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August 11, 2013


CR Sunday Interview: Steven T. Seagle

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Steven Seagle is the writer behind the new First Second work Genius, which he created in conjunction with the artist and cartoonist Teddy Kristiansen. He has worked in comics for a quarter century, including a fondly-remembered run on the 1990s Vertigo anchor book Sandman Mystery Theatre, and some of that line's more diverse, challenging series: House Of Secrets, The Crusades and American Virgin. With Joe Kelly, Joe Casey and Duncan Rouleau, Seagle has enjoyed enormous success as a writer and producer of television and gaming work via the creator collective Man Of Action, with the high-profile, licensing success Ben 10 an obvious career-changer complete with subsequent producing and creative opportunities of a partnership-with-giant-companies nature. Seagle is also a former educator -- he continues to mentor younger writers on an unofficial basis -- and has written for the stage.

Genius continues Seagle's partnership with Teddy Kristiansen, with whom Seagle collaborated on the stand-alone projects It's A Bird... and The Red Diaryt/The Re[a]d Diary. Genius is a extremely well-paced comic -- it pushes through a lot of plot points where less experienced creators would linger, perhaps for dozens of pages. I caught the writer about a week out from Comic-Con International in what I imagine is a very typical Los Angeles writer/producer moment: taking calls from his car, between one point and another. I enjoyed talking to him. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: I lied to Gina Gagliano at First Second to get this interview. I told her I wanted to ask you about Genius when I really just have like ten questions for that project you did last year, The Re[a]d Diary.

STEVEN T. SEAGLE: [laughs]

SPURGEON: But let's start with a more general question. Considering all that you have going on, how important are comics to you in terms of the progression of your career? How important is it to you that you keep on completing projects in that medium? Is it a personal thing? Does it still have a role in terms of developing other aspects of your career?

STEVEN T. SEAGLE: I think it's super important. As excited as I am by all of the stuff that Man Of Action has going on in animation and TV and film, all of that stuff that takes a lot of our time and a lot of our focus, we're four comic book guys. I think each of us is constantly thinking about how we carve out the time to make sure comics continues to be a part of what we do. For me, I really feel like I wasn't creating enough stuff in comics a couple of years ago. I took Thursdays, and I said, "Every Thursday I am going to go to this Korean spa in LA where I can think." It's like a Starbucks, only I can't understand what anyone is saying since it's all in Korean. "I'm going to work all day long, without my phone and without my e-mail, on comics projects. Make sure that it has a regular, continued pulse in my life." I love the form. Some of my absolutely dearest friends are comic book people, like Teddy. There are people I want to do stuff with. It's just making sure I pay myself with that time to keep doing that stuff.

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SPURGEON: Where you are as a writer right this very moment, what about comics do you enjoy, what about comics makes you dig in?

SEAGLE: There's two things that really appeal to me about comics. One is that as much as possible as I can make it, it's about me and whoever I'm working with. It's just what we want to do. That idea you can still create something -- and thank God for Image Comics. I love my editors. I've loved working with Shelly Bond and Karen Berger was always very kind to me. But I love doing what I want without people telling me no. And if it can boil down to just me and Teddy, or me and Becky Cloonan, somebody that I really love working with, doing what we want with no interference? I'm going to be very happy.

The other thing is that I'm a structuralist. I really like weird forms. Most of what I read is abstract. Most of what I'm into in the arts and entertainment industry is very avant-garde. Comics is a place where I feel I can work that stuff, where I can come up with my own abstract ideas, and find ways to make them palatable to an audience. Re[a]d Diary is a perfect example of that. The form is what was really compelling to me. It didn't stop me from trying to write a good story that by the end of the day you'd enjoy reading once you were done.

SPURGEON: Is it just that you have leeway in comics to attempt such things, that you're at a point in your career where those opportunities are available to you in comics, or is there some formal element or elements in comics that brings these things out of you?

SEAGLE: It starts with the leeway, but I think comics is this very weird medium where it's not only this amalgam of pictures and words -- most of the time -- but there's that control factor of the audience. One of my favorite things to do is to try to create some kind of tension between what you're reading and what you're seeing, and make people grapple with "how do I interpret that?" I think films feel a lot more literal. TV is very literal. Stage you can get away with some of that stuff visually, for sure, but comics it almost seems that's part of the nature of how you read a comic. You can dwell on the image. You can look at it different ways. If you really play with the mechanisms of comics, you can get all kinds of meaning you're not going to get out of any other medium, and I think that's great. It's a lot of fun for me to mess around with.

SPURGEON: The tradition of writers in comics is very pulp-driven, and very celebratory of this kind of natural storytelling process. When I think of just talking to you casually, I know that you have some education as a writer, and that you've worked in a variety of fields. It seems you have a relatively sophisticated take on the potentialities involved with different forms and the structural possibilities in comics. Do you feel like that's an under-appreciated aspect of comics? Do you feel common cause with any other writers, writers you feel might share your interests in how comics work in different ways? Or do you feel like a man on an island surrounded by seas of compulsive storytellers?

SEAGLE: If I'm being totally honest, I feel a little alone in American comics. I definitely think there are guys that get what you could do with comics. The nature of the business does not leave a lot of leeway for pursuing those avenues. My books don't sell incredibly well a lot of the time because they're out there. That's part of the nature of doing the kind of work I like to do, I'm not going to be that favorite comic book writer guy, and you have to be okay with that. You have to be okay with the fact that you're not going to make a kajillion dollars off of your comics. I"m very fortunate in that the Man Of Action side of our business has propped us up in such a way that I can go, "I want to do The Re[a]d Diaries just because I want to." [Spurgeon laughs] I think it's worth doing. And I think people will like it if they can find it, but it's going to be a tough sell to get people to find it.

I think there are writers that understand what comics can do as much as I do, but it's tough to get somebody to let you tell those kinds of stories in the U.S. I think the more European stuff I read the more I see people that know this even better than I do.

SPURGEON: Are there a couple of names that spring to mind, European creators that work the same general territory?

SEAGLE: I've owned Stigmata for a very long time, by [Lorenzo] Mattotti. I had it in Italian... I had no idea what it was about. That's a book that when you actually sit down and read it, you go, "Oh, there's a lot more happening than just the picture or the text or the intersection of those two things." Another book I just read, Sandcastle -- does that strike a bell?

SPURGEON: Not particularly.

SEAGLE: I'm terrible with titles. I have a terrible memory for things like this. I think it was called Sandcastle, and it was such a clear, metaphorical book. The whole time I was reading it I was fighting it, going, "Why am I finishing this book?" It was kind of thin, and was driving me crazy. But, as you get through it, you go, "Oh, this is kind of brilliant in its simplicity." And that's because they played with the form on such a meta-scale. You have to get to the last page for it to add up to something. That book stayed with me -- even though I can't remember the title. [laughter]

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SPURGEON: I don't know how to talk in detail about The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary -- for one thing I think there's a lot of fun in people just finding that book, and digging into it on their own. I hope people will give it a chance. It's a very pretty book, too. One thing that interests me about it is the playfulness of your introduction. I wondered about the process of a book like that, what you learn about comics doing something like that. How you read them, even. What was it like for you coming out the other side of that project?

SEAGLE: For people who don't know, this was a book that Teddy put out in a different language, in a different country. I had the book, I loved the pictures, I thought I knew what it was about, but I couldn't read it because I don't speak Danish, which is the volume I had -- I may have had it in French. I started trying to figure it out like a detective. "Well, I know how to read a comic book. It's image to image. Can I piece together what this story is?" I ended up writing a translation only based on visual cues and keep the word balloons where they were and roughly the same length.

I got it totally wrong. There's so much at work in terms of the interplay that even with my absolute best efforts to try and get it right, I didn't even have the same lead character that Teddy did. [Spurgeon laughs] And yet, I still feel like both books -- the book comes as a flip book, with his version and my version -- I feel like both books work with the same set of sequential images; they're just totally different thematically and character-wise.

To answer your question -- which I promise I'll do eventually -- when I work with young writers, I tend to spend all of my trying to break down the idea that there is one path for them to follow in a story. I think there are an infinite number of ways to tell the same story. We get stuck telling it the same way because of the genre trapping in comic books that we love. We want things to be a certain way because that's the way they've always been. I think that's death for the medium. I think you have to go about it the other direction and say, "How many different ways can I tell this, and of those ways, which one is the most interesting that will still satisfy a readership?"

So Re[a]d Diary wasn't for me, "Oh my gosh, how do I do this?" It's how I think about writing all of the time. It was a fun way to finally directly apply that methodology to a book instead of sitting down and going, "How do I get from plot point A to plot point B."

SPURGEON: Was there an element of it that surprised you in the doing of it, though? You mentioned your plot not matching Teddy's, and that surprised you... I imagine that this was a decent way to hold up a mirror to your own writing, what things you favor, what you might bring to a project that without this sort of exercise you might not even recognize or see. Did you see strengths of yours as a writer, even?

SEAGLE: I discovered a lot of things. When I sat down to start on it, I kind of made up some rules, because I thought I kind of knew what it was about, but I didn't want it to be arbitrary... so I used this weird method to translate the opening caption. I decided that whatever this weird method resulted in, that would be the theme of the book. I didn't even know the theme, necessarily, I had kind of an idea of the milieu of the book, and the character's journey. But I thought I would leave the theme -- which I think should inform the dialogue in comics; it should be about what it's about rather than just what happens or else it's kind of boring. And that I left to the John Cage of it all. This random chance theme that showed up. And then I just stared on page one, and I was like, "I'm just going to plow through this thing." I made it like 16 or 17 pages, and then I hit a letter. Teddy had drawn a letter somebody wrote somebody, and I just got so stumped. [Spurgeon laughs] I was like, "Who the fuck is writing a letter and who are they writing it to?" Because nothing I had come up with fit someone writing a letter all of the sudden. That really just junked me, and I had to go to the end of the book and I was like, "I'll just go to the end and figure out where I'm going to wind up. See how that goes." That worked out pretty well. Then I worked back to this letter. And there was that was damn letter again. I still didn't know what to do with it. I just kind of having to reinvent the process, because Teddy had used a storytelling device I would never use at that point, and I had to figure out how to do something with that. It was great. It made me really struggle with how I was going to tell that story. Because he had already done it. I had to follow this road map somebody gave me, in a foreign language, and make it work.

SPURGEON: Even with completed art I would have to imagine that makes it different to write for it. I know there are comics projects that work with existing, completed art, and that seems like a very different than shaping the art from your words and ideas. It can't be changed.

SEAGLE: When I taught writing classes, I would give people a couple of page of my art, like pages I've done with no word balloons on it. I'll tell them, "Do not go and find this comic book. Just write this dialogue. Look at these pictures and write this dialogue." You get some amazing things. Like usually there's one or two that are way better than what you wrote yourself. [Spurgeon laughs] "God, why didn't I write it this way?" I've always thought about that, and I was so glad Re[a]d Diary was a way to actually try that out. A full-lengthy project. I was just kind of giddy the whole time I was doing it.

SPURGEON: Before Gina gets mad at me for our not talking about your new book -- which I enjoyed very much, by the way -- I wanted to ask you about the creative partnership in question more generally. Your work with Teddy Kristiansen unfolds over tremendous periods of time. It's A Bird... was four years of time in production; this was six, I think. There's a lengthy creative process.

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SEAGLE: Yes. I love Teddy and do not wish to throw him under a bus, most of that length is what it takes him to be as good as he is. I finish a script for him in about a year -- It's A Bird... took about a year and Genius took about a year -- but then he takes several years... I mean, he lives in Denmark, where they've got all these great cafes... delicious tea... and they're all literate, and he has these beautiful daughters and a gorgeous wife... there's a lot capturing his attention other than my meandering little scripts.

Part of it is that and part of it is the care he puts into what he does. With Genius, I got back the first 10 or 12 pages and I thought, "Oh, this is going to be terrible. What is it with this color palette?" When the book was done, I saw what he had done with the color palette. It was clear he had thought through a very meta-design of what color would do in that book. That stuff takes time.

SPURGEON: Is there any anxiety on your end that you don't have ongoing input? There's a compulsion in comics for getting something out and done; there's something very rewarding about turning around a completed project reasonably soon after it starts. It's kind of the flip side of the control issue in comics. You're probably even a different writer than you were when the script was initially completed. [Seagle laughs] Is it tough? Is it hard to tamp down your desire to continue working on something when you're on completely different schedules like that?

SEAGLE: Not really, because I'm not that guy. Mike Allred, whom I've worked with before and love dearly, 10 minutes after he finishes a page he no longer draws like that and can't bear to look at it. I'm a guy where I can look at something I did 25 years ago and I still like it. If I hated it 25 years ago, I hate it now; if I liked it, I like it now. I'm fortunate in that way. I've also learned with Teddy that our books are just going to take however long they take. So I try not to make something so of the moment that it's dated the second you read it. Themes in something like Genius or It's A Bird..., they are broad, universal themes that I think hopefully play now and hopefully play 10 years from now. Also in the digital age of comics, stuff needs to last. It needs to resonate years later because it's never going away. It will always be available. I sell as many of my first book at Comic-Con as I do of whatever I have new that year. If it doesn't hold up, what are you going to do?

SPURGEON: One thing I thought remarkable about Genius -- and I'm not sure how to articulate this without edging up dangerously close to a non-flattering reading of what I'm going to say -- is that there seemed like there was a room for a lot more book here. You could have expanded it. But it seems very measured. It's of an appropriate length, I think it's a smart length. You don't spend too much time in this world, but there's enough time spent here... the pacing of it and scope of it seem judiciously selected.

Your done-in-one books seem to work pretty well as units. Is there an element of winnowing things down that comes naturally to your creative process? How much right brain activity goes into deciding how long you're going to spend on with an individual work?

SEAGLE: [laughs]

SPURGEON: Yeah, I know. [laughs] It just seems that you have so much going on here, that if there were some significant prize money per page involved you'd have no problem doubling the length of the work. But you didn't, and the work is stronger for that.

SEAGLE: You gotta think audience. This is a heady book. I wanted to deal with some major themes. As a reader, I don't want to read 400 pages of that. It would exhaust me. So I appreciate you saying that, because a lot of it was about how quickly I can say these things I want to get through, without belaboring and without boring people. It would be a very boring book at twice the length, I think. As it is, I think it has a lot of giant thoughts that move pretty quickly. You can dwell on them if you want to, you can be done with them if you want to.

Also, with Teddy, it's a few years to get this many pages. We could be in walkers if it were 600 pages. [laughter] I think he'd still do that book, though.

SPURGEON: This is the first book of yours I've read where it really hit me that you have some stage experience. There's a lot here that could have been up on stage. I suppose this one is actually stage-ready, too, with the visual conceit of Albert Einstein's appearances. What I mean is that Genius is driven by dialogue and structured scene to scene. There are progressive tableaux. I also noticed that your stage experience is one of the few things about your career that works itself into your McMillan bio, so I'm guessing it's important. Is there a stage element to this one, do you think?

SEAGLE: Maybe. I have a play that's been touring for about eight years, and while I was writing this book I was on tour with that play. Certainly it could have been stomping around in my subconscious pretty easily. I'm not positive if that's what I'm thinking. I tend to think of comics solely in terms of comic books. Pretty much where my mind sits is "What haven't I seen Teddy draw before?" and "How could I throw Teddy in front of an oncoming train, of something impossible to draw?" Those are the things that get me excited about comics. I worked with Kelley Jones, and I was like, "Kelley, what do you want to draw?" He said, "Horses." So I made up Crusades so there would be something with horses in it and Kelley could draw what he wanted. With Teddy I was like, "I want to give Teddy something completely non-literal that I don't even known how to describe. And then make him struggle with how to draw that." And there's a scene which is that scene.

SPURGEON: Yeah.

SEAGLE: It's definitely from a structuralist's point of view, and cold and clinical on one hand, but it's kind of a beautiful moment in that it's me just going, "I'm working with an artist. Let's let an artist do some art and tell the story completely visually where I don't even know how to describe what I'm looking for." That's usually how I'm thinking as opposed to, "I hope this can turn into a stage show. Or a TV show." Or whatever.

SPURGEON: It's more that I wondered after the nature of dialogue as the way in which the story is told; the characters continually run into each other and clash through language. That seems stage-like. So I wondered if there was any of that here, that theater conception of putting two characters alone in a room and having them talk. It didn't seem like a pitch! [laughter]

SEAGLE: My very first comic had no captions at all. It was just dialogue. After that there was a book I did called The Amazon with Tim Sale that had two different conflicting captions that also battled with the dialogue. I wrote some X-Men comics where I wrote one thing and somebody else came in in the middle of the night and added captions, things I didn't even write.

SPURGEON: Oh my goodness.

SEAGLE: Everything's a crutch. If you go, "I'm going to do an all-dialogue book," certain crutches show up because you have to have dialogue move the story along. The same thing is true of captions. I was feeling that captions are lazy for me. I just wanted to try and move them out as much as possible. I didn't completely get rid of them, but they were turned down to be sure.

SPURGEON: In terms of structure of a book like Genius, how much of that is communicated to Teddy by you, and how much of that comes from Teddy more directly? Even the grid, the basic grid that you use. As I recall your pages are mostly three-tiered throughout, but it varies greatly in terms of how they're presented. Is that your decision or his decision?

SEAGLE: The older I get the more I am trying not to tell artists how to do design. Sometimes you create a story where the structure of the panels is critical to the way the story unfolds, you're mirroring some kind of theme or metaphor with the visual imagery of it. But in general what I try to do is go, "Here's what I need to have happen on this page. Here's the dialogue I'm proposing to you, although it may change by the time we get done." I try to do it in terms of events. There are this many events. Tell that however you want to. If you can tell it in one panel, have at it. If you need 15, I trust you. We still do layouts. Teddy will send me layouts and I'll be like, "Well... I don't think this is clear." Or "I was hoping for more of a block." But I"m trying to let people do what they're good at, and I'm working with good people." So I don't know that I need to be a control freak all of the time. If I'm working with somebody new, then yeah, I might be a lot more measured in what I give them. But in general I say, "Here's what's in my head, show me what's in your head and let's come up with the best synthesis of those two things we can."

SPURGEON: How much of the thematic work is designed by you? When I say thematic work, I think Genius is rich that way, and you're going to have a lot of discussions in a lot of the interviews you'll be doing about how those ideas are played out. But for example the idea of intelligence and perception, and the way the different characters embody variations on intelligence and perception. Is that something you work on ahead of time or is that something that reveals itself to you through the story?

SEAGLE: Teddy wants a full script. So there's not a lot of random discovery in a book I do with Teddy generally. The next book we're doing together is batshit crazy that way. [laughter] But he likes information. The trick is... all of that layering is already there, so the trick is not to suffocate him with it. He's aware of what I'm going for. The dialogue is pretty much there, although I rewrite the dialogue when I get finished art because you get rid of whatever you can. I'm pretty intentional about things. I don't want to spend a year on a book where I don't have an idea why someone would want to read a book and what they would get out of it. Even though that's now mine to control.

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SPURGEON: This is a really basic question, but it's one about which I'm curious: what is the basis of your sympathy for the lead? Is there sympathy for the lead and his situation? I think we can assume some things, because there are universal themes involved, but what is your particular "in" with this guy? Not just the personal-anecdote nature of it, because you've talked about that as well, that this is based on a family anecdote, but the situation -- what is appealing to you about the situation? What does your sympathy bubble up in terms of what the lead is facing? It's not your life, Steven. [laughs]

SEAGLE: It's everyone's life. Publish or perish is a bigger metaphor. My wife is a college teacher. She's at a community college in California that doesn't have that. I used to teach at the four-year level. And if you wanted tenure, you had to publish articles. These articles had nothing to do with teaching students. Which is kind of the job of a teacher. But it was somehow more important that you have these national periodicals regurgitating this stuff that you laid out that's of marginal importance, if that, at least in the discipline I was in. I'm sure there are theoretical journals about chemistry and stuff that really matter. My stuff, it was interesting, but it didn't matter. So part of it is that. But come on, if there was a Wizard Magazine right now, I wouldn't even make the top 500 writers. [laughter] This is a career where there's no cause celebre unless you're the hot young ticket. I wasn't hot young ticket when I was young and hot. I'm neither of those things now, and I'm still not that guy. I think I relate to him that way. But as much as I kick that around in the book, you're right. My life is great. I have nothing to bitch about. If I need to be popular, that's my own shortcoming. That's not exactly what he's getting at, Ted in the book, but we're getting at something similar. What actually matters to you as a person. Is it these giant things. This culture is so fucking star obsessed I might just throw up. You've got to be American Idol; you can't just be a good singer anymore.

SPURGEON: There is a social critique here, and maybe we can focus that on the comics world. As you mentioned, you've been around for 25 years now. I always thought that comics did a pretty good job relative to other fields in terms of valuing artists through the course of their life. Kim Deitch put out a book the week Genius came out. He's got to be 70 now. He has a place to publish. We do a pretty good job relative to other art forms. We're not totally youth obsessed. We don't have too many Biebers running around in comics. [Seagle laughs] You now have a way where you've removed yourself from those pressures in comics... is there anything you're noticed about the way comics works the last 25 years? Are we getting closer to that pernicious element of society that's youth- and star-obsessed? Are we doing okay, Steven?

SEAGLE: We're doing fine. [laughs] My critique is about my own misinterpretation of things more than the industry. I think the industry is what it is. It has some hideous sides which are that it's an art form that is highly commercialized -- the work that people would do if they weren't obsessed with the paycheck and they didn't have to be concerned with the monthly numbers, there are so many brilliant people that I'd love to see cut loose. When they do, I love to see it. Not everything has to be a huge success, but to see where there head actually is, I think that's cool. The young crop right now -- to talk like an old man saying "you kids get out of my yard" -- I'm in touch with a lot of those people and I like a lot of their work. They're talking about their next book deal, and "My advance came through." I hope they know how lucky they are that that's the vocabulary they're using to describe their careers at this point, when they're like 21 years old. Because I think the talent is as good as it has ever been. They've benefited from a lot of people struggling -- and not even me, I'm in now way referring to myself here -- but a lot of the independent greats of the last couple of decades who made this possible, this kind of golden era of book deals. Genius is coming out from First Second, which is a MacMillan company. And it's been amazing to me to watch how they do business. Book publishers do it very differently than comics publisher, and it's been a real eye-opener for me. It's great. If that's your first job as a cartoonist, with a company like that? First Second publsihes a lot of new people. They're in for a great lifetime if that continues.

SPURGEON: If there's a detail that pops into your head that underlines what's different about this experience as opposed to your previous experiences?

SEAGLE: The biggest thing is that I've had this book since December. The idea that a book publisher prints this book seven months before it comes out. They send it out to reviewers for a few months. I have copies I can show people. Yesterday this book came out. I've waited so long for this book anyway, but then I had it for half a year where I couldn't give it to anyone or show it anybody, per se. It's smart, so I see why they did it. And it's definitely built some momentum pre-release. But it's weird. I've done books through Image where I'm like, "The files went in yesterday; we'll see it in two weeks!"

SPURGEON: The change that the lead character undergoes in Genius... I found it a little confusing. I don't know if it's intentional ambiguity on your part or not. He makes a decision near the end to kind of seek a different life path. While that solves his professional problem, and there's an idea that he is going to pay attention to the smaller life events that are more that he'd been missing out on because of his attitude towards work and his obsessions. But do you think it's going to be easy for this guy now? [Seagle laughs] Do things get better for his having made that decision. Or did you want some doubt there, that you can make a choice like he has but... it might be tougher than just making that choice.

SEAGLE: I don't want to answer that question in print. I feel like there's something in the book that speaks to that, although maybe it's executed in a way that' it's not there. [laughter] We'll talk about instead my wife's grandfather, who knew one of the great secrets of the 20th Century. Max. There's a piece that relates to this in the story in that I tried to pry this secret out of Max before he died for two solid weeks. He would not budge. He was a government man, he had taken an oath. The secret involved government secrets and he was not going to part with them. After he died, it suddenly dawned on me that that might have been the cover story. That knowing what he knew might have been troubling to him. To him not knowing might seem better than passing on what he knew. So in Genius, Ted's turn is part knowing that the small things in life that he's missing, but part of it is the other half. Should you know big things or not. There's a difference between knowing something and telling something. When you get to that order of magnitude, I think it's profound, and I was trying to play with that push and pull.

imageSPURGEON: I may shove this back earlier in the interview -- you mentioned in another interview that you were surprised that there wasn't interest in you and Teddy doing a follow-up work to It's A Bird... and that it was this lack of interest that set you on the odyssey where you ended up at First Second. Is there a reason you can see now that book didn't end up at Vertigo, or that you more generally didn't end up doing more single-volume works with them? That book was well-received and sold and people still remember it -- people don't remember all the books, and that one's in our memories. Did that company change?

SEAGLE: Listen, part of it was us. Part of it was how long it took us to get that book done. I fully own that part and Teddy owns that part. But at some point I was like, "Well, okay, it took us a long time to get through it, but the book was pretty good when we got done. People at DC told me it was their favorite thing they had published since they started working there. Some of that will create a momentum even if the process of getting the book done on time was not good." And it just never did. Eventually I went to Shelly and said, "Hey! Something more for me and Teddy?" And she was like, "I don't... think we can."

SPURGEON: Hm.

SEAGLE: I think the difficulty of getting that book done poisoned the well a bit. Now if I were in charge, at some point I'd go, "But that was a good book. We'll just know next time not to expect it any time soon." But that was not the climate there for us.

SPURGEON: What is the extent of your teaching, Steven? I know that you said you taught for a while in four-year universities, but do you still teach? You've talked about working with younger writers... is there some sort of mentoring program I don't know about?

SEAGLE: [laughs]

SPURGEON: Is there a group of kids coming over to your living room and drinking beers with you? What's going on, Steven?

SEAGLE: There actually is, in a way. I love teaching. If entertainment options completely fall apart as they tend to as you get older, I will go back to teaching and not have a moment's doubt or regrets about it. I used to teach college at Ball State University. I taught at Pasadena City College here in LA. I taught at Mt. San Antonio College where my wife still teaches a class every now and then. But writing took over my life. I couldn't teach anymore. So the last two years I've tried to mentor some younger writers. I mentor some young people from afar. Others come to my writing group every week. It's not a writer's group of "Hey, read me your stuff and I'll read you mine." It's really about creating a structured writing day where people will write all day and see that other people are writing all day. Occasionally I'll do boot camps for new writers where we spend a lot of time looking at the possibilities of writing... the deceptive complexity of form. One of the favorite things I do is there's a Gilbert Hernandez page with no word balloons on it. I Xerox it, cut it apart, and I show that you can tell the story by putting those panels in any order. You can tell it. Somebody can walk through those panels and tell you that story. Story is innate. We're a culture that tells stories and we've always been that way. The idea that order is pre-determined is bullshit. You'll tell me that story no matter what order I put those panels in. Rarely has anyone put those panels in the "right" order, the order that Gilbert had them in initially. I love stuff like that. You gotta pass along what you know. People helped me when I was trying to figure it out, I have to help others figure it out. Hopefully they'll do the same for whoever's next.

SPURGEON: You're definitely at a point where you can have a sense of your career as a whole -- you're 25 years in, you have 10, 25, 40 years left. But you're far enough along that you might have a sense of it. Do you think in terms of what you want to do with the time you have left, however much time that is, or is it just going to the next project?

SEAGLE: I think about it in the wrong way, which is the reason my audience doesn't grow logarithmically like the Mark Millars of the world is that every time I finish a project, when I start the next one, I go, "How do I alienate everybody that liked that last one?" [Spurgeon laughs] Not in a mean way! It's a constant merry-go-round of weird. People will like one of my books and then pick up another and I'll say, "That is not going to be anything like the one you liked. I apologize." Some people like that, and some people are confused by that.

SPURGEON: Now is that just where your interests lie? Or is this self-sabotage?

SEAGLE: I'm not the self-destructive Man Of Action. If you're going to stay fresh as an -- in quotes -- "artist," you have to do stuff that's interesting to you. It'd be very easy to crank out more books that are exactly like It's A Bird.... It's way more interesting to go, "Could I do a book that would appeal to people who like that book that's not really like that book?" That's more how I think about it. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don't. Sometimes you make something totally unexpected. I don't want to do the same thing again. After you've solved all the problems of a story once, there's little rewarding in doing it again.

That's kind of what's wrong with monthly comics right now, and why I wouldn't remotely entertain doing one. They're really looking for you to tell the same story over and over again, but with different characters in it. Who would want to do that? There are people, but I am not that guy.

SPURGEON: Are there connections in your work that you see that others might not? Is there a consistency to your body of work, or is it really the those differences that drive you? You followed up It's A Bird... with American Virgin, maybe. That was very different. You do have strong breaks. Do you have a core readership that follows you that sees connection more casual readers might not?

SEAGLE: I think all of my book are about the exact same thing. I've never said what that same thing is. I'm surprised no one else has said it. Maybe it's so under the surface that it's not apparent. I feel like all of my protagonists have the exact same thing in common, which is personal to me. But it doesn't come up. People don't even think my protagonists are the same. So I guess I'll keep doing it for 25 more years. Maybe somebody will notice. [Spurgeon laughs] I did a thing in Sandman Mystery Theatre. I think it was issue #50. I took a piece of every single dream that had been in the comic so far and strung that into a new narrative. I was like, "People are going to notice this. That's a piece of every dream that's been in the book so far." Not a single person noticed. Including Guy Davis, who I love as much as any artist on earth. He didn't even notice until I told him. So that's how I work. I spend all of my time working on stuff that people don't even notice.

SPURGEON: I want to turn that into an indictment on your behalf, but do you ever think we don't bring a sophistication to reading comics? Does the readership lack the ability to process this kind of thing?

SEAGLE: No, no, no, no, no. There's a very sophisticated readership. I'm not everybody's cup of tea. I have people come up at cons that absolutely get stuff the way I'm hoping will get it. I know the work works for some people that way. But then I also have people that come up and say, "Your Superman book It's A Bird... was stupid. Why didn't you want to write Superman?" They fixate on a detail that is to my mind not even central to that story, but that's what they took away from the work. But they bought the work and read the work and that's what it meant to them. I have to own that part, too.

SPURGEON: We're talking about people walking up to you, and you and I are talking on the eve of San Diego Con. You mentioned something in an interview once where you said that the ability to talk and get along with people was a central writer's skill -- not a professional skill, but a writer's skill. Is that a fair assessment as to what you were talking about? Because it does seem like those interpersonal skills do separate some artists and creators from others. Do you value your ability to negotiate these bizarre waters you find yourself in sometimes?

SEAGLE: Absolutely. I tell comics writers, I tell TV writers that I work with, I tell new people... I have a hierarchy. When people are looking for who they want to work with in entertainment industry jobs, I feel like they look for, "Do I like you? Do I want to spend a day around you? Are you making my job easier?" Somewhere around four or five they go, "Do you have any talent?" Somewhere lower than that is "Is your talent high-level?" [Spurgeon laughs]

I think creative people, and I'm one of them, we all want to go, "It's our talent. How much better than the next creator am I, and if I'm a lot better, that's going to set me apart." That's so not how it goes down. It's "Do I like you? Can I stand being around you? Will you make my world function?" And then, "Are you good at what we do?" also. At the very least those things are equal. But from what I see, the kind of social strata part matters more initially. If it turns out you're brilliant it's like, "Oh. Hallelujah. Home run." They don't start with "Are you brilliant?"

image

SPURGEON: I had one question about Genius that I failed to get to. One thing I liked about it on a re-read is that there is a sexual through-line that isn't overplayed. There's the son's budding sexuality, and there's the lead character's impotence. Is it difficult to bring in the sexual element to a work and not have it dominate a book? [Seagle laughs] We don't have a big history of treatment of those issues in comics work, and almost none in terms of it being there as a secondary element. Even for comics to be read by adults. Is that difficult for you, to write using those themes and to work with their more delicate aspects?

SEAGLE: I hope I did a good job with that. I appreciate you saying so. It's one of the things you worry about. I wanted the difference between the teenaged thought center and the adult thought center, and that to me is one way to get at that. I like the interplay. I had a lot of dads that read the book go, "Oh, you had that conversation with your son." And I was like, "I don't have a son. So no." But that dialogue must have worked then, to seem genuine. Sex... I hate that America is so puritanical about sexuality and nudity. Force feed us violence until we explode but let's pretend we don't have bodies and we don't do anything with those bodies. If we do something with them, it had to be a caricature of a body that looks like it was rendered by a computer... it's so screwed up in my mind. I want real human beings that have conversations about their jobs and sex and dinner and in-laws. I want to run the gamut of what people talk about and have them sound like people actually sound.

*****

* Genius, Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen, First Second, softcover, 9781596432635, July 2013, $17.99.

*****

* the cover to the latest book
* covers to The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary
* from The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary
* page with color scheme front and center
* our hero
* from It's A Bird...
* matter-of-fact treatment of sexual issues
* one of the man uses of Einstein imagery related to the new work [below]

*****

image

*****
*****
 
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