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A Short Interview With James Vance
posted August 13, 2006
 

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Here's one more piece of evidence that we as comics readers live in a time of embarrassing riches: a new edition of James Vance and Dan Burr's classy 1980s comics series Kings In Disguise from a major book publisher slipped into the marketplace last Spring and almost no one seemed to notice. Kings In Disguise tells the story of life on the road during the Great Depression through the eyes of young Freddie Bloch, with particular attention paid to the informal social networks and off-the-cuff alliances that by necessity replaced the standard societal framework and same-age peer relationships. It is told with a minimum of fuss, ears and eyes wide open to many of the now less-celebrated political impulses of the era.

In addition to the release of his signature work in comics to date, playwright and author James Vance has not one but two interesting projects on the horizon: a sequel to Kings In Disguise again with Burr and a resolution to his late wife Kate Worley's groundbreaking Omaha the Cat Dancer with series artist Reed Waller. The following interview was conducted in April over the telephone.

TOM SPURGEON: Can I ask where you're geographically located now? I seem to remember you being a Midwest guy.

JAMES VANCE: I'm in Oklahoma right now. I'm in Tulsa.

SPURGEON: How do you like Tulsa?

VANCE: It's comfortable, it's cheap, and it's sophisticated enough you can get whatever you want. Not too in love with itself.

SPURGEON: I have to admit, when Norton sent me an ARC of the book in I think February, that was the first I'd heard you guys were doing a new edition. How did this deal come about?

VANCE: Through no negotiation of my own whatsoever. [laughs] I have agents -- Denis Kitchen and Judy Hansen -- and in this case I think it was Judy. Because Norton is bringing out the [Will] Eisner stuff, they've been in touch with them. At some point Judy mentioned to them they also represented Kings In Disguise and would they be interested in that? I guess they were. The two of them knocked out a deal by which they would reprint Kings In Disguise, and bring out a new sequel.

SPURGEON: What you can tell me about the sequel?

VANCE: I think it was probably "no sequel, no reprint" -- that would be my guess, but I don't know. I guess that's why you have agents, so you don't have to hear about those things. Tell you about it?

SPURGEON: Is the sequel something you long wanted to do? Did Denis and Judy come to you for it?

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VANCE: Denis knew there was an idea for one. He and I had talked about it back when Kings was coming out as a comic book, as a periodical. The whole thing is based on a couple of plays I had written in the late '70s, very early '80s. One of them was a short play called Kings of Disguise, which got fleshed out big time to make the graphic novel. The other one was a thing called On the Ropes, which was written earlier but takes place later. That has some material that can be re-done and expand the characters' story a few years down the road. That's essentially what this is. Kings takes place in 1932, and this is mid-1937. It picks up Freddie, or Fred as he's calling himself now, a few years down the road. He's a teenager now. And I get to do more horrible things to him.

SPURGEON: How's it feel to work with that material after such an extended period of time?

VANCE: Well, the character is fun to re-visit because I understand him pretty well. The basic storyline, the core storyline, is something I worked out back in 1979. So it's still kind of familiar to me, like a friend I'd known years ago. I'm mostly enjoying it. Of course, I'm working with Dan Burr. I can't see doing it any other way. That helps a lot. Just seeing what Dan's done in the pages he's sent back so far. The way he's managed to mature Fred from that 12- or 13-year-old kid that we saw in the first book, where he's still recognizably himself but he's obviously becoming a young man. It's kind of inspiring to see how nicely Dan works. His work if anything has gotten better. The Kings stuff got pretty terrific the more it went along.

SPURGEON: Can I ask how the two of you work? Is it full-script?

VANCE: It's full-script. I knew nothing about how to write in comics when I started. Kings was the first thing I'd ever done. I come from a medium where everything is full script, so that was the way I started here. I've never done it any other way because I've never needed to. One alternative is I guess what they call "Marvel style" -- I've never truly grasped How that works. I was on a panel once with a couple of guys who had made very respectable careers working Marvel style, and I mentioned that always struck me as turning down the TV and making up the dialogue as the show progressed. I never quite understood how it works. So it's full script.

Obviously Dan has leeway. I always tell him, "If you can come up with any better idea, for God's sake do it. You're the artist." He has the words to begin with, and Dan's very sensitive to translating people's thoughts. That's what I loved about Kings in Disguise -- you could read the people's minds. You didn't have to say, "And then he got angry." Dan could tell you if they were angry or upset or even feeling ambivalent about something. So I give him the words to start with, and he takes it from there. I give him a description, but if he has a better idea, I want him to do it.

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SPURGEON: Did you grow more comfortable as Kings in Disguise progressed? It seems like you're more formally comfortable in the latter half of the book -- the pages vary more, there are more silent panels. It feels like it opens up.

VANCE: There were two reasons for that. The first reason is that yes, I became more comfortable because I didn't know what I was doing when I started. [laughs] I was trying to adhere to some strict ideas I had picked up from reading about how people I liked did the work. Obviously you read the Eisner stuff, but also trying to follow some ideas of Harvey Kurtzman's. There's an influence of Harvey's in there, whether it's obvious or not. As we went along, and I became more confident with what I was doing, at the same time we had an understanding as the characters went further and further out in their story, the pages would open up more and more. You get out of a small town, you get out of the confines of boxcars. The further the story went the more open the art became, to try and accomodate the idea that they're going further and further from home. They're more in the open, and in alien territory. I thought Dan communicated that pretty well, too.

SPURGEON: How did you and Dan work in terms of the visual research? Did you feed him material, or did you leave it up to him to be accurate in terms of the things you were asking him to depict?

VANCE: This was mid-'80s, so we didn't have a lot of resources easily available to us now. So I was looking at reference material, I was Xeroxing things and sending them to him snail mail. "This is what the logo on this pulp magazine looked like." Or "Here's a picture of Detroit in 1932." He did his own research, too. He found books and things he could work from. There were piles of research flying back and forth through the mail. Now with the Internet, we have all those resources. He's finding things himself, and I'm sending him links. It's much easier.

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SPURGEON: It doesn't seem like much time has passed between the setting of the two books, although it must feel that way to the lead character. Is 1937 a different enough time to make the experience fresh for you? Does it feel like revisiting a world or are you plunging into a different world?

VANCE: The character knows more, so it's different in that way. The world knows more than it did in 1932. It was still reeling in 1932, going, "My God, what happened to us?" Trying to recover from this depression. By 1937, it's become a way of life for a lot of people. For all the talk about the recovery is on the way, they were still in a depression.

A lot of people had become used to having nothing. They're no longer quite as stunned by this thing that has happened to them. Now they're just living that way. Truthfully, at the point of the script I'm in right now, I'm keeping in the back of my head and informing the way I think of the scenes -- I'm about to get off the rails from what you asked me... The first story is a picaresque. The second story can't be, because otherwise you're doing the same story over again. I don't know if people will see it as a likely sequel to the original or not, but it's certainly a follow-up to the main character. He's certainly been informed, and influenced and molded by the things that happened to him in the first book, as well as the incidents that have come in the years since then.

SPURGEON: Is this character someone you could return to after the sequel?

VANCE: He certainly could be. He's enough of a blank slate because he's learning -- the things that he's learning are sometimes wrong, so he has to re-learn -- but yeah, you could go to him again. He's still young enough and there's still so much interesting history that you can cover over a person's lifetime who was born say around 1920 or so. You cover quite a few years and still realistically be around and realistically be functioning. It's something I've thought about. I don't know.

At the moment -- I don't know what you know about my situation. I was married to Kate Worley.

SPURGEON: I do know that.

VANCE: Right now Reed [Waller] and I are working together to finish up Omaha from material that Kate left us. So I'm writing the sequel to Kings simultaneously with finishing up Omaha. I don't have a lot of time. To be honest, I was flattered they wanted to bring out Kings again. To me, it was something I did years ago, and people said nice things about it, and I've moved on. Now that advance pieces are coming out, people are saying how much they liked it before, some of which was news to me, but it's nice to hear. I'm committed to doing it as much for the sake of following something I did that worked well, as I am for Kate's sake. It was something she was always in favor of me doing. She always hoped I'd be able to do a sequel. Whenever I would get in that situation that I guess all writers get in, they start making fun of their own work or feel like they're really not accomplishing anything, she would wave that at me. [laughs] She'd say, "Look at what you did." As much as Omaha, this is kind of for Kate, too.

SPURGEON: Can I ask how Omaha is progressing?

VANCE: We're on schedule, I can tell you that. What do you want to know?

SPURGEON: How big of a piece is there going to be to finish it up?

VANCE: I'd have to do the math. But it's going to be enough to fill up a decent-sized graphic novel. If you don't mind me doing some figures... I have this stuff on my computer. If I had a computer back when I did Kings -- I typed that on a typewriter. Dan got these scripts with white-out all over them... I don't miss hundreds and hundreds of pages of that.

[pause]

I think there will be 150 new pages, all told.

SPURGEON: Are we going to get that as its own unit, or as a part of a one-volume presentation?

VANCE: NBM is reprinting the whole series, and the final volume will be all the new material. They're serializing it right now. I think most people are waiting for the collection. I think that will be in 2007. I may be off on that. Reed and I are actually working on that right now. And we're cranking it out for serialization, to make the deadlines for [NBM Publisher] Terry [Nantier]'s magazine. Of course we know that it will all be collected in one big gulp. Kate left us a lot of good material to work with. Other than the fact I'm intimidated by tweaking Kate's stuff, it's good stuff to work with.

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SPURGEON: I read the original Kings in series form... was it collected after the original run?

VANCE: It was. I have a copy here. It came out in... I guess in 1990. It had all six issues and a ten-page piece I wrote for Dark Horse Presents that could be inserted into the final episode of the comic series.

SPURGEON: There is definitely a political consciousness in the book which speaks to the events of that time -- but was it also relevant to the 1980s? Was there something you wanted to say about those times in the book?

VANCE: Specifically no, because I wanted it to be a document of ideas from the time, not something I twisted into a contemporary statement. The follow-up set in 1937, we still have a lot of people who thought communism wasn't a bad idea. You skip ahead ten years and it's not wise to say that out loud. That probably would have been true of the time the original book came out, but was I saying that people should re-think the idea that maybe communism wasn't a bad idea? [laughter] No, I wasn't doing that. When you ask me what I was saying -- and I'm a little uncomfortable with a statment like that -- but I was saying that perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to condemn people outright for not being part of the mainstream. I think I can go that far. That's certainly what happened to our Depression-era commune late in the book, called Bucktown I believe, which evidently did happen. Such things did happen, maybe not as violently as we depicted it in some cases. But there were little impromptu settlements like that were burned out by the people living in the areas around, because they didn't like folks taking up space with their radical ideas. And probably bringing crime and filth and who knows what else into their pleasant little communities. But no... who was President in 1988?

SPURGEON: That would have been the last year of Mr. Reagan's long run.

VANCE: About the only possible connection I can think of is Reagan's famous statement about how 25 percent of homeless people really wanted to be that way. I supposed that could have applied, but I never said anything about it. That would have been too cute. I wasn't interested in doing that kind of cutesy stuff. I need some other kind of vehicle to make statements like that. If we take Fred's life up that far, if there ever is another follow-up, that might be worth looking at. But not in stories of the Depression.

SPURGEON: You've talked about realizing how people liked the story when it came out. Do you have any sense how the field has changed since the original collection? Do you have the sense that there is a wider array of similarly serious graphic novels?

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VANCE: That's started to dawn on me. After I stopped working in comics a few years ago, and was applying myself to other things, I more or less lost touch with other stuff. I've tried to catch up since I've been back doing this stuff again. Yeah, it's interesting... it's kind of -- I'm going to lose the word now -- let's just say I'm pleased to see that successes of the Spider-Man movie and graphic novels haven't completely swayed everyone to just doing grown-up superhero comics. I'm glad to see there's other stuff still being done that's more like drama rather than melodrama. I read something called Blankets a couple of years ago that I gathered had favorable word of mouth and won awards. It's nothing I would have done, but I was pleased to see that he was doing a story just about people. I certainly didn't start that, but it's something I plugged into when I started doing Kings. It's nice to see that still happening.

I've seen some things, some grown-up takes on superhero things, some things that Alan [Moore]'s done for instance; they're a hoot. They're a lot of fun. I'm so glad he did them. But that's not all that he does. The thing is, the people that are thought of as being the best writers in the field now, are the ones who were thought that way when I was doing Kings in Disguise! [laughter] Alan's still the best of us all. Neil [Gaiman], whenever he gets back into comics from time to time, still turns out wonderful stuff. That's the way it was back in the late '80s. Some people have moved up, but they haven't surpassed those two. So in a way it feels like the same thing but with more company than there used to be.

SPURGEON: Kings doesn't stand in bold relief the way it used to.

VANCE: It was kind of a sore thumb. It was neither a superhero comic, a superhero parody, nor an autobiographical piece. And that seemed to be about all you could do at that moment. A few of the pieces that Fantagraphics was publishing -- there was Dan Clowes' stuff, Peter Bagge's stuff -- that was uncategorizable in a way but you could also say were humor. You could call it something. Nobody seemed to know what Kings in Disguise was. They either liked it or they didn't like it, but they didn't like it because it was a good one of these.

SPURGEON: Do you think of your audience at all? Do you ever think in terms of remaining clear in a way audiences can understand, or do you look at the page as an opportunity for problem solving and not think in those terms at all?

VANCE: I don't think about it that way. When we started Kings in Disguise, we started with the agreement that I would write a book that wasn't for children, but it was something that anybody any age could read. I more or less stuck to that. There were a couple of moments where they said, "You're pushing the edge there. You might want to back up." They didn't stop me, but they said maybe let's not duplicate that. That was pretty much what I did. I kept in mind the audience was general, not so specialized that we'd lose half of them, and I was writing from the point of view of someone who was 12-year-old. Even though he was an adult obviously looking back on when he was 12, he was keeping his 12-year-old perspective. That made it easier. I could explain things to him. Anything people needed to know would be explained to them along the way.

I do think audiences are smarter than most people will give them credit, unless they write for the public and realize they figure a lot of things out with very few clues. In this sequel, it's about 40 pages or so before we get into about what's been going on in the world. We set it here, this is what's happening, we're in this world, and I assume people are intelligent enough to figure out what I'm talking about until I get to the point where I have to plant some necessary information. I want to make it clear, but I don't want to make it simplistic. If that answers your question.

SPURGEON: It does. And thank you, because that answers all of my questions.

VANCE: Well then, you should have asked me that one first! [laughter]

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*****

Kings in Disguise, James Vance and Dan Burr (Introduction by Alan Moore), WW Norton, 208 pages, April 24 2006, ISBN: 0393328481, $16.95.