One of the most fun, completely wrong sorts of graphic novels I've read recently is Whore (seriously, check out our review), written by Jeff Kaufman. As you can read from this interview, Jeff gloried in the wrongness of his comic – and has a lot more to say besides!
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: So, how does a lawyer end up doing a comic called Whore with a lot of guns, a lot of beautiful women, and a lot of nasty government conspiracies.
Jeff Kaufman: Well as far as the name goes you would think that would be a walk hand in hand; well that's a really bad lawyer joke.
I've been writing single issue comic books for about somewhere around 7 years, and the idea was that I really wanted to write a complete story. So after Big City stopped publishing books, I started just doing graphic novels, and Zenescope published two of our books a year.
The previous book I did was called Terminal Alice about five female contract killers: Alex, Laura, Illena, Cara and Eve. In that book I killed 82 people, and there were like two sex scenes – one was in a coffin. So it was very difficult to figure out how you're going to go past that.
It was funny because while I was going to DragonCon in Atlanta, one of my favorite conventions, I was on the phone with my wife, and I was like, "Baby, I just don't know how I'm going to get there. I mean how am I going to beat this last book?" And she said to me, "Well, remember that book you wanted to do a couple of years ago?" I said, "There were a lot of books I wanted to do a couple of years ago." And she was like, "No, no, the one about the guy who gets downsized from the CIA." I couldn't believe she suggested that; I said, "Oh, you mean Whore?"
And I had a friend of mine as Coliseum, Phil, who said to me "Jeff, you can't do a book called Whore." This was about 3-4 years ago. He goes, "They won't carry it." And I always thought, "Why? It's about a guy who does anything for money," it didn't seem like that bad an idea. I mean “whore” is a word; there are other words worse than that.
I had actually called Phil and I said, "Phil, you know, I really believe in this title. I mean do you really believe that store owners will not carry it?" And he goes, "You know something Jeff, I think now would be a good time to be able to do it."
So, I started writing it, and it's a lot of fun because Jacob Mars is truly a wrong human being. Being able to write for a guy like that – figuring out the most insane situations to put him in and seeing how he would react – without any limitations or self-censorship, since there's no fixing him, was just so much fun.
CB: So what are some of your favourite insane situations you have him in?
Kaufman: There were a lot of insane scenes; there's the Obama scene which I liked a lot because I always wanted to imagine what my President would be like if you had the opportunity just to talk to him, or play one-on-one, especially with a guy like Mars.
But my artist is Italian and he speaks very little English, so his Czechoslovakian wife translates all my scripts and I really think she has a clear distaste for me. I like to say that his wife believes that his work should be in the Louvre not the Louvre bathroom. And there's a scene that I was talking over with my colorist where I said, "Do you think Marco will be able to draw the scene?" And he goes, "Well, what is it?" I said, "Well it's a scene where one of the bad guys wakes up and Mars had stuck a grenade up his posterior."
I couldn't imagine what that face would look like, but if you see in the book, I think he gets it pretty well. What I love about the scene, the bastard makes it clear, he goes, "You did something to me that's unacceptable. I can't care about something that's gone. I'm no longer allowed to care and you made me give a crap, which is so unacceptable in my world," and it is really interesting how he handles that.
The scene where stuff is blowing up, where things are going bad, I mean he should not be here and he knows he shouldn't because it's personal and he doesn't handle personal business. That's one of the best things I like about Mars; he does things that are so rough and intuitive because he doesn't care. He'll slap you in the face with a comment and you can't believe he would say something like that.
CB: Just as quickly as he tries to get out, he's pulled back in; he just can't escape that life at all.
Kaufman: It's like the mob right? That's a tough thing. When I think of Mars now that I've stopped writing him, you feel like there's a disappointment, which is different for him, because I finished Terminal Alice, and I walked away from it. Some people want a sequel, but I'm like, "Oh, I've finished it. Unless you want to do a television show; then I'll write you a sequel."
But with Mars, I don't want to say it's like an old relationship, but it's something that you don't feel like you're finished with. Mars just doesn't feel like he's left me. I wish I could explain that to you; it's always the idea. It was fun to write for, whether it would be a dog show, whether it would be a trouble mob theme, or whether it would be just the way he deals with the women in his life. He was very funny and dealing with a guy with no filter is fantastic; you can say whatever you want to say. I don't have to worry about people going, "Well that's really out of character." Very little is out of character for Mars. But I'll miss him and I'll get over the break up.
CB: You obviously love putting him in all kinds of outrageous situations; the dog show scenes are, I think, some of my favorites in the book.
Kaufman: Yeah, that's terrible. Somebody asked me the other day, they said, "That's the only name you changed, from Westminster to Eastminster." He goes, "That's the only one you're scared about suing you?" I said, "Well, I don't think the President's going to sue me," so with what I did in that dog scene, I'd get a phone call at least.
CB: Mars is humiliated during the dog scenes; I just loved those scenes because he's so unhappy doing it, but at the same time he does what he can, right?
Kaufman: Yeah. Somebody said to me the other day, "Jeff, you know, you just wrote the book so you can get comments on the internet because it will make you crazy." But another person said, "It's obviously just an attempt to sell books." And I would love to tell that person "Listen, this title is going to keep this book out of stores," but I don't.
l could have named it Jacob Mars, I could have named it Man with a Gun or some nonsense like that, but he is a whore.
I mean that's what I love about him, he sets a price. It doesn't matter how gross it is; it could be something as stupid as dressing up as a female librarian and having to spend a week in the New York Library, wearing a skirt; if the price is set he's going to do it. And that's what I really love about him. Most men, when they hear the title and I tell them that it's about a guy that does anything for money, they go, "Yeah, me too."
CB: Yeah, I can appreciate that reaction because I've had it on my iPad since I got the co
mp copy and the title jumps out at everyone who has had a chance to look over my shoulder, I think. "What are you reading? What is this?"
Kaufman: I remember one person saying, "You know, I expected more nudity." And I was kind of laughing, I said, "I'm not doing animated porn, this was just about a guy." He goes, "Well, there was a lot of sex and not enough nudity." And I'm wondering, what was he actually looking for? But I guess that the book's name was Whore, so I guess I kind of set him up for that.
CB: Well you had the naked women on the Serrano cover anyway.
Kaufman: Yeah, that was a tough cover; that was the human chair. I wanted to see if it was possible, so we did a photo-shoot. Because when you do a book like Whore, I wanted everything to be right.
He's the hero and the villain; to be able to do somebody like that – about half of my fans are women – so to do a guy like him, I have to go all out. I can't go half way. So when he's really that insulting, he has to be that insulting.
I remember one woman says to him, she's beating him in the chest and she says, "I can make you a better person." And he said, "You wouldn't be with me if I was a better person." And there's a lot of truth to that; Mars is fully aware of who he is and why people like him or dislike him. It's just why I think he works.
CB: I think the women especially love him just because he's so bad. He's not a compromiser in any way.
Kaufman: He's not bad in an abusive way; there's like a scene with a bunch of dead bodies and he's like, "Is this going to happen?" And she's like, "There are all these dead bodies in here." And he's like, "Yeah, but you know, I have an hour."
And it's very funny because I think human nature, there's an excitement to being around a guy like Mars, just the way he handles things, I think it's attractive. It's not that he is a phallic symbol, but he has this gift. There's a little charm in him. I wanted him to be my Sean Connery James Bond. I'm talking the way you felt about Sean Connery in let's say, the '70s or the '80s; how bad he was. Like when he slaps Ursula Andress in Doctor No, he got away with it.
Now Mars gets away with it. Women forgive him, and my fans forgive him. I remember we previewed the copy in San Diego, and one of my biggest fans from Terminal Alice said to me early on, "Jeff, you know I'm not about misogynist guys and everything, I don't know if I'm going to like this book." I said to her, "You are going to hate him so much, you're going to like him."
That's a very weird promise to make to somebody, but I really worked hard on it and she picked up a copy. I didn't think she would read it there, but she came back in two hours with her fists at her side. She was mad, really mad, and she said to me – and I still remember the line – "I hate him so much but I like him."
And that's when I realised I went full circle. He said these things that are so terrible, but they're actually really funny when I think about them.
CB: Yeah, well he's a charming asshole; he's as bad as it gets and as fun as it gets at the same time. In some ways he's who you can imagine yourself as wanting to be in a way, without all the social mores and everything you have attached to you in your life.
Kaufman: People ask me about that, they go, "Is that you? Is that who you want to be?" And I never thought of that. All I think about when I write him or when I write other situations is taking these brutally illogical situations and trying to make them logical; maybe that's just the criminal defense attorney in me, the guy who takes these terrible stories and has to explain them to six people and make them plausible. I guess that's it; I don't do much of that anymore, but I think that does come into play when I write these scenes.
CB: Yeah, there's so much darkness in this story and I kind of love it for all the darkness.
Kaufman: Like Marco Turini's artwork.
CB: It's gorgeous huh?
Kaufman: I love Marco. When I first saw Marco's work, it seemed inhuman, it seemed unrealistic. It wasn't one of these things where I looked at it and it was a bunch of Barbie dolls and people. I mean people don't look great all the time. He has this European flair and because I'm using Jim Brown, the colourist who does IDW stuff like Transformers and G.I. Joe, he loves coloring over the top of Marco because he says this is a completely different style and it feels a lot more natural. I think the book just calls out to him, and I love it.
A lot of people say this is an unusual look but I say, "Well, it is an unusual book." And I think it fits. I don't think, when I see Marco's work, when he did work for Marvel, it doesn't fit the superhero concept because it has a more realistic feel to it, and that's why I love working with him. I've worked with him on Terminal Alice, I worked with him on Whore, my next two books are Angel Falling with Kevin West, Mark McKenna on Wildwood possibly with Alex Saviuk from Web of Spider-Man. Remember him?
Kaufman: But Marco just contacted me about a day or two ago – he's very picky about what he does – and he said to me, "You have a project."
The Dark Knight Rises shootings just really affected me badly because they're our people. I just left Comic-Con, and there were so many people excited about this movie and talking about it. To believe something like this could happen because some jerkoff wanted his moment of fame just made me want to vomit; that's the best way to say it.
I've been really desensitized. I've represented some really bad people, but this just hits so close to home. I mean, I saw so many people so excited about going and to have somebody take that away from them… in my worst times, be it military, whether it would be this, I had Spider-Man, I had the Avengers I had this world that I could enter into and that's all these people wanted. Somebody just crapped all over that. Somebody asked me what I felt about it, what I think should happen to him and I made a comment about, "There's a place in Hell for a guy like that. And for those who don't believe it, you really need to."
CB: Yeah, it's just one of those tragedies that you can't just even put it into words, your feelings of that. I hadn't thought about the connection to Comic-Con but exactly because we were just all about celebrating our love for this sort of material and our shared geek culture and what happens, the unbelievably, horrible tragedy.
Kaufman: And the thing about it is that it really put a lot of things in perspective for me because my choices on books, a lot of times are based on, "Ok, is this a character that can sell? Is this a book that can sell?"
I've been holding a book back for years now because I didn't think I could write it; first off I don't think it's going to sell very well. I always felt it
was an important book to do, but I've never had the courage to write it. Two days after this happened, I'm just sitting there and it was like "Ok, get perspective."
So I contacted Marco and said, "How do you feel about doing this book?" And he was all for it but it's a little uncomfortable too because I have to write it. While I already have a lot of it written, we're wanting to do it right. It was a book I wanted to do a couple of years ago called 9/11, and it's a very tough topic because what the idea I had was to put a superhero team in the building when it went down and to have a hero and a villain.
The hero was out shopping when it happened, and she becomes a character looking for vengeance, while this villain had his wife in the building when it went down he realizes that he had threatened to do that hundreds of times and you see them both go different ways. This is viewing it ten, twelve years later and really looking at it and seeing these two people and how their lives are affected by this event, in a way that I've never seen in a comic book before.
Very rarely do people… they do this but they do it from the side of, "Ok, we're going to do it from fire-fighters and we're going to do it from actual stories here or we're going to have Spider-Man show up." But it really didn't touch on the real feelings that everyone else felt about it; not only New Yorkers but everyone, everywhere around the country. And I'm going to start that with Marco, so we're actually going to do three graphic novels this year because I feel it's something, after this, I feel it's an important thing to do in comics, to have to express the world around us.
You can't just avoid things because they are uncomfortable and I think if you tell the story right, it will be interesting yet it has a purpose.
CB: What you're describing feels like something you can only do in comics and do it quite well in comics, if it's pulled of right.
Kaufman: It came to me because I was in Washington State during 9/11 – I was supposed to fly out that day – and a lot of bad things had happened to me in a row, and I was telling my dad the night before, I said, "You know, my luck over the last two-three weeks has been terrible. Bad stuff has happened every day." I remember him coming into my room with my wife and he said, "Jeffrey, you're not going to believe this, there was this national tragedy." And it was just watching it over and over and over.
Later I got on an airplane and there was an Arab gentleman in the middle, who had like the taped glasses and there was this huge southern guy on the other side of him, and I was thinking, "This is silly; he's just a regular guy. I mean, what am I worried about?" Well, I don't know what happened to him, but he just started getting louder and louder. He was praying or something like that, but people on the plane were really starting to wig out, I was starting to. I didn't know if he was a terrorist; I had no clue. And I leaned over and basically said some colourful metaphors to the guy, and he stopped, he sat back in the chair.
I stared at him for two and a half hours on the plane, and I always viewed that for years, I viewed myself that I was the hero in that situation. And over the last couple of years I've re-looked at my life and I've just went, "God, what was this really about? Was his anxiety so high because of people looking at him or whatever?" And as you grow up, you start re-analyzing these situations in your life and wonder what they were really about, and that's why the idea of writing this book came to mind.
Why would somebody write a comic book or graphic novel about 9/11 on the stance of “it's important to do?” And I guess that's just this tragedy that happened that's given me the courage to do it.
It's not Whore, it's not Terminal Alice, it's not Angel Falling, it's not Wildwood, but I think, if I can be honest with myself and write it from a clearly honest perspective, it will be as good if not better.
CB: That's a big part of it, writing from your heart Jeff; it's writing what you care about and what's important to you.
Kaufman: Yeah, that's a tough thing. I mean, we're finishing this documentary called How to Fail in Comic Books and we've been shooting for three years and it's been about the stupidity that I've gone through. The dumb ideas, the dumb beliefs, and how hard-headed I was, and we actually have interviews from Stan Lee and everyone down. It's just about what not to do, and it's kind of funny because it's less about comic books and more about your own life. And I think if you're willing to learn from your stupidity and your failures, the world is unlimited; you can do whatever you want to do.
CB: Well, we all have stupid moments, we all have our failures, we were all young and made mistakes; it's how you come back from those mistakes that end up being the things that shape your life.
Kaufman: Yeah, you know what's interesting about that? I've been doing these things and you probably didn't read Terminal Alice…
CB: No, I haven't unfortunately.
Kaufman: Well Alex, I put Alex in the book, Alex, Laura, Illena, Cara and Eve, and I put her in the book as a kind of a fun way to reward people who read the first book and also because I like being able to move characters over.
I don't see why you can't take a book or a character that might not be as popular as the one you're doing now and incorporate it in it. The character wasn't bad, you just didn't write it that well the first time. And that's what I've been doing in all my books; Angel Falling, Mars shows up and so does Cara from Terminal Alice and then I have Wildwood and I bring in a character or two from my past, where you don't have to have read the old books but it's kind of fun if you did.
CB: Yeah, I got the references in Whore to the old books and it felt a little bit like, real old school Stan Lee, I suppose.
Kaufman: Wow, God, don't say that. I actually interviewed Stan and the worst part about the interview was that I had never met him before and we're in this dungeon at New York Comic-Con and we went through all this security – it was like Get Smart, with all the doors closing behind us – and I have to tell him what the documentary is about. And that was the worst part, he goes, "What's the name of the documentary?" And I was, "How to Fail in Comic Books."
He looked at me like I had just slapped him with a fish. "How to fail in comics?" And I'm going, "No, no, no, this is not about you; this is about all the mistakes we make." And I start spitting out any name he might know, like they've already done it. And it was a very funny moment because I had to tell him and he goes, "Well what do you want me to do?" I said, "I want you to be honest with people, I want you to know that people are blowing their money. So when I ask you the question, be straightforward, no ra ra stuff, no everything's going to be perfect; it's not going to be perfect. And I want you to be tough on the people." And he goes, "That's what you want?" I said, "Yeah, that's what I want; I wish somebody was that way with me." It just
turned out to be a very funny… it wasn't a funny interview because I just kept my head down and let him talk, I know better than that. The guy is ridiculous; you set him off and he'll go for five minutes.
He's gifted; that's the best way I would put it for him. I had fun interviews during this process because I took this green screen studio. What I would do was, my booth would transform halfway through the day and become a green screen studio and I would have chairs and couches and it was like the Tonight Show and we would bring in all these different artists and people like Kevin Smith, and for thirty minutes we talked about what it was like to succeed so early and get your ass kicked so bad, late on. And he could not have been better.
I didn't hold back with the questions and the people I interviewed, I guess they liked it because they'd never been interviewed about the tough things in the industry, you know, what not to do. When you talk about stuff like that you just go, wow. It humanizes our industry because people are deluding themselves into thinking, "Oh, yeah, this is a seriously sexy business." Listen, standing over a board for eight hours, writing one page of a comic book, is anything but. Yes, it's cool going to the conventions, where people like you and you're able to see all of your friends and everything else, but the majority of your life is spent in a pretty alone state. For example, when I write it's not unusual for me to be up from 12:00 to 5:00 in the morning writing, and it's just me, the dog, and maybe some 90210 reruns.
It's very interesting. For seven years I've been trying to hone what I give to the artist and what I hold back. It's very weird, before I used to send them pictures and everything, but now in my scripts, it's not unusual for a page of mine to have photos embedded in the word document – "Ok, this is the gun, this is the plane, this is this."
And it's very funny because the artists that work with me go, "So, Jeff does the research for me," and I'm like, "Yeah, well, I don't want to have to say later on ‘Hey, listen, I need you to go back and fix this plane; this wasn't the idea I was thinking about, or this is the wrong gun, or the rocket launcher you have is way too big.'" And I know that this sounds silly, but if I'm reading and there's something wrong with it, I realize it was because there was a disconnection between the writer and the artist, and this helps reduce that.
CB: Does that include the fashions? One thing I noticed in Whore is that Marco really draws people who are well-dressed; it stands out from a lot of comics too.
Kaufman: I gave Marco a lot of leeway, but it's not unusual for me to send the jacket, or the pants, or the hat. Because I think Google is your friend; I'll type “.45 caliber weapon” and I'll see all the .45s and find the angle I like, and I'll send that over.
A claymore mine is another one. You know, you want to get a claymore mine right; it faces outwards, it blows outwards, it clears out a football field. I want to make sure that he gets that right when he tapes it to a door or something. But I also like to let the artist have freedom to do what they want because you never know what kind of great thing they can add to the story.
CB: Yeah, I'm a software project manager; every time I think I know everything someone comes up to me and tells me something that completely blows my ideas out of the water. So I've learned to actually listen to people; otherwise I'm not going to get half the work I need to get done.
Kaufman: See, I think that's where I've tried to grow; in the idea that the smarter you are, the dumber you are. That's just the way it works because we need the hard solution, when it's so easy: don't be an idiot.
People ask me all the time about writing; they go, "What does it take to write comic books?" I say, "Well, you've got to fail a lot. You have to write some terrible things before you appreciate what might be good and be willing to change." I'd like to say that's the best thing I've learned in comic books and I think it really translates to your ego and your life, if you allow it to.
CB: I think that's a good point to wrap up the interview.
Kaufman: Yeah, thanks Jason.