Fired Up for Firebreather: A Discussion with Phil Hester

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Firebreather is the story of Duncan Rosenblatt, a typical high-schooler who struggles with all of the typical high school problems: loneliness, bullies, girls, and monsters. And unfortunately for Duncan, his father is Belloc, the king of all monsters, and with Belloc's murder at the end of the last story arc, "All the Best Heroes Are Orphans," Duncan is the first in line to take up his father's mantle, whether he wants to or not.

Firebreather: Holmgang is the third arc in the Firebreather origin series, and it promises to be the most exciting arc yet.  With enemies coming at him from all sides, Duncan will have to be at the top of his game, or face the consequences.

The popularity of the series has even earned the comic its own all-new, CGI television movie on Cartoon Network, premiering this Wednesday, 24 November 2010.

I recently had the oppurtunity to talk with writer and co-creator of Firebreather, Phil Hester, and talk to him a bit about Holmgang and the new Cartoon Network movie.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Where did the idea of Firebreather come from? Were there any major influences that led to the book's creation?

PHIL HESTER:  It's a long story, but about 10 years ago Andy Kuhn and I pitched Marvel a young heroes book that featured teen versions of Captain America, Wolverine, Scarlet Witch, and the Thing. It was eventually crushed, but the idea of being a teenager who looked like the Thing really stuck with me. I mean, it's bad enough for an adult Ben Grimm; what would it be like for a 14-year-old to be, well, a monster? So, it's that idea of being a high school outcast with secret powers that's so well done with Spider-Man, but compounded by the fact that our hero can never stop being what he is. Peter Parker can ditch his mask any time he wants. Duncan must always remain a monster.

When Andy and I cooked up that young Marvel pitch, we also wanted to create young villains; a teen Doctor Doom; a young Beyonder; and a human-sized son of Fin Fang Foom. That Foom visual combined with our take on a young Thing all went into a hopper and marinated for about four years before we came up with something born of those seeds, but definitely its own unique creation.

BF: How much of yourself did you put into Duncan Rosenblatt's character? Obviously you're not half-dragon, but what characteristics of yours, if any, did you put into him?

HESTER: I really wanted to do a high school story that wasn't cliched. I wanted to have kids that weren't archetypes, but actual kids I had known, or at least characters with those characteristics. So, even the alpha-jock bully in the story, Troy Adams, has three dimensions. Isabel, in the comic at least, is a little overweight. Dre is the stereotypical brain, but also gay. Duncan isn't simply a wallflower who takes bullying lying down, but, like a real teen, someone who will rebel when he feels righteous. I mean, Duncan's the hero of the story, and although he's smart, kind, valiant, etc., he's no paragon of virtue. He's arrogant, flippant, maybe even a little prejudiced against humanity in general.

I moved a lot as a kid and was perpetually the new kid in school, especially during my high school years. I moved into a small town where most all of the kids had been in the same class together since kindergarten, and here I am dropped in as the outsider in junior high. It wasn't any great tragedy, the class warmed up to me eventually, but that first year provided a lot of the fuel for Firebreather. Now that my kids are in high school I take a lot of their experiences as inspiration, too. The driver's ed scene from the second series comes right out of my son's experience.

BF: With Belloc's death at the end of the last issue, Duncan's been put in the position to inherit the mantle: is he going to embrace his father's role and legacy or run away from it?

HESTER: That won't really be in Duncan's hands. We'll find that Duncan has a bigger extended family than he imagined, and they all have designs on Belloc's throne. The next mini is going to feature plenty of knock-down, drag-out monster fighting over who takes the throne as King of all Kaiju.

BF: The first arc saw Duncan grow wings and breathe fire, while the second showed us that Duncan had pretty incredible mind-over-matter powers.  What powers and abilities will Duncan gain this time around? And who will teach them to him now that his father is gone?

HESTER: That's a great question. We won't necessarily see any new powers, but we will see Duncan use a special weapon we haven't seen before, something left to him by his father that will even the odds with oversized opponents. As for who'll teach him, Belloc's death brings the appearance of his secretary, Mr. Go, who handles all of Belloc's interactions with humanity. He's come into Duncan's life to square away the inheritance.

BF: Duncan and his father have never had a great father-son relationship, but now that Belloc's gone, will Duncan mourn his death?  And will he have anyone to confide in that will sympathize with him?

HESTER: That's what is really weighing on him right now; there's no one to share his feelings with. Although Duncan isn't close to him, Mr. Go will be someone he won't have to lie to all the time. 

BF: "All the Best Heroes Are Orphans" was supposed to finally answer the question of how Belloc, a giant dragon, managed to mate with a small human woman.  Was issue #5 ever written or drawn?  Will the story from that issue be folded into this arc?

HESTER: All the material prepared for #5 will be included in Firebreather: Holmgang #1. The question will be answered, you filthy-minded people!

BF: Duncan's had to deal with his uniqueness for quite some time. It seems from the comics that he's looked lizardy since he was a little kid.  Will he ever get used to it?

HESTER: Maybe not. I mean, I'm not sure I've quite got the hang of being a human being, and as an old, upper middle class, white dude, am in a position of relative security in this mixed up world. That is to say, if I'm still adjusting, odds are Duncan will be for the rest of his life.

BF: Duncan has teamed up with Zephyr, Shadowhawk, and Invincible in the past, and I know he's made appearances in the Invincible monthly, but FireBreather in itself is a self-contained book.  Was this decision intentional?  Or can we expect other Image characters to make an appearance?

HESTER: That's sort of the rule at Image. Continuity counts when you want it to. I think once we get past Duncan's complete origin, two minis from now, we'll open him up to more Image Universe adventures.

BF: You've said that you and Andy Kuhn always intended to have Firebreather see a more frequent release schedule, and I know you commit a lot of time to developing the characters and plots in this title.  How much of Duncan's life do you have planned?  Is he going to college?  And will we ever see Duncan in a monthly series?

HESTER: I'm committed to Andy being the only Firebreather artist, and that means a monthly is probably never going to happen. Andy is painstaking with his work, and will not rush it, so we simply have to wait until he's banked enough material to put out new issues. That's why we're going with the mini-series format. Once Andy has a few issues in the can for each mini, we solicit. That way we don't get too far behind.

To be honest, I only have Duncan's life planned out through his origin, with some rudimentary ideas of where he'll go from there.

BF: Now that Duncan has faced the first major tragedy of his life (and our first as readers of this series), can we expect Holmgang to have a darker tone than the preceding story arcs?

HESTER: I wouldn't say darker as much as more violent. Ducnan was living in the bubble of his father's protection, and now that this has been stripped away, he has to fend for himself against some truly brutal foes. So, in some ways the book is more action packed. Still, the focus is on Duncan, so the book should reflect what teenage life is like; sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying. 

BF: The clips and images from the animated movie premiering on Cartoon Network show Duncan looking pretty normal (no scales, horns or pointy ears).  Is this a change that's going to be present the whole movie?  Does this mean there will be a metamorphosis or secret identity aspect of his character in the movie?

HESTER: Even from frame one of the movie, Duncan doesn't quite look normal. He's orange and has very fine scales from the beginning. Only when he interacts with other Kaiju does the transformation to his more familiar scaly form take place. He reverts a little back toward humanity when danger passes, but he's unmistakably a monster-kid. No secret identity is possible. Also, Duncan isn't exactly crazy about becoming a super hero. He has a lot to figure out about himself, and fighting super-villains probably won't help him do that.

BF: Is there any chance of a Firebreather regular series on CN?

HESTER: That's up to viewers. I think there's a good chance we'll see more animated adventures, but that might be as more films, a mini-series, a regular series, any number of things. Peter Chung is a freaking genius, and any chance to have him handle the character again would please me to no end. Make it a hit and remove all doubt, people!

BF: Are you very involved in the development/writing process of the show?

HESTER:  Not too much. Once in a while the producers or Jim Krieg (our brilliant screenwriter) would hit me with questions about Duncan's character or future story lines. I'd give my opinion once in a while, but as an artist, I respect other artists too much to sit on their shoulders and quibble with their work. I think the only thing in the movie that is a direct result of one of my notes is the climax, which you'll all have to wait and see.

Firebreather: Holmgang #1 comes out this Wednesday, 24 November 2010, and don't miss the Firebreather full-length CGI movie premiering on Cartoon Network the same day at 7 p.m. (ET/PT).  For my coverage of the NYCC movie premiere and panel, click here.

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  • CA3

    CA3 Jan 15, 2011 at 9:38am

    I don't see a great many kids opening their wallets to buy comics these days, but kudos to the creators in getting Firebreather adapted into a cartoon. It only makes sense that a story like FireBreather would find itself adapted for cartoon audiences, but it's unlikely I'd even try to follow it. I didn't feel the comic story was particularly strong or had any merit in committing to following it. However weak I felt the comic's story maybe, it's still an interesting read and I think some kids might get something out of it, whatever it might be.

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