The sold-out first issue and the just-released second issue follow an alienated Brooklynite artist adjusting to life after receiving a bipolar disorder diagnosis, along with the manifestation of some seriously mind-blowing superpowers. For his first comics writing gig, Bemis -- frontman of the band Say Anything -- developed a story that pulled from his own experiences with mental illness, exaggerating autobiography with dark humor and super-powered adventure elements.
Bemis gave CBR News a candid interview about translating his firsthand experiences with bipolar disorder into a super-powered tale of alienation, walking us through details of the first issue, including his long distance collaboration with Portuguese artist Jorge Coelho, the hidden Say Anything Easter eggs and getting to the bottom of the burning question of whether or not Bemis ever owned a Creed record.
CBR News: The first scene sets the tone for "Polarity." There aren't too many superhero stories that begin with a pantless guy getting run over by a speeding Jetta.
Max Bemis: Well, that part is definitely something that is highly autobiographical in its tone because it's one of the more vivid moments of having an actual breakdown. When I woke up the morning that I was manic and just walked out of my house, I basically just felt like the eyes of the world were on me. That was actually a literal thing. I felt like I was on "The Truman Show," like I was being filmed, like I walked onto a movie set. My experience isn't exactly encapsulated in that scene, but it's the idea of waking to a new reality, to this new altered state that Tim does. It completely changes his life. And to me, that's one of the moments I will always remember most from my own mania.
And you know, I actually got hit in the face by some dude. I didn't get hit by a car, but there was a tremendous physical impact on me. That's what brought that scene to life, opening the story, opening the character, with this moment that introduces Tim's struggle and his life. That moment when he opens the door and walks into the world, he's actively manic. It's the beginning of the entire narrative.
I wanted to capture how that really felt for me, walking out to a Brooklyn street, awakened in this kind of –- I've never done acid, but I'd imagine it's kind of like being on acid for the first time, or some other hallucinogen. I felt it was important for the book to start with this impactful moment.
In the start of that scene, Tim's narration says, "Nothing more alienating than discovering you're out of your mind." That seems like a central idea for the first book.
It's one of the main themes of the entire book. I'd like to think "Polarity" is a bigger story than just having a mental illness. I wanted to do a book for people who have neuroses or struggle with alienation -- something that people can relate to. It's about how Tim deals with that, and how his bipolar disorder, and ultimately his powers, play into that. Tim's entire story is based around him controlling this thing and wanting to stay in society, and wanting to feel normal. And even though he has the extremely alienating experience that we start the book on, we go right into this social environment that goes to show that this pantless dude got hit by a car and now he's standing in an art gallery full of hipsters -- no shit that he feels weird in this stifling social environment. Anyone who goes through any level of discomfort or heartbreak can understand how that feels, to be alone in a crowd.
Jorge Coelho seems to have an excellent grasp on fashion and style, especially in this art gallery scene. How much back and forth was there on things like style and character design?
The description for that first splash panel was really dense, but I in no way described articles of clothing. I didn't describe the framing of the panel, except to say that Tim's in the corner, looking and feeling out of place. Really, all I did was describe the feeling I wanted the reader to get by being placed into this environment.
I wanted everyone to be a caricature because that's sort of how it feels in that society at times. You'll be at a bar, or at a show, and you'll be like, "Where the fuck am I? What year is it?" It's not that everyone of the indie persuasion dresses like a freak, but I definitely wanted it to feel like that, and put that in there. Jorge did research, I gave him a few links to websites of hipster party photography, and Jorge is a young guy, he's got his own knowledge of that kind of look and he just ran with it. There really wasn't that much back and forth. That's kind of how a lot of the book has gone down.
Of all the autobiographical elements in the book, I'm sure people want to know if you share one of Tim's darkest secrets. Did you own a Creed album, like Tim's buddy bugs him about?
Yes, I did.
I did own a Creed album. But it wasn't the one after their popular one. I liked all kinds of terrible music. I liked Korn. Thankfully, punk music saved me from all that. There's stuff coming in later issues that harkens back to how Tim was not a cool kid growing up, and that's also innately part of his shtick. It's not just that he's bipolar, it's that he's got a chip on his shoulder because he doesn't feel like he's worthy of these people that he also hates -- which is the ultimate confusing sentiment.
There are similar themes in "Polarity" that tie into your band Say Anything's album, "…Is a Real Boy," and you've teased that there are Easter eggs throughout the comic. Have people been picking up on these?
I've heard people say that it's like listening to a record in narrative form. I wasn't really going for that; I was ardent about not making a comic that was a Say Anything comic directly based off a song or lyric, necessarily. But the nature of this story is so autobiographical and centers around that period of my life, so I've been really pleased to hear that it speaks to that -- being my age and writing a character that's some variation of myself at that age, and being able to reach back to that experience. You know, "Like this dude's 30 and he's writing about this,." I'm glad that it came across genuinely.
There is a direct Easter egg in the second issue. And that first art gallery scene, unintentionally so, is a manifestation of kind of the same of thing that went into our song "Woe." There's a scene in the song, where I talk about being in an art gallery with a girl I'm dating. Tim and Alexis' relationship, and how Tim feels, can definitely be linked to that song, and the record in general.
The Hipster dissection page is really dynamic.
Part of what went into making that page is that I've always wanted to lay out how I feel about quote-unquote "hipsters" -- which, I want to make explicitly clear that I'm about as guilty as anyone to being linked to this quote-unquote "movement" or generalization of people. I'm not writing this as some dude living in his basement playing Dungeon and Dragons. I almost wish I was more that kind of dude, but I was at these kind of functions,and so from my experience with that, I wanted to vent my disgust and analyzation of this generation, of this culture.
But at the same time, I wanted to show how Tim himself generalizes people. And as much as it was cathartic for me to write, it just shows that there's a very fine line, that Tim isn't necessarily justified in generalizing all these people, reducing them to a "Bodies" Exhibit. But that's the way he sees them. He has to compartmentalize everyone in his life because he's self-loathing. So part of it's sincere, and then part of it's just how Tim feels about his world.
After his fight with his girlfriend, Tim goes to the bar, and in his internal narration, he admits that his most fulfilling current relationship is with his psychiatrist, Dr. Mays. There's more of Mays in this issue, and he looks to be a pretty crucial player in Tim's journey. What were the influences behind this character?
Doc Mays is one of the few people that isn't based on anyone I know, because I have an amazing psychiatrist that I've been working with since I was around Tim's age.
There are certain aspects of how you have to deal with a patient, even if you're the best psychiatrist in the world, where you kind of have to be impartial and a little removed. I wanted to create a character that has this close relationship with Tim, but he's also very subdued; he's not really phased by Tim, or by anything. He has to be that way as a doctor. You know, when you're a patient and you're working with a psychiatrist that sometimes it feels like they're so calm and placid, but they can tell you these dark, degenerate things. I wanted Mays to be that foil for Tim's zaniness and his completely out-there inner turmoil. But as the series progresses, Mays really is a central character and we delve deep into his psyche, actually. He becomes a much more well-rounded character by the third issue.
This double splash page of Tim's 19-day spiral off his meds is really something.
I own the art. That page, the Hipster dissection, and the last page.
How much back and forth with Jorge was there on this sequence?
Almost none. It's insane, and it speaks to Jorge's talent. Thankfully, we were a really good match. He never fails to grasp every single detail of my descriptions -- and then to build on it, to make it even better.
At first I was afraid this splash page could be a cop out, because so much had to happen. When I first sat down to write the book, the spiral into being bipolar could almost be its own issue, or series, but then I realized you could boil it down to a few important notches on the downward spiral into mania, and bring to life how it feels. One of the important parts was to make a layman understand how it feels -- and [have it] still be funny and exciting. When I wrote it, I also wanted to convey in the spiral on the panels themselves, the downward slope, a spiral into mania.
If Galactus can appear and define himself in two panels, there's no reason I couldn't get this across.
Things end on the very literal mind-blowing cliffhanger; was this the note you wanted to end on the first issue?
I don't remember specifically, but I'm pretty sure it was. Jasmine [Amiri] and Bryce [Carlson] who edit the book are amazing, knowing when to cut me off and keeping things punchy and exciting. If it wasn't in there already, they probably guided me to cutting it off there, and honestly, there wasn't much more I could tell in that first act of the story before we get into a whole other thing, which is Tim's powers. So it's a logical place to cut it off.
What more can you tell us about Tim's journey?
The thing that I like about the book and enjoy writing is, the themes are so blatant and so inherent that going through this struggle, I don't even have to try to inject overt scenes into it. It's just there because it happened to me. Yeah, I crafted this adventure narrative, this almost superhero narrative, that starts to get crazier and crazier as it goes along. By the third issue, we're getting into some serious shit going down in Tim's existence.
Another thing people can expect from the series is that, as fantastic as things get, it remains grounded in that struggle. It can happen to anyone, and people go through their own variation of growing up and becoming a human being. It just happened that my journey into growing up was like a tremendous almost-adventure, Grant Morrison-esque transformation that was triggered by my own body's chemistry. There will always be that grounded element, even up the last issue, which is totally over the top.