It’s not every day that writer Bryan Hill gets to chime in on villainy in modern graphic literature, and all things geek, so let’s do this again, with relish.
Q: What do you make of villainy in modern comics (or the lack thereof?)
BH: I was drawn to comics because of the power and perspectives of the villains within comic stories. To me, it seems like comics are losing the ferocity in the villains and the stories are suffering a bit. Adversity isn’t necessarily something that comic heroes have to deal with in their stories. Because I think mythology helps us manage adversity, I fear that comic stories are serving their readers less than they used to when it comes to explorations of ethics, heroism and consequence.
The exploration of our “shadow selves” (the darker aspects of our natures) is important for true understanding. There are many ways to explore our own darkness, but storytelling is one of the safer ones. Stories can allow us to explore darkness in a way that’s personally informative. When the darkness gets removed from villains, we’re not engaging the full range of human (and inhuman) experience.
ROMULUS, our upcoming Image book (coming this October written by me, illustrated by Nelson Blake II) has a strong emphasis on villainy. We’re proud of that. It’s about a near-ancient conspiracy born during the height of Rome and its effects in our modern day. The hero is Ashlar, a former assassin for this group that wages a one-woman-war to destroy it.
Plenty of evil in that one.
Q: Perhaps here is where mainstream comics can learn from indie comics. Indie comic villains have a ferocity jones most of the time, even if they do also have a tendency to live shorter lives, and that’s a lesson in itself. In what ways do you feel that mythology helps us with adversity?
BH: Mythology is instructive. Stories of heroes and villains help inform our ethics. Robert McKee, in his book STORY, speaks about the “controlling idea,” the basic theme that holds a story together. Joseph Campbell wrote about how cultures used stories to reaffirm their ethics and principles. In pragmatic terms, we can see how heroes succeed in their battles, and we learn how we can succeed in ours. When I was growing up, BATMAN was very important for me, because he is a character that’s fueled by will, and he suffers in the name of his desire to protect the innocent. If we eliminate the suffering from the journeys of our heroes, we’re not really giving lessons on how to manage the very real villains of our own lives. I’ve always seen and used stories as a source of inspiration, but the stories that always mattered most to me were the ones that depicted the true nature of evil, in various forms, unflinching in its presentation. To see heroes overcome those forces can be exactly the experience you need to help inspire you to get beyond your own circumstances.
Q: Is passive aggression in art problematic or not?
BH: “Problematic” isn’t a useful word. What does that word even mean? I suppose it implies something is “wrought with problems” but what problems? For whom? Objective or subjective? It’s a silly word with a pan-usage that has eliminated all of its meaning.
Answering your question, I think we’re a society that’s becoming more-and-more wary of open-and-honest conflict. Instead of dealing with things in an open and apparent way, we’ve started to appeal to higher authorities with social pressure (especially on the internet.) The result is a lot of sarcasm and snark, but not a lot of useful dialogue. When that cultural perspective infects art, you get art that doesn’t confront anything. Art that is scared of itself. That’s the opposite of what art is supposed to do. Art, by its nature, is confrontational. That’s why dictators go after the artists first. We can have open conflict and not be rude to one another. We can have art that is both confrontational and commercial. It’s not a binary choice.
I think the problem is that the gatekeepers often come from the bourgeois, and that culture isn’t comfortable with open conflict. The passive aggressive nature of the people who pick and choose what stories get told on what platforms has kept out a lot of voices that are willing to really challenge us and provoke us. That’s brought down the relevance and power of narrative art.
Q: Comfort and safety aren’t always the same thing. Confusing the two can lead to problems with storytelling. What are your thoughts on that?
BH: We don’t have a right to demand comfort. We have a right to be safe. We’re not safe when we’re actually in danger, but now the moment people feel discomfort with something they confuse that with ACTUALLY being unsafe. I say this because we’re denying the power we have to not always react to everything that wants us to react. A cruel word can’t actually do you harm. It only has the power we give it. A story that does something unpleasant can’t hurt you. You have the power to ignore it. When people trade away their power, they’re setting themselves up for low self-esteem and unhappiness and I want people to be as happy as possible.
Q: Which indie comic, that hasn’t been adapted for film, would you very much like to see on the silver screen, and why?
BH: Wow. Broad question. Hmm. It’s funny, I don’t necessarily think that great comics NEED to be adapted. Sometimes they work perfectly in their original form. Everything doesn’t have to be a film. That being said, I think Matt Hawkins has a book SYMMETRY that would be a really interesting film. It’s science-fiction, and has action, but it’s also about the nature of societies and the role technology will play in our evolution. It’s been a while since a big, smart science-fiction film hit theaters. I could see a great director making a meal out of that one.
Q: The character of Mark Shiffron (from POSTAL,) is one of the more memorable characters to appear in indie comics during these last few years. When you and collaborator Matt Hawkins were working together on that tale, what was the creative process like?
BH: Matt told me he had this idea of a small town full of fugitives and criminals, and the postman was coming of age, dealing with Asperger’s. So I started talking to people that had been diagnosed on the spectrum, in an effort to see their world from the inside out. That’s my process with characterization. I have a lot of conversations with people who inform my characters, mainly because when I’m writing outside of my personal experience I don’t want to render characters in a shallow way. With Mark, there’s the risk of making him a negative stereotype of peoples’ diagnoses on that spectrum, but there’s the equal threat of making him too noble, too good, because you’re afraid of being negative. I’m always trying to make things real, even in high genre, as real as I can make them. To me, that hunt for verisimilitude is what honors your subject matter and the people who actually live the experience being depicted in your stories.
Q: What was the inspiration for the fictional town of Eden, Wyoming? It’s unlike any other fictional American town that we’ve seen before.
BH: When I first started working on POSTAL, I was in the center of a Cormac McCarthy period, and thinking about the America between the coasts, the small towns. I grew up in Missouri and that’s been a big influence on POSTAL. If you ever get the chance, I strongly suggest taking a train ride across the America. You really see the space and the history of the nation that way. Those small towns have their own rhythms, their own mythologies and you feel them when you’re passing through at ground level. We often fly over too many places, missing the world underneath the wings. POSTAL is how I connect with the experience of The Great American Space.
Q: The experience of The Great American Space. That really paints a picture, you know. If we were to go on such a train ride tomorrow, and if we had just enough room in our knapsacks for 3 issues of POSTAL, to bring along with us as reading material on our journey, which 3 should we bring?
BH: Ha! Good question. I think #5 is an interesting issue because it focuses on the dark things that swirl inside of all of us. For those who haven’t read POSTAL, it’s about a town full of criminals and the local postman who tries to help his mother, the mayor, hold it all together. It’s a crime story, but it’s really about the choices we make that damn ourselves and the possibility of finding redemption. That issue makes Mark come face-to-face with real human evil, and he recognizes a little bit of it in himself. It’s self-contained, and it has a Charles Manson, reference so there’s something for you. The third arc, issues #9 to #12 introduce a character named MOLLY, who I love writing because she’s Audrey Hepburn, if Hepburn was a violent sociopath [laughs]. She’s a new kind of villain for the book, and I think the whole team raised their game in that arc.
That’s five POSTAL books, but those train rides are long and that’s allowed.
Q: What do you suppose brick-and-mortar comic shops could be doing more of, to remain relevant during these increasingly-digital times?
BH: The shops are doing everything they can, really. They’re the front-line heroes of comic books, mostly small business owners who keep the books on shelves. I admire all of them. I think the business of comics could do more to market the books. Marketing in comics is pretty abysmal, for the most part. I’m trying to do what I can to innovate and bring more people in, but Top Cow is a smaller company, so we have fewer resources than a MARVEL or a DC. If the big two put a fraction of the marketing costs of any one of their films into the marketing of their books, they would bring more readers into stores, and the rest of the companies would also get more attention from those readers.
Q: A rising tide lifts all boats?
BH: Precisely. Ultimately, all of us are led into the marketplace by the two biggest companies in the market. If they make a point to expose more potential readers to their comics, then more people will see those comics. We have these awesome films that come out two, three times a year but those millions of viewers aren’t really being led back to the books. I fear that the size and scope of the big companies are leaving the shops behind a little, because they make so much money with film receipts and merchandising, but all of this stuff started with the books themselves, and that’s where a lot of people really fell in love with those characters.
I love how comics is a place of small businesses, family owned business, local shops that really mean something that’s personal in their communities. If we could even get a significant fraction of the film audience to head into shops, we’d see a major expansion of the market and that means more books, better books, better stories.
Q: What would your ideal comic shop be like?
BH: Oh man! I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this. I’d like a place with some decent real estate so people could hang out and chat, have fun and browse without feeling too cramped. Espresso would also be awesome. There’s a place in Burbank called THE PERKY NERD that serves cold brew with seating and that’s great. Definitely that.
I’d like to have an office in the back where I could write and take my meetings. Definitely weekly events. Writing seminars, penciling seminars, film screenings. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (THE WICKED + THE DIVINE) do a little DJ’ing and I’m jelly so I’d want some turntables there for meet-and-greets after business hours where I could spin music, maybe even live events.
I’m not sure any of that is a valid business model, but it would be a lot of fun for everyone.
Oh! And PS4’s so we can have STREET FIGHTER competitions. I love STREET FIGHTER. I’m terrible, but I’m highly competitive so that dark combination of internal forces must be satiated with joysticks.
Q: This sounds like it would be one happening place. What might you name it?
BH: “Sanctum Sanctorum” because there would also be a prose library of all the esoteric and occultist texts I read. Works by Austin Osman Spare, Manly P. Hall, Hermes Trismegestus, and Paschal Beverly Randolph. Maybe I’ll keep an in-store reading copy of Jung’s Red Book. There will definitely be a permanent pedestal waiting for the moment I can get a copy of the Grand Grimoire from the secret Vatican library.
But the most important thing is the sound system and the turntables, and large shelves with space for big two and indie titles. [laughs] I have my priorities.
Q: List three (3) good creative habits that writers of graphic lit might want to try?
BH: Write every day. Read a book every week. Seek out conversations with people from worlds you don’t know.
Q: What are you reading this week?
BH: It’s a non-fiction kind of week. I’ve been reading a lot of books about occultism and the esoteric. Let’s see what’s on my desk. SEVEN SPHERES by Rufus Opus (that’s about Hermetic magick). THE SECRET TEACHINGS OF ALL AGES by Manly P. Hall (freemason and occultist). MAN AND HIS SYMBOLS by Carl Jung.
I got a chance to look at HORIZON by Brandon Thomas, a new Image comic following aliens who come to Earth to stop us from invading their planet. That one is great. Jonathan Hickman shared his new book THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS with me, and it’s an awesome noir story about an occult conspiracy and the stock market crash of the 1920’s.
I’ve recently heard great things about the KINGKILLER books by Patrick Rothfuss and he seems like a really interesting writer so I’m about to crack those open.
Q: That first KINGKILLER novel by Rothfuss is straight fire. Hesitancy to read these novels is understandable though, since book 3 in the series hasn’t even been published yet, but you’re still in for a treat anyway. Bards in a fantasy medieval setting rarely see this much of a tale’s spotlight. Let’s compare notes after you’ve finished book 1?
BH: Most definitely! For some reason I’ve only heard of them recently from other writer friends of mine who are rabid fans of Rothfuss. When I went to his Twitter page, and I saw how genuine and interesting that guy is, I was in. I live very close to a classic bookstore in Los Angeles, so they’re ordering me a copy to pick up and I’ll have it read very soon.
Q: Digital versus print. Print seems to be fighting the good fight, but how much longer can it last?
BH: People have been writing the eulogy of print for a while, but there will always be people who just like to read things on paper. I do think that we might have to reconsider price points. More people will move to buy collected trade paperbacks and hardcover editions. Digital platforms are expensive, so many people just can’t afford the slates and computers. Print is still the cheapest price point for entry and will likely remain that way for some time.
Q: Dark Horse Comics enjoyed some success with DHP, as did Image Comics with POPGUN, but the “ongoing anthology” format never quite seems to catch fire with the masses. Is there a place for such a format in today’s times?
BH: Hmm. Anthologies are hard because people like to know what experience they’re buying. Anthologies are often pleasant surprises but when you’re spending your money, you kind of want a sure thing. I think anthologies can work, but those might have to go digital where you can drop the price point to something that’s more of an impulse buy, and use the format to launch new creative teams.
Q: What’s the most exciting new creative team that you’ve had the great pleasure of enjoying recently?
BH: Well, there are the comics I mentioned above, but beyond those there’s MATTHEW ROSENBERG and TYLER BOSS working on 4 KIDS WALK INTO A BANK. That kind of book is normally not my speed, “hipster fiction,” but it’s so well done that it wins me over with every panel. It’s just so damn sincere that it opens up your heart, and I hear Rosenberg is working on a MARVEL thing so I’m tracking him. BECKY CLOONAN and STEVE DILLION are doing THE PUNISHER and that book is fearless. Honestly there are a LOT of great comics out there. If you’re a reader and you walk into a shop (and you should,) if you see a cover that interests you, odds are the book will too.
Q: This team of Rosenberg and Boss is absolutely crushing it for Black Mask. It’s a triple-threat of writing, art, and indie cred. As a publishing house, Black Mask is doing interesting things. Have you seen any of their other titles yet?
BH: 4 KIDS WALK INTO A BANK is the only one I’ve pulled… Oh— KIM and KIM by Mags Vissaggio. That one is fun too. Black Mask is doing good work bringing in non-traditional voices into the medium and they seem really dedicated to supporting their creators, so I expect a lot of great work from them going forward.
Q: Which three indie publishing houses do you feel are really getting it done right now?
BH: I don’t think anyone is doing it wrong, really. In art, there is no wrong if you’re honestly expressing yourself. There are a LOT of titles out there and it’s hard for readers to know what’s there for them. What all publishers can do is think more about marketing, about communicating the existence of their books to people.
I’d like to see publishers come together for ‘state of the business” summits and discuss these issues with one another. The comics industry is a small industry and we’re all working to accomplish the same thing: make good books and hopefully get the awesome folks out there to read them.