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DF Interview: Donny Cates, Eliot Rahal ensure superheroes make their Paybacks

By Byron Brewer

Heroism doesn’t come cheap, so when superheroes borrow money to finance their genetic enhancements or crime-fighting supercomputers, their debts make student loans look like IOUs! Enter the Paybacks, a repo squad composed of bankrupt former heroes here to foreclose on everybody’s secret lairs.

From writers Donny Cates and Eliot Rahal and artist Geoff Shaw comes a book as gripping as it is outrageous. Dynamic Forces spoke with both writers about this coming series, The Paybacks.

Dynamic Forces: Donny, Eliot, as if living life these days does not tell what inspired this superhero humor book ... ! But tell us how you took the repo men and put them in tights.

Donny Cates: As someone who went to college for a degree in Sequential Art at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD: if I keep plugging you like this, can we work something out with these loans? Call me.), debt is obviously a big issue for me. My wife and I both struggle with it and it just made sense for a book. And placing it in the world of Buzzkill was a no brainer. Buzzkill was a book with a big fun universe to explore. It was about a guy who wanted to be a hero, but the way he went about it, the modality that he accessed his powers (drinking and drugs) hobbled him and he had to pay for that. The same goes for our team of Paybacks here. Each of them just wanted to help, but are now paying for the mistakes they made early in their careers.

Eliot Rahal: Each member of the Paybacks has their own personal debts to pay -- just like we do. However, two things are constant. One: They all became superheroes because in their hearts they all want to do some good -- even the one the reader is purposefully not supposed to like (Night Knight). And two: We are catching our team in their second and third acts here. Their dreams of being a world respected hero have failed. Now they are living in the aftermath of that decision. OF COURSE THAT'S SUPER (no pun intended) HEAVY TO THINK ABOUT. That's why we cut the whole damn thing with some dark humor. Makes it easy to for the reader to swallow. Makes it easier for the characters living in the world. And it just makes it a hell of a lot of fun!

DF: The Paybacks is an ongoing, but will the issues be one-and-dones as with most humor books or, since the genre is superhero, will there be a thread of a story underlying these adventures?

Eliot: Oh, there is definitely a thread. I mean... It's like String Theory in this thing -- just full of threads. (Note: I don't actually know what String Theory is.) But yeah ... Donny and I are both HUGELY influenced by Joss Whedon. So there are future story lines being seeded during the present plot, and sometimes even the present plot isn't even the story that matters. We are spinning a lot of plates here. We put a lot of thought into everything because we want you to care about what's going on. Everything is on purpose -- even the terrible puns.

Donny: Absolutely. There is a mythology to this book that goes way deeper than the repo idea. To use Eliot’s comparison here: Buffy was always more than just the original pitch. That story grew into this monolith of endless potential that continues to this day even though Buffy has somewhat outgrown the original concept of “ditzy California High School cheerleader kills Vampires”. The Paybacks is the sandbox that Eliot and I have always wanted to play in. Instead of waiting around to be given the keys to the big two toy box, we said “screw it” and built our own. The Paybacks has a set of core values that we both adhere to and wrote in our series bible, but there is no limit to the level and scope of this story. If I’m not mistaken there is a storyline set in space with a sentient shark planned for the second year of the book. It’s bananas.

DF: Tell us about your protagonists and, if you can, how they themselves became bankrupt former heroes.

Eliot: Jeez. That's a big question. Well, a part of this story is that the team itself is an entity battling with identity. A lot of these first 12 issues are the Paybacks coming to grips with their situation. Are they really a team? Or have they just been brought together by circumstance? Should they try to be a family, or are they all just coworkers? Since the Paybacks are supers that didn't "make it," they aren't the most powerful. They are B and C listers. As a result, they tend to die a lot when out on repo missions. How are people supposed to get close when that's guaranteed to hurt you?

Donny: Eliot nailed it there. There is a “foxhole” mentality to this group of erstwhile heroes. They have this job they have to do. (More like “forced to do” really. They all wear wrist mounted explosives in case they want to run or talk back too much.) But at the same time they still have that special thing in their hearts that all heroes have. That innate desire to do good. As far as specifics about character origins go … hate to be that guy, but you’ll have to read to find out. That’s part of the fun!

DF: Donny, can’t believe you became “that guy”! (laughs)

Er uh: Unicorn??

Eliot: You mean Knight Mare -- Night Knight's trusty steed/best friend? Yes, he's the coolest thing ever.

Donny: You have no idea how hard we pushed to get the Dark Horse logo changed to a unicorn on the cover of this book. A pink unicorn to be specific. IN FACT: If readers see us at shows please bring your copy of the book over and we will PERSONALLY change that horse to a unicorn for you!

Also: Dark = Night, Horse = Mare. Knight Mare is our little thank you to Dark Horse for (unbelievably) letting us make this ridiculous book.

DF: Tell us about the organization for which they work and, in non-spoilery fashion, the initial storyline.

Eliot: The Paybacks are a repo team run by an evil guy named Mr. Pierce. Mr. Pierce gives out loans to wannabe's. They default. He sends his team to collect. Mr. Pierce is sort of the scum of the earth in super community -- as are the Paybacks. He's a gross loan shark/Kingpinesque character, and they are Losers who have turned against their own. That's what we are dealing with now. However, if you think about it, this organization implies a much bigger world -- one that we’ll definitely dive into later.

Donny: The initial storyline is kind of a murder mystery “whodunit” kind of vibe. Someone is murdering repo targets before the Paybacks can collect on them. Why would someone do that? What’s the endgame? And HOW do they know who to kill? It also involves superhero bases at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, sci-fi Egyptian pyramids, an endless labyrinth with portals to other dimensions and continuities, teleporting assassins, Popsicle parties, giant murder balloons, and MORE!!

DF: So since these Paybacks are preventing heroes from fighting crime, in a way, with their repos, are they themselves the “big-bads” of the book?

Donny: Buffy shout out. Love it. But yeah, man, if you were a repo target, the moment the Paybacks show up is the worst day of your life. In that way they are absolutely the bad guys. But they don’t see themselves as such. As bad as their job is, and as low as it brings them….believe us when we say there are much much worse people out there. As the book goes on you’ll begin to see how just how innocuous our team is in the larger scale of things. There exists true evil in this universe. You’ll know the big-bad when you see it …

Eliot: That's part of the reason why no one likes them. That's part of the reason why they don't really like themselves. Like we said, they are dealing with their failures. They are people who wanted to be heroes, failed and now have to the rest of their lives doing exactly the opposite that they intended to do. The Paybacks are just in a crappy position doing a crappy job.

DF: What does artist Geoff Shaw bring to the table? And can you tell us about your co-writing procedure?

Eliot: Geoff brings everything. EVERYTHING. I mean he takes story, adds to it. Adds layers to things we didn't even think of. He's totally in tune with everything we are putting down, and as a result the art not only becomes a collaborative part of the story telling but also in creation.

And co-writing is hard and easy at the same time. We sit and talk about the BIG story. Then we break down an issue’s beats. Then we take turns writing. I will write an issue, then turn in over to Don. He'll read it -- we go over it -- he then does rewrites -- then we reread and so on and so on until we are both happy. Then Donny will take the first draft on another issue. It's what we have found that makes us both happy. That being said, there can be a lot of screaming.

Donny: Geoff is a master at what he does. There are things we put in this book that are just … I mean, outright impossible or surreal or complex and we never worry. Geoff takes every script and handles it like a pro. “Hey Geoff, we’re going to need you to draw a 3D representation of the concept of futility and rage made of smoke and animated pumpkins with machine gun faces, also it’s on fire the whole time” and then….BOOM. There it is.

As far as writing with Eliot goes, it’s nothing new to us. We’ve been writing together for maybe five years now. (Hunter Quaid was the first thing we did way back in Dark Horse Presents #24, then some Archer and Armstrong stuff) and we’ve figured out a decent way to go about it. We decided a long time ago that we were going to (try to) separate our friendship from our work, that we were never going to sacrifice the quality of the book just to spare someone’s feelings. So yeah, we argue and scream at each other to the point where our wives will say, “Do you guys hate each other?” and we absolutely don’t. At the end of the day, we’re both trying to make the best product and story possible. We scream and argue but then when it’s over we laugh and talk about Buffy.

And if I may: Eliot is a genius. The sheer amount of great ideas that pour out of his head is staggering. Like trying to fill a glass from a waterfall. And the dude is a powerhouse of seemingly never-ending energy and passion for everything he does. I know he’ll eclipse me and everyone else very soon and I’ll have to get in line for his autograph. But for now, I couldn’t be happier, and more proud, to be doing this book with him.

DF: Any current or future projects you would like to discuss?

Eliot: Yes! I am working on a book called The Doorman with artist Kendall Goode and writer Daniel Kibblesmith (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). Also I am working on two pitches right now with artist Rashad Doucet (Alabaster Shadows from Oni Press) and Christian DiBari (Hoax Hunters from Heavy Metal).

Donny: Yeah! Dylan Burnett and I are putting this crazy space vampire book out later this year called INTERCEPTOR! It’s so much fun. I have a few other announcements coming later this year that I can’t talk about except to say that everyone should go read KARNAK from Warren Ellis and Gerardo Zaffino this October from Marvel. That Zaffino fella is an insane talent and someone to keep your eye on! (wink!) Also, Eliot and I are GOING ON TOUR! Check this out and see if there’s a comic shop near you and come on down for an evening of comedy and trivia and games and fun! http://www.darkhorse.com/Blog/2116/dark-horse-presents-evening-paybacks-tour-2015

Dynamic Forces would like to thank Donny Cates & Eliot Rahal for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer our questions. The Paybacks #1 is in stores now!


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Updated: 11/25/20 @ 3:17 pm






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