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Comicscape - May 19, 2004

An interview with LESS THAN HEROES's David Yurkovich

By Tony Whitt     May 19, 2004

David Yurkovich's LESS THAN HEROES, tales about superheroes in a scary world -- our own.
© Top Shelf Productions


Next month, David Yurkovich and Top Shelf Productions will be turning the superhero genre on its ear with LESS THAN HEROES, a collection of his stories from the hard-to-find THRESHOLD series that it's impossible to describe without using the word "quirky." The story revolves around the Philadelphia-based non-union superhero group Threshold, composed of Recoil, Mr. Malevolence, Meridian, and the Cosmopolitan. Although Threshold holds the exclusive contract for superhero work in Philly, they're much more interested in snacking on Girl Scout cookies and Thin Mints than fighting crime. But while Threshold may rest, crime never does, and the group is soon faced with threats beyond imagining and possibly beyond their abilities. Perhaps it's time to call in their more capable (and more expensive) rivals, the New York Super-Hero Syndicate (or NYSS, for short). Cookie, anyone?

Last week, David Yurkovich took some time out from his busy schedule to talk with me about his unique universe and exactly how the universe of Threshold differs from that of so-called "normal" superheroes:

How did you get started in comics?

In 1962 while attending an exhibition on radioactivity, an introverted teenager is bitten by an irradiated spider and...oh, wait, that's been done. How 1964 in a small town in western Pennsylvania a baby is born during the 11th hour of the 10th day of the 9th month of the 8th full moon. He emerges from the womb with pens, brushes, and paper in hand and immediately begins plotting his first story.

Close, but maybe not.


LESS THAN HEROES creator David Yurkovich.

been drawing and writing for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I used to do a lot of drawings of Captain America, Hulk, Linda Lovelace, Iron Man, Spider-Man -- stuff like that. For some reason, we didn't have much paper around the house during my youth. So I would draw on anything I could find -- the inside jackets of books, the walls, old envelopes, clothing, discarded egg cartons, egg shells, uneaten eggs -- anything.

As far as getting started in comics goes, I was a fringe fan during my youth, so I'd pick up a comic book here and there from spinner racks at the local pharmacy or newsstand. A few years later (1977), STAR WARS was released in theaters, and Marvel launched an ongoing STAR WARS comic. I very quickly became hooked on the comic (due primarily to the ink, which rubbed off on your fingers, being laced with cocaine, I think). Marvel (those tricky tricksters) used to fill the early issues of [those comics] with all sorts of house ads for their other titles. The ads must have worked because by 1978 I was a comic book junkie. I spent the next two decades growing up with comic books, and taking an active interest in them by being a frequent letter-to-the-editor hack and by attending conventions in my Isis costume. (And here I thought I was the only one... TBW) I took a few drawing classes during this time and in college completed my BA in writing, but it wasn't until the early 1990s that I fully caught the creativity fever. So I started to submit ideas to Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc. Ultimately, I ended up going the route of self-publishing. I was fortunate in that my first self-published comic, DEATH BY CHOCOLATE (1996), was given financial support through a generous grant by the Peter (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES) Laird's Xeric Foundation (a non-profit agency that supports sequential artists). Since that time I've done about 14 books through Sleeping Giant Comics and done a few short side projects with other publishers including a stint with writer Sean McKeever on THE WAITING PLACE. In 1998 I started moving away from the 32-page pamphlet comic book and more into the larger, bulkier projects (such as the 96-page THE BROCCOLI AGENDA). LESS THAN HEROES will be my largest single-volume work to date (152 pages) and my first non-self-published project of this magnitude.

So, what's the story behind LESS THAN HEROES - how did it all start, and where?

LESS THAN HEROES represents a compilation of

A sample page from David Yurkovich's LESS THAN HEROES.

four of my earlier self-published comics. The comics were initially published as THRESHOLD [named after the team whose adventures chronicled therein]. As a title, I realized fairly early on that THRESHOLD did not have much in the way of product recognition -- though that was kind of the point as these weren't supposed to be your average heroes. Eventually, THRESHOLD became THE S.H.o.P. (SUPER-HEROES OF PHILADELPHIA), a title that was more true to what the book was all about (and a lot catchier, don't ya think???). I'd always planned on doing a compilation with the name LESS THAN HEROES (a title my lovely wife, Dianne Pearce, suggested after much tossing about of ideas). However, as a self-publisher I typically sought to produce new products rather than compilations of earlier material, so a compilation was not produced through Sleeping Giant.

I started talking with Top Shelf's Brett Warnock in early 2003. Brett had seen my (then) new release, ALTERCATIONS: A HISTORY OF SUPER-HERO ACTIVITY IN 20TH CENTURY NORTH AMERICA and was interested in seeing what else I had done -- so I mailed him copies of everything. Eventually, we reached an agreement whereby Top Shelf would collect my earlier work into larger volumes. While Top Shelf is not a company that produces super-hero comics, Brett saw something different about the Threshold super-heroes. Quite honestly, I never wanted to do straight-forward super-hero stories because I felt that 1) there were already plenty of straight-forward super-hero stories being done; and 2) it was possible to do super-hero comics with serious, adult tones but still have plenty of offbeat fun in the process. And I think those elements are what differentiate THRESHOLDfrom some of its more mainstream competitors and what attracted Top Shelf.

We were in total agreement that the name THRESHOLD had to go. Brett wanted a name that could encompass the overall theme of the characters from the both the THRESHOLD and Death by Chocolate worlds (or as he put it, the "Yurkoverse") - something that would serve as an umbrella title for various collected works. He was pleased with Dianne's title, LESS THAN HEROES, as it really fit the theme of the stories and characters. I mean, one of the main guys on the team (Recoil) doesn't even have super-powers. He just joined up 'cause he thought it would be 'fun.' In that sense, these folks are not super-heroes, though insofar as wanting to uphold the ideals of right and wrong, they pretty much are.

In what ways is LESS THAN HEROES different than other independent takes on the superhero genre?

There are only so many story ideas in the world; sooner or later ideas are going to overlapit's inevitable. So I think it's safe to say that if you read enough indy (or mainstream) super-hero comics, you can start making arguments like, 'oh, comic A is just like comic B,' or 'comic B is just like comic C.' But I think that despite any possible superficial similarities with regard to story, plot, characterization, etc. that may occur, LESS THAN HEROES differs in that the stories are written from an absurdist point of view mixed with that of a die-hard super-hero traditionalist (for me, comics don't get much better than Lee/Kirby). The 'world' in which the LESS THAN HEROES characters live is much like our own world -- in this world, super-heroics is basically a business, so these people are working a job not unlike the police, fire, or other agencies that protect the public from harm.

Of course the

A supervillain is introduced in LESS THAN HEROES.

characters have their own hang-ups (such as Recoil's dental hygiene obsession and the snack food compulsion of Mr. Malevolence) and various quirks, and I think that is what makes the series unique. Any comic book 'universe' is only as good as the characters that inhabit it. The truth is, I no longer read new comics. Once in a while I'll see something that catches my eye at the local comic shop (such as Seth's PALOOKAVILLE), but in general, I try to separate my writing from my collecting habits. Why? Because I don't want to be influenced by what other writers and artists are doing. I once allowed myself to become influenced by several writers and artists. But I realized that trying to write or draw like someone else only served to limit what I can do creatively. Thus, I pretty much dumped everything from my collection that was published in the last fifteen years. I can't be influenced by something if it's not around to influence me. This act was probably the single-most expression-freeing experience I've undergone creatively then or since; I'd recommend it to anyone trying to find his or her voice as a writer or artist. Dump your influences 'kill off' those individuals who you idolize; allow your own voice to develop. Trust me, you'll never look back.

There's a curious mix of the hilarious (the characters' constant snacking, the supervillains sitting around watching Disney, the contract negotiations between Philly's Mayor and the NYSS) and the downright terrifying (the Stamp Collector, the Lightning Man).

There is that constant, conscious juxtaposition between funny and serious, light hearted and terrifying. And again, I think it was this blending of elements that attracted Top Shelf to the project. The series went through so many revisions before I actually drew it -- it was constantly evolving from straight-forward super-hero team book to anti-team comedy book and all-things in between. Somewhere in the development I found a harmonious mix and managed to incorporate a little from both sides into the work. I also tried to assess the whole 'hero' thing from a business POV with the notion that these are all hired players. I'm pro-union, but in the Stamp Collector story the heroes known as the New York Super-Hero Syndicate (NYSS) are portrayed as these slackers who won't do a stitch of work until the contracts are signed, sealed, and delivered. The NYSS is a union team under contract with New York, so for them to come into Philly to save the day is a huge pain in the ass (to them, at least). It's not what they're being paid to do, so they essentially have to allow themselves to be subcontracted to Philly for the evening before they'll agree to perform any acts of heroism. I think that, were these characters to exist in the real world, that sort of business etiquette would probably be SOP. We are a nation consumed by lawsuits and legalities, and I don't suppose too many people would simply undertake these life-threatening assignments out of a noble credo such as 'with great power comes great responsibility.' More likely, our hero would be shouting, 'with great power comes great responsibility -- but show me the money and the contract first.' But I like to contrast humor with terror because the world is humorous and terrifying at the same time, and those moments that both scare us and make us laugh are scarier than most, I think.

What was involved in the cleaning-up and reworking process of the original THRESHOLD stories into the versions that appear in LESS THAN HEROES?

[First,] Brett and I discussed reprinting the stories during the 2003 San Diego Comic Con. I hypnotized him into believing everything I said by overpowering his senses with my heavy use of Gray Flannel and treats from Del Taco. We hammered out the details in the ensuing months, though I'm fairly certain he was still under semi-hypnosis. Once Top Shelf signed the project, I was faced with the not-so-difficult task of scanning the files and providing high-resolution TIFFs. However, very early in the scanning process I began to really scrutinize the artwork. I started to notice panels that I knew could be improved upon or enhanced. So rather than merely scanning each page, I spent a considerable amount of time and effort in touching-up those drawings I believed could stand a bit of improvement. Thus, rather than spending about one week with the scanner, I spent three months in Photoshop and modified nearly all of the 140+ pages in the collection. I also redrew and rewrote the introductory chapter, created new illustrations and endpapers for the book, wrote an extensive essay regarding my theory on super-heroes and aging, dropped acid, and made several necessary script changes within the stories. It was a tedious process, but one that I soon began to enjoy. Brett provided stellar design work on the package. The end result is that LESS THAN HEROES is visually a much-improved work over the individual THRESHOLD comics that were published before I was Photoshop-savvy. Better...stronger...faster, and for far less than $6 million.

There are several send-ups of mainstream heroes and villains in this volume - if you don't mind giving us a hint, which ones are we least likely to spot?

Really? I seriously wasn't aware of that. I mean, initially THRESHOLD started out as a FANTASTIC FOUR clone book. But I don't see that in any of the characters now. I suppose it can be argued that Ice Machine is a send-up of Blizzard -- however, Ice Machine's costume actually dispenses ice cubes, so in that regard I think he's a bit more fully realized (and more useful at raves). Likewise, there are obvious similarities between Mr. Malevolence and Superman -- they're both big guys who fly and have powerful fists, but I think the resemblances end there. The Cosmopolitan is my version of Dr. Strange -- both are magicians, though whereas Stephen Strange calls upon all sorts of mystic energies and magics, the Cosmopolitan practices "junk" magic, invoking whatever pop-culture references are in his head at the time.

I think that,

Another page from LESS THAN HEROES.

more than send-ups of mainstream superheroes and villains, the Threshold characters are acknowledgments to various bands I've loved. For example, the Red Star is an homage to Rush (from the album 2112); Recoil's name was taken from the Depeche Mode spin-off band of the same name (At the mention of which Tony's face burns with fanboy glow... TBW); The Demolition is an homage to Duran Duran (from "Do the Demolition" on NOTORIUS); Threshold itself was taken from a Chemlab lyric; The Lightning Man is an homage to Nitzer Ebb (from the album SHOWTIME). Music tends to be influential to me much more than comics. And I think it freshens my comics when I draw on influences from other art forms.

Which of these characters do you enjoy most?

I like the NYSS. To me they are the closest thing I've done to 'serious' super-heroes. For comic relief, I enjoy the New York super villains (Ice Machine, Letter Head, Master Maestro, etc.) who relocate to Philly. I enjoy the Threshold cast, but really, they've been in my head so long it's like they're more real than imaginary. It is always fun (and challenging) to create new characters. One of the most difficult aspects of characterization is getting inside a character's head -- asking yourself, 'How would this person respond to this situation -- and why?' The characters I enjoy most are those whom I understand in this regard.

The first volume ends on a fairly tragic note for such a humorous buildup. Can we expect some closure to or revisiting of that storyline in the second volume? And when can we expect a second volume?

The end of Volume 1 is somewhat somber. But so often reality is the same, isn't it? My heroes live in the very real world. There is also a bit of a cliffhanger insofar as Threshold's place in the super-hero community is concerned. These questions (and more!) will be resolved in a future volume of LESS THAN HEROES, most likely to be titled LESS THAN HEROES: The S.H.o.P. Assuming this volume becomes scheduled, it will likely contain a fair amount of never-before-published work since I've not actually completed all of the individual stories in their entirety. They're written; they're storyboarded; they're just not finished.

However, before that happens, and assuming volume one sells, we may be seeing LESS THAN HEROES: THE DEATH BY CHOCOLATE STORIES. It all depends on sales. Top Shelf is a business, and they're constantly diversifying and trying new genresI think LESS THAN HEROESis testament to this statement. But they have bills to pay like any other business, so future volumes will be contingent upon the sales of Volume 1. Hopefully, Volume 1 will be well received by retailers and the comics-reading public. If so, I look forward to forging ahead with additional Top Shelf volumes in the near future.

* * *

David also writes for the Retro Reviews department in the comics section of Underground Online, and you can also find new fiction and articles at the Sleeping Giants Comics web site linked above. LESS THAN HEROES is available directly from Top Shelf, or you can be good little boys and girls and order it from your local comic store. The 152-page graphic novel sells for $14.95. David will also be at the Top Shelf booth this July at the San Diego Comic Con, if there are any questions you'd like to ask him that I left out. Thanks, David!

Now, onto other business... Next week, I'll be discussing the recent TIME article about Superman and revisiting my earlier COMICSCAPE article along the same lines and yes, I'm ready for the death threats. In the meantime, last week I asked specifically what you, the readers, most want to discuss in the months ahead, but I haven't heard back from that many people yet, so there's still time to put in a word for the issues you want to see discussed on this page. We can discuss anything you'd like, from current comics events to ongoing issues, so long as it's something we haven't covered in the column before (unless you'd like me specifically to revisit a previous topic such as minorities in comics, BitTorrent downloading, and so on). Send your ideas via the web site contact address here or to me directly. And remember, if you should happen to make reference to a title of a comic series please use CAPS when giving the title since I do the HTML coding on this column every week, having the titles in caps already makes my life much easier. Finally, as always, don't forget our discussion boards! Now, here are the goodies comin' at 'cha today:


DC caters to the kids this week with the landmark publication of POWERPUFF GIRLS #50 (surely that should be a double-sized issue or a triple, since there's three of them) and with BATMAN ADVENTURES #14, in which Bruce's childhood idol, the Grey Ghost, returns. Who?

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, they're offering the itty bitties such fare as MARVEL AGE: SPIDER-MAN #4, featuring a retelling of that story where Flash Thompson dresses up as Spidey, gets kidnapped by Doom, and...oh, you remember... There's also RUNAWAYS #15, which I include here because Marvel feels it appropriate for the 12+ crowd, as well as SPIDER-GIRL #74 (same rationale). Go nuts.

For the bigger Batman fans (and I don't mean the ones over 300 pounds, though they might like it, too) there's BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS #53, featuring Hush and Green Arrow, and ROBIN #126, in which Tim Drake quits as Robin. I wonder if the other writers at DC know about this yet?

From Dark Horse, there's just a ton of stuff, including the BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL VOL 7: HEART OF DARKNESS trade paperback for $16.95; EL ZOMBO #2 (Of 3); GRENDEL: DEVIL'S REIGN #1; LAST TRAIN TO DEADSVILLE: A CAL MCDONALD MYSTERY #1; and the RING VOL 2 trade paperback for $12.95.

Ezekiel returns (again) in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #507, while in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #59 we finally get to see the public's reaction to the new SPIDER-MAN movie (their version, not ours). Somehow, without that Peter Parker-Mary Jane love story fleshing out the plot, I don't think it's going to make back the production costs, do you?

Something pretty shocking occurs in Wildstorm's AUTHORITY VOL 2 #12, but you'll just have to read it to find out. The fact that the THUNDERCATS: DOGS OF WAR trade paperback ($14.95) was ever published is shocking

Rob Liefeld draws the cover to CABLE/DEADPOOL #3.

enough in itself.

Despite the Rob Liefeld cover, I'm sure CABLE/DEADPOOL #3 will interest someone. So anyone interested yet?

If massively overpriced hardcovers of miniseries and/or story arcs you've read in just the last six months strike your fancy, then this week you have your pick of two: either the BATMAN/SUPERMAN/WONDER WOMAN: TRINITY hardcover for $24.95, or the SUPERMAN/BATMAN: PUBLIC ENEMIES hardcover for $19.95. Hell, get both you've got the extra cash, and what else would you spend it on?

This book used to be NEW MUTANTS, but now it's NEW X-MEN, and the title that used to be NEW X-MEN is now simply X-MEN. Presumably because they're not "new" anymore. Confused yet? I am. But buy NEW X-MEN: ACADEMY X #1 this week, and all may become clear to you "may" being the operative word.

Four friends with a criminal bent. Four fragments of a high-tech battle suit. Hilarity ensues. FRACTION #2 is now available from DC Focus.

Bucky returns (again) in CAPTAIN AMERICA #26, but since Robert Morales is writing it, it's bound to not suck.

Speaking of books that don't suck because of who's now writing them or, indeed, suck at all - Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray what promises to be a phenomenal run on HAWKMAN with #28. Personally, I think it'll just be nice to see a Golden Age character not written by Geoff Johns for a while. No offense, Geoff.

Hate to say it, but I've long since given up trying to figure out what's going on in CAPTAIN MARVEL - all I know is that it has something t do with time travel, Marlo dying, Earth being destroyed, and chaos ensuing. Issue #23 might just clarify things. Fingers crossed.

Vertigo fans, it's time to take out that loan you've been putting off. First

Cover to SEAGUY #1.

of all, there's a standalone story in HUMAN TARGET #10 which features sex and violence (go figure); there are so many revelations in LUCIFER #50 that it's what the Brits would call a "bumper volume" for $3.50; there's SEAGUY #1 (Of 3), which you should buy simply because it looks cool; and then, if you're still into trades, there's (deep breath) the LUCIFER VOL 1: DEVIL IN THE GATEWAY trade paperback for $14.95, the TRANSMETROPOLITAN VOL 10: ONE MORE TIME trade paperback for $14.95 (reviewed in the print version of CINESCAPE, available almost immediately!), the V FOR VENDETTA trade paperback for $19.95, and the Y: THE LAST MAN VOL 3: ONE SMALL STEP trade paperback for $12.95. Damn. Anyone got a rich uncle who's forgotten your birthday lately?

The Man Without Fear's crusade to rid his part of the city of the Yakuza continues in DAREDEVIL #60. Had Brian Michael Bendis written the script for that movie, we'd probably be seeing DAREDEVIL 2 right alongside the Spidey sequel rather than getting an Elektra movie. Oh, well...

It's a world without Superman except it does have a Superman now. If you want to check out what possible dramatic possibilities there could be in that scenario, check out JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA: ANOTHER NAIL #1 (Of 3) for $5.95

Not only does EXCALIBUR #1 have Chris Claremont, it has Professor X, too! That should make some folks halfway happy, anyway...

Psimon is back in OUTSIDERS #12 but is Roy ready? Hell, are any of us ready?

The EXILES are in the regular Marvel Universe in #47, but they see it as a dangerously askew alternate reality needing fixing. Jeez, Marvel's already gotten rid of Bill Jemas, so what more do you want?

Can ROSE AND THORN finally come together as one person in issue #6 (Of 6) of this innovative miniseries? Will there be any more such miniseries if they do, honestly?

Spidey's more popular than the Human Torch, as we discover in FANTASTIC FOUR #513. Well, duh! Do you see a HUMAN TORCH 2 being released this summer?

There's a TRINITY-themed cover by Matt Wagner on WONDER WOMAN #204! Batman guest-stars! Oh, yeah...Diana's in all that somewhere, too.

It's just Danny Rand in IRON FIST #3, for some reason, but buy it anyway. (Sorry, but I'm just too tired to come up with a good quip at


this point...)

A couple of things for you from Image this week, including DAVID & GOLIATH #3, the SAVAGE DRAGON VOL 10: ENDGAME trade paperback for $15.95, and the SPAWN: SIMONY ONE SHOT for $7.95. OK, three things, then. (See? Way too tired for quips.)

I can't even think up a good comparison between Tony Stark and Donnie Rumsfeld for IRON MAN #82. They both went to Iraq recently, by the way and both returned. Darn.

Also, any jokes at the expense of Logan or Chuck Austen, respectively, for WOLVERINE #15 and X-MEN #157 would just be gratuitous. Suffice it to say that the former title hasn't changed titles and the latter has. My heart is racing with excitement.

Once more into the trade paperback breach, dear friends... This week, there's the NEW X-MEN VOL 7: HERE COMES TOMORROW trade paperback for $10.99 (also reviewed in the print version of CINESCAPE, now available somewhere or other); the SUPREME POWER VOL 1: CONTACT trade paperback for $14.99; and the THANOS VOL 4: EPIPHANY trade paperback for $14.99.

Need food. Need sleep. And after all those trades, need money.

Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think by e-mailing us here!

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