Julian Darius is the author of the literary novel, Nira/Sussa, a meta-retelling of Nabokov’s classic Lolita. In the world of comics, he’s perhaps best known as a founder of Sequart. There he writes intelligent, yet accessible, critiques of classics like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Miracleman. Recently with Martian Comics, Darius has launched into creating his own sequential masterpiece. With a new Kickstarter wrapping up to continue the new science-fiction comic, I had the opportunity to speak with him about the craft of comics, the influence of the Moore’s Miracleman on his work , and where Martian Comics is heading.
As a literary novelist, what made you want to start writing comics?
I was into comics before I was into literary fiction. I grew up on comics and sci-fi novels / TV / movies. It was this love that propelled me into studying literature in college. I always wrote comics, from when I was a teen to today; it’s just that I never had an artist or had the money to put a comic together. So I feel like I’m finally making comics, which I wanted to do since I was a teenager.
You are also involved with Sequart, which describes itself as “advancing the art of comics”. For those who aren’t familiar, could you explain more about the organization?
When I was an undergrad, comics weren’t respected as a medium. I loved my professors, but they didn’t understand that comics should be studied like literature or movies were. Sequart was an attempt to rectify this.
In doing so, it’s always aimed to be accessible, because I don’t think academia should own analysis; intellectualism should be open to all. At the same time, it’s important to discuss and study comics seriously, the way we do literature and movies, and to bring to that discussion some awareness of the history of literature, not just the history of super-hero comics, and how we talk about literature.
As a writer with a literature background, what is your take on the modern American comic scene?
Superficially, it would seem like comics finally have respect. I run into strangers who can talk about them with me. It happened just the other day at a store, and it’s great. Hollywood loves comics as source material. Comics are covered in major outlets. But I’ve realized that there still isn’t a body of criticism, the way literature and movies have. So you still see people angry that someone’s written a negative but thoughtful review — which wouldn’t happen in literature or serious discussion of movies. And you see a level of harassment of women, especially for paying attention to gender issues or representations, that is just unacceptable. These are things we have to move beyond, if we’re really going to be a literary art.
The comics themselves today are a mixed bag. A lot of people say we have more good comics today than ever, but I don’t feel that way. Almost certainly, there are more comics being produced in America today than ever before. But I don’t always see the level of craft that I feel should be there, this many decades into a medium.
Could you give an example of a critically-acclaimed work that perhaps fall-short in terms of craft?
I can think of one comic that’s been on lots of “best of” lists. In the first issue, the first page gives way to a double splash page, which is supposed to establish this wild setting for the series. Double splashes are overdone, to me, but the real problem was that I could not figure out what was being depicted. I could kind of guess, read forward, and come back to see if this information helped me visually decipher the image. But this is not good, and obviously confusion is not the desired result of a double-page splash reveal. In the past, perhaps there would have been a caption explaining all of this. We’ve moved away from captions generally, and moved towards letting the visuals carry the story. But if the visual isn’t working, you have to step in as a writer and add a short caption to make it clear to the reader what’s important in the image, or even what the image is depicting. This is pretty basic stuff. A writer can’t turn in his or her script and then assume it all works out. And if he or she does, it’s the editor’s job to notice these problems and get them fixed. But this simply isn’t happening. And this example is one made by indisputably talented and experienced people. I’m kind of at a loss to explain this sort of thing.
I see this kind of thing all the time. On a purely technical level, comics have a lot of problems. What’s interesting is that they generally look beautiful. They’re not written better than ever, but they’re prettier. Computer coloring has come such a long way. There’s also a real sense of design work on some titles, which got going in the 1980s and has kept growing. American comics have gotten more decompressed, more art-focused, and you certainly don’t feel like most comics today are cramped or caption-heavy.
Super-hero comics are filled with elaborate fight scenes and high stakes. No one fight Stilt-Man for an issue anymore; it’s all falling floating cities and the like. There’s an obvious Hollywood influence. And I’m glad comics look good. I’m glad when they’re concerned with visual storytelling, as opposed to just visuals. But I worry that too many are chasing cool visuals and not focused on the nuts and bolts of plot and character. Certainly, I don’t see a whole lot of comics aspiring to be literary, the way comics did when they were trying to get respect.
But maybe I’m wrong. There are certainly a lot of really good comics today. They’re predominantly from Image, but also from IDW, Dark Horse, and other independent publishers. There are some Kickstarter comics that are just ingenious.
In the late 1980’s it seemed that comics championed intelligent writing, with creators like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman starting to get new respect for the medium. Do you think the momentum has carried forward?
Maybe I’m just a guy who was trained in literature, at a time when comics aspired to be literature, and so I feel like something’s missing that no one else feels. Combine this with the current attention to cool veneer, and it’s easy to feel cynical, even amidst a wide variety of comics, many of them good.
Back when Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was coming out, it seemed like it was taking a decade of comics aiming at being more literary. Alan Moore’s work was literary; he was celebrated very much for that reason. Grant Morrison pushed comics into tackling some strange ideas, but they were put together in this very literary way that seemed to celebrate intelligence. Hell, the metafiction at the end of Grant’s Animal Man was a literary device; it was brilliantly done, but it was the importation into comics of this literary device.
Some people may associate “literary” with being inaccessible and highbrow. Do you see it that way?
Being literary doesn’t have to mean being snooty. Jamie Delano was bringing literary horror to Hellblazer. Even mainstream super-heroes were getting more literary. Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Elektra work was definitely a step in this direction. Gaiman’s Sandman seemed like it was pushing this forward and applying it to fantasy comics, and it really pushed the genre forward. At the time, we thought this would continue, that we’d keep elevating things as we matured as a medium. And we have in some ways, but I can’t help but feel like we’ve retreated a bit from these high-art aspirations. That was never the majority of comics published, but it seems like these aspirations have been replaced by a veneer of cool that doesn’t satisfy the same things.
But again, maybe I’m wrong. And I’m glad anytime anyone likes a comic, even if it’s not for me. I sometimes think that, because I have high expectations, people think I’m snooty or hate that they enjoy comics or movies that I don’t think are very well put-together. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think it’s great that some people dug Age of Ultron, even though I think it’s objectively a mess of a story, filled with things that don’t make sense and kind of ruin the story for me. But look, I grew up on a lot of fun but kind of trashy stuff, and I still love a lot of fun but kind of trashy stuff, and it’s all good. I just think there ought to be more of an alternative. Harry Potter’s fine, campy sci-fi novels are fine, but let’s carve out a space for some other stuff.
I reserve the right to feel differently tomorrow.
What would you consider a step toward a better future for the American comic industry?
I definitely think the shared universes are mismanaged, to one degree or another. I have studied shared universes my whole life, and I have a great fondness for them.
Personally, I’d just like to see a focus on quality, on getting things right. I firmly believe most people do their best, under the constraints they have. But we’re living in an era in which comics live forever, not only in collections but in digital sales. Everything’s permanent. I’m sure most companies are still focused on monthly sales, but I’d rather see titles run late, or see fewer titles, and have them be as good as possible, so they’ll stand up to future scrutiny and study.
I don’t like all the reboots, and I don’t like variant covers. I know these are part of the business model now. But it’s foreign to me. The way my brain works, the question is always “How will this stand up 20 years from now?” If you’re building a character, or a series, or a company, that’s the most important question. Everything else is just what you need to do to survive in order to build this amazing thing. An amazing thing people should want to read and study forever. But I’m obviously in the minority.
I’m sure a lot of creators would like to see big changes, in terms of the actual structure of the business. Page rates haven’t changed much in decades. Artists often aren’t given equal credit as co-creators. Editors seem to be dictating to writers and artists, which works against the sort of singular vision that we prize so highly in art and literature. I think there are ways to take a softer editorial hand, in order to manage a shared universe, while also giving creators more freedom.
Any particular works that you feel represent the high-mark of the comic craft?
Historically, I’d probably list a lot of the same comics as others. Will Eisner’s graphic novels. Watchmen. I’d put Miracleman in there. Sandman. We3. The final issue of The Invisibles. Planetary. Understanding Comics.
I think the French series The Obscure Cities is right up there; I’ve written about that. I think Metabarons belongs there, despite the legitimate criticism of Jodorowsky, especially in recent years.
These are just off the top of my head. I love Joe Kubert, Denny O’Neil / Neil Adams Batman stuff, and a lot of what others would list. Some Jack Cole Plastic Man, some of the Spirit.
In terms of indies, I’m more of a Chris Ware or an Adrian Tomine kind of guy than some of the others. I like that kind of artistic precision. I’m a big admirer of Jason Aaron. Southern Bastards may be my favorite comic being published today.
There’s a lot more that isn’t coming to mind at the moment, and I’m sure I’m leaving out stuff by people I know and respect. But I think we ought to be able to separate what’s cool and enjoyable from what’s arguably a high water mark of the craft. I like a lot of stuff, in comics and out, that’s fun and cool. I’m glad for it, and you can do fun artistically and in ways that are well-crafted. But I feel like the task of advancing comics isn’t done, and that part of this is generating works that can arguably fit among these earlier works and stand alongside great novels and great movies. Not every comic has to do that, but there should be a place for it, and it’s a noble thing to attempt.
Let’s talk about Martian Lit and your move into becoming an indie comic-creator. What particularly attracted to you to sci-fi as a genre?
I’ve always loved sci-fi. I think sci-fi is uniquely able to interrogate complex and meaningful issues.
If you look at classic Star Trek, it was often about present-day issues like racism. But on a deeper level, there are issues there about colonialism. What is the Prime Directive but an anti-colonial reaction? Maybe it’s an overreaction, and maybe it’s too utopian. We can debate this, and in the process we question whether humans are innately aggressive, innately prone to exploitation, even when we consciously think it’s liberating or helping people. These are big issues, and you can weave complex and beautiful stories around them.
I also think sci-fi is often able to get us to think outside of ourselves and our own cultural viewpoint. To some extent, this is what we get out of fiction anyway. We read about experiences other than our own, and we experience them vicariously through fiction. But there are ways we can’t get outside of ourselves and our own viewpoint. We’re human. We’re gendered. We’re locked in our own historical and ethnic experiences, for better and for worse. Sci-fi sometimes lets us see humanity from outside, or as outside as we’re capable of projecting. It lets us see ourselves, and think in different ways.
What does your writing method for comics look like?
A lot of times, the way I write is to sort of pin down key scenes, or sequences, or moments, or visuals, or lines of dialogue. Basically, I want everything to work — every page, every panel, every line. I don’t write from start to finish. I often write scenes, or moments, that I know work, and I write them out of sequence. Eventually, I figure out what the soul of a story is, and I’ll have a motif and a theme and linked events that work as a whole. But in the meantime, I kind of feel like I’m nowhere, or I’m uncertain about exactly how to proceed. And these little visuals, or lines of dialogue that are really working, act almost like parts of a structure, supporting beams, which get cemented in my mind. As I think of the story over and over, I’ll see how other parts of the story can interact with these cemented elements, and I think this makes the story richer, because I’ve been able to see the implications of these elements, and make sure everything in the story works as a whole, rather than writing from point A to B and only later realizing that stuff along the way doesn’t really thematically work or belong or need to be in this particular story.
I know this all sounds weird. But it’s my writing method.
With issues #1 and #2 already out, what has the reception been to Martian Comics?
I feel like I’ve made a pretty great product, and I’m very happy with it, and people who have read it say they like it and want more. But it’s bankrupted me financially, and I’m borrowing to keep it going, and that’ll still be the case after this Kickstarter. I’ve basically wagered my future on this comic, and I’m willing to do that. I believe in it, passionately, and I’m a stubborn guy. But it’s scary, to be honest. I’m just hoping that it grows and finds its audience over time.
Sometimes, I joke that I feel like only 100 people have read this comic, but 99 of them loved it. Maybe it’ll be something that finds its audience in ten years. I just don’t want it to die before it can be completed, so that people can see the big picture and see what I’ve got planned.
But enough of my frustrations and fear.
Every time someone pledges to a Kickstarter campaign, the Kickstarter website sends the email associated with that campaign an email. It’s a notification, and you can turn it off.
Every single time I’ve gotten one of those emails, it’s like a breath of fresh air. It’s like a vote for me not giving up. It may be a friend, who supports me, or it may be a reader, who supports the comic. It may also be someone who just saw the video and thought the new issue was worth five bucks, sight unseen. But each one of those notifications means the world to me. Of course, it’s great to get a big pledge that gets us closer to our goal. But every single backer is a boost of confidence. It’s a voice that says yes, this should exist. Make this exist.
And I’m so thankful for every single one of those voices.
Come back for the second part of the interview where we discuss the historical, religious, and other unexpected influences on Martian Comics.
At the time of this article, Martian Comics #3 is a few hundred dollars away and hours from making its crowdfunding goal. To contribute and pick up a copy, visit the Kickstarter campaign. Julian Darius can be connected with on Twitter @JulianDarius. For more information on his body of work, visit Sequart and Martian Lit.