The First Invasion: An Interview with Author Zack Soto

What would you do if you found a strange tunnel in the woods behind your house? Investigate of course! In The First Invasion: Book 1 Cousins Truly and Kaz discover a hideout full of treasures and slip on wristbands that summon a space knight named Trinn Cyclo. And he arrives just in time to help them fight Maximo Skulldigg, an alien set on conquering planet Earth!

Today author and artist Zack Soto joins us to share his inspiration for the Power Button series, the relationship between the characters, his artistic process, and more! Keep reading to see an excerpt from this new graphic novel.

What was your inspiration for Power Button?

I’ve always loved science fiction, and I’ve been reading or watching some form of it since I can even remember but Power Button is specifically drawing from a few influences—things that you might say it’s in the lineage of are Robotech, ROM: Spaceknight, Dial H For Hero, the Silver Surfer, 80s and 90s anime, etc. Monsters, robots, spaceships, all that stuff!  I wanted to make something that had the same energy that those things had for me when I was a kid! I wanted Power Button to have fun, cool action, heart and excitement like all my favorites from back then, but filtered through my personal lens.

As you mentioned, The First Invasion is a wild science fiction story about an alien invasion, but are there any connections to your real life?

One of the main characters, Kaz, is based on my son. They both have the same rare retinal disease, leber’s congenital amaurosis. It’s a fairly serious situation in that there’s no “cure” for it, and it eventually ends in blindness. My kiddo is very lucky in that he was able to have his vision temporarily improved and stabilized by currently evolving gene therapy technology, but it’s still pretty likely that both he and Kaz’s vision will get worse to the point of blindness, over time.

The house that Kaz and his family live in is the kind of place I used to daydream about living in: an A-Frame on the coast, surrounded by trees and lighthouses. Maybe one day! 

In addition to the monsters and space battles, Power Button is very much about two kids who don’t really know each other coming to trust in one another. What inspired that relationship in the book?

Kaz and Truly have a fun dynamic. They’re cousins, but they’re both only children who barely remember each other, at first. It was kind of fun to write that because I was an only child up until the time I was a teenager, just like Kaz, and just like my kiddo. So I know what that’s like. And I used to go to visit my cousins and go have wild adventures on our own where we swore each other to secrecy (no space aliens or anything but I can’t tell you any more because I promised not to).

Like a lot of superhero or sci-fi comics, your characters gain a special power in the book… But very interestingly for Kaz and Truly to use their ability they have to cooperate! Why did you want to make cooperation or teamwork such a big part of the book?

Kaz and Truly both come from very different places, and have such vibrant internal worlds and it takes them a little while to synch up, but when they do, it’s really fun! I didn’t want it to be saccharine, but I did want to see these two loners learn to get along and work together.

Power Button takes place during the current day, but Truly and Kaz aren’t heavy users of technology like iPads or cell phones. Do you feel it’s important to represent these kinds of “offline” adventures for today’s kids?

Not to be all “back in the day”, but uh… Back in the day, when I was Kaz’ age and a little older, I spent a lot of time roaming the backwoods of my small Louisiana town, finding things in mysterious, abandoned spots, just sorta vibing and adventuring. I wanted to bring a little bit of that flavor to Power Button—but also, on a story level, the level of communication built into our everyday lives is kind of insane! Between texting, 24/7 instant contact and streaming video, a whole lot of narrative tension gets deflated right away. So that’s why you see Skulldigg, the main baddie here, taking care of the communication satellites up front. No more cell phones, easy-peasy!

The look and feel of Power Button is really original and different… Very vibrant and full of energy! Can you tell us a bit about your unique drawing style?

I studied printmaking in college, eventually settling into silk screening as my medium. So even now, when I think about color, I’m often thinking in terms of a limited palette. Once I have my 3-4 colors in hand it’s all about pattern and texture and composition. And although the story and some of the designs are influenced by other comics, anime and manga to some extent, I wanted the visuals to feel more like a children’s book or a gig poster from Fort Thunder instead of sticking to more traditional adventure comics approaches. My approach to the drawing in Power Button is more focused on mark making and emotional realness than a rigid representational drawing style would allow. 

I also really wanted a chance to stretch my legs in the other direction from my first book, The Secret Voice, which is a project that had a lot of twists and turns, and evolved over years. So initially it was as much an effort of trying to think of something very different from the big long project I was sorta stuck with—something lighter and more fun, because that book is more serious and occasionally a little dark. That’s also why I did the book with a sort of manga-influenced approach, as I was a little tired of doing more “European” layouts with 9-14 panels per page for such a long time. Power Button rarely has more than 4 panels per page, to keep the pace of reading brisk and (hopefully) engaging. I was drawing too many castles and swords—I wanted to draw some robots!

The First Invasion clearly takes place in and around Portland, Oregon (I think I spotted Powell’s Books in one of the panels, right?). What elements of the Pacific Northwest did you bring into the world of the book?

I definitely did a lot of “getting out” into the local wilderness as I was working on the portions of the book set in the woods around the Savage family house. I don’t know if there’s any particular drawings of the trees/ferns/etc that really look all that on-model, but it totally informed my drawing. I also snuck a decent drawing of the Steller Jay in there for my birding friends.

You worked with fellow cartoonist Jason Fischer-Kouhi on this book. Can you explain what your collaboration was like? What does “art assists” mean?

Jason is a long-time friend and talented cartoonist in his own right. He’d previously done some color flatting for me on The Secret Voice. He was also Bryan Lee O’Malley’s art assistant on Seconds, and other things since. There was a point during the last few years at which getting things done got very difficult. Covid happened, and I got a divorce, that kind of thing. I had probably drawn about 50% of the book at the point where I realized I needed some real help getting me over the finish line. So, why not bring on my friend and professional Art Assistant Jason, to help me? He was available and we got right to work. He was using photoshop on his desktop, and I was doing my pages in Clip Studio on my iPad, but we figured out a workflow that made sense pretty quickly.

Happily, in one of the neatest bits of serendipity, Jason and I both immediately realized we were having a LOT of fun making comics together. It was like we unlocked a new, cooler, (more competent) third cartoonist between us! We decided pretty quickly that we wanted to work together like this more, and are partnering up from the ground up on future books, including the next volume of Power Button.

What was your favorite part of making the book?

Finishing it! Just kidding—though that part was actually pretty cool, comics are a lot of work!

At the end of the day, Kaz & Truly feel like authentic kids to me, and I’m as proud of that as I am any of the exciting action scenes or fun mech designs.

An Excerpt from The First Invasion

Praise for The First Invasion

“A real page-turner! Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down!” —A ron Nels Steinke, author of Mr. Wolf’s Class

“Stunning… with bold linework and a unique color palette that perfectly captures the otherworldly setting. Get ready to be swept away by the captivating action and beautiful art in this must-read adventure!” — Jason Shiga, author of Meanwhile

“Hilarious, inventive, and absolutely action-packed. Zack Soto spins an exciting fun-filled yarn and leaves you wanting more. Power Button is a blast!” —Mike Dawson, author of The Fifth Quarter

Connect with Zack

Zack Soto is a cartoonist and comic book editor living in Portland, Oregon. He likes toys, movies, houseplants and making things in his workshop—but he might like comics most of all.

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