Inside Image's Socially Conscious Horror Comic 'Jook Joint'

Creator Tee Franklin's new series touches on domestic abuse, racism and social inequality.
Alitha E. Martinez/Image Comics

Of all the projects announced in February as part of Image Comics’ Image Expo 2018, arguably the most interesting is Jook Joint, a five-issue horror miniseries set in a brothel/jazz club that touches on domestic abuse, racism and social inequality.

The creation of writer Tee Franklin — whose romance title Bingo Love is already one of 2018’s most-talked-about comics — it’s a story that feels perfectly positioned for today’s audience, although it comes from a deeply personal place for Franklin. Heat Vision has the first look at pages from the debut issue, to be released in October, as well as a conversation with Franklin about the creation of Jook Joint and the politics and history surrounding the release.

For those who first encountered your work through Bingo Love, Jook Joint might feel like quite the departure — but your first published comics work was in Josh Williamson’s Nailbiter, and that is a horror story. What is it about the genre that draws you as a creator?

I was getting a lot of raised eyebrows and even a few, “Are Hazel and Mari killing people now?” when Jook Joint was initially announced. Stephen King’s It — the hardcover edition — was the first book I can remember checking out of the library; I was 10 years old. I could not put this book down. I would take It out of my backpack, on the 6 train or the No. 36 and 15 buses to Harlem, and read until it was my stop. I finished It in two days. Then it was on to Pet Sematary, Salem’s Lot, Misery, and after I finished a majority of his collection, I moved on to other horror writers.

I wanted more, and I found Japanese horror — Takashi Miike is my favorite director. Four years ago was when I had found out about the existence of horror comics, and there was no going back. I love a good scare, creep-out, and, of course, anything bloody and full of gore. Don’t judge me when I say this, as I realize I sound rather serial killer-ish, but horror makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Horror is truly my happy place.

If horror is a hidden constant, one of the more obvious running themes through your work — indeed, your life in general — is exploring the idea not only of diversity, but what it means to be accepting of that diversity — both from the point of view of those who are outside of the all-too-narrow (white, able-bodied, straight) mainstream, but also those around them. Bingo Love was, in many ways, an optimistic take on that, and Jook Joint, a more… sinister, perhaps, version. Is this something you’re consciously exploring in your work?

I am a black, queer, disabled woman. In the comic industry, someone like me is the 1 percent. Straight, white, able-bodied men is the norm and we’ve been only getting their narratives since inception. It’s only recently that marginalized voices have been “allowed” to tell stories in mainstream comic books, however, marginalized comic creators and black women have been creating stories for longer via Kickstarter, webcomics, Tumblr and any other independent avenues. Think of it this way: It took Marvel 75 years to hire Nilah Magruder, their first black woman writer, 26 years for Image when it comes to me. We’re slowly, but surely, taking our seats at the table.

Black women creators, creators of color, LGBTQ creators, are extremely talented and if given a shot, we can tell amazing stories. Stories of love, science fiction, superheroes, even horror. When people come to see me at signings and share how Bingo Love changed their lives, the majority of them are white. They relate to not just the story, but start to understand what black girls encountered growing up, and in most cases, want to know more. I’m starting a dialogue with this black queer story, and I’m certain other marginalized writers can say the same.

I don’t want to just tell these stories, I want to educate people at the same time.

Jook Joint is a period piece, but it feels particularly contemporary right now — indeed, in many ways, it feels like a story that couldn’t have been told (or, perhaps, wouldn’t have been fully appreciated?) before now. It feels as if it takes certain familiar horror tropes and says something new with them, and something about our current moment. Was this in your mind when you came up with the concept?

I actually wrote Jook Joint in mid-2016. I had no idea there would be this "reckoning" with sexual assaulters, harassers, molesters back then. Honestly, Jook Joint was a story to help me deal with past traumas that I had experienced since I was as young as 11. Summer of 2014, the mental dam that I had built in my brain to protect me from every single trauma I had gone through... burst. All the horrible memories were flooding through me and I couldn’t handle these extremely detailed images — I was reliving multiple assaults, rapes, child abuse — as well as the unfortunate incidents which led me to burying my two sons.

I ended up going to therapy as a result of a mental breakdown. My therapist suggested I start writing, whether it was journal entries, a barrage of cuss words, poems, stories. ... She just wanted me to write. Jook Joint ended up being one of those stories I wrote, it was extremely cathartic for me. I was "killing" my abusers in a roundabout way.

Damn. That answer was heavy as hell... my bad.

Jook Joint as therapy actually touches on something that I thought on seeing the preview pages. As they show, the club itself has certain rules that seem like common sense, or at least good manners — “Keep your hands to yourself,” “Respect everyone” — and it’s described as somewhere where “you will not be judged, where you can be yourself” somewhere, as well, not to mention somewhere where the transgressors get punished, quickly and brutally. Is the Jook Joint itself a metaphor? And if so, for where — utopia?

It’s my Utopia, my safe place. These rules in place at the Jook Joint really are straight-up common sense. These things that you should have been taught as a child; my eldest is 24 and youngest is 15 and they know not to touch people without their consent. Heck, my youngest gets on me for taking pictures of her, she will quickly yell, "Excuse me, you do not have my consent!"

I honestly don’t know what’s happened to people; it’s like everything they were taught disappears now that they’re older. It’s as if they can’t respect people or their boundaries, and they certainly can’t keep their hands to themselves. Touching people’s bodies isn’t your right — that includes talking and touching someone, I don’t care how you’re a “touchy-feely” person. Ask people if they are comfortable with hugs before you go in for a hug. Then you have men who love to tell women they need to smile, or will harass them as they’re walking the streets, or sexual harassing at work, school, etc. It’s too much!

I wanted the Jook Joint to be that place where you can go and be free from all of that. And if your dumbass can’t follow those simple rules, then... You get exactly what you deserve.

Jook Joint launches in October, timed to Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and in early mentions of the series, you mentioned the Joyful Heart Foundation. As you said before, you’re a domestic abuse survivor — can you talk about the work you’re doing around this subject and how it relates to the book?

One of the stories embedded in Jook Joint is that of Heloise Beaumont, a young mother who has been physically, emotionally, financially and sexually assaulted by her husband, Jean-Pierre. Heloise seeks help from the owner of the Jook Joint, Mahalia, as she’s heard whispers that Mahalia has a way of making bad men... disappear.

Heloise is faced with the question: “If you could get away with murdering your abuser, would you?,” her story which also involves making this decision isn’t an easy one. And neither is deciding to leave your abuser, especially when there’s children involved.

As you mentioned, I am a domestic violence survivor. There was a time when my children and I were homeless, we had no money or food. I had to visit food pantries to feed my kids, I had no clue how to pay for a place to live, my ex-husband had emptied out my bank accounts. If it wasn’t for shelters, organizations to help with food, rent, even case workers encouraging me to not go back to my ex-husband, I am not sure where we’d be right now.

That’s a lie. I’m certain I would be dead if I went back to him.

Mariska Hargitay, Lt. Benson of Law & Order: SVU, is the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation, whose mission is to heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. Hargitay’s foundation even helps with funding of backlogged rape kits. Domestic Violence Awareness Month is in October and I was adamant about this book being released during this month.

Image will also be releasing Domestic Violence variant covers throughout several of their titles and proceeds from each variant cover will go to the Joyful Heart Foundation. Again, I want to give massive thanks to Image Comics publisher, Eric Stephenson, for making this a reality. Being able to give back to a charity like this is truly full circle for me.

Let’s talk about the art for a second. Maria Nguyen, the originally announced artist on the series, had to leave the project because of other obligations, but now you have Alitha E. Martinez. What does she bring to the book?

Unfortunately, Maria had a schedule conflict and couldn’t continue on Jook Joint and colorist Lynn Scurfield wanted to pursue art instead of coloring comics; I wish them well on whatever their future holds.

The future of Jook Joint actually remained in limbo for several months and it almost didn’t happen. This April at [Chicago convention] C2E2, I stopped by Alitha’s booth, chopped it up for a bit and asked if she happened to be free. I pitched Jook Joint right then and there, and to my surprise... she said yes!

Alitha’s art is breathtaking. Her licensed work — Black Panther: World of Wakanda, Batgirl or any cape book she’s done in the past — is outstanding, but Alitha’s creator-owned book, Foreign, is simply badass. Watching Alitha being free to draw whatever she wants, however she wants has been the best part for me. This series is as much as Alitha’s as it is mine, and she’s putting her back and foot all the way up in it!

Alitha’s attention to detail, considering this book is a period piece, and even her backgrounds are just out of this world. I watched Alitha sketch scenes from pages in front of me and my jaw just dropped. This woman’s horror game is tight!

Shari Chankhamma is the colorist on Jook Joint and she’s brought Alitha’s lines and heavily inked pages to life! There was a moment where I was tempted to go black and white for this project, but Shari...whoooweee!!! But Shari! Badass!

Taylor Esposito is the letterer on Jook Joint and he was the first person I reached out to back in 2016; Taylor has waited patiently for several years to breathe life into these words and — as with every book he works on — he goes above and beyond the call of duty.

I am truly proud of the creative team and we hope to give you a new horror series to love and add to your collection.

To that point: What would you say to those who are curious about Jook Joint to convince them to pick up the first issue?

Jook Joint is my first series and if I am not mistaken, the first Image series written by a black woman and drawn by a black woman, in addition to being colored by a Thai woman and lettered by an Argentinian, first-generation American man. Supporting a series of this magnitude by creators of color is such an important step! Representation matters in this industry and to have all four names on every cover of Jook Joint be a creator of color sends out an important memo: We are talented! Preordering this series shows and tells those naysayers that creators of color can sell!

During the month of October, I implore you to pick up the Domestic Violence Image Comics variant covers. October’s Jook Joint Domestic Violence variant cover was drawn by Mike Hawthorne and colored by Jordie Bellaire.

I know that Jook Joint will trigger trauma in some readers, so please choose what you’re comfortable with when reading. Each issue will have a trigger warning attached for this very reason. This series was extremely cathartic for me when I was writing it, and I hope that it will be for others who have experienced trauma. While you nor I can hurt those who have assaulted us, I totally encourage you to envision your assaulter being tortured at the Jook Joint.

I’d also like to offer space to survivors in the back of each Jook Joint issue. A chance to tell your stories of survival, whether it be in the form of a comic, poem, prose or essay. These works will be published and you will be compensated. If this is something you’re interested in, please email jookjointcomic@gmail.com.

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Jook Joint debuts Oct. 3 from Image Comics; below, the first chance to see artwork from the first issue by series artist Alitha E. Martinez, and the variant cover to the first issue by Mike Hawthorne.