Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Interview with "Bloodthirsty" Comics Writer Mark Landry

Today, Titan Comics releases issue #1 of Bloodthirsty: One Nation Under Water, the debut title from writer Mark Landry, illustrated by much-lauded artist Ashley Whitter (Squarriors, Interview with a Vampire). Mark is a Louisiana native who, for the last ten years since Hurricane Katrina, has been trying to find the right story to tell about that disaster while simultaneously building a career as a film and television writer (notably, of the Disney Channel movie Teen Beach Movie, which is a 180-degree tonal shift from Bloodthirsty),

When he had the idea for Bloodthirsty fully formed, he took to Kickstarter to help make the vision a reality. Despite getting successfully funded, there have been many roadblocks and lessons-learned that threatened the project ever seeing the light of day. Mark has been more open about these challenges than many Kickstarter creators, and discusses those elements, along with the genesis behind the new comic, the gulf between Disney TV fare and gritty comics for engaged, adult audiences, and why vampires aren't scary with Nerds of a Feather.

Nerds of a Feather: You're a Louisiana native, and you talk a little in the introduction to the first issue about the inspiration behind the book and what made you want to tell this story after Katrina. That really spoke to me because I was in the same boat -- I was a Gulf Coast native in L.A. when the news broke. I remember that sense of helplessness, and I feel like I understand your drive to contribute through storytelling. Can you talk about what the process of finding the "right" Katrina story was like? How did you land on this tale?

Mark Landry: It’s interesting, because I was already a “professional” writer when I wrote Bloodthirsty, but I hadn’t written any personal work that I would ever have wanted anyone to read. The only works I had really shown people at the time were topical comedy pieces and work-for-hire projects. Those always had my sensibility in them, but were never truly driven by any personal experience of my own (Teen Beach Movie for example; I’ve never even tried surfing).

I think, as writers, we all write a handful of early personal stories inspired by our terrible love lives, we all write about our parents in one way or another, etc. But I never liked my own autobiographical work. I only ever liked my writing when it was thematically in tune with my perspective, but not at all “about” me. So dealing with and navigating through the emotional inspiration for “Bloodthirsty” was really my education about who I am as a writer, and who I want to become, in terms of how I could even approach writing through a subject that has had a profound effect on me as a human being.

I had struggled with a lot of complex feelings about Katrina – anger, guilt, frustration – and year after year, they wouldn’t go away; they just kept getting worse. I didn’t have a therapist, but as a writer – as an artist – I could intuitively feel a nagging in my head that understood the best way to deal with this was going to be to make something, write something, say something. I had to start that process with a sort-of self-analysis: What’s angering me about Katrina? What’s frustrating me? Why do I feel guilty? And the answers to those three questions became the foundations for this story: I was angry because the human cost of the storm was largely preventable; I was frustrated because it had become clear to me that human nature and society have a long way to go to reach the point at which such a cost could ever actually be prevented; and I felt guilty because I – as a citizen in a democracy – was doing very little to contribute to our species and to our society’s very necessary improvements.

So I started with the anger, which is to say I started building the story with the villains. Once I had constructed their motives, I could figure out the hero and what he would do to try and short-circuit their plans.

NF: In other interviews, you've been clear that the blood-drinking bad guys here aren't vampires, although somebody not paying much attention might think so. There's something of a sci-fi element here in what's otherwise a horror story. Why was it important to you to make it more...well, feasible?

ML: Well for one thing, I have never found vampires particularly interesting. I know they’re supposed to be sexy or what have you, but I really couldn’t care less about some supernatural being that can live forever and doesn’t have a reflection. I fall asleep. Probably thanks to the various aesthetic trappings having become cliché, the vampire trope has grown stale to me; it has lost whatever allegorical significance it may have had.

I’m interested in human beings! The greatest threat to civilization is basic human greed! That’s exciting to me because it’s real. You see it on the street and in the news every day! It’s what caused the housing bubble, the great depression, the slave trade, the holocaust, and every social malady ever known to man. I would go so far as to say that racism stems from a basic greed of resources. One group wants to hoard resources (money, crops, power, etc.), and the easiest way to turn its members toward this purpose is to turn them against the “other” – which is any group that can be easily defined as “not us.” And the simplest way of doing that is the visual: they look different, so we must destroy them and take their resources.

For Bloodthirsty, I knew the project was going to be the longest and most time/energy consuming I’d ever undertaken, so it had better mean something to me. I needed the villains to be exactly what I despise about society: the Socratic ideal of the greedy, 0.001 percent, government-corrupting multi-billionaire class. They needed to be human beings who have cultivated a way to live better and longer at the expense of other people’s lives. I needed them to be “bloodsuckers” in every sense of the word, which is synonymous with greed.

If you look at organisms that feed on fresh blood – hemovores like leeches, mosquitoes, vampire bats, etc. – they all have a biological need for blood as a meal, and if they don’t get it, they’ll die. The hemovores in this story are the same way: their bodies are in a constant state of cellular repair, so they can enjoy long, youthful lives. But if they miss a blood meal, their cells become starved of oxygen and they die. Game on.

You just aren’t going to see any sparkly, pointy-toothed, flying, mind-controlling non-humans in this story. Our villains are 100 percent plausible. Heck, they could be in New Orleans right now. That’s way scarier to me than some non-existent boogeyman.

NF: Your hero, Virgil, was a Coast Guard rescue diver during Katrina. What did your research process entail to get that part correct -- the real-life part of this thing, which comes through in the issue's prologue?

ML: Most of the previous answer was devoted to the idea that people are the worst. And at the same time, only people can be the best. What I absolutely love about our existence is that, yes, people can do some horrible things; but other people have the power to do something about it! We’re not talking about alien invasions and sea monsters. Humans are villains, and humans are heroes. Period.

If you think about how absolutely selfish and evil money in politics is, and how absolutely evil racism is, and terrorism, imperialism, etc. – on the far opposite end of the evil-vs-good spectrum are human beings who literally put their lives in danger in order help others. I think of individual human beings as falling somewhere on that empathy scale. No empathy means you’re an evil, self-serving bastard; mega empathy means you would literally die to save someone else. And the men and women of the US Coast Guard are on the mega-empathy extreme.

Whenever anyone even scratches the surface of looking into the rescue and recovery efforts of Katrina, they’re going to find out pretty quickly that the Coast Guard operated at a stunning level of precision, speed and selflessness that would make your head spin. And it’s all online – every detail of it. The Coast Guard has an amazing archive of interviews, timelines, statistics, facts, figures, etc. about the event. So that’s where I started to discover facts like: there were 52 helicopters in the air, no air traffic control, zero collisions, and they rescued 33,000 people! Those facts alone are stunning. Then you dig a little deeper and read interviews about individual rescues. Beyond that, I contacted the Coast Guard, who were generous enough to arrange interviews with two rescue swimmers and a former captain – all of which will appear in upcoming issues in the series, after a statement from General Honoré and an environmental spokesperson.

I wanted the hero of the story to be one of these selfless, real-world heroes. At the same time, he needed to be someone from Louisiana, whose heart was breaking as he rescued people from the rooftops of his own flooded neighborhood. This is the kind of person who will find it within himself to take on the blood-sucking villains – so that’s exactly who Virgil LaFleur is. He’s the empathetic beating heart of New Orleans, sharpened and focused by his experience in the Coast Guard, and he’s the only one courageous enough to draw a line in the sand.

NF: New Orleans is definitely a main character in this comic. But there's a hell of a mix of characters overall in Bloodthirsty-- drag queens, prostitutes, do-nothing cops, corrupt officials, and so on. Did you have a sense of wanting to get New Orleans "regulars" X, Y, and Z into the comic, or did the story dictate the cast?

ML: The story dictated the cast, really. Or rather, the themes did. There had to be greedy plutocratic villains, so then there had to be corrupt cops and politicians (you can’t have one without having all three). But because these corrupt plutocratic types never get their hands dirty, I needed lower-level enforcers on the front lines doing the dirty work.

New Orleans was a factor here, in that only in The Big Easy would it make sense for a cross-dressing pimp and his prostitutes to perform at a nightclub that’s actually a converted church. I mean, that could actually happen in New Orleans, and that’s part of why everyone loves the place! It’s got character; it’s colorful and unique. I think of Mother Taneesha as Grace Jones meets Prince meets Frank-N-Furter, and his Hell’s Belles as the singing prostitutes from Cabaret.

Next, I couldn’t really tell a story about hemovores feeding off the blood of the poor without actually having any poor characters. So that’s where Mr. Parks and Dante come in. A story like this has to have victims, and it also has to have someone for whom the hero is fighting. Again, the story’s themes are dictating which characters are needed to tell it.

NF: Filmmaking is also a collaborative medium, so I wonder what kind of experiential overlap there might be between that and comics. As a produced screenwriter but first-time comics writer, can you discuss what the creative process of working with an artist on this project was like?

ML: I get the sense that every artist is a little different, as is every writer. In working on screenplays, I typically have a close collaborator of some sort, whether it’s a co-writer, a director, producer, etc. We get together often to discuss the story over several iterations until the script is locked. After that – in Hollywood at least – the writer is often handed his or her walking papers while the production team goes and makes the final product.

In comics, the editor is more like the producer, and on Bloodthirsty I was both writer and editor (with John Hazners and Chris Fortier at various stages) for most of it, until Titan brought on their editor, which has also been great. But I’ve been the person working most closely with the artists. Like I said, every artist is different. Ashley pretty much does her own thing, as does Richard Pace, who is working on later issues in the series. I provide a script and thumbs, and they go off and work, only calling or texting if they have a question or to talk through something. I’ve learned that sequential art is such an underestimated, difficult, arduous undertaking that artists need all the time, peace and quiet they can get while they’re working.

Georges Jeanty (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, etc. - ed.) – who has been a very generous mentor to me on the project – has been a lot more collaborative in his role, and I can tell that’s how he is as an artist. We get together and go over thumbnails, we talk on the phone about story points, and he’s even done a bunch of layouts to give the artists a better place to start than just the script I give them. I actually prefer the more collaborative writer-artist relationship in terms of getting the plan laid out. After that, of course, the artists just need their space to concentrate on getting the pages done. I try not to bother them much during that phase.

NF: This book is a Kickstarter success, but I know it took some doing to see the light of day even after being successfully funded. What would you most like to tell other independent artists who are eyeing Kickstarter as a launching pad for their own projects?

ML: I think the best bit of advice I can provide is this set of three guidelines:

1) Limit your variables. This means to limit the number of people you have to depend on to actually produce whatever the Kickstarter is funding. When I started my Kickstarter, the script had been written, but I after that, I had to rely on hired artists to bring the project to fruition. Be careful with that, because you’re making commitments based on another person’s ability or willingness to perform. If they’re late and your backers get mad, they don’t get mad at the person you’ve hired; they get mad at you. So if you limit or eliminate those variables and can do everything yourself (write, draw, etc.), do that instead…but only if you’ve got both the proper skills and a solid sense of professional integrity.

2) However much you think it will cost, double it. I know people always say that, but it’s so, so, so, so true. It’s not an exaggeration. Bloodthristy has ended up costing more than double its funding amount, which has come out of my pocket. I’m happy to do it because it’s a project about which I’m passionate, but everyone should be aware of the financial traps that unforeseen roadblocks can cause on a project.

3) However long you think the project will take, quadruple it. I started Bloodthirsty four years ago. When the graphic novel version (all five issues) is finally printed and sent to backers, it will have been two years late vs. the estimated delivery date. None of this is a result of laziness or poor management on my part. A litany of unforeseen roadblocks and setbacks has plagued the production process, but I’ve learned that these are sometimes a natural part of putting together collaborative creative projects. Expect delays, plan for them, schedule for them, and that way, you’ll be able to better manage your backers’ expectations in terms of when the project will be complete.

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Bloodthirsty is available today from Comixology and Local Comics Shops everywhere.

Posted by Vance K — cult film and occasional comics reviewer, and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012.