Future Vision: Looking Ahead at Comics with Junot Diaz
by Zack Smith
Date: 08 April 2009 Time: 12:40 PM ET
Looking Ahead at Comics with Junot Diaz
Our two-part talk with Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz concludes today. In this installment, Díaz discusses the relationship between comic books and other media, the Watchmen film, and the mysterious appeal of vampires.Newsarama Note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in the Independent Weekly of Durham, NC. Newsarama: Junot, what you said about different iterations of major characters – that’s almost the opposite of what we were saying we liked about television, the serialized narratives. There’s plenty of controversy about crossovers and rising costs, but to cut to the chase, do you feel comics might be facing some problems from trying to imitate what TV initially copied from them?
Junot Díaz: There’s no question. TV and movies have done a great job of cherry picking what’s best from comics and improving it and I’m not sure comics has done as good of job of taking those splices and working them back into form. It used to be you could only get a certain kind of genre weirdness in comics but now most of what made the comic form so weird and compelling has passed into more popular forms. A kid can now choose multiple places to get his nerd hit—comics ain’t the only game in town anymore and the biz has suffered for it. But there have been plenty of opportunities that were missed too . . . just think of how well manga has done, how it has reached into groups that weren’t really reading comics at all. The Big Two are so busy maintaining their own piece of the shrinking pie, they’ve gotten so solipsistic, they seem incapable of expanding their core business. NRAMA: But there is that diverse subject matter and audience for manga. As you’ve traveled the world, have you had a chance to see how comics are marketed and received outside of the States? JD: Oh, definitely. I’m in bookstores all the time. In the US comics are immensely embedded in the population’s mind and the popular imagination as a juvenile thing. And you know, when I’m in Europe, man, in Spain especially, the amount of adult comics out there is really surprising. NRAMA: Did you get a chance to go to the Angouleme Festival? JD: No, man. But God, that would have been remarkable! NRAMA: That’s a festival where it’s this huge thing, completely focused on comic books. And you have stuff like the San Diego Comic-Con here, but it seems to have less and less to do with comics each year. JD: Yes, comic books are being pushed aside by a lot of Hollywood stuff now. But what can you do? The medium is being threatened on all sides. We’re the opera of populist form, with a shriking avid base. And in some ways, it really is true that while a lot of our very successful, traditional Big Two titles have kept comic reading alive, I’m in that camp who thinks that in some ways the whole field would be better off if we’d never had the Big Two. I wished we had more of a Japanese model, where titles have to earn their readership based on the strength of their stories, not on precedent, on continuum. In manga when a title ends, it ends. (And if there are reboots, like Pluto, they are few and far between.) Since manga is not dominated by zombie series (books that never, never die) there’s always room for new creators to take over the zeitgeist. NRAMA: Do you feel there’s going to be a movement toward that style of storytelling in the US, or possibly a backlash against the Big Two? JD: On the small scale: yes, without a question. On the large scale? I think that, in the end, there’s too many people invested in other people’s properties. You know, the Big Two are not evil. I don’t have anything against them – for me, it’s not a moral judgment against them. I just think that we’re in a bind, and there’s no easy way around it. Comics needs the Big Two but the Big Two have also deformed the entire field, limited it. Again, I feel that because of the Big Two’s over-relience on its core readership we’ve lost the opportunity to bring aboard a large section of people who would never read a super hero comic book per se, but who would read some other kind of book, like say, manga. And that’s really sad. Maybe that will change in the future but I’m not optimistic. NRAMA: Well, what direction would you like to see the American comics industry go in? JD: That’s a tough call, man. Reading across the board is shrinking, and it’s becoming more fragmented. It’s harder for one title to sell X amount of copies. And in a shrinking economy, it makes it even harder for people to support new titles and for new artist to make a living at what they do. I think in the end, we just – I’m not a visionary. I don’t know the market well enough to have a sense of what people will do. All we can do is keep encouraging new, creative people and keep our goddamn fingers crossed, you know? We have to support the medium, and support habits that are good for the medium. Look, we cannot survive without tapping into a new readership. If comics are simply going to be a cheap way of producing storyboards for major Hollywood productions, then you might as well start chipping out the tombstone now. But I do think there is a lot of strength in the medium. There are a lot of talented creative people who are committed to the form. I think there’s always going to be strength in it, and there’s always going to be possibilities for new artists, for advancements in the field. NRAMA: Last year, Manny Farber passed away. He was the one who coined the theory of “White Termite” vs. “White Elephant” art; there’s a blog explaining this theory. Do you think comics have succeeded more as a form of “White Termite” art, but are in danger of becoming more of a medium dominated by “White Elephants?” JD: That actually gave me a lot to think about. I can get down with what the original blog entry implies towards the end -- that comics seem to be mutating into a termite art with a strong cross current of elephantitis. NRAMA: Now for a terribly geeky question: There was recently a popular meme called “My Scott, Your Jean” about “Comic Book Sacred Cows,” the topic that you are so invested in as a fan that you cannot talk rationally about it without getting uptight or angry. I’m curious – do you have any of these? JD: I sold my sacred cow herd as quickly as I could. I never forgot when many years ago I got my first issue of American Flagg! that Chaykin didn’t draw . . . it amazed me how upset I was. Same thing happened when Wagner stopped drawing Grendel, but with Grendel I eventually settled down and really got into the Pander Brothers’ arc. But my other ones are: --Tom Baker is Doctor Who. He is. --Ewoks were the downfall of Star Wars. NRAMA: You ever feel like there’s a double-edged sword with the success of something like The Dark Knight, which makes a billion dollars – literally, a billion dollars – worldwide, but it doesn’t necessarily translate back into monthly sales? It might boost some specific collected storylines, but you don’t see monthly Batman comics jumping to sales of a million copies per issue. JD: That’s what kills me. The Dark Knight was huge, but how many new converts did we really get? I think that has a lot to do with that juvenile bias we were talking about. People will go see a Batman movie, but many of these same people wouldn’t be seen dead reading a Batman comic book. And yet, it’s ironic, because movies always have a positive effect on the sales of novels and non-fiction books. NRAMA: I was thinking with Revolutionary Road – here is a book that was never a bestseller, and a film comes out, not even a huge hit, but that’s enough that you can buy it at any airport newsstand. JD: Exactly. NRAMA: Now, when you have a complete work like Watchmen, it did sell a million copies thanks to the film – or the trailer, anyway. Could that be indicative that there’s more of an audience for complete graphic novels outside of the readership for monthly serials? JD: I think you’re right. In the end, people like books. Books with discreet endings. And Watchmen has always had that reputation as being The One Comic Book You Should Read. (Have you ever heard anyone say that about any other medium? The One Movie You Should Watch sounds ridiculous . . .) Keeping up with a monthly requires the kind of commitment and practice that your average non-comic person doesn’t always have . . . NRAMA: What were your thoughts on the Watchmen film? JD: Another difficult one to talk about: Interesting to look at, but for me a failed pass at the greatest comic book ever written. Beyond all the mundane complaints (couldn’t they cast a better Ozymandias? wouldn’t it have been better as a mini-series?) I felt the Snyder Team failed to understand (or provide) the narrative driveshaft that propelled the story in the first place: the growing collusion between the reader and Rorshach that indeed Something Terrible Was Going On. In the movie, there wasn’t much to drive things forward, and flashbacks seem to jump into the mix out of nowhere. There were enjoyable bits throughout, but the experience was nothing I could recommend. Hopefully, now that the movie is out of the way, someone will be allowed to make a TV series out of it like they did with Dune. Thirteen hours would do nicely . . . Of course, everything that made Watchmen (the comic) revolutionary has been normalized by its imitators. NRAMA: You have a point. When I read The Dark Knight Returns, it had been out for nearly a decade – I was a freshman in high school, and at that point there had been Tim Burton’s films, the animated series…I could appreciate the style Frank Miller brought to the book, but the darkness of it didn’t have the galvanizing effect on me it must have had in 1986. JD: Yeah, when I read it! (laughs) I read it when it first came out, and I’d never seen anything like it. But you’re right, it became the norm. Superheroes misbehaving is the ultimate cliché, and this is one of the stories that started it. For the Watchmen film to work, it had to work on a different level, because it couldn’t have that transgressive charge that it did originally. Like you said, you read Dark Knight Returns now and there was no transgression any more. It feels, in fat, derivative. For God’s sake, Watchmen is perfectly organized to be six-hour BBC miniseries! You can see it in Alan Moore’s work. He’s shaped by the six-hour forms that were very popular in England. He is as much shaped by teleplays as anyone I’ve ever met. I’m looking forward to the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I am a little wary because I was not a fan of The Black Dossier. NRAMA: It was divisive, particularly the parts that mimicked Keuroac and Shakespeare. JD: Yeah, he’s probably the most brilliant writer around, but he can be infuriating, because his ideas can sometimes overwhelm his storytelling. When he’s “on,” though, there’s no one better. NRAMA: It’s an interesting thing with a writer – that unique perspective can really make a story stand out, but the more deeply they go into their own head, the greater the risk of losing the thread of storytelling that connects them to the audience. JD: Yeah, but on the other hand you have stuff that doesn’t have as much of a unique POV, something like…something that’s a real mixed bag, but for some reason it’s hitting its audience, something like True Blood. NRAMA: (groans) Vampires… JD: I know! But people like my girlfriend and her girlfriends absolutely love it. It’s insane. I don’t get it. NRAMA: There’s a certain appeal for vampires that just eludes me. I liked that film last year, Let the Right One In… JD: Let the Right One In is f_____g brilliant. NRAMA: Yeah, but something like Twilight. I get that it holds a widespread appeal, but the book and film just…well, it seemed like the message was that what women want is to be basically stalked by a creepy, possessive, brooding guy who will dismember anyone who messes with them. JD: Yeah, how disturbing is that stuff, man? It eludes me too. It eludes me completely. But then again we boys like some completely inexplicable crap too. NRAMA: Zombies I can kind of get. They’re a little overexposed, but you can still have a lot of fun with them. JD: I think you can too. Men are from zombies, women are from vampires. NRAMA: And now this interview has a title. (laughs) Any final thoughts on comics and pop culture in general? JD: When all is said and done, this ain’t a bad time to be a fan of these kind of narratives. For every Watchmen movie there’s a Battlestar Galactica. For every Super Secret Silent Wars crossover event from the Big Two there’s something like Pedroia’s Three Shadows to remind us how strange and beautiful and powerful the medium can be. I’m looking forward to NBC’s Day One, I’m looking forward to the new Moore, I’m looking forward to Alex Proyas’ take on The Tripods. And call me foolish, but I’m seriously amped about a Green Lantern movie, even though I’m sure it’s going to be extra-corny. We get a lot of crap coming down the pipeline, but we also get some real gems and that’s all you can expect from any genre, any medium, any field. It’s like a fantasy novel. In the end it’s not the Powers That Be, with their usual claptrap and their weary ways of doing things that will save us; it’s the little guy, the quiet unassuming creator, doing his or her own weird thing in some corner somewhere, that makes this whole game, this whole obsession of ours, wonderful. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is available in paperback.