Process: Northlanders As Metal

(or Norse Mythological Fundamentalism & The Notion Of A “Container Series”)

(originally written June 2010)

Heavy metal and Vikings go hand in hand. I didn’t need Becky Cloonan and Espen Jorgensen to tell me that. I’m pretty sure I was first schooled to this fact walking across “stoner bridge,” a little walkway that crossed a pitiful stream and opened up onto the back of my high school’s parking lot in northern Vermont. Crossing it meant running a gauntlet of rednecks, headbangers, weed smoke, and heavy metal t-shirts. From Led Zeppelin to Bathory, the imagery was dominant.

And while I am no fan of Viking Metal, I can appreciate the imagery.

I’ve started to refer to Northlanders as a “container series”. With each new story arc, I’m able to reinvent the book to whatever degree I like, and I’ve found that the core concept of the book is flexible enough to contain a really wide variety of genres and story types.

Sven The Returned was as straightforward as these things go, the most traditional Viking story I was likely to write. From that point on, coinciding with my ongoing research blitz, I’ve made a big point in seeing how far I can stretch the concept. With the upcoming story arc called Metal, I’m taking what I’m able to take from the musical genre and apply it to comics. This is not a story about music, but a story that taps into the same dark mythology and nihilistic worldview that inspires the genre. This is radically different from anything that’s come before in the last 30 months of this series.

“Norse Mythological Fundamentalism” is a phrase from my story outline. Also in there are references to films like Badlands and Natural Born Killers. What if Charles Starkweather was Northlanders’ Erik, an ugly, failed blacksmith who decides that the growing influence of this cult religion “Christianity” is in danger of erasing his cultural identity? And what if Juliette Lewis’ Mallory Knox character was Ingrid, a young woman pressed into service as a nun, suffering daily insults and abuse for being an albino and a pagan?

What if Erik eats a ton of shrooms, wanders the forests for a few days, and is now convinced that Mother Nature herself is instructing him to purge this new religion from the land? And what if Mother Nature is actually not a very nice sort of god at all, but is instead really creepy and violent? What if Erik murders a bunch of priests and nuns in order to free Ingrid, tears his town down around him, and thinks to himself, “why stop there?”

Metal flies in the face of a few rules I had laid out for myself when I started Northlanders. But that’s cool, because the fact that I feel comfortable in breaking them is a testament to the elasticity of the series’ concept. Back in 2006, thinking that there is no way that overt mythology has a place in this book, was fine for the early stories where myth was treated as nothing more than casual superstition, if it was even present at all. But starting with The Shield Maidens and now continuing with Metal, I’ve figured out ways to include it while still making sure that Northlanders is Northlanders. And not, I dunno, Thor.

Now, on to RICCARDO BURCHIELLI. Resident of Florence, Italy, bass player in a metal band, and trusted DMZ collaborator of nearly five years. Drawing even one issue of DMZ is no mean feat – ask any of the guest artists we’ve had. It’s incredibly hard work, drawing a wartorn New York City for a thousand pages and counting, but he’s a dedicated and loyal collaborator. I’ve been encouraging him to take a break from DMZ for the sake of his mental health for a while now, and it took a guest stint on Northlanders to finally get him to agree. “Write me something violent, Brian,” he said. “Something with a lot of swords and blood.” And no buildings or helicopters, of course.
This is the preeminent example of tailoring a script to an artist’s desires and skillset, and I know Riccardo is dying to let loose on something different.

The five-issue METAL, at its core, is a timeless story: two young lovers on the run, shunned by their respective societies. Where it goes from there is the stuff of nightmares, to be honest. Set at the dawn of the Viking Age, the era of Beowulf and Germanic paganism, before exploration and trade brought light to the dark forests of Scandinavia. Misanthropy abounds, as does nihilism and fatalism, obsession and racial devotion. Dark times, dark themes. And two blighted teenagers try to carve out a space where they can just be themselves without the rest of the world giving them a hard time.

Can’t you totally see that airbrushed on the side of a van in a high school parking lot?

Essay: The End Of Demo

(originally written July 2010)

It’s all over, all over again, so soon?

Every time I think about Demo I’m reminded of how I got into comics in the first place. Parts of this story a lot of you have heard before, because the question is a very common one asked in interviews. But I’m going to try and go a little deeper, since it helps explain Demo.

Like almost everyone else I know and work with in comics, I never read them as a kid, not to any degree beyond seeing a Richie Rich comic in the waiting room at my childhood dentist. When I discovered comics, or rather when I discovered that comics could be for me, I was 25 and pursuing an art school degree. And that’s what ended up defining what comics were (and, sort of, still are) to me: it’s all about the medium.

I got into comics because of the form, not any particular story or a character or a title, not one universe or another, not the history of comics or of the people that made them. And it was the cold appraisal of the medium as a student trying to pick it apart, not that of a reader just looking for enjoyment. Even though, over a long time, I came to learn the history, to appreciate the creators and their seminal works over the decades, it’s always been about the medium for me more than anything else.

Couple that with my instructors at college repeatedly driving home the point that there is nothing more important than creating new work and protecting what you create, there was just no way in hell I was ever going to end up seeking out a career working on company-owned books. It was just not the cards I was dealt, it’s not how I “learned” comics. I don’t say that haughtily–there are times I wish it were otherwise, since I don’t have a lot of common ground with my peers when it comes to comics. It’s alienating more often than I usually care to admit. It also meant that the growth of my career had an incredibly slow and frustrating start– from 1997 through to 2005 I was essentially making comics for free and trying to find a toehold.

Anyway, I feel that this is why Demo is what Demo is. It’s a very format-oriented take by a superhero-illiterate writer on what is an established sub-genre in mainstream comics: the “teen with powers.” Skip ahead a bit in the backmatter of this issue and look at the original Demo pitch from back in 2002. Format is literally inseparable from what the story is. Good? Bad? Like I said, it is what it is.

I love Demo for what it is, and for what it’s not. At times like this, looking back at a bunch of work just completed, it’s really easy to feel pride at doing something that is unique and personal and so wholly Becky-and-me that it couldn’t have been assigned to a different creative team like work-for-hire. I always think, and I’m sure I’m not alone, that the creator-owned books that work the best are the ones that are so owned and embodied by their creators that separating the two is inconceivable. Think of Casanova without Matt Fraction, Phonogram without Kieron and Jamie, or of Preacher without Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.

So just like in 2004, Becky and I take a breather from a run of Demo. Many thanks to the Vertigo crew this time around, starting off first in a roundabout way to Will Dennis and Shelly Bond who were fans of the first series enough to offer both Becky and myself work on other things, and then later on thanks to Will, Karen Berger, Jack Mahan, and Mark Doyle for working to breathe a second life into the series. It’s something of a cliched statement to say that they went above and beyond, but it’s also totally true, and the fact that this new run of Demo stays so true to what Demo is and was is 100% due to their faith and diligence. Jared K Fletcher, Ryan Yount, and Amelia Grohman are also to be thanked on the production side, as well as all you readers, tweeters, and retailers.

I start to run out of nice things to say about working with Becky, which is crazy because is there anyone as nice in comics as Becky is? I’ve known her for a decade, very nearly, and working with her is effortless and completely rewarding. I continue to be humbled at the faith and hard work she puts into my stories. The perfect collaborator.

Process: The Retailer Is The Customer

(originally written Apr 2012)

Looking back over 14 years, there have been a few things related to creator-owned comics and the building of a career off of them that stand out.  They stand out to the point that I’ve taken to calling them “rule #1, rule 2″, and so on.  One day I’ll get them all out there in a formal essay, but right now I want to talk about one of the most important ones, and how it relates to The Massive series launch:

The retailer is the customer.

I forget who first told me that, but it’s a solid bit of common sense.  The way the direct market is set up, comic shop retailers have to purchase comics on a non-returnable basis, meaning they can’t return unsold copies.  The fact they go on to re-sell them to their customers is, in a way, almost irrelevant.  The books have been ordered and paid for.

So when you talk about creator-owned comics, indie comics, self-published comics, the retailer is being asked to make a very real and permanent financial investment in that book, one that he or she cannot make back should the book not perform to expectations.   The retailer is the customer.  You, meaning the creator and/or the publisher, are pitching and selling to the retailer.  Or you should be.  It’s often shocking to me how few people forget that.  Sometimes I forget it.

You can hype up your readers all you want, but if their shop didn’t order the book, they are out of luck.  YOU are out of luck, too.

So this is me telling you to tell your retailer that, if you want to buy a copy of The Massive, to order you a copy.  This isn’t SAGA and I’m not BKV or Millar or Bendis who stand a greater chance of being automatically stocked on shelves.  Retailers are going to gauge demand and order accordingly.  So tell them if you’re interested.

I ran some numbers the other day.  Looking at some recent numbers on my Vertigo books, Northlanders sells about 8000 an issue in actual numbers.   Retailer friends of mine confirm that the general consensus is that there are about 1800 comic shops out there.  That means, roughly, 4.5 copies per store.  But what about a place like Midtown Comics, who seem to order 40 copies in just the one branch (of three) I sometimes visit?   That right there means quite a few shops not ordering it at all.  What about Jim Hanley’s, the Isotope, Golden Apple, TFAW, Mile High, Casablanca Comics, and all the others?  For every shop out there ordering more than 4.5 copies of Northlanders means several others just not bothering at all.  I live in Brooklyn, and can think of at least two comic shops within a couple miles of me that don’t carry Northlanders.  Or DMZ.  Or most small press books.  I’ve been called out a few times in the past for saying that most retailers don’t carry my books, but I honestly believe this to be the case.  And what does that say about the books of other creators who don’t yet have 14 years of awareness built up?

Now, I know that Northlanders is on issue #49 and The Massive will be launching with a #1, so I expect to get more than 8000 orders.  But I think this is a problem that exists regardless of the scale.  And I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and think that any comic shop out there, if asked by a customer, would order The Massive or anything else they wanted.  For all the horror stories about “bad” retailers who just don’t order what they don’t like or that isn’t DC or Marvel superheroes, period, I think 99% of the rest would help you out.

The Massive #1 can be ordered with this code: APR12 0008.  Add it to your pull list, and if you feel passionately about it, suggest to your retailer to stock a few extra just in case.  Nothing breaks my heart like the inevitable tweets and emails I get on Wednesdays from customers not finding my books at their shops.

I’m doing my part, behind the scenes.  The retailer is the customer.  I might not have a career in comics if someone didn’t burn that phrase into my brain.  And this ties into the other rule I’ll deal with at a later date:  No one loves your book as much as you do.

History: Channel Zero #1

(originally written Feb 12, 2013)

Fifteen years ago TODAY, Image Comics released Channel Zero #1.  I was working at a dot com job and bought a copy for myself at the now-defunct Cosmic Comics on 23rd St.  Warren Ellis emailed me to say he liked it (kicking off a long friendship and the long start of him helping me throughout my career).  I didn’t own a computer so the above cover was cranked out in the computer lab at the college I had already graduated from.  It got about 5000 orders.  I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

1998 seems like a very long time ago, but fifteen years feels quick… it feels as though I’ve been doing this so much longer than that.

So thanks to Jim Valentino at Image, who was the one who “discovered” me, thanks to everyone at Image, AIT, and Dark Horse who have kept this book in print, thanks to Warren Ellis who kept me motivated, and to everyone who bought it, in any edition throughout the years.

Extras - Rebels: "The Patriot Essay"

(as published in the back of Rebels #2, May 2015)

I just got done doing a blitz of interviews and podcasts about Rebels, and its forced me to put into words something that up until this point was just sitting in the back of my mind, more of a feeling than a thought.
I describe myself as a patriot, and whenever I do I can sense raised eyebrows and a skeptical looks, which I totally understand. I’m pretty open about being a leftie, politically, even an outright socialist when it comes to certain human issues. I’m also the guy that created and wrote DMZ, a scathing 72-issue takedown of modern American war and media. I suspect when I announced Rebels a big chunk of my potential audience believed it was going to be some sort of hatchet job on our beloved shared history and identity. Not just suspect – I know this was the case, because I started getting emails about it. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Since 9/11, and I think to a lesser degree the Reagan years, there’s an association that comes with words like patriotism and some of the uglier policies our culture has brought forth. I know I developed a reflex since this war on terror started, an instinctual rejection of anything that smacked of “pro-America”, the whole ‘with us or against us’ mentality. It made being a proud American an extreme partisan position. It meant lining yourself up with horrible people and abusive ideas. And it’s that ugly side of American culture that DMZ took a blowtorch to.

But I knew that wasn’t the case, and it bothered me. It made me angry. Because I love this country’s history, I loved the mythology, the folktales, the heroes and the language and the imagery. I love the idea of a country founded on the concept of laws. Not royal lineage, or military might, or racial identity, or religious ideology. Ok, sure, there were some bum laws in there, like the Three-Fifths Compromise, but we fixed that. We, as Americans, improved ourselves in that respect, and still strive to improve, to live up to the promise this country was founded on. That’s something to be proud of, and I was angry that I felt robbed of the ability to openly express that and still be me, thanks to the post-9/11 climate.

Rebels is, in part, my reclaiming this aspect of my identity, for me and for anyone else like me. It doesn’t matter that politicians on all sides use this history and twist it around to sell what they’re selling, to demonize the other, to justify all sorts of lies and bullshit and anger and bigotry. I’m writing Rebels with honesty and pride and I can metaphorically (and even literally) wave the flag and celebrate our history and believe in common sense gun ownership and support my veteran friends and buy American whenever possible and still be the guy who wrote DMZ and Channel Zero and vote Green if I want and believe in universal health care and wear my Bernie Sanders pin (a Vermonter!), and not be a hypocrite But rather a run-of-the-mill complex human being with opinions and beliefs, like anyone else.

I’m really resisting wrapping up this essay with some cliché “and that’s what makes America great!” line, because in all honestly, America as it is today isn’t all great. Its got a lot of flaws, and I think that’s part of the reason the history of our independence and the whole Spirit of ’76 thing has such mass appeal – it reminds us of that promise I just mentioned. That ideal to keep striving for, and the terrible struggle men, women, and even children endured to create a brand new kind of nation where such a thing was possible.

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Process: On Northlanders

“Sven The Returned was as straightforward as these things go, the most traditional Viking story I was likely to write. From that point on, coinciding with my ongoing research blitz, I’ve made a big point in seeing how far I can stretch the concept. With the upcoming story arc Metal, I’m taking what I’m able to take from the musical genre and apply it to comics. This is not a story about music, but a story that taps into the same dark mythology and nihilistic worldview that inspires the genre. This is radically different from anything that’s come before in the last 30 months of this series. “Norse Mythological Fundamentalism” is a phrase from my story outline. Also in there are references to films likeBadlands and Natural Born Killers. What if Charles Starkweather was Northlanders’ Erik, an ugly, failed blacksmith who decides that the growing influence of this cult religion “Christianity” is in danger of erasing his cultural identity? And what if Juliette Lewis’ Mallory Knox character was Ingrid, a young woman pressed into service as a nun, suffering daily insults and abuse for being an albino and a pagan?”

– since-deleted essay on the DC Comics website about Northlanders “Metal”