By LJ Douresseau
Nov 23, 2003 - 11:27
Welcome to the third installment of MR. CHARLIE OPENS THE DOOR, where I bugged Steven Grant until he granted me an interview. We're here to promote Steven's new comic, MY FLESH IS COOL, coming out from Avatar Press in December. Avatar also published Steven's mini-series MORTAL SOULS, and you can still cop a trade version at better comic stores. It seems, however, that a lot of stores aren't representin' fo' real. Preorders for My Flesh is Cool are surprisingly low, and a lot of y'all are going to miss some work by a really good writer. If you don't know, you better ask somebody - like Warren Ellis. Readers can get more info on the series at http://www.avatarpress.com/myfleshiscool/.
Steven has created such diverse books as WHISPER and BADLANDS (currently in print from AiT/Planet Lar). His most famous work may be his mid-80's Marvel mini-series THE PUNISHER and the graphic novel sequel THE PUNISHER: RETURN TO BIG NOTHING (both with artist Mike Zeck). Steven redefined the character, and the series (collected in book form as THE PUNISHER: CIRCLE OF BLOOD) established the mode for the kind of mature genre work that would make mainstream comics accessible to older readers. In a recent years, a shortage of imaginative editors has limited Grant's assignments at the big companies, but he's remains a vital voice through his work as a columnist and an essayist.
Please tell us about the premise and length of My Flesh is Cool.
MY FLESH IS COOL is a three-issue mini-series about a contract killer, Evan Knox, who uses a secret drug to throw his mind into other people's bodies. This allows him to go anywhere, via other people, to fulfill his commissions and leave no evidence tying anything to him. His targets are all apparently killed by spouses, employees, children, total strangers, etc. He doesn't even necessarily kill people; it depends on the ultimate objective. But he's a victim of his own success; his employers ultimately think his secret is worth more to them than he is. So he finds himself being hunted, but he's betrayed by someone he really never expected to betray him. Bad things happen, esp. between issue #1 and #2; the world changes. Civilization breaks down, with no end in sight unless Evan can do something about it. It's sort of a crime story, sort of a sci-fi story, sort of a sociological experiment. Above all, it's an action thriller.
What kind of character is Evan Knox?
He's a fun guy, actually. Young, sexy, confident but not overbearing. A nice guy, someone you'd love to go to lunch with. Women like him. He can get a little tense when pushed to the wall, though. He has a pragmatic attitude toward his work - I wouldn't say he enjoys it, but he's good at it - but he also has a fairly strong, if idiosyncratic, moral sense. There are lines he won't cross. He doesn't like seeing people hurt unnecessarily. Conversely, he can get pretty merciless if he feels someone else has crossed the line. He's complicated, but he doesn't let most people see that. That's how he likes it, he doesn't like people taking him seriously enough to start asking questions.
How long have you been developing this project with Avatar, and what was the final breakthrough that got it off the ground?
There wasn't really any "breakthrough." I had just written the first arc of MORTAL SOULS for Avatar, and its publisher, William Christensen, asked if I had anything else. I didn't, really, but I had a title that had been in the back of my mind since the mid-80s, MY FLESH IS COOL. I'd never had the opportunity to use it before, but I really liked it. I think it's a striking title, very unusual for comics, and it conjures up Mickey Spillane novels and old movies and sexiness and things like that. I'd also written a screenplay that never went anywhere called SLIDER, about people who throw their minds into other people's bodies, so I cribbed that basic idea, though MY FLESH IS COOL is nothing like SLIDER. It's an idea that has fascinated me for a long time. It's the ultimate freedom, to be able to do whatever you want and other people suffer the repercussions, not you. Most people, I think, would treat it as the ultimate freedom from morality, once they realized there would be no personal repercussions. Evan believes that, but he has a moral core that keeps him from taking full advantage of it. That's sort of the point of the story, how shortcutting morality ultimately repercusses in one way or another. We all build our own booby traps without realizing it, and we all get caught in them.
Is this project something that you just had to write to get it out of your head, or is it something you feel the market needs or is demanding? Is it a combination of the two?
Not so much what I felt the market demands as the type of book I think it needs. It's brisk, energetic, with really nice artwork by Sebastian Fiumara, I think it makes for a fun read with lots of twists and turns. It's a challenge to write a book where the audience doesn't see the next thing coming, but the next thing still flows logically from the last thing. It's a book where as soon as you're sure it's one thing it turns into another thing. I could have played it as a straight crime book but I wanted to experiment with content a little, and I'd like to see more experimentation from a lot of people. Comics are supposed to be mad and inventive, and way too many people are too satisfied with simply copying what came before. That's what Avatar's good for, really; it's a great place to experiment, to get fast and loose with genre, to write more unusual characters than a lot of other venues feel comfortable with. Aside from the title, it wasn't even something I knew I had IN my head until the subject came up, then it just flowed out, pretty more full blown. But I think it came out great, and I hope other people see it that way.
Can you describe the process of how you actually write your comics, but after the conception through the script phase. Was the process different for My Flesh is Cool?
Every script is a little different. First, though, I work every morning, three hours minimum, and usually four or five, seven days a week. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm typing away the whole time, but I'm sitting at the word processor, working out solutions to problems. I start with a standard Word template that gives me as many pages to work with as I need. An idea can come from anywhere, something I've read that tweaked some notion, sometimes an editor will call up and say, "I need a story for so-and-so" or "can you do an issue of CATWOMAN?" or whatever. In general, I try to figure out the parameters I have to work with, it saves time in the long run. The main characters come first, because they form the scope of the story, their characteristics determine the action. You ask me for a Batman vs. the Joker story, that'll be a significantly different story than a Batman and Batgirl vs. the Joker because there's another, different character dynamic in there, and ever character dynamic pushes the story in a different direction. I always try to figure out how I want a story to end first, since a) it gives me a direction to go in and b) you never really know what a story's about until you know how it's going to end, since the ending puts everything else in perspective. You can have the exact same story, but if the hero triumphs and lives at the end, it means one thing, and if he fails and dies (or triumphs and dies, or fails and lives) it means something else. Then I try to figure out a good place to open, then I start filling in everything between, which is basically a matter of figuring out what will fit in the allotted space, then figure out specific action that will keep pushing the story toward the ending. I watch the character interactions develop, figure out how that changes things. I generally don't work things out scene by scene before I start writing, I feel my way through them as I go along. I don't really do drafts. I know some people say to do a complete draft and then start the rewriting, but I can't do that. I rewrite constantly, little bits here and there, adjusting things as I go along. As I break down the action I'll stick in bits of dialogue here and there. Eventually everything gets sorted out, then I'll go back to the beginning and start seriously writing the dialogue, which often calls for fine tuning to the action as I go along. When the dialogue's down, I'll look to see if there's any information missing and see where dialogue either has to be adjusted or captions needed to explain or clarify something. I often do fairly elaborate notes to the artist to get them to convey as much story information in the art as possible, because I'm not a huge fan of expository captions. In a perfect world, they wouldn't be necessary, but sometimes they are. I'd prefer the story info be carried either in art or dialogue, usually, but expository captions are preferable to clunkily expository dialogue. After a long stretch of steering away from captions, I'm starting to look seriously at captions as a tool again, but not for exposition.
Anyway, at some point in the process, the story's as done as I'm going to make it, and I send it in. That's the process for full scripts, which is mostly what I do. I can generate plots if an artist would rather work that way, but most of them end up preferring to work off my full scripts. Mike Zeck prefers plots, but when I work with Mike there's a lot of back and forth, which I usually don't have with artists, and he has a lot of input. For Paul Smith, in the rare moments I work with him, I'll write a short story because that's what he likes, then he "adapts" the story into comics form. I'm not very picky about it, I'll pretty much work any way that makes the artist happy.
How often did you get to peek at the art while it was being drawn, and did you have to do a lot of tweaking during that process?
I rarely look at art as it's being drawn. My feeling is that, especially with full script, the script is my contribution to bossing the artist around. I prefer to think I can trust artists, I don't like to be put in the position of second guessing them. As long as we're both telling the same story, it's not usually a problem.
What is your relationship with your artistic collaborators? Do you have to do a lot of babysitting or do you write your scripts so that they have a pretty clear idea of what to do?
The latter, hopefully. If they don't have a clear idea, I haven't written the script well enough.
Flesh is three issues like Mortal Souls. Why is that? Is it because you can make a three-issue series like the three act film structure?
It's because Avatar likes three-issue mini-series.
What advantages are there to publishing through Avatar? How did y'all first hookup?
Hmmm... how did we hook up? I think William Christensen approached me at San Diego and said Warren Ellis, who was doing STRANGE KISS for Avatar at the time, had mentioned me. My response was pretty much, "Huh. Okay. Cool. Nice meeting you." I wasn't very familiar with Avatar then, and I get a lot of little publishers talking to me theoretically about work before admitting they have no money, so I generally don't push things a lot. (Despite my sympathies for "the little guy," this IS what I do for a living and I can't afford to underwrite people's publishing dreams.) The next year at San Diego, William approached me again, more adamantly, and we started talking. One thing led to another, and here we are.
The main advantages of Avatar are that a) William is publisher and editor so pitching isn't a ridiculous committee-fied process, you pitch to William and he pretty much says yes or no; b) once a project is settled on, William pretty much stays out of it creatively; c) Avatar doesn't want anything but publishing rights, which means the company is focused on publishing, not on becoming a multimedia giant, and they're not looking to snatch ownership away from creators. That's a pretty rare attitude among comics publishers these days.
How is writing X-MAN or something like your PUNISHER work different from your Avatar-published work?
It isn't terribly different, aside from when you're doing work-for-hire comics you're working according to someone else's restrictions (what type of story you can do, how the characters can behave, the sort of world or milieu they operate in, language, etc.) and when you're doing creator-owned material you're for the most part choosing your own. The restrictions I choose to place on my work can be as capricious as any editor or publisher's choices, certainly, but it's nice to be given the chance to fail on your own terms.
Your fine mini-series DAMNED was recently collected into a trade paperback. I always felt that retailers and fans really missed the boat on some of the finest crime fiction ever published in American comics. Do you take the trade publication of the series as vindication of the series worth or are your feelings more complicated than that? What do your hope trade publication will do for Damned of for yourself? Does it open the door for another series like it?
I don't know if I'd say it was a vindication. I just liked the story too much (and so did Mike) to see it vanish like a stone. I hope the trade paperback will make me rich, but I don't really expect it. As for what it does or doesn't open the door for, that's hard to determine. That's for publishers to decide. All we really wanted out of the trade paperback was a trade paperback, it'll keep the story alive.
My personal favorite of your work is TWILIGHT MAN, originally published by First Comics. Could you briefly describe the story as it was finally published?
Seriously, a lot of people liked the TWILIGHT MAN mini-series, but I was personally very disappointed with it. The plot device behind TM was that a thousand years ago, warriors from all over the world teamed up to battle the Gods, and drove them off earth. 10,000 warriors united for the battle; three survived. Two of them, a father and son, collected all the mystic weapons from the battlefield and their family became the Twilight Men, standing on the boundary between light and darkness, preserving the weapons and guarding against the return of the Gods. The story took place modern day, with the last of the Twilight Men, pretty much believing his old man, a true believer, is a full-of-crap lunatic. The old man is in an old folks home, and our hero, a stuntman by trade, has sold off most of the "antiques" to make ends meet. Then it turns out the Gods have come back, and our hero is stuck fighting them, but he has to get the weapons back to do it.
The underlying theme of all this, which I felt was lost in the finished product, is that we live our lives in a state of unconscious ancient ritual, and that's got to stop if we're going to get anywhere. You can bring it down to biology if you want: why are we still mostly operating with our lizard brain instead of our prefrontal lobes? My original arc was 12 issues long and very political. First wanted it cut down to four. I couldn't cut it down to four and keep anything I wanted, so I came up with a new story. Several new stories. They kept having objections to them. (I had one basically equating Dionysus with Jesus; they really didn't like that one.) Eventually we ended up with the Ahriman story, which was a little too in-your-face for what I'd originally wanted and kind of ran away with itself in the end. It just sort of turned into another issue of DR. STRANGE as far as I was concerned. On top of that, the artist, I don't recall his name off the top of his head, he was a good painter but declared from the git-go that "audiences no longer care about storytelling." So that wasn't a good sign either. The only issue of the mini I personally liked was the second issue, where Eric Kinkaid, the Twilight Man, tracks down one of his weapons in a Californian mountain town that drew parallels between ancient Pan worship and modern child molestation and incest, which was the only real surviving plot element from my original concept. I thought that issue turned out very nicely, especially the conclusions about behavior. That issue summed up what I really wanted the concept to be. The rest of it was trying to appease too many people, and it mainly taught me not to try that again.
Of course, I'm not saying anyone was wrong in liking the series. I'm glad they did. A part of me thinks, "Man, if only they'd seen what it should have been..." But who knows? They might have hated it.
(As an aside, I don't remember it, but I'm told one of the issues had a fan letter from the Wachowski Brothers [ Larry in #4, ljd] excoriating the series. Fun facts to know and tell...)
It is my understanding that it was meant to be longer than four issues. What were the original plans for the series in terms of length and story? Would you mind briefly telling us how the story was supposed to work, if you're not saving it for something else?
Y'know, if you'd asked me that a year ago, I probably would have told you. But it's funny how things come back around. The conditions that made TWILIGHT MAN a concept worth pursuing in 1988 are back in force again as 2004 approaches. But the mini-series that was done was only supposed to be four issues. My original concept was 12 issues, and I had four or five story arcs in mind past that. It's a concept that could hold its own for awhile, there's plenty to feed it.
Is Twilight Man basically a dead issue, or would you like to revisit and make it closer to what you intended?
I've always wanted to revisit it, to do, basically, the "Earth-1" version of TWILIGHT MAN, disconnected from the version that appeared. It's not something that, on the surface of it, would be an easy sell to most publishers. But there are a lot of options open now. I'm very seriously considering resurrecting the idea and "doing it right" in 2004?
Would you attempt something like it again, and do you think there is a comics publisher today that would take on the property without taking ownership and creative control?
Sure, there are publishers who would meet those terms. I'm also looking at the possibility of doing it online. The other aspect of TWILIGHT MAN is that it was designed to be a modern sword-and-sorcery book, without a lot of the crappy trappings of the genre. I have several ideas that would fit in that neo-genre. I wouldn't mind doing any of them, but sword-and-sorcery has been a pretty debased genre as far as publishers are concerned for the last decade or so, and I think the concept of modern day sword-and-sorcery goes right past most of them. But now that the CONAN revival has begun and LORD OF THE RINGS is a hot box office ticket (hell, you could include PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN in that), there may be new possibilities.
What's your view of your career for the immediate future? Are there future projects that you'd like to hint at or anything besides My Flesh is Cool is are set to be in stores now and in the next few months?
Man, my main career objective these days is to get the bills paid. But there's a lot going on. I'm reviving EDGE, the anti-superhero series Gil Kane and I did at Bravura. At Avatar, I'm adapting Frank Miller's ROBOCOP screenplays and writing new ROBOCOP material. Besides MY FLESH IS COOL, I've got a series coming up from Avatar called SACRILEGE, about a couple low-rent bounty hunters who get one last chance to salvage their career by tracking down a master thief who stole the Vatican's most prized and dangerous relic -- the immortal, talking severed head of Jesus Christ, who insists he is not now nor has he ever been the Son of God. It's a fun little story, it has gotten great raves from everyone who has read the script. Also, I'm helping Avatar out with VIVID COMICS, based on Vivid Video porn actresses. The trick to those is that they have to be real stories; I'm doing mine as crime comics. I've got three graphic novels coming up with AiT/PlanetLar Books, including a WHISPER revival called DAY X; a western, RED SUNSET; and, if I can ever find time to finish the script, a political crime comic called VIDEOACTIVE. I'm doing a historical story for METAL HURLANT. There are a lot of other things in discussion, but I really can't talk about them.
Your recent interview with Ed Brubaker for your PERMANENT DAMAGE column at CBR was an intelligent conversation between two creators with good ideas about getting good comics in front of more readers. At the end of the day, were both of you just pissing in the wind, or am I just too damn cynical?
Nah, Ed and I are about the most optimistic guys you'll ever find. Know what cynicism is? Cynicism is "hell, comics'll never change, let's just do old superheroes in old ways for the 12,000 regular readers we've got left and don't bring up anything else, it bums me out." Ed and I might grouse about things, but we wouldn't even think a chat like that was worth bothering with if we didn't think change was possible. If you think change is possible, you're not cynical, that's the bottom line. If you're interested in changing things for the better, you're not cynical. But in order to know what needs to be changed, things need to be discussed.
Would you like to freestyle and say whatever's on your mind?
I'm hungry, I'm thinking about all the work I have to do, and I'm wondering why I'm not making more money for all the work I'm doing. Ever notice how when you ask people to say what's on their mind, they can never think of anything in the moment? Freestyling is what I do on Tuesdays, when I sit down to write my column.
AND THAT'S A WRAP. I want to thank Steven for his time, and I also want to thank his publisher, Avatar boss William Christensen, for providing images from MY FLESH IS COOL. This article comes with a few images from selected Grant projects. Interested readers can buy Steven's work at the online comic shops Khepri, http://www.khepri.com/sgrant.html, and marsimport.com. Steven's fabulous noir, crime drama collaboration with Mike Zeck, DAMNED, can be had at cyberosia.com. Practically every Wednesday, Steven drops his column PERMANENT DAMAGE at comicbookresources.com. Steven is always chatting with readers either on the Permanent Damage message board at CBR or at his Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, http://forums.delphiforums.com/stevengrant. You can also visit Steven's company, PAPER MOVIES, at its website, papermovies.com.