Elegy for Dan Backer
Reading along in Terry Moore’s Echo, I began rooting for a supporting character named Dan Backer. Rotund, bald, bearded, tattooed and wearing a black t-shirt and jeans held up by suspenders, Dan was not the typical character you see in an adventure comic book. Let’s be honest: overweight people rarely show up in any mainstream comic, and when they do, they’re often villains.
Dan, however, was a brass-tacks Air Force vet suspicious of the government and determined to discover what a research company called HeNRI was doing with its Phi Project’s beta suit, which covered the body of the book’s hero, Julie. With a permanent scowl, a fatherly heart and command of a biker gang, Dan Backer was the guy you wanted in the trenches with you.
And then, in issue #19, he was murdered by one of HeNRI’s operatives.
I was angry. Very angry. Which was a good thing: Moore made the seasoned and sometimes cynical reader in me invest in a character whose role was the very definition of supporting, who ostensibly existed to provide some information, to move the plot along, and to raise the stakes of the action. Good storytelling makes us look past those functions, though, and for awhile, Echo was the story of Dan Backer.
That’s why there’s no more humane a writer and artist in the comic book field than Terry Moore. Strangers in Paradise was the first comic book Moore wrote, and three years after he began it, the series won an Eisner Award for Best Serialized Story in 1996. Strangers in Paradise, a landmark epic about the love between its female protagonists, Katchoo and Francine, concluded in 2007 and was followed by the tightly-crafted Echo, which has been nominated for an Eisner this year.
Publishing his work through his own successful imprint, Abstract Studio, Moore has become an important figure in the independent publishing industry, though he has written and illustrated for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image, including Birds of Prey, Runaways, and an upcoming issue of Bill Willingham’s superb Fables. With Echo‘s recent explosive finalé published, Moore has already begun work on his new series, Rachel Rising.
Moore’s writing is not splashy, his art is not grotesquely stylized, and in an industry still dominated by men and male characters, his women protagonists are neither stereotypically eroticized nor perfect. Because of these qualities, his stories trouble the waters of complacency and labels with a quiet intensity that’s easy to miss at first glance, but which calls to mind the edict to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.
Moore infuses his characters with wit, vulnerability and strength even as they’re thrown into confusing, extraordinary events, and he is one of the industry’s most expressive artists; his line work is elastic and modest, his inking precise, and his panel composition clear and cinematic. Richer than many mainstream heroes, ordinary people like Katchoo, Francine, David, Julie, and Ivy are recognizable to us because they struggle with life’s ambiguity. At the end of Echo, asked about the spirit of the woman who has inhabited her body, Julie replies, “I don’t understand how the world works.” “No,” her ally Ivy responds, “me either, really.”
Earlier this spring, Moore and I exchanged emails for a brief interview for a blog I maintain in support of my graphic novels course at the Columbus College of Art and Design, a conversation alluded to below. Not long after that, I spoke with Moore by phone while he worked in his studio near Houston. The same generosity and articulacy came through in our second discussion and subsequent follow-ups as he chatted about a wide range of topics, including science, spirituality, mysterious boxes, gore, Batman’s psychosis, drawing women, indie publishing, DC’s “52 titles”, digital comics, the rising of Rachel, and Echo‘s conclusion and its adaptation into a film.
I. Echo and the Scientific Night
PopMatters: Congratulations on the Eisner nomination this year for Echo. You’ve won before for Strangers in Paradise. Do you still get excited about awards?
Terry Moore: SiP won one and lost a bunch. I’m what you call an award-losing creator. So no, it’s hard to look forward to another awards program when you’ve lost so many. But it is nice to be recognized. It lets you know you’re not invisible, that someone sees your work. And I appreciate being recognized in an industry focused on bigger things. It’s nice to still have an indie identity in the midst of all that.
PM: Working off of memory, it seems to me that there are more nominations this year for the small publishers than the Big Two (Marvel and DC).
TM: Yeah, and the year I won my Eisner it was the same way. It just depends on who the panel of judges are on any given year as to what will appeal to them.
PM: Let’s talk about Echo wrapping up. You planned on this being a series with a definite end in sight at issue 30. What were the pleasures and challenges of self-imposing that kind of shape for the book?
TM: The challenge was to finish the story in a limited amount of time, which is tricky because, the more I write, the more ideas I get.
PM: Did you find that it changed the way that you wrote?
TM: It didn’t until I got into the last five to eight books. Then I felt like I had a parent behind me going, “Scoot, scoot!” But when I was in the middle, if I wanted to take a few extra pages to dwell on character-to-character moments, I did, because I like that. I believe the more you know about somebody, the more you care. You have to find a balance between action and character involvement.
But I wanted to do a 30-issue story because I didn’t want to be self-indulgent and ramble on with the second series the way I did with Strangers in Paradise. I wanted to work on a tight story. To me, Echo is like a movie—one story-arc—while Strangers in Paradise is like a TV show with a lot of stories.
PM: There’s so much tension gained from knowing the deadline is coming, that things are actually going to end.
TM: It’s like we all know where the ledge is, and we’re getting closer to it.
PM: When I read a lot of mainstream comics, some of the tension is lost because, even when there’s an apocalyptic possibility, in the back of my head I’m always saying, “But the book is going to continue.”
TM: Exactly. You know if somebody’s got their name on the series’ title, the characters can’t be in that much trouble. The story has to be great to make you overlook that. Like the movie, Apollo 13. I knew the ending, but in the middle I got so afraid they weren’t going to make it back, because it just looked like they weren’t going to this time. Sure, they got away with it the first time, but this time they’re toast! It was so well done.
PM: In a previous interview about Echo, you were asked about the conflict between science and spirit, and you mentioned a third way. Is that conflict inherent in life, and is that part of what the book’s about, that they don’t have to conflict with each other?
TM: Well, the subtext of Echo is that science and spirit may come from the same place. That it’s we, the humans, who like to lift and separate. We’re the ones who divide everything into Us or Them. It’s in the politics, it’s in big things, little things—it’s what society does. It’s either male or female, conservative or liberal, science or religion. Everything’s in two camps. You’re left feeling like a child watching two parents argue. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m mad at both camps, whatever the topic. Stop arguing! Listen to each other, for crissakes.
So I write this story where a scientist discovers a link between the physical and the metaphysical. She finds it through math and Einstein, which is to say, atomic research, but the link’s been there all along, and we’re just now discovering it. Not a new fantasy, but I’ve never seen my take on it before.