By LJ Douresseau
Apr 15, 2004 - 10:45
If the comics press, web and print, were more like THE COMICS JOURNAL and less like WIZARD, small press cartoonist Ezra Claytan Daniels would be a (comics) household name. In the last year or so, Daniels published a two-part graphic novel set called THE CHANGERS. In Book One, EVOLUTION IS OUR RIGHT, Daniels introduces us to a time traveling duo from humanity's far-flung future, come to the present day to change the course of human evolution. In Book Two, OUR OBLIGATION TO THE FUTURE, the duo grapples with the philosophical and moral issues of changing the future, especially when they have concrete evidence that mankind will suffer in this altered future.
It's not that often that relatively young or talent new to the game attempts probing subject matter or really involved stories. Quite a few have abandoned ambitious projects (Jae Lee's HELLSHOCK and Elaine Lee & Michael Kaluta's STARSTRUCK, to name two), but Daniels finished his story, and in the process has written a work that will very likely be in consideration one day when some smart comics art people decide to make a list of the top speculative fiction or sci-fi graphic novels.
I read The Changers last year in order to review the books for THE COMICS INTERPRETER magazine, and a few weeks ago, I finally decided to contact Daniels for the following interview, Mr. Charlie #26:
Would you mind giving us a little background or biographical info about yourself?
EZRA: Born in Sioux City Iowa in 1979, the product of a teen pregnancy--my mom was a middle class white girl with a wild streak, my dad an ever-enigmatic black guy from the other side of town. In Iowa, this was an interesting circumstance to be raised in, to say the least. But I stayed there until I was 19, then moved to Portland, Oregon to study film at a liberal arts college. I dropped out after two semesters, then fell into a career in forensic and medical illustration and eventually rediscovered comics.
What were the first comics you encountered, and how did you feel about them?
EZRA: The first comics I ever saw were my uncle Bobby's stash of seventies-era Marvel Comics. I devoured them as grade-schooler, though I don't remember ever actually reading them. It was the art that got me, I guess. In middle school, I became obsessed with those Marvel Universe trading cards, the first three series, where they would have the character's stats and bio's on the back of each card like baseball cards. I just loved reading about totally obscure characters I'd never even heard of, and admiring the art of some of the most innovative artists in the mainstream industry at the time like Sam Keith, Mark Texiera, Art Adams... Looking back, those cards were just a tremendous resource. I still have all of them, too. Somewhere.
When did you start thinking about drawing comics, and what kind of comics were you interested in creating back then?
EZRA: I guess I made comics when I was in middle school, and I always somehow knew I would end up doing it for a living... but somehow, in high school, even though I did a comic for the school paper, I kind of lost my enthusiasm for the medium. In Iowa, the most progressive comic you were going to find was Frank Miller's Sin City, which I naturally loved, but it wasn't until I moved to Portland that I found out there were people making comics with kind of a more realistic and introspective bent. I mean the basic 'alternative' guys like [Daniel] Clowes and [Chris] Ware and Los Bros. Hernandez. This was kind of a revelation for me. I think I was twenty or twenty one when I finally gave up on film and put out my first actual mini-comic, which was just a straight-up autobiographical self-pity fest--the kind of thing it seems like almost every mini-comics creator puts out early in their career. Of course, at the time, I thought I was being completely original and marvelously insightful.
Who were the artists who influenced you and continue to influence you?
EZRA: Early on, it was Frank Miller. He was the first post-Marvel artist whose name I learned. Later, like I said, Chris Ware... Now I'm really into Charles Burns, and a lot of the old METAL HURLANT artists like Enki Bilal, Moebius, etc. I also really love Vittorio Giardino and Francois Boucq. My favorite creator at the moment is Junji Ito, who was a pretty big influence on some of the horror aspects of THE CHANGERS.
Although I am going to attempt to describe The Changers in the intro to this interview, I count on myself to mess it up a little. Would you mind describing the characters and situations in The Changers?
EZRA: Well, fundamentally, The Changers is a story about the nature of perfection. It's a story about two brothers from a perfect society who are sent back in time to alter Human evolution because their society's definition of perfection had changed. Once the evolutionary catalyst changes their future to something completely different, a visitor comes back from this altered future to thank them and tell them what it's like in this new future. But what he tells them is not exactly what they expected, so the two brothers have to reevaluate the definition of perfection yet again, and consider if maybe the society they left behind really was the closest thing the Human race could have achieved to perfection. The drama starts when it becomes clear that the brothers have very differing opinions of this definition, and they have to decide whether or not to continue with their mission. But the nature of the mission is such that the only way they can stop the catalyst is if they kill themselves.
What issues and ideas interested you enough to beget The Changers, or did the concept exist before you were exposed to any particular ideas?
EZRA: The Changers is basically my own personal fantasy played out as a comic. Each of the characters in the story has a direct counterpart in my own real life. It has always been my dream, like most people, I imagine, to be somehow special, or unique in a really extraordinary way. What if my roommate and I were time travelers from three million years into the future, and my friend who was visiting from out of state was actually a mutant from an alternate future? And all the philosophical, religious, political and racial tangents were just the things that were going through my mind at the time--like I said, my upbringing as a socially deprived half-breed in a small town left a lot of unresolved personal issues when I left there. The narrative structure of The Changers just became the perfect pulpit for me to sort of get a lot of that stuff out of my system.
How long had you been working on The Changers? Did you have to do a lot of research, and did you have to rewrite and redraw often?
EZRA: It took me about a year to write The Changers, which was originally written as a screenplay. During this year, I was working two part-time jobs and I put out the three issues of DISPOSABLE BOY as well, so it wasn't like a concentrated effort. Then a few years later, after I decided I didn't like making movies as much as comics, I decided to adapt the story to comic form and took another year to draw it, but this time I actually devoted several hours a day to it. I also took some of this second year to write all five of the Observation Reports that break up the chapters. This was the only aspect of the book that I really did research for. I'm not going to pretend I just knew all that stuff out of my head. And there wasn't a whole lot of redrawing other than a few early pages from the first chapter. The way I set up production made it really easy for me to edit things until literally the moment it went to press. I did the art on a regular drawing pad, then scanned it into my computer and converted each page to vector-based art so I could scale and tweak every little detail to my heart's content without ever worrying about resolution or image degradation. And the dialog was a constantly evolving process as well. Every time I looked at a page, I would change something about the dialog, which was why it was so important for me to use a font instead of handwritten text--though I did custom design the fonts from my own handwriting samples.
Did you show The Changers as a work in progress to colleagues and/or people inside comics? And did you send out a lot of review copies before you started publishing it?
EZRA: Yeah, I made a little teaser booklet of the first twelve pages and showed it to my friends and the guys who worked at the comic shop. I didn't know anybody really inside comics back then. The Changers was a big project, and I'd never done anything like this with an actual fictional narrative before, so I wanted to make sure the structure and storytelling style was at least sensical. Later, I printed up 50 copies of a crappy little Prototype Book, which included the entire 30-page first chapter as well as the first observation report. I sent this book out to a few review venues, publishers and small distributors, to get a little feedback from the general public--and I actually did get some great pointers that affected the style of the rest of the book.
Was the story split into two by reason of economic necessity or was it split thematically?
EZRA: Neither. I'd spent six months isolated at my drafting table drawing the story while I sent off submission packets to publishers and filed away their rejections. The Changers is broken up into six chapters because I was proposing it to publishers as a six-issue miniseries. But I was almost finished with the third chapter by the time I finally accepted that I wasn't going to get it published, and I just started to feel like I was disappearing because I hadn't put anything out in so long. Disposable Boy got a little attention in the zine/mini-comic community so there were a few people out there wondering what I was going to do next. I guess I just didn't want people to forget who I was, so I decided to split the entire story in half and print up a big book of all my work to date to debut at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco the following month. It was cheaper to print the two bigger books than it would have been to print six smaller ones, but frankly, it just came down to me getting impatient for people to see what I'd been working on. There is a thematic and tonal difference to the two halves, though, so I think it worked out pretty well.
When you presented it to Diamond Distributors, how did they react to it? Did you have to spend lots of money with them or someone else to promote it?
EZRA: Robert, my Brand Manager at Diamond seemed pretty enthusiastic about it when I just sent him the book cold. The month it debuted, Diamond even gave it the 'Certified Cool' endorsement, which was awesome. I didn't have any extra money to do any marketing after paying for the printing of the books, so it was strictly word-of-mouth and sending free copies to every comic book/sci-fi/graphic design website or magazine that I could find an address for. But Diamond recently decided to re-list the books, so I did spend a little money on promotion this time, and I'm self-financing a book tour this spring to help push my new project, which is a CD of my audio diary with a bunch of original background music.
What's the critical reaction to The Changers been like, and did you really care what "the critics" thought?
EZRA: The critical response has been phenomenal. Even to the point that I'm feeling a little pressure for my sophomore effort. And yeah, it mattered to me what the critics said. I mean, I made The Changers because it was the book that I wanted to read, the book I thought was missing from the shelves. But even more than that, it was just my non-verbal, non-direct attempt at Human communication. And if people weren't feeling where I was coming from, then it would've kind of defeated the purpose of reaching out like that to begin with.
What's reader reaction been like? Have you noticed a big increase in visits to your site since the books came out?
EZRA: No, my site is a pretty desolate ghost town as far as web tourism goes. My hits have about doubled since the books came out, but I'm talking doubling from 3 unique visitors to like 6-8. And oddly, even though the print run, exposure, and distribution of The Changers vastly outmatches that of Disposable Boy, the amount of response from readers has been about the same. I guess it makes sense though. Disposable Boy was such a cloying plea for connection, while The Changers is colder, and a little more subtle with its pleading. The types of people who write in have been enormously different between the two titles. I got a lot more mail from girls when I was putting out my heartbreaking little minis.
I've been visiting your website, and I blown away by your answers to on the page "Personal FAQ." For one thing, you describe yourself as boring and not very social. The Changers however is very social. There's a lot of contact between characters and many "social situations." Is it possible to write fiction that involves a lot of contact between varied people, and the author not be a "social person." Do you really have to interact with lots of people or can an author be well served just by observing, if he is a loner?
EZRA: It does seem kind of trendy or predictable to describe oneself as a shy loner these days, especially in comics. There was a period in high school when I went completely without socialization for about a year, and just spent all my time alone writing and drawing, so I do have some loner cred, but nowadays I have a pretty solid circle of friends. If an author is observant of the people around them and pays close attention to what works and what doesn't for other writers, I don't really think it's necessary to actively interact with people to get a good feel for dialog. But I still think a lot of the interactions portrayed in The Changers are weighted heavily with that insecurity and social awkwardness of not having experienced a whole lot of direct interaction, which just felt very real and natural to me. I wouldn't describe any of the characters in the story as really charismatic, which I guess is what I mean when I use the term "social."
You do seem to share some very personal info about yourself. I know that some big media celebrities like to give lots of personal info about themselves (their upbringing, relationships with family and friends, criminal past, etc.). Is there a particular reason why you share intimate tidbits with readers?
EZRA: It's important for me to feel like I don't have anything to hide. I think it also has to do with the fact that I've lived kind of a specific lifestyle--I've done certain things in a way that I couldn't really find much precedent for in the media or popular culture, so on some level, I feel like I'm just trying to represent. I just turned 25 in February, and I decided that for my 25th year I was going to clinically experience all the things I deprived myself of until that point. So before that, I was a 24 year-old virgin who'd never had a drink of alcohol, a puff of tobacco, or anything. I was like an urban monk, and I prided myself on that. It was kind of a rebellion against popular culture, and the indoctrination that your masculine self worth should be measured by how often you get laid and how many of your personal anecdotes begin with the phrase, "I got totally trashed, and then..." But you just don't see the other side of that very often in the media, or at least not in the way the media portrays the "creative/entertainment industry."
The Changers is probably the most involved sci-fi comic I've ever read. By that I mean, you seriously consider the social implications of science upon humanity and still retain the compelling drama so necessary to make a story worth reading. I'm comparing that to something like The Terminator film, which I like, but is a frivolous high concept.
Since The Changers began as a screenplay, did you ever struggle with "keep it simple stupid," as in lighten up the story with spunky chatter, hip characters, and costumes with cool designs? Or is this your attempt, even indirectly, to show that comics can tackle any subject matter with the kind of depth we'd expect in a novel?
EZRA: Hey, The Changers has spunky chatter, hip characters and cool costume design! No, actually, though it was originally written as a screenplay, it wasn't a screenplay that I was going to try to sell to a studio--it was a screenplay that I had every intention of producing myself, so marketability was never really a concern. Like I said, I didn't have any agenda with this other than to just tell the story I wanted to hear. And a part of that was sort of reinterpreting some of the stories I was raised with, like THE TERMINATOR, BACK TO THE FUTURE, PREDATOR, ROBOCOP and mixing that with the stuff I was into at the time: Andrei Tarkovsky, Terence Malick, David Cronenberg. I'm not Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I don't know anybody who is. If a hostile alien came to earth to hunt Humans, I would be more interested in hearing about how people like myself and my peers would react and cope with that than an impossible fantasy character like "Dutch" from Predator. Not that Dutch wasn't a badass.
Since I must shamefully admit to having never read Disposable Boy, would you mind telling us a little about the comic? Will you collect it in book from because I noticed that you list the first issue as "sold out" on your site?
EZRA: Disposable Boy was just a series that focused on the only thing I really knew a lot about at the time, which was: what it was like to be me. All the Disposable Boy stuff is posted on the site, so I most likely will never reprint any of it.
How much do you follow what's going on in comics: mainstream, indy, art, etc? Do you read the news sites, magazines like THE COMICS JOURNAL, and gossip columns? Do you read so-called mainstream comics - stuff published by Marvel and DC?
EZRA: I have a huge tab at my regular comic shop because they buy my books with store credit, so I do read and buy kind of a lot of books. I sometimes take the advice of the clerks there and pick up a newer, semi-mainstream book that I probably wouldn't have considered otherwise, like 100 BULLETS or Y: THE LAST MAN. And my little brother gets things like Dreamwave's new TRANSFORMERS comics and DAREDEVIL: YELLOW that he sends me after he reads them. Most of the time though, I fixate onto a particular artist and just try to find more stuff by them--such was the case with Junji Ito, Moebius and--oh yeah, Katsuhiro Otomo. I really love certain publishers, too, like NBM always seems to have really interesting, literary stuff, and a lot of the older Catalan catalog. I don't really keep up with what's going on currently in the industry, other than what my comic friends tell me about. I'm a terribly jealous and bitter bastard, so I don't like reading about how great other people's books are if they are my contemporaries. No, I'm joking... Kind of.
Someone is going to ask you this if no has already. Do you thinks that Direct Market comic book shops are important to developing comics as serious art and/or storytelling, or do you think that's going to come through branching out to bookstores, record shops, the Internet, etc.? And if comic book shops are important, is it a particular kind of shop?
EZRA: First time anybody's asked me that, actually. I probably don't have any ideas that haven't already been thunk, but here goes. I think direct market shops are important to comics just like dedicated record stores are to music. But the music industry wouldn't be as strong as it is if they didn't sell CD's at Walgreen's and Target, too. The most important thing to getting people to take comics seriously is to get them to READ comics in the first place. And you can't expect the general population to make the effort to actually go out of their way to get a particular comic book when they are just marginally curious. In a perfect world, whenever you'd see a Bestseller's rack at the grocery store, you'd see JIMMY CORRIGAN right next to it. I think a big part of the problem is just that a lot of people don't even realize there are really accessible, mature, reality-based comics out there. I mean, the comic book equivalent to something like, I don't know, the latest Danielle Steel or something, shouldn't be the new Spider-Man TPB, it should be BLANKETS, even though the Spidey book would be the higher seller in the comic book market. Much as I appreciate them, superhero books are such a specific genre, there isn't really a literary equivalent to it. So when Random Joe is thinking about investing in a diversion to the John Grisham book he's reading, and the only non-Archie comic they carry on the rack next to the register is Iron Man vs. Fin Fang Foom, you just can't expect him to take that leap. If you get QUEEN & COUNTRY on that rack, then we're making progress. But just like in the music industry, you're not going to find a local indy singer songwriter like Shelley Short's debut CD at the check-out counter, so you'd have to go to some smaller, locally owned, independent record shop. There will never be a time when you see self-published books like The Changers at your grocery store, and that's perfectly reasonable, but if someone sees Y: The Last Man next to some "Star Trek" novella and says 'hey this comic stuff ain't so bad', then THAT'S where I come in.
How long have you been a musician and when did your interest in music begin?
EZRA: Um... That's the first time anybody's ever referred to me as a musician. Let's see. Growing up, I used to play on my grandma's piano a lot, just tapping away at the keys and funking up tunes she taught me, like "Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater." I started to really compose stuff in my senior year of high school, when I first started making short films and wanted to explore musical accompaniment. It began out of necessity rather than passion, really, though music is probably the most therapeutic of creative outlets for me. It's the only thing I do that I have no real intention of getting serious about, so it's the only thing I can do that doesn't entail a significant amount of pressure.
What genres or musical styles do you like? Who do you like to listen to and who influences your music?
EZRA: I used to be really into film scores. Alain Goraguer's LA PLANETE SAUVAGE score is still one of my all time favorite albums. Ennio Morricone and John Barry are also great. I love music that exists to portray a very specific idea or emotion. Film scores tend to be that way by definition. But my very favorite musical artist is Stevie Wonder. His music is just so sincere and pure, and just sort of follows its own trend. I love Stevie Wonder.
It's almost required that I ask this: how does your music relate to your comics? Do you think there are similarities between comics and music?
EZRA: Music, I think, is the antithesis of comics. Comics are visual and tactile, and as a creator, you have no control over the element of time in relation to the reader. Music is everything that comics are not, just by the nature of what it is. Music is time. Music has no more visual aspect than a comic has audio in its written sound effects. It's just a different organism entirely, it's working a completely different part of your brain to ultimately elicit a very similar emotional response from your audience.
I found Geaza's "Observational Reports," the text pages that are interspersed in sections of the graphic narrative of The Changers, as equally intriguing as the comics story. Why did you decide to include those, and how do they enrich the graphic narrative?
EZRA: I used those really just to try to flesh out the world I'd created. In writing this story, there was so much I had to cut out because it just didn't flow with the emotional narrative. By introducing these text interludes, I was able to address certain things about the story and this universe that would've been just dry exposition in the context of the story itself, but still valuable to understanding who these people are, how they think, and where they came from. Like the whole story behind the Changers' numerically-based names--this was something which would have totally stopped the story if I had to explain it conversationally. But that's the great thing about comics. If this were a movie, I wouldn't have been able to stop between reels to read off a 1500 word essay about the projected evolution of cats and dogs.
My favorite Observational Report was the one entitled "Racial Classification." It's uncanny how much sense it makes and how accurate it is. Even the future projections it makes seem prophetic. I liked the commentary on African-American culture, so I'll ask this. Do you find African-American pop culture to be based upon fear, cynicism, and negativity, or is that just what seems to come to the forefront? This is specifically in relation to popular music, film, television, and video presentations.
EZRA: Well, African American pop culture is what's at the forefront. This cynicism and violence is the only thing that is presented in most media representations of the culture, and it's been that way for a lot longer than I've even been alive. The things that aren't presented are, ironically, the things that the culture has in common with every other culture. I'm talking about just basic mundane Human existence. The elements that make Black culture marketable are the things that are in starkest contrast with the White culture that it's largely being marketed to. By this, I'm not talking about the VIOLENCE, which, believe it or not, is a universal Human trait. I'm talking about the lingo and mannerisms associated with that specific culture of violence. It's "dangerous and subversive," and therefore marketable. And since it's the only thing that is presented, it just fuels itself.
Do you think that "harmful stereotypes," of black culture as portrayed in popular music and music videos actually do a disservice to African-Americans or harm "social advancement." If so, do artists, entertainers, and creators have an obligation to be thoughtful of and responsible for the work they put out?
EZRA: Absolutely, it does a disservice. If the only representations of Blacks you see in the popular culture are criminals and womanizers, then EVERYONE is going to be affected by that and become more distrustful. And that was a very important point I made in that report, that even though Bisso and Geaza are Black themselves, they are still susceptible to the subtle racist propaganda that infiltrates their lives by way of the various media outlets they are exposed to. It's not a paradox that just cancels itself out. It's a very real manipulation that leads to self-hatred and self-destruction. And if it's not the responsibility of the Black entertainers who are buying into that and allowing themselves to be presented in such a way, then who's is it? I mean, this world is a twisted place and as a Black American, it is remarkably difficult to excel in a marketplace that was literally set up to keep you pigeon-holed in some degrading subservient role, but to sell out and just give in to the cycle is not going to help anyone but yourself. There's no more time for crying "victim" and waiting for the White Knight to swoop in and save the day. The only way to fix this now is to do it ourselves.
Did being a "socially deprived half-breed" shape your creative endeavors; does it "color" the work you do, as in are you constantly dealing with it in your comics? Or will you ever produce an autobiographical comic of those years?
EZRA: Haha. Yeah, I guess it does "color" my work a little. I mean, I'm creating whole worlds here, and racism is an element that exists in ANY world. To just ignore that would be like writing a story about homicide detectives but never mentioning anything about an actual murder. It's a fundamental factor that shapes the way people interact in a very major, very interesting way. It's not the focus of my stories, just like it's not the focus of my life, but it is there, it does have an effect, and it deserves to be addressed.
Would you mind giving us any details about upcoming projects, when we might expect them, and who is publishing?
EZRA: BULLET ROYALE for Image is coming out eventually, I don't know when. My new CD is being mastered at this very moment and will be debuted on my book tour, which will take place throughout the month of May. I'm also helping to organize a small-press comics festival in Portland that will take place on June 6th, called The Stumptown Comics Fest (www.pdxcomix.com). After that, as far as comic creating goes, it's either going to be a Horror comic or a Western comic. Probably a Western, but I'm definitely going to take my time on it and try to make it something that will be good enough to outlive me. And I have no idea who will publish it, though hopefully I won't have to do it myself.
What do you hope to achieve with your upcoming book tour?
EZRA: I have no intentions for my book tour other than to get out of Portland for a while and see the country. And if I can get my name out there a little, meet some new people, and sell a few books in the process, then that'll be awesome. I'll be making nine stops between here and New York City, and I've got some incredible guests like Farel Dalrymple, Brian Biggs and Hector Casanova lined up to sign or read with me in almost every city (the complete itinerary and guest list is on the website). I'm going by train, and I'll stay with friends the whole way. After being cooped up for two and a half years working on The Changers and the Progress Diary CD, I think this is exactly what I need in order to replenish my creative reservoir with some actual LIFE EXPERIENCE.
I like to close the interview by asking the subject if he wants to freestyle - plug a project, give a shout, or just say something. So have at it, if you will.
EZRA: God, if there's one thing I wish I could do, it would be rap. But no, I think we covered the bases pretty well. Thanks for approaching me for the interview, I had a great time answering your questions. And thanks for supporting small press!
THANK YOU, EZRA. You can visit Ezra's self-owned comix press, Dream Chocolate Confections, at www.dream-chocolate.com where there is lots of information about Daniels. You can buy his books and music, and find the schedule for Ezra's Spring book tour which begins Sunday, April 25, 2004 at Portland, OR's Reading Frenzy and ends sometime in late May in Seattle, WA.
And if you are a comics creator or publisher and you want to send me material for review consideration or you just want to talk about your book in a Charlie column, punch the click-able name link to send me an email. Holla!