Follow this link to Mark Evanier's site and watch this video of the Mike Douglas show and see video of DM founder Phil Seuling discussing comics on national TV in 1977. Astounding footage! I never had the pleasure of meeting Seuling, or, prior to this ever even seeing video of him -- so this was a fabulous and fantastic find for me. Thanks Mark!!
I especially like how they're just taking the old comics and flapping them around -- "Oh, look, a FAMOUS FUNNIES #1; here, catch!"
Without that guy you almost certainly wouldn't be reading blogs about comic books today... except maybe in the most nostalgic way.
Rejoice fans of quality reviews! For to celebrate the release of the SHAKO! TPB collection I decided not to review it. For a start I won't have any money until Christmas is over. And I'm talking there about the first Christmas after MiracleBoy leaves home in about 2025. No, I decided to do something else instead to celebrate this momentous occasion. What follows is not entirely sane but then again what is, my American friends, what is?!?
Most importantly of course I decided not to review the SHAKO! TPB as I already reviewed its contents HERE. You will of course remember that vividly because you have nothing else to do but remember badly written old posts on The Savage Critics. So, there didn't seem much point in going over it again but it also seemed a bit shoddy to let the occasion pass uncommemorated. Because as much as I love 2000AD's SHAKO! (and, boy, do I love SHAKO!) I never thought it would be collected. Truly, these are the days.
Your luck was in though as since I am a Savage Critic I, naturally, know loads of people in Comics, or as we gifted insiders call it - The Biz. And using my "juice" I reached out and managed to get the contact details for the star of the book, SHAKO! himself. SHAKO! has kept a low profile since his 2000AD appearance moving into the area of plumbing due to the "perennial" nature of the work and the reliable income it provides for a family oriented bear like SHAKO!. SHAKO! still retains fond memories of his comics work and remained humble and gracious throughout our encounter. Because encounter SHAKO! I did. In fact, as his van was in the garage, I arranged to meet him around the corner from his house at a caff where we both tucked into a full English courtesy of The Savage Critics’ robust expense account. The following conversation ensued:
JK: SHAKO!’s quite an unusual name for a bear isn't it? SHAKO!: No, not really. Although in the strip it claims “It means simply...KILLER!” or some other such guff. But I'll let you in on a little secret - it’s actually Inuit for Grace Of The Sun’s Soft Fade. Sorry to disillusion everyone there.
JK: Ha! I can see why Mills' went for "...KILLER!" That's more in line with the spirit of the strip. Were you ever bothered by the levels of violence? I mean the audience for this was largely children after all...
SHAKO!: No, no. You can't mollycoddle children. The world is full of things children shouldn't be exposed to but they have a quite unerring radar when it comes to locating them. I mean, sure, it was over the top but it could have been worse. Look, it isn't complicated; do you know the only sure way to stop your kids from finding your jazz mags in the airing cupboard?
JK: Er, no.
SHAKO!: Don't have any jazz mags in your airing cupboard.
SHAKO!: C'mon, who's going to tell the world it can't have its jazz mags? It just doesn't work like that! So inoculating the little blighters was, I guess, the intention behind all that newsprint nastiness. Of course by jazz mags I mean violence. I'm sorry, I had a late call out last night to bleed a pensioner's radiators. I 'm still a bit tired, not as young as I was y'know. I'm no Spring bear! Could we keep it lighter maybe?
JK: Sure. Sure. You were kidding a bit back there weren't you?
SHAKO!: Yeah, heh. Polar bears love deadpan, what can I say?
JK: I thought so, it's just hard to tell with the snout and the fur and all that.
SHAKO!: That does help with the deadpan. Still, I mean the violence in my strip was nothing compared to that in HOOK JAW. That was like, well, I don't know what that was like! It was off the scale. I'm amazed no one ended up in prison over it. He had a real knack for the violence, I'll give him that. And in real life he was such a sweetie!
JK: You mean Pat Mills?
SHAKO!: I meant Hook Jaw actually but I suppose the same might be said for Pat Mills, yes.
JK: You worked together quite recently didn't you? You and Hook Jaw?
SHAKO!: That’s right! We did indeed. It was just a bit of fluff really, stunt casting overseas under nom de plumes. A bit like when Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would turn up in some Italian fiasco no-one in England would see for decades. Seabear and Grizzlyshark? I don’t think many people saw it but when you get to our age that’s not so important. Your priorities change as you age and it actually gets to the point where it’s just nice to be asked. I mean at my age my cubs have got cubs of their own so they're too busy to bother with boring old me! Something like Seabear? That's just the ticket, you know? A bit of a lark. Peps the old bones up a bit. Hardly high art, of course, but it was nice to stretch the acting chops again and, of course, Hooky was a riot. No airs or graces with that one! Ho! We kept in touch afterwards. Right up until…
(Legal Note: SEABEAR & GRIZZLY SHARK are nothing to do with HOOK JAW or SHAKO! Nor did the creators intend any such inferences to be made. The shark doesn't even have a hook in its jaw. I am just having a spot of fun. Is that still legal? EH!?!)
JK: Yes, I heard you were there when he…went.
JK: It’s alright, we can move on if you like.
SHAKO!: No…no. I think Hooky would want people to know he was at peace at the end. In fact his spirits were quite high if anything. You know they’d just started reprinting his work in STRIP? People were recognising him again. Staff and kids from the other wards would go see him in the Day Room and ask for his autographs. Oh, he was fair basking in it. It was nice timing as well because a couple of days later…he...it was...
JK: It’s okay. I know this must be difficult for you...
SHAKO!: Yes..but, no, actually in a strange way it was kind of comforting. I’m not really sure what happened to tell the truth. It was Tuesday visiting and I was sat next to his bed and I remember I was telling him about this little cameo I’d made in one of those terrible Event things. One of those art by committee things. Dreadful tat but awfully popular with the youngsters. There were like five writers or something ,and they still got which Pole we bears live at totally arse about tit. Bless his cotton socks, Hooky was trying not to laugh because of the pain; the drugs weren't really touching it by this point. And suddenly, suddenly I realise there’s a man in the room. Seems daft but at first I thought it was a bear. Big fellow he was. And hairy? I’ll say he was hairy, alright! It was his eyes though, his eyes that held you. Great sad things they were. Sad but dignified. Like he’d been hated by the world and forgiven it. And this chap, he puts his hand on Hooky’s dorsal, and it’s a big hand festooned with these big rings, and he puts this big hand on Hooky like a feather landing. And all the tension in Hooky’s body just goes and this fellow says, in this burr, this rumble, he says, and I can remember every word still, he says:
“S’alright, Hooky. S’all alright, now. C’mon, me Duck, time to go home. Time to go back where the stories live. It’s just going home, luv. They've all missed you, Hooky. C’mon, son. C’mon now. Gently Bently and off home we go.”
And when he lifted his big ringed hand, well, I could tell from how he was laid that Hooky was gone. Well, I mean, obviously he was still there but…
JK: I understand. It sounds very…odd. It sounds like a very…I guess quite a spiritual moment.
SHAKO!: Oh, it was. Of course then I look and this big hairy fellow’s only gone and put shoe polish on his face and now he's chasing nurses down the corridor while making farting noises with his lips.
SHAKO!: Yes, it did take the shine off of things a bit.
JK: Well, er, that sounds like a good place to finish. I thank you for your time and I wish the book every success.
SHAKO!: Oh no, thank you. And I just have to say it’s not about success it’s just...when you're young it's all about the future isn't it? But then you get on a bit and you realise you aren't going to be in the future but you want to have done your bit.
JK: Entertained people?
SHAKO!: Yes. Yes! Maybe more but that'll do. That's no small thing. It's a bit of a magical thing even.
JK: The magic of stories.
SHAKO!: Yes. The lovely, lovely stories. Y'know, for the young.
JK: Thank you, SHAKO! ________________________________________________________
Postscript: Two days later I rang SHAKO! to see if he wanted to give the transcript a once over. The phone was answered by a man who said only “Shako’s with the stories now, luv.” Before the receiver was replaced softly.
This one was for SHAKO! and all the stories, and all the kids that read them.
This one was for all of the COMICS!!!
WOLVES AND MOOSE! THE RATTLESNAKE AND THE MONGOOSE! COMIC CREATORS AND COMIC CRITICS! NATURAL ENEMIES ENGAGED IN A TERRIFYING DANCE OF DEATH. BUT UNLIKE THE LAMBADA, THIS DANCE IS NOT FORBIDDEN, FOR THIS DANCE IS CALLED...
CREATOR VS. CRITIC
In the CREATOR corner, hailing from the mean streets of Hollywood, California– Mark Sable… author of GROUNDED, HAZED, TWO FACE YEAR ONE, CYBORG,TEEN TITANS: COLD CASE, WHAT IF SPIDER-MAN OH WAIT ALL THE JOKES ABHAY CAN THINK OF SEEM KIND OF RACIST NOW, FEARLESS, RIFT RAIDERS, and/or his latest book from Image Comics, GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES with Paul Azaceta (POTTER'S FIELD, SHI: SHOWDOWN IN BONERTOWN).
In the CRITIC corner, Abhay, author of such controversial internet facebook status updates as "Iron Man Is Talking All Weird in FEAR ITSELF", "Dark Knight Returns: Dude, Have You Heard Of This Comic?", and "Oh shit, Charles Schulz Forgot to Ever Let Charlie Brown Kick the Football."
Author: Mat Brinkman, drawn in 2000-2005, first published in Paper Rodeo, Monster 2000, and The College Hill Journal, collection published by Picturebox, Inc., with cover design by Ben Jones.
BUT FIRST… OUR DISCLAIMER FROM MARK SABLE: As a working creator, it’s hard for me to comment critically on comics. It’s a small industry, and creators can be a bit sensitive. I don’t exclude myself from that category. Nor do I think I can do better than anyone associated with this book or any other we might comment on. I say that not because I want you to feel bad for me. This is just a way of apologizing to creators/editors/publishers in advance to save my own ass. And to a lesser extent apologize to your readers if I hold back. The point of this, from my end, is to see if a creator can speak critically about comics in the mainstream while working in the mainstream. That, and to plug the shit out of my work.
PLUG DEPARTMENT: Two issues of GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES are in comic stores now. Also, in the Previews catalog this month, collected editions of FEARLESSby Mark Sable, David Roth & PJ Holden (Diamond Order Code SEP110399), published by Image Comics, and DECOY by Mark Sable & Andrew Macdonald, M.D. (Diamond Order Code SEP111131), published by Kickstart Comics.
* * *
ABHAY: So, in our last little tete-a-tete, you said something like "When I started with Paul…his work and his ballsack were both an acquired taste for me. I grew up thinking the ultra-detailed work of Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri occupied a higher place on the evolutionary scale. I’ve gained a respect for fundamentals and for a less-is-more approach and just for ballsacks generally." That's pretty much an exact quote. Also, since we last spoke you've gone to China on a Young Alumni trip, by pretending to be a "young person." So, as Marc Silvestri Super-fan #1, what do you think of the art in MULTIFORCE? Do you like it for sophisticated "I am a fancy, fancy professional comic writer" reasons? Do you enjoy Mat Brinkman's drawings on a pure "Ooooh, monsters level"? Or do you hate it? Do you just fucking hate it and looked at MULTIFORCE through gritted teeth the entire time? Have you perhaps been brainwashed to want to assassinate Mat Brinkman by the Chinese? Are you the Manchurian Dork?
MARK: China...I'm still trying to come to grips with everything I experienced there. It's hard to say things that aren't cliche. The scale and pace of growth are astounding. You can literally see the place growing; there's more cranes in Shanghai than in all of North America, or so I was told. There is a frightening uniformity of thought. You get pretty much the same answer to even marginally political questions from everyone. But they're much closer to history - 100 years ago they had an Emperor, the Communist Revolution is a little more than 60 years old. Most people seem to be so thrilled to be eating, let alone have the kind of prosperity we're enjoying in The West, that whether they can't get Google or Facebook is not high on their priority list. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think there is going to be a Chinese version of an Arab Spring there anytime soon.
Since the last of these, I also started life drawing so I could communicate with my artists better, to try to make up for some of the visual arts background that almost every other creator has. I could devote my life to it and never approach the level of a professional artist, but learning to draw has deepened my already deep admiration for what it is artists do. My estimation of Paul Azaceta has grown and grown. It wasn’t that long ago that Paul was only viewed as someone who could do “dark and edgy” books like Daredevil or Hellboy. Putting Paul on Spider-Man was a brave choice on the part of Steve Wacker (someone who does not get enough credit for the eclectic talent he's brought to the forefront of Marvel, like Marcos Martin, Max Fiumara, or Paolo Rivera). And for whatever the flaws in the writing of HAZED, I couldn't think of a better tone for it than the cartoonish take Robbi Rodriguez brought. I got lucky that Robbi (who’s now been snatched up to draw Uncanny X-Force, so score another one for Marvel) sensed that style would help lighten what's actually a pretty dark book.
When I look at Brinkman's art, I definitely have an appreciation for it that goes beyond the "ooh monsters level" (although that's there too). I'm blown away by the detail and scope of the book. It benefits from being oversized.
Intent is something that matters a lot to me. That's something that turned me off about a lot of critical theory when I was in college, this idea that intent doesn't matter, all that matters is the viewer's subjective experience. As a creator the idea that intent doesn't matter makes me feel pretty fucking useless. If I thought this was the ONLY way that Brinkman could draw little wizard people and giants, if I thought this was his attempt at drawing them realistically and this is what came out...honestly, I wouldn't respect the work asmuch. Clearly, he made a choice to draw in the style that he did, and to me that choice is what makes something art.
ABHAY: ...I disagree. (I'm apparently on the side of the education system that tried to no avail to teach you). I don't think intent matters at all. I just don't think anyone can be good enough to consciously control what something "means" for everybody that sees it, and the idea that anyone has a right to tell people that their interpretations are "wrong," even the work's creator-- I think it's kinda morally repugnant for anyone to claim to have that power. It transforms a conversation into a lecture, and if people liked lectures... If people liked lectures, we'd all still be watching STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP. That Aaron Sorkin idea of forcing the audience to agree with you on how to feel about the work, that lame lecture he gave telling people how to feel about the phony women he made up in the SOCIAL NETWORK-- I find that to be a more unpleasant thing about the guy than the crack cocaine abuse...? "I prefer that he be a crackhead." <=== There's a sentence I've always wanted to type.
Whether or not someone made a "choice" is just a locked-room mystery. Say that Mat Brinkman were assassinated by you tomorrow, on instructions from your Chinese overlords, and you were to burn everything he ever did but MULTIFORCE. There would be no way for future generations to definitively know if Brinkman made a choice or not. By your reasoning, would it still be art?
MARK: You could not be more wrong. I mean, I get where you are coming from. It’s insulting as a reader, and I imagine a critic, when anyone tells you how to think. But that’s not what I’m suggesting at all. You’ve created a false narrative where all artists want to impose their vision on everyone. Yes, we all want to be loved by everyone, but it takes a kind of ego I’ve yet to encounter to think that you can control everyone’s opinion. Sorkin is a total straw man-- I’ve been around too many artists to think that’s how most of us think, and so have you.
I’m sure some creators feel that they are the ultimate authority on their work and that what the reader thinks doesn’t matter. But to a certain extent you have to feel that way. If you take every note or criticism as equally valid as your own, if you try to please everyone, you’ll please no one. And I think most of us do care what an audience thinks and that reaction is important to us-- not so much in the sense of whether you like what we say, but whether we doing our job, to effectively communicate our story and get you as a reader to care about it.
If it’s “morally repugnant” for a creator to dictate how someone should feel – although it’s our job as creators to MAKE audiences feel – it’s even more repugnant to say that the creator’s intent means NOTHING. The logical extension of the argument is that every reader’s opinion is equally valid. There’s a difference between an essay and play, or a blog post and a graphic novel. That difference stems from the intent of the creator, from a conscious choice to create entertainment rather than to lecture.
A critic can’t hide behind the notion the locked-door mystery notion of never having a perfect understanding of the artist’s mind. You’ve got to at least attempt to grapple with intent to give a full appraisal of the work. On the flip side, a creator can’t hide behind the impossibility of trying to communicate the exact same idea to everyone, otherwise they wouldn’t try to communicate with ANYONE. The negation of criticism is morally repugnant because it stifles open discussion of art. But the negation of creator intent is similarly repugnant because it stifles the CREATION of art. Why bother creating something if your intent doesn’t matter?
Let me ask... with your own stuff - how much is drawing it yourself a desire to control or own the process of creating a comic? And to bring it back to what I was saying about Brinkman, how much of what we see on the page looks that way because you happen to draw that way, or because you can ONLY draw that way? Versus you making a specific stylistic choice, like using the clip-art style for Dracula? And the big over-arching question - do you think YOUR intent matters?
ABHAY: This is Creator vs. Critic, not Creator vs. Wildly Less Accomplished Creator. You've broken the entire premise of these interviews, in question one.... For me- drawing my own webcomics has always been the only choice, but no, none of my "art" is "intentional." I draw like shit quite involuntarily. I want to be simpler; I want to be faster; I want to draw hands that look like human hands instead of deformed bird claws. But I'm not making any money with webcomics, or even aiming to, so I can't afford to pay an artist, or to waste one's time. I can barely justify the amount of time it takes ME-- let alone doing that to another human being...? But that's fine-- I'm very happy with the road I'm on. I get to make hard R-rated comedies, and even if I had any talent, I don't think there's any road in "professional comics" that would let me make my comics. And I know from seeing what other people's destinations have turned out to be, that I surely don't want their resumes for myself. I mean, not if the best case scenario for being a writer in comics is having your name associated with UNCANNY X-MEN getting cancelled in UNCANNY X-MEN: THE CROSSOVER so that Marvel can launch a brand new book called UNCANNY X-MEN. Yikes. I would prefer that you all be crackheads.
MARK: I think you are using your limited palette of choices to try and deny that the choices you do make matter. That’s some more bullshit right there. Every artist has limited choices. And just as you’ve created a straw man with Aaron Sorkin, you’ve created this false dichotomy where there are only two kinds of creators. You can either be this handicapped martyr who is forced to draw people with claws because he’s mean to other creators, or a sellout who abandons their artistic integrity to write a renumbered superhero franchise book. I have to believe as a creator I can do both, or find work that lies somewhere in between those extremes.
And in that false dichotomy, you’ve also proven that you DO care what the author’s intent is. You clearly look down on the choice to write the Somewhat New, Slightly Different X-Men versus creating things your way (or Mat Brinkman’s way). It’s fine to hold that opinion, but don’t pretend that what the author is trying to do is not something you care about. Or that it’s not something you take into consideration when you evaluate their work.
Put that in your crack pipe and smoke it.
ABHAY: Let's just get some background. What's your experience with art comics generally? Have you read any Gary Panter? Have you ever looked at a MOME or KRAMER'S ERGOT? Is that a sector of comics on your radar? Honestly-- art-comics are not an area of comics I feel especially confident about. I've read my share but I always feel very badly under-read when it comes to this area of comics. I'm sure anyone reading this who's more knowledgeable about that world is going to be unkind about how shallow my questions are, which is fine; I can't blame them. So, this interview is going to be the blind leading the blind. This interview will be like hearing about sex in middle school, back before the internet existed when junior high kids would talk about sex but not know what they were talking about, not have seen 500 hours off Redtube. I remember once over-hearing two kids in my middle school talking about an erotic dream one had-- this is 6th grade, maybe. The part that has stuck with me decades later was one of my classmates saying something about "me and her started spraying one another with deodorant." Which... deodorant? To this day, I wonder, like-- was actual sex disappointing to him, when he discovered that deodorant sprays would not be a part of the experience of losing his virginity? Or .. or am I doing it wrong, Mark? Should there be a part where I spray deodorant? ... Explain sex to me, Mark Sable.
MARK: Fuck that. I want you to explain sex to me, Abhay. I’m not even kidding. We’ve known each other for years and while I think you could probably name every one of my ex-girlfriends, I know next to nothing about your personal life. Mostly because I’ve been afraid to ask. But no more! Just as part of my goal is to get you to do more creative writing in addition to your criticism, I’d love to break you down and get you past absurdist writing and get you to delve into personal stuff. I’d love to see if there’s a “Paying For It” in you.
ABHAY: ...I don't actually know any of your ex-girlfriends, Mark-- I met one of them at a birthday party back, maybe, five years ago now...? Annnnd that's it(?). But yes, I am working on a sequel to PAYING FOR IT. The title's going to be APOLOGIZING FOR IT. It's just a one panel strip of me saying things like "don't take it personal-- I'm under a lot of stress" or "God, do you need so much attention? I'm trying to write about comic books over here." It's going to be pretty terrible, worthless and unlovable-- like MARMADUKE, basically. That's basically how I introduce myself to women now-- "Hello. I am a Sexual Marmaduke."
MARK: You’ve met at least one or two of my ex-girlfriends. You had dinner with the anti-Semitic one. And I mention “Paying For It” because that’s maybe the last “art” comic I read. I haven’t read Kramer’s Ergot but I’ve read Poor Sailor. I love Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware but…are any of the comics I’ve cited “art comics”? That’s how uninformed I am – I’m not even capable of formulating a definition of what an art comic is, except perhaps in opposition to superhero comics.
Something that’s frustrating to me is that it seems there’s mainstream superhero comics on the one hand, and there’s the APE/MOCCA DIY stuff on the other. I don’t know that I feel particularly welcome or at home in either community. I mean, my last books few creator-owned books have covered war/horror (GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES), espionage/high concept techno-thrillers (UNTHINKABLE) all-ages time travel (RIFT RAIDERS) and a satirical take on sororities and eating disorders (HAZED). They aren’t superhero comics, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them art comics. How would you categorize them?
ABHAY: You know how on the Dukes of Hazzard, there'd be those shot of a car about to crash into some hillbilly barn, how it'd freeze and Uncle Jesse would come on and say something like, "Old Boss Hogg surely didn't realize the trouble he was getting himself into this time." I just experienced my own personal version of that.
MARK: ... What disqualifies them as art? Do they fit too neatly into genres? Are they too high concept? Does it have something to do with my intent? To some extent, I don’t care, but the reality is I have to market these books to an audience and market myself to artists, editors, publishers etc. So these distinctions do matter. What is an art comic?
ABHAY: Discussions of definitions are always just the most pointless conversations on any comic part of the internet. Scott McCloud came up with a definition of comics that excluded Family Circus or the Far Side somehow. The Comics Journal had a definition that included Al Hirschfeld illustrations somehow. At one point, wikipedia had a definition of art comics as something like "comics that share their aesthetics with the art world" -- that wikipedia entry was then deleted and destroyed in its entirety by people with their own definition.
MARK: Definitions are imperfect, but it’s hard to have a discussion about something you can’t define. Why is Multiforce an "art comic?" It seems to me what qualifies this as “art” is that it’s not about superheroes and that it’s not aimed at a commercial audience. I get the former when we are talking about Maus, but Multiforce isn’t about the Holocaust, it’s about (to the extent it’s about anything), two little wizard dudes fleeing the destruction of city after city by giants with axes for arms. Don’t get me wrong, I love that…but the knock on superhero comics is that they are juvenile, I don’t see the subject matter here being any less juvenile. You can even argue the art style is juvenile. It evokes the kind of doodles you’d do in school, although there’s an intricacy to it that’s astounding. But it at least appears to lack some things that you’d traditionally associate with great art or literature, like grappling with big ideas of existence or transcendent technique.
ABHAY: I think you're applying the wrong criteria. "Does it transmit great ideas about existence?" might be a helpful question to ask yourself if you're judging Russian novels, but MULTIFORCE is visual art and those questions in that context seem inappropriate. Does a Mark Rothko painting or a Franz Kline painting succeed or fail based on whether or not it transmitted a "big idea of existence" to you when you view it? Arguably not-- so why would you insist that we judge MULTIFORCE by that criteria?
MARK: To talk about comics as if they are simply visual art and not narrative art is to dismiss half the equation (and in most comics, half the creative team). I find it arbitrary that you make the distinction between what’s an art comic and what’s not based on visual and aesthetic considerations as opposed to literary ones. I think that reflects a particular bias on your part about what you want to see from comic creators who possess the freedom to do their own work. It’s completely valid to want those things and judge them from that perspective, as long as you admit it’s just as useful or useless a way of defining things as choice of genre is when evaluating something’s worth.
ABHAY: I don't know... You sound a little offended that no one thinks your high concept techno-thriller comics are art, but... Were they meant to be? Were they meant to be judged on the same terms as MULTIFORCE? Or are they entertainment? There's a distinction between art and entertainment, and however nebulous that distinction is, it's not all that hard to make at least a superficial call. Especially with comics-- you can judge them by the covers. I mean, sure-- anyone who's written anything has thought "wowee zowie-- I'm expressing myself!" And so I guess any distinction I'd draw there-- that MULTIFORCE is plainly operating more in a tradition of self-expression than anyone would expect from an Image comic, with a goal more so to create something unique to the artist, etc... I mean, sure, I can see how a person would take offense to that sort of formulation. How that'd put your back up against a wall, a little. But I'm not saying that entertainment can't ever be art...
MARK: I find the idea of “self-expression” interesting for a couple reasons. One, because I know you keep saying over and over again that you don’t care about the intent of the author. But how can you categorize something as self-expression without knowing and judging what the author’s trying to express? The more I think about it, the less I believe you don’t care about that distinction. I think if you were honest, you would say you prefer and regard more highly comics that push the envelope visually. And you respect those creators who intend to push those boundaries more than those that don’t. Also, “self-expression” can be a juvenile and masturbatory way to approach art. To me it implies a sense of self-importance and a lack of regard for the audience. This idea that everything everyone has something interesting to say. I think Twitter is living proof that’s not true.
With the term art comics, there is a perceived value judgment. Whichever definition you use, it automatically implies anything that doesn’t fit that definition is NOT art. Whether you consider my particular body of work art is not terribly important. But I think it is important that there are creators and, more importantly, readers, who feel excluded from both communities as a result of these arbitrary definitions.
My first reaction to your question here was – why the fuck should you care why I write what I write, if you don’t care about an artist’s intent? I write them to entertain, yes, but also to inform and provoke. And to make money and make people like and respect me and to make myself feel like my life has some worth since I haven’t created any actual people yet (that I know of). And a hundred others things including, yes, to express myself. I give you shit about the artist’s intent mattering more than you think it does. But in thinking about my own intentions in creating comics…there are so many and it’s so hard to pinpoint, especially with the passage of time…I see why it can be a futile attempt for a critic to try and discern it. As a creator I’d like my intent to be respected. But that’s only as long as my intent is being correctly understood.
Again, my first reaction is to say that I wouldn’t call my comics art because I think that would be pretentious. But if I dig deeper, that’s because claiming my work is “art” terrifies me. I’m afraid that if I say hey, I think I’m doing some work that merits attention here, I’m not sure I’d like the scrutiny I would get. I respect the hell out of artists that have the balls to say that about their own work. As long as they can back it up.
ABHAY: So, I knew from the get-go that I wanted to follow talking to you about SECRET AVENGERS with MULTIFORCE. Because my suspicion is that with mainstream comics, my suspicion is that we both have read comics for such a fucking unbearably long time, that we "read" those the same way. Not so much "read" them as just... just inhale them, in a sort of automatic way...? If a mainstream comic lasts me more than a couple minutes, it's because I'm falling asleep reading one. I know I've mentioned specific ones to you that put me to sleep. And when I sleep, I have no dreams. Sometimes I put my hand into a flame, just to see if I can still feel things, Mark, or to test how much I love Richard Nixon.
So, even though I'm *terrible* at writing about them, the biggest reason I find art-comics like MULTIFORCE valuable for me is because I usually wind up so confused by what art comic creators are doing content-wise and format-wise that they force me to at least pay attention. I may not understand or fully appreciate everything I'm looking at, but I at least have this experience of becoming very cognizant of how I read comics. There may be "less" for me to read in terms of story-- but I'm somehow invited to read more aggressively and I'm more awake when I read it. (I'm fucking terrible at writing about this shit; I always just wind up muttering about how much fun it is to see "one panel turn into another panel" and then giving up but...)
I wanted to ask you about this because I would guess that you are someone who probably subscribes to the goal of the author being "invisible," that zipless-fuck model of comics where the ideal comic experience is one where you don't think about the creators existing and are subsumed entirely into the fictional reality. I don't think that I do because ... I guess I just grew up obsessed with very present authors, with very noticeable authorial stamps-- Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, guys who were not shy about standing out from the pack. I think what marked the British Invasion out and what still makes those comics so vital is that comic authors asserted their presence in a way that American authors might still have a problem with, to this day.
MARK: I read most comics on auto-pilot as well. Where I we may differ in terms of the kind of auto-pilot we fly on is that I’m more focused on the writing and story than the art. Which is odd because I tend to tune out lyrics when I listen to music, and I could stare at paintings for hours on end. I guess that’s my bias viewing comics as a primarily narrative medium; I don’t want to be pulled out of the narrative for any reason, be it art or dialogue, good or bad. I don’t want to be taken out of the story because the writer is trying to show me he can write naturalistic “sounding” dialogue, or the artist is showing off a clever panel arrangement that doesn’t serve the story. The worst for me is – I hate fucking feeling lectured too. Nothing turns me off more than a pretentious quote in a comic. Or didactic dialogue that’s there to show me how smart the writer thinks he or she is. Some of my favorite creators did or do that and I wish they’d just trust their stories more.
At the same time - I still revere the authors you've listed. Was their storytelling so good that I didn’t care about their authorial flourishes? Did my tastes change? Am I turned off now because today’s creators are just not as good? Maybe I'm just jealous-- maybe the more aware of the presence of other creators I am, the more aware I am of their success. One of the nice things about reading Multiforce is that…I don’t feel like I’m in any competition with Matt Brinkman. We are trying to do such different things that I can focus on the work.
There’s still some degree of auto-pilot going on. When there are threads of narrative I do find myself trying to surrender to it. I find pleasure in that, just as I find pleasure in just staring at some of the intricately constructed cityscapes or for a good joke. The frustrating thing is, not having any context for this book whatsoever, I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to be looking for. I feel like I may be missing something Brinkman is trying to do.
ABHAY: I read this essay the other day by Patton Oswalt. It was in his book which... I don't honestly know if I can recommend his book as a whole, but the title essay, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, I quite enjoyed. The essay breaks down different kinds of genre entertainment-- post-apocalyptic wasteland stories, zombie stories, spaceship stories-- and talks about what the teenage audience for those is like, how what they're into as teenagers predicts their lives to some extent, what happens when they return to those stories as adults. He has these examples, how the Matrix is a wasteland stories crossed with a spaceship story; Star Wars is a spaceship story crossed with a zombie story, etc. He sort of tracks how all popular geek things come from those three adolescent story-types. I'm not doing it justice but...
Or like, I'd heard a podcast. I'm jumping around, but around the same time as I read this essay, I heard this podcast-- it was a panel discussion between Sam Hiti, Paul Pope and Brandon Graham. All three are obviously just heavyweight comic dudes-- I love all of their work. And in this panel discussion, all three of them were extremely dedicated about their work, all of them were talking about the artistry that goes into comics quite eloquently, and it was a great time. But when the topic of subject matter came up, each of them in turn kept mentioning "Well, I was into such-and-such when I was a teenager." None of them thought anything of it-- they just kept saying it in a very unquestioning way, without any ability to hear themselves reference their interests as teenagers over and over. They were all very serious about their work but none of them questioned that their work was just rooted in who they were when they were barely pubescent. Which was fascinating just by virtue of its omission...?
And MULTIFORCE, with its wizards and battle-monsters-- it has that teenage stain to it, too, you know...?
So when you say the "context" for MULTIFORCE, I guess I think of that, too. And I don't mean this as a critique, in a "oh, comics are so adolescent-- even fancy-schmancy ones" way. But that idea that you can't be a big hit with geeks if you're not in that headspace with them, to me, was a very off-putting idea to have in my head because... Because I don't have much affection for me, age: 13. I don't like that kid-- he was kind of shitty. The stuff I was into-- it's stuff I want to feel like I've grown past. Maybe I have grown past-- I don't know; maybe not. I don't know-- and so to some extent, my inability to connect with anything lately... I feel like so many people in comics are trying to access a part of themselves that I want nothing to do with. Do you sit there obsessing about your teen years when you're sitting there writing about zombies or pleasure robots or cheerleaders or whatever the hell it is your comics are about, I haven't read any of them? Do you ever think maybe you have to be able to go to that place to hit it big in the whole comics-for-geeky-types game?
MARK: No, I don’t think consciously mine my adolescent years for artistic or commercial gain. I’m embarrassed by a good portion of the pop culture I consumed:
- I thought the “silent issue” of GI Joe was a literary masterpiece.
- I loved 80s comics so much that Marvel Comics was the theme to my Bar Mitzvah.
- Somewhere out there are tee-shirt I gave out that said “I had a MARVELous Time at Mark’s Bar Mitzvah” with my bespectacled, caricatured head on Iron Mane’s Silver Centurion armor.
- I thought Tom Clancy had profound political ideas. So much so I wrote my college essay for Duke about how the Middle East peace plan in The Sum of All Fears was worthy of serious consideration. It involved the Vatican’s Swiss Guard taking custody of Jerusalem. Because, you know, it’s a great idea to turn over the holiest site in Judaism and one of the top three holiest sites to Muslims to the Church that started THE CRUSADES.
- Seinfeld…one of the very first things I ever wrote was a Seinfeld spec about bubble wrap (who wrote spec sitcom scripts in high school in 1993?). Jerry’s sister lived across from my high school and I put it in her mailbox and the rejection letter I got telling me they can’t read unsolicited submissions is something I prized for far too long.
A long time has passed since then. And yet…I’m working for Marvel now. I saw Larry David recently and I froze up in a way I never have in front of anyone famous. And, I think you can see Tom Clancy’s influence in UNTHINKABLE and Larry Hama’s in GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES. I did a ton of research for both those books, so I think they reflect more mature reading choices and a more nuanced political worldview. But they are still rooted in these things that for whatever reason affected me at an early age.
You more easily absorb a second language when you are younger, and I think the same is true with the art and entertainment we consume. I learned French in high school and can still speak it enough to get around Paris. I learned the equivalent amount of Modern Hebrew in college and I couldn’t order falafel. Similarly, I read Dostoevsky’s Notes from The Underground maybe four years later than the Sum of All Fears and while it blew my fucking mind it’s pretty clear which one influenced me more.
For someone who has ambitions greater than what I’ve published ... it’s frustrating. But I can’t help that I grew up watching Robotech and playing Pool of Radiance on my Commodore 64. All I can do is hope that the other stuff I bring – my education, life experiences, whatever – helps broaden the scope of the comics conversation.
ABHAY: Some things are plainly oriented towards an audience, communicating ideas to an audience, educating an audience, entertaining an audience. And we can judge them by the standard of whether they succeeded or failed in satisfying some cognizable audience need. On the other hand, we have something like MULTIFORCE where when I look at it, I feel like the audience and the audience's needs are much less relevant to how we should judge it, that maybe the idea is more so about creating something that's purely of the author, with an audience invited to spectate upon the results. (I mean, I'm sure fans of this kind of thing are jumping up and down somewhere, muttering about how much they got to participate in MULTIFORCE and bully for them, but.)
And that interests me for a couple reasons-- one, because it's honestly so alien to me, it's so outside the realm of what I can imagine ever being able to do. You know: I write these shitty little essays with little dumb jokes in them, but ... I suppose on some level, I guess I'm always thinking about an audience. Mostly African-American men. Like... like, do you remember that one D'Angelo video? I think about that video a lot, sometimes.
And two-- I think there's a weird thing in comics where people who plainly and unmistakably make things for audiences pretend otherwise. You know, you see the interviews where people strike this affected pose-- "I don't write for an audience. I write for me and just assume that people as cool as me are out there. It takes a lot of generosity on my part to imagine it but that's what I'm willing to do." And it's like... c'mon, you write BATMAN for a living. "I don't read reviews. I'm too much of a fucking artist. I didn't read a single review for SIEGE AFTERMATH: BATMAN VERSUS THE DEATH CHEERLEADERS."
MARK: With the possible exception of some JD Salinger manuscripts that might be locked away or burned, all art is for an audience. There’s an audience that will give you lots of money for Batman on a bangbus with cheerleaders and there’s a smaller audience that’s interested in seeing what the inside of people’s heads are like. I have to think about gatekeepers – artists, editors, publishers and Hollywood types who determine whether my stuff gets made. My life is all about trying to write things that I’d like to read myself that will also get published/get me paid.
ABHAY: In the place in comics you exist at, you have to worry about building an audience, generating and maintaining goodwill with editors, potentially finding ways to exploit your properties in Hollywood-- you are constantly having to service not just an audience but multiple different audiences, some of whom may have conflicting goals or evaluative criteria. When you see something like MULTIFORCE, which at least seemingly doesn't give a fuck about any of that shit, are you jealous? Are you a little angry? Are you going to cry? Are you going to fucking cry like a little bitch?
MARK: I don’t know enough about Multiforce or Brinkman to know what his intention is in terms of entertaining an audience and who that audience might be. But given what you said…of course I’m jealous. I’d love to empty my head on the page and have it published without having to figure out some kind of high concept angle. I envy cartoonists who don’t need to rely upon anyone to draw for that reason. I envy prose writers for that reason as well. On the other hand, I’m not sure that my work would necessarily be better if it was more personal. Art is still communicative, and being forced to communicate with an audience, even if I don’t completely understand who that audience is, I think has made me tell better stories.
I think about the audience a lot-- though perhaps not as much as I should. Not because I don’t care what they think but because…quite frankly I don’t know who my readership is. I feel like I write such diverse things that I’m not sure if the same people that reading my mainstream superhero books like Teen Titans are also reading creator owned books like GRAVEYARD. I’m not even sure that there’s overlap between my different creator-owned books. Which is strange because – the comics readership is so small and creators are so accessible that I’m probably Facebook friends with a good portion of my readership.
ABHAY: There's something David Foster Wallace said in a Bookworm interview that always stuck with me. This is back in 2000, as part of the "Heartbreaking Group of Staggering Geniuses" interview series that Michael Silverblatt was doing back then. At one point, Wallace said something that's stuck with me for about eleven years now:
"Is the fundamental transaction an artistic transaction, which I think involves a gift? Or is it fundamentally an economic transaction, which I regard as cold? I think television, commercial film, commercial top 40 music-- some of which, no make mistake, I put in my time watching, these are very cold media[...]. The coldness I'm talking about-- none of this is for you. What it is, is to get you to like it enough so that certain rewards accrue to the creators and sponsors of these things. [...] One of the reasons why people react to certain things like alternative music or poetry slams or kind of makeshift art that you see in parks-- some of which is kind of ugly, but it's warm. One senses that the transactions is, for lack for a better terms, is spiritual, and is between people, and that economics and sales are not at the absolute fundament of it."
With comics... I get the impression that every comic creator thinks they're creating gifts merely because the scale of the financial rewards are so small, not just on their own terms but also by comparison to creative product in other media. (Or I feel like on the internet, there's this constant desperate chatter about "loving comics"-- I love comics, do you love comics, why do you love comics, when did you realize you love comics, what were you wearing when you realized you love comics...). But regardless of all of that, I would say that I still perceive the majority of books being created as being cold, in the DFW sense set forth above. And I don't know if that's just my cynicism, or my own lack of "warmth," or lack of spirituality, or a failing of my own "love" of comics.
MARK: The pull between art and commerce has been there forever. It’s not some new development. I guess it comes down to how you view human nature. I don’t believe anyone does anything for free. We all expect to get some kind of reward. Maybe it’s not financial, maybe it’s in return for the simple act of acknowledging someone else’s ability. Either way it’s a transaction. As cynical as that sounds…I don’t think either of us would be having this conversation if art didn’t have a transcendent quality to it. I’m the least spiritual person in the world, but I’m thankful for those moments when I’m genuinely moved by something. But what I live for are those moments when I’m in the process of writing something that moves me. All those cliché things about how amazing those moments are when a character surprises you? Or when you’ve suddenly worked something out in your writing that, for just a brief moment, makes the universe temporarily make sense? They’re true, and I’m not sure they are any less true for someone writing about Bruce and Martha Wayne getting shot in crime alley than they are for David Eggers writing about his real parents’ death.
Warmth works. Warmth sells. Spider-Man may have been cold commodified to sub-zero but there’s heart in it that still resonates beyond nostalgia. And I’d bet much of the vitriol that pours out of you is your frustration as a reader. It’s less your frustration over some aesthetic choice than it is that on some level the work isn’t giving you the warmth you secretly crave. I’ve seen you be forgiving over some things with some pretty big flaws, and I think that’s because you were moved. Had Bucky’s character had a bit more warmth to him, maybe when we saw Captain America, you wouldn’t have giggled like a schoolgirl as Bucky plummeted to his death (or into Ed Brubaker’s Commie arms for the inevitable sequel).
ABHAY: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you about MULTIFORCE is that you're maybe one of the biggest computer game guys I know. You're always playing some game where you pretend to be a magical pixie ballerina and you wander through a dungeon killing elves, or you pretend to be a magical pixie ballerina and you run through New York City murdering hookers, or you pretend to be a magical pixie ballerina and you create and destroy your own simulated human civilizations. I just know that you've spent hour after hour, upon hour upon hour, pretending to be a magical pixie ballerina-- and for some of those hours, you've also coincidentally happened to have been nearby a computer game.
MARK: Now that you’ve outed me as one of “the biggest computer game guys I know”, I don’t feel bad about asking you about your sex life. Actually, I think that gaming is probably less geeky than comics, it’s more mainstream. But as someone who used to make paper maps for A Bard’s Tale on my Commodore 64 (thank god for automapping) I’ve always managed to get ahead of the nerd curve and carve myself out the most socially retarded niche possible.
ABHAY: More than any other reference, there's a comparison to video games that gets made when people discuss MULTIFORCE, comics like it. I was not a huge SNES guy, but there are people who look at MULTIFORCE and see, you know, that same exploration of fantasy maps that was at the heart of Metroid or Castylvania or whatever: whatever destination is at stake is irrelevant; the "reward" for the "journey" is the journey itself, getting to see more of the map, more of the terrain. Brinkman's characters-- maybe people see them as being symbol-characters that the audience is allowed to imprint on, the way Kid Icarus or whoever was just this weird collection of blocks that a certain generation of dude has this weird affection for...? I just wasn't SNES-y as a kid-- except maybe DUCK HUNT. But as far as I know, there isn't a generation of art-comix creators working out the influence of DUCK HUNT in their comics, so... based on that, I think I've quite reasonably concluded that I'm probably like a million times better than anyone who draws comics at Duck Hunt. So suck on those apples, David Mazzucchelli.
MARK: I did notice something of a game feel to Multiforce. Although those aspects could just as easily have come from fantasy novels or role playing games. Books like Scott Pilgrim or Nonplayer seem to wear their videogame references on their sleeves. There’s was an action figure influence to it as well (action figure collecting being even more of a sign of arrested development than games or comics). You’ve got these giant monsters with these modular arms. The coolest of them being the book’s star, Battle Max Ace, who has an axe for one arm and a mace for another. How could you look at him and not think he’s the coolest Micronaut ever?
Did I experience the comic as a gamer? Well, I viewed all these things as shoutouts to my various nerd hobbies. But, the comics lacks something essential to gaming which is the freedom, or even the illusion of freedom, to explore the worlds Brinkman created. There’s no choice, we’re just being led on a path, we’re on rails. Even if that path takes us through an incredibly cool world, one with very clever asides.
ABHAY: My favorite game this year is The Stanley Parable, which is a free 5-minute PC game critiquing the illusion of choice in videogames-- it's about how transparent that illusion is. The illusion of freedom with games... I mean, sure, some people play MASS EFFECT as a boy and try to have sex with the racist girl, and some people play it as a girl and try to have sex with the blue skinned girl, so it's not nothing. But I know from experience, from having played Zork as a kid and typing "FUCK MAILBOX" and every other perverse two-word combination of sex act I could muster up in my imagination at age whatever into the Zork engine-- our imaginations always are going to outpace the level of choice a game designer can ever possibly offer and so there's always going to be something disappointing about "choice" in games...
I just played that game LA NOIRE, which is just fucking terrible from a story standpoint, from a game design standpoint, from just a ... just a fun standpoint. You just wander around these apartments, picking up and putting down bottles, and that's basically the entire fucking game. "Oh, look-- it's another bottle." But ... at the same time, I got to wander around 1940's Los Angeles. That was almost enough. MULTIFORCE's geography was the same for me in that way, I guess. It's very easy to think of comics, games, etc., as just being these delivery vehicles for "stories," but... sometimes, I think maybe stories are sometimes just excuses for a chance to check out and visit some Other Place mentally for a while. Same as porn -- sure, sometimes it comes with a story, but the stories don't even end in any meaningful way. I mean, okay, sometimes, the guy'll say something like "I'm changing your astrophysics grade from a C to an A so you can keep your scholarship."
MARK: With games…I’ve generally been underwhelmed by what game critics consider a “good story”. Heavy Rain was the last game I can think of that praised for story, and while I enjoyed the gaming experience…if you took the gaming aspect out of that the story would not hold up. I think my best gaming experiences have been with games with little or no story, where I’ve gotten to impose my own narrative on it. I like coming up with my own reason why empires rise and fall in Civilization. Or…one of the best gaming experiences I had was with fellow comic book and screenwriter Jonathan Davis playing The Sims. We created a house where we populated them with Sims that we named after well known comic creators from the 90s, and watched them shit themselves into squalor.
With porn…I mean the goal is to get the viewer off. But we all have such individual erotic tastes. I mean, I might prefer cuckolding, and you might like lemon parties. And by like, I mean you crave the feeling of your dark flesh being suckled by my pale white grandfathers like it was the nectar of the gods. So the more specific you make the plot of porn, the more you shrink your audience who maybe wants the actress to take off her goddamn high heels for once. You could get V.S. Naipul or whoever to write porn and chances are he can’t come up with something that competes with our naughty fantasy of someone we had a crush on in high school or college.
Storytelling in gaming is at best secondary to the gameplay experience, and storytelling in porn is more often than not putting an obstacle in the way of someone getting an orgasm.
Here’s another question for you. Can comics be non-narrative experiences? There are non-narrative films, although those are generally things I can’t sit through for more than a few minutes as part of museum installation. Can you think of an example of a truly non-narrative comic? Because while the narrative in Multiforce is pretty thin compared to say, Watchmen, the threads of narrative are still there, even if they sometimes just exist to poke fun at traditional fantasy/gamer storylines.
ABHAY: Non-narrative comics? Absolutely, yeah, more than I can count. There was a collection called ABSTRACT COMICS that came out a year or two ago. Frank Santoro did a comic called CHIMERA that's sitting in a drawer in my kitchen somewhere, this yellow and salmon-colored thing where... there's a sort of progression to the images, so would you call a progression of images a "narrative?" Some of Derik Badman's webcomics; I don't know-- lots of stuff. You go looking through anthologies and you'll see enough "formal experiments" to choke a horse. I feel like there are periodically dust-ups in fact where people complain that young cartoonists are too interested in non-narrative based investigations into form, instead of focusing on character-based experiences...?
Except I don't know if this is the right answer though because... it's a question of what "non-narrative" means to you maybe...? That term makes me queasy because, well, comics may be inherently "narratives" just in that I think we're built to impose a narrative onto sequential images, even if one is not presented. You probably know about that Russian editor experiment where Russian editors took still shots of an actor and a plate of food, and based on how they arranged it, the audience either complimented the actor for conveying hunger or conveying disgust, something like that...? I mean, I never saw Koyaanisqatsi, with the Phil Glass music and everything, but I remember seeing MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA and all ... Oh, it was years ago but my recollection is that it was like your very-metaphorically-accurate SIMS game, in that I remember it being difficult not to create a narrative and push it onto the images, when presented with that montage, difficult to just accept images as images. Or it's ... It's kind of a confusing question.
ABHAY: With MULTIFORCE-- the collective impact of each page tends to be overwhelming. Each page is more than the sum of its parts; each page is constructing or demolishing some kind of other-worldly geographical space, with the story sort of forming out of these abrasive doodle-characters journeying through that space, battling over that space. And the geographical spaces sort of seem to escalate as the story goes along-- there's a forest which gives way to subterranean caverns, which give way to these giant pueblo-like stone structures connected by trains through giant skulls, etc.
And so what I suppose MULTIFORCE always make me think of is how my favorite comics tend to have that same appeal, of characters investigating and journeying through a limited space. My first favorite comic was Walt Simonson's THOR, you know, with those Simonson panels that pull back to establish the characters occupying an architectural Viking space. That being my upbringing, I admittedly thought about that facet of Simsonson more than any other cartoonist while looking at MULTIFORCE. And when I get to thinking about that kind of thing, I always wind up at the same place: how weird a thing it is that there are people who write comics. Because it seems like there are all of these pleasures to comics, so many of maybe the most pleasurable things, that I don't know that you can access as a writer. How do you ask an artist to "draw characters walking through a geographical space?"
MARK: That’s what I was saying about being jealous of cartoonists. It’s hard to enough trying to describe something like the cityscapes in Multiforce in a AFTER the fact, let alone asking someone to draw something like that in a script. Although I was a comic book reader all my life, I didn’t envision or prepare myself for writing comics as a career. Now, five or so years in, I’ve been trying to give myself a bit of a crash course in the visual arts, like with the drawing lessons. Not because I think I’ll somehow replace my artists, just so I can better communicate with them.
It’s always a balance of giving artists a clear vision to execute while giving them enough room to have fun and make the project their own. With someone like Paul Azaceta, we’ve built up trust and communication over the years to the point where I think our roles overlap. On Graveyard, he’s been intimately involved in the story and I think the roles for both of us have been blurred. I’ve had similar experiences with Salgood Sam/ Max Douglas on our story for Tori Amos’ Comic Book Tattoo, and now with a Dracula project we are working on. With work for hire, where I don’t know the artist, and when I start often don’t even know who the artist might be, I try to lay out a very specific vision. If I don’t, I’m not just leaving it to chance, I’m abrogating my responsibility in a way. I mean, almost without exception, nearly everything I’ve ever written in comics has come out better than I imagined thanks to the artist. But as a collaborator it’s pretty shitty to make the artist do the heavy lifting.
Yes, clearly there are things that artists bring to the table that writers can’t, even if they’ve got better visual art resumes than I do. But I believe – I have to believe-- there are things that writers bring to the table that artists can’t. Writing – not just comics writing – is something that’s become devalued. Partly because we all do SOME kind of writing, whether it’s a screenplay or an essay or an e-mail. And, you know, it’s not helping some publishers are giving artists writing gigs on titles as incentives for signing exclusives. It’s hard to imagine that the other way around. Add all that to the fact that…as human beings we have a tendency to impose narrative on something, whether it’s there or not. But that innate sense of story we all possess shouldn’t be mistaken for expertise in the craft.
ABHAY: I don’t know—with mainstream comics, we’re coming off this era of Writers as Stars of Comics. I feel like a sales pitch for mainstream comics was made to lapsed readers starting about 10 years ago, that “Oh, those bad ol’ Image guys wrecked comics by focusing on the art so much, but then the writers regained control and now we have stories again.” I don’t think that sales pitch reflects the reality anymore—it all seems as editor-driven and editor-suffocated as the worst parts of the 90’s to me-- but that seems like it's still the sales pitch. They’re even printing those photos of bewildered writers straight into the pages of mega-crossovers now. “Look! Look at our writers! Look at our writers trying to make human expressions with their faces! Here is proof that our comics are so, so written!”
However, when I go onto the internet, at least the people I read—they all seem much more eager to talk artists. Maybe it’s the people I read, but I know I’ve read more excited writing about Jerome Opena, Marcos Martin or Chris Bachalo than whoever's writing for them. Or I know personally, while I might have some nice enough things to say about Scott Snyder, I’m way more excited to see people react to and/or rediscover Greg Capullo…? I just think Capullo’s rad. Are you a Greg Capullo super-fan? I am. I mean, I’m bewildered by some of the artists chosen to write their own books-- sure. But at the same time, the idea I’m going to enjoy a JH Williams comic an iota less without some of the writers who've written for that guy… well, with my tastes, let’s just say that seems unlikely to me.
But say hypothetically you loved MULTIFORCE-- could you and Paul Azaceta have teamed up for MULTIFORCE 2: MULTIFORCE TAKES AFGHANISTAN? Or is it like... like when I hear rap music, where I just go, "Oh, I can't do the rapping so I guess it's a good thing that poverty exists, after all." The fact I can't rap doesn't diminish my ability to appreciate the rappings of other people-- we all just have to shine in our own special way...
MARK: Would I write Multiforce 2? Abso-fucking-lutely.
I was talking with a creator at Comic-Con about that rumor that keeps resurfacing that someone’s finally going to give a go ahead to write a Watchmen sequel. He said he absolutely wouldn’t do it, which is the stance of most sane creators. And I said I would. Not for the money or the press-- I’d be the guy who forever shat on the patron saint of modern comics. I’d do it for the challenge. And that’s the same way I’d feel about taking on Multiforce 2. How could I make it work in a way that honored the original experience and yet was something new enough to ask someone to spend their time and money? Which, I think, is basically the approach I take to comics. Most obviously that’s the case with work-fire hire corporate jobs. But any time I’m dealing with a genre that’s been done before (which is all of them), that’s how I approach it. I’m sure both experiences would be utter failures as art, but I can’t imagine they’d do anything other than make me better a better creator. Even if it’s so I know what NOT to do.
The most lasting, the most resonant stories in any medium are ones that follow the same dramatic structure Aristotle and Shakespeare and Chekhov perfected. Their genius isn’t diminished by the fact that they needed actors to fully realize their vision, and it wouldn't be diminished if they needed artists to realize their vision. Three act structure, the fundamentals of comedy and tragedy and melodrama etc. are as essential to a good comic as anatomy or perspective, even if they aren’t as visible.
So yes, I’m jealous of an artist’s ability to render their vision directly on the page. But even writing prose, where I do have more control, I know that there will always be a gap between what it’s in my head and what comes out on the page. Having the ability to draw might diminish that gap, but it would still be there.
DING! DING! DING!
AND THAT’S THE BELL…
WITH NO CLEAR KNOCK-OUT, THAT MEANS WE GO TO THE JUDGE’S DECISION. (AND OF COURSE, AS THE ONLY FULLY ACCREDITED COMIC CRITIC, THE JOB OF JUDGMENT WILL BE HANDLED BY ME, ABHAY– JUDGING IS SORT OF WHAT I DO)…
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AND WE HAVE A UNANIMOUS DECISION FROM OUR JUDGES– THE VICTOR OF THIS ROUND IS…
Warm cookies, right out of the oven. The first day of spring after a long winter. Audience reaction shots from a "Oprah's Favorite Things" episode of Oprah. Lap dances. Christmas carols being sung door to door. Every episode of The Larry Sanders Show being available on Netflix at a moment's notice. Defeating Mark Sable in this installment of CREATOR VS. CRITIC is better than all of those things. It's just such a satisfying feeling, but also kind of spiritually renewing-- like, right this second, I have a pretty good feeling that I know how that EAT PRAY LOVE woman felt while she was eating, praying and lovin' on all those dicks. But as a meager consolation, here's an ad for Mark Sable's FEARLESS, which again is in the latest Diamond catalog (order code SEP110399)...
TO BE CONTINUED...?
COMIC CREATORS! COMIC CRITICS! NATURAL ENEMIES SINCE THE VERY DAWN OF TIME!An enmity forged in the fires of Malice! Born to hate, living to die, dying to love, but loving to fury-- a fight that can only end one way: in the squared octagon.
A SQUARED OCTAGON MADE UP OF LENGTHY BLOCKS OF DULL TEXT THAT WE CALL...
CREATOR VS. CRITIC.
In the CREATOR corner, hailing from the mean streets of Hollywood, California-- Mark Sable... author of GROUNDED, HAZED, TWO FACE YEAR ONE, CYBORG, TEEN TITANS: COLD CASE, WHAT IF SPIDER-MAN DID SOMETHING OR ANOTHER THAT I'M SURE WAS VERY INTERESTING, FEARLESS, and/or RIFT RAIDERS. Mark's next book is GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES from Image Comics, with Paul Azaceta (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, BPRD 1956, POTTERS FIELD, WATCHMEN, GOOD WILL HUNTING, LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND). You can also see a limited-animation cartoon that Mark wrote for the movie SUCKERPUNCH online now.
In the CRITIC corner, weighing in at 160 pounds, with most of that weight in the cock, ladies, if you catch my drift (my drift being that I'm a very sad person, and I cry a lot)... you know, me. Abhay. Hey. Hello. WRITER of ... well, I wrote a pretty gnarly comment the other day on youtube. I was pretty proud about that. You can soon see Abhay in an overcoat at a theatre playing SUCKERPUNCH, recklessly pleasuring himself.
In this our inaugural Winter Edition, in what we're hoping will be a year-long battle but we'll probably get fed up with each other and/or lazy and quit before a year is up... the arena is "MODERN MAINSTREAM COMICS" and the comic at issue will be...
Issues #1 through 5.
Author: Marvel Comics, with the assistance of its employees and/or independent contractors Ed Brubaker, Mike Deodata, Rainier Beredo, Dave Lanphear, Lauren Sankovitch, David Aja, Michael Lark, Stefano Guadiano, Jose Villarrubia, Mayela Guitterez, Will Conrad, Irene Lee, Tom Brevoort, and Joe Quesada.
BUT FIRST... A DISCLAIMER FROM MARK SABLE: As a creator working – for the most part - in the mainstream, it’s hard for me to comment critically on mainstream comics. It’s a small industry. And – I’m sure you have no experience whatsoever with this, but creators can be a bit sensitive. I don’t exclude myself from that category. Nor do I think I can do better than anyone associated with this book or any other we might comment on. I say that not because I want you to feel bad for me. This is just a way of apologizing to creators/editors/publishers in advance to save my own ass. And to a lesser extent apologize to your readers if I hold back. The point of this, from my end, is to see if I can do what Matt Fraction and Joe Casey did with “The Basement Tapes” – see if a creator can speak critically about comics in the mainstream while working in the mainstream. That, and to plug the shit out of my work.
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ABHAY: Let's start with the premise. This appears to be a comic about a secret political violence arm of the Avengers, which seems to be a recurring thing right now in the marketing material for Marvel comics. My understanding at least is that JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY is being sold as Loki or Thor's secret political assassination team; X-FORCE was sold as the X-Men's secret political assassination team; KOSHERSTRYKE is supposed to be about Peter Porker, Spider-Ham's secret political assassination team.
So, Mark Sable, speaking on behalf of all comic creators, everywhere, ever: what's with you people and the fucking assassination teams?
I mean, is there anything worth examining about that impulse of having children's characters form death squads? "What if Oliver North trained the GOOF TROOP to be a death squad during the Salvadoran Civil War?" Why does raping nuns and murdering peasants seem goofy to you, Mark? Or do you disagree with the whole "these are children's characters" premise because ... I'm not even 100% sure about that one anymore.
MARK: As I recall, those kinds of books were born in the 90s with X-Force, as a response to the Charles Xavier’s dream of co-existence peaceful co-existence or whatever. And, more likely, as a response to the market’s (perceived) demand for darker, edgier material. I see Secret Avengers, though, as being more of a product of creators, myself included, who love crime and espionage. Some of whom would rather just be writing straight crime or espionage, but the only way they can tell the kind of story they want in a commercially viable way is to tell it in a superhero context. I think it’s been more successful creatively with crime than espionage. Gotham Central was a better book than Checkmate, for example.
To throw the question back to you– can espionage work in comics? I ask whether straight espionage can work because I’m not sure superhero-espionage can. There’s something inherently gaudy about superheroes that seems to work against it. Secret Avengers starts with Black Widow and Valkyrie posing as escorts trying to gather information from a businessman in Dubai. Before you know it, Steve Rogers is swinging through the window in a Fury-esque outfit with a big star on it and a laser shield. So it’s like the characters themselves can’t even maintain the charade of espionage for more than a couple of pages.
It’s an odd choice for me too to have Steve Rogers lead a black ops team in the first place, him being the moral compass of the Marvel Universe. Of course…in my mind, the fact that Captain America has a code against killing is absurd in and of itself. He’s a soldier, and that’s what soldiers do.
And yes, I absolutely disagree with the whole “these are children’s character’s premise.” Well, let be a bit more specific. They are children’s characters so far as merchandising goes. I think it was Tom Brevoort who pointed out that most kids are introduced to superheroes not in comics, but in the more kid friendly areas of animation and toys. And that’s where the real money is made in this business. Other than toy stores, the only place these characters are safe for kids is in the childhood memories of older fans. Or, let’s at least be honest. Let’s say that the arbitrary restrictions put on what superheroes can and cannot are in place to keep the brand of a movie franchise or a toy line unsullied. Let’s admit that, for the most part, there aren’t valid character reasons why certain heroes don’t kill. In a way it’s dangerously dishonest not to show that permanent death is the logical outcome of violence.
As much as superhero black-ops teams might not work for me, they do tap into something. Much of the wars we’re in are fought covertly. We sort of half-ass wars, for the most part. By which I mean…we don’t use overwhelming force, and we only ask a small number of people to sacrifice. Take the drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. We’re quietly – meaning without much media attention - using our overwhelming force in way that doesn’t incur losses on our side but helps keeps the other side fighting because it creates more insurgents.
Maybe a book like Secret Avengers reflects that. The big guns of the Marvel Universe are sent in to deal with a problem. They never die, so the reader isn’t asked to sacrifice their enjoyment of reading their continuous adventures. The villains don’t die either, so the conflict and the story is perpetuated.
ABHAY: See, my recollection is that X-FORCE was about a band of soldiers who philosophically disagreed with the X-MEN, but that the X-MEN didn't ratify their conduct. There'd be those scenes of Storm saying shit like "We disapprove of your methods, Cable. I'm so angry I'm going to change my haircut!" But my impression of SECRET AVENGERS and these other books is that they're about the "heroes" ... acting "unheroically" when they think no one is looking...?
Does that taint them? Set aside kids. Forget about kids. On the one hand, some people say superheros are great because they show how we can create characters that our better than ourselves, characters that always do the right thing. These are fairy tale characters, and the fact they're not like us is something that's right about them. But of course, there's a competing argument, that characters should just be characters, as flawed as anyone, and not moral exemplars. Which ... I know anytime I hear a comic creator talk about the morals in their story... I'm going to take life instruction from a fucking comic book writer?
Where do you think you wind up on that? I guess having read so many Superman comics last year, right this second I'm more aligned with the former. I'm not really interested in "realistic" superheros at the moment. You know-- some people like to say SUPERMAN is "boring," but being a fairy tale character hasn't really hurt DOCTOR WHO any...?
Anyways, does espionage "work" in comics? Well, I mean, I don't think there's any genre where I can't think of some successful people. Even the Superhero spy-hybrid comic-- I think an awful lot of those owe a debt to Jon Ostrander & Kim Yale's SUICIDE SQUAD, which I remember liking though it's been some years. Certainly, Naoki Urasawa can do espionage-- I think of MONSTER as his espionage thriller, so certainly. But that's... You know, bringing up Urasawa is a little unfair. It's like saying, "Can you do a great comic about a lettuce monster getting veggie-boners for some rando girl with white hair?" Yeah, Alan Moore did that comic, but I don't know if that means I'd recommend it to everybody-- most people sure as hell ain't Alan Moore. (Is that okay to say? If you need to get all Jason Aaron, and tell me to fuck myself, go ahead and do you...)
Urasawa is a perfect example of that-- he can do so much with expressions that American dudes can't. There are "big name" artists in the North American industry who can't draw a human face worth looking at, let alone pull off what Urasawa does with facial expressions. I mean, maybe someday Marvel Comics will hire Greg Land to re-draw MONSTER, but ... Oh, awesome, I think I just tasted my own vomit.
MARK: There isn’t a right and a wrong way to write superhero characters. There’s being true to your own personal philosophy, to the reader, and in the case of corporate characters to their owners.
Putting the latter two aside, when I hear you saying that superheroes are moral exemplars, it brings classical tragedy to mind. The Greeks and Shakespeare wrote about nobles because they were the supposed to represent the best of what mankind had to offer. Like superheroes, they were invested with history and godliness as well as humanity. And yet, in spite of, or perhaps because of those qualities, they were doomed to failure and death. The implication being that, if the best of us were bound for a tragic end, than us ordinary theatergoers had no hope. Accepting that inevitable, was, believe it or not, supposed to be cathartic.
For me personally, those stories are the most true. By having our heroes live in perpetuity we’re not being entirely honest with the audience about the nature of existence. Of course, that’s my worldview, and I don’t try to impose it on a mainstream audience, if for no other reason than I most often can’t.
Doctor Who seems very different from American superheroes. He’s immortal, but he’s very conscious of the mortality of all the other beings around him. As supporting characters have pointed out, people close to him die, and his awareness of that adds a tragic depth to his character. We don’t get to see that with Superman because we don’t get to see him outlive Lois Lane in continuity. The best stories, from Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow to All Star Superman, have always been Elseworlds tales. And the more resonant Captain America stories deal with what he’s lost from being a man out of time.
ABHAY:The first issue starts with a joke about Valkyrie suggesting that she pulled a sword out of her own pussy.
I think we both like black humor. I think neither of us are prudes. But I always feel really weird when I see that kind of joke in a mainstream comic, like... I mean, not full-on Holden Caufield "You hypocrites wrote the f-word near kids on a cliff" weird but... Man, I don't know where the line is anymore. Like, I'm really genuinely enjoying that comic OSBORN right now, no-joke, thinks it's an interesting piece of work (and I had wanted to never read about that character ever again, ever, ever, ever). But the first issue of that had a fellatio joke in it that I had a similar feeling of... "You're allowed to have jokes about dick-sucking in Green Goblin comics now?" I don't feel offended by the joke-- just confused and old and highly prone to premature ejaculation, which is I guess how most jokes make me feel, to be perfectly honest.
MARK: Osborn is book I’m enjoying as well. Hell of a creative team, that DeConnick and Rios. I didn’t pick up on any fellatio jokes, which either means it was appropriate in the context of that book or I’ve been numbed by Batman peeing on people.
As a creator, the line for sexual content is wherever your particular editor tells you it is at that particular time. And to a certain extent whatever your own feelings are about it. I’m not going to get outraged about kids reading sex jokes because I don’t believe kids are reading comic books in significant numbers, and I don’t think the place to chase that demo is with superhero books. Teenagers probably know more about sex from personal experience than most creators. They gravitate towards the forbidden and the prurient, they are the ones that will probably most appreciate the old pull the sword from your vagina trick (if Fiona Apple had continued to date David Blaine I would like to think she could have pulled that off).
I don’t have an issue with sex unless it’s sexist or violent or both. Unless it’s really, really funny. Again, it comes back to honesty for me. I think comics, and really pop culture in general, does a disservice in the way it portrays sex. It either hides it or shows it as the perfect meshing of perfect bodies. I would love love LOVE to see a book that showed unhealthy looking people fumbling and getting hurt emotionally and sticking things in the wrong hole. That would prepare teens for sex much better than any kind of sex-ed would. I actually think if kids saw how bad sex could get it would lead to abstinence. The closest I can recall a recent mainstream comic approaching that kind of honesty was Ultimate Spider-Man. Bendis took it in the direction he believed was true to the character and consistent with whatever editorial/ corporate let him do, and I admire him for that. Me? I would have liked to push it further. You would have seen Peter and MJ have bad sex, and agree to go back to hand jobs and finger-banging.
Now, what I want to do and what I can do at the place I’m at in my career are of course two different things. I can’t push things very far in my work-for hire material.
ABHAY: But isn't there still such a thing as good taste and bad taste that exists independent of the question of what kids might or might not read? Do you think bad taste is just a question of if kids might find it or not? You know-- if there was an episode of CHARLIE ROSE where Charlie talked to Michael Lewis about how much they both love period sex, sure, probably kids wouldn't watch that either. Kids don't really watch CHARLIE ROSE. But... again: I think that would be in bad taste. Awesomely so in that case, educationally so, but... Or like, have you ever seen old Playboy cartoons? There are a few artists that I enjoy-- Erich Sokol, say. But I can't stand most of them. It's not that they're not well drawn, even. There's something actively gross about them. They make me feel gross, those jokes because they speak to ... They speak to the Horrible World of Men.
I would use those Playboy strips as an example that... Those are jokes that kids won't see, and aren't intended for kids, but we can still look at them and say they're in bad taste. But what's in "Bad taste" depends on context so... Maybe this argument is circular...
But more importantly: why do you know who is and isn't dating David Blaine? Where the fuck did that come from? I don't think I"ve thought about David Blaine for several consecutives years-- which, according to David Blaine, might qualify as MAGIC. I never realized you were connected to the World of Illusion before-- I have so many questions. Who is Doug Henning dating, these days???
MARK: For those readers too young to remember, Doug Henning was a homosexual magician who passed away in 2000. Before he died Henning and Transcendental Meditation founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi "drafted plans for a $1.5 billion-dollar project called Maharishi Veda Land near Niagara Falls, Ontario that would combine astonishing, unique visual and sensory effects, state-of-the-art 3D imagery, and ultra high-tech entertainment technology with his best and most original magic illusion secrets. Maharishi Veda Land was conceived as a magical Himalayan setting where visitors would be wowed with theatrical presentations of ancient Vedic stories and the deepest secrets of the universe, while ingesting organic vegetarian burgers and snacks. Attractions were to include a building suspended above water and a journey into the heart of a rose."
So, basically, Doug Henning is your dead, gay son.
ABHAY: I was interested by the fact this comic spent a page in its fourth issue, the exciting climax of the arc, on Captain America giving Nova his head-gear back.
Let's set aside questions about padding because... I think we both know padding happens. I'm judgmental about it, but maybe not reasonably so: successful writers tend to have multiple books they're shepherding, meaning maybe not every page gets lavished with attention. And so maybe a certain amount of padding is inherent to the system.
But setting that aside: is there anything interesting that could have really happened on that page? Captain America is in a dozen different books right now. I think Nova is in other books, too. Can this book have its own character-driven subplots? The classic Claremont formula of high-action and character-driven soap opera subplots seems dead in the post-New-Avengers era. Can anything interesting happening to those characters when all of the noteworthy characters star in so many different books simultaneously? (Not including a crossover or coming off of a crossover, where Marvel can explicitly say "You must read this.") Wolverine might star in three dozen comics but can he really DO anything people will care about besides wave his claw-hands at people in those books, without it creating an inconsistency that would derail 35 other books?
And as a result, a book like SECRET AVENGERS-- it's all explosions from cover to cover, but when those explosions are over, the characters have nothing left to discuss any longer other than their fucking haberdashery. Is that a natural consequence of these characters being so totally over-extended?
MARK: Why should we avoid the question of padding? I can’t tell from the outside who’s doing it. I mean, I can guess. But it’s not something I would accuse someone of.
That said, let me give you an example from my own career. I pitched a two issue arc on a major title. I was then asked to do that same as a six issue mini-series. As a freelancer just coming into the business, what should I have done in that situation? Turn down four extra issues? Turn down the whole project? For those of us without exclusive contracts, that’s asking a lot. In my case, I rethought the pitch and I was able to justify writing the six issues. But looking back, I still might have padded it subconsciously. There were fights and misdirects and guest stars that didn’t need to be there. I’ve given a lot of thought to how I could’ve made that particular mini better. I think I could’ve trusted more in the story and the character and not relied on those crutches.
Has anyone every questioned that being paid by the page is not the best incentive for writers? For artists, I get it – there’s much more of a limit to what they can do. But if you paid writers by the story? I bet we’d have less padding and decompression. Of course, there’s also something inherent in the way stories are written now that leads to padding. You can call it writing for the trade, but I think it’s more writing for larger three act structure. If you’ve got to tell a story nowadays, you need 4-6 issues, and most artists are only willing to do 4-5 panels per page panels. But because you are writing in single issues, you’ve got to put in artificial cliffhangers and exposition. Maybe things would be better if we went straight to trade.
Getting back to Secret Avengers, let’s actually think what could have happened. Cap could refuse to give back the Nova helmet. Maybe he wears it himself, maybe he just doesn’t think Richard Ryder’s worthy of it. Valkyrie could have stored the helmet in her vagina until a new Nova candidate is found worthy. In fact, I like to think that’s where the missing Serpent Crown is. But yeah, it’s hard to contemplate an ending that fundamentally and permanently alters the status quo for any of those characters. That’s the nature of a soap opera with no end. At least in real life, actors die, so there has to be some change. I don’t think there’s any meaning in a story without change.
The better writers in mainstream comics provide the illusion of change, which is I think what fans really want. And let’s give credit where credit is due. Marvel in general and Brubaker in particular have been pretty good of late delivering extended periods of change. Bucky/The Winter Soldier has worked for far longer than it had any right to. More than the actual Civil War, I liked that Marvel ran with the superhero registration thing for as long as they did. Same thing with status quo change that Dark Reign wrought.
Maybe in all those cases, you are just playing out long second acts. But I appreciate that Marvel had the courage to play that change – illusory or not – out for extended periods of time.
ABHAY: Maybe you need 4-6 issues to tell a simple story if you're not willing to use 3rd-person narration, or thought baloons, or lenticular effects, or fenced splashes, or sound effects, or those Frank Miller TV panels, or color-coded panels like in that one Dash Shaw story "Satellite CMYK" (which is a good one if you've never read it), or ... or Crypt-Keeper-style host characters or... But all those things exist. All those things were invented already. This isn't the first generation of comic writers, we're watching. People have just walked away from decades of tools that have existed in comics, that were amassed over years.
I'm very undecided on the long second acts because I think they're at the expense of letting creators have their own storylines for extended periods. They're neat in theory because it really does create a history for the Marvel Universe... But I don't know that they've ever successfully justified the costs imposed both on readers and just ... the long-term costs involved in not allowing great runs to stand on their own.
MARK: I’m in agreement with you about creators walking away from the techniques you mentioned. I actually think some of them would make comics MORE accessible to non-readers. Comics are incredibly more confusing than they’ve ever been, and it’s not just because of continuity. Storytelling is at a real low, to the point I sometimes don’t know where my eye should go on a page, and I’ve been reading comics for decades. Hell, I was looking at old Avengers comics where, if it wasn’t clear which panel you were supposed to go to next, someone drew an arrow. I’d be embarrassed if an editor did that to my work, but I’d rather someone feel my comic was overly expository or on the nose than not understand it. That’s no fun for anyone.
To be fair, though…you can't always ask an artist to draw a page of 16 Frank Miller TV sets in your average monthly comic. It’s more time consuming work for them. The same goes for some of the other techniques.
I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with crossovers events, which is what you’re basically describing. That’s always going to depend on the generosity of the other creators in and the flexibility of the editors in giving you the freedom and the space to tell your own story. As a reader I’m as sick of them as everyone else is, and the two examples cited were exceptions, because most are awful reading experiences and creative pains in the ass.
ABHAY: Why does Marvel keep trying to make fucking MOON KNIGHT happen? I mean, I guess we all have weird shit we're just into. You have your weird thing about Cyborg. I have my weird thing about Lexi Belle. But Moon Knight's really pretty fucking shitty...
MARK: I don’t have a weird thing about Cyborg. It’s hard to get the reins on an A-list character, and if you do, you’re not going to get the freedom to put your stamp on it in the same way as a D-lister. Sandman, Starman, Animal Man…no way editorial would’ve let Gaiman, Robinson and Morrison take those kinds or risks on Superman or Batman in cointinuity.
That said…Cyborg is one of the better crafted and under-utilized characters in DC’s stable. He came out of that same period when the last new, successful characters were being created by the Big Two, along with Wolverine, The Punisher etc. I don’t think I did the character justice.
I’d imagine creators gravitate towards characters like Moon Knight out of nostalgia. I guess the Bill Sienkiewicz and Doug Moench runs were in the current generation’s formative years. Moon Knight wasn’t on my radar like that. Moon Knight is also “gritty”, so he lends himself to the kind of crime or espionage stories that I suspect some writers would rather be telling. He looked pretty damn silly on Mars. Then again, there’s something silly about him anyway. A Jew who gets his powers from an Egyptian god? And I can’t be the only person to think he looks like a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Occasionally the 2nd or 3rd tier characters do work out, if not commercially than creatively. They don’t have to be at the level of Star-/Sand-/Animal Man. But the Iron Fist run that Brubaker and Fraction did was fantastic. The fact that it apparently couldn’t be sustained commercially is depressing to me. What’s more depressing – and more troublesome – is that if big time creators can’t revive 2nd tier characters, then they aren’t going to take the risk, or get the chance to take the risk of creating new ones. It’s a bigger topic, but it’s terribly disappointing to me that we don’t see new characters created within the big two anymore.
I don’t know where to place the blame. I know that the publishers aren’t willing to give new characters the long term support they need to really see if there’s something there. I understand their mandate is to maintain their trademarks. That’s why creators are getting a crack at 2nd tier characters in the first place – to give them a fresh coat of paint and see if maybe there’s a movie there. Congress keeps bending over and extending copyrights to the point we’re unlikely to see characters created before our birth wind up in the public domain. But I still think it’s in the Big Two’s long term interest to develop new IP, if nothing else. Especially now that they are both de facto R&D divisions of massive multi-media conglomerates. But paying down the national debt and dealing with global warming are in the long term interest, so comics is not exactly alone in kicking the can down the road.
ABHAY: There are Marvel characters who people have managed to put a "stamp" on-- but it seems like lately, they take these shitty characters and then rather than have a "stamp," they try to convince fans that these characters are "important." You know: making Brother Voodoo into Sorceror Supreme-- it's still Brother Voodoo. "Moon Knight is a Double-Secret Avenger now" -- he's still Moon Knight. Sandman, Starman and Animal Man-- those were takes. Those were... those were ground-up reinventions. The Marvel version, by comparison, just seems like wishful thinking, that something that's failed repeatedly won't fail if you stick the right combination of words into the marketing material. You know: NAMOR GUANTLET, X-MAN WITHOUT FEAR... It's still Namor.
IRON FIST... That was a frustrating run. For me, it didn't really have an ending. I was never super-super-excited about it like some people, but that was a book I was following and enjoying it well enough. You know: highs and lows, strikes and gutters. But when it stopped... I felt they had just gotten done finally building this entire world for that character, and then as soon as it was built, it was over. It was like watching someone build a city in Sim City and then not send in Gojira... I mean, that game came with a Gojira button...
MARK: There is a distinction between the way Marvel and DC revive back a character. You’ve got to chalk some of that up to brave editors like Archie Goodwin. But I think there’s also something inherently different about the two universes. To put it bluntly, Marvel continuity counts more. That will probably piss off DC fans, who no doubt care about continuity just as much, but DC retcons things in a major way that Marvel doesn’t. What happened in Marvel comics pretty much happened, you just need to ignore things like Professor X fighting in Korea with Dick Witman. With DC…there’s a crisis of one kind or another that periodically resets everything.
With Iron Fist, I don’t know the circumstances behind the demise of the book, so I’m not sure it’s fair to criticize them for walking away from it. In fact, I think you have to give credit to creators like Fraction and Brubaker who create new characters and leave them for someone else to play with. The next arc of Secret Avengers uses the Prince of Orphans, right? As a writer, I appreciate when other creators share their creations.
There’s been a decent amount of that at Marvel – Grant Morrison with Marvel Boy, Brian K Vaughan with Runaways and The Hood, Paul Jenkins with the Sentry. They’ve all stuck around in one form or another. They may not be breakaway hits, but I’m not sure how much of that is due to the characters themselves. I know that I’ve tended to CARE about those newer characters more than olders ones. Which seems counterintuitive, given that I’ve lived with the older, more established characters since childhood. But with, say, AVENGERS ACADEMY, which for my money is the best Avengers, maybe even the best superhero comic on the stands – that sense that since these are new characters who could be killed or otherwise experience significant change has me more invested as a reader.
ABHAY: I guess what this comic made me think most about was... What does "success in comics" mean to you? Ed Brubaker's arguably one of the great successes of Marvel comics, one of their top writers. He's an "Architect of the Marvel Universe." And...even with that being the case, he's stuck writing low-ambition AVENGERS spin-offs?
If that's what success in comics looks like, why does anyone want it? I mean, there are people who'd claw out Ed Brubaker's eyes to be the guy stuck writing this nonsense. For example: you. You would murder babies at a nursery to take over this book from Ed Brubaker. You would be wearing a crotchless clown costume while you suffocated pre-natal infants.
Or I guess what always startles me about the current generation of "star" comic creators: where's the ambition? Not in a superhero vs. non-superhero way. The last generation of comic creators was equally stuck writing superhero comics, but we have WATCHMEN, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, YEAR ONE, MARSHAL LAW, DOOM PATROL, ANIMAL MAN, to show for it. Chaykin's THE SHADOW or his BLACKHAWKS. SANDMAN. People didn't just run around putting out action "blockbusters"...
This generation might be less stuck with superhero comics than that one, but... what do we really have to show for them being stuck with the genre? Crossovers and spin-offs? What happened? What happened to you people?
MARK: I take issue with you calling this or any other book “low ambition”. Because it’s presumptuous for either of us to pretend what a creator’s ambition is. Whether he or she succeeds in fulfilling that ambition is another matter entirely. And then there’s the matter of whether ambition should count more than execution. Would you rather an ambitious failure or a less ambitious story told well?
Low-ambition or not, I would absolutely do all those things and more for a chance to write SECRET AVENGERS. And wait – there’s such things as clown costumes WITH crotches? I wish someone had told my parents that before my eight birthday.
Success for me? Having a steadier source of income from creative activities I have now would be nice. An exclusive contract, a sustainable ongoing creator-owned book, lucrative work in another medium…any of those would change my life in a dramatic fashion. They’d allow me to do things that non-freelancers take for granted. Like have healthcare. And then I have personal creative aspirations that are ever changing and sometimes there on a subconscious level I’m not even aware of.
But you want to know why there is an apparent lack of ambition amongst my peers? Again, I’m not sure you’re right about that. Don’t mistake the results, which are subjective, for the motivation, which neither of us can know. But let’s say I accept your premise that superhero comics are suffering because of a lack of creator ambition. Why is that? For one thing, there can’t be another Watchmen because, well, there already WAS a Watchmen. That paradigm shift – and I’m speaking of not just Watchmen but more broadly of the comics of last generation - happened after, what, 50 years of superhero comics? Should we expect another one so quickly? The fact that the medium is so focused on one genre means…for 70-80 years you’ve had most of the brightest minds in comics trying to write superhero comics. Is it possible they’ve exhausted the genre to the point of decadence?
Both of those are admittedly defeatist attitudes. But there has been good work from the current generation – it’s just primarily not in mainstream, in-continuity superhero comics. Again, I attribute that in part to milking the genre to death. But I also don’t think the incentive’s there for creators to do original work.
It comes down to ownership. If you’ve got a great idea, do you want to give it to your corporate masters for a quick buck and little or no long term stake, or try to develop it on your own? It’s a rare thing for Brian K. Vaughan to take a title like Runaways and hand it to Marvel rather than taking it to, say, Image. And on the publisher’s end of things, they actively discourage new ideas. They know the marketplace will more than likely reject it. And they still don’t want to risk giving away ownership because, on the off chance it does succeed, it means them parting with money or risking a lawsuit.
So, the bar has been set pretty high by the last generation, at the same time the reward for jumping over it has been lowered. Those are the forces at work against ambitious new superhero work.
ABHAY: Let me start by respectfully saying that I disagree with everything you represent, and someday I shall defeat you and hurl you into Mount Doom. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-- I feel like this whole thing should change into an intervention. I feel like it should be like one of those awesome SOPRANOS interventions, where it starts with me trying to get you off heroin and then it just ends with James Gandolfini beating you up.
"Brightest minds in comics" -- I will never stop making fun of you for this.
I listed about a dozen books so you wouldn't focus on WATCHMEN, but... I've seen an awful lot of comic creators talk about WATCHMEN as being some kind of "end point" for the genre. And I just-- I just don't understand that. WATCHMEN proved you can do ensembles, and that you can do multi-generational sagas, and that you can do comics that mix superheros and the civilian populations that they impact, and that you can do alternate history superhero comics... And then people just overlook all that, and focus on the fact that maybe one of the characters was a little weird about sex...? Which, maybe I take personally-- I'm a little weird about sex too, but I think I have positive qualities that I'm hoping people notice instead. I mean, I don't have as many weird fetishes as Charlie Rose or whoever, but...
(Did you know that Michael Lewis ended up married to Tabitha Soren? I didn't know that myself until last week... MIchael Lewis is my Criss "Mindfreak" Angel, to put it in terms you might understand...)
As for ownership... I don't know. That "I'll keep it for myself" attitude has worked great for Mark Millar. But the "I'll give it all away and ten more things besides" attitude-- that sort of seems like it's Grant Morrison's only gear, right? Granted, probably aiming for the former makes more sense than the latter, for most people. The money seems pleasant, if you can be that guy, and heck, most people just aren't Morrison and don't have what he has. But... I don't know. I think the problem is most dudes aren't really EITHER guy...
MARK: If you didn’t want me to focus on Watchmen, than you shouldn’t have fucking mentioned Watchmen. Nobody think of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!
But let’s look at the larger group of comics you mentioned. What do they have in common? They were, mostly, stories with a beginning, middle and end. They had only the loosest connection to larger continuity. They proved you can tell those kinds of stories, and they had stylistic innovation and density.
As I’ve said before, I think the finite, closed nature of the stories is a major part of why they are works that have stood the test of time. The fact they didn’t have to be a slave to an entire universe of continuity and the whims of multiple creators and editors and management teams were absolutely integral to the ability of their creators to innovate. I’d guess that not being tied to the kinds of scheduling demands that exist today contributed to their success as well.
I’d argue there are stories since then that have been ambitious. Astro City may not be Watchmen, but it continued to explore the interaction between super-heroes and the civilian populace. All Star-Superman managed to breathe fresh life into the longest running superhero comic. Casanova and The Winter Men are dense as hell. And let's not forget Ed Brubaker - whose Secret Avengers started you on this rant - wrote the ambitious and creatively successful Sleeper. Technically Sleeper takes place in Wildstorm continuity, but for the past decade that was a place with the flexiblity to showcase work like Planetary and The Authority that carried the torch lit by Watchmen to a certain extent.
But all those were created, like their predecessors, outside of the restrictions of in-continuity, ongoing series. If, as a creator, you can find a space to tell those stories - great. Wildstorm not longer exists. Marvel doesn’t do Elseworld stories, DC hardly does them anymore, and if you want to do a story someplace else it’s going to cost you money and readers.
ABHAY: Do you like the art? Mainstream comics art has gotten so ... violently lavish. Everything in those kind of comics glows now. Everything in SECRET AVENGERS is constantly glowing-- the entire first issue is one glowing thing after another. Entire scenes take place in dark rooms lit only by glowing monitors. Captain America's muscles glow. Leroy the Last Dragon glows. Et cetera. But there's a weird roid-y intensity to all that glowing that's more than a little off-putting. It's just weird to me how mainstream comics look now. I don't know. I don't know if I can remember the last time I read a mainstream comic and didn't spend more time thinking about the color than the story.
MARK: I come from a writing background, from studying English and drama and law, so art is one of the last things I think about. And I probably lack the vocabulary to articulate what works and doesn’t for me visually. It’s something I’m working on. Taking life drawing classes, trying to compensate for what I don’t bring to the table.
This series…I go back and forth on it. My first instinct was – why are the panels layouts crooked? They remind me of Phantom Zone shards. When I re-read it for this inter-fight…I saw some pages where the layouts did enhance the composition. The colors? I noticed there was a lot of red. They were on Mars.
But…I guess I come from the school – and this could just as easily apply to writers as well as artists – that if a creator is doing his job you don’t notice that he’s doing it. That’s something that gets harder for me to appreciate the more I study the medium. There are exceptions to that. There are creators that can do what Tarantino or Charlie Kauffman does, that can say “hey look at me” but be so compelling that you don’t care if you’re aware of their presence. And maybe it even enhances the experience.
You and I come at things differently. You are probably one of the harshest critics I know. Not just from reading your work but from sitting next to you in a movie theater. I don’t envy being you, it doesn’t seem like you enjoy entertainment very much. I think you enjoy tearing it apart. At least I hope you do.
Me…one of the first things that started to happen to me as I made the transition from fan to pro was, I felt like I was becoming less critical of others work. Part of that is – well, it does me no favors to share my dislike of something with what are now my peers. But it’s also…sitting down and trying to write a mainstream comic with all the restrictions inherent in that? I suddenly started saying, you know what, I’m not sure I can do better than Howard Mackie or Chuck Austen or whoever I was convinced I could do better than before I was working professionally. I’m much, much more critical of my own work, thankfully. I have to be - I’m in a place where my failures are public and there is no taking it back.
Where was I going with this? Well, for all our differences, maybe we do share some of the same tastes in art. Creators like Paul Azaceta or Sean Murphy or Robbi Rodriguez or Julian Totino Tedesco or Andy MacDonald (to name just about everyone I’ve ever worked with). When I started with Paul…his work was an acquired taste for me. I grew up thinking the ultra-detailed work of Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri occupied a higher place on the evolutionary scale. I’ve gained a respect for fundamentals and for a less-is-more approach. I don’t think most fans, or artists, or people who decide which artists get work have an appreciation for that.
ABHAY: "From studying English and drama and law" -- Jesus, were you wearing a powdered wig when you answered these questions? When did you turn into Ben Franklin's gigolo?
I like... I like entertainment. (Did I just type that sentence?) It's not my fault most "entertainment" isn't entertaining. I didn't put a gun to whoever made THE TOURIST's head and tell him to ruin me going to the movies with my Dad. My dad wants to see Angelina Jolie have adventures, which I think is a pretty innocent thing to want out of life,and next thing you know, they're punishing us for that. I didn't will that to happen. I didn't vote to put that TOURIST shit on the Black List or whatever. They just did that to my family, for no reason.
Not sure how to respond-- I don't even know if we're even on the same planet, here. I mean, just this idea that I'm "tearing apart" anything, for starters... You and Steve Niles and whoever believes this nonsense that things can be "torn apart"... Where the hell did that phrase come from? It's just silly. Because I don't think I'm tearing anything apart. I think I'm constructing something of my own, that belongs to me, and trying to share that with people, same as anyone who writes anything. I think it's all writing; writing is writing, sharing is sharing, and pretending that one batch is somehow more special than another, or some other batch is bad and wrong and snarky and tears things apart-- that's just not how I understand the world. I think that's just propaganda from people who want to sell shitty things to idiots. And anyway, nothing's gotten "torn apart": THE TOURIST is still there, on a DVD shelf, waiting to make innocent people miserable, no matter what mean things I say about it. As far as I'm concerned, they never put it together properly to begin with-- they sold it torn apart.
I like oodles of things though. HOW TV RUINED YOUR LIFE-- I'm completely head over heels for that show; I think it's Charlie Brookers's masterpiece. I liked KING CITY. I'm enjoying INHERENT VICE (slowly) so far. I like that new Keira Knightley perfume ad. I definitely like the work of all those artists you mentioned. I definitely can't do better than Howard Mackie or Chuck Austen at what they did, though I'm lucky that I don't particularly want to do what they did. I definitely, definitely can't do better than whoever made THE TOURIST. But I don't think you have to (or should) believe that to have an opinion, or want to compare notes with other people...
MARK: I’m not saying that in order to have an opinion, or express one, that you need to be able to do better. I do think you need to have that as a creator. You need a bit of ego to put your work out there. If you don’t think on some level you don’t have something new to offer as a writer…why put it out there?
But with comics criticism, you have these two forces colliding. One, the the democratization of criticism with the internet. Two…it’s a small, very intimate industry. I can’t think of another art form where you can interact directly with the creator. And so I think there’s a disproportionate amount of people criticizing comics that want to be creators. I’m not saying all this as a creator looking down at critics. I’m say that as someone that was on the other side of that wall. I started out as a fan ripping into other people’s work on message boards and writing little “reviews”. And looking back, I know at least part of what was motivating me was jealousy. A sense of frustration that comics were terrible, and that I was oh so close to the door but I couldn’t quite get my foot in.
What changed after I became a professional was that I gained an understanding very quickly that what I was criticizing was a lot fucking harder to do than I thought. I’d like to think it gave me some humility. I maybe have more sympathy for creators. If I’m completely honest, yes, I do probably feel on some level that narrative fiction or drama is more of a contribution to culture than a critical essay. Like I said, I need to feel on some level that what I’m doing is more important than what you or anyone else is doing or else why the fuck am I dedicating my life to it?
I’m constantly aware of the fact that I’m creating and earning a living off the work of my forebears, most of whom were treated horribly. Even when I’m doing creator owned work, I’m not doing it in a vacuum. Others have created the genres and sacrificed for my opportunity to own my work. For both of us, our creations, our interactions with previously existing work can be symbiotic or parasitic. But it’s disingenuous of you to suggest your writing has no effect on the work or the creator. Again, we operate in a very small industry. The most successful comic is lucky to sell 100,000 copies. I’ve heard it said that there are essentially 5,000 people that are willing to try new work. A critic doesn’t have to dissuade or encourage that many people to pick up or drop a book to make a difference, especially in aggregate.
The critic plays an essential role. Good work deserves to be exposed to more readers. I understand that in the process, you think sometimes you need to point out that the emperor isn't wearing clothes. But that doesn't mean I have to like it when I'm the one whose naked, or when you're just completely wrong about everything.
DING! DING! DING! AND THAT'S THE BELL...
WITH NO CLEAR KNOCK-OUT, THAT MEANS WE GO TO THE JUDGE'S DECISION. (AND OF COURSE, AS THE ONLY FULLY ACCREDITED COMIC CRITIC, THE JOB OF JUDGMENT WILL BE HANDLED BY ME, ABHAY-- JUDGING IS SORT OF WHAT I DO)...
* * *
* * *
* * *
AND WE HAVE A UNANIMOUS DECISION FROM OUR JUDGES-- THE VICTOR OF THIS ROUND IS...
Well, this was a real tough for me to win, so I'm just ecstatic that we pulled this off. I think Mark came close to beating me on stylin', but I think I perservered when it came to profilin'. A lot of people underestimate the importance of profilin', but I put a lot of time into studying my profilin', and it's nice to see that paid off with this win. Mark put up a good fight, and he was a noble opponent, but ... If only one of us can be the winner, then I'm just ecstatic that it was me. As a meager consolation, here's the promo image for Mark's next book--
FIGHT NUMBER ONE GOES TO THE COMIC CRITICS... BUT WHAT ABOUT FIGHT NUMBER TWO? WE'LL FIND OUT THIS SUMMER, IN THE ARENA OF "ART COMICS," WITH SIX ROUNDS OVER MAT BRINKMAN'S MULTIFORCE...
TWO MEN ENTER... TWO MEN LEAVE... NO GIRLS ANYWHERE IN SIGHT... I MEAN, ANYWHERE-- IT IS A DARK MOMENT IN ALL OF OUR LIVES... SAUSAGE FEST AHOY!!!!!
Mr. Glut was gracious enough to agree to an interview. I had intended this interview to concern his career in the comics, seeing as this is a comic book blog and all, but this one really didn't go as planned. Over the course of my research, I found that Mr. Glut's comic career was just the tip of the iceberg, in a varied career in the entertainment business, which has included stints in film, rock music, Saturday morning cartoons, non-fiction, pulp fiction, voice-over, comic books, and possibly more. My thanks to Mr. Glut again for agreeing to the following, which I hope you enjoy.
As I understand from other interviews, you started making amateur movies as a teenager in Chicago, and then continued as a USC film student in the 1960's, where your student films included your own films featuring Superman, Captain Marvel, and the Spirit. How common were those kinds of fan movies for superhero characters at that time? I know that it's become relatively common lately, with youtube filled with these very lavish, comic book movies from amateur filmmakers. But I don't really know the history of that sort of thing, I suppose.
Actually, I made my first amateur movie, a dinosaur film titled DIPLODOCUS AT LARGE, back in 1953 when I was only nine years old, still a few years away from being a teenager. Then, discouraged by the way that turned out, I went into “hiatus,” not attempting another amateur movie until 1956, when I made another dinosaur movie called THE EARTH BEFORE MAN. At that point I got bitten by the “bug” and making amateur movies became my main hobby. For a number of years I didn’t know of anyone else on the planet besides myself who was making amateur movies.
I didn’t start making superhero-type films until the early 1960s, after meeting artist (and amateur superhero-movie-maker) Larry Ivie. As far as I knew back then, Larry and I were the only two fans making films about superheroes.
What stood out to me about your amateur movies was that you were often making movies of some very particular comic characters or comic stories, like the Spirit or Superduperman. Were there lessons you took from those experiences, especially when you ended up writing some of those same characters later on in your career?
I think the amateur superhero movies I made back then were as much influenced by the old movie serials made by Republic Pictures and other studios as much as the comic books themselves. So I don’t think my amateur movie-making had any real influence on what I did or saw later in life.
I guess 90% of what I know about film history is from that Peter Biskind book EASY RIDERS RAGING BULLS, and what I remember from that is how the auteurs of the late 1960's and 1970's (some of whom like George Lucas and John Milius, I guess, were your classmates at USC), how they were reacting to the counter-culture but also to the great Italian directors, the French New Wave, European art films. What was your sense of it at the time? In reviewing your resume, you seem to have always been more inspired by the classic horror films, monster films, Republic serials-- fantasy filmmaking which has only really just become "acceptable," but at that time was probably frowned upon.
How true, and you summed that up very well. I was always getting in trouble at USC because of my interests in those kinds of movies. Once or twice the cinema department had seriously considered booting me out, not because of my film-making abilities, but because of my personal tastes, including the fact that I liked reading comic books! It’s ironic and also a little hypocritical that USC has been so financially enriched by contributions by people like Lucas who became rich making the kinds of movies I nearly got expelled for liking back then.
You mentioned in one interview, that after your film school years, you were a musician, you went from film school into the music business. Were you in the music business in Los Angeles in the late 1960's? Were you working in the music business during the Sunset Strip curfew riots? I can't imagine you wanted for meeting interesting people.
I’d been a musician since 1957, having played electric guitar in various Chicago “garage bands” before making my Big Move to Los Angeles in 1964. When I graduated from USC, I was so soured by my experiences at that university and the faculty’s attitudes towards me based on my personal tastes, that – when a music opportunity came up that might lead to big things – I promptly went with it.
Yes, I was working in the music business in LA/Hollywood during the great late 1960's days of the Sunset Strip. I played bass guitar in the Penny Arkade, a rock group produced by then-Monkee Mike Nesmith. The infamous Sunset Strip riots happened in November of 1966. The Penny Arkade formed the following year. That was one of the best periods ever for rock music – and one of the most creative. Yes, I met a lot of celebrity rockers during that time, many of them friends of Mike.
At a certain point, though, in the late 1970's, as I understand the story, Forrest Ackerman calls you up and gets you involved in the business of writing comics, starting with the great Warren magazines like EERIE. And you start there, end up writing stories for the very first issue of VAMPIRELLA, writing for Gold Key, writing for Marvel, creating your own barbarian comic DAGAR THE INVINCIBLE. Were you in New York at the time, or sending in work from L.A.?
Around the same time, you're writing for kids cartoons like Scooby Doo, Dynomutt, the Flintstones, the Go-Bots, Transformers, and so on, up to and including being involved in the creation of the HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE characters. Were you doing comics at the same time as your career in children's television or-- I'm a little fuzzy on the timing? What was your average workday like at that time?
I did all of my comic-book work from Los Angeles (except on a few occasions where, on vacation, I wrote them from wherever I happened to be, usually Chicago). Yes, I was doing comics and TV animation writing – also books, movie scripts, etc. – concurrently. Back then, on days that I was writing (and really on a “roll”), I could write for maybe eight hours or more, sometimes into the wee hours of night. Now my work days tend to be shorter. I get cabin fever and like to go out at night, especially if there’s a party.
Compared to film and music, and so on, what was the culture of comics like at that time? Did you feel a part of it? There's less money in comics; probably less of the sex and the drugs than movies or music (but I'm guessing more drugs than children's television...?); creator rights weren't really respected at the time, from what I understand. Did you have a sense of what kind of people your colleagues at that time were?
I never felt like I was really “one of the guys” (that is, the closely knit community of comic-book writers and artists based on the East Coast), even when a lot of the New York comic-book talent moved to California back around the 1970s. I guess I’ve always felt more a part of the rock ‘n’ roll community, maybe because of my days as a kind of “street kid” growing up in Chicago. Some of that may have been retained in my personality, which may explain some things. You’re probably right about the sex and drugs, which have always been a big part of the music business, long before anyone ever heard of rock music. And no, creator rights were still in their infancy, at least as comic books (as opposed to strips) were concerned. Thinking back, I believe that pretty much everyone I knew was trying to do their best work.
You went from making Captain America fan films to ultimately writing Captain America comics. I tracked down your Captain America run, four issues which involved Captain America fighting The Corporation on the set of a new Captain America serial. What stood out to me, though, was you didn't write the conclusion of the story you were telling (which involved Captain America fighting the Ameri-droid)-- it was handed off to Steve Gerber mid-storyline.
That's something that seemed to have happened quite frequently in that era of comics, at least Marvel comics, that writers who'd begin a series or begin a story would often not be the one to conclude it; it happened any number of times to Steve Gerber too, actually, if I remember right. Did you expect to write the ending? Did you have plans for the book? Did you feel... I don't know... did you feel "respected as an artist" during your time in comics? Was that important for you while you were working in comics?
I also wrote the character Captain America into two TV cartoon episodes, for SPIDER-MAN and SPIDER-MAN & HIS AMAZING FRIENDS. As I remember things about the comic book, I was in Chicago on vacation when Roy Thomas – who, as I recall, had been writing the CAPTAIN AMERICA book – phoned from California and asked if I’d like to write an issue. Roy, at the time, was also pursuing a screen-writing career and, to do that, had to cut back on some of his comics writing. Of course, I wanted to write one of my all-time favorite characters!
Anyway, the story had already been penciled from Roy’s plot and all I had to do was, as Roy termed it, “dialogue” the book. Roy must have liked the job I did, because he then turned the book over to me completely. And yes, I did plan to complete the Ameridroid storyline and continue beyond that. But then, Steve Gerber entered the picture and told the Powers That Be at Marvel that he wanted to write CAPTAIN AMERICA. Steve, of course, was a Big Name at the company, and, unlike me, part of that previously mentioned “community.” So, without warning or ceremony, the book was pulled from me and given to Gerber. I had indeed planned ahead, but I no longer recall the direction I would have taken that story. Yes, I think I did want to be “respected as an artist” back in those days.
In one of the interviews you gave about your work for Gold Key, you mention "I also had a problem working black characters into the stories. One of the editors was kind of paranoid that no matter how positively we treated a black character, the NAACP or Black Panthers or someone would picket our offices – or worse. And one editor was an out-right racist!" Was that attitude prevalent at Gold Key? Was that attitude something you ran into often in comics?
Yes, that’s true. The company as a whole – at least the West Coast branch – seemed really concerned that if a Black character were portrayed in even the slightest negative light, or as an outright villain, there would be those kinds of problems. As to one editor being a racist, I’ll never forget this … Some other comic-book company had just issued a book about a little African American kid. I’ve forgotten the title, but it was the same as this character’s name. The book also happened to be written and illustrated by an African American. I was in one office, having a discussion with one editor, when the other editor came in carrying that book. He was visible upset, angry, red-faced and physically shaken. He threw the comic book on the first editor’s desk and exclaimed (I’m remembering this verbatim), “Can you believe this?! A [the n-word] has got his own book!” That was the first and only time I’d ever heard this person express such an attitude, and the other editor and I were just stunned.
I don’t think such an attitude reared its ugly head at the other companies, at least as far as I’m aware. Look at their books from that time and you’ll see lots of ethnic characters, good and evil. In the example I gave, I don’t think there was prejudice against minorities in general or by the company; it was just this one editor who, as I discovered that day, obviously didn’t like Blacks.
Is there a particular story you think of especially fondly from your time in comics? I would have guessed Dagar since that was a character you created, but what was surprising in my research is that despite having written numerous books like Dagar or Marvel's Krull series, you mention that you weren't really a fan of that type of fan of sword and sorcery material; you mention in an interview how Dagar was created because that kind of fantasy material happened to just be hot at that moment.
Not so much DAGAR THE INVINCIBLE. I was never much of a sword and sorcery fan and didn’t enjoy writing it much, including the KULL THE DESTROYER and SOLOMON KANE stories I wrote for Marvel. Most S&S stories – to me, anyway – seem pretty much the same, the heroes virtually interchangeable. And with all the Gold Key restrictions I had to deal with, I knew from the start that I could never bring the book up to the level I’d have liked it to reach, especially with books like Roy Thomas’ excellent CONAN out there. I was quite proud, however, of some of my other series, like TRAGG AND THE SKY GODS, but especially THE OCCULT FILES OF DR. SPEKTOR. And I really enjoyed writing THE INVADERS and WHAT IF?
I don't know if this is something you're okay talking about, but on your website, there's a cover of an adult comic you did with Brian Forbes called FANTA, published in 1984. But I guess what stood out to me is if you did that in 1984-- you were doing adult comics around the same time as you were helping to create HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. I'm honestly not sure what the right question here is. Uhm-- what was 1984 like for you?
And... you know, as a kid, I never understood why they called that show the MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, incidentally. That used to confuse the heck out of me. I was always waiting for the Masters of the Universe to show up and kick everybody's ass. I don't know. Just wanted to mention that.
Having grown up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money, I got into the habit early on to take on just about any job that came my way – especially when I had no idea what the future might bring – including the stories collected in the FANTA book, whose magazine series title was THE HOUSE OF PLEASURE (and other “adult” material I did for that publishing company), and also MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. I have no idea why the latter was called that. That was a name I didn’t make up. Someone at Mattel did (and was probably paid Big Bucks for it.). I did, however, come up with the name Fanta. And, as Fate would have it, I was surprised with a divorce around that time and lost most of what money I had at that time, including that earned by THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. So my additional income made by writing those adult-oriented comics turned out helping me just to survive.
You become a filmmaker again, beginning with 1996's DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRLS, and continuing thereafter with VAMPIRE HUNTERS CLUB, EROTIC RITES OF COUNTESS DRACULA, MUMMY'S KISS, COUNTESS DRACULA'S ORGY OF BLOOD, MUMMY'S KISS: 2ND DYNASTY and BLOOD SCARAB, all of which you wrote, directed in and apparently sometimes appeared in singing songs. For starters, what changed for you in 1996 that you ended up a filmmaker again?
I didn’t really appear in them singing songs, but worked some of my recorded songs – on which I both played and sang -- into the movies’ soundtracks. How did I get back into film-making? Easy – a producer friend, Kevin Glover, dropped by my house and said that the Playboy Channel had approached him to make a movie for them. He asked me if I’d like to write and direct it. I’d already worked with Kevin on several video projects, plus a cable-access TV show. So Kevin gave me this opportunity which I’d have been crazy to have turned down. I came up with the idea, story, title, etc. for DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRLS. But we decided we really wanted to own the property, not turn it over to Playboy. So off we went on our own, looking for investors, forming a company, and so forth. That’s how it all started.
The full story is in DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRLS: THE BOOK, which I later wrote for McFarland and Company, the same company that publishes my series of dinosaur encyclopedia books.
You've primarily made monster movies-- that kind of material sort of threads through your whole life, from your amateur movies to your work in comics to your other writing. What do you think the appeal of that material is for you? Why do you think it's something you keep going back to?
I really don’t know. I’ve loved monster movies ever since I saw CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON upon its original release back in 1954 … and then, a couple years later, reissues of some of the old Universal Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man and Mummy movies, in theatres before they were released to television. They just pushed buttons in me that have remained pushed to this day.
Five of your seven movies feature Del Howison, one of the owners of the Dark Delicacies horror bookstore in Burbank, four of them playing the same character, the Bram Stoker character Renfield. Can you tell me about that? Is that something that's based on your friendship with Mr. Howison, or did you want something linking your movies, a "continuity" like in the comics?
Both, really. Del and I are long-time friends, but initially I didn’t even know he was an actor. Then, about 10 years or so ago, I was hired to direct a short film called THE VAMPIRE HUNTERS CLUB. Del played himself in the movie. At the same time I was gearing up to direct my second feature length movie, which was originally titled SCARLET COUNTESS (released on video and DVD as THE EROTIC RITES OF COUNTESS DRACULA, although we’re going back to the original when we reissue it). I was struck by the clarity of Del’s voice and liked the way he delivered his line. That, plus his long white hair, conjured up in my imagination a new take on the Renfield character. I didn’t want my Renfield actor doing an impersonation of any previous Renfields, particularly Dwight Frye. And yes, I wanted to maintain continuity.
There was a brief time when it looked like a scheduling conflict would prevent Del from being in BLOOD SCARAB. But I waited it out and my producer Dan Golden worked it out for Del to come back to play “Rennie.” I really didn’t want to cast anyone else but Del in that part.
You've mentioned in interviews how filmmaking is the favorite thing, of all the things you've done. Why is that? What's the "good part" for you? Is it being on set? Is it the editing? Or is it just the final product has a certain magic to it that your other work hasn't had?
My favorite stages of making a movie, I think, are the casting and directing. I really enjoy meeting actors and also the on-set experience of directing, with all the challenges that arise, some of them requiring immediate decisions. But I also love the experience of seeing a project come together from inception to completion. Before I even start writing the script, I can see and hear in my mind some approximation of the completed movie. And seeing that movie come together – stage by stage – is to me a real turn on, especially when the finished project bears some resemblance to the original conception. The same is true for me with music. I have a song in my head, then I write it, and then hear it come together in the recording studio. That’s a great thrill for me.
Many of your movies supposedly have a certain amount of nudity if not soft-core sexual content. So, if you'll indulge me... Okay, you have the exploitation films of the 1970's, and it's before plastic surgery hit or everybody started waxing everything, so you see really normal-looking girls, which makes the movies, I don't know, dirtier somehow. Then, you have the 80's, and the post-Porky's wave of bad teen sex comedies, where there's a fat guy, a nerd, a hot dog stand, and it's all mysteriously funded by Canadian tax dollars. Then, the 90's, those movies get too dark, too serious; Shannon Tweed's constantly trying to figure out if Andrew Stevens is a serial killer. And finally, the 00's, everything gets corporatized, synergized, and there are 5 billion super-depressing "sequels" to mainstream movies, direct-to-DVD sequels to AMERICAN PIE or VAN WILDER, RATATOUILLE 2: COOKING WITH FIRE or whatever. And that's basically my sense of four-decades worth of T&A movies and/or American history.
And what doesn't make sense to me... There are still outlets for exploitation movies-- netflix, say. And more importantly, there's so much technology now that wasn't available before-- digital cameras, software, amazing things. And it's not hard to find attractive ladies who'll take off their shirts, on the internet-- I'm pretty sure that's why they built the internet. I'd expect those kinds of movies to have gotten really great in recent years, but that hasn't really seemed to have happened, at least that I've noticed. I'm curious if you agree or disagree, as someone whose films may be linked to that genre.
I’m not really sure what you’re asking me. My company Frontline Entertainment has made four (out of a total of six) of what are called “soft core” movies (which we’re no longer making, let me point out). We were talked into this by one of our former distributors on the prospect of their making us a lot of money. They essentially were built around a series of simulated love scenes between good-looking naked actresses. But it’s very difficult finding young, beautiful women who will get naked and do such scenes, and who can also act. At least it’s difficult when working with the small budgets we’ve always had on our movies.
So, while all of the foregoing was going on, the comics, the kid's cartoons and the filmmaking, you're also an author of numerous books, the novelization of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, numerous non-fiction books about dinosaurs primarily, but also a good number of pulp horror titles. I know that the great GROOVY AGE OF HORROR blog is particularly fans of your 1970's eleven-novel series, NEW ADVENTURES OF FRANKENSTEIN, most of which were only available in Spanish and German until recently.
PULP 2.0 Press is now re-releasing, BROTHER BLOOD, a book you wrote in 1969, a "horror 'blaxploitation' novel set in 1969 Los Angeles in and around the world famous landmarks of the Sunset Strip," again previously published in German. What is it about these novels that you think are inspiring people to bring them back into print (or into print in English for the first time), decades later?
In the case of Pulp 2.0 Press, publisher Bill Cunningham is presenting them in some very creative formats. Bill is looking at these books as “productions” rather than “publications,” and as movie productions come out on DVD with all sorts of bonus features, so will these books. As far as the Frankensteins are concerned, when these stories were recently reissued by the Scary Monsters company, they were loaded with lots hundreds of extremely embarrassing (for me) typos, misspellings, repeated words and phrases, etc. Their presence was basically my fault. When I rewrote them for new publication, I was just learning to use Word … and I did the rewriting quite fast. As a result, the mistakes came in and I never caught them. They should have been dealt with by the editor, as they were all quite obvious (and easy, in my opinion) “fixes.” But they weren’t. And even some new mistakes managed to infiltrate the text. So now, when I sign a copy of one of these books, I won’t have to make anymore excuses. I hope!
What people expect of vampires seems to have changed a lot in recent years-- the big trend in vampires has been guys alive hundreds of years hitting on high-school aged girls, which people seem to find romantic instead of sad, somehow. How do you think BROTHER BLOOD will fit into the "current landscape"?
It’s a very traditional vampire story, so maybe it won’t fit in. There’s no scene where some vampire hunter tells someone, “Now forget everything you ever knew about vampires. They can come out during the day, they’re not affected by crosses, they do cast reflections,” etc. The vampires in BROTHER BLOOD play by the old rules. And the book is very retro. No homoeroticism, no lesbian vampires, and so forth. Maybe it’s best if the novel doesn’t really fit in.
Was BROTHER BLOOD written while you were in the music business? What was your life was like when you wrote the novel? Was there something in particular going on with you where you felt like you wanted to see vampires devour the people around you?
BROTHER BLOOD (the original draft) was written just after my career with the Penny Arkade ended. So it would have been written in or around 1969, the same year that the story is set. At the time I was going through my “hippy” phase and spent a lot of time on the Strip, hanging around clubs like the Whiskey, the Galaxy, Gazzarri’s, etc. I had the really long hair, bell-bottom pants, boots, the whole works. At the time I also had a lot of African American friends and got to know more about what is sometimes called the “Black Community.” So those experiences might have had something to do with my decision to write a story that – in those pre-BLACULA days – would probably have been, if published, the first novel about a Black master vampire.
So as I mentioned above, your horror novels seem to have been better received in the Spanish-language and German-language. Why do you think that sort of pulp fiction died out in this country before it did in other countries, like Germany? That seems to be a recurring thing, where the U.S. comes up with some bit of pop culture, and other countries keep it alive longer than we do.
Hard to say. Mexico, too, was making movies into the 1960s that were basically imitations of American horror films of the 1930s and ‘40s. I guess we Americans are not only trend-setters, we also get bored a lot faster.
I can't really justify taking up your time to talk about other things, like that you're listed as an extra in the movie THE GRADUATE, or voice-over work you may or may not have done for Japanese anime.
Well, to address those issues really fast, I basically “crashed” THE GRADUATE set and walked through a scene – without pay, of course. They happened to be shooting part of the movie on the USC campus. I never saw myself in the scene. Maybe the editor noticed the FANTASTIC FOUR comic book I was holding. And yes, in the past year I’ve done voice-over acting dubbing 21 (so far) Japanese movies into English, 20 Anime and one live-action.
When I was a kid, the kind of fantasy material that you've spent your career working with, it was not really a reputable thing. It sure didn't feel that way anyways. Now with every year that passes, fantasy material becomes more and more recognized-- alien invasion movies get nominated for Oscars, novels about magicians and vampires become global phenomena, etc. At the same time, it makes it more ordinary, and I don't think what I was looking for as a kid was more ordinary, another spoonful of ordinary. What do you think about what's going on? Do you see it as a validation?
When I was a kid, there was something rebellious about liking the fantastic stuff, just like it was in liking rock ‘n’ roll music. And if you got a horror, science-fiction or fantasy movie that was even “pretty good,” that was really special. Today, the movies are almost all fantastic and rock music – a half century after those early 78 recordings – is mainstream, with the same four or five musicians on stage playing the same instruments, adopting the same stances and body language, you name it. It’s the music of the kids’ grandparents! There’s nothing rebellious or anything the kids can call uniquely their own, anymore, and I think that’s kind of sad.
I'm not sure what "finding your voice" means exactly. But do you remember when you got to the point where you felt like you had a good idea what a "Don Glut thing" was?
Well, maybe this will answer that question. When I was a senior in high school there were a lot of things I enjoyed doing – making amateur movies, writing stories, playing music, drawing, and so forth. At the time – living in Chicago, basically a “blue collar” and sports-oriented city – I didn’t really understand that any of these “hobbies” could be turned into a profession. Then, as graduation day approached, our school had what was called “College Day,” where representatives from local and near-local colleges and universities came to make their pitches. One school was best for engineering, one for chemistry, another for business, etc. – none of which was for me.
Then, as a graduation present, my Mother took me on a vacation to Los Angeles. And it was during that trip that I learned, for the first time, that there was such a thing as USC film school – going to school to learn how to make movies! Imagine that! I still wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do at that point, but – especially after “College Day” – I knew what I didn’t want to do, which was work for the rest of my life some boring nine-to-five job. I think that’s where I found that “voice” you mentioned.
Part the last of my talk with Adam Knave, covering his webcomic, influences, and the 'speed of ludicrous.'
My thanks to Mr. Knave for taking the time to talk to me, and all of you for taking the time to read it (or suffer through it in silence, depending).
More jibbity-jab after the jump.
JL: So how long have you been doing comics then between this and…I’m assuming you’re pretty new to it between this and Legend of the Burrito Blade and the other webcomic whose name has dodged me [Things Wrong With Me]… AK: I’ve only really been doing this for, good lord, probably less than a year, writing comics?
JL: That is not a very long period of time. Do you see your work changing over the course of the year? AK: Oh, good lord, yes. I have a story which will hopefully be in Volume Four. And you know, I gotta say, I do love Popgun, if only because we don’t get our stories in any easier than anyone else. I’ve had stuff rejected.
AK: Oh yeah. I have a story idea, I send it off to Anthony and D.J., who are editing Volume Four, and I’ll be their assistant again. And they were just like, ‘No, this doesn’t really work for us.’ Okay, so I tried again. It’s just as tough for us.
Comics is a whole new world. That’s part of why I’m doing things like Burrito Blade, because me and my artist---and I don’t know if you’ve looked at the comic at all—but he has, frighteningly enough, never drawn this many sequential pages of anything in his life. And you can see in the first thirty pages, his art is taking these weird leaps. Every three or four pages, he’s learning new tricks.
We just decided that this is a five year boot camp project, where I’m just writing script every few weeks—and that’s why I have an editor—and he’s just producing three pages a week, come hell or high water. And it forces you to up your game consistently, because there’s no waiting, there’s no second thoughts. It’s just, you write, and you get it back and you see it. And you go, ‘Wow, I could’ve done that better,’ and they you write more and you figure it out.
JL: I do notice that with Burrito Blade, that some of is his storytelling and some of it is your storytelling, but it almost feels like when you get on a ten-speed bicycle, and it’s not quite in the right gear at first, and then as you go in, there’s a sense of things being figured out. It’s good, because it does feel a bit like boot camp, and it’s sort of fun to read because of that, I think. AK: And from where we are, because we’re neurotic, we’re something like four months ahead of publication. Because part of boot camp is, we both want to be in the industry more. I’m kind of edging close to it now, but that’ll only get you so far.
And part of it is not only being able to do the work but being able to hit the deadlines. And, you know, having an artist who is obsessive about deadlines is strange.
JL: Yeah, that right there is like, chain yourself to that guy.
AK: Renato is, hands-down…And, you know, again, I’m sitting here proposing to Matteo on the one hand and then leaving him from Renato over here—I’m a shameless hussy. Renato will do things like send me pages, and go ‘what do you think?’
And I will say to him, ‘this is not…this needs to be flipped, this needs to be here, here’s this old weird comic panel as what we’re trying to do, look at this for reference.’ And he’ll just go, okay, scrap the entire page, and re-draw it.
He’s never balked at anything, because he just wants to get better and hit deadlines and make this all work. So we’re all coming from this place so that, by now, we’re in the middle of doing—he just started actually drawing Chapter Four. Which they went about an issue—between twenty-one and thirty pages a chapter—because we’re making a graphic novel, and we set limits on it to try and hit those marks, for pacing issues and everything else. And by Chapter Four, the writing—just being able to see it when I get it back from my editor—the writing is tighter. There’s less of this, ‘I’ll spend a page when I should be spending two panels.’ And his art is getting better, just knowing how to move a camera.
JL: That actually brings a question for me about ‘Legend of the Burrito Blade,’ and I’m sorry to actually interrupt what I was asking you because I do want to hear about you and Renato, too. But it is very, very goofy for something that sounds so incredibly ambitious on your guys’ end. AK: I can’t not do that. I love being able to go, ‘you know what? Today I want a muffin to explode.’ Just because that makes me laugh right now. I want to make a Real Genius float, just because…who doesn’t love Real Genius?
But at the same time, I want to do this deep, big story that’s very ambitious, and part of me has a little bit of fear there, where if we fail in the big ambitious thing, at least we still have the funny to lean on. Just being perfectly honest, that does exist there.
And the rest of it is, I’ve always personally love stories that are a lot deeper than they seem on the surface. So you’re not hammering the point—you can read Burrito Blade through the five year story we have planned, and never get any of the deeper stuff we’re talking about but hopefully still enjoy it.
[It’s too fine a point to being two things at once], but it’s just that’s kind of how I write, sadly.
JL: It’s funny because it reminds me—I just assume that you’re much, much younger than I am—but it reminds me of some of the weird ‘70s Marvel stuff. Definitely there’s a lot of Steve Gerber— AK: Yes, there is. There is a lot of Steve Gerber in that. I will tell you—and D.J. can not like me for saying this—if we get the second Agents of the WTF story done [for Popgun Vol. 4], there is…people will who know Steve Gerber will just look at me and go, ‘you stole what?’ Because I had to, and sadly D.J. is not as big a Gerber fan as I am.
But I used to have a column, which I should really get back to someday, where I was going through every issue of Dazzler. Because, frankly, I love Dazzler. And looking back at it now, it was twenty years ahead of its time. And Bob Haney invented pop comics—and all that stuff…I have a theory about comics that really only two people have ever really ever nailed, which is that there is a speed of ludicrous.
Not the Mel Brooks’ ‘ludicrous speed,’ perhaps ludicrous is the wrong word to use then. But it’s really Bob Burden and Keith Giffen are the only people I know who nail this thing consistently, where you go just fast enough that all of the crazy just kind of happens, but not so fast that it blurs and you can’t keep up and you get confused, and not so slow that you can see the fact that it’s all crazy and it falls apart. There’s a sweet spot of ‘insane’ that things have to be able to move at.
And a lot of those old things, like, Gerber did it in a completely different way but he was doing the same thing with Howard the Duck and some of his Defenders work, god knows. And Giffen and Bob Burden live there. They kind of built the house.
And so every comic page I ever write is literally written for Giffen to draw. In my head, I write things with fifteen panels, and that’s how I want everything I ever do, drawn by Giffen…who will now take out a restraining order…
But yeah, that’s exactly where I live. That weird ‘70s Marvel, ‘let’s just be crazy and also tell a story’ place.
JL: And I wanted to ask you, actually: one thing that did strike me about the Burrito Blade, was even as I was reading it and I’m like, ‘yeah, these guys are still learning and putting things together,’ I was also like, ‘damned if you didn’t nail down, here’s the end of the page and here’s the event that happens at the page turn.’ AK: When I started writing, I told Lauren, ‘keep an eye on this editing-wise,’ because I had the weirdest job in the universe: three pages a week means that you read a page and the next day there’s nothing there. There’s no reason for you to show up. So every page has to give you a reason to want to come back two days later, every third page has to give the reader a reason to want to come back three days later, but it also has to read as a complete chapter, where all the chapters have to read as a complete volume, and all three volumes have to read as a complete god-damn story. So every single page has to play about four different roles. Those turn-points, there’s always a moment at the end of everything—it’s crucially important in my head because I always want people to come back.
It’s the old page 22 in Waid’s entire Flash run.
JL: Yeah, exactly! But each page definitely has a very strong intention to hit that beat, which I thought was interesting. AK: Well, I’m glad it’s working.
Yesterday was the first part of my interview with writer/editor Adam Knave, wherein I did a terrible job of getting him to talk about the third volume of Popgun, out today. Today, I do a slightly better job, and although I'm still meager with the art, it doesn't look quite as tiny.
The interview should conclude tomorrow, with discussion about Knave's webcomic and influences.
Part II is after the jump.
JL: Anything else you want to add about Popgun?
AK: It’s awesome and you should buy it? It’s funny; my mother is mostly an editor and also a writer. My father was a writer first and would occasionally edit. And I grew up self-identifying—I’m not like one of those kids who was fifteen, ‘I’m a writer!’ But in my head, I’m always that guy who writes stuff, and never an editor.
And outside of D.J.’s story and the occasional thing, you know, work on websites and doing columns, I haven’t been an editor…until I got thrown into this. And it’s been an incredible learning curve. D.J. Kirkbride is one of the most amazing proofers I’ve seen in my life. The man has a gift. And the fact that Popgun comes out roughly every eight months? It kills me that anyone gets the book done. Just the amount of work, and how strong the book is. If you look at Book One or Two or Three, there really aren’t bad stories.
Part of why I agreed to the book was I was just a fan of it. Because anthologies traditionally don’t really sell, unless—and again Rantz is a god among men for pulling together Comic Book Tattoo—and let’s face it, he was kind of smart: yeah, put Tori Amos’ name on an anthology, it’ll sell. Yeah, that works.
But Popgun had nothing for it but ‘let’s make this incredibly good.’ And that’s kind of where we all sit when we work on it. It’s—I’ve been involved in publishing too long, I’ve seen too many teams of people who just really work together on a project for the money because they’re there today, and they think they’re supposed to be. But with Popgun, everyone involved in it is honestly just there for the love and are amazingly good professionals. And I think we end up with an amazing book full of people that produce…'Bastard Road.' Every chance I get I mention 'Bastard Road,' let me tell you. I am such a hardcore fan of that strip.
JL: That’s the [Cockfighter Blues]?
AK: Yeah. I actually told Brian I want the panel of “Giant Black Cock!” printed on velvet, and I will hang it framed in my living room. I’m not kidding.
Bastard Road: Cockfighter Blues by Brian Winkeler and Dave Curd
But it’s such a joyous thing. It’s that weird mix of everything comics can do, and a lot of Popgun is about that potential of comics. Don’t we all just keep hearing this, you know, ‘oh, well, comics. Just the superhero stuff is all that actually sells and nobody is really innovating anything…unless your name is Grant Morrison,’ unless you’re attacking Grant Morrison that day, in which case he’s not.
But you hear like three names of people who innovate in comics, and I’m telling you, we have like four hundred and seventy-odd pages of people who innovate in comics, hands down. These are people who are just doing incredibly new things with the medium. And it’s brave, and it’s just interesting to see from a production thing—hey, I get to read this stuff first—al of these stories that don’t always have anything in common, but you look through the book and you can feel this thread. You know, that music sensibility isn’t in every page. People aren’t going, ‘let me write a comic based on a rap song.’ But you do feel that sensibility of—before Top Forty Stations became huge and, you know, I grew up in New York, so I’m going to assume the rest of the world was like New York. You know, what became of Top Forty stations back in the early ‘80s played some really weird stuff. They were playing ‘Mercy Seat’ by Nick Cave on the god-damned radio, not a song you would actually get away with playing today.
But they would take these chances, and you had DJs who didn’t have orders to play these four records over and over, and you had people creating something interesting. Even if you didn’t like it, you had to respect it. And I think that’s really where Popgun lives. Because I don’t like every story in the book. I would be lying if I said I did, let’s face it. There’s too much stuff in there to love every story in the book.
But even the ones where I sit there and go ‘Really? This is--? Uh, okay,’ I consistently respect the craft that went into it, because everyone is at a really, really high level here. You have to respect the creators who push this stuff out, and you can tell they just kind of gave their all for it for, again, an Image anthology that—yeah, Volume One won a Harvey, and that’s awesome and well-deserved, I think. But I think it’s not going to buy these cats a car, you know? Let’s face it.
And I get mail, constantly, from people who are not unknown in the industry, who go, ‘I want to be part of Popgun.’ And that just amazes me. Not because, ‘Wow, they like us.’ But just that word is spreading and we’re becoming this place you go for the experiments, for the fun of it, for ‘let’s see what comics can do for a change,’ instead of being told what comics can do.
Vertex by Juan Doe
We tell people, ‘play. What’s the story you’ve always wanted to tell? Let’s see that one.' We actually just got a list of pitches from somebody whose name I can’t remember at all, who’s going to do a story for us, and he gave us these three choices. Here he is, a nice guy, he’s giving us options, that’s kind of awesome. ‘Which one do you want?’
And me, D.J., and Anthony all took a look at this list and we all universally, without talking to each other, went for the strangest, most experimental one in the batch. We’re just like, ‘we want to see you pull off that.’ Because no one’s done that yet.
And you don’t include that really unique, special weird thing unless it’s the one you really want to do. No one ever includes that in the list unless that’s the one they want. So that’s the one we’re going to go for. We want people to tell those stories that they really are fully invested in, because you can see that investment on the page.
Adam Knave is an assistant editor for the third volume of Popgun, out this Wednesday. He's also a writer of prose and a webcomic writer, and from what I can tell he works his ass off. Other writers and artists have projects they describe as "boot camp," for example, but Knave, along with artist Renato Pastor and editor Lauren Vogelbaum, are planning their webcomic to be a five year boot camp, one in which they're already significantly ahead of what they have posted.
I'm still learning the interviewer ropes so I apologize for the awkward breaks and pacing in the interview--I tried to keep this first part short then realized it was in fact too short. Part one is behind the jump.
Jeff Lester: Let’s start with Popgun, because that’s in theory the stuff that’s most important to get out on time here. When did you—let’s go for the big picture. How would you describe Popgun for somebody who’s never seen it or read it? Adam Knave: The way it was originally pitched to me, when I first came on board, that it was the graphic mix tape. And that’s been their tag since Day One. And you know, you hear something like graphic mixtape, and you say it to people, and they go, ‘so they have music?’ You know, and then you realize you’re dealing with the slow people.
But it really comes down to, it is a graphic mixtape—they actually pull that off. You know, it has all the weird joys of a great mixtape: there’s a flow to it—we’re actually trying something slightly different with the flow in Volume Three than we have in the past.
JL: Oh, yeah?
AK: Yeah, we get to play with that. Volume Two was very much: here are these cool songs that go together. Volume Three, there’s a thematic flow. There’s more of a grouping of stories going on. Because I’m going to take you from one place to the other.
And there’s always an intermission in the middle of the book which…I don’t know if this is what they were thinking of when Mark and Joe first started the book, but it gives me such fond memories of cassettes and that’s the inset cover of the cassette. And so that’s awesome! Because it’s just like the flip to the cassette map! That just makes me smile. Every time.
I’m easily pleased.
JL: That’s good. Always helpful in this line of work.
AK: You know, everyone—everyone—has made mixtapes—or I suppose at this point, playlists—for friends. And that’s really what it is—trying to find established voices doing new things, as well as brand-new voices who just really should be bigger than they are right now. And just letting them play, and seeing where it all comes to and then finding a way to mix it all together, to get a finished product that reads like it was meant.
JL: So do you guys lay down any sorts of boundaries, as far as page limits or topics, or anything like that? AK: Yes and no? There are some boundaries for content. It is an Image book. There’s never going to be outright porn. Past that? Mmm, not really. If it’s justified in the story, we’re usually fine with it.
Page count? I think the longest thing we’ve ever had is thirty pages. I know we have a thirty pager in Volume Three, and that’s the longest anything’s ever going to go. But we also have at least one one-page story. So we’re fairly free; it’s just we have so many people and so much material that we have to put a cap on it somewhere.
JL: I would think so. It’s a pretty big slice of comics.
AK: The great thing is both—I believe it’s Volume One and Two, actually—every volume so far has had roughly 100 pages of content that gets chopped out and pushed to the next volume.
You know, you’d think we’d already have a hundred pages, we’d stop. We don’t. And in Volume Three we actually hit the physical limit to keep the price point. We hit the physical page limit.
JL: How did the story that you end up co-writing in this volume end up happening?
AK: D.J. and I go way back. I don’t know if you remember—here’s a little slice of comic history for you—Too Much Coffee Man magazine.
JL: Oh, yeah.
AK: My first-ever, like, hard-print published journalism type stuff was in an issue of that. A website I ran, we interviewed Shannon Wheeler, and I kept in touch with him because I’m shameless. It’s how you get somewhere, you know?
And then just every now and then, I’d tell him, you know: if you ever need anything done, let me know. Glad to help out.
And one day he dropped a line and said, ‘I had this guy who was going to interview somebody for it me and then he dropped out. Can you do it?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ This was a Wednesday.
He said, ‘Okay. I need you to find someone who speaks Klingon and interview them.’
And I was reading this going, ‘You want me to—am I reading this correctly?’
And he’s like, ‘Yeah, find someone who speaks Klingon, interview, but we’re going to just present the interview in Klingon with no translation. And it’s going to be really funny.’
And I was like, ‘Okay.’ Again, this is Wednesday. He says, ‘All right. I need it by Friday.’
JL: So you actually had to transcribe—conduct and transcribe—an interview in Klingon in two days. AK: I did it over email. I actually had a friend in Atlanta who knew someone they worked with who spoke Klingon.
God bless people who live near DragonCon. That’s really the secret.
But, no, I had to proof Klingon. Which, you know, I’m sitting with a book, going, ‘You need this extra apostrophe after this q.’ Just sitting there going, ‘what the hell am I doing?’
But I ended up on the staff of that for like the two or three issues before it went under. Which I still say had nothing do with me. And the last issue—which actually never came out—was Kirkbride’s first issue.
It was one of those things where he was now the new kid, and I was now the seasoned vet of like an issue and a half. So we were like, ‘let’s do something together!’ And we just found that we write together really weirdly well.
So when he was doing Popgun, I edited his story in Volume Two. And we said, ‘we should do something together.’ So we started doing all these stories. And finding artists—which, you know exactly the fun of that. Where you go, ‘It’s for Image. There won’t be any money! Because, well, it’s Image. So there’s no pay rate. So there might be money at the back end, but won’t you do this for free for now?’ It’s an eight page story, that’s why we get someone to say yes.
So we had a bunch of stuff in the works that we thought was going to end up in Volume Two. And nothing quite got done in time. We had an artist bail on us, and all the standard things that happen in life. And we ended up finding Matteo, who…I want to ‘art marry’ him.
He’s blindingly fast. And if you look at his work…he turned those pages around in something under a page a day.
JL: Good grief. Really.
AK: He’d sent us these sketches, and they were kind of very airy and all over the place. And we’re like, ‘there’s not going to be enough room! How is this going to work?’ And he says, ‘Oh no, those were just the sketches. I’m re-drawing them!’
And we’re like, “You’re going to…okay?’ You know, what do you say. ‘You go do the thing you do that frightens us, and we’ll be over here, screaming.’ And he just knocks them out of the god-damned park.
JL: That’s really amazing to know, particularly since the storytelling is really energetic—the angles and perspectives are all over the place, and everything’s always moving. You guys have just a few pages so of course it’s got to move, but there’s maybe half a panel where somebody isn’t screaming or running or flying.
AK: And I will admit, this is mostly my fault. I come from prose which, you know, that sentence makes it sound like another planet, and I guess in comics it is. I was at New York Comic Con talking to people, and I’d be like, ‘oh, did you want a copy of my book?’ Because I had my book with me (because I’m a whore, and I don’t mind that) and people were going, ‘It’s just prose? Why would you do that?’
So I hadn’t been writing many comics, because…when you grow up and you love comics, you want to write comics but you don’t know any artists, and after a while, you stop trying. So I hadn’t been really working in comics, so I was very much a wordy bastard. (As you might be noticing from this interview. It’s a curse.)
So the script kind of had these six pages that really should’ve been more like twelve. And it kind of forced ‘Teo to just make everything move that much faster. And when we saw it, we’re like, ‘Oh my god, you actually pulled this off. And we’re so sorry we did this to you!’
You know, we’re doing another one for Volume Four. Same characters. We’re doing a sequel. Not so much a sequel, as another story with these lunatics. We’re taking twelve pages and we’re writing about the same amount of script we did for the first one. Just because we figured we’d actually let him draw.
Tomorrow in Part II: More about Popgun, webcomics, etc.
Yesterday, in Part One of 'Jeff Lester Talks Too Much,' I occasionally let Strangeways writer Matt Maxwell get a word in edgewise, and talk about his book Strangeways: Murder Moon, the current serialization of the second book, Strangeways: The Thirsty, on Blog@Newsarama, and writing for comics.
Today, in Part Two, Matt talks about writing for comics, rewriting, self-editing, bad comics that are awesome, and awesome comics that are awesome. Like Part One, I talk too much, and the article should be cut into more than two parts. But I wanted to make sure this all went up before the weekend and not lose the momentum.
Behind the jump: Part Two.
JL: So, Strangeways. Where is it going, generally? The first one is werewolves. The second is supposed to be a turn on vampires? MM: The second is a turn on vampires. I know what the third one is, I won’t tell you yet.
JL: I think that’s fair enough.
MM: Actually, I’m working on the page beats for that. That’s a slow process, though. That’s the most time-consuming part of this. Once you’ve done the page beats, the script pages go fast.
JL: How do you work that out?
MM: I bang my head against the desk until something comes out. Unfortunately—well, not unfortunately; it’s good that I’m busy—but I’ve been spending a lot of time doing lettering for the second story, getting the files ready to go up on the blog, and then I need to start doing marketing stuff before the book even comes out, and it’s still not even officially scheduled! I’m hoping for late next spring, or early next summer, and I’ve got to do a lot of legwork before that in terms of getting books to retailers and that sort of thing.
JL: Do you think that’s going to be easier this time around than the first time? Because you’ve got the product out and they’ve seen it? MM: You know, I don’t know. In terms of people knowing what they get, I would hope that having everything out on Blog@ would certainly make that easier. When I was doing the book when it was going to go out of Speakeasy, I did ashcans and I sent them out to Jeff Mason’s indy-friendly comics store list. Which I assume bumped orders, because the book was solicited, and I’m assuming it was actually ordered even though it never shipped, which I still regret to this day.
JL: I think it would be a very interesting different path if that had happened for you. For better or for worse.
MM: Yeah. It would’ve been late, then. Unfortunately, the fourth issue would’ve been quite late, so maybe it’s better. And I thought I was doing having effectively two issues done before they were started being solicited.
JL: So what would you think be the sweet spot for that, seventy-five percent?
MM: I don’t know. The guys I work with in terms of art are generally consistent but I think there was some extenuating circumstances on that fourth chapter of the original Strangeways book.
But no, I need to spend some more time writing very shortly. And yes, there is a place for everything to be going, but I think the first few stories are going to be more probably action-focused. I’m hoping that a lot of character stuff came through. Depending on who you talked to, it did or didn’t.
JL: I thought the character stuff came through in the first book. I didn’t get as strong a resolution in the story upfront. In fact, what I thought was interesting was reading the back up story in the trade was great but it was vexing in that you saw the motivation for the antagonist, and I remember thinking that second part worked very, very well, but it was almost like you ended up bifurcating the narrative. MM: Yeah. In some ways, that was an unintended side-effect of a, some would say, crazy plan of giving you more of the ‘bad guy’ side of the story. Like Lee Marvin said when asked by an interviewer, ‘How do you feel having played bad guys your whole entire career?’ He said, ‘I’ve never played a bad guy once. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve played strong characters who knew what they wanted, and did what they needed to get what they wanted, but none of them were ever bad.’ And I wanted to show that even the bad guy’s got his reasons for doing what he’s doing, other than just being a complete jerk, just because he’s a monster—in Rale’s case, literally.
JL: It was interesting to me, because it ended up such a strong narrative that it made me think I was—and I may well have been—missing something in the front end of the narrative. MM: Probably not. It ended up being more Rale’s story than Collins, when you take it as a whole. When you’re doing a long narrative arc—and I have a long narrative arc planned out for Collins—but I can’t do too much of that, or pretty soon he stops being the character that ends up being these adventures in these places. So I don’t want to wreck the character just yet.
I plan on wrecking him, but not just yet.
JL: That’s good to know. It was just slippery enough—and I think the idea of when you’re doing a monthly book, it’s pretty easy for the reader to nail down the idea of ‘Oh, this character’s going to be back and there’s more that they’re going through.’ But I definitely put down the book going, ‘Wait, is that…it?’ It’s almost like the entire narrative was wrapped around something I couldn’t see, and I didn’t know if it was there, and knowing that Collins’ arc continues might open that up. MM: Yeah, this was an introductory arc. I can give it away and you can read the last five pages of that story, and that’s the point. And the fact I even have to say that is kind of sad. Because that means I’ve failed. It’s like explaining a joke.
JL: No, no, no…
MM: If you have to explain a joke, then you didn’t tell it right.
JL: But there are some stories where it counts on you going back and re-reading it. And that unfortunately was my big regret is, somewhere in my apartment is the copy of Strangeways that I read and finished, but when I went to go back to it recently, I was inundated with a ton of other crap.
MM: Yeah, I see you’re reading comics again. I see that on the Savage Critics. Or at least that you’re writing about the comics that you read.
JL: Exactly. I really start feeling guilty when our site lies fallow, and it’s also a little bit of a dodge for me. I’ve finished the first draft of a novel, and I really need to do a second draft, and there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be fixed, and I don’t really know how to go about fixing it, and I don’t really know how to go about tackling it. MM: Rewriting is never as much fun as writing.
JL: I think for me it’s just a vast mystery. I can only see the choices I’ve made. I have an infinite amount of ideas, but once I put something down on paper, though, it becomes set, and it becomes really hard for me to change it. I’m really good at looking at other people’s work, but I think the challenge is looking at your own and getting outside what you intend, and being able to see how it’s actually going to come across to new eyes. MM: That’s not easy. But I’ve always been a ‘go with your own instincts,’ rather than overthink things. But I can go both ways. I can overthink anything. Occupational hazard.
JL: I think it’s an advantage. I think you seem well-placed if you can do both. Too many people fall into one or the other. I’m fascinated by watching someone like Bendis work, where I get the sense that he’s also a ‘follow his first instincts’ kind of guy, and it seems to have a lot of difficulty…if it doesn’t work out, he’s kind of like, ‘well, this is what you’re going to get and trust me, it’s great.’
And then there’s other people where you get the sense—I get the sense with Rucka, a little bit with Brubaker—that they come back, they finesse things as they go. Or even perhaps in advance before it starts coming out, they’ve got a pretty good idea where the turns are all going to go and they’re going to make sure that everything is placed right.
MM: Where I pretty much know where you’re going to get to at the end. I’ve got the A, where you’re starting, and I’ve got C, where you’re going to get to. But B? It’s all over the map. And that’s… not always a good thing.
JL: That is hard. You read screenwriting books, and inevitably Act Two is the one that kills the writers. MM: If you’re following the formula, in Act Two you can have the most freedom because all you have to do is: rising action comes to a climax. Okay, well, great. Infinite flexibility is good and bad. If you don’t have discipline, then infinite flexibility is terrible.
JL: It will kill you off.
I did want to recommend for story beats, maybe, if you’re looking for something that may or may not make things easier: I ended up picking up this program Mindmanager, which is a visual mapping…
MM: I’ve been looking for a visual outliner. I can make outlines, I guess, in Excel, but it’s really easier to do them just long-hand. But I try not to do anything longhand, any more.
JL: There’s a free version I haven’t really messed with. The Mindmanager is a little costly because they’re trying to it as a… MM: A big organizational tool?
JL: Yeah. So I dropped the coin on it when I was feeling pretty flush after the Sam & Max stuff, and it’s been great, but the price makes it really hard to recommend. But there’s a free, I think there’s a free online software program—that may or may not work for you. [Ed. note: Mindomo]
But what I found was great was being able to type down all the events of the story, and then I could drag and drop them to each of the pages, which really gave me a flow of how things were supposed to happen.
MM: What I really do is, I’ll just open up a new Word file and then—if I’ve already got the basic plot in my head—and I’ll just start writing this kind of bastard form. It’s not quite prose and it’s not a script, and it’ll end up being a paragraph of what I think will be on a page.
Now, that’s not always reasonable. It’s like, ‘oh yeah, that’s really four pages right there, and two of those need to go away. So, yeah. We need to fix that.’ And you just try to break it into page-sized chunks before you even start writing the script. And then I’ll…I say I’ll go back and refine it, but what I usually do is, I end up throwing it away and then redoing it, and it’s usually much closer to what I need for page breaks.
And sometimes that’ll have little bits of dialogue, and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes if there’s a line that I think will work really well, then I’ll try and throw it in. But a lot of the dialogue happens much later in the process.
And that just takes discipline, which I don’t always have.
JL: You really have to be able to lock yourself away from everyone and everything, because sooner or later, you’ll get so bored you’ll have to start working on it. I found that’s how it works for me.
MM: Only if you unplug the Internet first.
JL: Which I’ve had to do. Not so much for the comic scripts, because the comic script stuff is so formalistic for me. I mean, I’ve only done a ten page story and an eight page story. MM: And at that point, you’ve got no room to deviate. You better be on what you’re doing, or you’re going to be in trouble.
JL: So I can be really plodding with that—to me, writing a comic script is like creating a crossword and doing it at the same time, in that sort of format. I’d be really curious to jump to a longer script where it seems like there’s so much freedom to breathe. MM: You think that until you start realizing what you have to put in. Again, that’s why Strangeways ended up being so dense is—there’s stuff that I—probably ill-advisedly—added in when I was writing. ‘You know, we could use a little subplot here,’ and those ended up not getting fleshed out enough. Maybe they were interesting and engaging to read, but people walked off thinking, exactly like you did, ‘well, maybe I missed something with the connection between this character and this character here.’ I try not to insult the reader’s intelligence but there are times where I probably don’t give you enough of a roadmap. But that’s something that comes with time.
JL: That’s always the problem. Just getting a skeleton into the format seems miraculous enough, and getting it fleshed out enough to where people really care about the movie. So not only do you have to communicate it, but you have make people care about it. That’s where the challenge really comes in. It’s enough of a challenge just to tell a story in comics, which is something I do find fascinating about the form.
Having written a script, I really see why people screw this up left and right. It’s unbelievably easy!
MM: It’s not very hard at all to mess things up. It just isn’t. Even when you have an editor saying, ‘Hey, dude. You’re messing this up.’
JL: Exactly. Which—you’ve always worked unedited? It’s always just been you keeping track on yourself.
MM: Yeah, and there’ve been people, ‘You know, that’s not really a good idea, Matt.’
I still talk to them.
But I don’t know too many comic book editors, and frankly I’m not in the position with the second one—the second one is going out as-is. It’s not in a point where I could fix anything. I’ll try and fix the dialogue, but the art I’m getting is what I get.
So if you’re going to do editing like that, you really need to do it at the script stage before any art gets worked on at all. And that’s not always possible.
JL: And then there’s the problem… I think the part that just would be sort of brutal would be, you write the script, the art comes back, something gets missed or misintended, and then you’re in the position of—I assume—not having limitless funds, you can’t turn around and go, ‘hey, by the way…’ MM: If I have the guys make a change, it’s because the change really needs to happen. If it’s ‘Oh, it’d be a little better if we did this?’ No. You better pick these battles. I’m paying these guys but I can’t pay them a lot. But I pay them and I pay them on time, but there’s some things that will have to happen with your story, and if they get something wrong then it’s gotta get fixed. There’ve been very, very few things I’ve even had to call them on, much less…And Luis especially has come back with a number of redrawn panels, months after he’d submitted the original. And the redrawn panel is not a big deal if he’s just tightening things up. That’s fine, I’m glad he showed the initiative to do that. But if he restructured a page, then I might get a little grumpy if I’ve already lettered it.
I don’t know. In some ways, I wish I could do more formal experimentation but I’ so concerned about my ability to tell the actual story that I’m pretty conservative when it comes to trying anything crazy and wild.
JL: I think you just have to hope that later on you will have the freedom and, by that point, you’ll know the basics. MM: It’s the whole thing about learning the rules of grammar before you decide to go break them. You can’t just sit down and do stream of consciousness because Kerouac did it that way, or Joyce did it that way.
And, actually, Kerouac didn’t do it that way in the first place. My understanding is that the typing on the roll of the paper [for On The Road] was actually a myth, that there was an original manuscript and it was regimented by the page just like everybody else’s. Maybe there was a first draft where he just spit it all out.
JL: There’s always a stage where there’s a blank page and you have to sit down and attack it. MM: The script stage is not the blank page for me. The script stage is where I’ve already done most of the work. It’s the page beat that’s the really intimidating blank page. That’s where the work is.
But a chapter of a novel is as long as however long it needs to be. You just paginate it.
JL: The novel process is freeing like that; you go through problems of too much freedom, depending on how much you want to indulge it. For me, I want to do the second draft so hopefully people can have the enjoyment of the experience that I had while writing the first draft. Because the first draft of the novel, you really do have the freedom to discover the beats of the story while you’re going around. And then if that takes a twist, that’s great.
A lot of people don’t work that way. A lot of people highly recommend if you want to get your book done, outline it and then attack it. And that seems great, but it just locks me up.
MM: Huh. Because the first novel I wrote was something called Blue Highway—which I may be revisiting—but it was originally I did it as a very bad screenplay. I mean, bad, bad, awful screenplay, which I wrote in like two and a half weeks, and then a few months later I started writing it as a novel and went through it pretty quickly—a six month draft process while working a fulltime job.
JL: Wow, that is quick.
MM: Although I was able to write at work, so don’t tell my boss.
JL: I’ll keep it between us.
MM: This isn’t going on the Internet or anything, right?
JL: No, no, no.
JL: Like I said, my hope is to type this stuff up, and then…
MM: Well, I haven’t worked there in years.
JL: I don’t think you’ll have worry about your ex-boss googling your name, and going: ‘Matt Maxwell: Thief!’ MM: No, I haven’t worked for that company in some time.
JL: What do you currently do, Matt? Just this, or do you have any other thing?
MM: I’m a dad. That’s far more work than any job.
JL: My understanding is that the pay and benefits are still a little on the lower end, though. MM: Yeah, if you look at it by the hour? Boy.
Much like writing, you’re pretty deep in the hole if you parcel it out by the hour. But when you’re on the duty, it’s tough: I know there are guys like Jason Aaron, and I’m pretty sure he has a job too, in addition to writing. And I don’t know how he does it.
And he writes—I mean, if you aren’t, you should read Scalped.
JL: I gotta give it another go.
MM: It’s really, really good.
JL: I read the first few issues and I was like, ‘there’s no reason I shouldn’t love this, and there’s something that’s just not clicking with me.’ And I don’t know why. Because it’s all good, it’s all strong, it’s very lean, it’s not… MM: It’s not indulgent or flabby.
JL: Yeah, it’s practically the opposite of indulgent, in that regard.
MM: No, it’s very disciplined.
JL: Absolutely. And yet for some reason… So I’m gonna pick up the trade in the hope that the single issues weren’t giving me enough…something? MM: With single issues, I’m pretty cranky and demanding at this point. Unless it’s a done in one, it’s very hard for me to buy a story in serial issues. Even if I really like the story, it’s just a hassle. It’s a bother. I get to the end and I want to read more, and I get frustrated.
JL: I don’t have the problem too much, and I do feel it’s sort of… The problem with single issues is, it’s kind of like watering the lawn. It’s not as pleasant as it used to be, and it is a little bit of a chore. But unfortunately I also feel it’s a necessary chore, because the marketplace won’t survive if you don’t have somebody buying the single issues. And unfortunately, the more that—well, we’ll see where it goes.
On the one hand, what’ll happen you’ll get to a situation where—I almost feel like part of the reason is clogged with a lot of crossover big event junk is that, that’s what the people who’ve stayed in the single buying marketplace are buying. And everything else is treading water and waiting for the trade, and at some point that may or may not have…If you’ve got a publisher who is long-term enough, something like Vertigo looks at a title and thinks, ‘Okay, this title is not what we consider a profit, or used to consider a profit, but we’re going to keep at it because the return on the trades is good.’
MM: Yeah, there are a number of titles like that. Or, at least, that’s the conventional wisdom: I have not looked at the numbers, assuming the numbers are even reliable, to confirm that. And I don’t know about the bookscan numbers for books that are, frankly, that far down the list in terms of overall sales.
But evidently, the publishers are doing the tracking and they’re able to decide.
JL: It seems to work for everyone, but I do worry that as the market changes—particularly because I always feel like I’m the last guy to get the cellphone, if I feel like I’m always the last guy, and I stop buying the single issues, then what happens?
On the other hand, I currently have more stuff than I can review, and almost more stuff than I can read. I’m so far behind on so many titles. I’m dying to sit down and read Daredevil, but I don’t think I’ve read the last ten to twelve issues I’ve bought. And I either have to, or really admit that I should stop buying the singles and throw my money out into the street where I can at least know that I’m directly throwing my money away.
But there’s a lot of stuff. It’s like doing the reviews this last week. It was like, doing one and two, and then I started reading more, and I just didn’t have the time to do all the reviewing.
MM: And really, does most of the stuff merit a review?
JL: There’s plenty of stuff that, just looking at it critically, doesn’t. But there’s also times you feel obligated. Definitely my schedule has changed, so it’s not like I’m going to sit there and review every book that I read. But there are ways in which books that suck can be instructive, and it can be instructive to say why they’re sucking. MM: And books can still suck and still be vastly entertaining.
JL: That’s why I feel bad about my review of Rage of the Red Lanterns. Because to me it’s so inept it’s practically entertaining. And I didn’t really convey in my review that, ‘wow, this is really terrible, but…’ MM: At the same time awesome?
JL: Yeah, you can’t believe you’re reading it while you’re reading it, and that too is part of the reason we come to comics, not believing that somebody is actually going to put this page. MM: The Fletcher Hanks comics by any objective measurement of art quality are dreadful. But they are compelling, brutal. They demand attention.
JL: They really do.
MM: All that, and they’re batshit insane. They’re absolutely off the rails, even by the standards of the Golden Age comics which were off the rails.
[Art: from top to bottom--Page 6 from Strangeways: The Thirsty, art by Gervasio & Jok; Page 7 of The Thirsty by Gervasio & Jok; Page 8 of The Thirsty by Gervasio & Jok; a page, also by Gervasio & Jok, from an unpublished story which Maxwell hints may be appearing in a Strangeways anthology; a page from the back-up story in The Thirsty, art by Luis Guaragna; the cover to Strangeways: Murder Moon by Steve Lieber; the cover to Roberto Bolano's 2666, released just this week in English; the cover of Scalped #1, and interior art from Rage of the Red Lanterns #1.]
I like Matt Maxwell. He strikes me as a good egg. He's a little on the Eeyore-ish side of things--a bit dour, almost glum, without seeming unfriendly--which I also like. And when I finally sat down and read Strangeways: Murder Moon, the OGN that Matt wrote and published, I liked it, too. It wasn't perfect, but I thought not only did it avoid a lot of rookie mistakes, it had a definite tone of voice to it--an understated one, which isn't what one would expect to find in a horror western.
Anyways. About a week-and-a-half ago, on the morning of APE, I sat down with Matt in a dim sum restaurant and tried to interview him about the evolution of Strangeways, his expectations of his serialization of Strangeways: The Thirst on blog@Newsarama.com, and any unforeseen results from that just-started experiment. I say I tried to interview him about those things, but because I'm a newbie interviewer (here's a tip: if you're going to be conducting and recording an interview, don't take the subject to a dim sum restaurant where people are walking by and talking to you every two minutes) and because, as I say, I like Matt Maxwell, I ended up piping up far too often with my own ideas, anecdotes, and opinions.
So what should've been an interview with Matt solely about all of the above, became more of a conversation between the two of us about learning how to write comics, with a dash of the other topics thrown. I picked up the check to make up for it. Hopefully, Matt, when I actually earn my interviewer wings, we'll do it again and I'll do it better. Double-ditto, for the art which Matt contributed: it's lovely unlettered stuff, and I'm such a lame-o, I don't really know how to create a subhead for it so I can caption it properly. I'll learn.
Anyway, if that sounds like your kind of thing, check it out after the jump. It is...not short.
Jeff Lester: What do you think of the reception to the first couple of days of Strangeways: The Thirsty, on Blog@? Matt Maxwell: I don’t read the numbers, so I don’t know exactly what the readership is. I’m assuming that it’s more people seeing it—far more—than would be reading it on my blog which, to be mercenary, was the point. If you’re going to give something away for free with the idea of getting attention out of it, you don’t put in a corner that nobody walks through.
JL: No, and Blog@ does get the coverage, so you’d think—I’ll be kinda curious because most of the webcomic stuff I follow is super-short and not always sequential, so…
MM: Well, that’s the thing. That’s why I kind of hesitate to even call it a webcomic because I didn’t change any of the formatting. You’re getting a page a day: that’s how it works.
JL: Which I know…Girl Genius and—I haven’t actually been following Finder since it went to web so I don’t really know if… I’m sure they’re obviously looking at the traffic, there’s lots of people who can follow a page of comic a day… MM: And keep it together, yeah. Personally, I like waiting for having a backlog of material and then I can go through and read a bunch and see how it flows together. It’s hard for me to…
JL: So you think for people like you—are you going to do any promos, like, ten pages in, or something like that? MM: I’ll probably do that, and certainly when there’s a whole chapter collected, I’ll make a big deal about it: ‘Okay, go read the first chapter. You don’t have to wait for…’ At that schedule, it’s not even a bimonthly comic, it’s almost a quarterly.
JL: And I notice, is it—if I’m following what you wrote correctly—you flipped artists on this one? MM: Yeah, the artist from the main story is doing the ‘back-up story’ and the others from the ‘back-up story’ in Murder Moon are doing the main story here. Part of that was because Luis, who was the main artist for Murder Moon, left the studio in Argentina, moved to Spain, and then Norway after that. I guess he’s following his heart, as it were.
So I lost track of him, but then found him after the announcement for Murder Moon went out, when the book was actually published. He tracked me down, so that worked out well.
But the artists in—you know, the guys at Estudio Haus, Gervasio and Jok—I’d known and worked with them, liked their art, so I didn’t see a problem with [their taking on the main story this time.]
JL: I actually thought the back-up was the stronger of the pieces in the book, in your first book. MM: You’re not the only person to have said that, which isn’t surprising.
JL: Which I sort of attributed, looking closely at it, it seemed very much to me like the art choice s and the storytelling choices seemed a lot stronger. MM: Yeah, that, and the first one was the first actual script I’d done for a comic. So I’d obviously picked up more [for the back-up]. I mean, I packed in too much on all of those pages on Murder Moon. Not quite as badly in the back-up story, but it certainly was there, especially when you compare it to the airiness of most mainstream comics today.
JL: It’s interesting you mention that because I’ve spent a lot of time—I actually sold my first short script to C’thulu Tales. MM: Congratulations.
JL: Thank you. And that was, of course—I packed that with way, way, way too much…Even going by the rule of thumb about word counts per page…
MM: What’s the rule of thumb you used? Because I’ve heard different ones, many of them.
JL: I used the one that Alan Moore talked about that was sort of a modified Weisinger one, where it’s something like thirty-five words per panel based on a six panel grid. So the ceiling is about 210 per page, or something. MM: Yeah, I had heard the Stan Lee rule was no more than forty in a balloon, and that’s probably restrained—even for Stan!
JL: Yeah, when you look at the other stuff, it’s obvious that those things change. MM: You look at those early Marvel superhero texts and they’re so text-heavy compared to…I mean, the Weisinger Superman comics, you had narration but it wasn’t as heavy as Stan’s very purple…
JL: Yeah, very prolix. Well, and it’s kind of interesting because that’s one of the things I find fascinating in storytelling: you go back and look at that stuff—and of course I grew up on the stuff so it’s second nature—but I can definitely see when I go back and look at a bunch of it, it’s really dense, and everyone’s writing like they’re Stan Lee, so there’s a lot of verbal tics. MM: Yeah.
JL: On the other hand, it’s so information-rich. I sometimes think that part of the success of the Marvel melodramas and the soap operas is that you can actually have this stuff progress--at the same time, someone can be fighting and thinking about Aunt May at the same time, so you get a lot with that density.
MM: And it’s all story-driven stuff. It’s not there just to be there, just to fill up a page.
JL: In fact, it’s almost the opposite. It’s got so much going on. And it’s interesting watching someone like Brubaker figure out how to get a similar story density in there when you can’t do that pacing. MM: Yeah, you couldn’t turn in a script like that. You can’t. Even if you’re doing a ‘retro’ book like any of the Marvel Adventures—you read Jeff Parker’s script for many of the Marvel Adventures stuff he does and it’s still light, textually, compared to older Marvel material, but then it also has to reduce down to digest size, so you can’t crowd as much on. The original presentation is a standard 7’ by 10’ comic that—I understand they sell far better in digest than they do in the direct market.
JL: I would assume. I would hope.
JL: So, when you started writing the first book and your first script, what kind of rule of thumb do you use for… MM: [Laughs.] I didn’t. I tried to keep it to seven panels. I tried. I tried really hard to keep to seven panels a page. Because the first thing—the original presentation for Strangeways was going to be a twenty-two page monthly comic before I’d gotten the crazy idea to just go ahead and do the whole thing as a graphic novel. And even then, as a graphic novel, I was still dividing it in 22 page chunks, anyway. JL: Which seems smart. MM: But then the Speakeasy deal came along and I said, ‘Okay, well, now it needs to really work as a single comic.’ I’m not convinced of its success in that regard, but it didn’t need to.
I tried to keep to no more than seven panels a page. I often went to eight. I did have to boil down the dialogue. I’m doing my own lettering—which I highly recommend for anybody who’s writing comics if you have the opportunity to.
In some ways it’s tedious and mechanical, and in lots of ways it’s…I think it might have been Richard Starkings who said that ‘the letterer is the writer’s inker.’ And that’s absolutely true. If you can have a hand in how the words go on the page, then you may be a step ahead of the game, especially if you’re still a rookie like me, and you realize, ‘Oh yeah, that beat shouldn’t have gone there, it should go in the next panel,’ and then you have to jiggle the dialogue that follows on the page.
But I tried to keep things reasonable, and the common criticism, that I really can’t disagree with, is that there was just too much on the page. It was too claustrophobic.
JL: Although again, some of that was—I thought—how much you were packing in, and some of it was… I thought the artists in the back-up team even when handling a lot of density seemed to find some very elegant solutions to it. MM: I found that—and maybe this is just my perception—a lot of, particularly, the South American comics artists grew up reading European comics and not American comics. They may have read them, but that wasn’t their mainstay. And you get a completely different sensibility working out of that. Not that one is better than the other, they’re just different. Particularly now.
I mean, I’m still trying to figure out, what’s the date of death of the thought balloon? It’s struggled back a couple times. Because I stopped reading comics in the mid-90s, right around the time Sandman ended. I was still reading Hellboy and a few other irregular series, but I wasn’t going to comic shops every week. And I remember, before that, you still had thought balloons. You came back after that, and it was, you know, it was night and day. You didn’t have much internal narration; if you still did, you would do it as captions rather than thought balloons. And I adopted the same—when I have Collins doing internal monologues, it’s as captions, not as thought balloons.
JL: I think it would be very hard to put in thought balloons as a new writer, as people would just assume that you’re not paying attention to the market. MM: You’re not paying attention, and ‘well, don’t call us, we’ll call you.’
JL: I think Alan Moore, like so much else—he really helped take out the sound effect balloon in Watchmen, and then around the time of Swamp Thing, I think he switched pretty much right off the bat—I think he went to captions, and there’s no thought balloons in his work. And he’s the first one I can think of that kind of started that, and then the rest of the Brits…I don’t know, I don’t follow the 2000 A.D. stuff enough to know, but maybe… MM: Yeah, I didn’t follow them in 2000 A.D., but all the writers who came over in the ‘80s and ‘90s—I’d have to look at Doom Patrol again, I’m trying to remember if interior narration like that, and I don’t think it did very much, I think it did captioning.
JL: I think, again, captioning. Very much so. I think it was sort of a Brit thing that killed that, that everyone adopted very quickly. Although, now that I think about it, I guess Dark Knight—Miller used thought balloons in Daredevil, and might have eschewed them totally in Dark Knight.
MM: Well, I think that was probably a Shooter edict. I was reading the collected Frank Miller Daredevil—which I’d read on the stands when I was a much younger man than I am now—but you don’t notice when you’re reading it month to month that there’s always the page of, ‘Oh, and I’m Matthew Murdock, and a tragic accident turned me into Daredevil and here’s my superpowers.’ And that’s great when you’re introducing people to the monthly serial, but when you read the whole collected chain of the story, it’s like ‘Oh, and here’s that page again. Okay.’ And usually you can see him getting it out of the way as fast as he could and moving on to the rest of it.
JL: Yeah, that was always his way of handling it. Which, I guess, was pretty much as elegant as you could get under the Shooter system. MM: Yeah, he fulfilled his obligations to the editor and now, on with the story.
JL: It’s interesting how people handle recap pages now because they’re in most of the Marvel books and they’re—to me, for the most part—incredibly hard to read. MM: Really? Do they have just a plain recap at the beginning? Because I haven’t read Marvel month-to-month, other than Daredevil and Captain America occasionally.
JL: You know, I’m thinking of Ultimate Spider-Man which has the recap in it. But I’m trying to think if there are other ones… Cable and Deadpool, of course, had a recap page where they did as a full page of comic art, and after that, honestly…I’m a little hard pressed to think of one now. Maybe they’ve dropped that and moved back to, ‘screw it, it’s a page no one cares about anyway. Like, if you really want to know, wikipedia it.’ MM: Yeah. Before, when you’re the lonely thirteen year old geek at the 7-Eleven, and you don’t have friends who read these comics to explain it to you, then you need that page to get you hooked into it.
JL: It’s interesting watching the marketplace consider how ‘open’ the book is or should be in order to actually work. I’m kind of fascinated by people like Morrison, who are ‘You know what? It’s more attractive if it’s almost impenetrable. And it’s this sort of mystery that gives the reader this sense that there’s a huge, sprawling, larger-than-life thing going on, and screw the recaps.’
MM: And to some extent, I can see that being true. When I was introduced to the Marvel cosmology—the legacy cosmology of the ‘70s and the ‘80s—it was like, ‘Oh, okay, there’s much more stuff going on than just what I’m reading in this comic,’ and that got you reading other titles in some cases. But you’re not going to read a bad comic even if you’re interested in a universe.
JL: Which is a rule that I wish comic publishers would learn.
JL: So Strangeways, you started off shooting for a seven panel and sometimes bumping it up to eight… MM: [Sighs] I know have some nine panel pages in there, but nine was the absolute limit. That’s kind of… Is it Fell that’s a sixteen grid? I don’t know how he does it.
JL: The thing that is shocking to me is when it’s done well… I mean, Watchmen is on a nine grid, I think.
MM: Yeah, Watchmen is a nine grid, even though he breaks it out in some places.
JL: Yeah, but you can always see where’s he’s snapping tightly to the grid. And they make it look incredibly easy. Both he and Gibbons make it look incredibly easy. And I know that was my downfall walking into scriptwriting: ‘I’ll try and plot it out as a nine panel thing, it’s easy, it’s got a flow that brings the reader into it,’ and then, of course, you have to write more concisely for each panel… MM: Yes, you do.
JL: And still the artist is like, ‘I can’t fit all this on one page.’
MM: I know I ran into that. I’ll send out the scripts, and I’ve got, say, thirty-forty words of dialogue, and the panel comes back and, ‘Well, that’s a mighty small panel!’ Not to fault the guys doing the art, because they’re doing the best with the script they’ve been given, but there are certain times it’s like, there’s no way this is going to work, and now I have to reconstruct what story value is going to put on the page. Because it’s all about the single page. I mean, yes, you string it altogether in a story but if you can’t manage a page—which I’m not convinced I can yet, but…
JL: I don’t know. I thought that your pages worked. I was pretty impressed that I thought your story rolled at a pretty decent pace. I think as someone gets more experience under their belt, it gets easier to figure out how to change gears, I think. Just getting it into a decent rhythm is hard enough, and then trying to change it up a little bit is a whole different skill.
MM: I just wrote a column about this at Comics Waiting Room: It’s really the page beat that’s everything. I didn’t know anything about page beats before I came back into beginning to write comics and read comics in 2002-2003. And, if you remember, that was the ‘Epic Initiative.’ And they actually had page beats shown—an example of page beats written out in one of the—it might’ve even been the Epic comic, that really dreadful book. And I said, ‘Oh, okay!’ Because it never had really clicked for me before, that it was all about, ‘it’s one page at a time in a sequence.’ At least, that’s in the long form comic storytelling. You have different rules when you’re doing mini-comics, and I mean, you still have to pay attention to the page, but I think you have a lot of flexibility.
JL: But in long-terms stuff, the idea of trying to get a beat on the page and something at the turn. That’s the one where I really found myself going…
MM: That’s the thing. If you’re writing a six issue miniseries effectively, you can say, ‘Well, I’m not really writing six acts.’ But you are writing six acts. Or you’re writing seven acts, and you have half an issue of dénouement, instead of a whole issue, which I guess is better. I’m sure an entire issue of dénouement would be kind of dreadful.
JL: You think it would be, but every once in a while…I think part of the problem about learning to write for the medium, is you always remember the successes better than the failures. So you’re kind of like, ‘Well, yeah. Look at that classic issue of Avengers, where it’s after the big fight, and everything is wrapping up.’ Or again, something like Watchmen… MM: You know, the thing with Watchmen—and this happened a lot, and still does—is people don’t love Watchmen because it was a nine panel grid, or because it was grim-and-gritty superheroes doing things that superheroes don’t usually do: people love Watchmen because it’s a great story. The nine panel grid is effectively a surface—I don’t want to say trick, it’s a lot deeper than that, certainly, in terms of setting up the rhythm of the story—but that isn’t why people love it.
JL: Absolutely. On the other hand, I think the brilliance of the nine-panel grid is that they were able to put so much information into each issue that I think if you tried to do Watchmen on a five panel grid, which seems really standard now… MM: You couldn’t do it. All the story turns would be completely wrong.
JL: It would just feel mushy, unless you totally rejiggered…Even rejiggering the stories, I don’t think you would have enough event per issue, and you’d have to end up deeply compressing some of the storylines… MM: Eventually, comics are going to have to get past the issue at a time format. We’re still trying, we’re still struggling with it. But that’s the format that a lot of people are used to reading, it keeps people coming back to the comic stores every week, but it does present a lot of difficulties for storytelling.
JL: Right. MM: Or you’re just wired for it, and you can just crank stuff out.
JL: I’m not sure if that’s really true. Maybe there are, but I think if you look at most of the guys…both Bendis and Brubaker were cartoonists before they turned to writing, and that allows them a huge… MM: And so was Moore.
JL: So was Moore. Morrison apparently did a lot drawing…
MM: I don’t know if he did much sequential stuff, but I mean for instance, he did almost all the design work for Doom Patrol, and probably does for whatever he’s working on.
JL: But Moore was an actual cartoonist, and I think that allows them a lot of confidence when it comes time to break a story down. This is sort of what I was bitching a bit about in a recent column about Grant Morrison and how much responsibility he might bear for ending up with not-so-great artists. He might be overpacking—his Batman stuff looks like it very well could be incredibly overstuffed, and his artist is just overwhelmed. MM: I confess I read up until the Black Glove story, with the J.H. Williams stuff, and J.H. makes every script he touches look maybe even smarter than it actually is.
JL: I thought so in that particular case. I’m really convinced that first Black Glove story was very much the world’s best-looking case of lipstick on a pig.
MM: It was a ‘Ten Little Indians’ Agatha Christie mystery—which is generally a form I’m not fond of at all—with beautiful art.
JL: With absolutely stunning art. [Art: from top to bottom--a page from Strangeways: The Thirsty, art by Gervasio & Jok; a page from Strangeways: Murder Moon by Luis Guaragna; a page from "Lone," the back-up story in Strangeways: Murder Moon by Gervasio & Jok; another page from "Lone" by Gervaiso & Jok; Another page from Murder Moon by Luis Guaragna; and another yet-to-be-published page from The Thirsty by Gervasio & Jok]
Tomorrow: Strangeways, screenplays, good days and bad days.
ALMIGHTY is a 140-page self-published comic book created by Mr. Ed Laroche (with lettering by Jaymes Reed) that I purchased on a whim off the internet, based on the recommendation of a blog entry by comedian Patton Oswalt. It’s a straightforward post-apocalyptic action comic. Here is the back cover text in its entirety: “A girl has been abducted and a killer hired to find her and bring her home.”
For a self-published comic by an unknown that I purchased off the internet, it exceeded my (low) expectations. I don’t think the main character’s arc is entirely earned, but I thought the action scenes were surprisingly accomplished. The book’s best action set piece is a 20 page sequence involving the main characters’ escape from a group of soldiers: the action reflects a sense of geography; characters seem to occupy a physical space; bullets feel like they might have consequences. I don’t know how excited I am by post-apocalyptic action thrillers, but ALMIGHTY at least succeeded for me as a showcase for Laroche’s art & storytelling skills.
You know: it looks like a real comic book. I think Ed Laroche could have gotten a job drawing someone else’s comic if he’d wanted one. Instead, I had a 140 page self-published action thriller sitting in my lap. I approached Mr. Laroche for an interview to discuss that and his book ALMIGHTY.
1. What lead up to your decision to self-publish the comic? I found the fact it was self-published surprising since it seemed like fairly commercial material, at least as I thought I understood the marketplace; you know: it’s an action comic. I was under the impression comic publishers knew how to sell those. Did publishers ask for creative changes you were unwilling to make? Or I get the impression with a lot of publishers-- I'm not sure I'm their audience anymore because I’m not Ashton Kutcher’s agent. Were people asking you to give up rights or what have you that you weren’t comfortable with giving up?
I couldn’t get any publishers to read it. My idea was to create a story that was built on certain principles of what I think a comic should be. One of those principles is the long form comic story, an all-in-one, a comic that is designed simply and laid out clearly, a book that is timed out differently because it’s not a bunch of 22 page issues glued together, but also a story that didn’t depend on a lot of exposition. When I shopped it around I found out that most publishers don’t look at unsolicited work, and the few publishers that did never got back to me. But I guess what’s mostly true is that I didn’t know the right people that would get me past the gatekeepers.
2. What have been the consequences of self-publishing the book? I don’t know how many self-publishing success stories there have been in comics lately. Have retailers been supportive? Los Angeles stores are good about supporting local creators; I know a week after I bought your comic online, I saw it in the window of Skylight Books, over in Los Feliz. You’ve had favorable reviews-- the Patton Oswalt reference got me to buy it. Is it finding an audience? How has it gone for you?
The consequences are still playing out. All I can say for sure is that before I self-published, I was a frustrated artist that had ideas about how comics should be approached. As of now, it’s great to see that my execution of those ideas are being well received. It validates my efforts and gives me the confidence to continue.
As far as retailers are concerned the stores that currently stock my book (this is before being listed in Diamond) are places that I frequented. Not only were they Indy friendly, but because they knew my face they were more willing to seriously consider the book. But by the same token, I found that stores where I didn’t have that relationship were resistant to take on something like ALMIGHTY. I understand why-- they have more to lose. They want a sure bet, a guarantee of a return on their investment. But there are no guarantees-- all you can do is minimize your liability. Unfortunately, this is one of many factors that have nothing to do with whether a comic is good enough to be offered to a retailer’s customer base.
3. ALMIGHTY ends with a teaser page for what looks like a prequel entitled REMEMBER AMPHION (honestly, not as good a title as ALMIGHTY). Based upon your experiences with ALMIGHTY, do you expect to self-publish that as well?
Yes, I plan on self publishing all the titles that I’ve been developing for the past several years (at least their first initial runs). The next book that I’m working on is not the sequel to ALMIGHTY -- it’s called WAVEFORMS. WAVEFORMS will allow me to implement another aspect of my ideas on what comics should be, which is authorial. I want the emphasis to be on the creator and not the creation.
4. Did you ever think about releasing ALMIGHTY as a webcomic?
5. Okay, enough business questions—let’s talk about ALMIGHTY. The part of the book that stood out the most for me was the 20 page gunfight in Chapter 4. A lot of American action comics don’t spend that many pages on an action sequence; long action sequences to me seem like they’re more the domain of manga. Was that a part of the book you knew early on that you wanted to create?
One of the advantages of creating a long-form comic is that if you need an action sequence to play out for as long as it needs to, you’re not restricted to the 22-page limitation of most comics and trade paperbacks.
I found that most comics would spend a lot of time on exposition, establishing motive and resolution (because these are the domain of the writer, not the artist), but virtually no time on the way things resolve themselves visually. This is a byproduct of having the writer be the lead creative on the project. In the best case scenario, you would be able to have these two creative elements complement each other, but most of the time, what you have is this weird disconnect between what you’re reading and what you’re seeing.
With Chapter 4, I had an idea of what needed to happen, but how it unfolded was very organic. The story told me ultimately-- it resolved itself.
6. I felt a strong James Cameron influence throughout the book. ALMIGHTY sort of shares Cameron’s interest in strong women fighting back horrors that are both physical and philosophical. How important were those themes to you when you were preparing the book, as opposed to just giving yourself interesting things to draw? The book is very straightforward in premise, but there’s a swerve late in the book—the final confrontation between the protagonists and antagonists swerves in a way I didn’t expect (and I’m not honestly sure not sure if it succeeds), but that suggested to me that you had something very particular in mind that you were trying to communicate thematically.
James Cameron’s handling of Ripley and Vasquez in Aliens was the first and last time we’ve seen authentic portrayals of the type of woman that could really pull off the action hero thing.
Fale (my main protagonist) isn’t some super-deadly, mid-drift baring model in high heels. That kind of super-female archetype doesn’t work for me. It’s inauthentic.
The “swerve” that you mention and the way that it plays out in the story will have a richer impact when the sequel REMEMBER AMPHION is released.
7. I’m pretty shitty at comparing artists to other artists. I think I see an influence of the early Gaijin Studios guys—Jason Pearson, Brian Stelfreeze, that crowd, but I’m not sure about that. I’ve seen comparisons in other reviews to Eduardo Risso and Dave Lapham-- I personally don’t see that, like, at all; you don’t shy away from a heavy use of black, but that’s as much as I can understand those comparisons. I guess my suspicion, based on the quality of the action choreography, is that you have some experience storyboarding, but—well, that would be a guess.
All those guys are great artist, and they have inspired me in a lot of different ways. ALMIGHTY is my first published work. I’ve made my own comics for a very long time for my own personal use. I make a “living” storyboarding animation and live action.
8. The lead character Fale is sort of in the mysterious anti-hero mold that American action comics tend to feature. In rereading ALMIGHTY for this interview, the first third of the book is especially quiet and opaque; ALMIGHTY only features three splash pages and two of those are in that first third, and are quiet landscape images. Most of the characterization is done through how Fale behaves in the later action sequences. Why did you keep that character at arm’s length?
I have reason for the way Fale comes off in the book but getting into the why of it doesn’t give an opportunity for the reader to form their own ideas. I can say this: you will never know what Fale is thinking; her actions will define her.
9. I was wondering if you could talk about how ALMIGHTY was made. After work? On weekends? And I guess I believe every interview with an artist should include some tool/technique talk, so: what did you ink with? Do you do loose pencils and draw more at the inking stage, or are you particularly precise with your pencils? Did you thumbnail the entire comic before drawing the first page, or did you thumbnail and draw it chapter by chapter? For a book you drew yourself, you didn’t really go easy on yourself. Those three splash pages aside, most of the book clocks in at somewhere between 5-7 panels per page. A lot of those panels are atmospheric panels—the drawings of crows in Chapter 6, say.
I pulled a Kerouac. I saved up enough money to move to Prague where all I did was work on the book and party on the weekends. I plan on replicating the process. Work hard, play hard.
I pretty much just started at the beginning and penciled all the pages. I drew pretty tight pages on 8-1/2 by 11 printer paper, then light tabled them onto Bristol board. Then, I inked them on my next pass -- it was easier for me to take it in sections.
It took my whole life to get to ALMIGHTY. I’m planning on picking up the pace.
10. Do you have goals for the future with respect to comics?
Thanks to Ed Laroche for the interview. For more viewpoints on the book-- it has been enthusiastically reviewed by the Broken Frontier website here; positively reviewed by Mr. Steven Grant here. You can find a short preview of ALMIGHTY on the internet.
I always enjoy talking with Ian Brill--he inevitably brings a new angle on topics I'm considering--so when he asked if I'd be interested in doing a chat on fans and fun, I was more than game. I'd love to do more of these with him (although, don't worry, first I'll try to figure out how to run the "hide post behind jump" trick that commenters have pointed us toward recently), so let us know if that suits your fancy.
IAN BRILL: Mark Waid has said in a CBR interview that "'fun' is a death word in comics these days." I'm beginning to understand what he means by that. Seeing the reaction to One More Day, which I don't want to talk about specifically because I think we've all had enough of that, it seems a lot of fans value the high they get from a major negative reaction to a book. A book like Brave & The Bold, which Waid was talking about in the interview, gives a fan a solid ten or fifteen minute read. But I think the "fun" that fans are looking for now involves the theatre that comes with reading a book, going on-line and arguing about it, reading the articles on Newsarama about it, arguing some more, and so on. The superhero comics with modest goals get lost in the shuffle and are constantly canceled and relaunched. They can't compete because now it seems like a book doesn't really mean something unless it elicits this drama from everyone involved. Well, as you critics so savage are known to ask, what do YOU think?
JEFF LESTER: That's an interesting point, although I may have to throw it back to you pretty quickly: a couple years back, I stopped following Newsarama, ostensibly to stop from spoiling things that were going to happen in books that I liked. But once I did stop following "the N" (and I never bothered with Wizard), I found myself mellowing out a lot about some of this big "OMG, they're going to kill Captain America!" news. When Spider-Man unmasked in Civil War #2, that was pretty much when I gave up hope that I'd be able to draw enjoyment from going on the Internet and rattling the bars of my fanboy cage: I wrote a piece about it for Savage Critic that expressed what I felt, mentioned that I was going to stop buying Civil War, and that was that.
Amusingly, even though it was costing him moolah because I'd pre-ordered Civil War, Hibbs was the guy who kept teasing me about that: "You're really not going to buy Civil War?? Really??? How can a Marvel fanboy like you resist?" And I'm sure that friendly goading helped keep my resolve. But ultimately I found that, whatever attraction "finding out" what happened held for me, I just didn't want to pay for Mark Millar's new pool, or his bionic small intestine, or whatever, you know? So that probably started me on my way to kicking the "Hate" habit. It just seemed like another way to play into the hands of the marketers. I decided to focus on books I really enjoyed--the fun stuff like Brave & The Bold, or Iron Fist, or Blue Beetle--for capes, and a shitload of manga, and leave the rest of the crap behind me.
So although I guess I can agree with what Waid's saying, it doesn't hold any relevance to me or my reading habits. Books that are described as "fun" are the ones I 'm most tempted to pick up these days. But you know, that's my lame, currently non-Savage side of the story.
IB: Let me ask you, do you feel the effect of this climate of sensationalism affecting what you still read? My purchasing habits are similar to yours and I'm in constant fear that the books I dig are headed for the chopping block because no one gives a damn about a self-contained book that his its own stories to tell. Real stories, not just a series of "explosive" events tethered together ever so slightly amongst various books. That's another thing I worry about. The skill to write a real thorough story is losing its value when the interconnectedness of a shared universe can be used as a crutch.
JL: What worries me is almost the opposite: as sad as I'd be to see a book like Blue Beetle get the chopping block, I think it'd be worse if someone at DC thought the best way to "help" the book is inextricably tie its storyline to Countdown. An example might be something like Punisher: War Journal, which had a pretty great first issue, and then got incredibly blah for me: I can't tell if that's because I really don't like the current team's take on the book, or if the book never got a chance to develop a take that wasn't tied to whatever big event was happening in the Marvel Universe. And now that (if I remember correctly) sales are going down, and the tie-ins to Civil War and the Death of Cap are over, how hard is going to be for the team to avoid tying the book into Secret Invasion or whatever big event Marvel's got coming down the pike?
Writing a strong, self-contained story will never lose its value in the marketplace, I think. What's worrisome is that those who can do so will think that they can also do that and start a massive fifty issue event. Sometimes they can--look at Geoff Johns and the Sinestro War--and sometimes they can't--look at Grant Morrison and the Return of R'as Al Ghul storyline which I thought didn't do much more than sap more momentum from Morrison's inert Batman run.
So, for me, as long as Iron Fist and Blue Beetle keep on keeping on, no matter how truncated those books may end up being as a result, at least it ends up being something I can read, and re-read, without the nasty taste of big event cross-continuity affecting everything. But let me ask you this: do you think there's a sweet spot where shared universe events and cross continuity can still be present but avoid screwing a decent title? One of the big joys of a superhero book, I think, is the idea of the shared universe. Do you agree? And if so, how much of that does a book really need? Brave and The Bold takes place all over the DCU, which is part of what makes it (and here's the dreaded word) "fun." What separates that from, I dunno, Countdown to Mystery? At what point for you, I guess I'm asking, does the tool become the crutch?
IB: See I was going to say I would rather have a series I dig do a few crossover issues if it keeps it from getting canceled. If the people behind the book have to play politics to achieve what they want I'm fine with that.
Personally I'm not drawn to shared universes. What draws me to superheroes is the imagination, the strangeness and sometimes the grotesqueries found in a superhero book that go all out. I dig soap operas (well done soap operas that is) that include aliens and guys made out of rocks within those stories. It's not that I mind a shared universe. It's cool that a creative team has a number of concepts and characters they can draw from. I suppose I like the idea as long as it is a catalyst for creativity, not a hindrance. That's why I feel out of step from a lot of superhero stories (and have been for sheesh, coming up to four years now). I subscribe to something of an auteur theory when it comes to comics in the fact that I think the best stories are told by one person or a tight group of a few all doing a great job of achieving high goals they set for themselves. This as opposed to the stories created at summits and handed down by editorial. Perhaps that's what I meant more than implying there are poor writers out there just using a big event to fill up 22 pages easy. If anything, maybe those writers are just waiting to be unleashed!
I want to get back to the fan situation since that's what got my mind started in the first place. I think instead of doing what you did, stopped buying a book you didn't like, most fans keep buying a book (or many books as the case may be) but find someone to turn their feelings of disappointment into elation by going through this process of ridicule and displaying outrage. I mean, you may have hated the retcon they did with Dr. Smash-em-up's history but it gave you a chance to get into a passionate discussion with your pals, and wasn't that fun? So these books still make money and it doesn't matter how outlandish the ideas can be. Fans will still get some kind of a kick out of it. Perhaps I'm making connections that don't exist. What do you think?
JL: You know, before I address your point, let me just say that I do think there are poor writers out there just using a big event to fill up 22 pages--I haven't followed it that closely, but whenever I check out Ghost Rider, it seems to be precisely that and it makes me sad--because you shouldn't have to resort to big crossover events to juice up a book about a flaming skeleton that rides a motorcycle after selling his soul to the Devil.
As for the fan situation, you're right in large part. What you describe is one of the things I enjoyed most about working at CE: talking with Hibbs and trying to make each other laugh about the terrible books we read that week. But one thing I learned at working at CE, and it's worth mentioning in this discussion, is that the fans on the Internet are not the sum total of the fans buying the books. There are lots of people who buy comic books because they want to read shit that is bad-ass. I sold copies of Civil War, Infinite Crisis--hell, even dull ol' House of M--to guys who ate this stuff up with a spoon because it was, again *bad-ass*. So there are assuredly people who think it's really cool that Dr. Smash-em-up is now the Totem of the Smash-em-up God because it means Dr. Smash-em-up can now kick twice as much ass as he used to. And they feel that way because they dug Dr. Smash-em-up since they were five, or nine, or eleven, and they have a very deep complex connection to Dr. Smash-em-up that would be kinda difficult and embarrassing to explain to others. All they can share, really, is their enthusiasm. Similarly, in many cases, people who go apeshit on the Net about Dr. Smash-em-up have that same complex connection, but the retconning changes or challenges that connection. And again, all they can really share is their bitter disappointment. But of course, they go and buy the next issue anyway because that connection is still there. Or they quit the book because it isn't.
What it sounds like you're suggesting--and I think it'd be worth hearing you talk about--is the idea that the fans are, like wrestling fans, enjoying the opportunity to yell and holler and scream, and that's what's keeping the machinery going. Are you suggesting that?
IB: Maybe. Yeah I think so. I'm suggesting that and also saying that books that try to be something more than just a smogarsboard of deaths and rebirths get lost in the melee. I've seen the letter pages of old Marvel books and I've seen what Fantaco put out in the '80s. Fans, some anyway, got real analytical about this shit. That tradition lives on, including on this very webpage. But often I feel that critical thinking has lost to easy jokes and puffed-up anger. Whether it's the fans reflecting the books or the books reflecting the fans I don't know. On the note about fans on the Internet being a minority, that's probably true but there are more blogs and podcasts popping up all the time. Those blogs and podcasts have their own fans who are probably being introduced to the world of on-line fandom because someone at their store said "hey, read my blog." It's a growing minority and I think it's already reached a size worth noticing.
JL: That's a good point. In fact, it may have reached a size large enough to warp its own perception: how many bloggers felt the compulsion to read "Brand New Day" and give their take on it as quickly as possible? I know I did. As more and more bloggers and podcasters hit the scene, it makes sense that the competition for people's eyeballs can lead to an increase in hyperbolic outrage. As a blogger, you feel like you gotta feed the beast, and nothing's easier to react to than some outrageous action by one of the big two.
IB: I think you're right Jeff. There's a certain fervor that comes from both how fast these arguments play out and how many people are involved. I'm a big believer in the idea that whenever you're doing something creative (and I do think blogging and podcasting are creative endeavors) there's value in stepping away from what you're doing and coming back with fresh eyes. I'd like to see fans adhere to that before you get the 100+ page threads that a moderator has to shut down because someone calls for Joe Quesada's head.
Come to think of it, I'd like the creators and editors to employ that strategy of "cooling off" before they come up with the next set of events that are sure to cause fan outrage. Actually, the more I think about this topic I realize there's a thin line between fan and creator in this business. Maybe that's why things can get so heated when creators respond to negative fan reaction. It's not two sides against each other. It's one type of personality looking at itself in the mirror and seeing things it doesn't want to see.
This is part two of a two-part review of Runoff, a graphic novel created by Tom Manning that's been published by OddGod Press and was created over the course of the last 8-ish years; plus part two of a bonus interview with Mr. Manning is featured at the end of the review. It was suggested to me last week in the comment section (thank you!) that I begin this week by noting the following: Guillermo Del Toro (director of Pan's Labyrinth, the Devil's Backbone, Hellboy, etc.) is a fan of the comic, has in some capacity expressed "interest" in Runoff's cinematic potential, and provided the following quote for the back of the third "Chapter":
"Tom Manning has created a world that is as bizarre as it is recognizable. As scary as it is moving. The terse plotting and vivid characters in Runoff collapse the sweet flavor of Americana into a cyanide capsule that is easy to swallow, easy to like, and hard to survive. May we all get poisoned by Tom more often."
He ripped off my pull quote; this is what I wrote:
"The stark art and surprising twists of Runoff set off on a rampage of cannibalism, murder and necrophilia, just like Jeffrey Dahmer. May we all get our toes eaten by Tom soon while In a Gadda Da Vita plays on a stereo."
But others might cotton to poison metaphors coming as they are from a famous director and thereby cotton more to this particular book. I omitted discussion of the fact last time because who knows and who's to say, and I find the whole "this comic has been validated by Holly-weird" thing intellectually lazy and frivolous. With obvious exceptions like Captain America: the Chosen, which was written by Rambo. (It's fucking great: a young soldier with a head full of GOP talking points almost stops and questions his clusterfucked mission, but then he remembers Marvel Comics's Captain America and is so inspired that he kill dozens of nameless, faceless Arabs! Marvel Comics: They Help You Mindlessly Kill the Arabs!)
Or worse, it gives the wrong impression that the comic reads like a movie pitch, when that's so not the case for Runoff. And I have a very kneejerk "go pitch your movie like Buck Henry did in the Player, ya crumb-bum" response when I get a whiff of that. Which... I'm not sure is reasonable. Well, first off, if a comic felt like a MOVIE, I wouldn't have a problem-- if a comic had three arcs that fully realized its premise? It's the feeling like a "movie PITCH" that I think is more aggravating. But even then: what's the acceptable thing to say? The argument reduces down to "how dare you create your work in a way that conveys your intent not to starve." And outside of obsessive nerds like me-- no one cares. No one gives a shit. Marvel publishes a comic book with women getting raped by octopuses on a cover...? Judd Winick: still writing comics...? Plain Janes doesn't have a third act..? No one cares. No one gives a shit. Comics? Nothing matters to anyone.
Tom Manning started working on Runoff in 1999, and finished it 2007-ish. How much validation do you think he got for that in those 8 years? 8 years! I'm going to hope that y'all comic fans didn't throw Tom Manning a parade sometime in that 8 year time span, and didn't invite me. The book exists anyways. Is that the appeal of these kinds of comics for me? That I get to, you know, like, suckle off of someone else's irrational passion, if only for a few hundred pages. Is that gross? Maybe that's gross.
Or you know another thing people say that I'm never sure what it means: "I want comics that feel like comics, and not movies on paper." I don't understand what that means. Well, Runoff certainly satisfies that criteria: it mixes presentational styles, art styles, comic formats, genres, tones, purely visual elements, fantasy elements, etc., with some semblance of an underlying structure underneath that mixing. But: it's also fundamentally "cinematic"-- there's no narration or thought balloons, or explanatory text of any sort. So would the absence of the former somehow make the latter offensive? Or compare it to a book like CRIMINAL, say, which is purely cinematic and without any fantasy element-- is that book somehow less than because of the "comics shouldn't be movies on paper" criteria? I don't think so. I think that's just something people say on their comic blog when they're feeling uppity. In bed.
So, yeah: I don't know. I like Runoff. It satisfies my weird little prejudices that get me really excited about a book. I have a lot of weird things that prejudice me towards liking Runoff:
1. I Got to Discover It Myself: There'd been coverage about Runoff, but I'd not paid it enough attention to seek the book out before. When I got it and then liked it? I got to feel a sense of discovery. So much culture's chosen for people-- someone chooses which movies are important and which music gets on the radio, etc. It's not as fun.
2. It's Black and White: that's my preference in comics. There are great colorists out there whose work I love, but that having been said, I like how immediate a black and white comic is. (Other people might get excited by the hand-lettering, but you know-- that's never been a thing for me; we all have our weird things, but that's not one of mine).
3. Even If It's Funny, It's a Little Sad: Runoff's a comedy and a big silly monster comic, but when it counts, it's just sad about people. Maybe it's from reading Peanuts when i was a kid, but I think that's an important quality for a comic to have. My knowledge of the classic comic strips is limited so I'm not sure how prevalent that is with the great ones. Or I'm not sure if... when I look at the classic Walt & Skeezix / Gasoline Alley stuff, I'm not sure if the strip is sad or I'm feeling sad because it's OLD and a reminder of our collective impernance. In bed. Or, to translate that into mainstream-comics-ese: Ultimate Spiderman is a little sad about people; New Avengers isn't. And so on.
4. It's an Ensemble Piece Set in a Small Town: I grew up in a suburb; my graduating class was 80 kids. I think it's good when whatever surface genre elements are present, that underneath that there be a sense of observation about actual life in there somewhere. Which isn't to say I think it's crucial: I liked the KILL BILL movies or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, same as anyone. I think there's nothing wrong if all that's being conveyed is a love and affection for a genre. But with Runoff, underneath it all is something I suppose I relate to. And heck, I'm just a sucker for an ensemble.
5. It's Not Perfect: Runoff-- the single mom character is never fully realized or integrated successfully into the plot; the finale over-relies upon exposition; the new residents of the town never get a viewpoint character, etc., etc. Who cares about perfect? I like seeing Manning find himself over the life of the book. I think that's one of the biggest pleasures of the thing-- the journey you go on to the town in Runoff, that's a journey you get to go on with Tom Manning. It's not just being handed to you. I mentioned CRIMINAL above-- it's this polished book by experienced professionals, and that's nice, I certainly like it a lot, I'm enjoying the second arc more than the first, I've really come around to liking the colors, etc. But I don't get excited about it. It's too reliably good. In bed. There's not that same element of risk, you know? There's no gamble. No one's going to get hurt. You watch hockey for the fights; you watch NASCAR for the car crashes.
You bored with this number thing? Oh, I don't think the number thing was a good idea. Anyway: Runoff is available wherever it's on sale, and online probably too from Mr. Manning's website, and maybe you'll like it or maybe you won't because it's all over the map that way, but me: I liked it, and I suspect there are other people out there that will cotton to it as well.
INTERVIEW WITH TOM MANNING PART 2:
Here's more of that interview; again i apologize to y'all for asking the questions so selfishly from the point of view of someone who's read and enjoyed the book, but-- well, hell, that's a lie: I'm not sorry at all. I did it and I'd do it again. SAVAGE critics.
Specifically, I mention the "floating objects" (which are not a spoiler in that they appear within the first 10 pages of Chapter One). One of the elements in the book are there are these floating objects that are creepy/cute. More importantly: people who want to stay strictly pure and unspoiled (and yet... are reading this anyway...?), might do well to avoid the final question-and-answer which concerns the book's themes. Caveat Emptor, dude.
QUESTION: What was the experience of working on a single book for 7+ years like? Comedy scenes, especially-- after 1 or 2 years, a lot of the jokes in the book might have stopped being funny to you. TOM MANNING: I have to admit, I still crack myself up at some of the jokes. I liked working on a series for so long, it was like having a movie on pause in your head for years. It seems annoying at the time, but you miss it when it's gone.
INTERROGATORY NO. 36: You've mentioned before that Runoff was intended to last for 4 Chapters, instead of 3. Is there anything you're willing to say about what got cut? TOM MANNING: It was going to center mostly on the day to day life of the people in Range as they ran out of food and got used to living with ghosts and talking animals. In a way it was going to be the most like Bloom County, where the premise was that these humans and animals lived in one boarding house and didn't think anything of it. I wanted it to seem almost like things were starting to get to a strange sense of normalcy and end the chapter on that normalcy. Anyway, I guess it did come down to a pacing issue. I realized that people may have turned on the book if they were made to put up with sixty pages ghosts, talking animals and humans hunkering down together through a snowstorm.
ME ME ME: I don't want to ask too much about them-- I think that'd be inappropriate, but can you talk about the character design of the floating objects? I especially like that they're always smiling, which seems wildly appropriate to me. TOM MANNING: Yeah, I admit I usually keep a tight lip on the meaning and look of the floating objects, not to be a jerk in any way, but more in the hopes that my reasoning is never really stated to the readers. But I would certainly say I was excited about the idea behind it because a lot of Runoff is about having elements that are usually separate play off and enhance each other. I guess it would be no surprise that if there is any influence it is Japanese character design, which worked with my interest of playing with what a comic book can do that other mediums can't.
IT'S YOUR BOY: Thematically, Runoff ultimately seems like it's focused on exploitation, how communities or individuals seem designed to exploit one another, and how their polite, social interactions are just a false veneer hiding their true natures. To the extent you agree, can you say why you thought that was an important theme for you? TOM MANNING: Absolutely. There was something about growing up in the northwest that made one feel that nature will eventually get the best of us in the end. Or rather, we'll get the best of ourselves as nature enjoys the last laugh. Perhaps this stems from having an active volcano like Mt. Rainier in sight at all times! I'm not totally sure where that comes from, I guess. I don't mean to have a dystopian view of humanity, I just think when it comes down to it, in a closed system, we'd really do ourselves in quick. Hm. Maybe that is dystopian.
Hello. This is part one of a review of Runoff, a horror-comedy, funny-animal, monster, all-ages gore comic mash-up from Tom Manning, published by OddGod Press. Runoff is comprised in its entirety (beginning, middle and end) of three "Chapters" -- softbound graphic novels running 144 to 176 pages each. In total, roughly 456 pages of black and white comics (eventually plus greytones), drawn over the course of ~8 years.
The book is set in a small, isolated town somewhere in the Pacific Northwest named Range, and the central mystery of the book is as follows: Range has been afflicted by a condition where people can enter into Range from the outside world but no one in Range can leave. Small towns can feel like suffocating prisons; Range literally is one.
Then, things start to get weird.
For example: as much as there's a Twin Peaks element you might have picked up on (see, small town of horror-mystery in Pacific Northwest), the book's other sine qua non influence is Berke Breathed's Bloom County. One of the mysteries as the book develops is animals in town begin to talk, and the way that's handled is descents into a loving recreation/theft of the look-feel of the classic era of Bloom County strips. So the comic jams together the two different styles, shifting back and forth from Bloom County styled humor strips to cinematic Twin Peaks influenced horror. Plus horror gore.
Also: Runoff has over-the-top comic book elements interspersed as well, including a homicidal pirate, a dancing helper monkey, and eventually, a number of monsters. These elements work inconsistently-- the pirate character especially never really worked for me except to introduce other, better elements into the book's blender. The monsters work well thematically, but so-so otherwise, alternating between legitimate threats to cheesy cereal-box monsters.
And wait, there's more! Did I mention that Manning is a Dave Sim fan and that influences the visual style of the book (e.g. hand lettering)? So yeah: add that to the stew, Captain.
Visually... the First Chapter is more than a little crap-- there's hints at some storytelling ability but that's about it. But Manning grows by leaps and bounds as an artist over the course of the project, so midway through the second book, the art just kicks in and snaps to life-- over the course of maybe 10-20 pages, the hand lettering starts to work, the drawings become clean and pleasing, the environments become more fully realized-- abra dabra, you have a book that's worth looking at. I had purchased all three Chapters at once so I could see the improvement was ahead of me; otherwise I'm honestly not sure I'd have finished Chapter One. But-- that's part of the fun for me, personally, seeing that much growth and improvement as an artist over the life of the piece.
Let me pause and acknowledge that, you know, for some of you this will just sound like a big mess, and it won't sound.. it won't sound fun for you. In that case, here's what I recommend: wait by a crosswalk for a large crowd of people to surround you and then start whistling the song Desparado as loud as you can to yourself. The Eagles's Desperado, written by Don Henley and Glen Frey. "Desperado, why dont you come to your senses?" That song. Then, just watch people's expressions change as they gradually realize what you're whistling. Have you ever done that? That's fun. Fact.
It sounds like a big mess? Dude, it IS a big mess, a big overstuffed bursting-at-the-seams mess. The book jams together so many different elements. It's not a great book visa vi the classic rule of suspension of disbelief that you should only have a single fantastic element for a reader to accept. Granted, this is comic books, and I think we're all used to that by now, but that's a rule I happen to put some stock in. Oh, the thinking behind it is sound. The dilemma of the premise is this: as people come to the town and become trapped there, one pressure the town faces is dealing with its gradually increasing population. So by adding all these different style/genre elements struggling for attention, the reader gets to experience that same suffocation but in a different way. I'm not saying it doesn't make a certain amount of sense; it just asks a bit of patience from its readers, that you know-- sometimes you're willing to give, and sometimes you ain't. Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don't. Almond Joy's got nuts; Mounds don't. Think about it.
Here's the thing though: THE ENDING. On its own highly peculiar terms, Chapter Three's sort of a weird triumph. Think about it.
Fucking-a, it ends so well. The ending is persuasive. It's persuasive that the different styles fit together. It's persuasive that the disparate elements are linked thematically if not plotwise. It's persuasive that Bloom County and Twin Peaks go together way, way better than you'd ever guess. Italics.
It's persuasive that all the different elements needed to be there for it to have been as effective because the comic is about an existence that's layered, that has a hierarchy and class system, castes, with different elements in a larger interconnected social structure that's struggling to come together in the face of the book's central mystery. So by having different elements that are as exaggerated as Runoff has, I would advance the proposition to you that the social structure is thereby more clearly delineated and the books' themes are thereby more effectively communicated.
I think the ending works thematically. I think I can explain what each of the different elements mean in terms of the ending and the themes advanced by the ending. And I think it's spooky and sad and mysterious and inevitable, like a horror ending should be. It's one of those endings that stuck with me for a little while after the book. It's insane that comic books so resolutely avoid endings, when Runoff is such proof of how much crazy fucking mileage a work can get from sticking the landing.
So: I think this is just part one of the review, but I'm also going to present part one of an interview with Mr. Tom Manning which was conducted by e-mail recently.
INTERVIEW WITH RUNOFF GUY, TOM MANNING I've only done one other interview, and I thought it'd be fun to do an interview for this review. Are interviews appropriate for this site? This is a review site and all, but I don't know-- I thought it'd make this piece more interesting. But: too far off the mission-statement?
In the interview, I mention a moment I refer to as the "Laughing Squirrel" -- I should probably edit that out, but it's my favorite moment in the comic, so I had to ask about it. For all of you who have read Runoff, I'm going to leave it and for those of you who haven't... uhm: there's a part where there's a laughing squirrel that's kind of great. Mr. Manning's comments were edited down slightly in order to hopefully avoid spoiling too much. Think about it.
SPECTACULAR INTERVIEWER WHO SHITS BRICKS OF PURE GOLD: Most of the comic's preoccupations seem like they're from childhood-- Bloom County, monsters, funny animals, pirates. What was it about those things that drew you to them? Were they all things you'd enjoyed at age 12, or-- do you remember how you arrived at that particular mix of elements? What's surprising is how many of them seem organic to the piece's themes by the finale.
TOM MANNING: In a way Runoff is a dance between genres and subjects that have been favorites of mine for most of my life. With the town of Range being based off my hometown of Enumclaw, Washington, I decided to work with the genres and elements that I was into when I was younger and remain into now. I also thought I would like to try leaving certain genres or elements out as well, ones that people may feel obligated to put in a long story like this. Leaving out romance all together kind of excited me.
MR. HANDSOME: In Runoff Chapter 1, while it tells the story, the basic drawing is honestly not very accomplished. There's steady improvement throughout Chapter 2-- around where the characters arrive at the Mayor's cabin in the woods, I remember feeling like you'd turned a corner. Would you agree with that? What do you attribute the "improvement" to-- were you doing things extracurricularly that lead to the improvement like life-drawing classes? Or was it just a result of having done so many pages?
TOM MANNING: Oh yeah, I'd agree with you there. My improvement really came down to two things. One was working on a larger scale. The pages I drew for Runoff chapter one were all done on a 1: 1 scale, where chapters two and three were done on a larger scale and reduced 30%. The second thing was just the fact of getting better by working on something. I got to be a better inker and penciller... and hopefully a better letterer... page after page. One other thing I should mention is the gray tones. At first I was trying to do all the tones by hand, cutting them out with an X-acto knife. But those Letratone sheets got more expensive and harder to find, and eventually I reluctantly had to turn to Photoshop to do them. So you can see about mid way through Chapter 2 when I was forced to stop doing the gray tones by hand. Of course it probably means it started looking better, but I still regret not doing every thing on the page by hand.
BRANIAC T. MACHORSECOCK: In those other interviews, you mention first starting to work on Runoff in 1999. When do you think you had the story completely figured out? When did you have that ending (which I thought was great)? Was there a lot of evolution as it went along? My favorite moment in the comic was the Laughing Squirrel. Could you talk about when you had that?
TOM MANNING: I had the main arc worked out from the beginning, a kind of list of scenes and plot points that were vivid in my head. As I went along I let the scenes in between these plot points come to me in a looser fashion, so there was a nice mix of rigidity and looseness in writing the series. Scenes that were pretty much in my head from issue one included things like SPOILER and SPOILER in the pet store, the Society of M outside the cabin, the bear in Charlie's Cafe, and the final scenes. There were also patterns I knew I wanted to plant and repeat. The Laughing Squirrel is one of these patterns, though it serves to really evolve and finish the Bloom-County-animals-and-humans relationship. It actually is used as a punchline to the series itself. It's funny you brought up that laughing squirrel, because that was one of those ideas that came to me later in the series that I was so excited to have. It's one of my favorite moments in the series for sure.