This one is entirely indebted to Graeme. Until he mentioned the ebook KLANG! A Writer’s Commentary on this week’s podcast, I didn’t even know it existed. And it is literally impossible for this to have been more aligned with my interests unless it had been hand-delivered to me by courier along with some good Thai food and a cold beer.
It’s by Christopher Priest, first of all, quite possibly my favorite comics writer of the last 20 years, and definitely my favorite outside of the inarguable Morrison/Moore/etc. pantheon. (He’s credited on the cover as “james Priest” [yes, lower case on the first name], but I liked his work as James Owsley back in the 1980s, and I liked his work as Christopher Priest in the 1990s and early 2000s, so it feels kinda right to check in with him as James Priest here.)
And it’s a behind-the-scenes making-of thing about his recent return to some of his best-loved characters for Valiant’s Q2: The Return of Quantum and Woody, and I am a total mark for that kind of Inside Baseball stuff.
It’s even got some really good nitty-gritty on the actual thought and process behind writing comics, including a bunch of unpublished scripts from the original Acclaim Comics run on Quantum & Woody, as well as unedited versions of the scripts for the Q2 series.
And it didn’t disappoint on any front. It’s definitely Priest’s essayist voice, familiar from the stuff on his website, and the stuff from his old website, and the stuff he used to post on Usenet way the hell back in the bronze age of the Internet. It’s terrific at the behind-the-scenes stuff, editorial drama and strife with his artist, etc. And, yep, it’s got some great comics-writing theory and advice, along with relevant anecdotes and samples.
It was a fun, fast, informative read, and it also left me feeling very, very sad. Find out the thrilling reasons why, after the jump! (NOTE: Not actually thrilling.)
Let me start with a quick summary of the book: after a recap of the rise and fall and halting almost-re-rise and the subsequent fall of the original Q&W series, Priest essentially goes ahead and lights every single human being involved with Q2 on fire. Editors disappear, his longtime friend and artistic collaborator Mark “Doc” Bright completely disregards crucial details in the scripts, the colorists miss the point of the script, the marketing people screw up the tone of the book in the ads, and the company generally refuses to work with Priest to achieve his artistic vision.
It is the story of a writer given a chance to return to one of his past glories, doing extensive research and trying to craft something really special (he cites John Steinbeck as a major influence on the story), only to see his dream fall apart in the clumsy hands of common people. It is, frankly, pretty easy to read this as some grade-A Ayn Randian fanfic.
Talking about it to Jeff on the podcast, Graeme hypothesizes that (I’m paraphrasing here, so don’t blame Graeme) either Valiant is run by aggressively evil incompetents, or Priest is insane. (Again: I’m paraphrasing — that’s probably hyperbole on my part. But it was something like that.)
And I agree with him. If you were reading this book in a vacuum, it could go either way.
But … I’ve been reading Priest’s work for a long time, and reading Priest writing about Priest’s work for almost as long. And … I mean, I love the guy’s work. I love it. The legendary Black Panther run, of course, and the cult favorite in Quantum & Woody. But also Xerø, which is — for my money — a lost classic, and always my first choice for the old “If you could have one series revived or remastered or redrawn” comixypothetical. His weird Solar: Man of the Atom series. His work on Steel, and his JLA fill-ins. His terrific one-shot reimagining ShadowMan as a New Orleans late-night deejay, providing advice on zombies and cooking and tech support and car repair. His run on Captain America & the Falcon. The lost works like The Crew and Concrete Jungle. I love it all (except for Deadpool, which was pretty horrible). Hell, I even got a kick out of his work on Justice League Task Force and The Ray.
So it really pains me to say this. It really does. What I’d like to do is to trust Priest — clearly a deep thinker, and a polymath, and a religious man, and a generally fascinating dude — and buy into the essays as much as I buy into the work.
But the whole time I was reading, all I could think of was that saying about how if you meet an asshole in the morning, fine, you met an asshole. But if you keep meeting assholes all day, maybe you’re the asshole. Priest does not seem like an asshole — let me be very clear on that. But if you have bumpy roads with one comic, fine, you ran into some roadblocks. When you have bumpy roads on every comic….
What follows does include elements of conjecture and guesswork from a fan’s perspective. Some of what it’s based on is a matter of public record, and some of it is inference from what did and did not happen, and some of it is based on the (ostensibly) non-fiction writing of the party involved. Anyway: this ebook, much as I enjoyed it, made me keep thinking of Xerø. Not just the comic itself, but what Priest was writing about it afterward.
Xerø, as I mentioned, was spectacular, a weird high-concept superhero spy mashup that could be published without alteration today and look completely contemporary. Basically the idea — and I’m working mostly from memory here, so forgive any errors — was that there was this super-spy, Xerø. He was a Closer, a super-agent at the top of his secret agency.
(The agents were numbered — like 007, basically, but the lower your number the higher your rank. So Xerø’s main rival through the series was Øne. Etc.)
As a secret agent superspy, Xerø appears to be a blonde white dude. Which is just a doubly-good disguise, because his actual identity was as Trane Walker, a professional basketball superstar who also just happened to be a black dude. The narrator of the book was Trane’s womanizing, sleazy brother, talking from some point in the indefinite future, after some bad stuff had gone down.
It was funny and it was bleak and it was smart and it was evil and it was heartfelt and it was terrific and it was a Priest book so of course it was cancelled too young. Sales were mediocre-to-bad. The book hovered eternally on the edge of cancellation, ultimately eking out 12 issues (and in the process preparing me emotionally for life with Friday Night Lights and Hannibal and every other deathwatch show I’ve stupidly gotten addicted to over the years).
The artist when the book started was ChrisCross, who provided some sleek visuals with an almost-art-deco curve that I’ve always loved. But by the end, as the book was clearly doomed, he was replaced by a series of spot fill-in guys of varying degrees of adequacy. What came to mind as I read KLANG! was Priest venting frustration with one of these guys regarding a scene in one of the final issues.
What I thought I remembered is that there was a scene where the bad guy was shooting at one of the good guys through a refrigerator, and the bullets passed through a side of beef(?), basically drilling out spikes of frozen meat(????), and then the good guy uses the spike of frozen meat to stab the bad guy(???!???).
I thought I remembered Priest being openly disappointed in how the fill-in artist had depicted this scene. I recall him seeming very upset that the meat-spike finishing move wasn’t really explicable. And even at the time I wondered how much of that was the artist’s fault, and how much of the problem was that it wasn’t a very easy thing to visually depict in a static medium.
I haven’t been able to find any old usenet posts to confirm that memory, though. What I did find was Priest’s essay about Xerø on his website, which also features a number of horror stories– many of them not unlike those in KLANG! — and which does include the following extended, slightly incomprehensible complaint from Priest about the series finale:
The worst thing, though, was in the final issue. Sabrina, the Sheriff’s daughter, has been captured by Øne, Xerø’s arch nemesis. The big reveal (and I’m spoiling it, here, since I doubt anyone’s rushing out to their store to buy these back issues) was that Øne was not an Asian man but, in fact, a white woman. Guest artist (by now Cross had become totally demoralized and had bid Xerø an early adieu) Eric Battle fashioned Øne in the image of his wife, a dreadlocked ringer for vocalist Lauryn Hill. One of the editors subsequently decided that, “Dreadlocks look stupid,” (an actual quote) and unilaterally instructed the inker to change Øne’s hair style. The inker, apparently, misunderstood what the editor wanted, and more than changing Øne’s hair, the inker changed Øne to look exactly like the hostage Sabrina.
Neither Eric nor I knew about the change until the book came out. Inexplicably, there were two identical women, which the script never called for and thus did not support in any way. The colorist, again not choosing to or perhaps unable to read the story, assumed they were supposed to be mirror images, and followed through in detailing both women exactly the same.
Like much of what appears in KLANG!, this seems totally plausible in a vacuum — a series of misunderstandings and bureaucratic nightmarishness that squares nicely with the worst of what all fans sort of fear about editors and the creative process. But it’s not in a vacuum — it is, as noted, like much of what appears in KLANG!
Priest is a writer who enjoys a byzantine, twisty plot. (One of his complaints regarding Q2 in the ebook is that he inadvertently overstuffed the outline and needed a sixth issue for the series, which Valiant declined to allow. This seems reasonable to me — you were contracted to write a five-issue series, you write a five-issue series — but I’m no comics-writin’ professional, so maybe I’m misjudging.) These complicated plots require tremendous precision from the artist, to ensure that groundwork is laid, evidence is seeded, and clues properly planted. Xerø and Q2, are two comics separated by 20ish years that both seem to feature crucial scenes where Priest feels like the artist and/or colorist and/or editorial fiat let down the writing and crippled the final product.
But it’s not the same editor, colorist, artist, or publisher on the two books. There’s only one common denominator between the incidents, and I’m finding it harder and harder not to assume that that’s where the actual problem lies.
Which brings us back to the ebook.
Even for people who have not (inexplicably) remembered the minutiae of Priest writing about Priest, there are also a number of contradictions within KLANG! itself. In perhaps my favorite example, Priest writes at length, a couple of different times, on the extensive research he does, the amount of time it takes, the kinds of reference materials he provides the artist/colorist/etc.
But then later, you get a passage like this one, in response to a request from Bright for what Priest describes as “annotations” in the script to, e.g., show what type of inhaler he’s expecting a character to use:
I explained it would take me hours to annotate the scripts the way he wanted. Also, if I previewed every plot twist or reveal, the editor would have no way of evaluating the effectiveness of those twists or reveals because the script would read like oatmeal. I needed to write the scripts the way the comic book is intended to be read, so, ideally, I entertain and/or surprise the editor as he reads along so he gets what I’m trying to do. All he really had to do was follow the script; it’s all in there.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but … this seems … um … ill-advised to me. It seems to undercut Priest’s own earlier arguments regarding research and his artist’s refusal to engage with the script’s requirements, and it also seems like really bad strategy. I cannot find the specific reference (my gut says it may have been something Kieron Gillen wrote, or maybe an episode of his Decompressed podcast), but I know I’ve seen at least one specific instruction to not try to surprise your artists or editors — that’s not the point of scripts, although it may be the point of the resulting story. Regardless, it just seems like an odd, arbitrary decision for someone to make while simultaneously arguing that the artist failed to correctly draw to his future intentions.
There are plenty of similar examples in the ebook, but, honestly, I find it all slightly sad and slightly exhausting to consider, and am loath to just keep pointing for the sake of pointing.
None of this diminishes my enjoyment of KLANG! as an Inside Baseball look at the creation of a comic I was interested in, and a wholly enjoyable read. Nor does it diminish my enjoyment of Priest’s work over the years. But it does make me a lot more skeptical when I read his behind-the-scenes essays, which is a damned shame on one hand, and probably healthy on the other.
I will never doubt Priest’s anecdote about Larry Hama carrying an uzi in his briefcase, though. The awesomeness of that tidbit puts it beyond reproach.
That account of the confusion on Xero is confusing… Priest asks for a white woman, the artist gives him a Lauryn Hill look-alike, and he’s cool with that until the dreads go, but ultimately he blames the colorist? Weird.
Yeah, it’s … it’s weird.
Larry Hama is hardcore. I have no trouble believing that.
I don’t see what’s so strange about the Xero quote. He’s saying a confluence of events resulted in two characters looking exactly alike which confused the readers.
That said, my guess would be there’s some truth to your underlying point about how Priest’s accounts are probably only one side of the story. (And in his defense, he’s said as much here and there. I remember his website, on the page about his various comics work, had a disclaimer about how he’s making no effort to be fair and balanced in his remembrances.) What’s always stuck in my mind were his comments, on that same page, about his Judge Dredd fill-in. He criticizes the penciler for not doing a good job following his scripts, blaming the issues’ lousy reception on that. But, well, he’s posted the scripts for those issues on his site, and I’ve read them, and I’ve read the actual comic and…. honestly, I don’t see the big departure The comic seems to be a quite faithful interpretation of the script to me.
Like everything else, the Xero quote makes perfect sense as a solitary thing (although even then there are oddities. It’s an extremely weird chain of events — somehow everyone else’s screw-ups, off a supposedly clear script, lead to a consistent result: the characters look identical — but just barely conceivable. And, as Nate A says above, why was he okay with “a white woman” looking like a dead ringer for Lauryn Hill?). But, as you note as well, it’s not a solitary thing.
And, yes, Priest goes out of his way to say that he’s not being even-handed, etc. etc. But he says that pretty much every time, over a span of decades now, and it sure seems like at some point the interpretation has to shift from “just one side of the story” to “maybe a not-exactly-accurate side of the story”. I dunno.
Yes, while not having read KLANG!, it does seem as you say, “if you meet an asshole in the morning, fine, you met an asshole. But if you keep meeting assholes all day, maybe you’re the asshole.” (that’s a great line by the way). It reminds me a lot of Alan Moore, who admittedly has some legitimate grievances with publishers, but tends to have a major falling out with almost every publisher he works for, sometimes affecting the collaborators he works with along the way. That post you linked to about his treatment at Marvel, which included the Larry Hama Uzi anecdote was pretty fascinating, and in Priest’s defense, certainly had a ring of truth to it. I loved the anecdote about how all the black creators of the period just ended up hanging out in his office waiting for their paychecks, and this was viewed as cause for concern that it might be some militant uprising. While this was the early ’80’s, it made me think, are there enough black creators at either of the Big Two right now to fill an office? I think not.
Yeah, that’s part of why I find myself so equivocate-y about this whole thing. Priest’s writing about the industry in that era — especially race-related, but really all of it — is so smart and sharp and incisive that I really, really don’t want to be casting aspersions on it by extension of what I’m saying here.
(Interesting sidebar on race at Marvel, though, was Axel Alonso’s podcast with Andy Greenwald from Grantland. Alonso hammers the “minority characters AND minority creators” talking point as hard as I’ve ever heard him, repeatedly referencing his own Latino heritage and even his wife’s Korean heritage, as well as the diverse backgrounds of his editors. I’m really hoping Graeme and Jeff listened and will discuss on the podcast at some point, because … man, that interview, while seemingly earnest, also sure seemed like a direct, carefully crafted response to the most recent barrage of criticism.)