Continuism: The One Interview with Scott Snyder

With a mind as encyclopedic as Scott Snyder’s all interviews seem to become a single interview. And talking about Wytches #3 (released today) also means talking about parental love, childhood fears and the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA.

The things we choose to choose…

I couldn’t sleep for nearly a week after writing that first Wytches Iconographies, not easily, and some of those nights, not at all. You see, I knew things. Things that Scott Snyder, the creative engine behind the current reinvigoration of Batman, and powerhouse creator-owned projects like American Vampire, and of course, Wytches mentioned from that first Iconographies interview we did. Nearly two years back now, but that interview shaped some crucial insights that emerged while reading Wytches #1. And especially the backmatter of Wytches #1. I can only imagine how sleepless things will get after an actual interview with Snyder.

But of course, because Scott Snyder is not only one of the most powerful creative forces working in the industry today, but also because he’s one of the most likable, we couldn’t begin further from the dark. We share a chuckle, one that allows me to open up about the horror of reading issue 2 of Wytches. That part of the story where Sailor finds the lump in her neck. The vividness of the writing (Sailor saying over and over again, almost as an incantation, “Please be cancer, please be cancer”), and the vividness of the artwork had me checking my own neck for the better part of the month gone by. We chuckle about that too, my overactive imagination. But that’s where things quickly turn. The story was actually based on an actual event in his own life, Snyder tells.

“Yeah, actually that moment is based on a, probably terrifying incident that happened to me with my son, when he was around four. One day I was getting him ready for school and he was complaining about his neck and he’d been complaining about it for a coupla days.

“I was trying to get his coat on, and I just noticed this huge lump and I rushed him to the emergency room and it turned out he had to be admitted. They were really worried about him and we were there for three or four days. And it turns out it was a strange reaction he had to the shot for chicken pox. He’d just been recently immunized. But it was just one of those things that was emblematic of the terror you feel when you’re helpless to help your children. So that visual, the lump on the neck, has a very personal weight for me.”

The story signals the kind of fearlessness that Snyder demonstrates on almost every page of his writing. The fears that drive his characters are uniquely his own; they’re fears he cannot completely overcome but fears he contends with regularly. And, rather than hide from them? He instead uses them to fuel the psychologically vivid characterizations in his stories. Snyder speaks to exactly this, but later in the conversation. For the moment, he performs that strange flip. Where we go from chuckling about an overactive imagination to the outright panic at something horrible that happened to a loved one.

When you read the backmatter in Wytches #3, released later today, you’ll find that once again these pages are given over to an afterword rather than to the regular letters page. I love the fan interaction, but I think I like these essays a little bit more. And maybe, you do too. In this issue, the essay deals with something personal for Snyder—a story that again performs that “Snyder-esque” flip from something ordinary (and in the case of this story, heartwarming), to something utterly panic-inducing.

In this backmatter story, Snyder begins by talking about his son growing up, leveraging a slight disingenuousness at the notion of the Tooth Fairy to offset his fear of the same. That’s the heartwarming. The pure, unbridled fear comes in with Snyder’s son being stressed by the overwhelming noise and alarm set off by his school during what was innocuously termed a “shooter drill.” Read the story for yourself, Snyder’s son is left to draw the conclusion that his own school isn’t safe, and that even being out of class for a drink of water isn’t safe. And all of this is balanced against the very real fear of gun violence. From heartwarming to gut-wrenching, but that is how effectively Snyder has mastered thinking about and creatively interacting with his fears.

Because I’m curious, I ask if it is the same son in the chicken pox story as in this one at school. And the answer is, “Yes it is, that’s exactly my same son. I think so much of this book is about the terror of being vulnerable to the world. Almost how infuriating that can be at times—the feeling that you have that you don’t want to admit you do about wishing you could be more selfish. And about how the wytches, these monsters really, come to prey on those sorts of feelings. The feelings you don’t want to admit you feel so you keep that yourself.”

And this is where, to borrow a phrase from Greil Marcus, I come in. This is where what I know from the earlier interview comes into focus and reframes the entire experience of reading Wytches for me. Almost two years ago now, Snyder gives me a deeper insight into what he’s just said. Into what he means by “wishing you could be more selfish.” It’s the fear of the parent who cares, that this world is so large and so fraught with dangers, that it demands over and again a kind of hyper-awareness of those dangers in order to ensure the safety of your children. And yet, as Snyder tells me two years ago, the Joker is sometimes like the monster that whispers, “Don’t you want the vigilance to stop so you can rest?”

As for thematics, this exact notion can be found again in Wytches #2, when Charlie, the kooky hipster graphic novelist dad of the Rooks family, has interaction with Reg his brother-in-law and agent. In that scene Charlie describes children in a unique way: “Never have them, Reg,” Charlie offers, “I swear you’re never free. You love them too much. It’s like a vital organ walked out of your body and is out there in the fucking world waving hi to people and you fear for it all day, every day, because if something happened to it…”

I bring this up with Snyder and he enthuses at the connection. “Exactly, exactly. I’ve said this sort of thing to my friends. It’s one of those truths that cut pretty close to the bone. For me, I mean. That notion that he (Charlie) expresses to Sailor in issue #1. It starts where Sailor thinks out loud what if she made it happen, what if she wished Annie the bully away. And he lashes out he gets angry and he says, ‘Wishes don’t do anything.’ And yet the book he’s working on, a children’s graphic novel series that he does for kids, the main idea is about a mirror-world where anything you want happens. I tried to work this in, in a way where it’s not too heavy-handed but it’s a major part of the emotional engine of the arc. Which is, the wytches are there to give you what you want, but in an unnatural way. If there are things in your life you shouldn’t have or health when you should have it, or you could make someone disappear. And all the wishes and desires you’re not supposed to act on. The wytches can make them happen as if this were a mirror-world. Which brings us into the scene in the third issue where Charlie stares into the mirror and he says, “Please help me.” It’s supposed to signify that from here on forward he’s almost going to be entirely in the world of the wytches. Whether he likes it or not, because of the decisions he’s about to make.”

For the moment again, I’m back in that interview from nearly years ago now. It’s strange but all conversations with Snyder seem to eventually bleed into a single conversation. Like we’ve been having one conversation since we began having our first conversation, long before that first interview two years back nearly.

Snyder has an encyclopedic knowledge of his PopMatters coverage, and equally of the exchanges we’ve had over the years. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Snyder has a fully eidetic memory. And maybe that’s the basis for him to always be able to reach into the past and reference connections between what was said and what is being said now in this moment.

It’s this technique, referencing the past, that becomes one of the most powerful techniques in the storytelling of Wytches—the flashback. Sure there are “regular” flashbacks in the book—the kind that is just a scene from a shared past to intro the theme or the narrative we’re about to engage in. But there’s a deeper more dynamic use of the flashback in Wytches as well. This enhanced flashback takes moments of intense horror from the past, and splices them into the present horror being experienced. And this technique, given my own experience with Snyder, isn’t artificial. Which is to say, isn’t creative artifice, a cool thing a writer can do to be able to tell the story in an interesting way. No, this technique comes from a deep connection Snyder has with the world around him—this is how he enters the world, this is what you’d see if you look through his eyes. I have to ask about the flashbacks, about how the wytches attack using the entirety of a person’s history.

“The role of flashbacks for me in the book is huge! I mean, I think issue four actually gives you what I think is probably the ugliest moment in the family’s history. What I’m trying to do with the book, and again it’s easily the most personal book I’ve done, in a way that I think all of the things that I’ve done, whether it’s Batman—like ‘Court of Owls,’ it’s a personal story, it’s about growing up in New York, on the Lower East Side and thinking you know your neighborhood, but then coming to the realization that your neighborhood is ephemeral. You might know the neighborhood that exists now, but in 10 years time you might not recognize that neighborhood and the lives being lived there won’t be known to you and that neighborhood will vanish. And ‘Court of Owls’ was trying to almost humble Batman by have him realize that the city will always be mysterious. And if you look back on most of the stories we’ve done, ‘Endgame’ for example, these stories are about mortality—it’s about how you’re getting older and even in your prime your body will give out at some point.

“And while all of those things are personal, Wytches for me is completely almost I guess, very piercingly so. So the way that I look at structure, in relation to time, I wanted to get the story up and running fast. I wanted it to be something you understood from issue one with largely a black twisted horror, but the horror for me comes at first from this high concept in issue one, where it’s that you’ve got these monsters and they’re different from what you thought. But the trick in the sleight of hand is to create an arc where really more of the horror in issue three, four, even issue two, I mean I think it starts to become clear that the horror comes from the things that we withhold from one another, the ways in which we’re culpable for the ugliness that’s going on in the present.

“Whether it’s the calling of these monsters from out of the woods or just some of the tensions between ourselves and the ones we love, because of the things that we don’t want to admit that we feel. So all of the things that you see, and in “Four” you’ll see again the ugliest moments, where Charlie lashes out at his own happiness his own stability in ways that are kind of horrifying to write about because they’re very close to home. I mean my friends and I have spoken about being a father…Working in the arts is an inherently a very selfish kind of job. You’re making things out of your own deep-seated fears and experiences. And then to have this thing walking around the world that you cannot stop worrying about is in truth infuriating, and you have this whole other palette of emotions that have these colors to it that are just dazzling and different. And it can also be very, very disruptive in that way.

“So Charlie as a character, he really attacks. He’s had moments where he’s just lashed out at his own stability or own happiness. So the horror of the book with regards to structure and time and flashbacks, I hope is really effective in the way that it goes forward. But I’m really very proud of it, in that it starts to show ugliness beneath the surface, and things that come creeping in from the past. And you start to realize that maybe there’s more of a reason the wytches are after this girl—maybe it’s not just Annie or a whodunnit in terms of who pledged Sailor—but there are issues there that would make them all culpable.

“Even if the wytches prey on your fear, and they come out of the woods, one of the theories that’s expressed in issue four—the woman that you meet in issue three, the older woman with the peg leg, Clara, she’s actually one of the few people that knows what’s going on. She’s been in Sailor’s position, someone who’s been partly consumed by these things, but she’s managed to get away. And so when she comes back and she articulates some truths about the wytches. Because one of the things is that they can sense neurologically, they can actually perceive, they smell, the restlessness, the longing, this sense of unhappiness. And they create this underground warren and torture chamber where they see a greater sense of this. The appear in places that are isolated, places that are alienated—towns in certain areas in the country. They’re actually stealing from the Rooks.

“Again it starts of being this kind of present day, ‘families are happy, but then they’re being preyed on by monsters’ but as it goes on actually you begin to see there’s ugliness between these characters in this book. And it’s an ugliness that’s just as scary as the monsters. So this is the most longwinded, circuitous answer I think I’ve given. I really… I know what I’m trying to say, I hope it comes off good enough.”

“The things that we withhold from one another,” Snyder says, “The ways in which we’re culpable for the ugliness that’s going on in the present.” Given that as the thematic arc for Wytches, it’s hard to resist looking at the timing for the release of issue #3, just one week after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report on the CIA. It’s harder still to resist asking Snyder the question about what he sees as the connection the themes of Wytches and that post-9/11 chapter in the national security of the homeland.

I wonder out loud if the question ought to be asked. Snyder is a writer and the subject of Wytches doesn’t necessarily stretch into direct social commentary as with a forthcoming movie like The Interview for example. But Snyder’s happy to answer. It’s that same fearlessness again, that wanting to, needing to, cross into unfamiliar territory. That inexhaustible hope that the darkness will be changed, just by us standing in it.

“I’m totally comfortable talking about that,” Snyder begins. “My politics are totally… I’m a big leftist, I’m like a bleeding heart liberal. And I try and be pretty open, on like Twitter, about my politics. I think a lot of the time I think I shy away from things mostly because they’re… I don’t talk about it excessively on there, I guess because I feel as though I’m not the best informed person some of the times. I guess, I’m pretty well-informed though, now that I think about it. I feel like I say what I think.

“But when it comes to that, I think the corollary for me is that when you see things like school shootings, as was clear from the backmatter of issue three, the book is deeply about human cruelty. The first arc is about the kind of deep, dark feelings you don’t want to admit you have, as a parent, because the main character is Charlie and Charlie and Sailor and Lucy are the main family unit. But in a larger way, the book is really about how these monsters are really a twisted reflection, like the funhouse reflections in a night arcade, of us. They’re the ugliness we don’t want to look at, at its core. And in that way they’re sort of a twisted reflection of us.

“So when you hear about something like a school shooting. That to me is a big part of what inspired the book. That terror that you feel at the human capacity for evil, the human capacity for cruelty. The wytches only exist because of that. So something like the Torture Report for me is a horrifying aspect of the secret things that we do, the dark things that we do, that we don’t want to talk about, that we don’t necessarily want out there. There’re things that embarrass, things we don’t want to confess that we’re capable of, it’s very much a part of the psychology of the book. The book is not a political book necessarily, it’s not something that I think has overt politics, but the scariness of the book to me is that these monsters are activated by our own capacity to act on the things we don’t want to admit we feel and think, but do feel and think.”

To Be Continued… In 2015…