The philosopher Jay-Z once said “you can’t knock the hustle.” I think about this when I consider the work ethic of Joven Tolentino. I’ve run into this creator at just about every con I’ve been to in the last two years, and he’s always working his hardest to get his comics out to fans. Joven’s books BATTLE BUG and THE CULT HOUSE represent a sweet smoothie blend of influences from tokusatsu, to Hellboy, to Heavy Metal. While these touchstones are present, Joven’s work come from his distinct, often hilarious, voice that gives new life to familiar concepts.

ComicsVerse: So, the first question I want to ask you is why comics? What drew you to comics in the first place? What made you decide I want to write comic books?

Joven Tolentino: Oh, when I was little it was cartoons, and then from cartoons I got, like, into comics because they were this thing that I could just experience over and over at my own time without like, a TV, or any exterior…like I couldn’t play video games all the time, but I could have a comic book on me all the time and keep myself entertained that way. This was in the days before the smartphones and all that shit where your Gameboy was done after 8 pm.

CV: Was there a particular comic book that you read one day and that was the moment that really clicked for you “this is what I want to be doing creatively with my time”?

Joven: Yeah, it was a comic that came with the VHS of BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM…actually, I don’t even know if it came with the comic book, but when I got my VHS of it when I was little, I got that comic book with it. … I was just really obsessed with the comic book and how it was accessible to me all the time.

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CV: As a writer, what are you usually looking for in an artistic collaborator?

Joven: Someone who isn’t just a sponge for the ideas…they’ll build on the idea. This kid Aleksis [Shi, artist of BATTLE BUG] I’m working on with BATTLE BUG, he’ll kick things back to me all the time, like “hey I think this should be done differently,” or “I think my panel structure for this is better than however many panels you have on the script”…I just really appreciate getting info back.

CV: When did you decide to go the route of having your own small press, because you have Hijack Press, which you’re the co-founder of, correct?

Joven: Right, press is kind of a misnomer, we’re more of a collective. I actually don’t even remember why we settled on “press”…we all just jump in and off of each other’s projects, we all help each other, we trade labor, we’re all friends, and we all believe and support each other. That’s something I love from comics…the community.

CV: How did you guys all meet?

Joven: College…we were all art majors. I mean, I dropped out after a semester, but I stuck around with those guys, and after graduation we all stuck together.

CV: When you guys all got together to do this, did you all just decide there’s strength in numbers, or do you all have special skills that you help each other out with?

Joven: Yeah, it’s a little bit of both. Whenever anyone has something in their script that theyre not sure about, they’ll throw it over to me and I’ll work on it with them and I’ll give them a write-up or I’ll print it out, scribble some notes on it, give it back to them. Then later down the line, I’m like “hey, I’ve got eight pages that need coloring, is anybody available?” and then whoever is available will be like “hey, I got you.”

A typical day for Battle Bug. Art by Aleksis Shi & Kristy Garcia

CV: What I really enjoy about your comics is you’re not really doing the typical superhero stuff, and while I love superhero comics, I’m always appreciative of people who are doing something a little different, that’s a reflection of eclectic tastes. Was that an objective that you had, did you sit down and say “I don’t really want to write superhero stories?”

Joven: Yeah, one of my writing professors [said] “you should always be asking what’s the point of what you’re making?” And…what’s the point of making another carbon copy superhero comic when there’s so many of them out there? So, you just gotta keep that in mind: what are you trying to say, what you trying to do? What makes it special? With BATTLE BUG, we got it, we’re taking down these negative images of Asian Americans and white washing in western media.

CV: Let’s talk about BATTLE BUG, because when you say “what do you wanna see? What do you wanna do?” BATTLE BUG kind of a riff on KAMEN RIDER, but you clearly have some deeper thematic intentions with it. Can you talk about those a little bit?

Joven: Oh yeah, take Saban’s case. [AUTHOR’S NOTE: Saban is a television production company that imports Japanese shows to America. In the case of a show like POWER RANGERS, the company takes the original Japanese show SUPER SENTAI and films scenes to edit around the action scenes to localize it for American markets, removing all of the Japanese characters and replacing them with American, often predominantly white, characters.] So they’ve been bringing over POWER RANGERS for, like, 23 years now…how many Asian Red Rangers do they have? How many Asian leaders do we have? None. So they’ll take things from Asia and then they’ll just chuck out all the Asian people from the lead roles, and that just never sat well with me. So that’s one of the…cornerstones of BATTLE BUG, putting the Asian Americans back in the driver seat.

CV: You’re tackling this really heavy idea, but it’s also a really funny book too.

Joven: Oh yeah…I don’t like getting preachy. It’s sort of, more of a conversation. There’s people…I can’t quite explain it right now…preachiness isn’t fun. And BATTLE BUG is supposed to be fun.

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CV: When I read BATTLE BUG, in addition to the thematic content, it feels like a very New York influenced book, in the way that the classic Marvel books did of the 70’s and 80’s. Is it because you’re a New Yorker, that’s what you know, or is that something that’s intentional on your part?

Joven: It’s both, it’s definitely both. I’ve only ever lived here, and all the comic books I really loved growing up took place here. I just wanted to keep it real. One of the worst moments in my life was finding out Jackie Chan’s RUMBLE IN THE BRONX didn’t take place in the Bronx! And I was like “that’s such a lie!” I don’t want to construct a New York that doesn’t reflect my New York.

CV: And how would you define your New York through BATTLE BUG?

Joven: Oh, it’s just this place where there’s so many different kinds of people who come from so many different cultures, so many different things. In the world of BATTLE BUG, there’s like aliens and beast people and all this shit, but there’s also people of color around and that shouldn’t be, like, a weird thing, or a selling point. New York is New York and we’re all here.

BATTLE BUG #3 art by Aleksis Shi & Kristy Garcia

CV: You talked earlier about, as you put it, putting Asians back in the driver’s seat…what did you want to make sure you did or didn’t do when you developed Battle Bug’s characteristics. He’s a funny character, he’s got this sort of bravado to him, which I enjoy, but it’s very unique for a character of this type. When you look at other Kamen Rider-type characters, some of them seem to be quite stoic, especially when you look at those original Shotaro Ishinomori [creator of KAMEN RIDER, and numerous other manga titles] books that are filled with angst and inner turmoil. Battle Bug is the totally opposite of that, so I was curious as to what was your thought process when you first developed him.

Joven: It was a really conscious effort on our part to make him not fit the mold…we’re parodying the kind of image…one of the images [of Asian Americans] is they’re stoic warriors. So Harvey [Battle Bug’s alter ego] is there to complicated that image, so he’s kind of a moron, he’s brusque, he’s rude, he’s kind of a dick. He’s a very poor translation of these Ishinomori heroes, and that’s the point. When Saban brought over Kamen Rider that one time, they basically didn’t bring over anything. It was a very poor translation of the source material, so I figured we’d do our own…”poor translation” of the material our way, to entertain us. It’s our Bad Lip Reading, to put it another way.

CV: Speaking of making things your own, I remember one of the times I first met you we were talking about THE CULT HOUSE, I thought it was really interesting that you print copies of the book in these over sized European treasury style, where the books are much bigger than the typical comic book. Were you trying to emulate something specific, or did you just decide that would be a cool way to do it?

Joven: Yeah, me and Danny like the over sized European format, the HEAVY METALs, the Humanoids [publisher] books, all those. Also, it’s like a financial thing. If you print that magazine size it’s gonna be more cost effective than if you’re bugging [the printer] for a custom comic book size.

CV: Is it really? I never knew that.

Joven: It’s this weird thing. You’re gonna use more paper, but they’re gonna charge you less.

CV: Good thing for people to keep in mind if they’re trying to print their own comic.

Joven: Yeah, so magazine size, then booklet size. Those are the financially…for us…feasible options right now.

Covers for THE CULT HOUSE series by artist Daniel Ramirez

CV: When you’re writing THE CULT HOUSE, are you trying to draw from any particular myth or folklore, like the HELLBOY books, or are you just going with whatever you think will make a good story?

Joven: HELLBOY is our defining influence, yeah. A lot of it is…we just published number 4, and a lot of it draws on Mexican horror stories. A lot of it is just trying to put a different spin so it’s not cultural imperialism of their stories, so we don’t have, like, a western protagonist destroying these Mexicans monsters. It’s something he has to navigate, something he has to actually consult the people who belong to the culture for.

CV: When you’re writing a book like that, is it difficult to balance the horror element with the action element?

Joven: I mean, it’s not something I think about straight from the get-go, but then when you’re going through a series of revisions, you’re like this fight scene is going on too long, there’s too much of this monster in one page. You get a feel for how your balance should be.

CV: One thing I’ve come to admire about you as an independent creator is your work ethic. You are a hustler. I see you at every convention. What advice would you give to independent creators about getting themselves out there?

Joven: Be realistic. There’s that advice “shoot for the stars…you’ll inevitably land amongst them.” The other side of that is you’re gonna be drifting through space with no oxygen. Be realistic, pick your battles. Like I did not pick my battle well [by going to a recent convention]. I had no air. Be realistic with your expectations, make the work, and be open to criticism.

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CV: You’re also someone who, when you’re at a con, you’ve got print copies on hand, but you also make your work readily available digitally. Do you have a preference on print versus digital?

Joven: I mean, digital is very democratic now, so printing…you have to consider your financial burdens. I definitely prefer print. I love having the thing in my hand, but there are a lot of people who…digital is the only way they can consume comics right now. There’s nothing wrong with that…Mark Waid and a lot of other big names believe in it. Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin have their website. I think that is the future, but print…is just gonna be print.

CV: Do you have a personal thought on what the state of independent comics is currently?

Joven: Image is…I don’t really read these articles breaking down market shares and all that stuff…but I’ll scroll by these headlines that are like “Image increases its market share for this month.” They’re doing their thing…publishers are more emboldened…I think the undercurrent is they’re more emboldened to take risks on new properties because they want to spin them for movies or TV or whatever, but it is feeding [the] indie comics scene, so take your blessings where you can get them.

“That’s a hot cover”-a person at Flame Con (art by Dante Crayton)

CV: Do you have a personal favorite thing that you’ve written or something that you’ve done that you would recommend to anyone who wants to check out your work should check out?

Joven: I was at Flame Con last week…and this person comes by my table and they point at BATTLE BUG #3 and they were like “that cover is really hot.” And I’m like, “yo, this cover!” Like, this is the first BATTLE BUG I was like, super proud of. I still think, like, the jokes and the juxtaposition of comedy and action and the way we take down a certain stereotype about Asian people.

CV: It’s the one where he’s fighting the Ming the Merciless spoof, right?

Joven: Yeah, that’s the one. That’s…the first BATTLE BUG where I felt like “you guys gotta read this.” I also pitch it like you can read it in any order, and I was like “read number three!”

If you want to check out Joven Tolentio’s comics BATTLE BUG and THE CULT HOUSE, check out Hijack Press’ website or Taptastic. You can also follow him on tumblr for updates on both books.

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