Joe Pangrazio has been an author, a cartoonist and a webcomicker. Surprisingly level-headed, Joe here talks about masochism and trolls and Lovecraft and stuff.
Joe, you’re a card-carrying “indie comics creator” and yet you hold a soft spot for the Spider-Man clone stuff. What was your exact point of introduction into the existence of comic books?
I don’t know why this always sticks in my head, but I can see the cover perfectly. X-Men 14 (after the Lee/Claremont relaunch), part 3 of X-Cutioner’s song. I grew up in a small town that didn’t even have one stop light within its limits (closest we had was a blinking red/yellow on the outskirts of town) and so we still had a mom and pop video rental store as well as a mom and pop drug store/general store. So, there was little 6 year old Joe while my grandmother was getting something or other, looking at all the comics the store had. I know I had some X-Men toys beforehand (brown suit Wolverine with slide-out claws, X-Factor blue and white Cyclops, and Magneto with little magnet add-ons that stuck to the magnets in his hands) and I know I had a shirt in kindergarten (which would be age 5) that had a particularly vicious Wolverine coming out of a red circle that read “Xavier Institute for Higher Learning” on it. So, something in my head loved the way Wolverine and the X-Men looked and when I saw him on the cover of a comic book, I had to pick it up. I know I read that comic over and over again (part 3 of a crossover that I never got any other parts of) but all I can really remember is Professor X with the Legacy Virus on the first page.
Considering how much I love Fabian Nicieza’s Deadpool work, it’s kind of funny that the first comic I ever read was written by him.
Did you have any creative compulsions beyond the norm growing up, or did that come later in life?
Probably a better question for my parents and grandparents, heh. I was always drawing. Really whacked out ideas, monsters with three legs and no arms, one eye, mouth in the center of the torso. Stuff that, if rendered realistically, would be just horrific. I loved Legos and building things, and I loved combining my toys to create these really whacked out creatures. At one point, I even had silly putty and had covered my Spider-Man action figure in it, pretending it was some kind of weird symbiote (I knew of Venom at this point) that gave him all these crazy powers. So yeah, my imagination has always run wild and I think what has served me well in adulthood is the fact that I never really reigned it in. Sit with me for five minutes and I’ll start coming up with crazy back stories or voices for people and things. It’s just how my brain works.
So when did comic booking start to appear as a viable outlet for you and how your brain works, let alone a career path?
As a career path, I’ll let you know when it happens, heh. Honestly, it’s wrestling’s fault. When I was a kid I read the Spider-Man books (yes, during the Clone Saga). I got a random X-Men Adventures and had a few Shadowhawk books (from three packs), but Spider-Man was my man. When I got a little older I picked up whatever Spawns I could find but that got a bit harder as the grocery store became my only comic outlet with the small pharmacy/general store going out of business. And the constant thread that ran along with these was wrestling. I loved wrestling and lived at a time when WWF Superstars aired locally right after Saturday Morning cartoons. So, I’d watch Spider-Man, X-Men, then the Smoking Gunns and Henry O. Godwinn.
When I hit my teens, my family got our first real computer with an internet connection (what an old man I sound like, now). And seeing as I was consuming the better part of 6 hours of wrestling a week, not counting pay-per-views, I naturally started searching around for wrestling stuff. And yes, my first thought was to find wrestling information and not porn. It was a more innocent time in my life.
Over a few months, I came across something called an “e-fed.” Seeing as most people have never heard of it, it was basically a pen and paper RPG done via forums/message boards based on a wrestling federation. Some ran your wins off of trivia questions, some actually had stats for your characters (like a RPG), and the type that I took to was a writing-based one. You made your character, gave them a “gimmick” and would get basically random matches every week. You wrote “role-plays” which could be simple “character talks to camera” promo talking about you and your opponent. Or, as the person running my e-fed enjoyed, you could be more esoteric. It got to the point where my character Jack Cronic (pronounced crow-nick) had a role-play where he and his group were Arthur and his knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This was while I was World Champion of the fed, by the way.
So that experience ran me into a lot of different people that I would spend the next 4-5 years of my life communicating with online. The founder of the fed I was in, Paul Vincent, decided to make an honest to god forum-based RPG around the time the first X-Men movie came out. A bit of a background on Paul, he was around 17-18 at the time and Canadian. With the e-fed, he had managed to make the site pay for its own costs and give him a slight profit. And this was years before Google ads.
So Paul made the X-Men RPG as something different and to capitalize on the X-Men popularity. Having been a huge fan of the cartoon and being an insanely productive writer at the time (I was probably pumping out around a thousand words a day, while still in high school) I joined right up. For those interested, my first character was Beast (my second choice because someone else had Wolverine). The other person dropped Wolverine in the first two days, so then I picked up Wolverine and was writing the ongoing adventures of two characters.
So, I did that for a few years, eventually taking over and running the RPG. Sidenote: at its peak, I think we had 50 members actively writing at least a hundred characters every day/every other day. Further sidenote: that RPG actually introduced me to one of my best friends that I still talk with to this day, have visited several times, and lives in Philadelphia. But as a result of dealing with all these Marvel characters, I started digging into their histories, their backgrounds, all the different versions of them that had existed. All the stuff that people who read comics heavily in the age period where I had all but fallen away tended to do.
Luckily for me, around that same time a comic shop opened in my small town (I had since moved from the town I grew up in). And, still being an occasional Spawn reader, I stopped in to see if it was still coming out and to get caught up. Which is how, at 17 years old, I fell in love with comics. I spent far too much money getting far too many comics for the next few years. Got all of Preacher in trade, got all of Sandman in trade. Tried out the Ultimates, fell in love with the Avengers through the Ultimates. Tried Ultimate X-Men, stuck with that for a while. I just couldn’t get enough of all this crazy stuff and anything I could get my hands on in trade, or cheap back issues, I got.
That went on for roughly 4 years or so. And I would come up with little ideas, little pitches, but nothing serious. Then, the breaking point came two-fold. One, my friend/comic shop owner had self-published a silly little fast food comic around 2000. He told me about it, I read it, and I thought it was insane. So, naturally I fell in love with it. And started hounding him for more. And I wouldn’t let it go, because I thought it was great and because I had been reading web-comics at this point. And thought that any new stuff he did could easily find an audience there. So I beat him up about it for a few months until he finally looked at me and said, “why don’t you write a script?”
So, a week later I had a 20-page comic script done.
But that was just the writing half. Any aspiring comic writer knows, you can’t make a comic with just a writer. So, around the same time he decided to have some of his friends come in and do a 24 Hour Comic challenge at the store. Some local talent along with his friends hung out in the back and we drew for 24 hours. That’s also where I met one of my good friends to this day who is a working artist/independent comic creator. And in 24 hours, I drew a 24 page comic.
It’s not great. It’s not polished. But I did it, from conception to completion. And even today (as I still have pages/scans) some of the bits are pretty funny. And that’s when it clicked for me. I can write a comic. As I always tell people, I’m not an artist but I’m a halfway decent cartoonist. And twice now, I’ve produced a full length comic in a day.
Why can’t I make comics?
So how did Though My Chains Be Forged come about? And was the Masochist character your way of deconstructing the Robin Hood archetype?
Though My Chains Be Forged actually was a result of the X-Men RPG days. After playing around in those circles for a while, I wanted to do an original character. With some personal influences, I thought it would be fun to take the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to its logical conclusion: have them actually be terrorists.
I wrote the bulk of that material in 2005-2006. So, we were only a few years out from 9/11 (which happened when I was still in high school). And I’d like to say, I now feel like a right douche talking about how 9/11 influenced my writing. I finally made it, Ma!
Anyway, people in America were finally actually talking about terrorism. But as the years went by, they started to lose the plot. Al-Qaeda and these groups were being formed into super-villain groups like Hydra or AIM. These intricate power structures with all this funding that had to be fought in very 20th century ways. And that seemed ridiculous to me.
So, I tackled it in a safer way. I put a fictional character in a fictional world full of super-powered beings. He was genetically empowered and yet still a member of a persecuted class (so again, we see some of that X-Men allegorical influence). And because I had never really tackled a villain, nor had most other people’s writing I read, I went the other way with it. Rather than having him be the understanding, every struggling hero fighting to save a world that hated him, I made him the angry, cynical bastard that is going to punch people into behaving properly.
And I also got to see how people really didn’t understand terrorism. There’s the ideological terrorism where you’re essentially holding a society hostage. “Do this or we blow this up!” And that’s what the true believers tend to follow. But then there’s the larger scale terrorism. Simply trying to destabilize society with fear. And I actually had people complain, because through all of Masochist’s attacks, he never takes credit. The group never takes credit. Later on, other groups actually start taking credit. And people would ask me, “Well, why wouldn’t he take credit?”
And I would tell them: because it’s not about falling into the trap of good versus evil. It’s not about telling a story. It’s about making people afraid. It’s about shaking up the power structure so that, eventually, the group can take power. Which isn’t actually what it’s about anymore, either, but that’s because the story developed in a different direction.
It was also my first experiment in writing for the trade. Even though I packaged everything up into a nice novel, each chapter was essentially written in “issues”. Which is why, the keen-eyed may notice some cliffhangers between paragraphs. I tried to not make it too noticeable, as I always intended it to be able to be read as one piece, but I was really trying to apply the structure of comics at the time to prose writing.
Though My Chains Be Forged does tend to end up with Masochist being more of an anti-hero. A lot of that is simply the result of living with the character for so long and writing from his point of view, though. In the next book it is going to swing the other way again. Because that’s what keeps it interesting. He’s not just an archetype, he’s not some statue or action figure moving through a video game, blasting down everything in front of him. He is, to an extent, a living being that is influenced by the circumstances around him. And because he was created as a super powered terrorist, I can’t have people liking him, too much.
Also, I think it really shows how important point of view is. Spoilers! Masochist kills children in the first book. He seriously disfigures some punk teenagers that, admittedly, were trying to strong arm a small business owner. He attacks, and essentially destroys, a group that works for the French government. He’s not a nice guy. But because the book takes you through his world from his perspective, you read all his justifications. You see where his anger comes from. And so you excuse those as justified. When they’re really not.
Masochist is the only character I’ve created, so far, that I miss from time to time. That I find popping up in my dreams or just having a new idea for him in the middle of the day. He’s my twisted little buddy.
I’d think even just a few years later, much of this would still be like walking on eggshells. What was the most negative reaction you’ve received for the book to date?
I wish I had a sexy answer to that. The truth is, the circles I travel in tend to be pretty smash-mouth. I come from hillbilly racecar drivers. I’ve worked years in construction. I talk to artists and atheists and stand-up comedians. I don’t try to be shocking, but even in the moments when I realize I am, it doesn’t really get noticed all that much. And the brutal honesty is that the book hasn’t gone wide enough to cause controversy. I’m sure if JK Rowling put her name on the book, people would kick up a stink.
Maybe I’ll get there.
But that is the dirty secret about people. Most of the time they don’t really care what’s being said, they care who’s saying it.
As far as people not caring what others say (and to stay unintentionally on the topic of masochism), you have killed uncountable hours over the years moderating chat-rooms and the like. We actually “met” as you are a senior mod over at the BleedingCool forums, which is the only forum I’ve played in going back years. Overseeing such interesting interactions among such diverse personalities, has the experience made you more of a cynic, or are you able to keep things in perspective?
Ask me that question tomorrow and you’ll get a different answer. I have my moments but on the whole I think it’s actually helped me keep a greater perspective. There was a time when I was much more cynical and I think a contributing factor to that was a self-entitled optimism. That I could explain my position to any person and while they may not come over, they would at least acknowledge it. They could understand it. And that’s not life.
It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but there are simply going to be times when people aren’t going to be able to see where you’re coming from. And, if you live and die with every person you try it with (like I did) it will make you hard. Because you’ll get bogged down into, “Why don’t any of these people understand?!”
Moderating is kind of stress-testing that reaction. Because I’m not necessarily on any side in any given argument, I get to see where the misses are. And yes, a lot of times it is quite simply that people are too busy holding onto their argument to see that someone simply disagrees with them. And that’s okay. And some people just have a disagreeable personality and really have no place talking with a large number of people in any setting. And some people are trolls.
And as I tend to find, some people are disheartened by that assessment. Hell, some people would call that assessment cynical itself. Me? I find it affirming. Because while yes, it sucks that there are trolls and they aren’t just limited to cyberspace; it also means that if we can learn to ignore/deal with the trolls, life can be pretty good. The average person will find their level. The average person that is disagreeable will stop interacting or limit it. The average person that can’t empathize will back down after a while.
It’s the trolls, to use the parlance of our times, that keep the conflict going. And I take comfort in that. Most of the time.
You’ve worked in comics retail a bit as well, right? Have you seen many examples of trolls in the wild? And having been exposed to so many facets of the comics community, what would you say sets it apart from other communities?
At this point, I’ve had roughly 6 years experience in comics retail. Trolls in the wild are a different sort. They don’t really exist, because they are essentially cowards. Without the anonymity of a keyboard or the backing of a handful of other equally anonymous buffoons, they crumple against even the slightest push back. And my personality tends to be set on a default of “push back.”
The thing about the comics community is…there are no true casual fans. I’m not talking about the superhero community (where maybe people only watch the movies, and even still, good for them). If a person is buying a comic book, they care. Maybe they only care about that character. Maybe they only care about that creator. Maybe (often) they care more. But they care. There are no fair weather comic fans. Which is both a curse and a blessing.
The curse, anyone familiar with the comic community is well aware. The blessing, people are less so. I’ve worked with two local stores in the past six years. People will bring in old comics to sell. And remember, the 80s are 30 years ago at this point; even if they’re not worth much, they’re still old comics. And more than a handful of times (probably between 10-20 times at this point) someone will find out that their stack of 50-100 comics aren’t worth much and really can’t be sold. And instead of holding onto them, which some do, or being slightly upset, which others do, they’ll shrug and say, “okay, you hold onto them. Give them to kids or something.”
Maybe it has to do with the age of the particular collectors or maybe I’ve just been lucky. But there’s a very real streak in comics of, “I want someone to love these as much as I do, just do what you need to in order for that to happen.” And I love comics for it.
You are probably best-known for your continuing webcomic, CTHULHU HOLMES. It reads like an absurdist melding of the two Public Domain properties, but some of your comedy can be particularly laugh out loud, almost like a genius private joke. What is the exact process like for you, in crafting the strips?
Thank you for officially asking the one question everyone hates: process. I mostly learned my process from advice from Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis (second hand, obviously). I know there’s a particular quote from Neil (look it up, I’m not telling other people’s stories) that breaks it down to this: if you’re a writer, you’re just constantly looking at the world around you for “inspiration.” Because anything can be a story. Warren often talks about how writing is a lot of alone time, letting things boil and percolate in your mind. And after ten years of writing on a regular basis, I’ve basically combined the two.
I tend to consume a lot more entertainment now. I won’t watch or read things that I know I don’t/won’t enjoy, but I will give a lot more things chances than I would have previously. And part of that, I’ve learned, is even the worst story can offer you a lesson. Even if it’s just, “don’t do this!” But some times, a particular bad story or movie or comic or whatever will have a brilliant moment. That then gets washed away.
With Holmes, and people paying attention will notice this, the first few stories were me talking urban legends and/or Lovecraftian plot. So I would start from there and then really follow where I wanted to go. The Case of the Crying Unicorn is based on a real painting that is supposedly haunted. And I just thought it would be funny if it was one of those cheesy velvet unicorn paintings.
Once I got the first few stories under my belt and had the main few characters established, I just let loose. Send Holmes to Hell, which is a private moment two fold. One, it was a tribute to a friend of mine that had recently passed. Two, it is a bit of a private joke between myself and my friend Chris Yambar. But most of the stories have just been stewing in my mind, bumping into things and picking up pieces.
I know this was something that McFarlane used to say in the 90s, but I’m telling the truth. I know how Holmes ends. I know how this story ends and exactly where it goes and it will, eventually, go there. I’ve even tipped my hand a bit and already included some of the ending in a story. And so, depending on how well we do, that story is just going to keep bumping around and refining itself.
In the mean time, I have a multiverse story coming up (alternate realities/alternate versions is a bit of a trope that I’m always in love with) and I still have a few other story ideas I need to flesh out.
Seriously, this is why process questions suck. For writers, there isn’t much of a process. We just think too much, ha.
No, that is a great and honest response, and I find myself identifying with quite a lot of it, actually. You mentioned Ellis and Gaiman, but what writers are really blowing your mind right now, regardless of medium or genre?
I’m a bit in love with Kieron Gillen, but I have been for a while. When Fraction is dialed in, he can do some amazing things. I am a Jonathan Hickman loyalist, thru and thru. I discovered him with The Nightly News and I’m pretty sure I have almost everything he’s done since (including the Pilot Season one shot from Top Cow); if not every issue, I know I have every series. I know Kevin Eastman is credited as a co-writer, but I really think Tom Waltz is doing a fantastic job on the TMNT series from IDW. I got Rocket Raccoon #1 from Loot Crate and was pleasantly surprised with the job Skottie Young did on it. John Layman. Chew is, in my estimation, the best comic being done right now. And the only complaint I ever have about Eric Powell is that there’s not enough of his work. I love his sensibilities on action and comedy and everything he puts out is amazing to me. And yes, Eric, if you read this, I bought all of Chimichanga. And loved it and tried to make others read it!
Moving out from “proper” comics a bit, Yale Stewart does a webcomic called JL8. It basically stars the big 7 Justice League characters as 8 year olds (roughly). I’m not a big DC guy, I never really was able to get into the super hero universe that they put forward…but this? This feels like if Bill Watterson got to write Tiny Titans. It’s just beautiful and perfectly articulates the archetypal personalities of the characters. Without being too fan servicey, without talking down to anyone. I cannot recommend checking him out enough.
When it comes to prose, all my heroes are dead. I’m a huge Bukowski fan, and I think I have all of his novels. I know I need to start tracking down some more of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s books, as there’s only a few I’m missing. And it’s been almost 10 years since I read this book, but I’m mentioning it because it deserves it. Chris Genoa. I don’t know if he’s still writing, but I hope he is. He wrote a book called FOOP! It’s incredible. It’s funny and subversive and takes you exactly where you don’t expect to go. If he was pumping out books every few years, I would be getting every one of them.
And that’s it. That’s the problem with writing, you start to run out of time to read anything really intensively.
Virtually everyone you mentioned has a noticeably distinctive style. Is that originality of voice itself something that calls out to you? I mean, could you ever see a point where you’d allow your own work to be homogenized, for money or whatever, or should art always be free of boundaries?
I think the originality of voice speaks to me subconsciously. I’ve said it elsewhere, I’m in love with character work. If you can make me care for a character, you have me. Things like House of Cards don’t appeal to me because I don’t like any of the characters involved. So yes, maybe they get their comeuppance. Maybe existence is their comeuppance. But I don’t care, because they’re just all awful human beings (which probably speaks back to my portrayal of Masochist a bit).
When it comes to art…oh boy. Dear artist friends, I’m about to butcher proper art terms. Forgive me.
I feel like it breaks down to this: there’s commercial art and there’s high art. Commercial art is Bay’s Transformers or greeting cards or goofy t-shirts, where its goal is to make money and not be awful. Then there’s high art, where the goal is to really say something about human existence or morality, etc. In film, I always cite the Godfather (though to a certain generation, it may be considered commercial art at this point). There is nothing wrong with enjoying either or both Bay’s Transformers and the Godfather. There’s nothing wrong with someone trying to make high art and having it be commercially viable or someone trying to make commercial art and really saying something honest and truthful.
But I do think there’s something wrong with objecting to something like Bay’s Transformers soley because it’s not the Godfather. I understand not liking anything (again, see my dislike for House of Cards while I love Breaking Bad) but I don’t respect running something down just because it’s not something else. I’m a big proponent of accepting a story on its terms. It makes life better and it lets you enjoy a lot of things more.
As to me? I’ve said for a few years (and may get it put on a t-shirt), “I’d sell out if anyone was buying.” I do what I do for me. Because I enjoy it and it amuses me. Getting a paid gig isn’t going to stop that and with where I’m at, will only help it. I wouldn’t sell anything I’ve made to someone else but that’s largely because I’m still working with it. If twenty years from now, if someone wanted to do Cthulhu Holmes stories and I haven’t worked on it in 10 years, I’d probably be open to it.
But I’m also a Dave Sim fan. Yes, that’s where I lose half the audience.
With my artists, I’ve actually talked about if Holmes were to get optioned for a movie. One of my artists asked, “yeah, but if they screwed it up, wouldn’t that bother you?”
It wouldn’t bother me. Because I don’t make movies, I make comics. I write novels. I wouldn’t let someone else write a Cthulhu Holmes comic/novel without my supervision because that’s what I want to make. I don’t want to make movies, so if someone is willing to pay me enough money to make a movie based on my comic, then not use my comic as its basis? Well, I won. Because I got paid for pretty much nothing.
And that’s where I think a lot of artistic types tend to fall down. They spend too much of their time worrying about all these situations that don’t really affect them. But that’s a bit of navel gazing for another day.
You mentioned before how you can be guilty of a self-entitled optimism. I think you’re an idealist, which isn’t exactly the same thing. But either route, what would you like to have accomplished in the next two or three years?
I’m probably a bit of both. I had this discussion a few times with my father, “I know the world is the way you say it is, I’m just not ready to accept it yet.”
Accomplished? Another novel. A new website up where I can start doing some political cartoons again. All of Holmes in print. Own a little house. Maybe have enough capital to get a few of my other comics up and running. It’s the simple things in life, really.
Provided the world lasts a bit longer, I can see all of those things coming to pass. Great speaking with you, Joe. You’re an interesting cat.
Thank you for the time, sir Caldwell. It was nice getting to pontificate a bit about things I care about. For those interested, Cthulhu Holmes continues to fight the good fight at http://www.cthulhuholmes.com. He’s getting funds for his first print comic at Fund-Anything. And I can be found at http://www.joepanc.com.
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The Lottery Party is © 2014 Richard Caldwell. All rights reserved.