Metropolis has Superman. Gotham has Batman. And you might be surprised to learn that although Toluca Lake hasn’t appeared by name in the pages of comic books just yet, we do have a superhero who was born right here in the neighborhood: Primer, created by local residents Jennifer Muro and Thomas Krajewski for DC Comics.
The brand-new hero started as a simple thought experiment in the then-spouses’ home on Woodbridge Street. “We were sitting at the breakfast table, just wondering how to create a truly unique superhero, because it seemed like everything had been done,” Muro recalls. “But we did know two things we wanted to do: give this new hero a lot of different superpowers, and also have her look different every single time she goes out to fight crime. The idea of body paints that grant the wearer superpowers was thrown out and it instantly clicked.” They brainstormed 33 different powers, each associated with its own paint color — including green for flight, red for strength and yellow for speed. Even limiting their hero to just three paints at a time so as not to make her totally invincible, “that gives her over 5,000 different power and color combinations to play with!” Krajewski points out.
Both experienced writers for animated TV shows, the duo initially invented Primer just for fun, but it wasn’t long before she became a reality. At a party a month later, Muro described the idea to a friend who works for DC Comics and got an enthusiastic response; they submitted a pitch to DC and it was accepted almost instantly. “From inception to green light was maybe under three months, which still blows our minds,” Krajewski says.
Inspired in part by the Wonder Woman movie and the goal of giving kids more female heroes to look up to, Muro and Krajewski made their protagonist, Ashley Rayburn, a teenaged street artist who is trying to overcome a troubled past and becomes Primer after accidentally getting her hands on the superpowered body paints invented by her foster mother. When the story was released as a middle-grade graphic novel in June 2020, it was embraced by both young readers and adults. “We get a lot of readers saying they love that Primer is both a funny 13-year-old girl and also one of the most powerful DC superheroes,” Muro explains. “They love that she’s tough and confident, but they also love that she has a realistic body type for a girl her age, which was very important for us to show.” Now in its fifth printing, Primer has twice topped DC’s bestseller list and consistently remains in the top 10, even more than a year after its release.
Primer’s “proud parents” may have more fun and adventure in the works for their young hero. The pair found collaboration surprisingly easy, even though they hadn’t previously written together, were actually going through a divorce (amicably) during the creation of their first book and, as Krajewski notes, “we can both be very stubborn!” He would typically write the first draft at every stage, from premise to outline to script, coming up with story ideas and pitching them to Muro to revise and refine — particularly when it came to developing the character of a realistic 13-year-old girl. “Sometimes my dialogue for Primer would make Jen shake her head at me and say, ‘No girl would say that, and no girl would do that!’” Krajewski adds.
Throughout the creative process, Krajewski and Muro found inspiration in the community where they’ve lived for the past 10 years. “We’re both from East Coast suburbs, and Toluca Lake has that similar friendly neighborhood vibe, but with beautiful palm trees, gorgeous homes and bars within stumbling distance,” Krajewski says. In fact, “no joke, Forman’s Whiskey Tavern had a big hand in Primer. I would often go and sit there just to soak in the energy and think up ideas, then jot them down on my phone. That place really helped me come up with a lot of wild stuff for the graphic novel. (Think it was the whiskey?) We gave Forman’s a copy of the book as thanks, even though I’m pretty sure all the money I made off Primer was actually spent there!”
In addition to enjoying other local restaurants, including Prosecco Trattoria, both writers love celebrating holidays in the neighborhood. “One thing that first drew our attention to Toluca Lake was Halloween,” Muro says. “It’s our favorite holiday, so when we saw that the houses would go all-out with decorating and the streets would get jam-packed with thousands of kids, we knew this was the place for us. We also love the winter Holiday Open House on Riverside with the bagpipers and the Santa Train, and the Fourth of July parade where all the families come together and walk behind the band. There’s so much feeling of community here. Everyone seems so friendly and happy to stop to talk.”
And while you won’t see familiar landmarks like the lake and its swans depicted in Primer’s world, Krajewski says the book’s themes reflect the spirit of the neighborhood. “Primer definitely expresses a lot of what you see in our community, which is family. Primer is a foster child who finally finds the family she’s been dreaming of for so long. Her new parents really encourage her interests and make her feel wanted, loved and taken care of.” That’s a feeling we all need, and one that, at its best, our community has the power to provide.