By Jakob Free
The town of Rottenville (population: “A bunch but not too much”) may feel familiar to anyone who has, at one point or another, called suburban America home. The locale boasts the obligatory tree-lined streets, the barking neighborhood dogs, and kids sprinting to make it to the school bus on time. And where there are kids, there are bullies.
But a few factors make Rottenville’s child-tyrants unique, and these qualities ultimately set the neighborhood apart from its sister suburbs. First, Rottenville has more bullies per capita than any town in the world. And second, once they reach high school, the Rottenville bullies vie for supremacy in something called the Bully Wars.
Into this arena, dual-protagonists Rufus and Spencer enter, and the duo couldn’t be more ill-suited to partnership. Spencer is the type of diminutive nerd who reads more textbooks than he has to. Although he claims that the extra reading is “just for fun,” one of his extracurricular areas of research concerns the not-so-fun subject of predator avoidance. Now that Spencer is in the ninth grade, he wants to remain firmly outside the confines of high school lockers and to steer clear of the sting of the fabled “Titan’s Twister,” or worse, the “Nathan Nick Knuckle Knocker.” Spencer just wants to survive bullies.
And Rufus, big on brawn but perhaps not so much in brain, is the type of person who doesn’t have time for reading, because he’s busy being one of the bullies that Spencer hopes to evade.
High school has a way of changing people, however. And Rufus and Spencer experience a big change in the bullying food chain once they arrive at Rottenville High. Up until this point, Rufus has been Top Dog. He’s terrorized his targets with impunity and the creative savagery that can only come from the 14-year-old mind. But when Rufus meets the competition at Rottenville High, a very large bully named Hock, he quickly loses his place at the top of the totem pole. A solution to Rufus’ troubles comes from the unlikeliest of places: Spencer, who offers to help him win a mysterious gauntlet called the Bully Wars.
“It’s a fun way to explore how two people who are very opposite have to figure out how to solve problems together,” says Skottie Young, writer and co-creator of Bully Wars. But Rufus and Spencer aren’t just philosophical opposites (to bully or not to bully), but visual ones as well. Artist and co-creator Aaron Conley draws both characters, plus the half-dozen supporting players who appear in Issue one, in such a way that readers can suss them out based on profile alone. Spencer, face obscured by square-shaped spectacles, is all stick-limbs and nervous energy. Conversely, Rufus has legs like tree trunks, a denim vest replete with monster pins, and skin dusted with pustules threatening to burst at any moment.
Young and Conley have been working on Bully Wars for roughly a year, but the idea behind the book has rolled around in Young’s head for the better part of a decade. “My original idea focused almost exclusively on the bullies, but over time I felt that, while it was funny, it was also coming across a bit mean,” he says. “I actually put the project away for a long time.”
Several years after shelving the book, Young met Conley and decided that a collaboration was in order. “I brought him on for an issue of Rocket Raccoon and Groot, and he crushed it. We talked about a few different creator-owned ideas when it occurred to me that he might be exactly what Bully Wars needed. I pulled it back out of the moth balls and brought it to Aaron. We added more variation in the character types we would focus on in the story, and Aaron brought the design of the project to a whole other level.”
In the beginning, Young was nervous about letting someone else handle the art duties on the long-gestating project. But Young became more than comfortable to let his collaborator take the reins; he credits Conley’s work as more than just crucial to the existence of the project, but superior to whatever Young would have attempted on his own.
“I’ve tried to really step back on the art side as much as I can,” Young says. “We went back and forth on the characters a ton, but I never drew any of them. Aaron sends me layouts, and for the most part, I’m like ‘yup, perfect, beautiful.’ Aaron is lead on all color notes for [colorist] Jean [-Francois Beaulieu] as well. So it really is a great collaboration, and I could not be more pleased with the book we’ve all created together.”
While Bully Wars is filled with colorful characters and zany hijinks, both Young and Conley know the subject matter comes from an all-too-real place. They’re also aware of the complexities necessary to pull off a character like Rufus, who at first glance has all the trappings of a classic big bad, but turns out to be far more complex.
“Everyone has their own story and their own reasons for doing what they do,” Young says. “While we’re doing [Bully Wars in] a funny way, we’ll be exploring the idea of being a bully and [whether or not] you have to stay that way forever.” Young goes on to hint that the redemptive path has an inverse: those who believe they could never be bullies may have more in common with them than they think. “There’s a lot of meat on that bone, and we’re going to dive in to some of it without trying to be too preachy… First and foremost, we hope you have a great time, [and that you’ll] laugh and fall in love with these characters.
Bully Wars #1 by Skottie Young, Aaron Conley, and Jean-Francois Beaulieu is out now.