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.
Writer: Terry Moore
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.
Possibilities and Consequences in Sci-Fi and Life
PM: You do such a good job in the series of making it entertaining to find out that information while avoiding the dreaded expositional downloads.
TM: I was talking to a writer the other day, and he said, “Gosh, I’ve got so much research data on this book I’m writing,” and I said, “Be sure not to put it in your book.” Because, you know, it’s already written down somewhere else and we don’t need to you to write it down again. All you need from research data anyway is just a few words—the right words—and it implies everything to the reader, especially the knowledgeable reader, without boring them with it.
PM: Speaking of that oppositional, us-v.-them way of thinking, you’ve reminded me of how in high school literature classes it was pounded into our brains that a major theme of literature is “man v. nature”. That shows up so much in Western culture. What we’re talking about in Echo reminds me of some Eastern comics, religion and philosophy, where it’s less about battling nature than it is finding balance. Were those influences?
TM: Yes. Maybe the older you get the more aware you become of the earth you live on and how it allows you to live. Man against nature is not good. That’s barbaric. Man in harmony with nature is capable of tremendous things.
The original stories were about dealing with the elements of the life that we lived in. Nobody could understand the yellow thing in the sky during the day and the darkness at night—it just didn’t make sense. So the stories developed. And I’m really doing the same thing. In Echo I’m writing about a scientific night, and somebody grabbing the moon and riding it. It’s no different than the original stories.
PM: You write in the final issue, “So the woman smote the darkness with the light that was perfect and the darkness receded.” That woman being Annie, via Julie. The symbiosis between the two, which remains at the end of Echo, seems to be the epitome of man in harmony with nature, even if, as Julie and Ivy admit to each other, we don’t understand how the world works.
TM: I guess my point is harmony and truth exist whether you understand them or not. The truth doesn’t need our faith, it just is. It doesn’t care if we know it or believe it, it just is, with us or without us.
Same with harmony. It happens whether we’re on board or not, like a law of physics. The planet doesn’t care if you believe in gravity. Bees don’t care if you understand pollination. It’s up to us to be in step with nature and search for truth. Sometimes we just stumble onto truth and have no idea what to do with it. That’s the story in Echo.
Writer: Terry Moore
PM: I feel a lot of identification with the way you present religion and spirituality in Strangers in Paradise and Echo. I consider myself spiritual, but there are so many divisions in religion that it becomes unsatisfying to me.
TM: I saw a bumper sticker this week that said, “I like God, I just can’t stand his fans.” When you consider something like God, you have to get out of the trenches and ignore things like mankind and all the nasty baggage we bring to the issue. The question is about God, not about mankind and how he suffers. Same thing with science. You have to focus on the problem and sort through the distractions, strip them away until you get the pure, unadulterated query. Only then do you know what you’re dealing with.
So many of our great debates are just two sides arguing about two different things. There’s no resolution in that. I’m afraid it’s only human to support things that support you. That’s comfy, but it’s not how you find the empirical truth about things. Scientists and philosophers have to look beyond comfy. They need to know the truth. Sometimes they find it. Echo is about the scientific quest, and the unexpected link it reveals to the soul.
PM: Foster and the military characters in the book, they’re so hell-bent on testing out the phi project, so reckless and unconcerned. Foster even says they’re “playing chicken with nature”. How do they get to that point of being so reckless?
TM: That’s all Oppenheimer and his famous answer to that question. People asked him after the first atomic bomb test, “How could you make such a thing?” He said, “We were more excited about the possibilities than the consequences. First you want to see if you can make it work, then you consider what you have done.” And then, of course, he was funded by the military, so they want a weapon.
In Echo, I’m posing that the alloy has clear, powerful benefits to mankind, but the first thing they do with it is build a weapon. That’s what they did with atomic energy. I’m sure they discussed many possibilities for atomic energy before 1945, but what they really wanted to know was how to ignite the shit and sink a continent.
PM: Had you been following the development of the Cern collider for awhile? Is that part of what got you interested in this storyline?
TM: Oh yeah. I’ve been watching that since they started it years and years ago. I guess that’s always been in the back of my mind. And I remember when the China syndrome was on everybody’s mind. It doesn’t take much imagination to think, “What if you mate the China syndrome with a collider?”
PM: We just keep giving ourselves these new tests.
TM: It’s ironic, as we’re talking about this, today’s headline on CNN.com was about the extreme risks involved in extreme technology, that between the Gulf oil spill and the Japanese meltdown, we make these problems that we cannot stop or prevent. At least there’s some public consciousness about going faster, thinking we can control it, and not being able to. Echo is a Twilight Zone version of all that.
PM: That’s the thing about sci-fi, it puts these themes into an entertaining story and gets people to think about them.
TM: Well, it gives you a chance to form an opinion with a fictional preview, and then when you see the real thing, hopefully it doesn’t catch you mentally unprepared. You have “considered” the problem. That’s good sci-fi. Like Star Trek prepared us all for cell phones and Tribbles, now known as Shi-Tzus.
PM: At the end of Echo, there is a resolution to Ivy’s age regression in terms of her body getting younger and Julie’s body getting larger, but it’s not explained in detail.
TM: I liked wondering about that all the way up to issue 30. It was fun to have questions in the story. Like, what’s in the box.
PM: Even at the end we’re not certain about that, but I have an idea.
TM: What do you think is in the box?
PM: Well, the implication is that it’s something that really turned off her husband. I figured it was a vibrator, or a sex toy. I was intrigued that such a small thing would make her husband want a divorce. But I wouldn’t put money on that.
TM: Neil Gaiman once said, “It’s the mystery that endures, not the answers.” So blame him if I never tell you what’s in Julie’s box because if I tell you, the discussion is over. If I don’t tell you, you’ll wonder about it the rest of your life. Heh heh.
PM: Hickman’s got a mysterious box in some recent issues of Secret Warriors.
TM: Oh, you’re kidding. Everybody’s got a box now! (laughs) Okay, I’m gonna go with a John Lennon answer and say it’s full of holes. Julie’s box is full of holes, like the Albert Hall.
PM: We’ll leave it at that, then. Parts of Echo are pretty gory, more than we saw in SiP. I’m thinking of Cain’s first killing, the way the panels are constructed. But overall your style isn’t exploitative, doesn’t try to make it beautiful like Tarantino or Zack Snyder might do, or maybe Todd McFarlane. When you get to that kind of moment in a story, what’s your approach to drawing violence?
TM: I want to be accurate and to have the aftermath of a scene look correct. I want to show the consequences of our violent actions. Some of it is an offshoot of my training as an artist, studying a lot of forensic material in order to know what’s under the skin and how it all works. It’s all in my head, what’s inside the human balloon and what happens if you pop it. Sometimes the boy in me wants to pop it, just so I can draw it popping. But the writer in me runs up and points out the humanity of it all.
But I also wanted an element of real danger in the story. I wanted you to have the same sort of fear that you might have in a war, that just because we’re in the lead group doesn’t mean we’re safe; the guy beside you could drop at any minute. When I’m drawing my stories, I think of them as a film. I think what would this look like, how would they shoot this, how do I frame the camera shot on this? I don’t wonder what other comic artists would do, I wonder what a great director would do.
Positing Characters Against the Questions in Life
PM: And that comes from your background in TV editing, right? You did film, too?
TM: I did both. I never cut film, but they would transfer film to computer, and I would cut on computer and they would go back and conform the film. So I lived in both worlds. But I also just have a lifetime of film in me. I’ve seen a ga-gillion movies. It’s all in my head, tumbling around like a rolodex.
PM: It also gives us a vocabulary to talk about comics with, one that makes a lot of sense when talking about panel layouts, etc.
TM: Absolutely. It really transfers one-to-one. I’ve seen some fun articles about that, by the way. (See, for example, “Watchmen and its relationship to film techniques” by Neil Dorsett, The Comics Chronicles, 05 September 1999, and “Tintinopolis” by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, David Bordwell’s website on Cinema, 30 July 2010.)
PM: Echo is being adapted into a film by Lloyd Levin (producer on Boogie Nights, Watchmen, and the Hellboy films). Where does that project stand right now?
TM: He just signed screenwriter Kerry Williamson. So we have a great screenwriter and Lloyd’s building the core team. That’s how these things get started. One producer or director starts building a core team, like a platoon, and they push it through all the obstacles. It’s going very well. Lloyd’s dedicated to it, he’s very serious about the project, and I have faith in him.
PM: How much involvement do you have, or hope to have, or is written into your contract?
TM: The contract says I’ll have significant involvement, but I’m not naïve; it’s not my world. I’d like to be part of the seminal work, and then I hope they will go off and trump all that and make it so much better. I’m a firm believer in group dynamics, that a band that works together well is going to produce something better than the individuals can manage alone. I work alone because I never found a band or a creative partner, but I’ve always envied team-ups. So I’m looking forward to what Lloyd’s band comes up with.
And to be honest, a lot of the times, when I was doing Echo, I realized, Okay, I’m just sketching these plots out like a storyboard. Because there are a limited number of pages and everything in here can be fleshed out so much better when there’s time and space for it. And sometimes the film people just come up with cool ideas because they think in 3D.
Iron Man, for instance. The movie visuals are so much better than the comic. For instance, one of the things they came up with in that movie, because they’re thinking 3D, was the vent check. When the camera tilts from feet to head for Tony’s first fitting and all these vents are going in and out…how cool is that? I’ve never seen that in the comic. Nobody in the comic world ever thought of that because they were thinking 2-D, like he goes left to right, or up and down. So that kind of new thinking can add so much to the story. I don’t need a vent check in Echo, but I’m sure they’ll think of something.
PM: It seems that as an independent creator you’d have a lot of control over your stake in a film.
TM: Not unless you work on a smaller set, like Miller and Rodriguez did. But this is going to be a big-budget movie. I’ll be lucky if I get to even visit the set. Maybe I’ll get a discount on the DVD. That would be swell.
PM: Tambi showing up in Echo made a big stir, yet it made so much sense when she appeared. Does part of the impulse to create a “Terryverse” at all come from the fact that you draw the characters as well as write them? There’s a visual consistency that helps hold everything together.
TM: That’s interesting to posit those two against each other. I don’t know which comes first, the look or the idea, because it all develops at once for me. That’s how cartooning works. When I got to the point in Echo where we needed somebody like Tambi, it made sense to me, so I went with it. It’s fun when those ideas hit you. That’s what you hope for in the creative process. And I went with it because I place a lot of value on creating reappearing characters that people want to spend time with. Authors who leave behind a trail of miscellany, it can be hard to be loyal to them because it’s hit and miss. There’s always one or two magic things you wish they would have lingered on. My favorite reads growing up were series: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Tin Tin and Peanuts. It’s like kids loving Harry Potter. The world would be less magical if JKR had stopped at book one.
When I came to the crossover opportunity, I realized I could follow Heinlein’s lead and build my own fictional world where all the stories connect. Wherever my series occur, it’s all one world. So, the new series, Rachel Rising…same world.
Writer: Terry Moore
II. Rachel Rising, Batrat and Black Metal
PM: One of the constants in your work is that your characters struggle so much with not-knowing: moral predicaments, their own desires, or huge forces they have trouble fathoming like in Echo. Is that something you think about explicitly in your storytelling? Will it be part of Rachel Rising, which features a woman who rises from the dead?
TM: I suppose most all fiction posits characters against the questions in life, whether in the details or the big picture. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” So it is with fiction. You may think you’re writing or reading about people but, hopefully, it’s about much more.
PM: In announcing Rachel Rising on your blog, you mentioned that horror stories—”the scary kind…that gives you a chill on a hot night”—were your “first love” as a storyteller. You’ve refined “horror” to “supernatural” in describing Rachel Rising. What about the genre, besides that chill, appeals to you?
TM: It just comes natural to me. I have a twisted Walter Mitty skew on everything, I suppose. I reflect on what happened, and what could have happened, and how we barely got away with it. Most people aren’t living in fear of the leading causes of death. I think they’re most afraid they’re going to do something wrong and get caught.
We don’t typically dream of having emphysema, we dream of being chased. That is the root of the horror in our lives. And for some reason, we can’t keep from reading about it. Looking for answers maybe. Or tips. Hitchcock knew this. People didn’t like to talk to him at parties, but they watched his stories. Couldn’t help themselves.
PM: There’s so much spirituality in your work, and in a book about a character who comes back from the dead—well, I imagine the topic will come into play?
TM: When you talk about death, sooner or later the subject of spirit comes up. Unless you work in the death industry; then it’s all logistics and lab work. But most people wonder about the point of it all and what might be waiting for them on the other side of a flat line. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, and nightmares. How can I not write about it?
PM: Can you take me through the process and timeline of going from the germ of the idea for Rachel Rising to the solicitations? How long has it taken, how did it come about?
TM: It came about by a process of elimination, because I had several stories in mind, and I thought, What do I want to work on? And, What does the public want to read these days? I was looking at my options like this, going back and forth because it’s a big gamble to risk my livelihood on a new series. What if nobody likes it?
Then I got a good piece of advice from somebody on Twitter who said, Write about what keeps you up at night. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Things work out better if you’re writing about something you feel very passionate about. That was certainly the case with SiP and Echo. So I put my worldly concerns aside and thought about what stirred my heart most. The answer was Rachel’s story.
Then I wondered where to begin with Rachel, because I’d always pictured scenes in the middle of the story. I don’t think linear. I think of key scenes first, then work like a detective to figure out how they got to that point and what they did after. With Rachel, it seemed best to start with her death. Just kill your main character on page one and get it over with. The rest is uphill from there, right?
Speaking of Characters, Batman Really Is an All Around Prick
PM: Can you give us a teaser about Rachel’s character? How is she different from your other heroines?
TM: I don’t think I can describe Rachel without it sounding familiar or letting slip a spoiler. The individual is in the details, and that has to be revealed in the story, particularly the first few issues.
PM: You’ve already got a preview of the cover for the first issue of Rachel Rising on your blog. How did you work on finishing Echo and starting Rachel Rising at the same time?
TM: I’m not that good at multi-tasking, so it’s one or the other. By the time I was working on Echo #30, I had to stop physically working on Rachel and focus my energy on Echo. Which means the Rachel Rising work will be intense when I get back to it and have to make a lot of quality material in a limited time.
To make things trickier, I’ve been drawing an issue of Fables (#107) and attending a lot of conventions. Plus making the final Echo trade and the Omnibus, and a stand-alone issue of How To Draw Women. Oh, and I need a 2011 sketchbook, too. Oh, and a list of waiting commissions to finish. So…yeah, working on more than one thing at a time…not easy.
PM: I have to ask about the story you told on Saturday Night Sci-Fi of how Rachel Rising‘s main character began as a character idea for the Batman world. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
TM: I was writing Birds of Prey for DC, and that’s a book in the Bat-family, and it’s no secret that I hate Batman. The only thing I hate more than Batman is my Blackberry, and my deepest fear is that I will be stuck with both of them for the rest of my bat-sucking life. So I’m in the Bat-family and I’m thinking, ‘You know, the problem with Batman is that he has no woman in his life. Clearly he dresses himself, goes out every night with nobody caring when he gets home, and he’s just an all-round prick, isn’t he?’
PM: He never does have a woman in his life. Well, I guess it’s a revolving door.
TM: The guy’s a sociopath, meaning he’s a nutjob doing a bad job of pretending to be human. Like Donald Trump.
So I thought, ‘Okay, Oracle (Barbara Gordon) is the one who should talk to him. But she won’t do it because he won’t listen to her, which made me even madder at him.’ So I thought about sending a woman his way that would really screw him up and I came up with this character I called Deadgirl.
The rough idea was a woman committing a crime, like burglary, when Batrat drops in and a minute later she’s dead. A terrible accident. He pretends to care, blah, blah. He’s in the morgue watching them slide her drawer shut. That’s that.
The next night he’s taking a leak off a rooftop or whatever it is a guy with his underwear on the outside does at night on rooftops, and there she is. The girl from the morgue is back, robbing the shop below. He engages the suspect. Damn if she doesn’t get killed again. Swear it wasn’t Fatman’s fault. Morgue. Next day, she’s baaaack. Get the idea?
That was Deadgirl. I loved her. Unfortunately, I left Birds of Prey before I could use my secret weapon, so I put her in a drawer for later. Meanwhile, the name of Deadgirl was copyrighted at Marvel, so when it was time for my new series I re-titled it Rachel Rising. And that’s where she came from.
My series won’t feature Crapman, of course. I wish I could toss Batfat my Blackberry then push them both out of a plane. I would so like to draw Harley Quinn doing just that.
PM: The thing that bothers me in Batman is the portrayal of the mental illness of his rogue’s gallery. Nolan’s Dark Knight certainly did a better job of it, but too often the villains are simply ‘crazy’, in quotes, in a very shallow way.
TM: You’re right. I wonder if crazy will someday become a C-word we shouldn’t say. If they take that C-word away from us, they should give us another one back. But, yeah, the crazier the rogue, the more Batshat beats them senseless, like a ’50s bigot cop beating on people. How many times have you seen him beat the Joker’s face into a tomato? Sick f*ck. Let’s talk about something else.
PM: Okay. You love music, it’s important in your work, especially SiP. Were you ever a musician?
TM: Yeah, from the age of 13 to the age of 26, 27, I was in bands. My wife married me as a musician. I really thought that’s what my life was going to be about. I’m sort of stunned that I’ve ended up in comics. But thank God, I could do this, you know? This is my adopted family now.
PM: Is there a piece of music, a song, maybe, that would give readers a sense of what to expect in Rachel Rising? Sorry, this is a cheesy question.
TM: I like “Rubber Ducky”. (laughs) You know, I think The Gathering is a good band for this title. I was thinking that if I made a movie, I would grab some of their tracks.
PM: They’re a black metal band, right?
TM: Yeah, metal but melodic, as in, they can play but they also know music theory. They’re not street musicians. There are more ideas in one of their songs than most American bands have in their career. Great stuff. They have a little four-song EP called Black Light District and I was listening to that when I was drawing the cover to Rachel Rising #1, and I thought, man, this is so appropriate.
But if I had to pick just one musician for a Rachel soundtrack, it would be Trent Reznor. It’s an obvious choice when you think about it. Reznor makes everybody else sound like Beck.
III. Body Language, Vertical Tangents and Rhinos
PM: You mentioned that you’re also working on a series of how-to-draw books.
TM: Because I obviously don’t have enough to do.
PM: But it’s an interesting way you’re putting it out. You’re doing one issue at a time?
TM: Yeah, because if I try to make the whole book at once, it will never get done. So I’m going to put it out a chapter at a time in comic book format. Then when all the chapters are done, collect them into the final book form. See, it’s this new thing we call a trade paperback. Cutting edge stuff.
PM: So the first issue is about drawing women, is that right?
TM: Yes. It’s not going to be like all the other books, like, “Here’s what a woman looks like”. It’s going to be how I do it, what I look for, what my measurements are, what are the little physical things I’ve noticed, and what I use to make body language and personalities—the things you need to put into a drawing to give the reader enough information to start profiling the characters.
As non-PC as that may seem, it’s really what readers do. So give them the info. And you can do that visually. I think about that when I’m drawing and I thought, well, I’ve been at it long enough now, I guess it’s not too presumptuous for me to sort of publish my notes.
PM: The stereotypical way of drawing women in comics—beautiful, exaggeratedly proportioned, “perfect”—is there a reason why that’s so common besides the typical explanations like who’s drawing and who’s reading?
TM: I don’t know. It’s easier to draw exaggerated and stylized. That may have something to do with it. But usually you find people draw what they are focused on. Big boobs, big nose, whatever. People use to joke that all the Image girls looked like porn stars because that’s all the young artists had for reference in their young lives. Probably the answer is both physical and psychological, but you’d have to start by asking Picasso.
On the Creative Life Lived Untethered to a Big Publisher
PM: One of the highlights for my students in our previous interview was how you responded to my question about the male gaze and SiP, that it is “one long male gaze”. It’s not denying that you’re a man who loves drawing women, but a way of saying that the approach to the characters is what matters.
TM: I really think that the attraction and the fascination between men and women is organically proper. The reason why our culture has to say, “Back off”, or “Don’t look right now”, is that the lingering gaze can also be a threat. But if you’re talking about love and the gaze that goes with that, then you’re back on my side of the coin.
The male gaze is just one of many hot-button topics in SiP, but I approached all of them with respect and love for humanity and for what people are dealing with in their lives. I think, I hope, we can talk about anything so long as we talk about it with respect and love. Gazing at people with admiration or empathy is different from looking at a woman like she’s your next meal.
You can make these choices in your writing, too; to write about people’s lives with honesty and understanding, or attack their failings with venom and bitterness. Even the best and worst of comic books do this.
PM: When I was a young reader, I certainly never thought comics could do that, and I don’t know if the industry thought it could do that.
TM: It’s so ironic because I really think the best stories that have ever been made in comics are coming out right now, but the world has turned away. I hope it’s not a matter of too good too late.
PM: The world’s been turning away from literature in general. The book industry has changed so much.
TM: It’s like there are only 12 known fiction writers and everything else is a mosh pit. The book industry did it to themselves several years back when they announced they were eliminating their midlist books. Since then it’s been a shrinking industry of blockbusters and self-help books. It was a devastating thing to do, like announcing all medium height people must be executed.
PM: What comics series before your time would you have liked to have worked on?
TM: Spider-Man of the ’60s was one. I also loved all the comics at the back of National Lampoon. They were very influential to me. Before comic books, all I wanted to do was draw comic strips and underground comics and draw satire like I saw in National Lampoon. That’s what I was into, from Feiffer to Playboy cartoons. P. J. O’Rourke was my hero. I didn’t give a flip about comic books. That’s where Batflap was.
The only reason I ended up in comic books was because of the independent movement. After that zeppelin burned, I stayed on because comic books are a great way to tell stories without going to a lot of trouble. When I finish an issue of a comic, it’s in the stores in two weeks. That direct pipeline was not possible in the book industry. Their system was built a long time ago and it is so outdated, it just doesn’t work anymore.
I’m so glad I’m not tethered to one of those big publishers. They’re in a lot of trouble.
PM: As an independent publisher, you seem to have weathered the financial storm pretty decently. You have a lot more flexibility than a big publisher.
TM: So far. You know, all the bad news you read is about the big publishers. It’s not my fight. On the other hand, I’m like that little country between them, so it does affect me. I need all those big giants around me to be healthy and happy. I want a healthy book industry. So far, just by having some name recognition of my own, I’ve been able to continue to sell books, but there’s no security in that. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.
I’ve always described myself as the little bird on the back of the rhino. I don’t want that rhino to die, but if he dies, it won’t be the death of me. I’ll just have to find another rhino.
PM: That’s the thing, the small presses—the little birds—in the book publishing industry, at least, have been doing relatively well in the past few years.
TM: Well, think about it: if publishing decides to make a left turn this afternoon, I can do it. I don’t have to talk a lot of people into it. I don’t have to answer to anybody. Whatever the big answer is to digital, for instance, I can adapt quickly. That’s the key to survival right now.
Unfortunately, what’s scaring the hell out of everybody is that there are no solutions being offered for publishing right now. But from the people I’m meeting and talking to this year on the road, I have a lot of hope that some good ideas are coming down the pike. I think things will be different by the end of the year.
PM: Why is that?
TM: I think the route from individual to iTunes is going to be made viable by a cheap, affordable global app. That’s a big stumbling point right now. And the appeal of the iTunes/iPad route is that the material on it will be proprietary, so people cannot clone it and rip you off. Nobody can put anything on the Internet and sell it more than once, so the ‘Net has proven to be a commercial bomb to all of us. The only people who made money off the internet were the porn industry, Apple and a handful of code writers. The “pads” show promise of being able to generate some kind of business model off of digital work and actually generate unit sales. That’s what we need: a way to generate and bill unit sales.
When I was at a convention not long ago in Orlando, we did a panel on digital comics, and I swear half of the people in the room were software programmers. They were grilling us about what we need. So, finally, we have the attention of the people that are needed to come in and write this stuff. And I bet you the breakthrough program will come from an 18 year-old kid somewhere. Personally, I don’t care where it comes from, so long as it gets here.
PM: It seems like the movement in the past decade or so toward “art should be free” came from a lot of younger people with a lot of romanticized notions attached to it. But if you get to the point where art’s what you want to do, how do you support yourself if it’s free?
TM: You don’t. If the age of classic commerce is over, then artists will go back to being invisible members of society, making art because they must, not because anybody cares. Which is the way it’s been for the arts often throughout history. Sometimes the artist works for his generation, sometimes he can only work for the generations to come.
PM: When I asked my graphic novels class to bring in some of their favorite works, only two brought in digital or web comics.
TM: Digital comics are not as pervasive as digital media would lead us to believe. In fact, when I’m on a plane, I notice most everybody is reading a book or magazine, not an eReader. But it’s early yet. eReaders will get better and so will the path to making products for them.
PM: With that in mind, what are your thoughts on DC’s recent “52 titles” announcement, and the digital day-and-date rollout?
TM: I hate to sound like the old guy on the block waving at cars to slow down, but DC’s mainstream publishing makes me uncomfortable. It’s like a runaway train. The digital day and date program feels like a stopgap measure, but at least they’re doing something while many are still talking. It’s all a movable feast right now. I think we’ll see numerous ideas over the next few years as publishers try to figure out what to do.
PM: You mentioned in our previous conversation that you’d like to do digital work. You said: “the classic page format and old school rules of fiction can go jump off a cliff, as far as I’m concerned.” What kind of work have you envisioned doing in an all-digital medium?
TM: (laughs) That quote is just me mouthing off. Honestly though, you saw what I did in Strangers in Paradise—I’d love to do that in digital. In SiP there was music, celebrities, poetry and fictional books within the series. In the digital version, you would be a click away from exploring those tangents fully. The fictional musician releases a song. Click and hear it. Katchoo reads a book. Click and read it, too. The SiP story would be like a horizontal line, with deep vertical tangents to explore all along the way. That’s my idea of digital book, and I think I’ve proven with the book version that SiP is a good candidate for a complex digital read. Personally, I can’t wait to make that book.
Terry Moore (photo by Robyn Moore)