Unlike many web comics that create whole new worlds and people to fill them, JL8 is a strip that focuses on characters we know and love: the Justice League. Except these versions of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Martian Manhunter and Power Girl are all pint-sized kids in elementary school. Originally “an idea born of necessity to keep my pencil moving” when creator/artist Yale Stewart was struggling to find reference material for another project (Gifted), JL8 celebrates it’s 100th strip today. No small feat for a web comic, but JL8 has garnered a very loyal fan following since the strip first appeared in November 2011. The familiarity of these characters was something Stewart considered before posting anything online.
“The Justice League consists of stronger archetypes [than other Superhero teams].” Stewart explains. “All those characters, people generally— and I don’t just mean comic fans, I mean people, period—have at least a base knowledge of. That lets you forego basic character development, like explaining who these people are. Everybody knows that Batman is a brooding, orphaned rich person. Everybody knows that Superman is essentially God on Earth, a space alien/person, so on and so forth.”
Tackling characters with so much history can be intimidating, especially a cherished team like the Justice League. So it’s a good thing that the way Stewart approaches JL8 makes it a little easier. “I think because I’m not a DC person, that kind of distance helps. Because I am a Marvel person and sometimes you can be a little too close to something. I almost know too much about those characters that it becomes a bit overwhelming. Arguably, my all time favourite character is probably Spider-Man and I’ve always thought if I could do my own Spider-Man comic— if Marvel let me do my own Spider-Man comic— what would I do? I always end up freezing up because, to me, since I know so much about the character, the possibilities are endless. Whereas with the DC characters, I can really only start off with what I know about them and then mould them however I see fit because there’s not that ‘Yellow Brick Road’ laid out for me that I can’t allow myself to wander from.”
Stewart’s kid versions of the Justice League are spot-on but that’s not something he takes credit for, citing the Justice League animated series as one source. “Bruce [Timm] and Paul [Dini] had to boil it back down to basics and then build from that. Justice League Unlimited was 24 episodes whereas with the comics you have 75 years of people, not getting further and further away from the core of those characters but you’re so deep into them, you don’t really quite get the essence anymore. Going back to Spider-Man because he’s a character I’m really familiar with; if you read a modern Spider-Man comic (and this isn’t saying they’re good or they’re bad) you don’t really get that vibe of that kind of outsider, neglected teenager anymore. Or the fact that he’s always a misfit. [With the]… Justice League cartoon, that kind of base level of who those characters are is really all I’m familiar with so it’s not like I did some awesome distillation, it’s just that’s all I know them as. I can’t really take some great credit for disassembling them.”
Other than the Justice League and Batman animated series’, Stewart’s comic book experience with DC has mostly focused on Batman (Year One, Long Halloween, Dark Victory) and classics like Kingdom Come. “Honestly I don’t really have that great of an idea of how they work as a unit, I’m sort of having to make that up as I go. I know that Barry and Hal are close friends and obviously you know the relationship between Clark and Bruce. How do they interact beyond those easy pairings? It’s been really fun for me to try and solve that problem, and people seem to like what I’m doing so I guess that’s good.”
With over forty thousand fans on Facebook and Tumblr re-blogs for all strips surpassing the hundred thousand mark, there’s no doubt that people like what Stewart is doing. I was introduced to the strip when someone tweeted strip #51 (pictured above). It was such a perfect, heartfelt scene that I immediately had to go back and read the rest of the series. That strip is one that really resonated with other fans as well, but Stewart was able to pinpoint some major bursts in fan following in JL8’s history. “I started in November and I was getting maybe 5 or 6 followers a week, nothing fancy. I was only putting one strip up per week and originally they were all in black and white: not really a recipe for success when it comes to web comic stuff. I was growing steadily and by the time I hit a 100 followers I thought that was a big deal. I was like ‘Holy Crap, 100 people like this.’
Then on my birthday last year (January 18, I remember this really vividly), was the day the Brooding Smorgasbord strip went up. It did whatever that day but the next day (January 19), I remember I was at work at my dad’s and we had a half-day there because it was so cold. So I came home and all of a sudden I had 275 followers. I literally had to do a double take. It turns out Kate Leth had re-blogged the Brooding Smorgasbord strip and by the end of the day I ended up with a total of about 515 followers or something like that. That was the first big one.
Then it started growing steadily but instead by like 10 followers a day. The next big one would have been the io9 article around Spring Break. I was working at Panera and at this point I had my tumblr linked to my email account so every time I’d get a new follower, I’d receive an email. I took my phone out on my lunch break to do whatever and I had a 100-something emails. I was like ‘What in the world is going on here?’ My buddy Sean was like ‘Do you realize you’re on the front page of io9?’ First of all, I don’t really know what that is and secondly, no. He told me what it was and he took a screen-cap of it and that day I got like… I’m not even sure how many more followers; it was in the thousands of readers. It was stupid how exponential the growth was with that.”
“The last really big one was unfortunate, but it was the shooting in Colorado. I did a tribute piece. Really it was just a way to cope myself and I’m a 9/11 kid so I was like 12 when I saw Marvel do the 9/11 issue of Spider-Man. So I was like I have to do a comic about Batman. It would be weird if I didn’t have something to say about it. So I decided to do that and that for all intents and purposes got 90,000 notes on Tumblr. By this time I was on the Facebook page and the Facebook page was kind of over passing the rate of the tumblr for how many readers were on it. I’m pretty sure I had about 5,000 new readers for that.”
After some thought, Stewart recalls another key moment. “I guess the other one would be the name change. Completely backwards from what I had anticipated.” Originally called Little League, Stewart changed the name to JL8 after being contacted by the Little League of Baseball and Softball. “I really thought that with the name change I would lose a lot of followers. So many of my readers went to bat to be like ‘Hey guys, the name is changing, make a note of it.’ Those are all the really, really big ones. I can think of other things that happened that were big deals for me personally, like the Neil Gaiman thing around Baltimore Comic Con. I guess that kind of drove some readership as well.”
Neil Gaiman made a surprise appearance in the strip as a bookstore owner who counsels Clark on the right gift to get Diana. It was an unexpected but fun cameo that got fans of Gaiman and JL8 chatting. “The minute I posted that first one where he appears people were tagging both of us on Twitter, talking to him but I could see how many people were tweeting him being like ‘hey, you’re in this thing!’ [Sic] I was like ‘Oh my god he’s going to be really upset because he’s going to be blown up by these messages.’ Then someone pointed out to me that he had re-blogged it. I was like; well I should say something to him. So I messaged him and was like ‘Hey, I’m really glad that you’re cool with your appearance in JL8.’ I just thought it was appropriate. I’m a big fan. He let me know that he was happy with it and he told me he went back and read all the rest of JL8 up until that point. That was a really big deal. I mean, he’s Neil Gaiman. Then he took the time to actually recommend some book choices to have his comic self recommend to Clark. Cause I figured I’ve got the guy on the phone… He was like, ‘Well, you know, Coraline. That or Anya’s Ghost.’ Anya’s Ghost sounded like it would be cool so I decided to go with that. I can now essentially say that I’ve collaborated with Neil Gaiman. And it gives me an excuse to actually go up and talk to him if I ever meet the guy in person.”
Though Stewart confirms that there are more guest appearances to come, he’s not spilling the beans on who we can expect to see in JL8 in 2013. “I’ve got a couple ideas… I’m not really sure if that’s how they’ll end up being executed but I definitely have thoughts for some.” As an average story arc can take months to complete, it may be some time before we see any of the special guests he alludes to today. Though surprisingly for a web comic, Stewart’s process is predominantly analog: penciling, inking and lettering everything on paper before adding any digital elements.
“I’ll usually write it by thumbing it out or doodling certain panels really loosely and then jigsaw-piecing them together. Kind of being like ‘this is how it works’ and then I’ll go in and fill in the dialogue. It’s a pretty straightforward approach. I’ll thumbnail it out then I’ll go to my drawing board and panel out the page. I’ll ink the panel borders before I start penciling because I feel that keeps the workspace a little bit neater and less cluttered. I’ll do super rough pencils just as placeholders then I’ll letter the strip because I do all the lettering by hand. Then I’ll go in and do tight pencils, though my equivalent of tight pencils is still pretty loose. I’ll ink it, I’ll do my spot blacks, then I’ll go in and do any white ink work that might be needed because I draw Bruce’s eyebrows and mask details in white ink. Then from there I scan it, colour it and finally I’ll add in that newspaper overlay and put it up. It’s pretty connect the dots, there’s no real willy-nillyness to it in any way.”
With more and more professional comic artists moving towards digital only, it’s refreshing to see a web-based series that shows such love for the historical method. “[When drawing digitally] you don’t have originals of the comic itself.” Stewart explains. “It’s nice to sell some originals. Original art just looks good man, but I mean, I’m not taking anything away from digital art because a lot of my friends are mainly digital people. There’s nothing wrong with it. But for me? Pencil on paper is just the way to go. I would certainly be willing to do digital stuff if it were just a quick thing I needed to get done. But in terms of personal project type things? Heck yeah. You can literally, objectively quantify it. You can look over and see a stack of Bristol however high and be like, ‘Yup, I did all that work.’ As opposed to looking at your storage space on your external hard drive and thinking, ‘I’ve produced like 9 gigs of work’ when you could just be saving those really, really big.”
JL8 is an achievement that could easily become part of the DC Universe canon, but despite “some chatter back and forth” between Stewart and DC, there’s “nothing really worth talking about” as of yet. “While it doesn’t make me directly any money, people do order commissions and stuff because of it. So I am able to completely support myself. If DC were to pick it up it, it would lessen the workload because I wouldn’t need to take as many commissions and could just focus on the strip, which would be nice. I mean I love doing commissions; [sic] that people like my art enough to want to have a custom piece. But sometimes I do find that I’m spending more time drawing commissions than drawing the actual strip.”
Thankfully for fans of JL8, Stewart is happy to continue doing what he’s doing for now. “I’m comfortable taking it as it comes. It would be really great to do it for DC, but I’m having more than enough fun just doing it the way that I’m doing it now.”