Brandon Graham is one of the top cartoonists working in comics today. From King City to Prophet to Multiple Warheads and beyond, Graham seems incapable of disappointing, and if you aren't reading his comics, you're missing out. Brandon took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about everything comics — from his to others — and what's killing the mainstream.
David Fairbanks: So, King City is getting collected, you're teaming up with other artists to work on Prophet, Multiple Warheads sounds like it's getting ready for print, and you tweeted about your porn comics getting collected as well. Did I miss anything? Is there even time for much else?
Brandon Graham: Yeah, things are getting interesting. I've got three other guys drawing Prophet issues. After Simon, it's Farel Dalrymple (Pop Gun War, Omega the Unknown), and then I'm doing one and then Giannis Milonogiannis (Old City Blues), and then we rotate back to Simon. I'm 12 pages from done with the first chunk of Warheads. I think if all goes well I'll have something like 18 or 19 books out this year.
And yeah, Image has said they'd do a collection of my old porn comics, but I think that might be a ways off still. I have a bunch of older stuff I want to reprint.
I'm still wrapping my head around the idea that the publishers I'm working with seem to be letting me get away with anything I want. It feels like a responsibility to have as much fun with the work as I can.
Fairbanks: Eighteen or nineteen books? That's spectacular, and the responsibility to have fun is an attitude that needs to be around in more of the comics industry. With Prophet, you're not working full script on that, right? Does your relationship with the artist affect your scripting process? You were in Meathaus with Farel — will you write for him differently than you do for Simon or Giannis?
Graham: Yeah, it's a really collaborative process, with lots of talking things through and passing layouts back and forth. I only do text after everything is drawn, and Simon sends me notes on that end as well. Simon is also staying on to hammer ideas out on Giannis's issues. I like the idea of having three brains trying to figure out these big outer space ideas.
With Farel, it's been pretty similar. I think even with me knowing him longer and him being older than the other guys we all seem to be on a similar page with what kind of book we're trying to make. The tone of the book changes a bit, we always start with a kind of “what would be the most fun to draw mentality.”
Fairbanks: How different is it than working on your solo books? You were asked to submit layouts in the TOKYOPOP days of King City, but, when you're your own boss, how much do you plan before you pick up a pencil?
Graham: My own stuff is really different to work on. I'm not doing any of the puns or the messing around in Prophet that I normally do. And that's a lot of the hardest part.
This whole collaborative process has been really informative for me. You just spend a lot less time thinking about each page if you aren't sitting there for six hours drawing the thing.
I do a lot of notes and layouts beforehand, but it always ends up different by the time I'm done than what I'd planned on. I really like the freedom of being able to scrap any idea or completely flip the plans depending on where the page is going. Sometimes the hard part is just not fucking with every page and letting some of them just be what they're gonna be.
Having to show my layouts to TP was frustrating. It felt like having to do the pages twice. I switched editors half way through and got a lot more freedom.
On some level, I think it might've been good for me to go from having to deal with fighting that level of control to the stuff I'm doing now, where, for the most part, no one sees it until it's done because I can keep that feeling that I'm getting away with something. Also, I think it also gave me a nice chip on my shoulder.
Fairbanks: With your previous work, quite a bit of it was limited, whether it was King City (12 issues) or The Voice (eight pages). Do you have any kind of endgame for Prophet or Multiple Warheads, or could you see yourself working on these for quite a while?
Graham: Yeah, with Warheads I like the idea of letting myself meander and go where my interests go in a big made up fantasy world. And Prophet is pretty open too. I think at least with MW, it's a reaction to having all of my past work be limited. I'm still having to shoehorn a lot of ideas into a certain amount of pages but that's more self-imposed now. Just because I want the issues to each read well on their own.
I've got a plan with what I'm doing for the first year of Prophet. I think a lot of the fun of where it goes will be looking at what we've done in a year and trying to come up with where the ideas can go next. So much of the fun for me in comics is setting up problems for myself and then having to fix them.
Fairbanks: Are there any plans to revisit your past works? King City, in particular, feels like there's plenty more going on than what we saw among Joe's adventures.
Graham: I'd really like to, but it's hard to say if I ever will. I think it'd be really fun to do another KC book that was a 60-page murder mystery. The rights are kind of a mess with that book, though. I had another story planned about a guy who used to be a catmaster. I thought it would be cool to show Joe and the cat in it as side characters. Show him older with a beard.
Fairbanks: Is there ever any desire to illustrate on a work for hire basis, like your piece in House of Mystery?
Graham: Not really. I could see doing something with someone whose work I was a fan of. Like, I'd love to do an Empowered thing with Adam Warren, some Pope THB or some Fil Barlow Zooniverse short. I don't think those guys need me but it'd be fun.
I always feel like I'm shit talking that poor House of Mystery story whenever it comes up. I appreciated the work. It paid really well, but I wasn't really in a position to make something I was proud of.
Fairbanks: One thing I noticed, flipping through that annual, is that your color palette is pretty uncommon in comics. I honestly can only think of a few artists whose work stands out that much based on color alone (Frazer Irving and your pal James Stokoe come to mind). Is there anything that inspired the somewhat muted colors you seem to enjoy working with?
Graham: Thanks. Sometimes I'll look at Moebius like, "Oh, that's where I got that." He's a pretty huge
influence, and [so are] the Japanese cartoons I was into as a teenager.
I really don't like the look of a lot the gradient-heavy computer coloring in modern comics. I'm so impressed with how guys like Stokoe or our pal Sheldon Vella are able to do work with a lot of gradients and still looks so good.
Fairbanks: On the subject of Stokoe, his Spider-'Nam is spectacular. Are there any corporate comics you'd like to leave your mark on?
Graham: I like a lot of the characters. I was just typing with someone about how It'd be fun to see Gen13 relaunched with Static Shock and Braniac 5 replacing some of the awful characters. I love the old Power Pack or Alan Davis era Excalibur.
The reality of actually doing it, though, is rough. I just don't have any faith or respect for how that end of comics treats creators. I see them repeatedly shit on the people that do the most for them, and I don't think I'd ever be given the freedom to do what I wanted over there.
I think what Stokoe did with his Amazing Spider-'Nam was perfect. He just did it for himself. I'd love to see Marvel call him up and tell him just to turn in 40 more pages of that, but at most it's like, here's three pages in our indy ghetto anthology.
Fairbanks: I was mostly just surprised to see your work at either of the Big Two, even if it was Vertigo. The list of creators who have been mistreated by corporate comics companies is long and full of legends, and I certainly can't blame anyone for not wanting to join them.
Graham: I did a couple short things at Vertigo. Mostly I just did a lot of pitches that got rejected but I also got to do a pin up in a Transmetropolitan book which was a huge thrill for me.
I'm in a nice position to be able to shit talk them. I have no idea where I'd be at now if they liked me when I was 25.
Fairbanks: You've mentioned quite a few other artist friends. Hell, you're married to another artist. How important is that community to the work you're making?
Graham: It's huge. I'm really driven by being around other people making art that I'm excited about. It pushes me and keeps me in line. My Mrs., Marian, has such impressive ideas about what art is and what it can be, plus she draws better than me. And then dudes like Stokoe or Moritat will fuck with me if I get too high on myself and let the work slip.
In my early 20's I was really into the graffiti scene in Seattle, and I got all these ideas about community from it that I didn't find to be true in the comics scene — certainly not in the making-money-off-of-comics scene.
There's this quote on a Jaime Hernandez punk poster. It says, "If the scene sucks, it's because you suck." I like that. I think we all have a lot of control in this community and a responsibility to shepherd it into being something we're all proud of.
Fairbanks: I dig that Hernandez quote, kind of along the lines of "Be the change you want to see in the world," but making you feel like shit if you're not doing it.
Graham: Heh, that's good. There's a lot of work to be done. I've been really impressed by Warren Ellis acting like a comic book grown-up and reaching out and letting his fans know what else they might like.
Fairbanks: I saw you were on the list of thesis advisers for the Center for Cartoon Studies. What's that been like for you, working with and advising up and coming cartoonists?
Graham: It was fun. I kind of dropped the ball with the last student I worked with. I got too busy in my own work. I'm always interested in finding new likeminded artists, and any excuse to talk about comics is great.
I'm always a little uncertain about art school, because I have such little experience with school myself. I didn't make it past a year of high school.
I should mention that I think the least debt you have going into comics, the easier it is to have the time to do your own work. It's great if anyone can get anything out of going, but it's not something that I think you need at all to do good work.
Fairbanks: Is there anything that you're reading right now that you love — new or old? Or any creators you feel deserve more attention than they're getting?
Graham: I just read Walker Bean by Aaron Renier and really enjoyed it. It was a really well done adventure on the high seas comic with lots of cool ideas in it. And an old Tony Takezaki AD Police book. Just all the cyborgs vs. lady cop stuff that I grew up reading. And I've been reading some Bukowski short stories.
As far as deserving more attention, I feel like there's an amazing amount of creators doing great work right now. It just frustrates me because I don't see it translate into that many more good books in comic stores.
John Kantz — He's done some stuff for Antarctic press and he did the background on the last Scott Pilgrim book. The humor in his work kills me.
Emily Carrol — I think she's getting a lot of attention, but she's doing such amazing work that I feel like everyone should be watching. I think she's really pushing how stories can be told with comics.
Liz Suburbia — Her stuff rings with a lot of truth. I feel like reading her comics now would be like how it was to find Love and Rockets when it started.
Coleman Engle — I'm just really impressed with Coleman's cartooning ability.
Lin R. Visel — She does this great hang out dudes comic, about a guy and his bear roommate. And her doing porn comics as well makes me feel like we went to the same alma mater.
Fairbanks: I've heard you describe Prophet as "Conan in Space;" for anyone out there curious about King City or Multiple Warheads, how would you pitch them?
Graham: King City is like a detective story about a guy who has a cat that can be any tool or weapon, and Warheads is about a woman who smuggles magic organs and her werewolf boyfriend in a fantasy Russia.
Fairbanks: Can we expect any extras in the KC collection coming out? (As if it weren't already a steal at $20!)
Graham: I mostly wanted to keep it pretty close to the issues and not make people who already bought if feel like they were missing out. I'm really excited about the design of the thing; I did these French flaps that have hidden drawings behind them. And there are a couple pages that didn't make it into the issues.
airbanks: So, Newsarama essentially cut your mic as you were about to lay into what is probably one of the biggest problems in mainstream comics: an almost complete lack of responsibility for the quality of the work produced. Have they told you why yet?
Graham: It got taken down after a back-and-forth about the way Liefeld's work was being discussed by the interviewer. I got the idea it would still be up if everyone involved was happy with it.
So I don't hold it being taken down against Newsarama. My issue was with their lack of journalistic integrity before it got taken down. David Brothers, who is a comic journalist I have a huge amount of respect for, said:
"You're interviewing these cats because you want to know what they think, not to massage them into shape."
I think that about says it.
Fairbanks: Now, you seem okay with sex in comics. There's sex in King City, Multiple Warheads and Prophet. How do books like Catwoman or Red Hood and the Outlaws get it wrong?
Graham: I'm very pro-sex in comics. I've drawn a lot of porn, but I don't think showing women in sexual situations has to be dehumanizing.
Like I was saying in the Newsarama talk, I don't have a problem when someone shows a dominatrix acting in a sexual way, the problem is when you have every woman you depict acting like that.
I actually like the artist's work on Catwoman. I think he draws really well, but that just makes how badly it's written even more frustrating.
Fairbanks: You mentioned the importance of calling people out when they make shitty work. Do you think that kind of open discourse will help fix the problem?
Graham: Yeah, I think so. Because I don't think these readers and writers who support this stuff all hate women, they just don't see that there's a problem in what they're doing. And I think being open about it also hopefully says to people that not everyone in comics thinks that shit is okay.
I'm answerable to all this stuff too, and it's something I've been more and more aware of in my own work.
I feel like a large part of mainstream comics acts like a frat party full of guys who think it's okay to make sexist and racists jokes as long as there's no one but white straight dudes in the room. But every type of person is in the room now, so maybe we should all reassess how we talk about them.
Fairbanks: Does it seem that, at the end of the day, the folks making the decisions care more about the bottom line and less about making a quality product? Is it a product people want?
Graham: I don't think it's anything malicious. I think guys like Jim Lee and Dan DiDio at the top of DC probably love a lot of what they put out, but I think their idea of quality is different than mine.
I think they are [desirable] to a specific type of reader, but, personally, I'm just sick of that crap; it'd be like if 90% of places that sell food were just McDonald's. Yeah, people will eat that, but is it really great food? If we're going to look at comics as art I think we have to have better goals than just if some people want it.