This past February, Josh Hale Fialkov entered into an EXXXCLUSIVE relationship with Oni Press, and with this agreement comes a new book for fans to look forward to. Jeff Steinberg: Champion of the World. Fialkov's long time friend, Tony Fleecs, takes on the artwork for the book and assists in writing it. So who and what is Jeff Steinberg? We spoke with Fialkov and Fleecs to find out:
Outhouse: In this book, Jeff Steinberg is chosen to protect the earth despite being nothing special. In your eyes what makes him the man for the job?
Tony Fleecs: That's a question that will definitely be answered in the book. It's basically what the thing's all about. I mean, it's about aliens and big robots and idiots but at it's core it's about Jeff and how maybe it's not a fluke that he was chosen to represent us.
OH: What is it about Jeff Steinberg that you think readers will most identify with?
Fleecs: He's got an everyman quality. Or maybe I think that because we wrote him as me in my stupid, irresponsible late 20s. We've been working on this for a real long time. When we started I was a total mess... I just did not have my life in order at all. And Jeff's at a place like that in the book. Just sort of floating. Funny guy—no direction. Since then I learned to work real hard—got my own place, bought a car, got married. Jeff's version of that is he fights aliens. With robots.
Joshua Hale Fialkov: It's funny, cause I never want to say it, but a lot of the genesis of the book was that when Tony and I first met ten years ago, he had just all the talent in the world, and wasn't harnessing it. The idea of being 'chosen' and then having to step up to the plate was a conversation we had a lot. Mostly before I tapped Tony into the Matrix. That's still a thing people do right?
OH: Is there any concern that when people Google "Jeff Steinberg comic" they'll be redirected to comedian Jeff Steinberg?
Fleecs: We were much more concerned that people would confuse us with Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg's family of fertility institutes.
Fialkov: Well, we are now.
OH: Is this the biography of comedian Jeff Steinberg?
Fleecs: We wish.
OH: How did this artist/writer pairing occur? Who approached whom?
Fleecs: Josh and I have been friends for a long time. I was in his wedding, I make My Little Pony comics with his lovely wife Christina, we live like less than a mile from each other. We'd worked on short stuff together before but were always sort of looking for what our big thing would be. So one day he called me and said, "I've got this idea where a guy is constipated..." and I was like, "Say no more. I want to do whatever this book is for several years." And then he said it was Oni and I was extremely psyched. Those folks published some of my all time favorite comics.
Fialkov: Tony's been one of the main guys I talk about projects with for most of my career now. So, I know we started talking it out, and it just felt right. And, probably more importantly, Tony is one of the funniest I've ever known, and can range it from Sunday School jokes all the way to creepy porn jokes. He really has it all.
OH: How did the story change since you agreed to work together?
Fleecs: I think it's funnier than either of our solo stuff is. Just because of how much fun is is to sit there and knock down a line and try to come up with a funnier one. That's the phase we're at now because the whole book's scripted and drawn. The whole first 6 issues. So now we're doing lettering drafts which is just us looking at the pages and this script and going, "Ok—let's see if we can make this part funnier." That's the fun part and it's where we really work best together.
Fialkov: I love collaborative writing because of everything Tony said. I'm pretty sure by fighting it out we get something even better than possible individually.
OH: Josh, a lot of your recent work has had a lighthearted tone to it (even The Life After), typically through artistic direction and comedic relief. To you, why is that important to your stories? How does Tony's style fit with this tone?
Fleecs: This is how long this book has taken. This was the lighthearted book when we started it. Josh's books were all about Militias and brain tumors... serial killers. This one was gonna be a real departure. And then it took me forever to draw the thing and in the meantime, ALL of Josh's books are funny now. It's a real betrayal.
Fialkov: I dunno, I've always had a weird yin-yang love for comedy and tragedy. I think it makes the emotional stuff more powerful, and the funny stuff more heart breaking. I'm a sad clown. In the creepiest ways only.
OH: With a project that has been in the work for eight years, there must be some major difference between the project then and now. How has it changed?
Fialkov: I think the primary difference is we're both much better at our jobs now. I've written probably close to four or five thousand pages since then, and Tony has likely done the equivalent. So I think a lot of it has been Tony wanting the art to feel like his prowess now rather than that of all those years ago. And then as writers, I think we've both learned how to ground our work in a way we probably couldn't understand before.
Fleecs: Josh had a hilarious running joke about Howie Mandel's short lived 2009 prank show, HOWIE DO IT. I think he's still pissed that that show didn't take off.
OH: Tony, you've spent a substantial amount of time on My Little Pony. Is there an adjustment going from anthropomorphic horses in a magical land to humans in an urban setting? Have you had to redraw any pages because you gave everyone hooves?
Fleecs: Whenever I draw the characters in Jeff Steinberg with their pants down (which is more often than you'd think,) I have to resist my natural reflex to draw an apple or a butterfly on their butts.
Fialkov: Interestingly, Tony still hasn't learned that Friendship IS Magic. I'm hoping he figures it out before the end of our 22 minutes.
Fleecs: There are differences. The main one is just that I designed all these characters so I'm more comfortable drawing them right away. With ponies, even though they give us a lot of leeway, there's an established look that You're always looking at and referencing. The Steinberg characters, there's no easing into them or warming up. They just look like how I draw. Y'know, for better or for worse.
OH: Jeff is busy in space, but we still get to meet his friends. How will they play into his galactic adventures?
Fleecs: I'm real happy with Jeff's supporting cast. They're what keep Jeff grounded— he's suddenly the most important human on earth and his roommate's just want him to fix the cable. Everyone's way more concerned with their own dumb stuff than they are with Jeff's destiny or whatever.
Fialkov: Also, see Oni Press Editor-in-Chief James Lucas Jones guest starring as "Jimmy."
OH: The first issue features a cameo by President Obama. When you use a public figure like the President, what must be considered in adapting them to the tone of the story, both in art and narrative?
Fleecs: The president is in here really driving home how unlikely Jeff Steinberg is as a Champion of Earth. Just the idea that the leader of the free world has to take time out of his day to hear about what this idiot's up to... I don't know, I find it delightful. Again, this book took me so long to finish that when we started writing it he was early first term, hopeful, 'Yes we can' Obama. And in the time it took to get the book out he's now, on his way out, weary Obama... there was a time I was real concerned it would take so long that I'd have to re-draw those pages but with Hillary.
OH: Tony, being heavily involved in this scripting process, do you ever direct the story towards what you want to draw?
Fleecs: Aside from saying less panels on that page or less crowd scenes... Not really. I dig the process of making a comic more than the content sometimes. Telling the story-- figuring out the puzzle of how the panels go on the page. That's what's fun to draw for me. And also, this book has giant robot fights and aliens and pretty girls and funny guys... I don't know what else I'd write in.
OH: How well would you both fare in ten trials to save the human race, and why does Josh die in the first trial?
Fleecs: If anyone in charge saw me try to get up from the couch, there's no possible way I'd be chosen as champion of Earth. I'm the champion of watching Roku. If that was one of the trials we might have a shot. I've stopped trying to guess how Josh will die. But in this case, I mean, robots are going to fight... that seems unsafe.
Fialkov: Tony will likely die under the strain of working his ass off. I've never met someone who works as hard as he does. Plus, he smoked for a long time, so, probably, yeah. Heart attack. What was the question?
Tony Fleecs Main Cover
Chris Burnham Variant Cover
Jeff Steinberg premieres August 3rd, 2016 from Oni Press. The pre-order cutoff date is July 11th, 2016.