July 2004

Michael Farrelly

features

An Interview with Larry Young

Larry Young writes comics about astronauts. Larry Young publishes high quality graphic novels and comic books. Larry Young is an independent publisher who has spread, with nigh-evangelical zeal and straight-from-the-hip talk, the facts of self-publishing. His company (AIT/PLANETLAR) has published work not only Young himself but also Brian Wood, Warren Ellis and Joe Casey. Young has also authored a column for Comic Book Resources and is currently overseeing a talent competition for aspiring artists called “Proof of Concept." He’s also an expert on scotch, fonts and space.

It sounds like a cliché way to start, but in your opinion, what’s the state of the comics industry today? In addition, how separate is the industry from the art form for you?

Comics are fine; the "industry" and the "art form" aren't separate, since comics are a commercial art. Too many publishers think the job's over when the book is printed and distributed, but that's only half the gig. The game isn't over when you suit up and trot out onto the field; you gotta play the game and keep score, too. And after you produce a comic book, you gotta get out there and make sure people know about it. Write, draw, print, sell. Lather, rinse, repeat, you know? Even the shampoo companies don't tell you when you should stop, and you shouldn't stop when you're doing comics, either.

You took a lot of heat from some of the darker parts of the Internet for publishing a serialized comic after beating the drum for original graphic novels. With DEMO half over and a success with critics and readers alike, do you feel vindicated? And more broadly, do you feel the “experiment” of DEMO has worked?

Honestly, I don't look at publishing like that, whether I'm in the right with our experiments and need to be vindicated or have made a misstep and need to do penance. It's just not like that. We do our best work on the kinds of comics that we want to read. Sure, we're human beings and it's certainly much nicer to have folks respond positively to us stretching the envelope, but if people don't get it, they don't get it, and that's cool, too. I'm just glad that people seem to be getting DEMO, because I sure think it adds to the scene.

Demo is packed with extras (script excerpts, sketches, previews and no advertisements) where did the idea for this originate?

I think that one was [Brian Wood], as an obvious development after seeing how well his "DVD-commentary track for Channel Zero" book Public Domain sells for us. Just a natural extension of showing the behind-the-scenes stuff in the work itself instead of putting it all in another book and make people pay for DEMO stuff twice.

Another question about the Internet: you’ve got a number of people riled up because of your strong opinions on the comics industry and your willingness to share those opinions on the Internet. Care to speculate where the vitriol comes from? And how do you deal with the, somewhat self-adopted, title “Comic’s Great Satan?”

I don't much worry about that sort of thing. I guess anyone who has a deeply-held opinion on anything is going to generate polarizing feelings one way or the other from the people who are listening.

Your guide to self-publishing “True Facts” spelled out in black and white how to create and sell your own comics. Randomly speculating here, but why do you think so many comic artists and writers are still trying to crack into Marvel and DC when self-publishing guides like yours spell it out clearly?

People don't want to hear that the "secret to success" is hard work. It's easier to believe that you can write the best Omega: The Unknown story ever told than it is to labor over your own work and spend lonely hours with only your own belief in your abilities to fuel you. If Joey da Q (Joe Quesada, Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief) anoints you with a four-issue Ant-Man miniseries contract, that's outside validation. Someone besides you thinks you can write or draw, by definition.

Me, on the other hand, I don't think it's cocky or arrogant to think, every time I sit down in front of the computer, that I am producing the Best Comic Ever Made By Human Hands. All Other Comics Pale Before My Brilliance. Because if any comic book creators are NOT thinking that; they're just killing trees.

So, yeah, I can spell it out, tell people exactly how to make money in independent comics, and no one will do it because they just want to keep getting rejection letters from the Epic office, I guess. Because if they really want to do comics, they can do comics. Nobody's stopping them.

Speaking of the “big two” and speculation, how do you think Marvel and DC’s moves to become clearing houses of movie ideas will affect smaller publishers? Does a rising tide really raise all boats, or is that tired metaphor just that, tired?

You mean for other-media deals? All I can tell you is that we sure had a big surge of interest in all our comics when Spider-Man made so much money.

The diversity of books published by AIT/Planetlar is striking. From the vivid horrors of war present in “White Death” to the all ages book Electric Girl to Brian Wood’s political work in Channel Zero and Jennie One, you have a number of different audiences buying your work. In an age when branding defines a publisher/product does this kind of variety make branding your books harder? And what’s one genre you would like to explore?

Naw, it makes it easier. Let me ask you: do you, as a consumer of entertainment, think "I would like to see a superhero adaptation right now?" or do you think, "I wonder what's on HBO tonight?" or "I think I'd like to see a Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer film; guess I'll put Armageddon in the DVD"? If you think the first, of course you're gonna be limited to DC and Marvel's output. If you think the second, you can get the wide variety of quality comics and graphic novels that AiT/Planet Lar provides, and if you think the third thing, you can follow our creators like Brian Wood or Warren Ellis or Kieron Dwyer or Becky Cloonan or whoever. We've been pretty successful in producing a wide variety of quality work in just five short years. You wouldn't believe how many people who were sick of me going on and on about each individual issue of Live from the Moon in 1999 are the biggest proponents of our line in 2004.

As far as genres to explore, what have we missed? The great thing about AiT/Planet Lar is that between me and my talented friends, if we want to do a certain sort of comic, we can. Nobody's stopping us.

It may sound like picking your favorite baby, but of your own writing what’s your favorite work to date and why? Also, what’s the book you’ve published but wish you’d thought of yourself?

All the stuff I've done is equally the Best Comic Ever Made By Human Hands; All Other Comics Pale Before My Brilliance. I can't pick my favorite work. I can pick my favorite page, though: page five of Astronauts in Trouble: Space 1959 #1. Mostly because I had no idea how Charlie was going to draw it. The script said something like: "We need a dead guy slumped in front of a door. He's been shot three times, and there're three bullet holes in the mirror on the door behind him. There's cops, a detective, a crime scene photographer, and our news crew. Good luck with that one." I don't remember exactly that that's what I asked from Charlie, but I do very much remember writing "Good luck with that one" because I just had no idea how he was going to stage it. And it really is an important splash page as it sets the tone for the issue and for the rest of the story, honestly. Shit happens and other people see it. People act as they see best and sometimes destiny happens... but I had no idea how to ask Charlie for what I needed, and he drew up a gorgeous page, absolutely stunning, that had all I asked for and was beautifully composed and was dramatic and still furthered the story. I look at that page every day in my office and it reminds me of how powerful comics are and how cool they can be when an artist and a writer synch up to tell a rippin' good yarn. Charlie Adlard is a genius.

Your recent graphic novel Planet of the Capes was a savage look at superheroes. What inspired you to create a book with the tag line “Nobody learns anything, everybody dies”?

It seemed like there was a big push to "deconstruct" superheroes and do "decompressed" storylines and whatnot, and I thought it'd be very instructive to those paying attention to poke at superhero comics and the comic book industry using superheroes to further the allegory. Then I thought, dang, why not go all out and use the physical form of the book to comment on the color superhero/black-and-white schism in the industry while having the story itself be "compressed" like the old FF stories Stan and Jack did. Just throw the pie and not wait for it to hit before you throw the next one, yeah?

As to "what inspired me," I'd have to answer that at the core of it, at forty years old, I just think the conventions of superheroes are ridiculous, so I played up that ridiculousness. The strange figure from another planet is an asshole, the grim avenger of the night is worried about his refrigerator warranty, their main foe is a half-monkey, half-machine alien, I mean, I could go on. And I did... and Brandon McKinney just turned in some frankly amazing work. Really captured the Golden Age/Silver Age/Modern Age tone I wanted to romp through. I really have a fondness for that one. Turned out just how I imagined.

You’ve proudly proclaimed your love of the big budget spectacle of films like Armageddon and its influence is clear in your work. How do you bring wide-screen thrills to a page of panels?

When I write comics, I'm just transcribing the movie I already see in my head. Comics and motion pictures are just words and pictures, juxtaposed, as far as I'm concerned. You get to do fun little things like the mini-cliffhanger you get in the lower right hand part of the right hand page in a reader's mind when he has to pause to physically turn the page... but I really do see comics as mini-movies. I'm not sure I can explain the process, because it's a very odd thing, even to me. When Mimi reminds me of some deadline, more often than not I'll say, "They aren't talking to me yet." Just a little shorthand from me to her that while I may have the plot all ready, I just don't "hear" the characters speaking yet. Planet of the Capes is a good example of this... I thought about that comic for a year or so, what sort of things I wanted to address and things I wanted to underscore and different aspects of the industry I wanted to comment on, and no actual "writing" was done. And then I wrote 50 pages in five hours: a full page of script every six minutes. Believe me, that doesn't usually happen. But by then they were talking to me, and it was more like I was just transcribing the voices in my head.

Your book The Making of Astronauts in Trouble demystified the comic-writing process to a great extent. Several years later, how does your writing process work now? How do you find your publishing work affecting your writing?

Astronauts in Trouble started out as much more of an exercise for me, trying to muddle through the process of comic book script writing. So I mapped the whole thing out, like a campaign: marketing taglines, proposals, character sketches, plot outlines, and finally script writing. I find now I can go straight to the scriptwriting now because I have a much better facility for the early parts of the process now than I did then. I might do a three paragraph plot outline for each act if I'm writing a graphic novel, but I just sit down and boot up the computer to write a Proof of Concept script.

And the publishing is really more administrative work and creative development than creative writing, so I run the empire six days a week and write creatively on Thursday. Don't even answer the office phone, if I can help it.

With your Proof of Concept experiment you’re giving artist a chance to draw one of your scripts. What moved you to do this? How has the response been for this project?

Well, I had a bunch of ideas for comics that I just didn't have time to write up, and coupled with that our company had a big surge of attention with major entertainment media exposure, so a bunch of folks who hadn't read True Facts were asking me how to break into comics. I figured I could kill two birds with one stone by writing up the first twelve pages of each graphic novel and use them as sample scripts for those who wanted to break in.

The response has been wildly more positive than I had anticipated. For every chowderhead with keyboard courage on the comic book discussion boards who accuse me of trying to exploit people, there are ten artists who understand that it's a great way to get exposure for their work. So it's easy to dismiss a jerk heckling from the safety of the apartment his parents are paying for when people with real talent are working so hard on my scripts.

From the quality of the paper to the great lettering and even the tone of the ink itself, there’s real high-quality sheen to your publications, as if one is getting a book make to last. How do you think this kind of attention to detail has helped sell your books?

Well, I sure hope it helps. As a comics fan, I always respond better to a well-made book as an art object itself as well as something to just be read, too. It's an added-value thing.

What are you reading these days in comics non-graphic literature?

I love the Variety comics blog and the Entertainment Weekly comics coverage. Publisher's Weekly's reviews and Wizard and The Comics Journal; honestly, I'll read anything, just to see where everyone's at, because I am nothing if not the world's biggest comics fan.

You’re a man who knows his way around a bar. In your estimation, what’s the best beer and best liquor for making comics?

Ha! I love this kind of question. I like a good California Chardonnay for press releases; something about the pear/nut taste combination just makes for good promotional copy. Coronas with lime for Act Is, when the set-up and promise of adventure fuels the story but you still have two more Acts to get through; Act IIs get an expensive single malt Scotch, like an old Springbank Campletown or maybe a utilitarian portwood Glenmorangie, or a Highland Park or maybe even a decent Lagavulin if I want to taste the homeland. Act II is the dark part of the story, where shit happens and stakes get raised, and you need to be fortified for that sort of thing. Act III to the resolution I'll get a Red Stripe or a local Hefeweissen; there's a restaurant down the way from the AiT/Planet Lar World Headquarters that microbrews some good stuff and I may take a walk down the beach to stock up on the West End Wheat. Depending on what sort of writing I'm doing, I might go old-skool and hit the Jack Daniels and Sierra Nevada. The whole of "Hemogoblin" was written with Mr. Daniels shining the flashlight into the dark corners for me.