Jon Chang on Black Powder Red Earth
I first came in contact with Jon Chang through his grindcore and thrash bands (GridLink, Hayaino Daisuke, and Discordance Axis), whose subject matter ranges from hardcore anime allusions, to hard sci-fi and obscure horror references, to no-holds-barred observations on war. It’s the latter that provides the content of Chang’s first comic book. Black Powder \\ Red Earth tells the story that Chang’s company’s Facebook game is based upon. It’s as obsessive in its details account of private security contracting in the Middle East as it is gripping with its political thriller tone. With the first book out now and three more on the way, I figured this was a good time to touch base with Chang about his publishing effort with co-writer Kane Smith and illustrator Josh Taylor.
MW: Where did the Black Powder \\ Red Earth story come from and why did you decide to turn into a game?
JC: Black Powder \\ Red Earth started out as a short story. As far back as 2002, I had begun interviewing a number of Special Operation Contractors who were rotating between CONUS (Continental U.S.) and Afghanistan (and later Iraq). These men had opened up a whole new world to me, where companies provided security, support, and operational services to a variety of U.S. government agencies. At the time, public awareness of such entities was very limited, so I began writing. This was the start of BPRE.
The story and characters went through many changes over the six years I worked on it. I tried to be ruthless with each draft, taking what worked and tossing the rest, crafting a tighter story, while, at the same time, working on a game experience set in the same universe.
Why games? I have been an avid gamer and creator for most of my life. Board games, pen-and-paper role-playing games, arcade games, card games, console games, computer games, etc.–I love the challenge of interacting with another world and then facing other people in it. To me games are more intimate than a book or movie, even though I love both those of mediums, because in a good game, it is your journey even when played through a protagonist.
MW: Why turn the game into a comic when comics are going through such tough times?
JC: Echelon, as a shop, tries to make products that we would enjoy and engage with as an audience. When I finished writing the BPRE Facebook game, I shared the matured screenplay with the shop and everyone embraced it. The guys felt the whole Way of the Gun-meets-the-CIA angle had potential to deliver a unique cinematic thriller, something not found in many comics in recent memory. (By cinematic, I mean that the art tells the story rather than having characters explain what’s happening in every panel.) So we went with it. Good stories will find an audience. We hope they will, anyway.
MW: Just like the game, the comic is noticeably meticulous and detailed when it comes to military terminology and gear. Can you talk about some of the specific research that went into it?
JC: The Facebook role-playing game was our effort to make something different in the world of social games. To that end, we went with a very “hardcore” authentic depiction of war. All the people in the photos are former or current U.S. military and were filmed at a variety of Iraq-sim training facilities around America and all of the backgrounds were shot in Iraq at the actual locations by members of the team who were deployed there.
We worked with professional soldiers to make sure the body language, kit, and weapons would be right in every shot and we could focus on the image itself. We then took the finished images and masked them into our location photos giving us accurate representations of the places in the story. These photos were then used as reference and guides by the artist when he was rendering the script into panels.
Strategic information that set the stage for the story was gleaned through researching open sourced materials, strategic texts, and some client work I was involved in focusing on the economic development of southern Iraq, or “Basran” as it is referred to in the story.
MW: The pace is abnormally deliberate and intense for a comic. And it’s almost the opposite of the music you play–which is overload! Was that an easy adjustment in style for you to make?
JC: It took many years and many iterations to produce the complete story arc. This was due to a variety of things. First, I had a lot to learn about writing. Next, I was constantly introduced to new people who had stories to tell and I never wanted to leave something valuable for the next story in case there wasn’t one.
After the first draft was completed, I sent the script out for test reads to associates and friends who had limited or no experience with the subject matter to see if they could follow the story and if it would engage them. The first thing I learned was that it was impenetrable to anyone who did not have an intimate knowledge of the players, places, and history of the region. The second was that to tell the story I wanted to tell, I needed to introduce people to a lot of concepts fast in a way they could relate to. This did not come easy!
In the end I think the story is somewhere between a hard crime story and a thriller, which is pretty funny considering I set out to write an action story. Oops.
MW: I was struck by how there are no good guys, bad guys, or morals whatsoever. It’s just about making money by killing–more like Heart of Darkness than Marvel or DC. How can such a vacuum be built upon in future installments without everything eventually seeming aimless or hopeless?
JC: Let me start by saying that despite being into comics since I was 12, I have never been a big fan of cape books (with a few exceptions including The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, and some X-Men). I was attracted to stories like Area 88, Akira, The Nam, Paranoia, and Bad Company. Gritty stories where characters got killed and most of the survivors came out in pieces. This carries over to film and TV, as well. I was especially attracted to the characters in Leone Westerns who weren’t good guys but weren’t as bad as the “villains.” Carpenter really nailed this in Escape from New York, which is still one of my favorite movies today.
As for building on a vacuum, BPRE is a closed-arc story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is also a story that tries to be as true to the world as it can be, while still keeping the audience engaged. There is a journey the characters experience but it’s not designed to be a feel-good ending, if you know what I mean.
MW: Do you ever feel like you’re overanalyzing something for meatheads who just want to off targets or see targets get offed? I guess the same could be asked about your music–writing totally complex and far-reaching music when most dudes just want to headband…
JC: On some level, I’m writing for myself. Specifically, I’m writing and creating these stories because I haven’t been able to find anything comparable in bookstores–online or off.
Some people may be tuning in for the action pieces alone or just geeking on the details of the equipment. That’s okay, because we worked very hard to make those pieces as authentic as possible, but those are textures that the story is told over.
I really want to establish these characters and the world they inhabit because that’s what makes you come back to a story again and again. It’s the reason I can still watch The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or Escape from New York more than 20 years after they were made. And if we ever make a BPRE movie, I want Kurt Russell involved!