One of the things I was pretty lucky with a couple years ago was GoComic’s contests. Back before they changed the way they handle entries, I was able to win at least 5 signed prints from different strips. One of the prints was used at the San Diego Comic Con in 2013, and was signed by the writer, John Lustig. I had been reading Last Kiss for close to 2 years by that point, so I was pretty happy to get that print. I ran an article about it on one of my other blogs and mentioned it to John. He then mentioned me on his blog. He’s a really nice guy that way. He agreed to be interviewed here, too. Really, he’s a nice guy.
BC: Who are you?
JL: John Lustig—“Comic book genius.” And it must be true because that’s what it says on my business card. I’ve written comics and humor for Disney, Viz, Marvel and others. Mostly these days, I concentrate on my own series—a webcomic called “Last Kiss.”
JL: It’s a strange series. I take vintage romance comic book art and replace all the old dialogue with humorous, often-risque quips. I mostly do Last Kiss as a one-panel comic. But I’ve done longer, multi-panel Last Kiss stories and even entire comic books in the past.
BC: What personal details do you want to give away?
JL: I was born in Seattle (1953) where I grew up in a rain puddle and still live. Before comics, I was a newspaper writer, editor, and columnist.
JL: Besides Last Kiss, I’m probably best known for all the Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, DuckTales and Mickey Mouse comics I wrote for decades for Disney.
JL: As for Last Kiss, that began back in 1987 when Charlton Comics was going out of business and selling off the rights to the last of its series. Thinking it’d be fun to re-dialogue some old comics, I looked for a series with the most issues for the most meager amount of money. I ended up buying a romance series called First Kiss (40 issues!) sight unseen for $400.
JL: It took me a few years, though, to figure out an approach to re-writing the material and actually find a market for it.
BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
JL: I’m a writer. But I often pretend to be an artist—even though I can’t draw anything. (Not even a check!)
JL: Over the years, though, I’ve taught myself Photoshop and other graphic programs. And so I spend insane amounts of time tweaking art—cleaning up images; modifying color; lettering new dialogue; erasing unwanted details; and adding new, sometimes-bizarre backgrounds. In short, just about everything that doesn’t require real drawing skill.
JL: At first I was just using the line art from First Kiss and when I needed it colored, I’d do it myself. But I later hired artists (Allen Freeman, Diego Jourdan Pereira and others) because they were faster and much better than me. That’s when color became a regular part of Last Kiss.
JL: Eventually, I also started using public domain comic book art. To get clean copies, I hired Diego, Allen and later Dan McConnell and Elite Avni-Sharon to redraw the old art for me. (Have I mentioned lately that I can’t draw? Not even a black hole in the dark!) To the best of my knowledge, none of them are doing webcomics of their own or assisting on any other webcomics, though.
JL: Because I license a lot of my Last Kiss panels for greeting cards and other merchandise, it’s been important to have clean, attractive art. And working with artists and using different genres of comics has really opened up what I can do.
BC: How did you get your start as a writer?
JL: I first tried to break into comics at Marvel when I was in high school. But I did it completely ass backwards. I took a Dr. Doom story written by Gerry Conway in Astonishing Tales #4 and re-dialogued it. Then I got my high school girlfriend (later my wife) Karen Lavik to re-letter the comic for me and then I mailed the whole comic to Marvel.
JL: This was wrong on so many levels. And my dialogue was horribly, embarrassingly over dramatic. So, of course, Marvel rejected it. Very gently and politely, I might add.
JL: Looking back, though, I’m astonished that the first script I ever did was very much in the Last Kiss mode in that it involved me taking an existing comic and re-writing the dialogue.
(What the ^%$# was I thinking?!!)
JL: As for actual success? Well, my first break came in 1977 (my last year in college). I read in Writer’s Market that Gold Key Comics (Western Publishers) was looking for writers. So I contacted Gold Key and was given a chance to write a Daffy Duck story.
JL: I sold the story and I was ecstatic. But shortly after that I got my first newspaper job and it was almost 10 years before I had the time (and energy) to write comics again.
BC: What do you think your biggest breaks were?
JL: Definitely a big break came in 1986 when I was at the San Diego Comic Con (now Comic-Con International). I was trying to break back into comics and I stopped at the Blackthorne table. The editor’s eyes lit up when I told him I was a former reporter and editor.
“Why… then you can spell,” he said excitedly.
(To this day, I’m not sure if he was joking.)
“How would you like to work on one of these,” he asked, pointing towards a couple of rip offs (I mean “homages”) of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
JL: I really wanted to write comics again, but the thought of doing a TMNT-homage (I mean “rip off”) made my brain hurt.
“Uh, sure—I guess I could,” I said. Then I spotted an issue of Nervous Rex on Blackthorne’s table. “But, uh… gee, I’d really rather work on something like this.”
JL: A gently funny series about a talking, hen-pecked tyrannosaurus, Rex was written and drawn by William (Bill) Van Horn. And—wonder of wonders—Bill was open to plot submissions.
JL: So, I wrote up some plots, submitted them and was thrilled when Bill bought two of them for what turned out to be the final issue of Rex.
JL: Despite my possibly killing off his series, Bill and I became good friends. So when he started writing and drawing Disney comics for Gladstone, he invited me to come along. With Bill’s encouragement and help, I wrote my first one-page Donald Duck comic and it was published in 1988. And that, in many ways, was the real start of my comics career.
JL: My other big break came in 1996 when I approached Comics Buyer’s Guide (CBG) with my first very crude samples of Last Kiss. Editor Maggie Thompson liked them and I started re-writing the old romance comics as spot comics for CBG. In 2000, Last Kiss became a full-fledged regular feature and ran in every issue of CBG through the paper’s demise in 2013.
JL: For many years CBG was widely read by both comic fans and professionals. Because of that I had a lot of exposure and that led to work at Viz and even a few scripts for Marvel as well as others.
JL: The [thing I did] for Marvel was very similar to what I do with Last Kiss. Marvel was taking some of its old romance comics and assigning different writers to re-dialogue them for laughs. I did three stories for the five issues of Marvel Romance Redux. I grew up loving Marvel. Stan Lee was my idol when I was a kid! So it was a hoot to finally be writing for the “House of Ideas.”
JL: The downside was that I was offered a horrible and frankly insulting page rate. Even though I had been writing comics for decades, I was offered Marvel’s “beginner rate” since I’d never worked at Marvel before. And – because I was “only” writing dialogue and the panel art already existed – I was only paid half the beginner rate. Given inflation, I actually made more per page writing that Daffy Duck story for Gold Key back in 1977.
I got to add Marvel to my credits and I got to re-dialogue art by Jack Kirby, Don Heck and Gene Colan. So, it was worth it to me for that alone!
BC: Ok, so what else led up to your starting Last Kiss?
JL: I just wanted to have some oddball fun. And you don’t get much more oddball than Last Kiss.
JL: Plus, with Last Kiss, I have more control over my work. Sometimes I start with an existing image and write some dialogue for it. Other times, I write some dialogue and find art to go with it. Either way, I’m in charge. Oh, and I love writing funny dialogue. In some ways, Last Kiss is pure dialogue.
BC: Which of your works are you most happy with, or proud of?
JL: Jeepers! (Pardon me for swearing.) How can I pick? I know. I’ll cheat and pick three favorites.
JL: The most fun I ever had on a project was on Ultra Maniac—a five-book series for Viz, I was hired to take the raw English translation of the Japanese graphic novels and re-write the dialogue so that it was smooth and funny.
JL: It was tremendous fun to just concentrate on coming up with funny dialogue. And it was challenging to do it in a way that remained true to the Japanese novels.
JL: My daughter, Caitie, actually got me that job. When she was in her teens, Caitie was a huge manga fan and often accompanied me to conventions. She hung out at the Viz booth in San Diego and got to know one of the editors—Eric Searleman—a bit. Apparently, she talked me up quite a bit because Eric got curious enough to find out more about me, liked my work and offered me the Ultra Maniac gig. If Caitie still had time to go to comic conventions – she’s busy getting her doctorate in Information Science – I’d no doubt get offered more work!
BC: When you were at Viz, did you meet Shaenon Garrity (Skin Horse)?
JL: I did meet Shaenon once very, very briefly, but not in connection with Viz.
JL: I’m also tremendously proud of many of the Disney stories I’ve written. Perhaps my favorite is “Romance at a Glance” a sort of love story gone wrong with Donald Duck competing in a male beauty pageant run by Daisy Duck’s women’s club. It features jealousy; ducky love; bad poetry; and lots of physical comedy. What more could you want?
JL: And, of course, I’m very pleased with many of the Last Kiss one-panel gags I’ve done—particularly the ones that have become images on merchandise and made me money!
BC: Do you have any paper or e-book collections on the market yet? Where can readers find them?
JL: Andrews McMeel’s Udig imprint did three small e-books featuring my Last Kiss one-panel gags. You can find them on Amazon.
JL: And I will definitely be coming out with some new collections in 2017. In the reprint category, first up will be a collection of my Last Kiss comic book series. Then I’ll put together a collection of my CBG comics.
BC: How do you approach those blank word balloons when you decide to start your next strip or panel?
JL: For Last Kiss, I’ll sometimes just look at an image and try to come up with something funny for the characters to say. But more and more I just start writing any phrase that pops into my head until I come up with something funny. Then I find an image that goes with the dialogue. And then, I’ll often go back and tweak the dialogue to take advantage of some aspect of the art.
BC: If Last Kiss had a soundtrack, what would it be?
JL: I think it’d be the sound of my head banging against my computer screen as I listen to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”
BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers?
JL: Oh, Jeepers! (Again.) I guess I’ll go with the comic giants—Carl Barks, John Stanley and Will Eisner. No dirt [on them]. But I did meet Will Eisner briefly. And I knew Carl Barks. In fact, I was able to spend a couple of days with him. Since his death, I’ve even gotten to finish the scripts on some of his uncompleted Disney duck stories. One of ’em just came out in IDW’s Uncle Scrooge #17.
BC: Any stories about Carl Barks you could relate here?
JL: The first time I ever met Carl was a few months after Carl’s 90th birthday. I’d written to Carl and he invited me and Bill Van Horn to come visit him in his home in Grant’s Pass. Our wives (Shelagh Lustig and Elaine Van Horn) went with us and spent most of their time hanging out with Carl’s wife Garé Barks.
JL: Carl was very diplomatic and never said anything truly negative about anyone at Disney or anyone doing Disney comics. Meanwhile, Garé was telling Shelagh and Elaine all the dirt that Carl wouldn’t tell us!
BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
JL: The first thing most people notice when they look at comics is the art. If it’s great art then you’re more likely to give it a chance.
JL: I suppose I’m no different. But for me to keep reading, the writing has to be clever and the characters interesting. I’m also drawn to experimental and innovative approaches. For example—although the art isn’t great—I think Scott Meyer’s Basic Instructions webcomic is brilliant, funny and totally unique.
BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
JL: I think having a strong viewpoint and interesting characters is important. And—despite all my harping on dialogue—knowing how to tell a story and understanding plot structure is crucial if you’re doing anything more than a one-panel gag.
JL: The most important thing I learned about writing comic books came from studying the stories of Carl Barks. The best of Carl’s plots were brilliant. Same with John Stanley’s and Will Eisner’s stories.
BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter?
JL: Not so far. But I’m sure I will—particularly Kickstarter when I go to print some collections.
BC: Do you have any projects coming up?
JL: I’m working on a Last Kiss coloring book. (Gorgeous art & risque humor—just add color.) I’m not ready to announce a publishing date yet. But it’s coming soon.
JL: I also recently did a story with artist Andrew Pepoy that will probably scorch a few eyeballs. Princess Passion is a romantic comedy involving burlesque dancers in 1950s Chicago. We don’t have a home for it yet. If we don’t find a publisher for it then it’ll go into one of the Last Kiss collections I’ll be working on when I finish up the coloring book.
BC: Appearances scheduled for conventions?
JL: I’ll have a table at GeekGirlCon here in Seattle on Oct. 8 & 9 2016.
I’ll be at The Northwest Press booth in Seattle during all four days of Emerald City ComicCon from March 2-5, 2017.
And I’ll be at the Prism Comics booth at Comic-Con International in San Diego from July 20-23.
(All Last Kiss and Princess Passion art is ©Last Kiss Inc. All other art is copyright the respective copyright holders.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)