So, what do you get when you combine one of the animation world’s busiest creators (My Little Pony, Adventure Time) with a love of comics, Toonami and Shonen-style heroes? You get his first graphic novel that combines those loves in a style that reflects his animated roots, Oni Press Punch Up! A story about a young orphan boy named Pitch who dreams to fight alongside his hero Sonny Chan in the Wide Plains Fighting Tournament. Despite his mentor Kai’s feelings that Pitch is not ready. Sometimes, however, dreams can overcome good sense. Will it in Pitch’s case? That is what Zachary Sterling’s Punch Up explores.
Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with creator Zachary to discuss his creative beginnings, his love of Shohen and what inspired him to tell this story and the meanings behind it. So, let’s welcome illustrator Zachary Sterling to GVN Talking Comics.
GVN: Thank you for sharing some of your time Zachary. As usual with every creator that we have the pleasure of meeting for the first time, let’s talk about your beginnings. When did you take an interest in art and animation and whose work inspired you to pursue that path?
ZS: Oh man, I’ve been interested in art since I was a toddler. As soon as I realized you could make up whatever you wanted with a piece of paper and a pencil, I was making art. I’ve been obsessed with cartoons, books, and movies for my whole life and I always felt a very particular impulse: even when the story is over, I want to keep imagining what happens next. I would record everything on VHS so I could pause frames and make fan art, I would listen to a CD and imagine music videos with my favorite anime characters in them, I would sit with my friends and talk about what our favorite movies would be like if they had sequels; it never ended. My greatest influence had to be Akira Toriyama. To this day, his work is a masterclass in visual storytelling, design, writing, character development, you name it.
Education and Internship
GVN: So, you studied art at The Pacific Northwest College of Art, and the Art Institute of Portland, not to mention an internship at Helioscope Institute. What do you feel was the most valuable thing you learned during this time that you carry till this day. Either through your education or the internship?
ZS: Dang, y’all did your homework! I have a few takeaways. From art school, I learned a strong foundation with a lot of fundamentals that I didn’t have the personal discipline to figure out on my own. From my internship, one of the most important things I learned was how to value myself and I think it saved me from a lot of terrible rates and being taken advantage of in my early career. I also learned the economy of time when it comes to making sequential art. What I mean by that is I learned that not every panel can be a masterpiece and that a lot of making comics is a series of compromises between trying to make super cool drawings and trying to effectively communicate concepts and feelings without spending 10+ hours on every page.
Working with Confidence
GVN: That is a valuable lesson. Especially for someone as anal as I am about the details. In your career you have worked for several great companies and publishers including Scholastic, Oni Press, Cartoon Network, BOOM! Studios, Fredorator Studios, Penguin Books, Insight Editions and Titan Books. Did you ever feel intimidated as you navigated from position to position, or did you feel ready at that time for whatever project came your way?
ZS: I think I’ve been intimidated every time I got a new opportunity, to be honest. But I think something that’s been really helpful in my career has been a readiness to hit the ground running, even if I didn’t feel quite ready at the start. In general, I think that you have to be open to new opportunities when they present themselves and kind of learn-as-you-go. You can’t keep growing without putting yourself out of your comfort zone a little bit.
The Inspiration for Punch Up
GVN: You are working with Oni Press on Punch Up! a great 3-part Shonen Manga graphic novel that follows a young fighter going for his dreams while searching for his past in Punch UP! If you would, please tell our followers a bit about the book and what inspired you to tell this story?
ZS: This book is essentially the product of what happens when a kid who watched a lot of Toonami grows up and becomes an author. I’ve always felt so attached to Shonen-style heroes; protagonists who have hopes and dreams that they’ll never compromise, no matter what tries to stop them. That kind of hero inspires both other characters and audiences in real life. It’s a universal theme and it’s the kind of message that we all need. I’m the product of a lot of encouragement and support so I know how much of a difference it makes to truly believe that your aspirations are worth chasing and I want to keep spreading that message, too.
GVN: For the tournament, you have a large contingent of unique characters competing. Did you base any of the characters on people that you are familiar with, or did you just focus on each character’s look and then decide on their fighting style and story as you went?
ZS: Definitely the latter. My main goal with designing tournament fighters and other characters was to do as much world-building as possible with as little explanation as possible. Some of the people in this world look like regular humans. Some are anthropomorphic or hybrid creatures. There’s a guy in there that’s literally part locomotive. So much modern storytelling spoon-feeds its audiences like they’re not smart enough to connect the dots, and I just wanted to make a universe where anything is possible; anyone can be a talented fighter and nothing is too out there, conceptually. Once I had a design I liked, it was really easy for me to base their personality and fighting style on that aesthetic.
GVN: If Punch UP! Is as successful as I imagine it will be, do you have further stories in mind for Pitch, Master Kai and crew?
ZS: Of course! I’ve grown so attached to these characters and the world they live in. For me, the world keeps existing even when you close the book. Pitch has no limits, Kai has so much he still needs to teach, and Sonny has a lot of his own healing and growing up to do. Not to mention, there’s a lot that’s still in the shadows waiting to be revealed…
GVN: Thanks once again for giving us a bit of your time, Zachary. Before I let you go, I want to give you an opportunity to promote any other projects you may have coming up and where can fans follow you on either social media or the web.
ZS: Thank you so much for the opportunity! I’ve got another graphic novel called Mabuhay! coming out in October and a bunch of other things I’m cooking up. There’s plenty more stories that I want to tell, so you’ll just have to wait and see what happens 😉
You can follow me on Twitter (zacharyxbinks) and Instagram (MrZacharySterling) for more!
Oni Press Punch Up! will be available at both digital and physical retailers everywhere on August 29, 2023.
Senior Writer at GeekVibesNation – I am a 50 something child of the 70’s who admits to being a Star Trek/Star Wars/Comic Book junkie who once dove head first over a cliff (Ok, it was a small hill) to try to rescue his Fantastic Four comic from a watery grave. I am married to a lovely woman who is as crazy as I am and the proud parent of a 18 year old boy with autism. My wife and son are my real heroes.