Derek McCulloch: Tales Grow In the Telling

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Derek McCulloch writes some of the most interesting and ambitious graphic novels being released these days. His first major graphic novel, Stagger Lee, is a generation-spanning exploration of race, violence and memory as filtered through a great America folk song. His upcoming book, Displaced Persons, as you’ll read below, is a generation-spanning tale that overflows with intelligence and craft. Derek’s stories are true graphic novels. They are thoughtful explorations of themes that we all live with every day. They also are compelling and intensely readable. I chatted with Derek at WonderCon in February; his books are released through Image.

Jason Sacks: Tell us what the plot is for Displaced Persons.

Derek McCulloch: It’s a kind of puzzle book, which presents a special challenge when trying to summarize it. There’s a very fine line between being utterly cryptic and giving too much away, but I’ll try. The story is told in three parts, each in a different time period: 1939, 1969, and 1999. The 1939 story is a hardboiled detective story. The 1969 story is about drugs and sibling rivalry. The 1999 story is about domestic abuse, the dotcom bubble, and real estate. Each of these stories intrudes on the other in ways that I probably shouldn’t say here.

JS: Both Displaced Persons and your previous graphic novel, Stagger Lee, are very ambitious for comics - they span not just time but attempt to get at some deeper insight into our society. What do you think motivates you to take on such large challenges, and do you feel like you succeeded with Stagger Lee?

DM: I just write about the stuff that interests me, and it’s happenstance that my first two GN projects both work on such large canvasses. For one thing, they’re both projects I spent a very long time thinking about – I started working on both of them in 1999 – so it’s inevitable that the tales grew, like Tolkien said, in the telling.

Even with the less weighty entertainments I have planned for the future, though, I’ll be trying to get at some sort of insight or truth about the creatures we are and the world we live in. To my way of thinking, that’s what writing and art are for.

JS: Were you happy with the reception that Stagger Lee received? How hard is it to build an audience for graphic novels these days?

DM: I was really pretty scared when Stagger Lee went out into the world. You work on something like that for a long time, you think it’s pretty good, but you’ve got no way of knowing how it’s going to be received, whether anyone else is going to see in it what you do. When the first couple of reviews came in, I was really relieved. As we got more and more good reviews and eventually award nominations and wins, it really did feel like a huge validation. Of course, now with Displaced Persons I’m back to square one again. I think it’s pretty good, but I’m going to be holding my breath in early June to see what everybody else thinks.

I can’t speak for anybody else, but my experience is that it’s a bigger challenge to build an audience for graphic novels than it is to create them. With all its accolades, Stagger Lee has still never had a big sales breakthrough. Also, it’s taken me two years to get my second book out, so it’s not as if there’s a big Derek McCulloch brand to help move things along. Working exclusively in GNs makes the idea of career momentum even more challenging. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to rely on my comic work to make my living for me – hats off to the people who do this full-time. But it’s self-evident that if I want to develop any sort of following, I’m going to have to put stuff in the pipeline a little more regularly. Either than or find some way to convince people I’m the Terrence Malick of comics and they should bestow upon me a similar mystique. I’m guessing option one is more realistic.

JS: Many people who read your new graphic novels aren't aware that you co-owned Strawberry Jam Comics, which released about 15 comics before it crashed in the b&w bust of the late '80s. Looking back, what are your memories of that time period? Any plans to revive or collect night life, which ended without a conclusion?

DM: It was a fun and stupid time to be in comics. Our timing was terrible. We put out several issues in 1985 and 1986 as the b&w boom was gearing up to happen. We managed to get two issues out during the boom proper – night life #1 and To Be Announced #4. I had no idea what was going on, and when I saw the numbers for night life #1, I decided to quit my day job. They were modest by the standards of a b&w #1 for the time, but they were so much bigger than what we were accustomed to that I thought I was going to be able to making a living off this new book. Then by the time #2 came out, the bust had happened and reality set in. I’d be bitter if it weren’t for the fact that I was looking for any excuse at all to quit my day job at the time.

We’ve tried a few times to collect or otherwise finish off night life, but for one reason or another the plans have never panned out. I spoke recently with Simon Tristan, night life’s artist, about giving it another go, but nothing’s planned. Someday, maybe. I actually wrote scripts back then that finished off the storyline we started. One of them was even drawn without being published. It would be nice to get them into the light of day sometime.

JS: Can you talk a little about The True North, the free speech fund raising project you assembled in the '90s?

DM: In the late 1980s it seemed like there was a vogue among law enforcement agencies to generate headlines and look like they were doing something important by prosecuting comic shops for selling comic books. The CBLDF was founded to help out shops in the U.S. that ran into that sort of trouble, but there was no counterpoint organization for shops in Canada.

In 1987, the owner of a shop in Calgary called Comic Legends got arrested for selling comics to an adult undercover policeman. I saw an article about it in The Comics Journal or someplace, and had a conversation on the subject with Paul Stockton, my partner in Strawberry Jam Comics. One or the other of us said, “Somebody should do a benefit book for those guys.” There was a pause while we both thought about that, then one or the other of us said, “Maybe we should do a benefit book for those guys.” So we informed The Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund and published The True North, an anthology containing work by virtually every Canadian we could think of working in comics at the time: Dave Sim, Todd McFarlane, Chester Brown, Matt Wagner (not Canadian but living in Montréal at the time), Seth, Ty Templeton, David Boswell, Ken Steacy, Bernie Mireault, Dan Day, and a host of others.

We were never quite as organized as an institution as the CBLDF was. It was more of an ad hoc sort of thing. Somebody would get in trouble, and we’d spring into action, put out a book or a poster or whatever, raise some money, pay some legal fees, then fade back into obscurity. We were comparatively successful with Comic Legends. As absurd as the charges were, the social and political climate in Alberta made it unlikely to overturn the initial conviction, but we got the penalty reduced to a handslap. My involvement with the CLLDF ended when I departed comics in the early 90s, but to the best of my knowledge Paul and our other partner Len Wong have kept the fund alive under the same ad hoc conditions since.

JS: Your professional work emerged from the letters page of Cerebus in the '80s; how do you think Dave Sim's approach to comics affected you?

DM: There was no more influential figure in my early comics work than Dave Sim. We all – those of us who comprised Strawberry Jam Comics – thought he was making the greatest comic of all time and we wanted to come as close as we could to the artistic heights he was achieving month in and month out. But even more importantly we were utterly sold on his DIY ethos. We wanted to follow his self-publishing model, and if we’d been smart enough and disciplined enough to stick to some of his more basic precepts, we might have gotten somewhere.

JS: What comes next for you after Displaced Persons?

DM: Right now I’m writing my next OGN for Image Comics. It’s called Pug and will be drawn by my dear old friend Greg Espinoza. It’s kind of funny that all three books—Stagger Lee with Shepherd Hendrix, Displaced Persons with Rantz Hoseley, and now Pug with Greg—are with friends with whom I’ve been trying for 20 or so years to finish a project. I guess we’re all late bloomers. After Pug, I have two books in mind, but I probably shouldn’t get ahead of myself here. A few short stories are on the way too. PopGun #2 will feature a piece I did with Ron Turner (not the Last Gasp guy) called “Nixon’s the One!” And Peter Krause is working on a script of mine, tentatively for PopGun #3. The big high-profile thing for the summer is a story for the Tori Amos anthology, Comic Book Tattoo. Colleen Doran is drawing the piece I wrote, and I’m not supposed to say any more than that.

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