Interview – Vancouver cartoonist Brandon Graham
Brandon Graham is only half-joking when he says that King City – his wildly imaginative indie manga, featuring weaponized cats that you can skateboard on – has nine lives.
The series looked liked it was dead in the water after original publisher TokyoPop stopped publishing it amidst huge layoffs and restructuring almost five years ago, in a move that sent Graham bouncing across the country from New York to Seattle, and eventually resurrecting the series at Image Comics. At Image, the series was eventually completed, only to fall into a legal limbo that looked like the book would never claw its way out of.
But that changes this week with the release of the King City collected edition, which features over 400 pages of urban action, weird drugs, zombie war veterans, a Demon King, and so much more.
To mark the occasion, Graham, who now calls Vancouver home, answered our emails about porn comics, sci-fi influences, what it’s like relaunching a Rob Liefeld property (yep, that Rob Liefeld), as well as some of his issues with mainstream comics, and more.
Ryan Ingram: So, I’m hoping you can tell us about your path as a cartoonist, and how you arrived in Vancouver. You lived in New York and Seattle before you moved here, and somewhere in between all that you got paid to make porn comics, right?
Brandon Graham: Sure. I was born in Oregon and grew up in Seattle. I was always wanting to make comics. I got really into Seattle’s graffiti scene for a while, partly for lack of a comics community, but it taught me a lot about how I feel about art. I moved to [New York] in my mid-20’s and eventually ended up back on the West Coast and Vancouver where I met my misses, Marian Churchland who also does art for a living.
I got into drawing porn when I was living in NYC. It was the only job I could find that paid me to do my own comics. I would quit whatever real job I had whenever I could do comics instead. It was fun – I had a lot of freedom as long as there were enough sex scenes in it. The first longer adult story I did was called “Perverts of the Unknown.” It was all over the place. I had a guy ejaculating a fish in it, and then the publisher reigned me in a little and had me do a girl-on-school-girl thing called “Pillow Fight.”
I also did a bunch of shorts, one of which was this story, “Multiple Warheads”, that’s set in a fantasy/sci-fi Russia, about a woman who smuggles magic organs, sewing a werewolf’s penis onto her boyfriend for his birthday. I had fun doing that one and now I’m a hundred and something pages into a new (and less pornographic) continuation of the story.
RI: King City is very imaginative and it doesn’t seem like you hold back from big, crazy ideas. Do you think you could have been creatively fulfilled working for any of the big publishers, doing superhero stuff?
BG: Well thanks. I like reading some superhero comics but I don’t have any interest in making them. Plus I don’t think Marvel or DC would ever give me much freedom to do anything I’d be interested in doing.
Awhile back me and my pal James Stokoe were kicking around the idea of what we would do if we had to make a superhero comic. I thought up the idea of having a lodge where criminals all meet to compare crimes and see if they could outdo each other. Something like that could be fun, but I think it’d work better outside a superhero universe. I can’t wrap my head around the idea wanting to do a story where anyone fights crime.
RI: How does the comic scene in Vancouver hold up to Seattle and New York?
BG: I like it better. There’s a lot of good comic shops here and a lot of people doing really exciting work. We’ve got the Inkstuds radio show about comics and a good drawing jam at the Wallflower, next to RX Comics every month. For my needs it’s just a good place to be a hermit and get work done. I’ve got a good group of friends here and the mountains are really nice.
RI: King City definitely feels like its own crazy place, but did Vancouver play any inspiration?
BG: I drew the second half of the thing here. It’s a mix of here and New York and Seattle. There’s a couple blatant nods to Vancouver. Blood Alley is in there, and I drew my favorite comic store RX Comics on the inside cover of the collection. For a lot of scenes I would just go outside and draw something in my neighborhood.
RI: King City ends suggesting that there are more stories to tell there… have you thought about revisiting the world of catmasters?
BG: The rights are a mess but ideally I’d love to do some more stuff with the characters. I never expected it to get to a collected volume though – I like to say that the series had nine lives.
I’ve had some ideas for other catmaster characters, I was thinking about one about an old detective who used to be a catmaster.
RI: I’ve read that Rob Liefeld is really positive about the work you guys are doing on the new books, even though it’s pretty different from his ’90s Image Comics stuff. Do you have much contact with him?
BG: He sends me enthusiastic emails. I haven’t dealt with him all that much, we don’t hang out or anything. I’ve been keeping him informed on what my plans are and asking for his okay when I’m planning something dramatic with his characters.
It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around that he’s a real person.
RI: There’s been a lot of depth to the world-building and mythology already laid down in the first two issues of Prophet. I was wondering what that collaboration is like with artist Simon Roy, and the artist on the next two issues, Farel Dalrymple.
BG: We do a lot of talking about what we could do. We send back and forth a fair amount of sketches. I drew some sketches for the vagina alien in the first issue, and with stuff like the jell city I sent Simon a PhotoShopped together image of a stack of jellyfish in the Grand Canyon.
Most of my drawing input is sometimes drawing over the other guys’ layouts to convey other ways something might be shown. It’s really collaborative on all fronts, Simon goes over my scripts the same way I do his layouts. The idea that rather than just being an artist and a writer on a book, it can be our combined efforts to make it as good as we can.
RI: I’ve heard the high-concept of your Prophet described as sort of Conan in space, which sounds about right, but what are your sci-fi influences for writing the book? I was wondering if the G.O.D. satellite is an homage to Philip K. Dick’s VALIS at all…
BG: The original Prophet had a satellite that was riffing off of Jack Kirby’s OMAC comic and the old Prophet had a much more religious slant so G.O.D. was a nod to both of those things.
I never got too into Philip Dick’s stuff, The sci-fi that really resonated with me was stuff like Robert A. Heinlein‘s books, [Joe] Haldeman‘s The Forever War and [William] Gibson‘s Sprawl trilogy. A lot of what I’m aiming for with this is ’70s comics, like the old black and white Conan magazines and stuff I was reading in Heavy Metal magazine when I was a kid.
I have noticed that I need to be reading to write, but it doesn’t have to be science fiction, just something that I think is beyond my abilities to remind me how well things can read. And I have a copy of [Philip Jose] Farmer‘s sleazy and violent book A Feast Unknown that I’ve been reading chapters of while I work on Prophet. And me and Simon and Farel have all been watching a lot of old ’80s Tom Baker Doctor Who, and I’ve been getting back into Blake’s 7. I like the feel of those shows. The worlds they’re set in feel kind of bleak and huge.
RI: You’re not afraid to speak your mind when it comes to voicing your problems with comics industry in interviews and on your blog. Say you find a genie tomorrow whose powers are only effective on the comics industry. What are your three wishes to change the industry?
BG: Mmmm… Okay. First, I’d love to see some really good editors who are out there looking for new and more diverse creators, I’d love to see some real creative competition, I feel like it’s such an accessible art form that’s unfortunately in an industry that walls itself off in really shitty ways. So you don’t get the best of the best at drawing and writing as much as a lot of low quality and nepotism.
Me and a friend were kicking around an idea about giving two high-profile artists each 15 pages and a theme and publishing the stories back to back and marketed like a prize fight. There’s a lot of ego in comics but it’s really untested. It would just be nice to see some of these guys really try.
Second, if I could, I would kill the Disney/ Warner corporate end of comics. Marvel and DC have such long histories of hurting the creators who have done the best work for them. They just aren’t good for the art form.
And as much as I like some of the characters and a lot of the creators’ work they put [out], I don’t think those creators who really love comics would still make them and hopefully would do more of their own work. If they stopped making Batman comics tomorrow there would still be more than any sane person would want to read in a lifetime.
And third, I’d like to see comics stop trying to impress other mediums. A friend of mine calls it the “I-wish-I-were-in-movies” industry. I think comics is better than that.
RI: Lastly, what comics are you surrounding your desk with right now for inspiration?
BG: I’ve got an old Matt Howarth comic called Konny and Czu. It’s a sci-fi comic set in non-human space with no humanoids in it. The main characters are a centipede and three floating rocks. And I’ve got an Otomo book that I can’t read that follows the effects of a war all around the world, with chapters in Japan and the Middle East and NYC.
An Asterix book, Asterix and the Black Gold, and a Moebius art book of drawings he did of Venice.
For more from Graham, be sure to check out his site RoyalBoiler.