March 2015

Matt Terl


An Interview with Kyle Starks

Kyle Starks's black-and-white graphic novel Sexcastle tells one of mankind's oldest stories: The world's greatest assassin gets pulled out of retirement against his wishes, and he squares off against a host of bad dudes who all bear more than a passing resemblance to action movie stars of the past.

That summary would look familiar to anyone who has seen the copious (and deserved) pre-release praise for the book. Starks initially self-published Sexcastle via Kickstarter before Image Comics stepped in to publish the book for a wider audience, so there has been ample opportunity for blurbing. Almost all of that praise has focused on a couple of major elements: "'80s action movie" and "comedy." (In just under 200 words, the Image press release mentions some variation of "'80s action movie" no fewer than three times.)

So I was a little surprised to read the book and find that there's a real, genuine beating heart underneath Shane Sexcastle's snappy one-liners and lunatic action sequences. It's a book that uses an up-tempo, middlebrow pop culture framework to Trojan-horse some thoughts on fatherhood, and responsibility, and community. And also crazy dragon nunchuks and giant rocket launchers. It's definitely focused on those.

When I had the chance to exchange a few emails with Starks about the book, in a conversation that touched on his influences, his art choices, and the economics of black-and-white, I found myself continually circling back to try to understand the daunting balancing act he pulls off in this book.

Sexcastle is a book that, to a certain extent, wears its influences on its sleeve. What prompted you to take these things you seem to really love and combine them into a graphic novel? That is, how did this book come about for you?

I think the most important thing for me as a creator is that I make something that I want to read, a world I want to live in.

When I was a little guy my dad watched almost exclusively action movies. He was a very tough, blue-collar guy, and I think it was just a world he related to. Well, I saw nothing but that stuff for so long that it became a genre I know pretty intimately, and it's a style of storytelling that has always resonated with me. When I went to start my next book I knew I wanted to do something in that vein. I wanted to make the Greatest Eighties Action Movie that was never made.

I thought it was fascinating, though, that you didn't just adopt the tropes and ideas of an action movie like that -- you even drew pretty distinct likenesses of the characters. Was there ever an iteration where that wasn't in place?

I like casting my books. I like the idea of knowing this is being played by so-and-so, at least in my head. It helps with dialogue and character motivation and the like. Even if the Assassin's Union [ed.: all of whom are modeled on familiar faces from the movies] didn't show up -- and there was a shorter version that didn't have any of that and had a different and less successful ending -- even if they didn't show up, I had cast everything to that point.

Like I said, I wanted to make the greatest '80s action movie of all time and I think there's a real sad part deep inside me because we never saw Arnold and Stallone at the same time on the same screen in 1987. So, the Greatest Eighties Action Movie has to have that. It has to bring all those great characters together.

That makes sense. I found the tone of the book genuinely fascinating. It seemed to me that there are points that play the action movie conceits for laughs, and other places where there is genuine pathos or creepiness. How did you go about keeping that balance?

I think it's the good luck of being a comedy writer who wants to do something serious? I really want to do these stories with epic physicality and big laughs and big, exciting moments and yet still have a lot of heart and to say something of some sort.

I don't want to just make a funny book, I want to tell a story. And I'm okay with it being funny but I don't want the funny to overpower the story, I want it to support it and add an element. Just like I want the violence to be an element and not the story.

I guess I'm not sure how you specifically keep that balance -- it's just how I work out the stories I want to tell. It's my voice, I guess, for whatever that's worth.

The book has a bit of an interesting genesis. Can you take us through its life, from conception to creation to Kickstarter to Image? For example, you wrote and drew it on your own dime and then Kickstartered, right? Has anything changed for the Image edition?

I have not prior to this fortuitous turn of events with Image ever expected my type of work to be published. So, if you are not expecting that someone would want to publish you but you still want people to see what you do, you need another route.

For people like me that meant Kickstarter.

I Kickstarted my first book, The Legend of Ricky Thunder (which was previously a webcomic), and I loved the experience, but it's not a format without its speed bumps. I've had other experiences [as a Kickstarter backer] where I had to wait a year plus to get my book, or heard of Kickstarters where people didn't ever get the book for whatever reason. That's insane to me. Kickstarter exists to make things possible, but consumers are still consumers. When you buy something you want it right then.

So that's how I did it. I made the book, I did the Kickstarter to get it printed and the only delay was on the printer. I think it's the way it should be done. I don't think you should be selling a consumer a dream, you should be selling a product - and it should be a good product. It should be something that someone would want in the first place.

I've had great success with Kickstarter. I love Kickstarter. I'm good at Kickstarter, I think -- give people something great, at a good fair price, and some cool extras. I can get behind that and I think any average person would too.

So I Kickstarted my book, I got it printed, had books in a good ninety percent of [backers'] hands in sixty days. It would've been sooner but my nine to five got crazy and [comic convention] season went full swing. I think the last books were sent out within ninety days of the end of the event.

After that I got some really nice word of mouth, and yet another fortuitous event landed the book in Matt Fraction's hands, and he's been nothing but the best, and then here we are with Image, who have been nothing but the best.

It's the same book, though. [Just a] different cover with that fantastic Image logo on it. Hopefully it sells so many copies we get to do a color hardbound version though, right?

I'm actually curious about that: Would you do a color version? That is, is the black and white here an artistic choice, or something that was a concession to the economic reality of publishing? This wasn't a book that ever felt like it was settling (so to speak) for black and white, so I'm curious.

The first book I Kickstarted was in color and I had to charge more for it and it irked me for that route. But I also feel like I am not a great colorist - I know my weaknesses. I think tonally I'm good and with Sexcastle I was able to do that, [to use] monochromatic tones, and I really like it, and I like that effect.

I think, though, just the way comics work that a well-colored comic is far and away more enjoyable than a black and white one. They just feel more lush. So yeah, I would. I haven't had the urging or need to do so but I would like to do it as a special edition or the like down the road. God willing there's even a call for such a thing.

It's something that's doubly interesting to me, because if I had to pick out the non-action-movie influences on Sexcastle, one of them would be Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim, which was a notable B&W success that was able to achieve the full-color hardcover dream. Am I totally imagining that? What other influences would you say you brought to this work, aside from the '80s flicks?

One of my biggest comic influences for sure is Norwegian cartoonist Jason, who works in black and white, but he doesn't do tones, so I'm not sure in terms of that aesthetic if he has a real direct influence.

But his simple characters and cinematic visuals are a huge influence. I think Scott Pilgrim is a great piece of work, but I don't think it affected me more than, say, [Naoki] Urasawa's Pluto in regards to how to work in black and white. I wouldn't have ever thought about Pilgrim as a visual influence but I can see it now that you say it. Maybe subconsciously.

Jason, Urasawa, and [Jack] Kirby are definitely my biggest comic influences, whether it shows or not. Everything Jason does I think is really masterful -- [his works] feel like Hitchcock making a comic and they're always the most wonderful genre smashing -- he's definitely my most direct influence. I'm not really a well-read or hard manga fan, but I love the digest format -- I think it's so optimal, you should be able to carry a book in your pocket or purse, and in that format Urasawa is the best. He definitely gets a lot of heart out of crazy situations, which is something, like we spoke on earlier, I aspire to do.

And, of course, if you draw any action in a comic and don't love Kirby with all your heart.... Also, Kirby does bonkers in a way that speaks to me. I have some trade collections of his Mister Miracle run that are monochromatic black-and-white recreations of his colored work and they look so good. I'm sure that was a direct influence.

The Pilgrim comparison is less in the use of black and white and more something in the structure and timing of the comedic beats, I think. I can definitely see Jason, and now that you mention Pluto I'm annoyed that I didn't pick up on the Urasawa as well. I want to move from the comic influences back to action movies. As you've made clear through this whole conversation, you really think about this stuff -- there's a lot more depth to the work and to your approach to it than people might suspect from the most Tumblr-able panels that people see. Do you think that's true of the action movies of the '80s as well? Is there more to those movies than people remember?

I would love to say yes, that beneath the surface there's a lot more going on in '80s action movies but... well... I mean, I think they pretty much are what they are. I'm sure there are some exceptions. Rocky, I guess. Commando is about family in a weird way. But, I think if you want some sort of symbolism or metaphor in your high action then you should probably look more at Westerns.

Man, I was hoping you had noticed something that I'd missed. You mentioned that that style of storytelling resonated for you, though -- can you put your finger on how so?

I think there's sort of an Idiotic Romance to them. They're so dumb but they're enjoyable dumb. And things like that -- with such low standards -- their highs are so high that they're somehow greater than in other genres that have legitimate greatness to them. High art. And there's something about the energy and physicality in the artistry of violence, I guess. I think the same sort of draw applies to pro wrestling and mainstream comics, too.

I mean, look, it's a genre whose rhythms and beats are measured by explosions and side kicks -- what's not to love about that?

You don't have to convince me. One question that's been nagging at me: why was a John McClane lookalike missing from the Assassins Union? Or did I just overlook him?

I went more with established '80s stars -- Die Hard is probably my favorite action movie, but I don't put Willis in that era in the same vein as Eastwood, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Bronson. Willis did Die Hard in 1988 and didn't do another action movie until the '90s. Not that, mind you, any of these action star human beings is actually in the book. I mean, there may or may not be some very clever pastiche, but that is solely for the sake of satire or parody.

But, I don't want to end on anyone thinking I did this book as a satire or parody of that era. I didn't. I think those types of things are very heavy handed and lack any sort of artistic subtlety. Maybe I homage that genre, but more than that I wanted to tell a story with those aesthetics, not mock them or denigrate [them]. I'm by no means laughing at that genre or mocking -- I love it too much. I wanted to make more, not make fun of.

I think that's really clear from the book itself. My expectation going in was for something a little more parodic, but it very quickly becomes clear that it's something more. I think the decision not to set the book in a sea of actual 1980s clichés (in terms of styles, fashions, setting, etc.) was a really good indicator of that.

You mentioned your father being an influence on your love of action movies. Did you talk with him about the book as you were creating it? How has he responded to the finished work?

My dad is a big tough guy. He has about zero interests in my artistic pursuits. I showed him the book and the dedication on his birthday, and he just said "thanks" and sat the book in the stack of things he'll never look at. I am quite certain he appreciates the honor of it, and I'm sure he's proud of me, but he just doesn't care about comic books.

But just you wait 'til they make a movie! Then he'll be all about it -- pointing out all the incorrect representations of hand-to-hand combat and unrealistic recoils from firearms. Oh, he will love/hate it so much.

Okay, I've gotta finish with the logical follow-up, then: There's a lot of father-son stuff in the book, both tongue in cheek and more serious. You wrote this book because of the movies your dad watched, but you say he'll never really dig it. How much would you say this book is really about guys and their dads? And how did you and your dad specifically influence that?

I would say a major subtext of the book is parental responsibility and how those relationships build the person you become. I mean, like, it's something that is intensely important to me. Parental relationships play out heavily between almost all the characters -- and sometimes they are more substitute parents than real parents. I have two beautiful daughters and I take my responsibility deadly seriously, and my parents did the same to me.

There is a stupid irony of dedicating a book sort of about bad fathers to your father who was a good one. My dad worked hard to give us all a better life and I do the same for my family, and I try to do the things he couldn't, and I try to do the hard things. And I think this book is sort of about that: be a good parent or else your kid could grow up to be a selfish, miserable action movie boss or the cold-blooded killer hero.

I didn't write this book because of the movies my dad watched -- but I am able to tell a story in this manner because of the movies my dad watched and I watched and continue to watch. I wrote the story because I wanted to tell a great action adventure with a very real heart to it -- I wanted to talk about parental responsibility and personal identity and how our relationships affect each other with real repercussions, and, yes, I also wanted to crash a helicopter into a bad guy.

Matt Terl is @matt_terl on Twitter.