Dive into Deep-Ender, a fresh digital comic about love, hope and overcoming trauma. This swimming romcom is the latest project from esteemed writer John Lees. His script is brought to life by artist Jules Rivera, colorist Ashton Wagner and letterist Collin Bell.
1. Deep-Ender is a fascinating title. Obviously, on the most basic level, it ties into the comic’s plot. But does the name have a symbolic meaning?
JOHN LEES: The term “Deep-Ender” first comes up while our two main characters – nervous novice Ollie and veteran swimmer Silvia – are having coffee together. Silvia mentions it as a swimming term her Dad used to use, referring to someone who would dive right into the deep-end. And in our story, that term could be applied to some of the decisions Ollie makes.
When Silvia brings it up, she is referring to Ollie’s decision to sign up to a big open water swimming event when he’s still recovering from a traumatic near-drowning experience and trying to overcome the fear of the water it has instilled in him. But really, it could also refer to Ollie’s wider arc over the course of the story, coming out of his shell and connecting with other people.
2. Is Bogton Baths based inspired by a real location?
JL: It is! There is a leisure centre with a swimming pool that’s about a 10-minute walk from where I live, just off my street in fact, where I’ve regularly gone swimming for years. And while it is not as comically decrepit as Bogton Baths, there are more than a few parallels! The cackling man in the shower I worked into an early scene in the first chapter was based on a real guy I encountered at my pool… I called him, “Mr. Bum-Bum.” And I’ve been torpedoed by a floating band-aid in the pool more than once!
In fact, the initial germ for what would become Deep-Ender likely began with me recounting the strange, awkward experiences at my swimming pool over on Facebook.
Jules Rivera: A few years back, John would post on his Facebook about his swimming pool adventures. The story of the used bandaid floater, Mr. Bum-Bum all came from his real life experiences at this apparently wacky Scottish pool. However, the setting of Deep-Ender, Fort Lauderdale, Florida is inspired by my experiences growing up in Florida. And it’s a good thing we moved the location of the story to Florida because it is the world epicenter of crazy.
3. Deep-Ender is quite different from some of your other work. It comes across as a lot more personal and in many ways, it’s a gentler story than your crime yarns. How is it different to write than SINK?
JL: Yes, Deep-Ender is certainly different than the usual horror fare I’m known for. Though I do like to joke that the comic is itself a horror of sorts. What is more frightening, after all, than humiliating yourself in front of your crush?
But the departure from what I’m known for was intentional. I’d been doing a lot of dark stories, that was very much what my “brand” was, and I felt like a change of pace. I love horror as a reader and as a viewer, but I’m also a sucker for a good romantic comedy, and I thought it would be a fun challenge to try playing in that field. In the process, we created a cast of characters that I’m very fond of, that I became increasingly emotionally invested in over the course of writing and development. With SINK, I was doing a lot of one-and-done single issue stories, where the characters I introduced would often meet grisly ends before the issue was done, and so I wouldn’t get too attached. But with Deep-Ender, I had the time to really build on the ensemble, really get into these characters’ heads and voices so they started to feel like real people to me that I genuinely cared about.
But writing comedy is quite a different prospect than writing horrors or thrillers. At first, I found it very difficult. If I were to share with you early drafts of Deep-Ender (and I’ll say now that first chapter was maybe my most redrafted comic ever!), I think you’d see me trying too hard to be “funny,” with characters constantly making jokes and one-liners in every page, and it didn’t feel authentic. It was only once I got a firmer grasp of who the characters were that things began to flow more easily and I could trust the laughs to inherently come from the situations they were placed in (and of course Jules brilliantly rendering them), rather than me trying to contrive gags. And the more I wrote, the more I realised that horror and comedy actually use some similar skill sets… a lot of build-up and release of tension, only applied in a different context!
4. Although Deep-Ender contains your usual off-beat humor, it also explores trauma. Would you classify it as a dramedy? And what are some challenges when it comes to switching between tones?
JL: I’m not sure if I’d necessarily use the term “dramedy,” as it’s very much a comedy in my mind. But most of my favourite comedies do have that element of darkness and earnest emotion in them, something to make them a deeper experience than just laughs. Whether you’re dealing with comedy or drama, the best stories for me are character-driven, and characters are nuanced, they have pain and struggles that even in a comedy you have to be willing to take seriously. If something’s just funny, maybe you’ll laugh at it once, but what keeps you revisiting that story for years to come? Uncle Buck is one of my favourite movies, has been for nearly 30 years, and don’t get me wrong, I still laugh every time I watch. But I think why it’s really endured is its big heart, its themes of family. Or to bring up a couple of more recent examples, Hunt for the Wilderpeople deals with loneliness and bereavement, while Booksmart has this bittersweet subtext that these two dear childhood friends are about to go off in their separate ways and leave one another behind. But both are still hilarious.
JR: As an artist (and especially as a colorist) it’s my job to convey tone through visuals. You’ll notice the world gets hot red or pink whenever Ollie’s in trouble and back to fun neutrals whenever things settle. I manage the lighting and the colors for each scene so that it reads emotionally as well as storytelling wise. In fact my first time working with John was as the colorist on Oxymoron: The Loveliest Nightmare. Now I’m coloring this rom-com with him. My life is weird.
5. Body image issues are often explored in stories with female protagonists. However, they can affect anyone regardless of gender, as demonstrated by the comic’s Thadland scene. Will this be a recurring theme throughout the series?
JL: Yes, body image is absolutely something that will be explored throughout the series. It’s something that Jules and I talked about a lot while developing the comic. With Ollie, we wanted to explore that men also have moments where they hate looking into the mirror, where they feel ashamed about their body being seen or scrutinised. But it’s not something men really get to talk about. Though Silvia and other characters have their own body image and confidence issues to deal with, too, as we’ll learn in more detail over the course of the story.
JR: I am so glad we finally got to talk about something like body issues with men. The Thadland opening scene was so important to me because a) I live in Los Angeles and that’s how it be and b) I wanted to show a male character deal with this stuff in a realistic way. Everything is framed to show how Ollie feels. He’s surrounded by these muscle guys. He’s under siege by them. And when he looks at himself, all he can see is his mushy reflection. I wanted this to be a visceral experience for readers to show that guys feel this shit just as hard as women do. And we need to start doing justice to these narratives.
6. Jules, the art style is cartoony with a pleasant jauntiness to it. What lead to the decision to utilize such a stylized approach?
JR: This story is so freaking extra. Just extra AF. So I took a more stylized cartoonish approach to reflect the exaggerated circumstances, the exaggerated emotions. But real talk? I also wanted to make these characters cute, appealing, and fun. This is supposed to be a funny story. It wouldn’t make sense to make it all in black and white with everyone face barely moving. The artwork is extra to reflect the story.
7. How do you go about designing the characters? Do you prefer a formal approach (for example, model sheets and expression sheets) or do you let them take shape as you work on pages?
JR: Oh, God, I’ve been burned too many times relying on my drawings in the comics as character reference. That’s an awesome way to make myself miserable and lose consistency in my designs. God no. I have the mind of an engineer. I need drawings. So I’ve made line ups of the characters, both from Bogton Baths and the Thaddiators (by the way, the The Thaddiator line up sheet is one of the worst things I’ve ever drawn and I hate myself for it. Yes, I made them orange. This is a John Lees joint. There was bound to be some horror
8. Finally, how many issues or books will Deep-Ender run in total? And where can people read or buy it?
JL: I’ve written the entirety of Deep-Ender already. It stands at 8 chapters in total. I’m not sure when we’ll get back to telling the rest of the story, as both Jules and I now have several other projects lined up! But I know we’re both interested in getting back to this once we’re able. In the meantime, people can check out the first two chapters FOR FREE by signing up to my newsletter at www.deep-ender.johnleescomics.com!
JR: Please read this story, everyone. It’s the only way to keep Florida Man away from your windows at night.