Keller & Neely: Humans For Life, Humans Til Deth [Interview]

IMAGE COMICS: Let's start at the top—why'd you decide to call this primate motorcycle crew "The Humans?" Was it just the wordplay that appealed to you?

KEENAN MARSHALL KELLER: It's kinda just how the idea all came to me at once... Once I saw a gang of Ape Bikers in my mind, I instantly thought, "Their crew is called The HUMANS..." And from that moment, that was not only the gang's name, but the name of the entire idea.

TOM NEELY: It made sense to me when he first mentioned it: It's like if there was a gang of human bikers called "The Gorillas" or something.

IC: Similarly, how did this team come together? THE HUMANS is very much a "Keenan & Tom & Kristina joint," with Carmen Monoxide helping keep things running smoothly. What do you get out of working with each other?

KMK: Well, I consider Tom my best friend. Working with him is a lot of fun and I've learned a lot from our collaboration. We think a lot and care about each other's input, so the give and take comes pretty naturally. We try to have fun with it and that helps keep us both keep going.

Kristina brought a lot to the book with her coloring. She really understood what we were going for and nailed the flashes of psychedelia throughout the book. She brought a lot to the project and I am glad to have had the chance to work with her. Carmen is our "Girl Friday." She's always willing to help in anyway and was a HUGE help assisting Tom along the process. She's also tons-a-fun, which helps in any situation.

I feel like I lucked out getting to work with such talented freaks.

TN: Keenan and I have been best friends for years—we met through the circuit of small press and indie comics festivals when we were both self-publishing our own books. Around the end of 2012, Keenan and I were having beers and talking about comics ideas. I was at a point where I wanted to pursue a different path than what I'd been doing with my more "artsy" graphic novels. I was finishing up the Henry & Glenn Forever & Ever series and was enjoying making fun comics as opposed to the personal navel-gazing I'd done with my books The Blot and The Wolf...

I was talking to Keenan about possibly reaching out to some writers to try doing some genre comics and actually make a push towards breaking into more of the mainstream comics world... Anyway, that's when Keenan mentioned his idea for a motorcycle gang of apes and I pretty much immediately said, "That's what I want to draw!" and went home and started drawing ideas that day.

Kristina and I met around that time and had begun dating. We had collaborated on a couple of album covers and other projects when I was begining to work on THE HUMANS. She was around for all the early ideas that Keenan and I were throwing together as we were putting together our self-published issue #0 and the series, which we intended to do as a Kickstarter. We had originally thought that we'd do the book in black and white for economic reasons, but as soon as we got the Image deal, Kristina volunteered to color the book for us. Kristina is a brilliant illustrator in her own, and adding her to the team allowed me to open up my art for her to expand many of our ideas for the comic—especially the psychedelic elements! Her overall impact on the book was huge and we couldn't have been luckier to work with her on this series.

Carmen Monoxide joined the team just after we completed drawing issue #4. By that time, we were almost running late on our schedule (Kristina and I spent Xmas and New Year's Eve finishing the art for #4). I desperately needed help with a lot of the in-between work—scanning, clean-up, and setting up the files to be colored.

My pages are all hand-drawn and hand-lettered on 15"x20" sheets of paper that have to be scanned in several pieces and then reassembled in Photoshop. Doing that for an entire issue can take a couple of days of work and I needed those days for drawing! So, Carmen came in as my assistant and took over all those duties for me so I could focus on my pages for the rest of the year. She totally saved us from going off schedule multiple times, and was a valuable part of the team—plus she's rad to have around and kept our morale up when we got weary.

It was pretty much a perfect team to work with. They're all my best friends and I couldn't have made it through last year without 'em! And Keenan and I have many more stories planned together in the future—THE HUMANS and beyond.

IC: I know a little bit about comics, and I kept noticing some familiar names popping up—Marra, Karns, Rugg, Kirby's Roadhouse...what can you tell us about these folks? What'd they do to be worthy of being immortalized forever in THE HUMANS?

TN: Ah—Yes, there are even more references to our pals than that! Benjamin Marra, Jason Karns, Jim Rugg, and Victor Cayro are all good friends of ours and artists we really love, plus they all have cool names, so it was just a fun excuse to pay tribute to our buddies. Also, Nada wears a different t-shirt from an indie comic in each issue, including works by Ed Luce, J.T. Dockery, John Porcellino, Dylan Williams, S. Clay Wilson, Josh Bayer, and even Keenan Keller's own series Galactic Breakdown. I've littered the backgrounds with characters modeled after many of my friends, too. There's tons of cameos, easter eggs, and in-jokes throughout the book and they all point to comics, art, music, and other things that Keenan and I love.

KMK: HA! Yeah, we snuck in some cartoonists we love and are good friends with into the HUMANS world, and in some cases used the actual artists as a bit of inspiration for the characters too.

Marra is named after Benjamin Marra, the artist behind the amazing Fantagraphics book O.M.W.O.T. Terror Assualter and his killer self-published comics imprint, Traditional Comics (go check him out NOW!!). Marra is a good friend and he seemed like a perfect fit to drop into our world. Marra is the good looking, bad-ass poet of the HUMANS, which are traits of Ben I've taken. He's a fuckin' poet barbarian and a looker too!

Karns is named after Jason Karns, the creator of the off-the-wall, over-the-top madness that is Fukitor (also collected by Fantagraphics). Fukitor is a really funny, vulgar, profane series of gore, horror, and action comic shorts. So Karns kind of embodies Jason Karns's artist ethos and who-gives-a-fuck attitude...but in real life Jason is a sweetheart. Really nice dude.

We also got Sheriff Rugg, who is named after comics savant and all around super nice dude Jim Rugg, the creator of Afrodisiac and Street Angel. Jim is nothing like Sheriff Rugg, which was why it was fun to name him after Jim. We made one of the nicest guys in comics our bad guy!

We also drop some other li'l nods to other comics and artists... Viktor from Viktor's Legion in issue #5 is named after underground cartoonist Victor Cayro (look him up! his shit is beautifully deranged and deep). Kirby's Roadhuse is the local haunt of The HUMANS so we named it after the fuckin' KING.

We basically just love these artists and think they are doing important comics. I am in awe of their work and wanted to give homage to them with our series. They're HUMANS for life.

Tom also used our colorist, Kristina Collantes, as the model for our She-Bitch character, and placed our friends Simon Hanselmann (Megahex) and his wife, Fantagraphics publicist Jacq Cohen, in the background of Kirby's in issue 6.

We find it fun to do and love sharing our friends with the world. There will be more cartoonist homages coming in The JUNGLE too...

IC: What is THE HUMANS about to you? Not so much the plot, but what themes did you find yourself wrestling with? What ideas kept creeping to the forefront?

KMK: Hmmm...The HUMANS are apes on the outside the bubble of mainstream society with no chance of ever breaching its protective shell. At its core, it's Johnny's story. He is the focus around which the story revolves. THE HUMANS story is about loss. It's about anger and alienation, and the unrelenting nature of life and how all those things can fuel the rage of revenge. Sometimes life isn't to be lived, but survived... That's kinda what I feel the first arc of THE HUMANS is about.

TN: Well, on a surface level I love drawing crazy sex and violence and psychedelia and apes and motorcycles and all that—it's probably the most fun I've even had drawing anything in my life! But once you scratch beneath the mean attitudes, drugs, and the gore, what appeals to me personally about a biker story is the idea of misfits, brotherhood, and being free from the constraints of the world of "normals" and traditional way of life. The heroic myth of the biker or the cowboy in pop culture is that of a rebel with absolute freedom and a big middle finger extended to the complacency of the world. As an artist trying to carve my own path, I relate to many of those sentiments...but mostly I like drawing bad-ass apes on choppers!

IC: THE HUMANS is a post-Vietnam War tale, with a vet returning home and wrestling with his new reality. Was it always set in this specific period? How'd you come to settle on it?

KMK: That was just the idea from the start. I was trying to capture a certain time, a moment of American history with a biker exploitation idea... Americans coming home from wars, whether it be WWII, Korean War, or Vietnam, were a huge part of biker culture. Vets came home with no place to belong to and memories of duties done that have no place in the civilized world, which pushed them to leave the prison of the American Dream and search out the freedom of sex, drugs, bikes, and the open road.

So, having it set directly after the Vietnam War just made sense and gave us all of that fertile ground to help shape the Johnny character.

IC: I've got some real specific art questions for you here. In THE HUMANS #8, there's a four-page scene where a character is thrown through a glass window following a chase sequence. It feels like the comics equivalent of slow motion, decompression being used to great effect. Tell me about coming up with this scene—were you always going to dedicate so much space to it, or did it feel more "right" when you started putting pen to page and expanding the moment?

TN: I actually wish I'd had a couple more pages for that scene! I knew it had to be as good as I could make it—it's a biker comic book and that means we needed some major motorcycle action! Can't skimp on that! I've been disappointed by some other motorcycle-themed comics out there that hardly have any bikes in them at all!

Keenan wrote this as the most pivotal death scene as Johnny takes revenge on Woz for killing Bobby. Keenan wanted a huge crash and ultra-gory death for Woz. But luckily for me, he writes his scripts in a loose way that allows me to be the "director of the film" and piece it together based on my own sensibilities for timing and editing. My approach to that scene is the same with the pacing of the entire series—I love playing with "time" and energy in comics based on page layouts. I planned out each issue to have lots of ups and downs that lead up to violent two-page crescendos. It's something I've been playing with throughout all of my past books as well. This scene had to be one of the biggest in the entire series, so I gave it some extra...

I actually finished the issue and then went back and added a page to the crash, so that's why this issue ends on an odd page—but that happily allowed for a nice two page spread of face-melting gore at the end... Happy accidents! If I'd had more time and a few more pages I may have made it even more extreme... but maybe that will have to wait until our "Director's Cut" version.

IC: THE HUMANS builds up to an orgy of violence, which is maybe befitting of an apesploitation tale. How did you two decide how far to go? Was that even a question on your minds?

TN: Keenan and I both talk about comics being "too safe" these days. We didn't wanna do that. I've never done that with my work. If there is violence, there will be blood. If there is sex, it will be XXX-rated.

KMK: I go as far as I can and then we talk about it. For this comic, I just feel we need it to be as visceral and violent as possible. I don't want to try to soften or censor where we can go with this... That includes the sex too. To have violence and sex in our book but then hide certain bits to make it seem more digestible seems fucked to me. When people fuck, they use penises and vaginas and buttholes and mouths. And when people kill one another with blades and bullets, guts and brains fly out.

If I'm going to use these elements in a story, then I'm going to use them and not hide the details that make it uncomfortable for others...fuck that.

IC: What kind of person is Johnny? Do you think that where he ends up is inevitable from issue one? Or was he pushed into a situation that pushed him to his limits?

KMK: Well, I'm not a fatalist but his path seems like it was unavoidable...not to say it was his fault, but the world around him has made Johnny a vicious, angry, and damaged young primate. And while he does bad things and murders several people throughout the book, his motivations are apparent and somewhat understandable. He's overwhelmed by fear and loss, which manifests as anger and violence. He's a lost soul searching for a reason to live, and after everything that happens to him, the thing he found to live for is REVENGE. But, Johnny isn't vengeful over just his brother Bobby's death. That's just the catalyst that pushed him over the edge. He wants revenge for his entire life! He wants revenge against the system that's put him through the meat grinder of war and then rips his family from him! He's mad at the world. Which is something that I can understand sometimes...

IC: Can you tease the Christmas in July special? What've you got cooking for us?

TN: Well, unfortunately the Christmas in July might actually have to be a Christmas in December comic after all... I've been dealing with some shoulder injuries and am not quite back up to speed with my drawing lately. But it will be a really fun blowout issue and I'm looking forward to drawing it after our book tour next month.

KMK: Well, its no longer coming out in July... Might come out a bit later.

We'll start to work on it next month. It's gonna be the weirdest and most fucked-up Christmas special ya ever seen... I really wanted to do a Christmas Special because of the absurdity of it. WHY DO IT?? Why not!

It's going to be three short stories which happen on the same Christmas Eve in 1968, so we get to bring back all the dead HUMANS to be a part of the stories... We're taking MOJO & NADA to San Diego in WHITE CHRISTMAS, where things go sideways while picking up some blow, which leads to a chase thru a Christmas parade! We'll also learn the origins of Karns's humanskin boots in our Christmas Poem, "Twas The Night Before Christmas 'wit Karns!!!", and in the third story, we're at "The HUMANS Christmas Bash", a.k.a. "Clyde's Christmas Freakout!!!" where we join The HUMANS at their compound as the celebrate the holiday with bud, booze, and babes!!! Clyde has a little too much fun as Boss Kong rips up the HUMANS' backyard stage!

It's gonna be a really fun one-off issue!!!

THE HUMANS is available in two collected editions.