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Friday, May 12, 2017

A Discussion of the world of comics, with writer, artist, former publisher, Erik Larsen.

I have a great amount of respect for Erik Larsen.  I am a fan of his work, but more, a fan of his striking honesty, refusal to be "politically correct", and his kindness to me, and others I know.  He is great representative of the world of comics.
He has worked in the comic book industry for a long time, over 30 years.  He has created numerous characters, many of which are found in the Savage Dragon/Image continuity.  As a child he began creating characters and fleshing them out, and he has seen that foundational work come to published life as a writer, artist, publisher, and co-founder of Image comics.

I've interviewed Erik Larsen a number of times.   Sadly some of my over 250 interviews were lost through website disappearances, harddrive crashes, and the Chinese hacking of Popthought.  So I am always interested in revisiting Mr. Larsen, and I am grateful for his willingness to share his view of the comics industry, from an insider's perspective.

Alex Ness: I've told you in the past that in my mind you and Walter Simonson are the true inheritors of the Jack Kirby Mantle.  There are others who suggest John Byrne is, (this group primarily being John Byrne).  I think you are this because, among other things, your comics are meant to entertain, they have humor along with action, and the way they are presented on the page, reminds of JK.

Was Jack Kirby your primary influence?  If not he seems to still show through your work.  Also, I think you should take a bow for creating a long run of a very fun comic and in that way, you are also like the King. 

Erik Larsen: Jack was in the mix pretty early on. My dad read comics as a kid and we grew up with his comics. My brother and I devoured those. My sisters not so much. He let us at them when we were far too young and we destroyed a chunk of them but there were numerous survivors. The first comic book I bought that was new was an issue of the Incredible Hulk and that led to me getting into comics, eventually. My brother lucked into a run of the Hulk from some kid at school and he gave them to me in exchange for doing the dishes or something and that got me going. In a few years I was buying everything. I discovered Kirby at DC. He was writing and drawing Kamandi, so that was my first exposure and I ended up finding a few others in the mix. I took to his work immediately and bought what I could, be it Omac, Mister Miracle, Manhunter, Atlas or Dingbats of Danger Street. By the time he came back to Marvel I was all in on Jack Kirby.

As far as longevity went—I didn’t immediately know that Jack did long runs on the Fantastic Four and Thor. When I came into contact with him he was on books that didn’t last that long. Kamandi being the obvious exception.

Alex Ness:  How hard is it to be so regular, and productive, when you see others fall away, or even don't finish mini series?

Erik Larsen:  I don’t really take into consideration what others are doing. I’m making my own comics and doing what I want to do. What others do is up to them. There is something of a temptation to do other stuff from time to time and I have dabbled a bit but Savage Dragon is home.

Alex Ness:  The comic book industry has shifted to digital in many areas.  Some say there are still the same amount of readers, they just moved to reading electronically for the most part.  I think you and I could agree, there is a shitload of people downloading for free.  How does the comic industry stop that, and, what happens if it doesn't?

Erik Larsen:  Well, clearly it can’t stop it and when the numbers fall enough comics get cancelled. Ultimately that’s the end result. Comics need a certain amount of revenue in order to keep going. If that goes away—comics go away. But policing it is next to impossible. It’s a huge problem. And every individual taking stuff with the excuse that they’re only one person and that they wouldn’t buy it anyway exacerbate the problem. At some point it all goes away.
Alex Ness:  Alterna has begun a return to newsprint and lower cover price.  Is that a way to bring in new readers?  Can it sustain itself?  And, this might sound snarky but I don't mean it as such, isn't the best way to bring in readers is write and draw the best work you can?  Isn't newsprint and lower prices a symptom rather than the cause of the lower sales?

Erik Larsen:  Nobody seeks out a book because of its cover price. If it’s inexpensive—that’s great—but if I don’t like cauliflower it doesn’t matter how inexpensive it is—I’m not going to buy cauliflower. If a book is insanely overpriced, sure, that’s an issue but comics are still a relatively inexpensive hobby as long as you don’t buy everything. The goal is to produce the best book you can at the lowest possible price. Fans seem to think this fancy printing is the cause of all of their problems. They seem to think a return to flat color and newsprint will lead to lower cover prices and that sales will boom if that happens—but that’s nonsense. If I want a book—I’ll buy that book regardless. If that book costs 50¢ less—I’m not going to buy two of them. I’ll still buy one. I don’t go into the store determined to spend $20 and if prices are lower I’ll buy more books—I’m there to get the books I want and if that’s one comic book—that’s all I’m buying.

It’s also a false assumption that slick paper means a higher cover price. At this point, comics on slick paper can be coverless. Most of the comics on the stands now are coverless. In the old days, we’d print a 32-page comic and add a cover bringing the total to 36 pages. Now we’ll just print the interior 32 pages and format page one to look like a cover. But it’s all the same paper. The whole book is on the same cover stock. But you can’t do that with a newsprint comic—it’ll look terrible. So you’ll need two paper stocks and two presses to run off a newsprint comic book while a modern comic requires one stock and one press. In most cases, it’s actually less expensive to do a slick 32-page, self-cover book than a 32-page newsprint comic plus cover.

The conversation about why this works and why that doesn’t is long and involved. There’s no simple answer.

Alex Ness:  Let us say there is a disease that could remove either your drawing talent, or the writing.  Which would cripple you more?  I know you've written without also doing art, and vice versa, as a storyteller, do you far prefer doing both jobs?  Why?

Erik Larsen:  I’d lose the drawing. If I lost the writing that’s a mental disorder and I don’t want to have to cope with that. As a storyteller, the two work in tandem. I’ll plot in my head as I draw and script afterward. Sometimes I’ll type dialogue as I think of it, midway, other times I’ll jot down notes in the margins but most often I’ll just script the book in its entirety after it’s fully drawn. It’s just the pattern I’ve fallen into.

Alex Ness:  Savage Dragon is into 220s and few comics in the 21st century have seen such a trajectory, especially independent works.  The only one who did more would be Dave Sim doing 300 issues of Cerebus.  Is the reward worth the labor you've put in?  Does the reward in the end not matter because your journey was so great?

Erik Larsen:  My goal is simply to keep going. I don’t worry too much about the reward. The book sold far better when it started, go in that regard, it’s diminishing returns. I can do the best book of my career and it’s still going to sell worse than whatever I did 25 years ago. If I dwell on that I’ll drive myself to drink.
Alex Ness:  Would you have anyone take over your characters upon retirement?  Why or why not?

Erik Larsen:  Likely not. I just don’t want to see it. If I did—I’d never look at it. It would be like watching your best friend screw your ex-girlfriend. Nobody wants to see that.

Alex Ness:  When Image was born the group of creators seemed to come ready with characters that they had developed before and during work for the "Big Two".  With the proliferation of POD, smaller press, and more options including IMAGE, do you think creators are still doing this?  Or are they able to do their dream work far sooner?

Erik Larsen:  That’s more of a question for them. And there’s no one answer. Everybody has a different story. Some find huge success doing their own stuff and some struggle with it.

Alex Ness:  How much of Savage Dragon is Erik Larsen?  How do you hide your green skin?

Erik Larsen:  He’s all me. But so is every character to some extent. There’s a part of me in everything I do.

Alex Ness:  I've been told many times, by many different creative people, that of all the media out there, comics has the most jealousy, envy, and infighting.  There are some famous feuds Image guys were in, but would you say that is the medium or the fact that young creative guys are passionate?

Erik Larsen:  I don’t believe that for a second. From my own personal experience it’s pretty minimal. I would expect it to be far worse in other industries. My experience is that, for the large part, it’s a mutual admiration society. People get along famously. The handful of feuds seem inconsequential to me.

Alex Ness:  If you were to offer people 5 comics to prove comics kick ass, what would you offer?

Erik Larsen:  That’s a hard one. Most of the books I love are parts of ongoing serials and without the context of that series a lot is lost. Thor #337 is fantastic but it’s far better in the context of the ongoing Thor comic book. Same with Incredible Hulk #156, Amazing Spider-Man #33, Swamp Thing #21 and Kamandi #6. As a good entry level book—Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is a good start.

Alex Ness:  I used to be able to draw, and draw fairly well.  But after a gap of time, and body aches, I can't come anywhere near where I was.  Does talent ever fade, or am I witnessing a loss of skills that I had learned?

Erik Larsen:  From what I’ve seen—yeah. It can fade. Certainly eyesights can fade and skills can decline. I’ve seen it with numerous artists over the years. And there are other factors. Influences change, tastes change, you can get stuck in a sort of time warp where your work is stuck in the ‘70s or ‘80s or whatever decade that you stopped paying attention to. It can be a real challenge to stay fresh and keep moving and this can be made doubly frustrating due to fans’  nostalgia and their inability to let go of the past. There’s no winning to some degree. If you maintain you’re "stuck in a rut"—if you evolve you’ve "lost it.”

Alex Ness:  What excites you about the comic world today?

Erik Larsen: The next issue, always. I’m always looking forward to my own work and what my peers are doing. There are some fantastic books out there. Many of them are truly humbling to look at.

Alex Ness:  You contributed to the Spawn recently.  Doing pencils and story?  How was it working on another founder's character, was it remarkable in any sort of way?  I know I thought the art was magnificent.

Erik Larsen:  I contributed to Spawn doing fully inked yet somewhat sparse pages and script—both of which were thoroughly revised. The only remarkable part was how incredibly frustrating and miserable it was. I had more writing changes made on a single page than the rest of my career combined. And the art changes were often infuriating, as Todd moved panels from one page to the next with no consideration to internal continuity or story flow. It was just sloppy and poorly done. I thought, well, sure after the clumsily-named Satan Saga War, which was supposed to be his story, he’ll back off but that didn’t happen. The only reason I stuck around as long as I did was because a few covers had been solicited and the last of them was a crossover with Savage Dragon. Hands down the most infuriating collaborative experience in my lifetime.

Alex Ness:  Tell us about the character/property ANT, and what you intend upon doing with it.  How do you come to acquire it?

Erik Larsen:  When ANT came to Image in the first place I’d talked at length with Mario Gully about changes that needed to take place with the book in order for it to work as part of an Image Universe. Prior to the book coming to Image, Mario Gully had done an ANT miniseries at another publisher and it was the story of a little girl who had elaborate fantasies about a superhero which she drew in her diary. I’d told Mario that it would be impossible for ANT to interact with any Image characters because she didn’t really exist—she was a series of drawings in a diary. So I ended up putting a lot of thought into the character from the start.

I was somewhat hands on as the series progressed, helping arrange appearances by other Image characters and suggesting collaborators and so on. I’d even laid out an issue for Mario to draw which was never completed. So, Mario knew I had some love for the character and was invested in her. Some years later, Mario contacted me and said he needed to sell the character and that he had been talking to another party but he said he’d rather have ANT with me. He told me how much he wanted and I paid his asking price.

Alex Ness:  I am a Christian and you are an atheist.  We are friends, in my opinion.  So this isn't meant to be derogatory... Both you and Todd Mc (who similarly is an atheist) have characters who have met or dealt with or tried to kick the ass of GOD.  I wonder why you did this, not asking you to defend it, but wouldn't it be an opportunity to show a cosmos minus the trappings of religion?  As a personal note, I write about the Greek Gods more than I do Christian, because, probably, they are more individually human in their traits.  Also, I mean only to express universal truths, not a literal God while I do so.

Erik Larsen:  It’s fun to play in a world with more toys. I’ve had Santa Claus in the book, I’ve had the Easter Bunny, I’ve used Public Domain superheroes, and various gods from numerous religions, so it seemed like a fun idea to play with. I also had an idea that I wanted to explore. I wanted to have there be an afterlife of sorts in the book. I wanted to come up with an idea which could reconcile the differences in all religions as well as Atheism. The notion that when we die—we’re filled with a sense of having been right—and that we all choose our own afterlife, which I thought was an intriguing idea.

I had also been thinking about Galactus and how his presence was diminished with each successive use. I wanted to use God once, and once only, and never touch him again. Just do it once and drop the mic.

Alex Ness:  I've watched you on Facebook and before that on various message boards give lessons, teaching about art and the way to be a comic artist.  Have you taught in any actual classroom?  Because, I think you kick ass doing so.  ((No nay sayers, that is not my nose up his ass, I actually think he is awesome in how he translates it for the common person.))

Erik Larsen:  I’ve thought about it and I’ve done a class or two at shows or in an actual classroom setting but I simply don’t have the time.

Alex Ness: Humans are born with different talents, IQs, different parents bring more differences, and different families in different nations of the world makes the individuality complete.  That said, do creative people have a gene or something unique in them that makes them need to create?

Erik Larsen:  As far as I know—there isn’t. But I don’t know. You have a handful of comic book artists who have children who are comic book artists but most seem to be one offs.  

Alex Ness:  When you watch a movie, do you sequentially adapt it while watching? 

Erik Larsen:  I do not. I’ll just take it in.

Alex Ness: When you read a fiction novel, do you think wow that would look like this in your mind?  Do you, I guess I am asking, create while you are supposedly not working?

Erik Larsen: Not really, no. Not in that sense. I do think plot constantly—I am continuously trying to plan ahead and think of scenes but the notion of adapting a film or book just isn’t there. I have zero interest in realizing somebody else’s world. I like to enjoy other people’s work for what it is. I will occasionally look at the real world and imagine how it might be depicted with lines on paper but I’m not tempted even a little to adapt other people’s stuff. So much so that unless I’m specifically commissioned to draw something at a convention, I never just sit down and draw favorite characters from movies, books or cartoons. I might doodle an iconic superhero or two from time to time, but almost never recent characters from comics I enjoy.

Alex Ness: Are you normal with regards to your experiences growing up, going to school, and interacting with people in the world?  Or as an artist did you strike a look, manner or voice that was immediately different?

Erik Larsen: Pretty standard stuff. No posturing. I did have my head down drawing a bit and I was something of a class clown—making smart ass remarks and such but I dressed like other kids and did much the same stuff. Even went out for football in high school. Other than constantly drawing, I was pretty normal.

Alex Ness:  Is your wife a creative person too?  And your children?

Erik Larsen:  My wife isn’t a compulsive doodler but she’s currently taking a couple art classes. One of my sons draws a bit—mostly pictures of antique cars and rooms stuffed with old stuff—but he’s not pursuing art. My youngest son doesn’t draw much. Both kids at one point at least started drawing their own comic books but neither got very far. They weren’t bitten by the same bug. 

Alex Ness: What are some of your favorite movies, comics, and books?

Erik Larsen: I’m a big nonfiction reader and it’s largely politics and the like but I’ll read biographies and books by comedians. I listen to a lot of comedy and enjoy that. I’m not a huge movie buff. I’ll go and watch a few movies a year in the theater because I enjoy it but I’m not one of those guys that can rattle off a long list of actors and directors. I liked the Summer of ’42 and Groundhog Day, I can watch the original Ghostbusters movie over and over. In terms of movies it’s pretty mainstream stuff, Star Wars, Star Trek, the various superhero movies. But largely I’ll see a movie once and that’s the end of it. My wife will choose and I’ll just suffer through it. I’m usually the guy suggesting a trip to the theater. She’s usually picking the movies we watch at home. I may watch a movie a week on TV—I watch pretty much nothing else on TV. I’ll watch sports if they’re on but I don’t seek them out. I’d like to get into it because I can see how much others enjoy it but it just doesn’t draw me in. I’ll watch the Super Bowl every year and I watched the World Series when the Cubs were in it but that’s about the extent of it. I love a lot of old comic books. Comics by Kirby, Captain Marvel Adventures from Fawcett, Hulk by Trimpe. Big Frank Miller fan. I’ll read anything he does. Read the X-Men back in the day. Claremont, Byrne and Austin, up through Marc Silvestri. I read Simonson’s Thor, Moore’s Swamp Thing, all the usual suspects. Once Image got rolling my interest in Marvel and DC stuff waned. I’ll follow artists from book to book at Marvel and DC but there’s no title I’m following. I like  Chris Bachalo a lot and Humberto Ramos. I get the Image comps and that’s a treasure trove but I really don’t have much time to read but I’ll flip through it all.

Alex Ness: Thank you for all of your support of my journalistic life.  I have had numerous people in the industry try to help me, and you are among those who did the most.  


Fun at the Library said...

Great interview, Alex. Excellent questions followed by down-to-earth answers. I don't know Erik Larsen other than as a comics writer/artist but after reading your interview I think I really like the guy.

alex-ness said...

Thank you very much