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Jonathan and Josh Luna thought they knew what to expect from their personal appearances: aspiring artists and writers who ask them to look at their Webcomics. Geeks who want to know where to get a Girls No. 2 with the original cover—not the black-on-green one of a woman’s face but the full-color, almost full-body one of her in the shower. They were even used to the occasional female conventioneer looking at the various scantily clad women who populate their work and walking off, disgusted.
Even so, this brother-and-brother team never thought it’d come face to face with the kind of hairy-palmed stereotype who gives comic books a bad name. “Some guy told me what he’d do after with it,” Josh says of a sketch he did of one of those scantily clad characters at a signing in Herndon, Va. “I felt dirty.”
“That’s absolutely not what we’re trying to do,” Jonathan adds.
They probably shouldn’t have been surprised. The Lunas’ 2004 debut, Ultra, was effectively Sex and the City with superpowers. Their follow-up, Girls, is a horror tale in which the monsters are beautiful naked women. They also handle the art chores for Marvel’s Spider-Woman: Origin miniseries.
“Drawing women was not a conscious trend,” says the 27-year-old Jonathan. “But we enjoy it.”
“Women are fun to look at and fun to write,” adds Josh, 25.
“Girls in general can seem misogynistic,” Jonathan offers.
Indeed. The series opened with its protagonist, small-town supermarket cashier Ethan, launching into a venomous tirade against women: “Filthy whore….Bitch….Gold digger….Cocktease.” Later, he masturbates and then asks the subject of his chosen erotic photo, “Was it good for you?”
“At the beginning, Ethan is frustrated with women,” Jonathan says. “But he doesn’t hate them. He’s fed up—”
“—because they’re complicated,” Josh interjects. “He doesn’t know how to deal with them, but he can’t live without them.”
“I think any man sees that in himself,” Jonathan says.
Perhaps. But not every man reads comics. Those who do are aware that the Lunas’ work has little to do with the “bad-girl” comics of the ’90s—tales of pneumatic superbabes with plot lines that could be as thin as their protagonists’ improbable waists. The Lunas’ books are about relationships and interpersonal conflicts. Ultra, a lonely superhero celebrity, reacts to a prediction that in seven days she will find true love. Girls shows how societal bonds are tested when a small town is confronted with self-preservation.
Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort says bad-girl art is characterized by scratchy, harsh lines that indicate a lot of anger. “The Lunas are something different,” he explains. “Their art is more appealing to a wider audience. They draw real women—attractive women, but real women….I don’t get an impression of anger in their artwork. The art is warm and inviting even when the scene is grotesque.” He adds that the predecessors to the Lunas are not the bad-girl artists of the ’90s but the pinup artists of the ’40s. Their work, in other words, doesn’t necessarily resonate with readers of DC Comics’ superhero-glutted Infinite Crisis, the top-selling comic book of January 2006.
“We want to challenge what the reader is looking at,” Jonathan says. “We’re not putting girls on the covers…just to make money. If a turtle was important to the story, we’d put a turtle on the cover.”
Born in California to a Navy family, the Lunas count Keflavik, Iceland; Sigonella, Italy; and Arlington, Va., as childhood homes. Because of their frequent moves, the brothers didn’t have enough time to develop stable friendships. Instead, they entertained themselves by drawing short fantasy comics for each other. These early works were influenced by a variety of pop-culture sources, including Mad magazine, Garfield, and X-Men. These days, the Lunas also list The Sopranos and Japanimation classic Ghost in the Shell among their inspirations.
“We’ve always wanted to create stories together,” Jonathan says. But the brothers never planned on a professional partnership, even while both were attending the Savannah College of Art and Design.
After Josh graduated, in 2003, Jonathan left a Web-design job in Ohio to work in a McLean photo studio. He ended up rooming with his brother in Woodbridge—and hating much of the time he was away from home. “The drive was horrible,” he recalls. “I was really stressed out and wanted to do comics full time. I quit without anything on my plate.”
Unemployment was the kick Jonathan needed to turn a fantasy into a career: He had the time, the ambition, and the partner: Josh would write the stories and do the layouts and lettering; Jonathan would edit the scripts and contribute pencils, inks, and colors. Establishing a routine they still follow, every day after Josh returned home from his part-time government job, the brothers brainstormed ideas for story lines. These sessions yielded Ultra.
At its core, Ultra is the story of someone unhappy with her job. Initially, the book was not about superheroes at all but rather the romantic interactions among six people. The cover of Issue No. 1 featured the title character in a Time-magazine parody: “THE PRIVATE LIFE OF A SUPER HEROINE,” it blared below Ultra’s prominent breasts. Subsequent covers sent up such sex-and-celeb publications as Wired, Maxim, and Rolling Stone.
“We wanted to depict real life in tights, which is ridiculous,” Josh explains.
In late 2003, the Lunas sent their first five pages and a plot synopsis to Berkeley, Calif.’s, Image Comics, the third-largest comic-book publisher in the United States. Image receives thousands of pitches but launches only about 50 new properties a year, most by established professionals.
“It was a fairly unique idea, and it was exceptionally well-executed, especially for a pair of beginning creators,” says Image Comics Executive Director Eric Stephenson, who helped push Ultra through as an eight-issue series.
The story focuses on the workaholic Ultra and her co-workers at Heroine Inc., supermodel-turned-superhero Aphrodite and trust-fund baby Cowgirl. A one-night stand with a civilian spells trouble for Ultra: He sells photos of their liaison to a tabloid.
“We always find a way to challenge ourselves…and explore taboo subjects,” Josh says. “For some reason, sex comes out.”
“Sex is a big part of who we are as humans,” Jonathan adds. “We like women. We don’t hate them. Ultra is about empowerment. It’s about what you do when you’re unhappy.”
After Ultra wrapped, in March 2005, the Lunas took a month off before starting Girls. “We wanted to do a twist on a horror book,” Josh says. “What if there was a monster that looks beautiful?”
After having sex with Ethan, the beauty/monster—she’s the one on the cover of No. 1—locks herself in the bathroom and lays giant eggs, each hatching a perfect duplicate of her. The clothing-optional clones proceed to terrorize the town.
Around the time the Lunas were finishing Issue No. 5, two things happened that seemingly put them on the path to comics superstardom: First, CBS decided to pick up Ultra for a pilot, which is currently in pre-production with Bermuda-born actress Lena Headey in the title role and The Station Agent’s Peter Dinklage playing a character known as the Scientist. Second, Brian Michael Bendis came calling.
“The idea of seeing Ultra in real life is amazing,” Jonathan says. But in comic-nerd terms, drawing for Bendis is just as remarkable. One of today’s most prominent comics writers, he’s responsible for such popular series as Ultimate Spider-Man and New Avengers. Bendis was looking for an artist to work on a new Spider-Woman miniseries intended to clarify the convoluted origin of the B-list heroine, so he posted to his Web site asking for suggestions of artists he should work with. Within a half-hour, the Lunas were mentioned. Then Bendis suggested the brothers to Brevoort, his editorat Marvel.
“I could picture it exactly in my head,” says Brevoort, who was already familiar with the Lunas’ work. He told Bendis to contact the Lunas. “One morning, I checked my e-mail and had a message from Bendis saying, ‘Hey, I think I got something for you. Call me.’” Jonathan recalls. “I didn’t think it was real. I thought it was a joke.”
The Lunas agreed to do the five-issue series. They usually finish a page a day, which results in about one finished comic book a month. Now they had a five-month commitment to Marvel as well as their ongoing work on Girls, which was scheduled to run for about two years. To Jonathan, it almost seemed like too much too soon.
“I thought he was going to die,” Josh says, shaking his head. “Two books in one month.”
Spider-Woman: Origin debuted in December 2005, becoming the 24th-best-selling comic that month. It was the Lunas’ highest debut—and one of only eight of the top 100 comic books sold that month to feature a female main character. Spider-Woman led those, moving 63,953 copies. Girls No. 8, the other Luna book on sale, sold only 14,644 copies, coming in at No. 158.
Why are there so few female leads among those bestsellers? Peter Casazza, manager of Big Planet Comics in Georgetown, chalks it up to the boys’ club of the business.
“Ninety percent of comics professionals are men,” he says. “That’s terrible. That’s a problem.”
The predominantly male readership of comics is slowly changing, Casazza notes, but the industry’s image still has a long way to go before coming out of the long shadow cast by the bad girls. Ironically, he says, the Lunas’ art might be keeping Spider-Woman’s sales down—not among women but among fans of paint-by-numbers male superheroes.
Reviews of the book seem to confirm that: One of Issue No. 3, which was published last month, called the drawing “too cartoony.” Another commented that “[t]he Luna brothers still aren’t doing it for me on the art here,” even while praising the action sequences and “the use of blurring to indicate rapid movement.”
With two more issues coming out over the next two months and Girls about a year away from concluding, the Lunas haven’t had much time to think about such criticisms. They haven’t had much time to think about their next project, either. They talk about eventually doing films, but for now the brothers are happy and busy: There’s the Ultra pilot, the recent translation of the first six issues of Girls into French, and the upcoming paperback publication of the second Girls compendium.
“It can always be better,” Jonathan says of his and his brother’s work, but he stresses that he wouldn’t change a thing about even their earliest projects. Nor do the Lunas plan to stop writing about and drawing beautiful naked women, no matter what the industry dictates.
“We just do what we want to do,” Jonathan says. “We’re not trying to please anybody.”CP