Rod Kierkegaard Jr. is an American author and the creator of Rock Opera, a long-running comic strip appearing in Heavy Metal magazine. I spoke to him about his cartooning history while living in Paris, his love of television, and his new serialized fiction work The Vampire Circus.
In the new Amazon serial an old west pinkerton travels to 1920’s Europe to track down a traveling circus of vampires. The hunt leads to dark corners and into the lives of former circus performers and twin-sisters, Coco and Zuzu, now the toast of the Parisian jazz scene.
You’re currently writing fiction, but many people are familiar with you from Rock Opera. How long have you been writing fiction?
Actually, my comics began as illustrations to short stories that I couldn’t get published. Publishers hated the stories but loved the pictures. Rock Opera actually began as the story of a black man from another planet who had his face replaced by a mask after crash-landing on earth. He remained black through his years in an underground newspaper (inspiring the film “Brother From Another Planet”), but my publishers wanted him to turn white when he was picked up by Heavy Metal.
So were comics something you fell into then, or did you have a previous interest in cartooning?
Oh, I was terrifically excited and inspired by Metal Hurlant in the mid-70s. I tried to go to work for them several times — tried at Charlie Hebdo, too, but they didn’t like my style. Luckily other French magazines did.
Were you living in Paris at the time?
When Heavy Metal picked up Rock Opera I had a job that I could do out of suitcase. My wife and I were living on a beach in Key West in 1981. We had to move, so for fun we both made a list of places to move to. Then we gave each a number. Paris scored highest. So we moved there with four suitcases, a cat, and $2,000.
As a cartoonist, what was Paris like in the early 1980’s?
In Paris in the 80’s, being a cartoonist was like being a rock star. Several of my fellow cartoonists at Albin Michel actually had entourages. It was a big thrill for me to meet several of the famous ones; I never got to meet Moebius, but I did become friends with Liberatore.
So did you indulge in the rock and roll lifestyle while in Paris?
Hell no. I was married and the whole time I was cartooning, I was also writing novels. I must have a dozen in the closet from that time. The secret to longevity as a writer or cartoonist is to marry young and stay married. It’s a miserable way of life, and you need someone to look after you. On insurance actuarial tables, writers have the shortest lifespans, followed by stuntmen and rock musicians.
When they hear Heavy Metal magazine, I think many readers may think of fantasy comics with scantily clad barbarian women. Rock Opera has a real literary feeling, especially in its treatment of the popular culture of the day. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Rock Opera began as post-modern short stories inspired by Calvino and J G Ballard. When it was picked up by HM I was suddenly put under pressure to make it popular–and there was plenty of incentive. I was suddenly making the modern equivalent of $15k a year. So I altered the story to mock social themes and tried to work in homages to PKD and Lem. Heavy Metal wanted to kill it, but it kept MRing at or near the top of their features in popularity. They were paying me a fortune. They could get much cheaper material from Spanish and Filipino artists by then. The French were starting to do the same. Somehow [Rock Opera] lasted seven years or so, but got sillier and sillier.
Did Paris other places you lived inspire your writing?
I’ve lived in a lot of places — Paris, London, Stockholm, New York — and I love putting them in books. But a large percentage of my novels are set in LA, where I’ve never set foot.
Why does Los Angeles appeal to you?
Any American who watches TV feels like he’s spent half his life in LA.
What are your thoughts on television?
Oh, I love TV. To me it’s a distinct art form, like literature. I only watch an hour a night, but I love to sample shows from all over the world. Right now, I’m on an Iceland kick.
What’s the best foreign program I’ve never heard of?
Krøniken. I love it particularly because I spent a lot of time in Copenhagen beginning in 1960. It’s sort of the Mad Men of Denmark.
Your published work has a wide variety of interesting characters and situations, often with a bit of dark or twisted edge. How would you characterize your writing?
Honestly, I don’t know if there are any common themes. To me writing is like speaking in tongues–when I begin a book I usually have no idea what it’s about until a narrative voice seizes me. I don’t do plot outlines or anything. It’s like automatic writing. I guess for me, it’s always automatic; if it isn’t, I can’t do it.
How did your new serial Vampire Circus come to life?
A few years ago, I was feeling burnt out. My publisher was encouraging me to try writing “erotica”, so I spent a couple of months writing a lurid pornographic epic. It sucked, like…hugely. A giant waste of time. But I kept returning to it in my spare time, trying to improve it–and then it occurred to me that it would be far more interesting if it was a vampire story. I also noticed how much it mirrored the lives of Colette and Josephine Baker, so I went back and researched them at great length, then added a character based on Charlie Siringo, the great cowboy detective.
There is no shortage of books with vampires on the market. What sets Vampire Circus apart?
In this series, vampirism is the result of a genetic mutation of syphilis. Bot Colette and Baker had syphilis, incidentally, along with about 40% of 1920s Paris.
Vampire Circus is a serialized work. For readers that enjoy the first installment what are the plans for the future of the series?
I wrote over 600,000 words of it. So there are already about six to eight novels in the can. There was so much of it that my publisher saw it as a fun way to utilize Amazon’s new serializing program. Also, I had written it as a classic serial, basing it a bit on Fantômas [a popular serial killer in French crime fiction in the late 1880’s.]