TRIO: Even Better Featured Image

Your teen years can be wild times, so it helps to have friends to go through it with you. Such is the case in TRIO: AN ORIGIN STORY, the new novel from webcomic writer/artist James Hatton. For the tale’s protagonist, Jean, her group of friends become all the more important when all three develop super powers.

In 2004, Hatton began his webcomic series IN HIS LIKENESS. It depicted God as a solid black dot and reveled in the rather benign aspects of being a deity. Over the next six plus years, the strip grew increasingly complex as gods, new and old, the Devil, and other ageless beings joined the cast. Then, in 2011, the strip’s universe literally and figuratively grew infinitely large until we were back at the beginning, face-to-face with our black dot Lord.

After that, Hatton pursued a variety of creative interests including his long running podcast the Something Something Cast and writing what would become TRIO. Released this week on the Kindle, TRIO highlights Hatton’s skill for finding depth and complications in situations that initially present as quiet and typical. This time, he focuses on the three friends—Jeanette, Tyler and Matt—and their small Ohio town. Soon, the people and the town itself prove to be anything but average or harmless.

TRIO: James Hatton, gives god face
The author shows us one of his good sides. He has three. (Courtesy of James Hatton)

ComicsVerse: Just to begin with, since this is a brand new property, can you introduce the world of TRIO? Where does the story unfold? How closely does the world resemble our own? How does it differ?

James Hatton: The whole of the story takes place in a small and sleepy Ohio town where everybody knows each other just enough to have an opinion on it. I’d like to think the world itself resembles ours, although there are aspects of some of the adults in the story that feel like they’re right out of an 80’s teenage cold war story like WARGAMES or the MANHATTAN PROJECT because the few adults that appear are very much a part of that era and the things that ultimately happen to our heroes are relics from then.

CV: Tone-wise, how does the world of TRIO “feel”? What kind of attitude/vibe do you think permeates the text?

James: Since Trio is almost entirely from the perspective of the protagonist Jean, and she is a booksmart young woman, I wanted her attitude to be conveyed and shape the text. When she’s freaking out, I hope the audience is freaking out a little. When she loves someone, I want you to love them too. There is this bigger backdrop of how they all got superpowers, but the crux of the story is the relationships of Jean, Tyler, and Matt.

So, yes, it is a story about superpowers, but I wanted it to feel a lot more like how Spidey’s school day was going rather than him flying over New York City.

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CV: Moving from the wider world to the specific, can you introduce us to the characters the story revolves around?

James: I sure can. The three main characters are Jean, Tyler, and Matt.

Jean and Tyler are best friends and have been since childhood. Where Jean is closed off and tends to be an introvert, Tyler is really well-liked by a lot of people and goes out of his way to make friends. Jean’s family life was idyllic. Tyler’s family is beyond broken, and it is that brokenness that permeates almost every word out of his mouth. Both of them are waiting patiently for them to graduate and run away from this town as quickly as possible, but for entirely different reasons.

The last member of the crew is Matt, who is the new kid and who really gets the story going. Jean likes him because he’s smart and smooth. Tyler likes him because he knows Jean likes him, but of course when you are dealing with this sort of story, I hope you can already sense where some of the tensions may lie.

CV: Without getting too detailed or spoiler-y, are there any other important characters you’d like to tease out to make sure readers keep an eye out for them–either for plot reasons or the supporting player who just really stole your heart?

James: I would definitely say to pay attention to the parents. They aren’t all good people, but I really did my best to make sure it didn’t feel like the three of them–it’s hard to not say Trio all the time–weren’t at all connected to their families. There is a moment early on in the story that made me take pause and really understand the relationship between Jean and her father. In that one moment, I knew everything I needed to know about how Jean views this one character in particular, and it was because of this moment that was painted wholly by how she sees her father act. I really did my best to make those connections feel legitimate, so I’d definitely say to keep an eye out for how the parents act because the parents really helped me understand some of the decisions the heroes make.

TRIO: Bigger Full Cover
The TRIO: AN ORIGIN STORY cover hints at the three friends’ powers. (Courtesy of James Hatton)

CV: If I may make a perhaps obvious observation, TRIO is about the world beneath the world the characters know, literally. However, is it too far to say that this is also a metaphorical theme of the story?

James: Oh, very much so. Physical secrets beneath the town, secrets buried in the history of the town, a couple other “beneaths” I really don’t want to spoil: there is a real case to be made about the metaphor of the story being about what is going on beneath the surface of everything. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that “nothing is as it seems” but I would definitely say that there are always things guiding what you see.

CV: I noticed a heavy element of post-World War II America in the underground world as well, with the bunkers and the appearance of a certain 50’s icon. Does that era of America hold a particular attraction or revulsion to you? How do you think, if at all, it informs the story of TRIO?

James: I would definitely say there is an attraction from a storytelling point of view. The first part of the Cold War was going on while the media portrayed America as this perfectly shiny, idyllic place, but everyone was worried about being ratted out as a Communist supporter. Then the last part, in the 80s, we had “won” but still there was all of this technological advance just so we could spy on spies spying. There’s just a lot in there that’s rife with places to find seeds to turn into stories, which definitely informed at least one of the major threads of TRIO.

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CV: There are advantages and disadvantages to every storytelling approach. For you, what made prose, as opposed to comics or screenplay for instance, the best way to realize this story?

James: I did webcomics for years, and that’s a very specific way to tell a story. My comic, IN HIS LIKENESS, was a gag a strip sort of thing, so there was a definite pattern to follow. After a long time, I got pretty used to it. I’ve written for years, but never a full novel before. It definitely is a different beast altogether. There were multiple spots in writing it where I knew what had to happen in the near future… but not yet.

Figuring out those blank spots was the biggest challenge, while also trying to stay true to it being a comic book story. It’s called AN ORIGIN STORY for a reason, to at least suggest that there is a comic element to it. I don’t know if this story would feel right as a comic, but I hope when you are done, you could see how these characters could end up in one.

CV: As you began to write TRIO, did the story surprise you at all? Did it take you down avenues you didn’t expect? How, as a writer, do you balance your desire to keep to the original idea with the unexpected places characters pull us?

James: Somewhere, in an alternate universe, this book has an entirely different ending.  I hit one of those stumbling blocks I mentioned and it really was the moment I had been dreading where I would be doing something really mean to one of the characters. I have read “how to write” books and heard author friends talk about that moment where the characters are out of your hands; you just have to transcribe what they do. I understood that idea, but always sort of thought of it as just getting into the writing zone where you see the next few beats pretty clearly so there isn’t a lot of effort.

Well, confronted with a moment in the story that would have made it a very different final act, I stalled for probably near a week.  Then, and I swear this is completely true, I had a dream about the characters and saw a different way for things to unfold. I don’t know what day-old Chinese food triggered that, but over the next few days I went back a few chapters, re-looking at whether or not the chess pieces in play would move how I needed them to, and they did pretty easily.  I hope I have that experience again, as it was really liberating to know that, even asleep, I was trying to work through the puzzle.

TRIO: In His Likeness
A portion of IN HIS LIKENESS’s conclusion (Courtesy of James Hatton)

CV: In considering the audience for this book, whom can you imagine embracing it? What kind of reader is going to fall in love with TRIO?

James: I won’t lie. I don’t know. I do know it is a book I would want to read. I’d like to believe that it fits the “New Adult” category of people who have just stepped out of “Young Adult” and want to see characters with at least a little bit more reality to the way they handle things, but that’s the answer of someone who tried to narrow down a genre to market it as.

In reality, it was inspired quite a bit by Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS in simply how he allowed his characters to be off-color if it felt like the right moment to be off-color and for there to be a sexual relationship without it feeling like it needed to be a determining factor in driving the characters. If that sounds good to you, TRIO should be your jam.

CV: Last, but certainly not least, go over my head to speak directly to the fans. What two or three sentence elevator pitch would you give them to let them know TRIO is something they won’t want to miss?

James: Hi there. Ignore the dapper man asking these questions and answer me this. Have you ever thought about having superpowers and recognized that they would get in the way of your homework or day job? Three teenagers in in the middle of small-town Ohio, through a series of increasingly strange events, find themselves caught up in a decades-old conspiracy that results in them getting superpowers. With their home lives unraveling and their friendships strained, they need to figure out if they even want great power, let alone great responsibility.

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