December 2011

Martyn Pedler

features

An Interview with Brandon Graham

A few months ago, Brandon Graham Twittered a link to download pirated copies of his comic King City. It was a move that he says "didn't make him any friends in publishing," but as it had been unavailable and out of print so long he thought he had nothing to lose.

That's how I came to read King City, andI found that it's equally amazing and impossible to describe. Its hero, Joe, is a "cat master" trained in the use of an adorable cat as a deadly weapon. His best friend is in love with an aquatic alien. His ex-girlfriend is dating a veteran of the chainsaw-fueled Korean Xombie war. There's kung fu action, pop music angst, and incredible visual wit.

The best thing is how Graham's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-and-the-kitchen-sink's-kitchen-sink approach gives the city its own popular culture. (Echhhh Zu the Baby Eater of Shadowtown, moustache art and the Handlebar Riots of '63, an addictive drug that eventually turns you into more of itself.) The density of story and art makes you feel like could magnify any inch of the page and find another half-dozen narratives taking place. As the opening narration says: "I go under the streets, under train tunnels, sub-basements and sub-sub-basements. I go deep."

It's just been announced that there'll finally be a full King City collection arriving from Image in February 2012, and that Graham is also writing an impending superhero title for them called Prophet. Over the phone, I told him that King City is my favorite fictional metropolis since Steve Aylett's Beerlight. He immediately asked me how to spell it.

Graham: I'm always looking for new stuff to read. I kind of skipped books until I was in my twenties. I was really comic-centric, and then I realised that maybe the best literature that human beings have ever made isn't necessarily in comic books, and I should check out some other stuff.

I think there's a purity to finding something you love and just sticking with it.

It was very grounding. I used to work in a bar and I'd get into these conversations about literature. I managed to fake so many of them about Hemingway or whatever because I'd read comic book adaptations. I've read at least four or five Moby Dick adaptations. There's a Will Eisner version, and I think they did it in Bone... 

King City is funny, playful, sometimes defiantly silly, but its visual puns and puzzles don't throw you out of a comic like they would in a movie or in prose. Do you think that's true?

Yeah, it's an amazing trick. You can do a lot of "quiet loud" things if that makes any sense. You can do these completely ridiculous things but there's a subtlety to them.

King City seems like it was a place first and a story second. What was its genesis?

I was living in New York, and I was really frustrated with trying to break into comics. I was doing adult comics for a while -- which my mother was very proud of -- and desperately going into DC Comics every week. I was really frustrated so I decided just to do something for myself. Just do King City and draw exactly what I felt like drawing. The character came first, but it was also me trying to write about what I was feeling in the city. I was trying to put the emotional content of my life into this totally ridiculous situation and just have fun. I didn't expect it to get printed. I'd done forty pages before anyone saw it and that was by accident. A friend of mine, Becky Cloonan, was doing a book for TokyoPop and hooked me up with the editor.

So many artists are terrible at putting themselves out there, but you were just showing up at DC Comics and demanding they look at your work? That must've been soul-destroying.

[Laughs] It gave me a nice chip on my shoulder. I was in New York; I'm from Seattle, and I wasn't really used to dealing with the comics scene. But New York was where Jack Kirby lived! Paul Pope was drawing comics about it and I remember going to some of the restaurants he'd put in Heavy Liquid and being like, "Oh my god, this is the place!"

I filled an entire collection with things I was drawing essentially as pitches to DC -- a book called Escalator. There was an editor there who believed in my work and was trying really hard, but nothing of mine would go through. Eventually they said that if I had a name in comics they could push my stuff, but since I didn't it didn't matter what I threw at them. Only recently have I learned that there are places and people in comics I can feel a kinship with. Earlier on I ended up falling much more into the graffiti scene because I wanted to be an artist, but I didn't really relate to any of the comic artists I was meeting.

Does street art change your relationship to the city?

Definitely. I was always really surprised at how many cartoonists ignore it, because it has a lot of the same roots as comic books. It's everywhere, and it's such a cool kind of secret society of bored teenagers...

Can you see the street art influences clearly when you look at King City?

I think it's probably more apparent in the earlier stuff. I haven't done it for a long time. These days I live in Canada, and I don't have much interest in being deported. Part of it then was just that I was doing it as an outlet. You mentioned before about artists getting their work out there? I had this urge to show my work to people and graffiti was a good way to do it. It was really fun to do comic books and wheatpaste them around town, or do a big drawing in an alley and walk by it later. Now I'm able to do comics and get my work out in a much larger way, so it's almost the same feeling.

Is there a feedback mechanism when you put up something in the city? Do you see or hear any reactions to it?

Oh, yeah. I had a great rivalry for a long time with one of the guys who'd deliver newspapers in Seattle. In the front the boxes that you'd buy newspapers from there were these little cardboard ads, blank white on the backside. So I'd take them out, draw pictures on them, and put them back it. When I first started doing graffiti I was really timid about it and this was a way where I could spend time doing artwork I was happier with. I didn't have to sit there and draw the picture with the risk of getting caught. The newspaper deliveryman didn't like this at all, and he started putting Xs on them to stop me from doing it, so I'd try to turn the Xs into drawings. I remember he wrote "Fuck off Brandon" on them. I used my real name because I couldn't think of a cool graffiti name.

You'd be a terrible supervillain.

I know. I had this idea that we had to be secret about all this stuff, and I met this graffiti writer who was older than me and said the only reason we're not all in jail is that the cops don't really care. It's just dumb teenagers, running around, with really obvious clattering spray paint cans. There are no secrets.

If you can see the influence of street art in King City. What about the influence of your time spent doing adult comics?

I feel like that's stuff I'm just now getting out of my system, too, in the same way as graffiti. Porn comics were the only job in comics I could get in New York. It was funny; it was this publisher who translated a lot of European books, Moebius and Manara, all this stuff that I had a lot of respect for. I showed up there thinking it was time to do all my serious artwork. They said: "We want you to do a book about lesbian schoolgirls."

The cool thing was that I had complete and total freedom, so long as it had sex scenes in it. I always say it was like my art school. And it was also good for my imagination, I think. I had to come up with ridiculous scenarios because it got really boring, month after month, figuring out new ways for people to have sex. Multiple Warheads actually came from that. I did it as a ten-page story that ran in Sizzle Magazine, and enjoyed it enough that I wanted to come back to it and actually explore the characters.

I love the idea of deciding porn characters have deeper stories worth telling.

"Where's that pizza man going next?"

You draw plenty of sexy women in King City, and in Multiple Warheads I laughed out loud when I saw the lead's name was Sexica. What's your position on the sexualization of women in mainstream comics? There's just been an explosion this discussion thanks to titles in the New 52 DC Comics reboot...

I think a lot of it is context. I'm obviously a big fan of drawing dirty pictures but I don't want to do, like, Curious George with a boner and then try to get kids to read it. But I'm fine with more stuff in kid's comics than I think a lot of people would be. I think the Japanese are really good at it. If you read early Dragon Ball or whatever, there's constant nudity and poop jokes -- all these things kids think are funny -- but when they bring them over here they get censored.

If we can't do Curious George with a boner, though, should we do Sexy Adult Batman? Should these characters be left unperverted for children too?

I wouldn't want a version of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns that was made more Nickelodeon. It's more just the missed opportunity of it. DC made it very clear that these characters are not being opened up to a wider audience. Maybe they think their core audience is just thirty-five-year-old guys, but there are a lot of women who read comics too, and I don't think they're thinking about them at all.

One of the rants I always go on is about the bizarre separation between a lot of the people creating comics and a lot of the people reading comics. A big thing in graffiti is taking comic book characters and doing murals of them. I'd be in New York and see this Incredible Hulk mural or Spawn mural, but then I'd look at Spawn or Incredible Hulk comics and they don't even take the time to draw graffiti in the backgrounds correctly. It's kind of like that with women. There are female artists and female readers who are really excited about comics, but comics' portrayals of women are like their portrayals of graffiti. Like they're not even looking at them.

It's not true across the board, but corporate comics definitely seem to be steeped in it. It sucks, because there's a lot of fun to be had there and some great comics still slip through the cracks.

You're now writing -- not drawing, just writing -- a superhero comic called Prophet for Image. How does that change your creative process?

I had to approach it differently because in the past I haven't liked collaborating. One of the fun things about comics for me is coming up with ideas on the spur of the moment, just doing whatever amuses me. When you get a script and it says "Page 1: A man walks through the door. Page 2: He sets down his keys"... it's very hard to have fun with it and not destroy what the writer's going for. The only way I could do it and keep my conscience okay was to collaborate on every aspect of it. The artist, Simon Roy, and I talk through all of the plots, then I do really rough breakdowns, then he does layouts, and we send it all back and forth. He's coming up with a lot of the ideas as well.

The really bizarre thing for me is how much Image is letting me get away with. I don't think I've told anyone, but we give Prophet a tail in issue four. He has sex with a chicken alien in the first issue; I expected that to get cut out. I've had total freedom, and could move it away from it being a superhero comic and toward more science fiction. Actually, when we were writing it, we'd put on old Tom Baker Doctor Who and say, "Let's try to do a comic like this!"

Now there's the King City collection finally coming next year. Can you look back comfortably at old work, or does it pain you to see it?

I'm fine with it. I like to say that the old stuff is like a time capsule. Even if I think I can draw better now, it's what I was doing at the time. I got to talk to a comic artist whose work I really admire a while back, and he really didn't like any of the work that was my favorite work of his. It made it really hard to talk to him. He was all, "I couldn't write, I couldn't draw before I was forty," but a lot of the work I've been influenced by was the stuff he did in his twenties...

You write in King City about a how a danger for an artist is to believe your ideas are so good they don't need refining. Is that more so when you're young, before you have the arrogance beaten out of you?

I worry it's more of a danger when you get older. I always think about how unhealthy the life of a comic book artist is, especially when you reach any level of success. You basically spend all day in a room, having fun drawing pictures, and then a lot of your social interaction comes when you go to a convention and people stand in line to tell you you're a genius. I can't think of a better way to turn someone into an asshole. I fight to avoid that. I have a really good community of friends who do comics. My wife, Marian Churchland, has her own book called Beast. James Stokoke who does Orc Stain is right down the street. We all sit around and draw together and try to not turn into crazy old people. 

You've said that you think it'd be cool to see "split battle comics": two artists given the same subject and amount of pages and "promoted like a boxing match." Are you trying to turn your artist friends against each other?

There's competitiveness in a lot of my artist friendships already. It's almost a kind of joking abuse. We do art battles -- less now, when we all have deadlines -- where we get ten or fifteen different artists in the one room and say "we're all drawing Colossus from X-Men" to see who can do the best one. It forces you to try harder because you know you're there with people whose work you admire.

This is a big thing in graffiti, too: being the best, or at least keeping up. I worry that the current comics community there's this attitude of complacency. You question people's work and immediately it's like, "but they have a family and they have to pay their bills!" There's still ego involved, but it's untested ego. It might just be that I'm coming from a different background. I mean, I can't imagine Chris Ware stepping up to defend his machismo.

On one King City letters page, someone writes: "Mr Graham, you're a difficult man to be a fan of." Soon your work won't be nearly as hard to find. Does it feel like a major career shift?

Yeah. It's bizarre. That and Prophet happening at the same time is a little bit intimidating. I didn't really expect there to be an audience. Now I'm meeting more people who've read my stuff. It's such a terrifying experience. I was at a convention recently and a teenage girl came up to me and said "you're a huge inspiration to me" and "I learned to draw women looking at your work." I said "Oh my god, we've got to find you some better comics! We need to get you Elfquest, stat!" The idea that there are younger artists looking at my work and being inspired -- I never expected that. It's really daunting, and puts a new level of responsibility on your work. I hope I'll rise to the occasion.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, and Bookslut's regular comic book columnist.