You might ask me…”why this one?”
“Why not any of a hundred others?”
It’s a good question, but I don’t have an answer.
I will try to think of one by Monday, though.
Which, of course, is more than your local news will try to do.
“Some Circumstantial Evidence Is Very Strong, As When You Find A Trout In The Milk” – H.D. Thoreau
You might ask me…”why this one?”
“Why not any of a hundred others?”
It’s a good question, but I don’t have an answer.
I will try to think of one by Monday, though.
Which, of course, is more than your local news will try to do.
Hola, Bloggers! Well, we’re not often so fortunate as to have old Eisner nominees drop in for an interview around here, are we? But that’s all about to change, as I sit down with the creator of Red Light Properties on the eve of its next big story arc. Uh…I assume you’re all reading RLP?
If you’re not, you could find worse jumping-on points than this, honestly. But never mind that now, it’s breakfast time! Here’s what the table looks like:
And here’s the man who’s sitting virtually across from me at it:
Handsome feller, isn’t he? Name of Dan Goldman. And so here we go:
First off: is there any way I can get hold of some of that Brazilian fruit?
There’s a few exotic fruits you can get at Asian markets in the US that we have here (longan, dragonfruits) but most of the funkier Brazilian fruits like pitanga, abiú, jabuticaba, açaí, or caquí I’ve never seen outside this country. So sadly, nope.
Well, hell. Okay, let’s get on with it, then.
When RLP was at Tor, the thing that struck me most forcefully was obviously the interface, the clicking to get new word-balloons and panels, and I thought that also helped the difference between backgrounds and foregrounds slide a bit lower under the radar into the reader’s general sensory experience…gave it a bit of a feverish edge, a delirious aspect: the clicking drew me onward into the “interactive” stuff so well that I didn’t really notice at the time I was starting to think of RLP as three dimensional “layers”, background and foreground and ME! All with a slightly-different kind of “realism” to them. Hmm, I’ve actually got a couple questions here, so…
Here’s one, to start with: even though that interface isn’t happening anymore, your page layouts still seem to me to be built in the same way, as though around it. Did you just find that the layouts were enough, at some point — that you could achieve similar effects without needing the clickthrough device? Or have I got it completely wrong, and you didn’t design your pages around the device at all? (You are probably going to tell me that the old interface is still working, and that there just must be something wrong with my computer…)
No, there’s nothing wrong with your computer; the only thing I really designed RLP around was the computer screen itself. It wasn’t the first time I’d done so (see: shootingwar.com); I really like the shape of it, even if it gives comic retailers a titty-attack.
The reasons I stopped doing the clickthrough things were basically that a) it took way too much time to export each pages’ separate elements for a proprietary player that ran too slowly on too many machines, and b) the novelty of the clickthrough wound up being what people talked about, instead of the story-world, which is the most important thing. After working on building RLP’s world for years, I got out-belled-and-whistled by the interface.
So, once I subtracted the clickthrough thing from the equation, I was back to just… comics, and no one was struggling with the player or getting distracted by the toys. Finally, people started engaging with the story the way I wanted them to. The layouts haven’t really changed at all with/without the player; the clickthrough just needed to get out the damn way.
One of the things that took a while to dawn on me as well is how formally-playful RLP is — around about the first BIG exorcism I started to detect a bit of metatextuality in there by suddenly starting to think of Jude as an artist, for example…and then thinking of Ceci as a magician herself, conjuring up business, meeting mythological beasts, etc. etc. That same kind of multi-leveled meaning as the foreground/background contrast built up, the different “skins” of reality as it were…and then of course that’s what the psychic stuff is all about too, so it all starts to seem quite impressively calculated after a while, lots of extra texture if the reader’s interested in that sort of thing. So is that all just happy accident, following your nose and seeing what happens, or do you have a Big Numbers corkboard somewhere filled with 3×5 cards and arrows pointing every which way?
Yes. You’re the first person to speak to me about Ceci’s own magic; it’s not a literal thing, but she’s coming into her own as well on that level. Watch and see.
Well, Ceci takes drugs just like Jude does, when she goes into the den of the Witch-Queens of Florida Real Estate, eh? And with her familiar too. Practically Ditko Dr. Strange. I must admit, in that one I saw Morrison’s Lord Fanny going among the Aztec gods into strange gardens…God damn you, I really do want Jude and Ceci to get back together! I don’t know how you’ve made me care so much about that!
Is there a question buried in there somewhere? The road ahead for Jude and Cecilia is twisted and complicated on both sides, and I’m not even teasing about its end. I’m pleased as pigshit that you’re so emotionally engaged with them, that strokes me right under my chin as a writer… but we all know that life is never just happy or just sad (that’s for television)
I do have a giant corkboard (actually it’s in Scrivener), but that’s where my Giant Fucking Master Plan exists, and it’s something I am retraining myself to only follow organically. I’ve known the whole RLP story for a long time, all the pieces are here in my head, and it’s up to me to giggle and saunter around them, picking daisies and kicking away the wolves as the road rolls towards the castle on the horizon.
Funny you should say that! Because there’s such a ring of old-style fantasy to RLP, the surprise when you realize the worldbuilding actually goes pretty deep, the investment of mundane things with magical attributes, the whole trompe l’oeil of it…like I was saying earlier, at first I thought it was a handful of characters and a neat idea, and now I’m starting to think “gee, this is actually a pretty big canvas here, these characters all have lots of past and lots of future to them”…how ambitious did you mean to make it, when you started? Is it just growing spontaneously, or do you have millions of notebooks on history, backstory, what’s really going on etc., in addition to the Big Board? For example when Rory finally shows up and he’s actually a bit scary, did you know that’s what he was going to be like?
Absolutely; the level of menace in Rory is a fun balancing act with a growing trust, and how once the extent of his psychic are revealed, we see him as more… wizardly, but with that comes a sense of deeper manipulation. I’ve got the whole of Rory’s past figured out even though it might never come into play in comic form, but much more of his future will. Rory’s path makes him quite important in the lives of all the Tobins, and that’s only just starting to unfold.
When I wrote the first chunk of notes back in 2001(?), I intended to create a framework I could tell any kind of story with… but RLP’s been growing inside my head for a decade, and some of that growth isn’t even conscious anymore… it’s happened in the background. In that time, it’s like the characters have been having dinner parties and barbecues without me, and every time I sit down with them, they’re already intimate with each other’s histories, have beefs, etc. Sitting down to write RLP has been incredibly easy that way. A lot of the history is already there, even if we’ve seen only touches of it in the present so far.
I do have a million notebooks though…
The shape (length/format) of the series has changed as my own path in/out/through the comic business has changed a lot: I’d wanted RLP originally to be a monthly comic book, then a series of graphic novels… but now I’m comfortable with where it’s landed and how non-committal the story-lengths can be or not be. I love having the flexibility of working online for myself only… and even though I’m not making much dough off RLP now, I feel like I’ve found my optimal working conditions. The short stories I’ve been working on have strengthened my chops with each one, and I’ll be diving into the second novel-length story MALA FAMA soon.
It’s gonna be maybe an annoying question, but: how much of RLP is based on your own life? Is Rory a guy in your own life? Is Ceci? I’m assuming you’re Jude…
I get asked that a lot, but no, aside from the acting, thank god I’m not Jude. RLP is a very personal work for me, but not autobiographical in the least. It’s more kaleidoscopically personal: aspects of myself and other people in the characters, stories true and overheard all go into the blender. Jude is a broken old part of a previous version of myself, sour and limited but really trying to grow and angry at the world for not acknowledging that and giving him a break. He’s based on how I saw my own father when I was a kid, which did or didn’t have anything to do with reality; I guess that makes Turi me… but truthfully Turi is also “played by” my cat.
Ceci is probably contains the lowest percentage of Dan Goldman; she’s more a mix of the ex-girlfriend of mine I was stuck living with in Miami while drawing down the bones of the series a decade ago, crossed with a former magazine editor I worked for for a month in 2002 and a dash of my own fuck-the-rules business attitudes. Rory is definitely also me and not-me: he springs from the same place my own webcomic character Kelly sprung from: this misunderstood sexual and spiritual being that is just so himself that he can’t help pushing other people away as he swims towards some kind of personal/universal truth that no one else even understands. Jude and Rory are very similar in that, but Rory is way more self-actualized and has turned his flaws into strengths in a way Jude needs to figure out.
Paul Pope said, after doing his Adam Strange strip for Wednesday Comics (which I thought was really good anyway!) that only after it was all done did he get a feeling for “oh, so THAT’s how Hal Foster did it, THAT’s how you tell a Sunday Page story, right of course, well I wish I had another one to do now.” So since you dumped the clickthrough stuff, do you feel like you’re more in that “whole page” world, making murals or tableaux with your compositions more than making stuff that’s BANG! beat BANG! beat, like you do in the world where you have to plan out what people see as they turn pages? Is this easier than working in print?
Not really; I think about page turns and pages-as-tableaux as well as storytelling containers still. The clickthrough stuff didn’t really ever affect that thinking either, because I’d do the finished page and then subtractively-export the pieces to build the clickthrough elements, if you follow that.
I used to earn my bread as a graphic designer, and I always loved it… except for the clients. Since doing independent work in comics lets me play with design without clients getting in the way, getting crazy with page designs has always been a good chunk of the thrill of comicking.
Related question: since on a computer images load from the top down, do you ever think of structuring pages that way? I always let your pages load in the background while I’m doing something else, but should I be watching them load to see elements descend?
Told you it was a crap question.
Yeah, that is a crap question. The answer is No.
When first got into webcomics, I did the downward-scrolling reveal with “KELLY” on Act-i-vate, and I always thought it was a really nice new mechanic. I’ve seen some other people recently get praised for doing it, like Blaise Larmee’s 2001. When I did SHOOTING WAR, the down-scroll was verboten, and what wound up being that just worked, some I am doing it still.
I want RLP to be in book format too (even though the landscape-oriented pages have screwed a lot of things up for me); I’ve been looking for the Golden Mean between web and print for a few years now, the right balance that doesn’t need wheel-reinventing when you go from one to the other. Redoing artwork instead of making new stuff is a bummer.
All the artists seem to love that “Instagram” thing. What’s up with that? It’s just for the iPhone, right? I write songs for a living, I have a little dictaphone stick, I always want to do things like lean it out a car window when a crew’s working on the highway so I can get Dopplered jackhammer noises…is the iPhone like that for you, a visual “grabber”?
Yeah, it’s iOS-only; my wife digs it but she’s an Android girl. It’s less of a grabber than a sharer for me; I take a lot of shitty pics with my iphone. I’m doing something nicer now: I bought a iphone program called Decim8, which is way more digi-punk. Instead of filtering your photos to look vintage, it algorithmically-degrades/corrupts/destroys them with selectable types of digital noise. I’ve been taking a lot of pics of Brazilian toilets, random dogs in the street, plants and such and jaggeding the fuck out of them, turning them into art. For example: this pic is the chandelier over my mother-in-law’s dinner table; once I processed it, it made me think about non-carbon alien intelligences: http://t.co/BtLG5XS
I’m still using Instagram to squirt the destructed photos to Tumblr/Twitter/blahblahblah, because I’ve got a bunch of friends on there that respond to the weird things I’m sharing, which fights back the loneliness.
Personally, I’m partial to this one:
Like two ends of a wormhole. I’ve heard that since America is getting out of the rocket-launching business, the next Cape Canaveral is going to be in Brazil…J.G. Ballard here we come, I guess. So everyone’s going to have to know about Brazil in the 21st Century, maybe it’s going to be The Place? We see a lot of South American comics artists doing their thing these days, there seems to be enormous love for the medium there. What kind of comics are the kids reading on the street down south? Are comics big? Do they matter?
Brazil is growing at an inspiring rate; the middle class is booming here and things are better for Brazilians than probably ever before… but a lot of what they’re enjoying is bought on credit now, and my third eye sees them making a lot of the same mistakes Americans historically have. It’s scary. I think they’re gonna wind up in the same shitty place faster unless something is done to show a different way, though I have no idea what that way is.
Comics (in Brazil they’re called “histórias em quadrinhos” or “HQ”… which means “stories in little frames”) are very big here, but the tastes are different. The American superheroes are well-loved because anything American is worshipped by most people here (sadly), but it’s nowhere as massive an audience as manga. Brazil has a huge Asian-Brazilian presence that really connects with that kind of comic, and every neighborhood has at least one manga academy (dreamy, right?). I think the next generation of Brazilian cartoonists are going to be dangerously great.
There’s also the quadrinhos nacionais, comics for Brazil by Brazilian creators, which I think have a smaller audience but are smarter and better crafted than a lot else. I see the nacionais scene as being more influenced by European works and the larger national comics scene in Argentina as well… Heavy influences from Spain, Italy, Belgium here; I think they’re less commercially successful, but the students of the artform dig these more than anything else.
I feel a bit bad about not turning these questions out in a more focussed way…”is this about your life” is a bloody awful question, for example, so vague! So if we can skip backward for a minute, maybe I should just fix that by making it a bit more actually specific. Like: instead of the silly “are you Jude” question, instead I should maybe ask how and why you latched on to the business of Floridan real-estate itself, as a setting?
I grew up in South Florida, and my mother worked in real estate in some form or another down there since I was twelve. My last few years in New York, she was working as a mortgage originator, and would call and tell me war stories about how crooked the lending was down there. Now, we all know how that story ends since it’s spiralled out into a crash of the global fucking economy. I used to ride with her looking for “fizz-bo” (For Sale By Owner) signs on lawns back in the late eighties, and the whole environment just dovetailed nicely with my own fascination with ghosts, building-memories, my own strange sixth sense about things that I’ve struggled to understand much of my life.
Originally RLP took place in Brooklyn, where I wrote the very first version of the series; after 9/11 I went down to Miami to visit my mom with my original pitch in my head, and we zipped around Normandy Isle. I saw an old architect’s office there, and my pitch and Miami just clicked, and I knew it had to take place down south. New York comics are boring to me now anyhow; it’s so over-done and Miami is such a tweaky unique place.
Yeah, one thing I think you can’t help but notice a lot in RLP is the colour palette, and how it plays against the background textures, and how the dark interiors and bright exteriors are contrasted…I’d actually been wondering how early on you got interested in that, if you started from a place of “Miami is interesting, I want to draw something that feels like Miami”, rather than starting from “right, so these are the characters and this is the plot, now where should I situate them”? Of course you’ve already sort of answered that, but…I recall an interview with Steve Englehart in which he said he and Marshall Rogers made Coyote after their Batman run because they wanted a change, they wanted something bright and sun-drenched, and no more dark-blue billowing cloaks, so perhaps was it colour what made it all come together, for you?
I suppose in this sense it did: in the idea of horror-in-bright-sunshine. Death in Vacationland. Growing up in Miami, I always felt that it was energetically a dark place, even with the glaring sunshine and beaches and pastel veneer. People are cunty in Miami: selfish and aggressive and oftentimes on something… and generally pretty ignorant to boot.
In addition to that, I always felt surrounded by death all the time: we had kidnappings, constant accidents on the expressways, alligators coming out of canals behind peoples’ houses, and in my neighborhood I grew up around a lot of old Jews from New York and New Jersey (a la Rhoda) who moved down in the sixties to escape the winter. These old farts would drop dead in restaurants, at movie theaters, all the time; I got used to ambulances and EMTs rushing into places I was with my family to save the body, comfort the hysterical spouse or grandkids. It was just… around me all the time. So the sunny Florida palette hiding a deeper psychic darkness in the culture, and the climate as your end-of-life destination was always connected. I grew up where people moved to die in comfort.
Beyond that, I suppose it’s a write-whatcha-know thing… but even as a kid I was aware of how rich in “material” my surroundings were, and did a lot more mental recording of things that are only now escaping my head in comics form.
I suppose the thing about real estate is that it always involves going into other people’s places while they’re still living there, too…either that, or going into places where you expect to find people living, but instead find NO ONE, just an empty box. RLP’s quite brilliant about that (if I may descend into pure flattery), about how in either of those cases, in real life, you’re naturally confronted with ghosts: either the ghosts of the “living” or the ghosts of the “dead” — either people who have left no trace, or people who will shortly be taking their traces with them. The “hauntology” thing, maybe. So to me this is the essence of the more abstract, elegant, meta thing — everything visual that I know about Miami is either from postcards or TV, and has nothing to do with people’s backyards or swimming pools or breakfast nooks, or with the weird people who work in stores selling odd drugs…or with scruffy Santeria guys or reptiles coming inside the houses from the swamp…or any history and/or presence of culture deeper than an MTV reality show, really, so I guess I don’t know Miami at all, without knowing that stuff. So reading RLP feels a bit like that ghost-viewing activity itself to me, an effect that’s neatly doubled by the strip’s conceit…
So how did all that coalesce, in your mind? Did a whole bunch of different things just suddenly collide inside your skull, and there it was? Or did it grow bit by bit from a brain-seed?
The echoes-of-places always weirded me out: I’ve always felt the echoes like layers of paint in nearly every place I’ve ever lived, and RLP is my platform to talk about that, in addition to a million other things in the soup. As far as it coalescing, it’s the connections of things, some conscious and some not… but I used to refer to RLP as “my tumor” as it would grow and swell in my head during my not-so-productive dope-and-chicks years. There were times I’d lie in bed and “work” on it without writing anything down, but it’s all there, still. Remember, I’ve written versions of the stories and tinkered with the characters’ entire life histories for the better part of a decade before drawing the first page for Tor. RLP always stood in my mind as a when-I-get-there point with my writing/art chops while practicing on other projects… until suddenly in 2009, I just woke up one day and felt ready. My agent called with some new book deal opportunity and I turned it away, telling him THIS is what I am going to do next, and probably for many years as there’s a lot of material in mind, and we’d need to find a paycheck in here somewhere.
I don’t think I answered this directly, but I answered in pieces in previous questions, yes?
Most definitely yes, and anyway we are skipping around a bit here as I edit our conversation into something hopefully a bit more streamlined, so all the answers to questions are probably going to seem a bit more distributed than in a perfectly straight Q. and A. Like, here’s a skip: now I’m reading the Shooting War webcomic in fits and starts (and how insulting of me that is! a good interviewer would’ve read it thoroughly backwards and forwards before asking Question One, goddamnit!) (darned good stuff though!) , but something that struck me very powerfully right away, specifically as a person who read RLP first, is how the more photo-ey backgrounds are strongly textually-justified pretty darn quick. “This is what the video camera does, it makes these pictures. That’s why this looks as it does.” So right away what’s in the background isn’t really just “in the background” at all, but it’s got an important storytelling function that is quite wonderful to see. And if you came to it from RLP, I dare to say, that storytelling function is quite an eye-opener too! Because it makes it plain as day that you weren’t just hallucinating the importance of the rendered backgrounds in RLP, which, ironically, always seem intended as hallucinatory elements anyway. As I said before, with the clickthrough stuff on top in the Tor version, the conventional drawing of the character figures in the middle, and the photo-ey backgrounds on the bottom, after a few pages that stuff all gelled to say “right, there are different levels of reality in this strip, and all of this is intentional, and you’re meant to notice it.” But now I think if I’d read Shooting War before RLP I would’ve already been in possession of that crucial information, and wouldn’t have needed the clickthrough stuff to clue me in to it. But maybe I just say that because I did end up reading RLP first…?
So is there a question here?
Yes, and not only that but it’s a follow-up question: you say you dumped the clickthrough for practical reasons, but you also say you dumped it for aesthetic ones (and that the two are one, really!), and what I would like to ask you is…
(And this is a long shot…)
Was it that you were using the clickthrough to draw more attention to the backgrounds — to the different intentional layers of visual elements — but then realized that people would probably get it anyway? That the “comicsness” of it was already delivering that letter, and therefore so what if it didn’t get there overnight but took another day or so to arrive?
(You see what I was saying about the clickthrough interface getting more play in interviews than the story?)
Yes, I was (and am) confident that I didn’t feel I needed the clickthrough at all. I never really thought about the backgrounds being separate from the foregrounds (once the comic is done). Of course, during the creation of it, they’re different worlds, but once I bring everything together into its own reality, it’s all “the art”. That is, if I’ve done my work well; there’s a lot of the earlier pages that I want to go back to and tweak as I think the variance between character and setting is still really visible… I’ve gotten a lot better at unifying the scenes with color and switched 3D programs so the renders aren’t grainy behind precise-looking figure drawings. I do a lot of wincing with the first 100 pages of RLP; it’s gonna be much better when I have some time to touch them up.
I wish I was thinking “layers of reality” there but in truth, it was far geekier, all about experimenting with what you could do on a screen that a printed comic couldn’t (while still keeping a comic and not a quasi-cartoon). That’s really it.
I was thinking of you as like this guy who was all about the backgrounds as super-integral, the “backgrounds in a comic are like basslines in a song” guy…
Well, the backgrounds provide context and information for the story in any comic; the fact that mine are generated using virtual sets primarily doesn’t really change that. For example, the family photo of the Happier Tobins that Jude stole from Ceci’s apartment in the very beginning… it’s back in her apartment in the current “A Series of Tubes” story. I dunno if anyone else will ever notice that, and there’s a story there that’s minute and doesn’t need to be told in a comic form, but it does contain a nugget of story and a subtext. Does anyone notice that at 72dpi amidst whatever else digital noise is calling to them from their desktop? I have no idea, but for me, it’s in there and it’s deliberate.
Okay, I promise, no more clickety-click talk! And reading A Series Of Tubes as it goes along, one gets the sense that maybe that device after a time would just function as an unwanted constraint anyway? The comics couldn’t fly as free? But to get really off that topic now, I mentioned that what first made me really connect with RLP past all the devices was the time-delayed realization of Jude as an artist, in a way a writer just like me — a occasional freelance editor maybe, and I’ve been that too! — and like I said, it made me laugh to recognize that in him, I felt a little bit like…maybe like people feel when they’ve known me for a little bit, and suddenly realize “oh my God, this man-child has a job, he does real work and has actual responsibilities, well it all makes perfect sense now…”
Yeah, I think of Jude as an artist too, and Jude would definitely tell you the shiniest piece of his soul is the part that can pass through the “membrane.”
Indeed, it’s a lovely trick, and snuck up on me nice. But the other realization that came along with it was that I was looking at characters who were similar to me in another way, which was…I’m not sure how to put this…you know, they have actual age to them, how old they are matters, they have more than just three or four chapters in their autobiographies, they’re looking at problems of direction and decision, freedom and stability, that only really acquire force with increasing life experience and page-turning. That sounds snobby, but I guess what I mean is…I remember in my early twenties carrying around this sort of prejudice that I’d get all my figuring-out of stuff done in that time, I knew there were things I didn’t know and hadn’t done but I also thought I had a pretty good grasp of what kind of field they lay in, I thought of them as (though I really do hate to quote Rumsfeld) “known unknowns”. But as you get older, you don’t end up just gaining greater and greater mastery over the same ground, do you? The world just keeps getting bigger, there are odder things in it, “unknown unknowns” that you never saw coming and have to figure out what the hell you’re going to do about…and that’s a much more interesting learning curve, and that hooked me pretty good too. That’s the real good serial-storytelling stuff, for me — like I said, I do care if Jude and Ceci solve their more obvious problems, but at a certain level that’s something I’ve already done a million times in reading and viewing experiences before, from waiting to see if Cyclops will ask Marvel Girl on a date or something all the way along to…well, everything, I guess. Most things in popular entertainment, at any rate. They’re all about the “known unknowns”.
I think RLP would be a lot less interesting to me if it was a straight slog through a case like one of those mystery-of-the-week TV shows, “let’s bust this ghost, sell this house” sort of thing. The real grand story of RLP is the connective tissue holding the “family” together, how they’re all feeding off an aspect of each other, and how it’s starting to change them all into something else, “known Unknowns” even.
So how much of this story forms itself around ideas of freedom and possibility vs. stagnation, how deep does that theme go and how stable is it? Or is it more of an “arc” that we’ll get done with at some point? That it all starts with Jude getting a blog, which fits with how he looks at first but then seems a bit weird after you get to know him better and understand just what his pressures are, and who he’s got to talk to…well, getting a blog just seems like the dumbest possible kind of solution to all that! And then they’ve got the business together, and maybe the book with Zoya is supposed to be a way out of that trap, an escape plan, but it seems more like an out-of-the-frying-pan thing? People trying to exert greater control over their situation, rather than really going with the flow that’s presented to them? Trying to duck the unknown unknowns…
I agree with you about the blog being a dumb thing for Jude to do, given he has all these ghost-confidants… unless on some level he needed to put those thoughts somewhere that Cecilia could conceivably find him. The blog is anonymous, but it’s also out there for the world to see, subjects and strangers alike… so sooner or later, something is going to come back to him. We might not’ve seen the end of that, if you’re reading closely.
The ghost photography “book project” with Zoya is definitely an escape route for Jude, not just from his crumbling marriage to Ceci but also from anonymity and zero-credibility. Of course, in American society where spiritual house-cleanings are thought of as parlor tricks, Jude’s got a chip on his shoulder because that shiny sliver of him that can do the Great Work IS incredible, exceptional, even if the rest of him is a bumbling, schmucky mess. That book is going to SHOW THEM ALL that what he does is real. It’s also a convenient and frustrating excuse to spend more alone-time with Zoya, who gives him something Cecilia doesn’t anymore: respect. And the reason Cecilia’s not been included in the plans is simple: it’s a quiet safe zone for them both to appreciate each other’s artistry without the boss throwing crap at them.
It’s just marriage, isn’t it.
Sure, but it’s not just marriage. A marriage is an autonomous zone between two people, so even if that zone is all-good, that shared space still has to reconcile the possibility-vs-stagnation struggle outside itself. So for Jude and Ceci, I don’t think that struggle would be absent if they were happily together, it would just be easier for them to face The World At Large together if they were a team. And that’s what marriage is about to me.
I was actually very surprised to see Rory, letting alone how menacing he is, because…I guess I got the picture that there were some things about the past we weren’t going to really get into? That were just going to stay dark, stay distant? And then he shows up and basically says, or implies, that there is no such thing as the past, and no such thing as “distance” either. Is that why Jude resists him? More to the point: can we read Rory as another one of Jude’s encounters with “spirit guides”? Maybe his first?
There’s so much left untold yet about Jude’s past; I’m going to get heavy into that part of his life that in the third novel, HURRICANE MELODIE. Major psychic self-surgery in that story. I never intended to keep his past untold like Wolverine; I wanted him to be approachable, knowable, relatable in that I-knew-a-guy-like-this-I-didn’t-totally-like way… and he suddenly stands 100 feet tall when he’s doing his thing.
Rory definitely reflects a different way of dealing with the Great Work back at Jude: he celebrates himself regardless of what anyone else thinks. Jude resents him because his own experience is heavier, full of obligations and drama and the drug aspect of it basically ruins him for anything else. Jude and Rory go back a ways too, and I see Rory as a mentor turned rival than anything else. They’ve each got a philosophy and an agenda backing their skills, and the two are definitely at odds.
Where do you get the trippy stuff from, especially in terms of the cosmic beings that Jude encounters? I don’t want to make it seem like it’s all about Jude! But…do you just pick that stuff up, or make it up, or has it been in your head a long time? What’s your reading in psychedelia or mythology like, or is it all secondhand for you like it is for me?
I definitely don’t make it up: the “beings” Jude encounters are manifestations of Yoruba orishas, deities from West Africa who traveled via slave ships through Cuba and to Miami. The religion in Miami is known as santería, and many of the names and chants, indoctrinations and coming trials come from that tradition. They are real spirits to many people, and I’ve brought them into my life using RLP. The same Yoruba traditions crossed the Atlantic on different slave boats bound for Brazil and have become several other faiths down here using the same source pantheon; let’s just say, I’ve opened that door using comics and have some work of my own to do off-panel now.
As far as the psychedelic-vison part, I took a lot of hallucinogens during my twenties trying to destroy some parts of myself I didn’t like, breaking some eggs to make lovelier omelettes, I suppose…
…So some of what Jude sees is rooted in things I saw or felt or touched or stories friends told me, etc. These experiences I’ve had always left me thirsty to understand what I’d seen or felt, always sent to me the library/bookstore/internet. It’s always something I knew I wanted to write about, to have a platform to talk about in a never-easy but definitely-positive light. It’s scary to kill a version of yourself and come back different, but in the end, life is easier when you’ve less useless old crap to drag behind you.
My reading list, especially during my trip-heavy summer of ’96 where Possibility continually unfolded in my mind, combined my first-ever reading of the New Testament (the Jewish parents were not happy) with books on Hindu deities, Tibetan death rituals, Stephen Pinker’s books on cognitive function, theories of Reich and Jung, writings of Robert Anton Wilson, Frank Herbert’s DUNE series, a lot of doors opened via the author-curated letter columns in the back of Grant Morrison’s THE INVISIBLES… I’d even started going to a Lubavitch rabbi once a week to read Talmud, looking for “answers”. I studied with him for a year and a half, but on my very first day with him, he told me I would never find the answers I was searching for, but if I studied Torah with him in earnest, the questions wouldn’t bother me so much anymore.
So: I’d been a big reader my whole life, but this time was different. This time I knew I had touched things outside of myself that no one I knew could put into words that made me question everything and I had to make sense out of it to construct a new lie to live inside of. I was out of college and waiting tables at shitty tourist restaurants, spending my money on drugs and raves and comic books, and I felt goopy and liquid, sliding out of society. Jude Tobin was probably born from that feeling, even though I wouldn’t write him for years to come. I had some rough nights with myself and decided there were better directions to grow in, clearer ways to see the world with my infant eyes. Not long after that, I started writing and drawing again (it had been a few years) and next thing I knew, Miami spat me out and I moved up to New York.
Is there anything in the comics world that you draw on/are inspired by for this element? RLP makes, I think, quite a big thing of mixing and contrasting the tripped-out world with the mundane one…is there a specific comics influence that you’re tapping into, for that? Do you think it’s an American/Brazilian thing, or an American/European thing, or is it neither of those things at all?
Honestly? No. I think I’m the Ol’ Dirty Bastard of comics, my style has no father. I love trippy comics, but I can’t point to any comic off the top of my head that I’m echoing visually. Maybe it’s the way I work, collage and 3D and such, that I feel it’s unique. Maybe there’s some of Brendan McCarthy’s RGB-freakout in my comicking DNA, but I’d give a testicle to be able to draw half as well as he does.
By the way, I LOOOOOVE the Santeria dude. That was by far my favourite “mini”.
Kako? He is one of my favorites too; I continually crack up as I write his dialogue. I grew up hearing that kind of broken Spanglish, working flea markets with my dad; Kako’s my love letter to that, but he’s also very much the Eleggua in the series, standing at the crossroads for Jude, guiding him deeper into a world of mysteries.
How early on in RLP’s conception did Turi start to be an important character? I’m an adopted kid, so I always zero in on Adopted Kid stuff…Moses, Jesus, King Arthur, Superman…
Turi got more important the more I wrote him; in earlier draft I always felt there wasn’t enough for him to do. I realized I hadn’t gotten his voice or his guts right; once he clicked, I just liked him a lot and started seeing all kinds of interesting place for him, and his role in the overarching story just grew and grew. He’s a blast to write. It was the same with Zoya; once I figured her cadence, her attitude out, I wanted her to be in all the scenes.
Yeah, Turi now seems like a very important character in the dynamic here, to my eyes anyway…and not just because he represents “something at stake” in terms of other characters’ needs or in terms of the plot, but because he counts as a character too, in his own right he’s part of the web of relationships, though since he’s just a kid he understandably doesn’t take centre stage in that way. I was a bit curious about this, on two levels: one is, I suppose, the level of mechanics…how to make characters interesting by themselves, how to give them texture, that sort of thing. Turi’s a kid, so how do you give him agency of his own, a status of his own in this world? Well, one way’s exactly what you’ve done, the imparting of special talent and special status. I don’t mean this to sound like what you’ve done is some kind of fantasy-story boilerplate, just that in a way it’s textbook mechanics: because that is what you can do, to give a character a reason to exist…you just in fact give them a reason to exist! Something to do, something that concerns them as well as other people: private interests, the implication of a somewhat-equal point of view. Why else are there so many “chosen one” stories in the world, after all, except that you can make a kid’s perspective explicitly a privileged one by giving them a special access to experience or talent or whatever…kids see what they’re not supposed to see all the time, but if the kid is Merlin or something then that seeing is valorized, elevated, codified…
Yeah, Turi is central to the whole RLP series… I don’t want to spoil things, but you’re going to see this even more so in MALA FAMA. As far as “agency of his own”, to me kids are just small adults the same way adults are just full-grown children, so I am writing him the same way I write Jude/etc. I get to have fun and make him cute, but he’s just as touched as Jude but way less fucked up (thus far) by it. Both Turi and Rory reflect a different way of dealing with the talents that Jude feels feels have “ruined everything”. So, a counter-point, as well as the future of the family.
…And the other way to do that is the stuff that, like I said, hits home to me as an adopted kid: the matter of what you know, or perhaps more “what you’re told versus what you know”. I was told I was adopted at a very young age, and have always thought that’s the healthy way to do such telling, so seeing the psychic kid who shares his father’s gift and his father’s “confidential” connections, so that definitely suggests lineage in a way a kid wouldn’t be inclined to question, and yet also just because of having those gifts in common…he might know? He might not know. He might know and not care? He might know but be too young to process it the way an older person might process it, into shock or self-questioning, so it might not matter. And for me at any rate, not knowing if he knows but certainly seeing that he could know without having been told, it makes him an absolutely fascinating reflector of what’s going on between all the adult characters. This kid might not be in the situation of figuring out his family isn’t like other families, but he might already know it, but I can’t yet tell! So…
…Is that why we got “A Series Of Tubes”, partly because you were growing into writing Turi, and wanted to write something that showed him more at the centre of things, less a complicating factor in the plot and more a human presence in the family? And maybe the mystery of what he knows or doesn’t know, that’s just plain part of what this family’s like too. It hadn’t occurred to me until the last page where he is, actually graphically, in the centre, you see…and that’s when it occurred to me that you could read ASOT as incorporating a theme of “safety”, or read it as an emotional breakthrough point where, not to sound too Hallmark-y, the family reasserts itself as a thing you belong to indefeasibly…and in which people have an active say over what definition of “normal” they’re going to be subject to…
Anyway I found the conclusion of ASOT to have a pleasantly defusing effect, much like Zoya sensibly pushing Jude away in the first book defused a narrative that RLP might have become all about, I mean in the sense that this could happen, this could be the story, but just because this is the most obvious story doesn’t mean we have to choose it for ourselves…there’s a movie I like, “The Barbarian Invasions”, where a son comes to take care of his dying father, and all through the movie there are points where the director shows you a possible narrative, “this is the one where it turns into the doomed romance”, “this is the one where it turns into the thing where the son gets in trouble with the mob”, and to all these possible narratives the father’s illness would just be the inciting action, the excuse, the background…but no, the director shows this possible movie and then says “but that’s not what we’re here for” and turns it back to the relationship between the father and the son. “Defuses” the obvious narrative possibilities, right? So ASOT made me think I was detecting something like that here too, yes we could have the story where boilerplate narrative gravity/destiny takes over, but we’re not going to have that one because everybody here gets to have choices…so: “safety”. Or at least: choice. When you’ve lived with a story as long as you’ve lived with RLP, does that become an interest, to prune events away from “inevitable” ends? To protect the characters from the easy temptations of their writer, by making sure they can exercise options? Or would you say instead (perhaps) “well what are you talking about, isn’t that how you write a story, by letting the characters choose things?”
Or have I got it all wrong.
The best answer I can give is that I’m finding an ebb and flow to the tension in the Tobin family as they deal with the end of the marriage and stay a family, and Turi is a huge part of that. That hug panel with Turi in the center of the page telegraphs that visually, but mostly I feel like there’s a storm of emotions between the three of them that exists behind the panels of the comic and spills out through the comics’ words and pictures in small drivets that can’t possibly show it all. Yet. Of course, I don’t ever want RLP to feel obvious… but as much as the PLOT of the series have long since been written, the emotional notes (like what’s happened here in ASOT) are happening more organically as I put the Tobins each through paces. There are things I’d planned for Turi that he wouldn’t do now, after his experiences in “Donnie Cheng” and so on. My Secret Decade-Old Plot Skeleton is an old and dusty thing that exists only to let the living meat walk around, and they don’t always obey one another. The characters do make choices, and so do I, and somewhere in the middle, what gets drawn is what makes sense at that moment and ideally makes their future less and less certain. “Safety” doesn’t make for good fiction.
Where does Ceci come from? How deep is her backstory, and how early on did you know what she was going to be like? Or like Jude were the seeds of her planted long ago in personal experience. Full disclosure, this catches my attention quite a bit because I once dated a woman from Mexico and some part of my brain goes “dingdingding! identity recognized! welcome Professor!” when Ceci swims into view…so maybe I just answered this question for you, “I just draw what I see in real life, duh”, but it is still curious to me that EVERY other major character has an “origin” or we wouldn’t believe them…“I answered an ad”…
Or maybe I am, once again, getting that a bit wrong. But anyway for me, with her particularly I find myself picking up an awful lot from an awful little…I guess this is a question of mechanics, again? Jude feels like he has a past in part because we know he has one, we’re told in so many words he has one, but Ceci pretty much starts on Page One. So during ASOT I found myself thinking, maybe her personality is more contained in the actual drawing of her than Jude’s is, and I’m just such an artistically-illiterate guy that I can’t tell? Or in other words: is writing and drawing just One Big Thing for you, or are you more likely to put elements together to deliberate/compensatory effect? “Jude’s way out there broadcasting himself all the time, and not particularly discriminately, so I can sort of open the pipe on him; Ceci’s a tougher nut to crack though, so her body language has to be just so“?
I see Ceci as the kind of second-generation Latinas I knew growing up in Miami: nice girls with bad tempers, probably went to church, wanted a husband and a good life, knew how to get flexible with the world to get those things to happen. She’s definitely a hustler in her own milieu, seeing the niche she could carve in the dying real estate market and going for it. We’re going to see more of Ceci’s past over the course of the series; of course she has one. She’s as much as a sour pickle as Jude is in a way… but they’re also different people than when they met.
The deeper history of her and Turi’s dad I’m not gonna get into here, beyond what I’ve already revealed: high school sweethearts, killed by drunk driver, luckily had donated to the sperm bank. Given that Turi is touched as well, he’s eventually going to want to meet him… and he’s got friends/family that can show him how to summon. That tale is a ways off yet but it’s a doozy.
I notice things about her like what kind of makeup she has on, or that she’s a very statuesque woman who is nevertheless not in perfect fitness-club-type shape…am I overreading, or are those details deliberate, or (instead) are they just part of a “spontaneous” mental image, as in “this is how I like to draw her, this is how she looks in my head, I’ve read all kinds of comics and know there’s all kinds of ways of doing figure drawings and I like to pick and choose: blobby elbows, knobby clavicles”? So easy to say “okay, Zoya’s drawn kinda zaftig as a contrast to Ceci”, you know? But Ceci doesn’t look just exactly like a lead actress on a cop show on TV either, she’s not drawn, to my eye anyway, as someone who looks good effortlessly…so, do you care about that sort of thing, is that why I’m seeing it, it’s not just my apophenia talking? She puts in a bit of work on her appearance?
No, those details are deliberate: I think Cecilia was effortlessly beautiful, and she’s still got it now if/when she tries. That makes her way real to me instead of some porny “comic babe” or Hollywood actress type that populate most comics. I’ve never liked working with those action-figure characters (unless I’m tearing them down); they’re horribly fucking boring to me. I don’t like mixing with them in real life either; I’m way more attracted (in every sense) to strange kinds of beauty, individual touches that are considered “imperfections” by today’s monoculture that can’t be replicated. Zoya is a great example of that; her face is modeled after a friend of mine who I think is absolutely beautiful, in her face you can see her family history, made modern. I suppose that’s true of everyone, but I wanted all of RLP’s characters to feel real.
So do you think of it like that, in that “compensatory” way? Do you have, not just a model sheet, but a “drawing scheme” for when you sit down with these characters? I suppose an easier way to have said all that would just be: “who’s your favourite character to draw, or for you is drawing them the same as writing them?”
With any comic, the look of the characters are part of the storytelling, and should transmit visual information about who they are. I do have “model sheets” that exist in my head, and a few post-its on the computer screen so I don’t forget Zoya’s star tattoos on her eyes/ass or the white glare on Jude’s glasses or Cecilia’s triangle of sexy birthmarks; there are visual tics I added to each of them probably more for my own amusement that serve a function in my eyes. For example: if you watch the white glare on Jude’s glasses, they’re used less as a lighting tool and more like an extra set of cartoon eyebrows to telegraph emotion. To me it makes Jude that much more expressive in a subconscious way.
I also make sure they don’t have UNIFORMS they always appear in, because, y’know, real people change their clothes. Yes, Jude’s striped shirt is almost-ever-present, but that’s also a commentary on his laundry habits. There are sets of alternating outfits for each of them (and more to come), and as the company starts to make more money, everyone’s look will slide to adjust.
The processes of writing and the drawing are nothing alike for me; they’re complete opposites in fact. Writing isn’t easy but it’s always joyful, never torture. I’m very free when I write and almost always walk away happy. Drawing is a daily tooth-pulling excruciating extraction, and I’m never, ever 100% satisfied with my work. I spend MANY HOURS on each page and I’m usually a mumbling, babbling, spent mess by the end, ready for wine and dinner and some quiet time offline afterwards.
Yes, every major character has an origin, and I’ve tried to have their visual design mirror that. There are types I grew up around and borrowed from, others that grew from their character skeletons and appeared in layers. My only main player that popped out looks-first was Kako, and to be honest, he’s RLP’s Wolverine. I don’t want to get into the specifics of where he comes from, tell the Definitive Origin. I don’t need or want to know that; it makes him less interesting to me.
Wolverine, eh? So, not to sound too crazy, but…on yet another design level, it occurs to me that there’s a lot of, hmm, earthiness in RLP, you can tell these people probably smell about the same as regular people in the real world, Jude probably smells like he rolled in a dead bird on the beach, Ceci’s breath is probably a bit yeasty on occasion, Zoya probably smells a bit…I’m sorry, it’s just that I have a really acute sense of smell, I’m like the Wolverine of my webcomic?…Zoya probably brings a slight milkiness with her when she enters a room…
Oh, I suppose this could be considered an appreciation of craft, but it does embarrass me a bit to say I regularly imagine how they all smell…
I can honestly say I’ve never been asked that before! I agree that Zoya would have a slight milkiness to her skin, always very clean, while Ceci would be a mix of musky perfume with cigarette smoke. Jude is dirty clothes, cigarettes and adrenaline-sweat for sure, but that’s the occupational hazard talking.
So I hope you keep doing RLP forever, I hope it’s as deathless as the X-Men. But your Twitter feed and RLP mailing list (nice touch having it be “Zoya”, by the way) seems to be full of “whoops peeps gotta go, little hiatus, many plates in the air you know, back soon love ya”. Could you talk a little bit about your workload, energy-level, busyness, sense of opportunity at the present time? Are you in that mode where you practically trip over a new project each day, and do you make your living through your art or do you have a day job? Some artists never do slow down, like Kirby it all just keeps ramping up like a mass driver until they go into orbit…but some move into other forms of art, poetry from short stories, sculpture from drawing, industrial design from graffiti…etc. etc…sometimes from gradually-changing interests, and sometimes from (I presume) not being able to make a living at one or the other thing, or from not feeling like they’ve got any freedom, or from feeling like a market for what they want to do doesn’t exist…
Thanks, man; I intend to keep RLP moving for a long time until we reach The End. These guys are very real to me. And those “whoops peeps” messages are such a badge of Webcomicker Shame to me, but there’s only so much I can take care of while producing something of quality. I know RLP is a lot more nuanced in execution and process-complicated to produce than your average daily Robo-Ninjas-Love-Cupcakes webcomic, so I ask my readers to roll with the schedule hiccups so I can keep the comics smart and slick. I certainly do the same with the series I follow, i.e. Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad; I don’t mind it being away as long as it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen when it’s on.
And yes, I do my fair share of project-juggling, but all my other babies are still fetal at the moment. I have a lot of ideas, some of them are even good, and I know I will never live long enough to complete a tenth of them, so I have to prioritize and fight for the really good ones. I definitely don’t slow down; I am working when I go for a walk in the city with my headphones on, when I’m in the shower, when I’m washing dishes. ImaginationLand is just where my brain goes on auto-pilot, and that’s why I don’t have another job: because THAT’S WHERE I’M SUPPOSED TO BE. Sometimes it’s a confusing circus, simultaneous spectacles, forgotten characters sealed up in the walls banging to get out, but I’m learning to deal with them until I can get them out. The Tobins were getting louder and louder for almost a decade before I let them out; like I say, I used to call RLP “my tumor” because it just grew and grew until my brain felt squeezed. It’s a relief in that way to actually be telling the stories now. That’s morbid; sorry.
I do not have a day job; I haven’t since late 2005, with varying degrees of competence and success. I also do a lot of freelance illustration work, but some years are better than others with that stuff. Last year was quite good; this year’s been pretty dry thus far, though I was just featured in Taschen’s ILLUSTRATION NOW! 4 so I’m hoping some new clients will find me through that.
That’s why I’ve been so prolific with RLP: for the first 200 pages, I was getting paid, when the series ran for 6 months on Tor.com. I used that money to move down to Brazil and clear as much else as possible out of my field of vision. Drawing RLP takes a huge chunk of my time and energy; if I just wrote and collaborated with other artists, I don’t think I’d have as many pauses and certainly be a helluva lot more prolific. Ask me this again in a few years; I’m curious to see what I say then.
Or I could just ask you again now! How would you characterize your career thus far, and what would you wish for it in the future, and what would you tell young people? I guess is the obvious way of putting that. But, say…how would you characterize your career thus far, Dan? The Internet is clogged with webcomickers holding forth and giving advice and making recommendations and predicting future trends…do you have any truck with any of that? I notice you don’t sell RLP coffee mugs, do you just not want to be a coffee-mug millionaire?
My career thus far has been… pretty cool, I guess? I mean, I’ve gotten to do unique things with my talents and don’t see any signs of stopping. I definitely made some big mistakes with Shooting War and “08″ and I’m happy to have made them on project that were not 100% my blood and guts. I learn a lot with every project that rolls forward to the next, and I know I’m very lucky for that. All the mistakes made too, everything rolls forward from project to project.
I try not to be the “sage old advice-giver”, partly because I don’t think I’ve earned it yet, and partly because I’d rather be making the comics than stopping, but I have done a good amount of speaking/moderating/organizing panels at conferences where comics and culture and technology overlap. But that stuff’s easy: I did a lot of debate team stuff in high school and I like speaking to crowds once in a while, but mostly I do it to meet new people. There’s a certain class of cat you meet at SXSW Interactive or MIT or whatever that I rarely happen across on Twitter/etc, and it’s nice see each other’s presentations and have a drink after. I’ve met some really cool friends doing that. Most of the time, my work has me alone in a room working in isolation, so it’s a breath of fresh humanity.
And no, I do not sell coffee mugs… yet. I don’t think anyone makes millions with coffee-mugs. I’ve been planning a store for what feels like a year already, and it’s coming soon, but it’s more intended to make some pocket change for me and give people physical mementos from something that only now exists on the web.
Editing this together now, it occurs to me that I’d like a mug with a wraparound of three or four panels cut from a given strip’s belly meat, something to make guests say “okay, whatthefuck IS this?”, so I can shrug and say “there’s a URL on the bottom, why don’t you go find out?” That, I think, would be a fun game. And…
Okay: games. Not to sound like an OKCupid quiz, but…How Cross-Disciplinary Are You? Do you have a non-artistic background, an academic background, you wanted to be a marine biologist, you wanted to be an architect…you wanted to be a musician, you idolized Arthur Conan Doyle, you were always interested in stonemasonry?
I always hated school but I’ve always been a rabid reader. I didn’t study art in college; I began as a Psych major and graduated with degrees in Film and English Literature, which have served me well in storytelling, however accidentally. Deep down, I always knew it would be comics.
And are all your air-plates comics-related now? Or are there things in other media we should be pricking up our ears for?
My first love is writing prose, and I’ve got a few prose fiction projects curling around my skull, banging pots and pans. At the moment they’re in the crib, but when they start walking I’ll have to get them out.
So as per the Interviewer’s Code, I have to ask about influences, but that’s pretty oppressive, right? Like making a Top Ten list. So let me try to spin it less harshly a bit…
1. Who do you love, who no one else has ever heard of?
I don’t know how obscure this is, but RLP was deeply influenced by the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (see: SAKEBI and KAIRO); I also really dug Gaspar Nöe’s ENTER THE VOID that came out last year and made my cringe at my own limited abilities when I went back to work on Jude’s next drug trip sequence.
As far as comics, I’m a big fan of Michel Fiffe; he’s holding a copy of his first printed ZEGAS comic for me in New York, and once I get it, I am gonna immediately take it to a cafe and devour it.
2. How do you use the Internet, do you read blogs? Magazines? Do you belong to any weird online communities?
I read constantly, hours each day; blogs, magazine sites, my RSS reader is always full and I’m always burning it down. I’m using Instapaper as well to send longer articles to my phone to read in downtime. RSS-while-working for the short stuff and quiet time for the longer pieces.
I also play movies in the corner of my screen while I draw and listen to loads of podcasts while I work, especially comedy interview podcasts like Kevin Pollak or Marc Maron. Once upon a time, I used to want to be a comedian; maybe part of me still does, even though I don’t think I’m necessarily that kind of funny.
My main internet use, other than research, is to keep connected to people; I’m a long ways from just about everyone I know right now, and having Skype and AIM and Twitter and email have been essential to my emotional health. My work isolates me already and moving to another continent without speaking the language (at first) definitely amplified that.
3. Do artists look at famous actors? I’ve always imagined that they do, looking for “protagonistic moments”, a face and a bit of lighting and perhaps some mood music…some fortuitous body poses, pieces of staging or blocking, ideas for how to present a human figure. Is that a kind of influence you think of much? Or do you see other people doing that and wonder about it?
Nah; I try to shoot as much of my own photo references for RLP’s characters as possible to keep people from seeing actors in my work. Sometimes I have to use that crutch when I am under the gun but I’m never happy with it, and I don’t like it when clearly recognize actors-as-comic-characters in other artists’ work; modern superhero comics are egregiously bad in that department. They might as well list the actors referenced as “Starring _____ as _____…” roles.
4. What’s your favourite Brendan McCarthy book?
I’m really partial to FREAKWAVE for sheer nuttiness and PARADAX! for its what-superhero-comics-could’ve-been feel. He’s a huge inspiration to me, even though my work is nothing at all like his. Wait, I think ROGAN GOSH has to be in that last sentence too. See?
5. When you were young, what did you read comics-wise? How did your tastes change over time as you got older?
I grew up reading Silver, Bronze, Modern age comics all at once in literal bags of comics. In the early eighties, my dad and I used to sell blank VHS tapes at a local flea market in Florida on weekends to bring in extra money, and if I worked hard, he’d give me a few bucks to buy a plastic bag full of random mismatched comics from some other vendors’ garage, never sequential issues or even the same titles. It was like learning comics by shotgun.
I remember coming home with those trash bags full of comics and my little brother Steven’s eyes lighting up; we had a closet full of these moldy old comics and we’d sneak out of bed at night and read comics all night by flashlight together. That’s a very specific and happy memory for me and that warm-fuzzy association of comics and love probably kept me coming back to the medium on some weird bent-circuit level.
I drifted in/out of comics, way out in the nineties when things just sucked… but I found my way back into the culture through LOVE & ROCKETS, which was on the racks of a record store I used to hang out at in Miami in my teens. I didn’t know that kind of comic existed… and that was what reignited my love for the medium: the idea that I could tell any kind of stories with it. From there, it’s been a constant thing in my life.
I’m probably pickier now than ever before with the comics I read, but that’s probably because the good stuff is better than ever, and there’s so much more to sift through, and I’ve got less layabout time to enjoy other people’s work when I should be making my own.
6. You’re bilingual, right?
Yes; just about. I’m getting there; I’ve done TV interviews now in Portuguese, and it’s definitely an immigrant’s Portuguese not a college student’s. It’s easier for me to explain complex things in writing because I can edit and correct my mistakes instead of just barfing words down the front of my shirt like an idiot. I’m getting better every week though. My wife is proud of me.
7. What made you think of moving to Brazil? Was it a sudden decision?
My wife is a paulistana, born and raised here in São Paulo; we met in NYC and after a while we were both sick of the city’s energy and the changes in the US, its culture and the politics. We were going to move to Canada where people are less psychotic, and our stopping in Brazil for a few months to visit Lil’s family here and kick around for a few months while we applied for residency in Canada was supposed to be temporary… but it’s funky and interesting and inspiring here and we’ve been here almost two years now.
I really like the proximity of travel to totally different places in South America I’ve never been; we’ve had a lot of in and out of country experiences here that I never would’ve had if we’d moved to, say, Toronto.
8. What do you miss about living in the States?
Other than my friends and family? I miss proper charcuterie culture; cheese is my fucking catnip and kryptonite, and I got really spoiled by funky artisinal cheeses living in NYC. The selections of nice cheeses here are lacking and unnecessarily expensive for the quality you get.
9. What about Brazil makes it worth it?
(the food, I’m guessing)
More than anything, my level of relaxation. The Brazilian Dan is way more mellow and quiet than the New York Dan, who I was getting pretty tired of myself. There’s something about losing yourself in the Brazilian chaos that makes it harder to be such a selfish little fuck. I like that a lot.
Life here in São Paulo has a million problems, but on the whole, people are pretty sweet here. For all the traffic and pollution and poverty, there’s always people making out in the street, birds chirping, some drunk in the street doing something unintentionally hilarious. There’s a traditional, Old World charm and gentility here that the US has completely NEW-NEW-NEW-ed itself out of… and some of those good things are worth keeping.
10. Do you feel like RLP invites any obvious comparisons with other people’s work? Or any un-obvious ones? Or indeed any comparisons no one is ever going to think of who’s not you?
I don’t really think my comics look or read like anyone else’s; I’ve heard some nice comparisons that I’m too polite to repeat. I feel like my conscious influences for RLP come more from outside of comics.
I really think this may be the last one, but I can’t think of a good question. Is there a question I haven’t asked, that I should’ve? Something you’re proud of that you wanted to talk about, but I was just so damn fixated on stuff that doesn’t matter?
Nah. This is the longest interview I’ve ever done, and I appreciate the deep thought you put into all the questions.
What are you proudest of, in RLP?
I am proudest of that last story “A Series of Tubes”; I learned a lot about how to do RLP better over the course of that story and I love the way the plot wiggles across multiple narratives and pushes the core story forward by the end with just a few new dangles.
And what do you ultimately wish for it?
Ultimately, I want to be able to put out a new RLP book in print every 12-18 months until I’ve told the whole story, but the publishing market is so fucked up right now, and the comics microcosm even more so, that I’m focusing on digital strategies that I can control myself for now. But yeah, I’d love to have BIG SEXY BOOKS and a “home” for the series with a publishing house I’m proud to be a partner with.
Okay, WHEW, Dan! I think I just might’ve covered all my interview questions, anyway I tried hard. Would really like to get this up before “Mala Fama”…OH FUCK, that’s a thing I forgot to ask. “Where is RLP going from here, we’ve had a lot of interregnum pieces, what’s going to…?”
Next up is the first part of the Big Second Novel, MALA FAMA; I’m traveling to New York next week and then to Rio de Janeiro, so look for the new RLP stuff to start hitting at the beginning of November. Things are going to get darker.
Hell, I’d better have a second helping of those dumplings, then. Or whatever they are.
And think happy citrus thoughts!
Thanks for the grub, Dan; this was, indeed, the most important meal of my day.
See you on the other side!
And with that, reader…he was GONE!
And then so was I.
Well whaddaya know, the last one wasn’t the last one after all! This one I didn’t dream, Bloggers…but I did have some help, from the estimable Geoff Klock and his “How To Read Superhero Comics And Why”…well worth a read!
And the story is…I was just screwing around on the computer one day, and all of a sudden it came to me…
ALAN MOORE: Hello?
ME: Hello, Alan? It’s Plok here, calling for the…
ALAN: Oh, for the interview! Right! How are you, Plok mate?
ME: I’m good, good. How’s Northampton? Some parts of it still undocumented?
ALAN: Oh, for now, for now…
ME: Ha. So should we get down to it?
ALAN: Yes, absolutely. Let’s.
ME: So…(cough cough)…
ME: I’m sorry, Alan, this is awkward, but I don’t know how else to say it…maybe it’s not the right note to start out on, but…
ALAN: Go on, what is it? You’ve got my curiosity up now…
ALAN: You know there’s no need to be embarrassed, I’ve done a lot of interviews in my…
ME: WHAT’S WITH ALL THE RAPE?
ALAN: Excuse me?
ME: Uh, you know…the rape? The constant rape-imagery in your books? The constant never-ending rapeyness? The rape rape rape? Seriously, Alan…what’s that all about?
ALAN: (uproarious laughter)
ALAN: Oh, I’m sorry Plok, but…FINALLY SOMEONE NOTICES, you know? Thank the great sock-puppet in the sky, I mean I was starting to wonder just how much I would have to ramp it all UP, before anyone said anything to me about it! I was starting to wake up in the morning thinking “God, how can I ever manage to put MORE rapey-rape stuff into the next script, that I put into the one before”, you know what I mean? I honestly thought I’d fallen into the slack of the wave as far as stimulation goes, I thought I was just born ten years too late to get a reaction, but…bless you for asking me that, really. I mean I did understand that Swamp Thing might not leave people thinking about it as one of my central concentrations, but I thought at least Watchmen might’ve tripped a few alarms…
ME: Hm, yes…yes, you…uh, what? You’re saying you never heard anything from anyone about rape in Watchmen?
ALAN: No, not especially. I mean, a bit here and there about Sally Jupiter, but that was as far as it went, really. Of course Sally isn’t the one who gets raped, so those were not quite…
ME: Sally doesn’t get raped?
ALAN: She gets sexually assaulted.
ME: Blake has his “only the once” line…
ALAN: Yes, well…there are one or two Biblical-grade “improbables” in Watchmen, certainly. “Nine Days Across Ninevah”, and all that. What the Comedian says is an excellent line, and I’d still defend it on that basis, but it’s true that it doesn’t quite add up. (laughs) Well, neither does the police strike, really! Why should the police care if Rorschach is out there dropping people down elevator shafts? That only either makes him a criminal, or an ally. In either case, they certainly don’t get to go on strike! Do they go on strike when a murder is committed? Do they go on strike when someone beats up a mobster? But that’s just part of the, what should I call it, the sheen of realism that concerned me in Watchmen: it was intended to form a sort of commentary on comic books themselves, so everything in it still operates in a world of comic-book logic. Dream-logic. More specifically, dream-history. Which really is inextricable from any kind of superhero story, so the challenge wasn’t to make it realistic but to make it seem realistic — to give it a gloss of apparent realism, in order to probe a little bit into the classic “superhero” vexations you find in all examples of the form, really. Even ours. It was never intended to be an actual novel, you know, graphic or otherwise…
ME: …If it isn’t Sally that gets raped, then who does?
ALAN: Well, Laurie does, doesn’t she?
ME: She does? When?
ALAN: (sighs) On Mars.
ME: On Mars?
ALAN: Yes, on Mars. I’ll concede it is sort of a metaphorical rape, but that is what Sally’s relationship with the Comedian is foreshadowing, after all. You knew that Watchmen went rather heavy on the old foreshadowing business?
ME: Well, yes…but…
ALAN: It didn’t begin that way, of course. The scene with the Minutemen’s photo-op was already planned out, but when all this reflexive pattern started emerging from Dave Gibbons’ backgrounds, and then I started elaborating on it, it began to swamp everything else in the story…so I didn’t even really try to tie it all up in a bow in the episode on Mars, it practically tied itself up, nevertheless it’s there as I wrote it. Jon as the substitute father-figure. Laurie being forced to remember, forced to see things as Jon sees them. It’s a recovered memory, but it comes about because of a rape-like trauma that she lives through at the time. Laurie is being choked, Laurie is being told not to struggle, she’s being told just to lie back and accept what’s happening to her. In the snowglobe Laurie drops, that’s her looking in at herself in the future, on Mars. The castle. The “slow time”. The breaking of a moment, like the breaking of a vessel, like…
ME: Oh my God.
ALAN: You really didn’t see it? I thought we’d get hate mail over that. The flashbulb when the Minutemen’s picture is taken, too, you know those old flashbulbs used to burn out every time you took a picture. Froze a scene, I should say…and then there’s the conservatory dome in Antarctica…
ME: So there are two rapes in Watchmen?
ALAN: If you accept the “metaphorical rape” business, I suppose there are a few, really. I mean…sexual assault, it’s a theme that runs through the whole thing. Well, we only drop a giant alien killer vagina on New York City by the end of it, don’t we? (chuckles) Adrian Veidt’s idea of absolute horror, because, well…
ME: He’s a crazy person.
ALAN: He’s death-obsessed. Hates life. Embraces violence as a necessity, spurns sex out of the same rationale. You see to me, the entire question of drama is what happens when a person’s sense of autonomy is invaded, when their path is crossed with violence. Which by definition is something they cannot control, something that’s essentially irruptive and accidental. I think that’s much more interesting, and much more honest, than calling what happens to your characters “fate” — call it violence, because that’s what it is. It’s random and it’s catastrophic and it’s devastating and it’s absolutely uncontrollable…”fate” is such a nice word, so inclusive, so anodyne. You can see how the belief in fate comes about as an overreaction in the other direction, from someone like Adrian Veidt, who responds to the illusory nature of control by trying to double down, to exert even more control…I mean, Watchmen is a nuclear fable, after all, so I thought it appropriate to include a character that represented, embodied really, all of Einstein’s famous moral cautions, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results”, “World War IV will be fought with rocks”, and so on…but Swamp Thing for me was no different in its basic thrust: not fate but violence, not some cosmic force before which one can only shrug and say “it’s God’s will” or somesuch, but an incursion into one’s life that is not “natural”, that may in some specific manifestation be irresistible but which is not in principle irresistible…and therefore an incursion which, you know, can be grappled with, fought against, changed. But it’s a test. An ultimate test, sometimes. In Lost Girls I tried to put this as simply and straightforwardly as I could, by showing war to be the ultimate form of rape, the ultimate perversion of the sexual impulse. Sex’s dark twin, if you like: actually I wanted to show that war beggars sexual perversion, empties out the very category, renders it irrelevant. It’s in Promethea as well, for that matter…
ME: But why the sex thing, though? I mean you go over it and OVER it…have you even READ Neonomicon, Alan?
ALAN: I’ve read it, and I think it’s very upsetting. I don’t know what is wrong with the people who made it, they probably need some sort of intervention.
ME: Well then?
ALAN: But you have to understand that it is not simply about sexual violence, but about all violence. It’s about invasion, it’s about threat, it’s about crisis. And rape, whether literal or metaphorical, is the most visceral and the most clear way to talk about violence’s nature, given the sort of cultural environment we operate in now. In these times we are so densensitized to plain old bone-breaking violence, it’s terribly frightening. Murderers can seem like heroes, if the story contextualizes them that way. People cheer it in the theatres, and not just the stuff that’s deliberately cartoonish and a device and humourous and all that, but the really bad stuff: they cheer that too. Because the idea that the victims of violence are always more important than those who inflict it gets lost so easily, it becomes a convention that the victim of violence is merely, in that moronic Hollywood phrase, an “inciting incident” in a story, and that the real opera is about choosing which monster with a gun to back in the denouement. And there’s no compassion. There’s no horror. There’s no ability to reflect on anyone other than the nominal “hero” and the nominal “villain”. There’s no sadness. It’s all repulsively distorted, and the violent nature of violence gets whitewashed and domesticated, which is…I mean, I come from a rough sort of a place, I know about violence, and the truth is that in the real world you can never, ever, ever, get used to it. It is a crippling sort of thing to see, it is a crippling sort of thing to do. And its potential is ever-present. It is there surging under the skin of the world, like magma, at every instant. It is absolutely horrible, it is extremely scary, it is demonic emotional weather that we seem helpless in the face of. Except, we are not actually helpless; we can operate on it, we can still choose things when we are confronted with it, it is not “fate”, and we can resist it or we can find a way to ameliorate its effects, or we can assert ourselves when confronted with it, and this is what so much of dramatic storytelling is all about, in my view. Not the struggle with fate, which is the struggle to accept. But the struggle with consequence and assault, the struggle to not accept, but to find something violence can’t touch and can’t sully…to find a reaction that isn’t just “I got hurt so I will cause hurt, world without end.” To find that very last inch, if you like, within which we are free…you see I have been working on it for a very long time, and I actually felt a bit guilty repeating my own stuff! Laurie is raped by Jon in the same way that Evey is raped by V., only I thought…well, what Evey does with it is very vital, perhaps more vital than what Laurie does, but also Evey’s response, you could say it’s very conditioned by V., and I wanted to answer that back, I wanted Laurie to be freer than Evey, Evey is really a cipher who changes into a person so I wanted Laurie to be a person who resists being changed into a cipher. Who resists becoming a superhero, at the last extremity. But it’s all a very tricky business. I never quite escape reacting to the culture around me, you know? And the culture has suffered a violent incursion as well. For example, I really do think our modern dramatic art is, shall I say, appropriately obsessed with the matter of violence and invasion…but unfortunately in that dramatic art there are so many excuses made, so many phony recontextualizations that are supposed to numb us, make us okay with the fact of violence and personal invasion, that while the obsession is probably appropriate the treatment of it becomes quite desultory. The violence is purely symbolic, always about something else. Never about what’s actually happened. And so it came to me very forcefully when I was doing Swamp Thing that I did not want to be the part of the machine that manufactures those sorts of equations, and equivocations, so I suppose I looked for a way to show it as it was. To talk about it, just as everyone else was talking about it, only perhaps a bit more truthfully. But people still didn’t feel it, unless the violence actually took on an actually violating quality. And that’s what I’ve ended up being primarily concerned with throughout my career, I’ve picked up the thread that lay perhaps accidentally in my early work, and I’ve picked it up deliberately: that, if you like, is the overriding theme of my body of work, now. How do we reclaim our humanity from these terrible episodes, these terrible irruptions of magma? How do we avoid capitulating to the idea of Fate, and so washing our hands of the twin possibilities of responsibility, and healing? Thus to escape being objectified by the generally-symbolic nature of a specifically-horrible violent act…
ME: Hunh, okay…right, no. I get it. “The Anatomy Lesson”, that itself is a “metaphorical rape”, isn’t it?
ALAN: That was my first one, though at the time I didn’t know it. Oh dear, that sounds like something a serial killer would say…
ME: What about ABC, though? Tom Strong is certainly an, I want to say, overwhelmingly positive, old-school take on the adventure story…
ALAN: Is it? But the threats are constant. And they’re very, very dire. The meaning of everything teeters on a knife-edge in every conflict. Tom, for example, may be a benevolent fascist…
ME: …OH MY GOD, ALAN, IS TOM A BENEVOLENT FASCIST?!?
ALAN: No, don’t worry. He isn’t. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? He could be one. Oh, he definitely could be. All the pieces are in sufficiently correct order, that it could be just a matter of perspective. But he isn’t, so…I mean the whole point of Tom Strong was to ask, “why isn’t he one?”, and I hope that by the end of ABC it’s a question I answered. But you were definitely supposed to be thinking of that. Old pulp stuff, old sci-fi stuff, it’s big on closet fascism, is it not? (laughs) This genre I made my name in, the adventure-story comic-book, it’s the most morally-hesistant literary genre there ever was, I think. While of course simultaneously being the most morally-unreflective. But either way it is, if I can put it this way, importantly moral. Everything is sublimated, everything is deliberately avoided, the whole thing is one big fugue-state half the time, but that’s what makes it such interesting clay to work with. It’s like noir without the contrast: it resists the negative. It resists it and resists it, but it’s there. It resists it and resists it, but it will come out. There is always magma rolling under the skin of the world.
ME: And yet, speaking of fate…can we talk about From Hell for a minute?
ALAN: I’d love to.
ME: It’s a bit odd, because I always compare you to Quentin Tarantino in this way…
ALAN: (laughter) Oh my goodness. How so?
ME: Well, I saw Pulp Fiction before I saw Reservoir Dogs.
ME: Have you seen either of those?
ALAN: To be honest, no.
ME: Okay, so Quentin Tarantino, you may know, is like a sinkhole of influence, his movies are all about influence. He has these hit-men talking about what regular pop-culture-obsessed slackers talk about…
ALAN: Foot massage?
ME: You have seen it!
ALAN: My daughter liked it quite a lot when it came out.
ME: Anyway, the thing is…when Reservoir Dogs came on the scene, that was the first time you had gangsters in a movie making pop-culture references, obeying the rules of how pop-culture-aware people associate with one another…it was the ridiculous and the sublime, it was gangsters who were so banal they weren’t even really evil, couldn’t grasp “evil” as a category, never did a bad thing where they didn’t feel the camera was recording them? All we saw was their cool version, if that makes any sense…only then that sort of breaks down…but anyway after Reservoir Dogs was such a success, Pulp Fiction amped the thing up, was even more that way, more pop-culture-y. And everyone told me I had to see it, so I saw it. But then when I finally saw Reservoir Dogs a couple of months later, I felt like the shock of that banality, gangsters doing a singalong of the Brady Bunch theme song or whatever…without the shock of never having seen that before, I thought Reservoir Dogs was kind of soulless, and I never got from it what people who’d seen it in the theatre got. So…
ME: …So I kind of felt the same way reading From Hell? I’d already read Watchmen, I’d already read Peter Ackroyd…and so I felt like Gull’s temporal-architectural explication was a bit…um, “after-the-fact”, maybe? But that isn’t what I wanted to ask…
ALAN: It isn’t?
ME: I wanted to ask about, you’re talking about how you dislike “fate”, but in Watchmen and From Hell both you go a bit whole-hog on supersymmetry, inevitability…don’t you? Huge polygonal edifices of string-pulling Fate, people without choice living inside a crystal diagram…Watchmen has a slight accent of freedom, but in From Hell there’s really nothing, is there?
ALAN: And that’s your question?
ME: It is.
ALAN: Well, I’m surprised you didn’t bring V. into it…the burning buildings, the dropping of acid in the Waste Land…so yes, actually, I have an answer to that. The question of inescapable pattern, right? Except it isn’t inescapable, and that’s the whole point. If one is obsessed with the past, then one is by definition obsessed with what’s already happened — and you can find endless postmodern implications, endless pattern-proliferations, in that dissectable body. That’s detective work, finding the pattern in the past. And a supreme detective might even think, if he were not sufficiently humble, that the particle-tracks of the past could be drawn-out to incorporate the future, just get drawn-out and drawn-out forever. But that isn’t what happens in From Hell, for instance. Gull has an antagonist, which is to say the patterned crystal-solid notion of Time I present has its antagonist, and from within the story at that. William Blake knows it, if you look carefully: he doesn’t watch the time-traveller passively move through, but he responds on the instant, and acts positively. People who are conscious of their freedom can always respond. People who experience real feeling can always resist implacable forces. You’ll forgive me for saying so, but this is what magic’s about, really: there is no such thing as control. Things are not controlled. Things cannot be controlled. So it’s actually a psychosis to think everything is laid-down and mapped-out and inevitable, without any freedom of the individual in it…well, and isn’t Gull psychotic? He sees the magical world, but from the wrong way ’round, and if you look close: he can’t function, and can’t succeed. He is most definitely in there, and he causes some damage, but in the end he will not be what he thinks he will.
Er…you’ve read the League books, right?
ME: Yep. And Kevin O’Neill, WOW. It just gets more gorgeous every time. Such facility!
ALAN: My scripts are bone-dry at this point. Just schematics. Kevin does it all. But there’s a constant reprise of the freedom vs. violence theme that I still manage to get in there somehow. If you like, it’s my attempt to make a more mature survey of the terrain I’ve already covered, hopefully a slightly more enlightened one if I’m not fooling myself. Because everything is at risk, all the time, for my hero — dreadfully at risk.
ALAN: Mina, yes. Her identity is constantly and directly challenged, and it never ends, not because the resolution of these typical tensions is constantly deferred but because resolutions are coming all the time, advancing on her every minute. And, you know, at this point she’s immortal, so they’re just going to keep coming. And how can she continue to fend them off? Oh, well, I really have to apologize now; there’s my tea. I’m sorry, this isn’t really what you wanted to talk about, is it?
ME: I had thought maybe we’d talk about some other things, yes…but hey, thanks for taking the time, anyway! I’m the one who should be sorry, I completely disregarded the questions I had prepared, you even had to talk about Watchmen for heaven’s sake…
ALAN: No, no, it’s all right. To be honest, it’s an unexpected pleasure to clarify all that, a bit. I was beginning to feel slightly inaudible, as though people were saying “oh that Alan, he’s formally-inventive but he has no heart”…and to be honest, I really don’t think I’m all that inventive. I thought what people liked me for all this time was my heart!
ME: Ha, well…maybe next time we can talk about Big Numbers, and straighten that out too!