Emerald City Comicon 2012: Interview with Brandon Graham
Last weekend in Seattle, the Emerald City Comicon celebrated its tenth anniversary as the Northwest's premier gathering for fans of all things comics. The ECCC remains one of the last conventions devoted to comics without being overrun by the medium's extension into films and media hype. Here, fans can readily connect with creators, and the 2012 show was once again full of talent. This week on Omnivoracious, we'll feature interviews with writers and artists who are behind some of the most talked about books and projects in the business.
Up first is writer and artist Brandon Graham, whose booth saw a lot of attention this year due to the success of his recent critically acclaimed title, Prophet, from Image Comics. The book is a re-launch of a best-forgotten hero last seen in the 1990s, and Brandon has made it all his own, full of science fiction adventure and creepy, dripping aliens. His fan-favorite series, King City--for which he is both the artist and writer--was collected in its entirety for this first time last month, and Brandon spoke to us about both books, his influences, and Russian werewolves.
Omnivoracious.com: Your art style reflects a graffiti influence, which is atypical for mainstream comics. Where does this stem from?
Brandon Graham: When I was a teenager, there wasn’t really a comic scene for me to connect with so I ended up hanging out with kids who did graffiti. I did that for a couple years and I always thought of it as a cousin art form to comic books, because Vaughn Bode, who did comics in the 1970s, was such a huge influence on graffiti. I really liked it; it relates a lot--I learned a lot about the culture of art and got trained in the roles of how to treat it with respect, I think.
Omni: This art style is especially on display in the finally collected, massive trade paperback of King City. At well over 400 pages, how long was the project in development?
Brandon Graham: It took about six years, if not longer. It’s kind of amazing that it came together. I always make the joke that it’s a cat book that’s had nine lives. It’s gone through several publishers and three different printing sizes at this point--and four different printings.
Omni: Well, the book gets its due here: Image printed it on oversized pages in a deluxe format with full-color French flaps. For readers who may be most familiar with your more recent work on Prophet, how would you begin to describe King City?
Brandon Graham: It’s always a difficult one to describe [laughs]. The gist of it is that it’s about a guy who uses a cat as a weapon. He’s trained in the Dark Art of Cat, and he has a cat that with the right injection can do absolutely anything. There’s a scene where he uses it as a periscope: he looks through its ass and out its mouth [laughs]. He feeds it a key in one scene and it vomits out a second key, and he calls it a “copy cat.” Yeah, it’s just whatever I come up with. That’s the surface stuff, and then there’s [the protagonist] returning to the city where he grew up and dealing with his relationship to his ex-girlfriend, who’s dating this guy who just returned from the Korean Xombie Wars--he’s addicted to this drug called “chalk” that turns you into the drug as you use it. It’s all these science fiction concepts that I grew up [with] and really excited me, blanketed over this thinly veiled autobiographical stuff about how I feel about living in cities and relationships.
Omni: Aliens, cats as weapons, gangsters, magic, Xombie Wars, got it. Did you leave anything for a sequel?
Brandon Graham: Oh yeah, it’s very open. I’ve got a lot of projects that I’m working on now, and it’s hard not to go back to King City. I built something that’s like a playground to me--it’s everything I’m excited about doing. When drawing the book, I would draw little things in the background and think of storylines that I knew I would never get back to. I would draw a doorway and think of what’s going on in that building and decide that it’s some kind of alien drug lab and get really excited about the lines on the paper and promise myself that I’d get back to it someday. Of course, I’ve never gone back to it, but that’s kind of the fun of seeing what you can come up with.
Omni: The King City world is so detailed. It seems as if everything eventually has a dialogue balloon, from soda bottles to chimneys, but what readers may be most surprised by is your sense of wordplay. Where did this love of stream-of-consciousness puns come from?
Brandon Graham: I’m obsessed with rap music. With the graffiti and the rap, there’s all this stuff that was a huge deal to me when I was a teenager. Although I’m not running around tagging stuff anymore, I’m still obsessed with a lot of that stuff--it got in my brain. I really like [how] in comic books, you can be obsessed with architecture one day and the next be obsessed with showing movement from one panel to another. There [are] so many elements, and being able to play with words is another thing.
My favorite type of thing is when you can write a pun that reads completely normally, but when you read it in another light it can come off as wordplay.
Omni: Now you’re able to take your love for words full-time in this newly re-launched Prophet project, also from Image Comics. This series seems like a fairly esoteric one to resurrect. How did this project take shape?
Brandon Graham: It was really bizarre. I was at a bar at a convention, and I was talking to Eric Stephenson, who runs Image, and my friend Joe [Keatinge], who works on their comic Glory. We were just joking around about what I would do if--I knew they were re-launching all these old Rob Liefeld comics--I were to work on Prophet, and I said you could only do it as “Conan in space.” And later on, they were like, “Well, why don’t you do it?”
I was like, “No, no, I can’t. I don’t have time to draw it.” And they were like, “Why don’t you collaborate with some friends of yours and have them draw it?” It sat in my head for a while, and I started thinking about all the fun stuff I could do with it, and I eventually had to go with it--because of how well Image has treated me and how much freedom they promised me. I expected them to rein it in at some point, but they’re letting me get away with pretty much anything. It’s insane.
Omni: You’re doing what few artists have been able to pull off, which is to leave the artwork behind and focus as a writer. What’s the process for you now as you write for other artists, and when do you know to be hands-off versus directing someone?
Brandon Graham: I pretty much write by drawing, so the process hasn’t changed very much for me. The other artists working on it are all friends of mine--it’s Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonogiannis. I’m drawing some [issues] as well. It’s a really casual process: we get together and talk about what kinds of things we’d like to see in science fiction and what types of things we like to draw. Then I write up notes and we send them back and forth. The artist contributes what he’d like to put in, and we make a story out of bullet points. They do layouts and send them to me, and then I do layouts and send back to them, and it becomes this endless string of emailed pictures. When it’s all finished and drawn, we talk about a script. It’s almost backwards from the way most comic books are written.
Omni: In Prophet, there will occasionally be an inanimate object with a dialogue balloon, and it reminds me of your art. Are you unable to step completely away from the artwork?
Brandon Graham: It’s funny; I’ve really been trying to rein myself in and do different types of work in it. I’m trying to do the type of comics that I’d want to read rather than the kind of comics I’m used to doing. But some of the artists I’m working with--like Simon Roy, who’s on the first three issues; he’s excited about doing his work a little more like mine. There’s a cutaway view of an alien city--and that was completely him, and he was like, “Look, I’m doing your style!” And the character wears like this alien skin that becomes a sidekick, and I was arguing with [Roy] about it:
“I just did 400 pages with a guy with a little sidekick animal.”
“Yeah, you got to do that but I didn’t get to do it.” [Laughs.] So, he’s just making me look like a one-trick pony, but I’m really excited about the work he’s doing.
Omni: You mentioned that you were unable to draw Prophet because you didn’t have the time. What else is on your plate?
Brandon Graham: I’m working on a lot right now. If all goes well, I’ll have 19 or 20 issues out this year. My main project is Multiple Warheads, a Russian-werewolf-fantasy comic. Like King City, it’s all over the map--just me having fun. I’m almost feel like writing Prophet, which is a much more reined-in, episodic comic, allows me to do this other completely crazy comic --you know, hopefully readers won’t think I’ve completely lost my mind.
Omni: And that’s going to come out this year?
Brandon Graham: Yeah, I think it will start in October from Oni Press. It’s going to be full-color, and the first issue will be 50 pages. I’m doing everything: hand-lettering it, the colors, the covers, doing the logos.
Omni: Is this your first time working in full-color for a full issue?
Brandon Graham: Yeah, I’ve done a few short stories, and my Prophet issue will be in color before that. With that one, it’s really interesting for me to do a comic without all the puns and the jokes. I’m trying to [make it] deadly serious and serious-up my art style, because I draw as if everything is made out of bubblegum. So when I’m trying to draw seriously, I’m listening to a lot of H.P. Lovecraft audiobooks and heavy metal.
Omni: As serious as you can make a barbarian in space.
Brandon Graham: Yeah, exactly. A deadly serious barbarian in space.