DOCUMENTING COMICS: TALKING WITH PATRICK MEANEY
I've known Patrick Meaney for years, back in the days when we were both writing books for Sequart, back before he'd ever put Grant Morrison's face on the big screen. Since those days, Meaney has been making a career as a filmmaker and shining the light on the world of comics whenever he has a chance. First came the Morrison documentary, "Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods," then he directed "Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts" about another influential iconoclast. Now he has turned his attention to a group of comic book rabble-rousers who dared to try something different: in 2013's "The Image Revolution," Meaney spotlights the rise and near-fall and resurrection of Image Comics.
I know that he has a Twitter account set up at @theimagerev for more information on the production, and I know that it was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign to which I eagerly contributed, but I haven't seen anything from the film beyond a few glimpses available online. And I haven't had a chance to talk to Patrick about these comic book documentaries he's making, at least not since he's turned from the guy who was making one Morrison movie to a guy who has made a mini-career out of putting comic book creators in the camera's glow.
So we talked a bit this week about the documentaries and what he's learned along the way.
Tim Callahan: Last time we talked on WHEN WORDS COLLIDE, which was somehow three long years ago, you had finished your book on "The Invisibles" and were just getting deep into the making of the Grant Morrison documentary. Since that time, you've had that movie come out, directed and released a documentary about Warren Ellis, and now you've filmed another movie about the founding of Image Comics. Plus, you're pumping out critical writing for the Sequart site and...probably making a living somehow? You're busy. How do you do it all? And, more importantly, why?
Patrick Meaney: I'll tell you this, don't start making documentaries about comics if you're looking to get rich. When you're dealing with low budget indie film, it's always a good idea to diversify and have a lot of projects and things going on since you're not likely to make a living off just one thing. And that's actually pretty fun. One day I might be interviewing Todd McFarlane, the next filming a walk to cure lupus, so it's all over the place and somewhere between all that I'm able to piece together enough money to keep going.
But, doing the docs is probably the most fun of all the stuff I do. Through no particular plan of mine, I've taken over this niche of being the documentarian of contemporary comics. There's a lot of chatter about comics on a day to day level, but not as much in depth reporting on the history that's being made year to year. Hopefully with the docs, we're able to create a record of these people or events, so that in ten or twenty years, you could go back and watch the Grant Morrison doc or Warren Ellis doc and get a sense of who those people are and why they were important in their own words. I love their work, so it's a real honor and a lot of fun to go around interviewing people and tell those stories. And, there's definitely a passionate audience for these movies, it's always good to do a project that you know people will actually want to watch.
How do you approach your documentary subjects? It seems like the Morrison and Ellis docs both centered around interviews with the writers themselves, with supplementary commentary and anecdotes added from other creators to provide a bit of perspective, but the spotlight was always on Morrison and Ellis in their own words, without a whole lot of critical distance. Would you say that's a fair assessment? And how does any of that relate with what you're trying to do as you pull the Image documentary together? Is it basically about the founding of Image from the perspective of the seven guys who were there at the beginning?
That's definitely fair. When I was doing the doc on Grant, I shot some material with 'haters' or 'skeptics' and had it edited in to provide a counterpoint to Grant himself, but when I watched the rough cut with Grant, it felt weird to have that stuff in there. Why do we need to hear the opinion of one guy who didn't like his stuff, what does that add to the overall story of his life? In Grant's case, I don't think you need someone to tell you that it's pretty wild to suggest someone saw the fifth dimension; even Grant himself presents it in a way where it's something that he experienced, and it's up to you to decide what it means. Ultimately, it's up to the viewer to make a call about that stuff.
With Warren, he is so critical about his own work, it created a dynamic where Warren is dismissing his own importance, but others are saying why he matters. So, you can decide from there. In both cases, the goal of the film was not so much to present an objective portrait of a life, rather it was to immerse you in the mind of these two creators. All the filmmaking choices, from music to b-roll to color palette were designed to reflect the interests and aesthetic of the subject. So, "Talking With Gods" had a more psychedelic, colorful aesthetic, while Warren's was darker and a bit more industrial.
As for the Image doc, we cover the whole history, but it's focused primarily on the seven founders. It's a bit different, since we're dealing with actual historical events, rather than trying to shape a life and ideas into a linear film. So, it's less about getting you into their mindset, and more about juxtaposing the different experiences of all the people involved with Image along the way. In practice, it turns into a (hopefully) classier version of the Behind the Music format, where a group of young people get famous and rich real quick, struggle with it, and ultimately redeem themselves The bulk of the film focuses on the period from 1990 to 1998 or so, when those guys rose to fame at Marvel, founded the company, found success then had to deal with a crashing market, and ultimately lost two of the major partners from the company. We wrap it up with the company's subsequent rise to its present day success thanks to "The Walking Dead" and other major books.
In the case of the Image doc, it's a warts and all approach. Image was created with great intentions, and is doing great work now, but for a company devoted to creative freedom, there were a lot of issues along the way, and we delve into all of those.
I do want to get deeper into the Image documentary, since I haven't really seen any of the footage other than a few tiny slices released online, but before we get to that, I'm curious about what kinds of things popped up in the making of the Morrison and Ellis docs that were maybe unexpected. Did those two guys surprise you in any way during your interviews or production process? Did you learn anything new about those two, from themselves or others, that you didn't know going into the filmmaking?
Grant had cultivated a fairly specific image during the 90s, that of the drug using, partying magical shaman using sigils to live a wild life. That image was partially one of his own creation, but by the time we started doing the film about him, which was in 2009, he had kind of shed that image, and viewed it as something of a burden. He wasn't a guy doing crazy drugs every day, and I think he resented the idea that all his ideas came from drug benders. He was very clear about the fact that he hadn't been into drugs until he was 30, and hadn't been doing them very much since "The Invisibles" ended, and he wanted to correct some of those misconceptions about him.
Grant was much more focused than you might guess, just judging from that reputation, and had a really incredible memory. We shot our interview sessions a year apart, and he remembered everything we had discussed the previous time. It was like picking up right where we left off. I tried to convey in the film the guy that I met, someone who was incredibly open and honest about his own experience, and willing to share pretty much everything. He was not at all guarded, whether you're talking about his creative work, his personal history or his thoughts on magic.
With Warren, what surprised me the most was how humble, and maybe even insecure, he was about his own work and legacy. I know some people might say I haven't written anything good as an exercise in faux humility, but with Warren, it felt like he legitimately wasn't sure why he had gotten so popular and didn't see the impact he'd made on the industry. If people think Warren is harsh on them, he's doubly harsh on himself. And, I think since he does have a daughter and more of a normal family life, Warren was a bit more guarded about personal stuff than Grant.
It was surprising to me just how many people absolutely love Warren. I talked to actors, writers, scientists, philosophers, all of whom admired Warren and his work and think of him as this incredibly nice guy. It created an interesting contrast between Warren, who wasn't even sure why we would make a movie about him, and all these other people who loved him so much.
Okay, so how about the Image doc, then? That's certainly a well-known story, at least in comic book circles, about the young guns breaking off from Marvel and forming their own company with a whole lot of flash and then...some problems. Did you get any new perspectives on the story as you were interviewing the people involved? Anything surprising along the way as you're making this documentary?
As anyone who's seen his Twitter feed lately can tell you, Rob Liefeld doesn't hold anything back, and talking to him for the film, I think we got his very raw and honest perception of the Image years. Rob is a super charismatic guy, as is Todd, and just getting to listen to them talk about what they did is really exciting, no matter what you think of them.
I don't know that we're uncovering previously unknown information with this, but what I think will make the film interesting is letting a lot of different perspectives play off each other, and see how one person's perception of events doesn't necessarily match what others experienced. There's a big difference between the way that Rob perceived his time at Extreme Studios and what he was trying to do, versus the way that some of his employees there perceived it.
Similarly, there can be a gulf between the reasoning for creating Image and the business practices of those first few years. Image today has a deservedly great reputation, but there were a lot of bumps along the way, and one of the things you'll see in the doc is how the company evolved with the market to develop into the creator oasis it is today. It basically took twenty years and a lot of bumps in the road for the company to become what they had originally intended it to be.
I think this is a particularly good time to tell the story. As little as five years ago, Rob was still on the outs with the company, now everyone's made up and are able to talk about their troubles with some perspective. And, since we talked to so many people, everybody should find out something they didn't previously know.
I know you're not quite done with the Image documentary, but you have most in the interviews and footage already in a rough cut, so what is the basic structure of the movie, and how much time, proportionally, will be spent on the formation of Image versus where it is now? And when will people actually get to see the finished project?
The basic structure is something like this...
20% - Background on the founders, setting up the conditions in comics that necessitated something like Image
20% - The decision to create Image, recruiting the founders and the early success
20% - The formation of studios, the feeling during the boom times of million sellers and big money
20% - The collapse of the market, Marc leaves and returns, Rob leaves/is fired, Jim sells to DC
20% - "The Walking Dead" and re-establishing Image today
We're focused mostly on the 90s and the founders. There were plenty of interesting Image books in the early 2000s, but our goal with the film isn't to catalogue a bunch of interesting comics, it's more about what happens when so many strong personalities try to follow their dreams, and build a new company.
As for when the film will be released, we'll hopefully be finished around January or February, and then go out to some festivals. I's hard to say exactly when it will be available for people, but it'll be sometime in 2013.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.