January 2009

Paul Morton

features

An Interview with Tim Fish

Tim Fish earned a significant cult following with his gay romance comic book Cavalcade of Boys that he began writing in 2000 and collected in a massive paperback volume in 2006. Its run coincided with that better-known piece of gay Americana, the hateful Showtime series Queer as Folk. Cavalcade of Boys is set far from the mythical gayopolis of Queer as Folk’s Pittsburgh in a Southern California where bored 20-somethings skip out on blind Internet hook-ups and closeted army twinks cruelly abuse their privileged status in the gay scene. It’s a funny, melancholic book, neither happy nor grim.  

Fish has written two other graphic novels, Strugglers, a coming-of-age tale set in St. Louis, and Love is the Reason, which was published this last month. A spinoff of Cavalcade of Boys, Love is the Reason is a more mature, slower-paced study of 30-somethings and their search for relationships in a world that allows them to marry and where AIDS and homophobia don’t exist as overriding concerns.

Fish is 38. He grew up in a small town in New Hampshire without a mountain or a highway running through it. He went to the University of New Hampshire and since then has worked day jobs in press relations for universities, first for Washington University in St. Louis, then for San Diego State University, and now at MIT. He spends much of his evenings and about one day each weekend writing and drawing. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. At the moment his work is serialized in Boston’s LGBT newspaper Bay Windows as well as in the Brazilian gay publication DOM. I spoke to him on the phone at his office at MIT on December 18.

You seem to have a certain degree of sympathy for all your characters. I don’t know if that’s by design.

Give me an example.

Even Gordon, the sugar daddy, in most gay fiction would be stock comic relief. But you seem to make some effort to give him something of a past and to give him some real pain. His great fall is not his death from natural causes. And it’s not when he loses his lovers. It’s when he loses his friends. 

I don’t think I treated him with sympathy at all because he has some real nasty moments. But what I tried to do was present him as a person [and I] respect that people have always some sort of story. And I tried to imagine what might that story be. If that’s sympathy then that’s entirely okay.

The whole purpose as I was doing the comic book series was that you meet people in your life: sometimes it’s a brief interaction with a person, sometimes it’s a longer interaction, sometimes they’re around forever, sometimes they leave from your life, sometimes you leave them. And there’s always more to someone that you may never learn. And if you take someone at pure face value off of a five-minute interaction or a one-night interaction or a weekend interaction you don’t really know what’s going on behind them. So that was deliberate when I was doing the comic book series. Sometimes you know someone’s back story, sometimes it takes awhile to learn it. And I think some people thought as they were reading the comic book series that I was not sympathetic and that I was not respectful and I was negative and it was really only when things were compiled in book form that people could see some progression.

How similar was Tighe’s coming out story in Strugglers to your own?

I think in the original outline it was fairly verbatim. And what you see in the book I would say is more inspired by my own story and certainly the way it’s presented is inspired by my own coming out. When I came out it was such a big deal for me and it was something I was worried about and obsessing about…

But no one else cared.

Exactly. Not that they didn’t care but they had their lives too. And that’s what I wanted to present here. This was a really big deal to one person, but everyone has their own problems that are really important to themselves. And I got really good feedback on that. That was mirrored by my own experiences.

Because you are so independent in the way you produce your work, do your readers, your cult following of readers, serve as your de facto editors?

God, I don’t know who my editors would be.

Do you understand the question?

Yeah. Who’s giving me feedback and direction and whatnot? I would say it’s been a blessing and a curse doing things the way I have been doing them because there are certainly moments when I would have liked an editor and there are certainly moments where I was really glad I didn’t have an editor.

Why did you prefer not to have an editor?

Because you could do whatever you want without having someone say you can’t do it that way. When I’ve pitched work, or pitched ideas to editors or publishers it comes down to this one person’s gut instinct as to what will be better or what will sell. And I’ve been told by publishers that my stuff wouldn’t sell any copies. And that’s really not true. I sell a really good share. So, sometimes you can lose the respect for these people who are basically so flip about their responses. Sometimes you’re like, “I know what I’m saying will be well-received or will be heard.” It can be scary. It can be a long time until you get your feedback. 

The most common feedback I get on Cavalcade of Boys is “Oh, it sounds like we know all the same people.” You need to wait and see that over time when you use your fan base as your editor. So it took me a long time to realize, “Okay, this really does resonate with people.” And I don’t think necessarily a single editor could tell you that either. A single editor can tell you, “You know, this needs further development.” 

When I worked with an editor at Marvel on the one gig I had with them I felt like I was getting frustrating feedback. I wanted some general direction that I wasn’t getting. And then I was getting super-specific direction like, “You can’t put tattoos on that character.” I was like, “Well that’s not helpful. Where were you when I wanted to develop the story?” So I don’t know if I ever had a solid experience with an editor per se. I would certainly look forward to it. Certainly with the situation with Marvel I was really responsive to the editor and I sought a lot of advice and [I should say] he did give good advice too.

The characters in Cavalcade of Boys are very good-looking. It takes place in Southern California. Does everyone look like that there or is that just an idealized comic-book style?

A little bit of both. What I was really used to seeing in the limited gay comics I saw was a lot of erotic comics, a lot of really jacked-up muscle guys, or bears. [I thought,] “This was not who my friends are. This is not who I meet out and about.”

Certainly, my particular art style is not terribly realistic, but I don’t think I go for a true idealization, perfect bodies or perfect faces. But I would say I was trying to present guys who were slightly more average than the comics I had seen. And as soon as I did a lot of the criticism was, “Oh, these are all skinny twinks.” Well that really wasn’t what I was specifically going for. If every gay comic out there has skinny twinks, I never saw any. I still don’t necessarily see any. A lot of the comics I see out there are even more idealized than mine. If you look at the art of Joe Phillips, his waists are as big as the average person’s wrists. And [he draws] huge arms. A lot of my characters are in shape physically and that’s probably more true of who I was seeing in San Diego when I lived there. 

Gordon is particularly unattractive physically, but he’s really the only unattractive character in your book. The proportions of good-looking to not-so-good-looking are probably reversed in the real world.

There was an element out there [in Southern California] of the older guy looking for significantly younger guys. That’s what that was a bit representing. I agree that he does look different from everyone else there. He was a surprising character for me. I never intended to use him beyond one little snippet. But people responded to him. There are so many people who said, “I know someone like that.” It wasn’t until after the series ended that people started telling me that they were responding to him. By the end of the series I was just trying to go for something non-stereotypical in terms of a comic-book death and a gay death [when Gordon dies of natural causes]. And a lot of people were really moved by the fact that it was him [of all the characters] who died. A lot of people said, “Oh, I know someone like that in my life.” It was really surprising for me to hear that.

You were taking a character that you saw as unlovable and people actually grew to love him.

Or at least felt connected to in a positive way. I thought I was creating someone who is unlovable in terms of his behavior. I don’t mean the chasing of younger guys, but his temper and the nasty side of him.

Your character Tommy whores himself first to Gordon and then eventually becomes an all-out prostitute. As he enters a terrible spiral, you eventually give him an interior monologue where he comes to a conclusion that he doesn’t have to be a prostitute anymore. Did that come from someone you knew or from something you read and you were commenting upon?

The whole premise was based on someone I knew very peripherally. His whole back story was basically invented. The person I’m talking about was someone [who was] ingratiating himself to someone I knew and ended up at a moment in his life where he really needed to be taken care of. That’s the only nugget of truth in that character. I have so much respect for people who have just turned their lives around, who have been in a negative spot and who have overcome it. 

I had established early on that [Tommy] was this person who needs to be self-sufficient and doesn’t have the means to be self-sufficient. I certainly have known people like that as well. I am certainly fortunate enough in my life to have a family that was understanding and [good] personal circumstances. After I finished college I had a job. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have any real means especially if they are kicked out of the house or can’t be themselves at home without the fear of being kicked out. I thought, “What would happen to a person like this? What would they have to do in order to survive? It can’t go on forever. We’ve all seen things that end badly. What if it doesn’t end badly? At some point something doesn’t end badly.” That’s what I wanted to do with him. 
 
Tighe has an interesting reticence about him. The older he gets the wryer he becomes. I don’t know if you sense that in your own self?

I would say he’s probably moved more toward where I’ve been all along. When he’s at his most dour he’s nowhere where I was at. He’s more dour. As he’s become more relaxed he’s mirrored my own comfort with life and my own general attitude about things across the board. For example, working on comics I’ve really come to a point where I’m just content to do my own thing. And people keep on talking about, “Oh, you should do more self-promotion, pitch more projects to this person or that person.” And when I was actually doing all those things it was very frustrating, [I was] getting myself all wound up the more I tried as I was following really good advice from comics professionals. I don’t think I was over-trying. The standard pitch process is long and it’s drawn out and you talk to an editor and it could go on for months. And that was happening time and time again.

And I decided, “Everything that was good that has happened to me in comics has happened when I’m just good and I do my own thing and people find me.” Marvel is the one who approached me. A TV producer approached me and I was up for a TV deal for a while, though that fell through. The newspaper in Boston approached me. The foreign publishers approached me.  
 
There’s a common criticism of gay stories that you never have a sense of gay characters having a nine-to-five job that they care about or that follows them home. Have you thought about doing a book that de-centered gay life away from sex and dating?

I started out writing about relationships. The books revolved around the relationships. I suppose it could be seen that these men revolve around dating and relationships. A lot of people go to work and a lot of people have boring jobs. Why would you want to read about it? One thing that always killed me was here’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show where we spend a certain amount of time in the office and a certain amount of time at home and she’s friends with all her neighbors and she’s friends with all her co-workers. Is this real? It didn’t feel real to me. Certainly you might know your neighbors but you’re not friends with all of them. 

Well the show does take place in Minneapolis which is the friendliest city on earth.

(laughs) Yeah, well all the sitcoms are like that.

[In Love is the Reason] Michael is running his business and that seeps into his life a lot more in his story than in my other stories. Chase is bringing his money-obsession into things now and again, which was a real trigger when he wasn’t obsessed with those things, with money and promotions, but with Terry. I did try to go down that path a little bit in Love is the Reason.

I would say I’ve grown a lot as a writer since [doing Cavalcade.] How would I do Cavalcade again if I was to do it again? I have a graphic novel I’m working on about a straight couple raising a baby where jobs play a bigger role. The romance, the relationship angle, not so much. It’s more about them struggling to maintain their own identities in the face of marriage and a baby. During my time in St. Louis, so many people were in bands. They had to balance so many things. And at some point they have to face [up to the question], are they going to give it up or are they not going to give it up? And this book that’s about a third finished is about people trying to maintain some of that individuality while doing everything.