I recently had the chance to do an email interview with the fascinating Joshua Dysart about his work at Valiant Comics and much more. I think you’ll agree he’s a interesting writer with a lot to say.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Tell me about The Vine Imperative.
Joshua Dysart: But that’s what they stories about! You don’t want to know what the story is all about, do you? I’ll say only this, Toyo Harada – ascending global dictator – and the Vine plantings – earthlings of an alien descent who are none-the-less culturally and mostly biologically terran – have a tumultuous history. As is often the case, the past will not stay buried.
CB: How will the events of The Vine Imperative change the Valiant Universe and Harada’s own place in the world?
Dysart: How it changes the whole Valiant Universe remains to be seen, I’m not the sole architect in that design. Since Valiant is a shared universe, I’m part of a group of great writers, editors and artists who will decide it’s future through collaboration over the course of all the books. Suffice to say, change is inevitable. Harada has come to riot in the temple, so to speak, not to let the status quo stand. Whether he succeeds or not, time will tell.
CB: What has built up to this storyline over the first year of Imperium?
Dysart: It sort of all has. In the first arc, we reveal that Harada has kept a strange alien seed he got his hands on over 40 years ago. When he finally grows it, because these are desperate times for his organization, it turns out to be a sentient biological weapon created by the Vine alien species called Lord Vine-99. The back story of how Harada got his hands on this creature and the origin of the creature itself is what The Vine Imperative, in large part, is about. And in our second arc Harada established his desire to acquire extraordinary resources and implement new technologies to change the world, that too is what this arc is about.
CB: Toyo Harada is one of the most interesting characters in comics because he can be seen as both good and evil at the same time. How do you see him?
Dysart: The real question is, has always been… how do you see him? Do you want the world he’s offering you? Is it worth the ideological sacrifice? The end of your Western idea of individual political representation? Haven’t you always secretly longed for a benevolent dictator to make things safer, happier, better for you and your family? Is democracy worth the mess, all the chaos of competing visions, the paralysis of conflicting political parties? And yet… and yet… can we trust Harada? Can you put your fate in the hands of a man so power hungry he believes he can change the whole world virtually alone? Doesn’t democracy protect us from this very sort of potential madness? Separate the institutions that govern humanity from the might-makes-right laws of nature? It’s not my job to answer these questions. It’s my job to raise them (and to blow shit up).
CB: What intrigues you about characters like Harada?
Dysart: A theme that shows up a lot in my work is the conflict between collective and individual will. I’m utterly fascinated by it. Here in the States we place a great value on individual will, so much so that we seem to sometimes fear the idea of any collective endeavor. Toyo Harada is the most complicated extension of this struggle that I could create in a pulp super-hero comic. His quest to create a post-scarcity utopia in which all people are free and hold equal station betrays him as a collective ideologist. Yet his desire to do it alone, as a dictator, his utter disregard for democracy, diplomacy and competing visions, that betrays a man who is an utter slave to his own individualism. That’s the grey area. That’s the real politics of Imperium to my mind. And also why Harada has struck a chord with readers, I think (hope?). Because the individual versus the collective is one of the great philosophical struggles of our time, and I believe both the individual and the collective are necessary for humanity to progress. Harada is a way for me to work through these ideas in my head.
CB: CAFU’s been doing some gorgeous art for Valiant. How do you write for your artists – give them scenes they specifically request, etc.?
Dysart: What I do is try to see what it is the artist really does best. Not scenes, but where are the deepest grooves in their craft. I work with really great artists. Too many to name here, but every artist has something that they utterly love to draw and are amazing at it. That thing that pulls them in and makes them engaged. Sadly, I often don’t learn where their interests and mine coincide until I’ve worked with an artist for an issue or so. For Doug Braithwaite I learned that he’s a phenomenal actor and an outstanding designer. So while he was drawing Imperium, the issues got to be more and more about character, and I rely pumped in a lot of science-fiction landscapes and elements. For Scot Eaton, I learned that if you give Scot something super trippy to draw, he’ll just rock it so hard… so hard. Dream imagery, playing with character representations of size and scale, that kind of thing, just incredible. So that’s where we took that second arc. It went from the tight confines of a submarine to this cosmological struggle across time and space. With CAFU, it’s a new relationship, so I’m watching pages come in and thinking about how to exploit his incredible talent for the best in future issues. It’s one of the more interesting parts of this job, and we’re talking about a job that’s pretty interesting from root to fruit. But I do think a writer of comics has to think about this more than a writer of films has to think about their cinematographer (though they should be doing that as well).
CB: One of my favorite aspects of Valiant Comics is how the resonate with real life. Do you see echoes of the real world in this storyline?
Dysart: I try to couch the books in current events as much as possible because I think that makes it feel a little less escapist and therefore different from other superhero books on the shelves (not better or worse), but I also do this because I myself am not much of an escapist. I live in the real world and I find it fascinating. I’m not looking for my stories to transport me away. I want my stories to dig in to reality. At the same time, we’re making large scale superhero comics, so it can be a bit of a strange animal. But I think there’s a fun in that. I love really good escapist superhero comics, I just don’t know if I would be any good at writing them. So I guess I kind of found my niche.
Having said all of that, there’s a very strong “wish fulfillment” element in this book too. I long to see the flawed, war-profiteering, profit-over-humanity machinations of man be dismantled. Making that part of the book is a kind of escapism. The difference is, I feel it’s my responsibility to show the ugly side of that as well.
CB: I know you’re very interested in politics (and a supporter of Bernie Sanders); how does that approach inform your comics writing and especially this storyline?
Dysart: Politics is everything. It’s not just how nations relate to one another, it’s how neighbors and lovers and strangers relate to one another as well. I love people. And I love the fucked-up crazy convoluted institutions we create to house all of our weird, wonderful, destructive, essential and non-essential-isms and justifications. So anything I write is going to be about that in some way. And Imperium in general is political in the most straight forward meaning of the word. The book is ultimately a call-and-response discussion about the distribution of power and resources (though in truth it’s really way more about freaky people blowing shit up, but you know… the underlying political sentiment is always there). The next arc starts with a massive power play that threatens the dominance of the three most powerful nations in the world. That stuff is super fun to write, but ultimately I hope that the politics of Imperium digs deeper than just these poli-sci trappings.
CB: Do you have a favorite Valiant storyline you’ve worked on?
Dysart: I don’t think I have an ultimate favorite storyline. There are some standout moments that I’m proud of, but I don’t know how much of that is because the story is actually good or because I had such a great experience working with the artists, or because we pulled some totally poorly-plotted and improvised storyline out of our ass at the last minute and it all came together so perfectly that it astounded me, or because the subject matter was super self-indulgent, or any other reason why a creator favors on of their works over another. Looking at your own stuff, it’s really hard to say what’s good and bad. I try not to play that game too much. The Renegades arc of Harbinger glows pretty brightly in my heart. So does my little effort in the Armor Hunters crossover, but that’s because I love writing Generation Zero so much and had a great time with Robert Gill. I like the Faith one-shot, which wasn’t universally loved. (I tend to love stories in which nothing happens. I’m so tired of plot. I sort of hate it). I thought the first four issues of Imperium came out quite nice. I think Book of Death: The Fall of Harbinger is going to be the bee’s knees. Honestly, I like a lot of it.
CB: Are you a fan of the original Valiant line? Do you have a favorite character or storyline?
Dysart: When Warren first contacted me about potentially writing for them the only thing that I’d read was a few issues of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Archer and Armstrong. I recall really liking that. Then I went ahead and read the Harbinger stuff (though admittedly not all of it, just enough to get the spirit of the original run). I don’t really have a favorite storyline though.
CB: Any other projects you’d like to mention?
Dysart: I was in northern Iraq in December, traveling with a United Nations: World Food Programme convoy and interviewing some of the almost three million displaced and refugee-status people in the region. We’re wrapping up a comic book project based on those interviews now. No word on distribution yet, but keep an eye out for it.