He's been making his way in the world of comic books for a while now, but he remains as relentless as someone just breaking in.
Writer/artist Brandon Graham is fully awake now, his style tuned to the frequency only you can hear. The Friend of the New and the Weird. The Bane of Mainstream. A journeyman, he is your Sherpa to Possibilities.
There was the inimitable "King City," with its swagger and multi-tasking godcats and ceaseless puns. Then there was "Prophet," the addicting series that gives you the Galactic Conan you never knew you always wanted. Now there is his new Image Comics series "Multiple Warheads" with its wolf pricks and black market body part smuggling.
This is not your average cartoonist. He is not safe. He is not comfortable. He is a bullet aimed at your ideas of what comics should be. Comic Book Resources spoke with Graham in advance of the first new "Multiple Warheads" miniseries, "Alphabet to Infinity," to discuss the project's long journey, his process and exactly what makes him tick.
CBR News: From your previous interviews I can tell you're a very mild-mannered conversationalist, even-toned and composed. That said, it's clear you have a ton of passion for comic book. You have strong opinions about the current state of the industry, how some creators are treated and, I guess you call it fairness. This is almost unnatural in the comic industry. What made you decide not to be a fence-sitter, Brandon?
Brandon Graham: I'd hope anyone who decides to spend their life doing one thing has some serious passion about it. I'm really excited to be where I'm at with comics but I had a lot of frustrating years and I think it gave me a chip on my shoulder about some things.
I know a lot of artists feel more comfortable just letting their work speak for them, and I think that's legitimate but a lot of it for me is that my love of comics isn't just about my own work -- I'm coming from a lot of this as a reader too, an often frustrated reader. I think this industry can do a lot better, and I think the scene would be improved by it being allowed to be more diverse and open but with higher creative standards. I get annoyed when I see things that aren't based on what's best for making art getting in the way of better work getting onto shelves.
And on some level I just like thumbing my nose at things. I love what an even playing field comics is on the page. I like the idea that someone drawing in their bedroom with just pens and paper has the ability to make something that can kick the ass of something funded by Time Warner or Disney. And a lot of times it's even easier to outdo them without editors and restrictions and all that bullshit.
This isn't the first time I've heard you say the comics industry needs some diversity, that it should hold itself to higher standards. Are you reading anything that showcases those qualities in the current marketplace? Also, why do you think readers seem to want the same stuff rehashed over and over again?
There's Carla Speed McNeil's "Finder," I think is a good example of an incredibly well written book that's coming from a different place. E.K. Weaver's webcomic, "TJ and Amal" is a fantastic comic that's put out online. I really like John Kantz's work. Guys like Michael DeForge, Emily Carrol or Angie Wang. There's a lot.
Everything I type about on my site and the creators I get to do backups in "Prophet" and the guys I collaborate with are all people whose work I'm really into. Maybe I just pay too much attention to the side of comics I don't like. Maybe I should just focus on the good work. When I complain I focus on the industry when the art form is so much bigger than that. I think the art form is doing really well right now.
I understand a certain amount of comfort in picking up a super friends comic to read on the toilet or whatever. I don't think everyone has to be looking for deep and original work, some of it's just entertainment. But I think people buy what they're offered. I suspect a lot more people would buy comics if there was more work out that they were into.
I'm obsessed with the stuff. I go into a comic store at least once a week and for the most part the only regular new stuff I buy is Adam Warren's "Empowered" and "Finder" and stuff like "Orc Stain" that my friends do. If I was a slightly more casual reader, there's a good chance I'd never see those books.
I imagine it would be hard to be both a casual reader and an effective creator. You have to be diverse. You call attention to some lesser known creators, and it reminds me of what Warren Ellis used to do.
Since you mentioned "Prophet," I have to ask about it. Whyy have people been so drawn to it? Is that even something you think about, or did you have any notion you were creating something special from the very beginning?
A lot of my favorite creators are less concerned with what comics come out and more into the process of making their own stuff. Like Stokoe or my missus Marian [Churchland]. Neither of them read many comics. It dashes all my comic book theories against the rocks, but I think it means that more is possible than I thought.
I'm really impressed in how much work Ellis does to bring attention to artists whose work he's into. He has nudged so many careers in front of the reader. He's certainly helped me out and Brian O'Malley, Emma Rios -- so many creators. Awhile back I was really into the idea of studying how adult artists work, and I think the way Ellis conducts himself is something worth looking up to.
I like to dig up comics that click with me. I think a big part of it is that the stuff that led me to wanting to spend my life making comics wasn't usually the stuff that was recognized as the important comics you should be reading.
I always try to make books with the idea of first trying to make something I'd be excited about. "Prophet" is me trying to get together a collaborative more mainstream thing that I'd want to read.
We're trying to make the issues dense, self-contained [stories] that are hopefully worth the cover price. And in the start, part of it was about out Conaning the current run of "Conan." But I think it's hopefully growing past that into its own thing.
And the process we make it in is different than my understanding of how most monthlies are done. There's a lot of back and forth with the ideas, I don't send scripts -- I never liked drawing off of scripts. So I send layouts and notes instead.
I think the main thing is that I managed to round up an impressive bunch of collaborators. And they're guys who for the most part without this project wouldn't be aiming to make monthly color comics.
Whenever I think of "Conan," the first thing that pops into my mind is when he's sitting cross-legged in the war room and that Genghis Khan dude asks him, "Conan! What is best in life?!"
Yeah, I like that Conan movie. You ever see the Conan scale I made for rating how Conan movies are?
[Laughs] Nice! What about "Multiple Warheads?" I never read the original version but I understand there's a guy in the story with werewolf genitalia? What can you tell us about the story?
I started "Warheads" back when I was doing porn comics for a living; they let me come up with anything as long as it had sex in it. The first story was about this woman named Sexica who's in a fantasy/sci-fi Russia. She smuggles rare magic organs, so she has a wolf's penis that she has to get through a security check point and then she sews it onto her boyfriend -- then they have sex and he turns into a werewolf.
I had fun with the story so I did more; I did a 15 page story with them that ran in my "Escalator" book and then a 50-page one-shot at Oni. It's been interesting trying to flesh out a longer story from the real basic original idea.
The new stuff starts with the two main characters going on a road trip vacation and ending up in this town that shouldn't exist. And at the same time a second story is running with another organ smuggler named Big Blue Nura. Nura's a bad dude on a motorcycle. She's given a severed head and given the task of tracking down the body that escaped after it lost its head.
Disembodied mutant parts, a cat that can do anything, and a robot egg that dives into another robot's body to drill down to the core and save his buddy from alien birds wired into his brain. I'm not a fan of questions like this, but where do your ideas come from...?
I like "where do your ideas come from." I think a lot of what I do is a reaction to my life, like art therapy. Or a reaction to other work I see. Work that I either love or hate.
The art therapy stuff is like -- years ago I had a cellphone and I was seeing a lady I would argue with too much. I was annoyed by how much it interrupted my time outside of my place. I did a story called "Sumo Hero King," where two characters face off and are about to fight when one of the guys has a phone on his crotch that rings. He gets interrupted arguing with his girlfriend and the other guy just walks past him into the place the guy on the phone was meant to protect. A lot of times it seems like fantasy or science fiction are a more direct way to convey what I'm thinking about. Maybe it's just that I grew up in a family that always had that stuff around, so it was the kind of art language that I learned.
Whenever I've smoked pot or gotten drunk I always end up thinking "Shit! Now I can't work." I know a lot of people get stoned to work but I've never understood it. I feel like I need to get enough sleep and exercise in order to do my best work. A lot of times it's less about coming up with any specific ideas and more about getting myself to the point where I feel like I'm capable of anything. I think sometimes about how the version of yourself that's alone and making the best work you can, is an artist at their most comfortable, at their best.
Back when I did graffiti my goal was always to get to the point where I'd convinced myself that I was doing exactly what I should be doing. I would mostly write on stuff during the day and try to not look like a criminal. It's like a level of cockiness. It feels similar to the mood I aim for with comics.
There's a cheesy old "Poison Elves" comic I was into as a teenager where the main elf, Lusiphur, goes inside his own mind and touches his Silver cord -- the line that connects his soul to his body, changing him to his ideal self. Yeah, it's like that. Hmmm...
You mentioned graffiti and growing up in an art-friendly environment. Can you tell me more about both of those? Do you still find time to do any street art? What about your family -- any artists other than you?
My grandfather, Bill Randall, was a pinup artist in the '50s. He died when I was a baby but my mom would tell me about his approach to art. He told her that if you can draw the human hand you can draw anything. I've never been more than OK at drawing hands so I dunno how much that affected me.
My mom writes science fiction, she's published two books. One called the "The Witchstone," and an adaption of "The Ring of the Nibelung." And my older brother, Keith, does a lot of art. He mostly paints and does wood blocks, but he's done a couple comics. He was in some issues of the Meathaus anthology that I was part of too when we both lived in NYC. My dad lives out in central Oregon in a bizarre geodesic dome that he's been working on since before I was born.
I grew up around all the influences that my family was already into. My mom had a letter published in "Spider-Man" when she was in college. I remember "Asterix" and "Tintin" and "Furry Freak Brothers" books from really early on.
I was around a lot of guys doing graffiti but didn't start doing it until I was in my late teens. My brother said that I just got into [it] because I was bored with Seattle. But it was an exciting time. A friend of mine was really adamant about if [I] was going to write, then I would need to learn the history and rules of it. I wrote "Brandon" because I couldn't think of another name that suited me. At the time the biggest tagger in Seattle was a dude named Jabber. I remember him saying that they could catch us if they wanted to.
I used to do a lot of flipping the 11"x17" ads below newspaper boxes over and drawing on those. I never got great with spray paint; I mostly did stuff with refillable magnum pens and paint pens. It's fun to fuck with your environment. I learned a lot from it but in the end I'm more into making comics. I don't carry around the big pens these days. At most I'll write with my hand when I see a dirty window. One of the things I was really into in the '90s was how much a tag would stick out by just cleaning off a dirty surface. I remember that Jabber guy I mentioned taking a bucket of water and a sponge through a linoleum walled freeway tunnel and his writing with the sponge standing out, bright white.
I don't know if this makes sense or not, but your writing reminds me of novelist Cormac McCarthy. It's clear, but weighs heavy. Multiple meanings. There's honesty in your writing -- as well as your answers -- that you don't often see anymore. It's almost as though you care but don't care.
Well thanks, I feel like writing is a weird animal in that sometimes it seems that just the act of reading can improve your ability. I don't read a ton of novels but the authors I latch onto I get obsessed with and read all their stuff I can find, study it. Also I reread chapters of books I like a fair amount when I'm writing. Whenever the character Beebay showed up in "King City," I'd have to pull out Raymond Chandler books to get in the right head space. It was a huge deal to me when I realized that having characters in conversation works better if each character is having their own train of thought rather than just reacting to what the other character is saying. I like how much of a skeleton you have to build to hold up a story.
Lately I've been reading a lot of [Haruki] Murakami, he kind of works in a similar way for me as looking at Moebius art. It's so good in a way that seems to open up the possibilities and make it seem easier. What else are you working on beside "Prophet" and "Multiple Warheads?" And what's your favorite project you've done so far and why?
I've got a collection of my sketchbook drawings that Picturebox is putting out, I still need to come up with a name and cover for it. Eventually I'll do collections of a lot of my older work through Image. I've just got to scan it all and put it together. There's a short story I'm kicking around that's set on a train that's made out of a big sound effect running along a comic strip track with word balloons for smoke.
I guess "King City" or "Warheads" are my favorite stuff so far. "KC" is finished and I think parts of it came out better than I expected. I'm happy with the Pete and Joe stakeout scene at the end of the first half. Max's flashback of his friends in Korea and the part where Joe and Pete run into Anna and talk at the sandwich shop.
Those are really comfortable scenes for me, they remind me of the times in my life I was trying to emulate and also the fun I was having working on the comic. When I did the Korean flashback scene, me and my missus were staying at her parents place, hanging out in their basement watching a bunch of "Star Trek: Next Generation" episodes in a row. It felt like being a kid again and just drawing to draw, that is what I'm always aiming for.
I'm still not quite sure what "Warheads" will turn into but I'm having fun with it so far. I'm on the fifth issue of the new series right now and I feel like I'm just getting going. I keep getting sidetracked, the characters start out on their way to this place called the Impossible City, and I had a plan to get them there and do a story, but it's nice doing what I want. Now I'm drawing them in this little town planning a wizard heist. I drew some side characters, a mole and his stripper boyfriend, and now I'm getting into showing more stuff about them. It's allowing me to play around with types of characters that I haven't yet.
In other words, you never want to treat the subject matter too seriously to avoid it becoming too stressful?
The truth is that I am way too serious about the work, maybe I have to be to do what I want with it. Even coming up with jokes is a serious thing that takes research and false starts. But ideally it's great to have a lot of the hard work figured out and be able to just fart around on a drawing. Not that the hard work isn't fun, I guess it's serious fun. I think there's a joy in working through something difficult too, if it was all easy it might be boring fast.
Also, I get pretty ridiculous when talking about the motivations behind whatever I'm working on, when the reality is [it's] werewolf dicks and Sasquatches in space.
With all that in mind when you're writing, how do you tackle the layout of a page?
I do a lot of notes before I draw pages that I sometimes don't stick to by the time I'm drawing the final thing. I think Prophet's been really good for me when I do layouts on it because it's forced me to lay out a whole issue and have it work in a couple of days. Or just talking over what works and what might be other ways to show something with Giannis [Milionogiannis] and Simon [Roy].
A lot of times in my own stuff I'll draw a bunch of different versions of how a panel could go and then try to combine several actions into one panel.
Sometimes I do my layouts on big butcher paper with a sharpie and then light table it onto the page. With my own stuff I give myself personal deadlines (3 or 4 pages a week), but I try to take time on the drawings and make something I'm happy with. Sometimes people talk about comics like you've gotta be a hack and get those issues out and that might be more true in monthly deadlines, but I think sometimes you want to spend some time on a page.
Although I do think a lot of work is better if you just draw it and don't fuss over every line. You've got to forgive yourself a lot and move on.
Comics is hard business. It's a struggle, and a lot of people give up and move on. There was a strip in "King City" where you basically served as drill sergeant and told people to quit their whining and press on. What other advice do you have to artists and writers?
The business end of comics can be a hassle, but the work doesn't have to be. I think it's important to make art for yourself; all the other shit around it is less important. If it's your entertainment and your therapy you'll never want to quit. The idea of quitting comics is ridiculous to me at this point, it'd be like quitting reading or saying "fuck it" about going on walks.
It's nice and fun and helps me deal with things.
I always say that my job isn't about making comics as much as it's just staying excited about making comics. But also, it's art. If you get into comics and then find out that you get more out of painting or poetry, that's cool. The medium is less important than what you do with it.
"Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity" #3 is on sale December 19.