign like this. For a first-time comic book, you don’t usually have these amazing maquettes. I’ve seen them up close and they’re so good. The only downside is that nobody really knows who Invincibull really is yet. If they did, they’d be snatching it up because it’s super cool.
You mentioned him there - on art duties you have Javier Martin Caba. How did that collaboration come together?
Lowell: I don’t know if you’ve heard of the comic Namwolf – it’s about a Vietnam werewolf – that’s by a writer named Fabian Rangel Jr. He and I were discussing, around the time that came out, of doing a crossover between Namwolf and WolfCop in comic book form. We just were flirting with the pitch or developing the idea. It never really took off, but in getting to know Fabian we’d talk about making comics and I was picking his brain. He showed me some art from Blood Brothers – a comic he was working on that Javier did – and the second I saw the style of it, “Oh, this is perfect for Atomic Victory Squad.” That was a big factor to me pulling the trigger.
With the comic itself then, what’s the tone and target audience that you have in mind?
Lowell: I’d say it depends on your kids. I would put it very firmly in the category of Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman, and The Venture Bros. Anything you see on those shows, you’d see here. There’s no coarse language, people aren’t dropping F-bombs, there’s no nudity… yet… but I’m sure you will see Invincibull nude at some point. It’s more just ridiculous, over-the-top, cartoony violence and mature themes, but I don’t think it’s anything a 12-year-old couldn’t read.
At present, how many issues are you planning for the initial arc of Atomic Victory Squad should the Indiegogo campaign go well? Are we looking at a four-issue arc?
Lowell: Exactly! I think it’s between three or four. This first issue is a little supersized – it’s 24 pages plus some other written pages – so it’ll be a little bigger than a regular comic. My dream would be to either do a similar issue #2 and #3 that are also a little bigger and put those three together as a 100-page graphic novel. Or maybe it’s four parts. We’ll see. Beyond that, I think I’ll try and really tell the full origin of the team, how they come together, and show them in action in those three or four. After that, if we’re doing good and there’s interest, I’d love to keep going. If not, I’d at least know we’ve got this artefact that shows the world this team.
Are copies of the first issue available yet?
Lowell: No, we are actually just making it as we speak. Javier has already illustrated half the comic, but we have so much crowdfunding and engagement in the first issue that every second page features someone who could be in our campaign. He’s drawn every page that doesn’t feature a possible crowdfunding person, and now he’s basically just waiting to finish once we see who donates. There’s still about four or five slots yet, and once those people put their money down and send us their picture, he’ll be drawing them in it. And Javier moves fast. He’s so good. We’ve given ourselves a lot of time, but I’m sure we’re going to be done with the comic book before we said we would.
So far, how have you found the process of making a comic book? Is it harder than you thought, maybe easier, or has it been a relatively up and down process?
Lowell: It’s been all of those things. It was so long to get here. I think that was the hard part – finding Javier and finding the way to make a comic, me bumbling around with no experience in this medium – but once we got Javier on board you just felt like you were in safe hands. He immediately understood my script. I was very nervous, I’d never written a comic script. The second I saw his first pass at the pages, I was just, “Oh my god, you’re in my head.” So that was so cool.
The last time we spoke, it was ahead of the release of the brilliant Another WolfCop. How has the reaction been to that movie in general?
Lowell: I think so far, so good. It’s hard for me to tell, because until a movie like that comes out on Netflix or whatever, I don’t really know. It’s kind of weird. The first WolfCop, I thought nobody really gave a shit about it until it hit Netflix. Then people were talking about it non-stop. It’s a bit of a thing where we’ve made WolfCop 2, it’s in the world, I’ve heard really nice things, but until we hit one of those major platforms I don’t think I’ll know for sure what the final verdict is. But I’m pretty happy with the way the sequel turned out. It’s a little sillier than I planned, but there’s just so much I love about it. The cast, the effects, the energy and the chaos. I feel good about it and I hope we have more WolfCop at some point.
Emersen: It’s crazy. Ultimately, we still had to cram it in to a seventeen-day shoot. We had to sacrifice some stuff, but I’m super, super happy with the work that my team did and that everybody did on the film. It was a joy, and the film is so much fun to watch.
Emersen, what was your first reaction when you heard about Lowell’s idea for an alcoholic werewolf lawman?
Emersen: I was sort of there from the beginning of it. Lowell just said, “We’re making this trailer for this contest.” We were at a point in our careers where something wasn’t happening, so we decided to just do some stuff. So I said, “Sure, where do you want me to do it? Let’s just go for it.” I love taking his ideas and bringing any skillset I have to the project. I remember doing three or four iterations of the look. The first one didn’t work with Leo [Fafard], the guy who plays WolfCop. He’s incredible, just one of the most resilient, tough, understandable, but also very talented actors I’ve ever worked with. Just thinking about it, reminiscing about it, it makes you miss it a lot. It was such a fun project to work on. It was such a big family affair, just a brilliant experience.
Lowell: It was just a joy. Every aspect of making that project was fun. It was not easy – it was really, really hard and part of the reason why I want to do a comic book now! – but I would never turn away from making more WolfCop. And the same thing with AVS. It’s pure creative weirdness.
We guess we have to ask then. Should Atomic Victory Squad prove to be a success, is there a chance that we may see Lou Garou/WolfCop turning up in that world at some point?
Lowell: That’s a really funny question. I won’t lie, it’s not like I haven’t thought about it. I would love to do a WolfCop comic. I was really sad that I didn’t get to be a part of the WolfCop comics. One of our buddies, Max Marks, wrote them because they were coming out at the same time that we were shooting the sequel. I love all things WolfCop, so it’s “No, I wanna get in on this. I wanna be writing a WolfCop comic!” To me, that’s a reward. In the real world when you’re making a movie, I have all these rules of what I’m allowed to do because of reality. I would love nothing more than to tell a WolfCop story where there are no restrictions. Just things would be blowing up left and right, he’d be surfing on jets, it’d be crazy.
And you’ve also now finished on your next feature film, SuperGrid...
Lowell: It was a great experience. We had two nice screenings last week. I’m pretty sure it’s going to come out in December, but beyond that I don’t know. I can’t wait for the world to see it. It’s a lot of the same family as WolfCop, a lot of the same cast. It’s definitely different to WolfCop, a little more serious, a little more heartfelt, but still lots of guns and actions and chaos and weirdness.
And Emersen, how was it for you working on that and knowing that you didn’t have to do the make-up and effects for a drunken werewolf that likes to slice up bad guys?
Emersen: It’s interesting you say that. On that, I was on board as a production designer. I was doing everything I’d normally do on a Lowell movie, but that was my official title. It was weird having everybody asking me questions. I quite enjoyed that. I surrounded myself with a couple of really talented working artists from the film industry. For me, it was interesting not having to stay up and run moulds and do sculpting, just barely demould something that was going to go on someone’s face the next day. It was just a really fun experience for me. It was different but I really enjoyed that aspect. Usually when I work with Lowell, I just sort of turn up and go, “Do you like this?” “Well that’s really cool, but can you do more blood on it?!” Then I have to go back and build the next thing for tomorrow. Whereas this time I got to hang out, make some suggestions, and I actually got to have nice, relaxed conversations with him about how to set stuff up – which is a bit of a dream situation for us. That’s what we always want to do but I really can’t afford that when I’m constantly building a bunch of crazy shit for killing people.
For the WolfCop movies then, what was the most challenging sequence that you’ve had to put together in terms of the SFX?
Emersen: WolfCop himself was a huge challenge. Out of the seventeen days of the second film, he played thirteen of those days. So we always had to have a fresh set of appliances, claws – he destroys this stuff with our encouragement – but to chase that never-ending cycle of always having WolfCop ready was a huge challenge. All of his appliances are made of foam latex, so that has a full 24-hour turnaround period. You can’t just quickly whip one it. Bad Willy – the weird sort of phallic monster – was designed early on but then quickly got shelved. We love the way it looks on film, but it was a challenge designing it. We went through about three or four versions before we got something that vaguely resembled Jonathan Cherry. That was a big challenge, and that was delivered the day it was needed. We walked on the set, stuck it on his belly, and the rest is history.
The last time we spoke, you said you had plans for a whole lot more WolfCop stories. How are things looking on the chances of seeing him again?
Lowell: To be honest, there’s nothing yet right now. We’ve got to see how the world reacts to WolfCop 2, but if there’s enough support I’m hopeful we have not seen the last of WolfCop. Whether it’s in a TV series or a feature film, I’d really love to bring the character back. I think his finest hour is still yet to happen.
To wrap things up, any final words on Atomic Victory Squad?
Lowell: For me, I’m just excited to do it and I hope people will give it a shot. Just know, this is a pure passion project. There’s no big corporation behind it, just a bunch of artists busting their ass to make something really cool and original.
Emersen: I just love making the cool shit Lowell comes up with. Anything I can do to make the world see his world, I’m game for.