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DF Interview: Josh Blaylock partners with Assemble Media to bring Mercy Sparx to Hollywood
By Byron Brewer
Writer Josh Blaylock is joining forces with Assemble Media to produce an adaptation of his Devil’s Due Publishing comic book series, Mercy Sparx. The venture will see the title character making appearances across media platforms: film, television and digital.
Blaylock founded the publishing company in 2000 and co-created Mercy Sparx with Matt Merhoff in 2008. So far, the comic has published more than 20 issues, all of which are collected in a 400-page omnibus. After an extended hiatus, Blaylock announced last summer that the series will be returning to print this year.
DF wanted to know more about the development of this comics character, and so we sat down with Mercy’s co-creator and writer, and founder of Devil’s Due, Josh Blaylock.
Dynamic Forces: Josh, tell us what you can about the coming development of your comics character Mercy Sparx into a property for film, television and other media. How did this come about?
Josh Blaylock: I’m very excited to be working with the Assemble Media team. We’ve had about a dozen film development deals in the past, mostly representing other comic creators, some with books I co-created, but never with my own character. It’s an exciting feeling, even for a hardened comic vet like me.
I met Assemble principal Jack Heller through a longtime colleague/film producer, Daniel Alter (Hitman: Agent 47), a couple years back, and appreciated the company’s straight-forward approach to developing films. Hollywood, and entertainment in general, is in such a period of massive upheaval, with streaming apps, major studio acquisitions, you name it. I like working with producers who have the flexibility to package a show at a big studio or network as well as their own means of financing on an independent level, which is what they’ve done successfully more than once.
At that time, Brawl in Cell Block 99 hadn’t come out yet, but I really enjoyed Bone Tomahawk, a western horror film of sorts, that took some chances with the genre and scored a real creative win. With Brawl, I appreciated the way they handled the marketing – building it around Vince Vaughn’s 180 degree turn from his usual roles, and marketing it to all of these indie film festivals that normally don’t get that kind of gritty genre submitted. It just showed a sense of thinking outside the box. Mercy Sparx will be a very different film than both of those, but it’s about the way they think. Jack also has an understanding of the craft from a creative level as a director, such as in the sci-fi thriller Dark Was the Night with Kevin Durand.
DF: Can you tell readers about how this development will first manifest itself? At least in these early planning stages, what medium is being talked about for introducing Mercy Sparx first? What will your role be?
Josh Blaylock: We’re working on the script at the moment, but keeping options open for film, TV, and maybe even a mixture of the two. There’s a lot you can do with the way the media landscape is changing. I’m not involved in the day to day, but the overall plot and approach, I’m very involved in, and will be working from a basic co-producing or EP role, depending on a lot of variables. There’s already been a lot of great buzz, and we’ve even come close to some major talent jumping on board, but bigger fish scooped them up. It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions when that happens, but it’s encouraging because it shows the excitement for the project. And no, I can’t tell readers who they were.
DF: Talk if you would about your founding of Devil’s Due, its trials and tribulations, and where it is now as a publishing entity.
Josh Blaylock: Man, to do that we’d have to go back almost 20 years. I started self-publishing my own comics a few months after graduating high school, both drawing and writing, while attending art school for graphic design and building a commercial art portfolio. Those were small runs, and black and white, but they were nationally distributed and it was my other education outside of school. Shortly after a two-year stint at Cincinnati Academy of Design, I fell into the world of brand licensing (for apparel, accessories, and merchandise) which taught me what I needed to know to approach Hasbro three years later. I targeted the beloved but all but dormant G.I. Joe brand.
I formed Devil’s Due in 2000, and had been publishing comics for four years by then, as well as building a commercial art business. It’s a long story, but I secured the G.I.Joe rights in a three-year comic book license, then a deal with Image Comics (which lasted for about two years before going independent), and it was a monster hit. It was the first time anyone had brought back a major ‘80s toy/cartoon/comic property and the market was caught off guard. It started an ‘80s craze, and we quickly secured several other licenses and publishing partners. Voltron, Micronauts, Street Fighter (with Udon Studios), Chucky, Family Guy, Jericho… and we even published the first-ever Dynamite comic, Army of Darkness. We created as many G.I. Joe comics as Marvel did in their 12-year run, but in seven years.
People forget, but times were really tough for the comic industry then, following Marvel’s troubles, and all of that ‘80s hype brought thousands of “prodigal” readers back into the comic shop “direct market,” who then jumped on board titles they had walked away from years before.
We also produced a ton of great, original titles including Hack/Slash by Tim Seeley and Stefano Caselli and Drafted with Mark Powers. It was a pretty wild ride. Things got really difficult in the late 2000s when IDW outbid us for the Hasbro license, the economy crashed, we were corporate raided by a couple of individuals from the inside. Nightmare corporate sh*t all around. It’s still a hole that in some ways we’re digging out of, but at the very end of 2012 I relaunched the brand with a new focus on creator-owned material, made crowdfunding part of our publishing formula, and embraced the (at that time) new explosion of comic-cons across the continent.
I embraced some untraditional formats, starting with a collaboration with legendary indie rapper Murs for our hardcover graphic novel/music album combo, Yumiko: Curse of the Merch Girl, picked up web comic Plume for print release, and began signing other titles on board. But one thing I did NOT expect was a clamoring for me to pick up where I left of with a miniseries that I didn’t realized had such a passionate following: Mercy Sparx. That’s a really great feeling, knowing that it was brought back for genuine fan demand.
Now we have one of the most diverse lines of titles and genres in the indie game, including titles like Squarriors (sci-fi/anthropomorphic), Final Street (Action, nostalgia satire), Lord of Gore (murder mystery/thriller), Operation Nemesis (WWI espionage thriller based on a true story), and more.
As far as all of this movie stuff goes, this is sort of our second wave of coming to Hollywood, but it’s from a much more grounded, experienced approach. We actually had a major Hollywood presence in the past, with about a dozen different deals, and projects with a lot of recognizable names like Lorenzo DeBonaventura, Milo Ventimiglia, Mike DeLuca, Alexandra Milchan, Taylor Laughtner, Hayden Penatierre and had agreements with every house from Sony and ABC to Starz and Fox.
I enjoy it much more now. Now there are less layers involved in between me and the production companies. More access to companies with their own financing. It helps us to steer our creations and to protect the vision of both my own creations and those of the creators whose comics we publish.
DF: How did you come to create Mercy Sparx?
Josh Blaylock: It started from a simple sketch I drew while a little bored and slightly hungover (which is pretty much Mercy’s normal resting state) Sunday afternoon at Orlando Megacon in 2005.
I was on a psychobilly kick (listening to bands like the Horror Pops, Tiger Army and the Reverend Horton Heat) and just started drawing a classic red devil girl like you’d see on a hot rod bumper sticker. But I wanted to give it a twist, so she had a giant feather in her mouth and was spinning a halo on her finger, having obviously just tussled with an angel. Inspiration came when drawing her tattoos. Unlike most tattooed rockabilly punkers, it seemed a little redundant to give her devil and demon tattoos. Instead her rebel streak would call for lots of angels, harps and crosses. That’s where the basic concept of Mercy came from, and the idea of making her an unorthodox ally of the “good guys.”
Her first appearance wouldn’t happen in comics for a few years, but, and this is ironic, I created it as the one title that would not concern itself with what Hollywood wanted. We had a satellite office in LA, and were being repped by William Morris Agency, and I was just inundated with a ton of film projects not going anywhere, screenplays people wanted turned into comics, and sitting through a lot of pointless meetings with studio execs. I needed a catharsis.
At that time there wasn’t quite the love for big, epic, supernatural series like today, especially not with the humorous vibe I threw in. This is back when a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer had just started to pave the way.
I wasn’t sure if I’d draw the book or not, but just in case, it had to contain everything I loved, and would never get bored with. Supernatural themes, crazy looking monsters, angels vs. demons, punk rock devil girls, dive bars, “real” characters that felt like people you actually know, cat fights, lots of humor, lots of music subculture influence, excuses to jump from a mash-up of punk backdrops to indie hip hop to rockabilly to metal, and above all, stories that would appeal to a diverse mix of people.
DF: For those living under a rock (you know who you are), tell us: Who is Mercy Sparx?
Josh Blaylock: Mercy Sparx is a devil girl who hunts down rogue angels for Heaven. She lives amongst us on Earth, disguised as a human, basically doing Heaven’s dirty work. Helping her clean up these messes that the powers-that-be don’t want anyone to know about is her roommate/sidekick/best friend, Hank. He’s a brilliant guy who dropped out of a prestigious tech college, preferring to put his energy into collecting obscure metal and punk vinyl, playing in bands and drinking lots of beer. He finally finds a way to apply his talents when Mercy appears, helping her create gadgets to combat her holy targets.
When you really get into the story, she’s not technically a demon, and she’s not from Hell, she’s from the Old Testament underworld of Sheol. It’s not Hell, not Purgatory, nor Heaven. It’s where you go when you fall through the cracks of the divine, and in my universe, there’s a whole world of creatures living there. She’s abducted from Sheol by the fearsome Mr. Suit, a 9-foot-tall demon with a great sense of fashion, and wakes up on Earth with a handy new ability to disguise herself as a human woman. She receives her orders from Suit, must report her results to the Pastor of a large evangelical church, and spends all of her time in between trying to do as little as possible, usually drinking and chain smoking to distract herself from it all.
It starts off very tongue in cheek, and then expands into a very big world with a diverse cast of characters.
When you get into the deeper themes that resonate, it’s about a person caught in the system, between two huge rival bureaucracies, just trying to get through life. A common theme in my work in hindsight.
DF: Talk about your longtime teaming with artist Matt Merhoff.
Josh Blaylock: Matt Merhoff is an amazing talent, and he should already be one of the most popular artists in comics. Ironically, Matt originally responded to a talent search we held to find an artist, and I passed on him. Our editors at the time were not so dense, fortunately, and hired him for a one-shot special - Hack/Slash vs. Chucky, and he just crushed it. I still love the art in that issue all these years later. I went back and brought him in for the series and he stayed on for years. Matt recently went on to do some work for DC, Coffin Comics, and others, and isn’t currently drawing the series, but he’s doing covers and always somehow involved.
Having the fortune of being able to draw at a professional level, just at a much inferior level than the mighty Merhoff, it was important to me to design all of the main characters, and put a lot into building the world. But Matt took it and ran with it more than I ever could’ve hoped for, so at this point he’s like Mercy’s second Dad. Okay, she kind of does have two dad’s in the comics, so that’s weird, but… oops, spoilers!
DF: Will this new partnering with Assemble Media mean anything new for Mercy’s comic book life?
Josh Blaylock: I hope so! First off, it’s great to have so much back story content. Four volumes, an omnibus, and a who’s-who style one-shot called Who the F*¢k?!, so people can jump in and binge. Oh, and 20(ish) back issues that aren’t very easy to find!
As far as new content, we were already planning the release of issue #13, starting with a big Kickstarter promotion later this month, introducing the talented Claudio Avella. Claudio brings an awesome Tank Girl kind of energy to the series. It’s completely different than Matt’s style, and you can’t really compare the two. He loves working on the character, and I hope he stays with us for a while.
Our coloring team of Greg & Fake studio is back for colors, as is Micah Myers for letters, and the super prolific and talented Pat Shand has come on board as my co-writer. I’ve never had one on Mercy Sparx before, but he understood her voice from day one, and having the help is going to hopefully allow us to get out more comics. We’re also kicking around ideas for some spin-offs. Possibly about the fan favorite occult master Wallace Bordeaux.
DF: Josh, aside from the fantastic development news we’ve discussed, what else is up for you as a creator?
Josh Blaylock: More than there has been in quite some time! One of my goals is to produce more of my own content (vs. simply publishing others) in 2019 and 2020, and so far I’m on track.
I’m co-writing Encoded with Mark Powers (former Devil’s Due senior editor/Marvel X-Men editor, co-creator of Drafted, Dresden Files comics for Dynamite). It’s a sci-fi concept I created and asked Mark to come in on, which turns the classic Artificial Intelligence “singularity” story on its head. It asks, what if the AI wasn’t the “Bad Guy” like Skynet (it simply ignored us, and this drove people crazy). It was instead the “John Connors” and “Neos” who were in the wrong. However they still succeeded in bringing the network down in the 2050s, leaving thousands of sentient robots across the world now cut off from their literal God. The story focuses on an elite task force of human and robot mercenaries, whose purpose is to defend the world, a decade later, from the threat of new, truly dangerous forms of corrupted AI on the brink of gaining sentience, and those (both human and machine) who would threaten the delicate power balance that’s kept the world at peace for the past decade.
I’m also deep in development on a new title called ArkWorld, which is my love letter to alternative ancient history, the lost city of Atlantis, and the idea that human civilization goes back much, much farther than we think. It flirts with ancient alien lore but with a stronger focus on what happened before a major cataclysm set our society back thousands of years, and the people who’ve managed to keep it all together, even if just barely, in order to help civilization re-emerge. It takes place partly 13,000 years ago, in a world that was much more advanced that we have been told, partly during what we currently call the Neolithic era (about 8,000 years ago), and partly in the present.
If I find the time, I’d like to get another issue of Igloo Barbecue together, a comic that both embraces and makes fun of the experience of being a comic book creator, attending comic-cons, surreal interactions with Hollywood, and satires the industry at large.
Other than that, most of my time is still spent managing the company’s day to day, and I’m working on catching up from the holiday break, finishing some scripts and character designs, and announcing some new titles we’re excited to have recently signed.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Josh Blaylock for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Stay tuned to DF News for more on the multi-media development of Mercy Sparx!
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