Comics

Legacy v. Statement: Talking with Goon Creator Eric Powell

Today the Iconographies proudly presents the magic of Eric Powell’s the Goon as it draws to a close. Maybe.

Give me a moment with this, okay? There’s a little bit of a windup with this one, and I end up saying some salacious things, but it’s all context. Context that helps me convey something of the magnetic creativity and the sheer force of genius that I couldn’t help but notice, even on the other end of a phone line, while talking with Eric Powell, one of the most singular minds working on comics today.

We can start here. Do you like Shakespeare?

Earlier this week I got drawn back into thinking about Watchmen again. And as I’m writing this piece, writing right now, I’m thinking how easy it is to both love and hate that book. The love part is easy, and you can probably get it at a gut level. But I say a thing like you can probably at one level hate Watchmen, and it’s the kind of thing can get you thrown out a window. So let me frame that sentiment more specifically. A generation ago Watchmen was probably one of the most important comics in the history of comics. And by virtue of that position alone, it did incalculable damage to the medium of comics.

Here’s the backstory. At the time of Watchmen’s release, comics was still a “filthy waste of time,” sociopolitically speaking. They were no good for kids, rotted the mind, and if you read them as an adult you must clearly have stalled in your maturation. Maybe the ‘80s view wasn’t as harsh as the view of comics during McCarthyism, when the Senate actually held Hearings on whether or not comics should be banned, but nevertheless, comics was something of an indulgence, and a meaningless indulgence at that. And because comics pandered to a general audience in the hopes of ensuring enough sales to sustain the industry, storylines were often mediocritized. Something for everyone, often meant nothing much for someone in particular.

All of that changed of course. And changed, almost in a single moment with the publication of Watchmen. There were a number of coincident things that happened around the same time. The publication of Frank Miller Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns. The rise of the direct market that ensured fandom have a voice in the open market, and ultimately guaranteed the maturation of storylines in comics. But Watchmen stands out as a singular and powerful piece of art, one that illumines the medium of comics. And offers something that comics really needed at the time—cultural legitimation.

And therein lies the “problem.” The root of why a person can “hate” a work as singular and powerful and important as Watchmen. Because Watchmen doesn’t really plug into anything. It’s self-contained. In a handsome volume (and the most recently released volume of the classic, the Deluxe Edition, issued in 2013, is a handsome volume) it can sit on the shelf next to Hemingway and Austen and Shakespeare. And in doing that, in being, that, Watchmen inverts one of the most powerful aspects of comics—that it’s temporary, that it’s not literary and really can’t be shelved in a library and stored away somewhere, that just like Batman can at any minute show up in a Superman comicbook, comics as a medium, is arguably at its best when it offers an immediate image that can assault, provoke, soothe, push, pull, entertain, and then, simply vanish. It’s the difference between liking high opera (think Rusalka rather than Der Zauberflöte) and being able to appreciate the temporariness of Louis C.K.’s comedy on the same level as the former.

I guess this is what the great Will Eisner was getting at when he wrote in Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative: “There is a major structural difference between newspaper storytelling strips and comic books. In comic books, stories come to a definite conclusion, a tradition that began when the early comic books advertised that each story was complete. A book is free-standing whereas newspapers are connected to the pattern of daily life. In a daily continuity, therefore, the storyteller need only segue into the next adventure. [Milt] Caniff understood that the story had to emulate the seamless flow of life's experiences and that the human adventure doesn't have neat endings. His work shows us how to tell a story that could make itself part of the reader's daily life.” In some ways the creators of Watchmen actively denatured this “seamless flow” and lack of “neat endings” that are so clearly a hallmark of populist, temporary literature.

So, do you like “Shakespeare,” or do you like “The Russian Romantics?” Do you like singular works of art produced by masters, or do you like your art democratized, temporary and integrated with the medium its presented in? Do you prefer creative legacies or singular artistic statements? The question takes on a greater significance when speaking with Eric Powell about the possible end of his signature creation’s, the Goon’s, long run in comics. Since more or less the turn of the Millennium, Powell has enthralled audiences with a high concept that can tackle sadness, sorrow, loss, grief, exuberance, pride, fear, success, greatness, aspiration, longing, conquest, and really the full gamut of human emotion. If The Goon stories are really coming to an end, and Powell’s been clear on it for months now that this coming series, Once Upon a Hard Time might well be the end for the Goon… if the Goon really is drawing to a close, now’s the time to get to the bottom of character’s super-successful storytelling DNA. Where does Powell see the Goon as shaking out? And how’s he been so effective at remaining within the philosophical construct of populist literature?

About a third of the way into the interview, we get to talking about the creative DNA of the Goon. And I frame the question by asking Powell something I’ve wanted to for more than a decade. Was any inspiration for the character drawn from Treasure Island’s Long John Silver?

As a kind of prelude to his answer, there’s a slight chuckle from Powell, and a warm enthusiasm for the idea tints his reply, “That’s an interesting comparison, I haven’t heard that one before. I see where you’re coming from but it wasn’t really an inspiration in the process of creating it. Although that’s really interesting. It makes me look at it a whole different way. The Long John Silver angle. Yeah, I really just took everything that I enjoyed and I was passionate about and the kind of Depression era of ‘30s and ‘40s kind of look and style of design. Kind of mashed up with a Universal Monsters kind of dilapidated castle kind of feel, and smashed all those environments together and that’s kind of where the Goon came out of. That and the fact that I really loved to draw, big, ugly guys. So I kind of just took all of those things. It’s definitely been a snowball effect. When I did the first issue of the Goon, I’d never written an entire comic before. So I feel like I’ve grown as a writer and an artist. And the series itself has developed as I’ve grown. And it’s definitely… I wouldn’t say all the issues are great, but it was fun for me to produce, and I hope people had fun reading it, although some of the issues are better than others. It’s always been a thing where I just pull ideas from the gut and just run with it. There’s never any master plan, it’s just always my emotions leading me to wherever the stories want to go.”

That turn just there at the end actually becomes a kind of theme for the interview—that Powell is self-effacing. He genuinely underplays the enormity of the impact he’s had on comics. In one creator, he’s immediately the heir to both the literary tradition of Watchmen and the cultural immediacy and temporariness of Caniff that Eisner praises in Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative.

As a way of probing the idea of the the Goon’s artistic DNA, I ask about Powell’s work process.

He replies, “Yeah, I actually have to, when I sit down and work on the book, I have to sit down and zone out and not think about everyone else not seeing it. I think I have to just do it for myself first, and if I’ve thought about other people reading it, I don’t think the book would be as good. Because I think I would kind of psych myself out a little bit and not be as free with what I put on the paper. And I think the book would suffer from being a little bit more mundane, a little bit less crazy. And think there’s a level of insanity that makes the book better. And different than other things that are out there.”

And almost before I can finalize my next question, Powell returns to being self-effacing, “By the way, let me make a correction to what I just said. So my point is clearer, I’m not saying that the Goon is better than other things out there, I’m saying it’s different than other things out there. But to answer your question, I don’t write full scripts. I mostly go through and just, because I envision the story in my head first, and because I’m writing for myself, I really just go through and script conversation, without going through and writing a full script. And then I build my lay-offs off of that dialog. Because I don’t need to point out every angle and detail. Because it’s already going through my mind. Once you have the dialog down, and a rhythm to it, a flow, the rest of it just falls into place.”

It’s enough to take my breath away. “It’s engaging,” I think to myself. “It’s engaging to find an artist who’s had one of the most significant impacts on the comics medium since Watchmen is also an artist who’s this humble.”

The idea of Powell’s humility, although, he might not think of it as humility, shines through almost from the very beginning. In an early question I ask about the genesis of the character. What was the moment in Powell’s personal history that pushed him to create the Goon?

“OK, at the beginning, I was struggling to try to get work in comics. I was working mostly as an inker, doing some drawing work, here and there. And I felt like, I wasn’t really getting to show off what I could do and at that point my work, the little bit of work that I was getting, was starting to dry up,” Powell tells me.

“So I felt like I should just…” he pauses, there’s emotion here for Powell, but probably not bitter or painful emotions. It’s a perception, my perception from talking with Powell; are the memories simply flooding in too quickly? Is there maybe too little scope for Powell to structure these memories now? Powell picks up again, “I was really painted into a corner. I needed to do my own book and do my own thing and show people what I was capable of… Or… I needed to go find something else to go do with my life. So I took a chance and pretty much jumped right into trying to get the Goon off the ground and focused all my energy on it. And luckily for me it immediately started getting some buzz over the internet and a few publications. And it took off right from the beginning.”

Before we circle back to the point of genesis and to the creative DNA that the Goon’s been imprinted with, and I do mean to circle back to that, we talk about the upcoming miniseries, Once Upon A Hard Time.

“The new miniseries, that comes out in February, Once Upon a Hard Time, the first issue of that is actually the 50th Dark Horse issue,” Powell begins, “So that’s kind of a special thing for me and Dark Horse. And it follows up right where Occassion of Revenge left off, where the Goon is not in such a great place. He’s been kind of torn down mentally and the coven of witches that have come into town, called the Magpies have put him through the wringer psychologically. And he’s in a pretty dark and destructive place. So everything that takes place in that first issue is pretty violent and its definitely, that storyline, is definitely a kind of season finale for the Goon storyline I’ve been setting up since issue one.”

Powell continues by talking about the genesis of the Goon. “Yeah, I had the idea of when I started the book, I wanted it to be this weird comic, but I also wanted it to be something I could tell any kind of story with,” Powell begins, “I wanted to be able to tell tragic stories, humor and horror and anything that interested me and I had the idea that, and it wasn’t fully formed when I started, but I had the idea that the Goon got his scars in Chinatown. Because that’s a very film noir kind of environment. In every mobster movie there’s always a Chinatown. I wanted it to be a sad story that wasn’t funny at all. Because I wanted it to twist the readers’ idea of what the comic should be. I wanted to surprise readers, to keep them guessing what I was trying to go for with the comic. It’s important for me that the characters, whether they’re goofy or cartoony, should still have emotional depth. I think when you start going, ‘Oh well that character’s funny, he makes jokes’ then it’s really uninteresting to me. You’re limiting yourself to what you can do with the character if you yourself see the character as one dimensional. Everybody has experienced… even the… some of the funniest people on the planet are the most tragic. You hear all the time about comedians and these tragic sad lives that they had, but through their comedy they found an escape or release from that. I want to have characters that show some depth and have a little more meaning than just something out there for a laugh.”

Now’s the right time to push, now’s the right time to circle back to earlier thoughts and traces. I ask about Powell’s perfectionist streak, if he has one as I imagine he might well have. He pauses then dives into the question, “Yeah it’s tough in comics because, any artist that’s really good, or that’s trying to be good, they never see what’s good in their own work. They see the imperfections, they see what’s wrong with it and they want to fix those things. So comics are a very hard medium to kind of work in to have that attitude. Because they are a periodical and you’re trying to get them out under a certain amount of time and to a deadline. You always seem to be somewhat under a rush. So it’s really just putting out the best product you can in a certain amount of time. I still don’t think I’ve had a good issue that I’ve looked at and a ‘I was 100% happy with that one, that one was exactly what I want.’ Because I see everything that I could have done better. And there are lots of issues that I go through and see and remember being under the gun and just trying to get this thing out. And I notice a lot of things I would have done differently or taken a little more time with. But I mean, it’s hard. You have to balance the perfectionist with the professional and find a happy medium. And eventually you just have to let it go. Because eventually it has to go to the printer and it has to hit the stand so you just have to let it go.”

And this allows me to circle back to deeper questions about how Powell constructs the tight drama of the Goon. Powell offers, “Yeah, because you’re working within the constraints of a 22 page story. And you have to get your point across in 22 pages. So I’ll roughly layout, this happens on page one, this happens on page two, this happens on page three, but then once I have a loose structure, I just go ahead and write the dialog. And to me the dialog is kind of, well I wouldn’t say it’s undervalued, but a lot of focus should be put on it. Because the interaction between the characters and having them speak in a way… How do I put it?… There’s a fine line between being snappy, and being too flowery. And I definitely agree with that idea of less is more. You have to condense what you want to say into the smallest fragment possible. But I feel like the interaction between the characters and getting their voices right and getting their patterns of speech and styles of speech down is pretty important to developing them as interesting characters people connect with.”

Maybe something about Powell as a creative mind would offer a deeper insight into his previous response. I ask if there’s anything that he’s listening to, anything that he’s reading, watching or playing right now. He responds, “I can’t listen or watch anything while I’m writing, because it’s too distracting. I kind of just have to sit in a quiet room and think about what I’m doing. Which is the hard part for me. Writing for me is so much harder than the drawing. It’s the part that really slows me down. If I had my story worked out, things would go faster. I think I could produce a lot more work. Because I’m a pretty fast artist, it’s the writing part that tends to take a lot of time for me. But when I am drawing I listen to a lot of music I listen to a lot of audiobooks. Audiobooks are pretty much the only way I get to read any more. I just don’t have the time. It seems like every hour of the day is pretty consumed with working or just the daily, just life takes up your time. Tasks around the house and stuff like that you have to do. So between working and just life, I don’t get a whole lot of time to read that much anymore. So luckily things like Audible where you can find a lot of good books, are ways for me to catch up.”

There’s a brief pause and he dives right in again, “I gravitate a lot towards horror stories, but I think I’m getting kinda burned out a little. Because it seems that just so much of it is repetitive and repeating itself and it’s a lot of people just trying to be Stephen King. So lately I’ve been reading a lot of, or listening to, a lot of nonfiction, a lot of biography, history and stuff like that. Which is funny. Because a lot of the time, the truth is way better than fiction. You hear so many stories that insane things that have happened to some people, and they’re better than anyone could have written.”

We’re near the end of the conversation, and I ask about the future of the Goon in print. Powell’s guarded, but congenially puts his guardedness behind a chuckle. “I’ve said online that Once Upon a Hard Time might be the last series entitled ‘The Goon’ that I do,” he begins, “And people were like ‘Oh no, you’re canceling the Goon.’ But I said no such thing. I said ‘may.’”

Another pause “My mythology is not going to end. So everyone who feels that’s the case, that’s not it. I’m taking some characters in a different direction. There’re going to be some deaths, there’s going to be some finality. But this mythology is going to continue. I’m going to take it into some different angles, and into a different storyline but this is not the end. It’s kind of going to be a new beginning.”

It feels like there might be an end. What was it Nathan Fillion said in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? “An end is truly here,” that’s it, it feels a little like that now. So I ask about Powell’s favorites. About his own greatest hits, if he himself were compiling the list. I mention that the Aunt Kizzie issue is probably my favorite, just because I really want to acknowledge that issue, and now’s the time to do it.

Another self-effacing chuckle. “Thank you, that one…” There’s a long pause. “That one means a lot to me. It was just a love letter to my grandmother. Who was a great person. She’s one of those people, and you know you have these people in your life, one of those who without a doubt just love you. And she was one of those people. And I knew, without a doubt, she just loved me. And she meant a lot to me. And after her passing I just wanted to do something dedicated to her. So that one, I kind of took the Aunt Kizzie character and applied a lot of feelings about my grandmother towards that. And to make an issue dedicated to her. That was one of my personal favorites. So I’m glad you like it as well. I think that the self published issue of the goon that I’ve done, with the first Buzzard issue in it, I think that’s one of my favorites, because I think it’s the first time that I actually… I think that the writing started to come up to the art, and I think that’s when I started to become a better writer and I started to make characters a little more complex. So that’s one of my personal highlights. And like I mentioned before, Chinatown, I was attempting something new. Chinatown is pretty special to me.”

And therein lies the magic of Eric Powell’s creativity. “So that one, I kind of took the Aunt Kizzie character and applied a lot of feelings about my grandmother towards that. And to make an issue dedicated to her.” It’s Powell’s almost infinite ability to intuitively understand the emotional yield of the landscape around him, and then resurrect that same emotional yield in his fictional world. And from earlier, “I wanted it to be this weird comic, but I also wanted it to be something I could tell any kind of story with.” Something adaptive, something immediate, temporary, something here-to-go. That’s the magic of the Goon, and that’s the magic of Eric Powell—not that the Goon is his legacy statement, rather that with the stories he proffers, Powell can push us into that strange liminal space where “legacy” is somehow at odds with “statement.”

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