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Fanboy Comics Interviews A.R. Witham, Creator of ‘Black Jack’

The following is an interview with Emmy-winning author A.R. Witham, creator of the new animated novel, Black Jack. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon chats with Witham about the inspiration for his moving novel, the design of the story and how it is enhanced when read through an iPad, and more!

Barbra J. Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: Your new animated novel, Black Jack, is truly an innovative approach to the sequential art medium.  What can you tell us about the story and its characters?

A.R. Witham: Sure!  Black Jack for the iPad is a little bit of Young Sherlock Holmes meets Doctor Who — adventure, humor, excitement, and a lot of mind-blowing cliff-hangers.  Your hero is Jack Swift, a teenage genius with a photographic memory who witnesses the death of his father.  Jack keeps seeing the memory over and over in his mind until it nearly destroys him, and his perfect memory becomes a source of endless torment.

Then, one night, he is kidnapped by a monster to a strange land and sucked into a whirlwind of warring factions led by seven dangerous knights who guard the borders between their world and ours, and everyone wants to use Jack’s amazing mind for their own purposes.

Jack is a trapped a world of magic that wants to destroy him, and the story revolves around how he uses his intellect to combat the supernatural with science.  

BD: What can you tell us about the characters in the book?

ARW: The fun part about the story is that it came as a challenge from some of my friends to take the familiar tale of the hero born with special powers and flip it bottoms-up: take a hero with no magic gifts and drop him into a world where everyone else has the power—all Jack has is his big, fat brain.  To me, that’s where we all start off as children: powerless in a world of giants.  But, little by little, we learn to outsmart the adults we can’t overpower.  From that perspective, it is an extremely satisfying experience to witness Jack use only his wits to survive.

My readers have voiced a lot of strong (and frankly enthusiastic) support for several of the main characters, particularly Valerian Tsai, the veteran knight sworn to protect Jack, Django Barón, the minotaur who suspects Jack has a deeper secret, and Fuji the Tam, the little lizard-creature that everyone underestimates until Jack discovers what’s hidden beneath that innocent face.

I’m a big fan of supporting characters, because good dialogue is the cornerstone of a good book, and you can’t do great dialogue without great characters.  Everyone has their own objective, including Jack, and when those objectives all work together, it makes for some strange and wonderful bedfellows.

BD: Digital comics have become the new frontier in the comic book industry, and the concept of your Moving Novel will be intriguing to many.  What inspired you to create Black Jack as a Moving Novel for the iPad, and what makes the project unique?

ARW: Yeah, when the iPad first came out, I saw people releasing all kinds of book apps, but all of them were storybooks for children, and I thought, “Why should kids have all the fun?”  So, I dusted off an old manuscript, called some artists, and went to work.  Basically, I thought, “If no one else is going to do this, it’s gonna have to be me.”  The iPad is such an amazing playground for storytelling, and to me, Black Jack is the best long-form use of the technology yet written.

What makes it unique?  Nothing like it has ever been done.  The book cover is black leather lit by firelight, the text appears like magic, clouds drift across the page to make it feel like you’re reading outside, full-screen animations pop up unexpectedly, crickets chirp during the evening scenes, faeries float over the parchment while magic is in the air, and when it snows in the story, it snows on the screen.  Plus, like 250 other amazing effects.  The trick for us was to find the delicate balance between cool stuff that gives you an endorphin rush every 8 pages or so, but to keep it subtle enough so that it never gets in the way of reading the story.  That was the most difficult balance to strike, but in the end we built something that pulls you all the way into the world you’re discovering and really brings it to life.

BD: It is certainly not uncommon these days for individuals to have an iPhone, iPad, or an iPodTouch (or one of each!).  For those individuals who may be a bit behind the times, will it still be possible to fully enjoy Black Jack as it was intended?

ARW: Currently, Black Jack is exclusive to the iPad iOS platform.  We will expand out to other tablets if the book performs well, but it seems unlikely we will ever make the book available on smartphones – the effects are too subtle for so small a medium.  We want Black Jack to retain that big, beautiful feel you get out of a 9”x7” screen that allows for complete immersion.  For those of you who haven’t read Black Jack yet, the best possible experience is reading it in bed with the lights off.  The app builds an environment around you that sweetens the reading experience considerably.

BD: Do you feel that Black Jack is accessible for all audiences?

ARW: You know, it’s funny you should ask about that: it was a conscious decision during the writing process to build a story that had multiple layers.  For younger readers, the story is all running and fighting, and I made sure to keep the pace and tension at a high level throughout the story.  For more mature readers, however, there is a lot more built into the narrative.  I think all of us have felt lost and alone and desperate for answers at some point in our lives; it’s a common thread that binds humanity together.  Jack’s journey addresses those issues, and a 35 year old is going to recognize a lot of truth in the complications that go a long with those emotions, and the possible solutions to pain, loss, and fear, whereas a 12 year old might register all that on a subconscious level while just enjoying the action.

BD: As a multiple Emmy Award-winning writer, you have had quite a bit of experience working in film, television, radio, print, and advertising.  What have you enjoyed most about your experiences, and has it lent itself to your work on the Black Jack?

ARW: Every stage of the game for me has been a lot of fun, from Mean Guns with Christopher Lambert and Ice-T, to the days I was working on Cowboys & Aliens (which took 12 years to find its way to the big screen) and the Hogan’s Heroes movie script (which never got made at all).  Sean Cunningham (Friday the 13th) was a great collaborator, as were the producers at Paramount when I worked with them.  Movie scripts are great, but there’s a low chance they’ll ever see an audience, which is why commercials became so appealing – they almost always see air and do so pretty quickly.  But, novels are still the best.  They’re yours, all the way through, and you can spend the time you want with the characters you love.  There is no set time for a book to hit, so if I want to spend six chapters telling the story behind one moment of love & betrayal, I can do it.  Nothing beats that.

The thing that affected Black Jack most directly, though, was discovering a great animator in Ryan Wing and knowing that he could take the old-school Darrell K. Sweet-style art that James Mohan had created and make it come to life in majestic manner.  It was so cool to see the drawings in Chapters 1, 2, and 3 start moving for the first time—no book has ever done that before, and it really brings the emotion of the moment right to the front of your heart.

BD: As this is Fanboy Comics, would you like to “geek out” with us about your favorite comic books or graphic novels?

ARW: Heck yeah!  I’m a lifelong fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which changed the culture of what a comic book could be.  I’m also a big fan of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Joe Hill’s Locke & Key, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan series, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, and Alan Moore’s From Hell.  Everybody likes different stories (and that’s part of the fun), but if you haven’t read those series, pick them up and give them a shot.

BD: Lastly, where should our readers go to find more information about Black Jack and your other work?

ARW: Just download Black Jack in the iTunes store on your iPad.  From there, you can email me directly from the Menu of the book.  If you want to see the trailer or poke around through my blog entries, you can go to for all the details.  The first two chapters of the book are free, so you can get a feel for it before you decide if you want it.  (But, if you want the truth, Chapter 11 alone is worth the price of the whole book.)  Enjoy the read, and thank you!

Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief




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