In the 1990s, readers (and later moviegoers) were introduced to Tyler Durden, a nihilistic, darkly comic figure who prompted a revolution against a repressed society based around soap, spliced pornography, and getting grown men to fight each other.
Two decades later, Tyler’s creator, Chuck Palahniuk, brought the characters from Fight Club back, not as a prose novel or a film, but in the 10-issue Dark Horse series Fight Club 2 with artist Cameron Stewart The resulting story was even more mind-bending than the original, with Tyler’s conquest taking on a global level, Palahniuk himself appearing as a character, and an army of very small old ladies as paratroopers.
With the series now collected in hardcover form, Newsarama talked with Palahniuk to look back at bringing his characters to comic books, the influence of Tyler Durden, what he’s learned from doing comic book, and much more.
Newsarama: Chuck, you just had a successful Kickstarter for a film version of Lullaby – why did you go that route?
Chuck Palahniuk: To tell the truth, because the filmmakers are friends of mine - friends and neighbors, I’ve known for years. Andy Mingo, the director and co-writer - his wife, Lidia Yuknavitch, is part of our writers’ workshop.
Nrama: Well, that makes sense – especially considering Lidia has a major role in Fight Club 2.
Palahniuk: [Laughs] That’s right! She is! She’s a big character towards the end!
Nrama: She directs the ending a bit. I didn’t know who everyone was in the workshop while reading the series, but I figured they were real people.
Palahniuk: It’s funny – Portland is kind of like a Bloomsbury community where there’s all these writers, and all the writers know each other. And comic creators are like that in Portland, as well.
Nrama: When I was younger, I imagined it as this kind of paradise where everyone worked in comic books, and they all hung out and wore flannel and such.
Palahniuk: And then there’s feuds, and it’s difficult to throw a party because you don’t know who is hating whom, and there’s a lot of drama.
Nrama: … so there’s a specific drawback to it. That’s comforting. It’s the same when I’ve been to Los Angeles. You meet someone who seems like a perfectly nice writer, and then there’s three gossip stories about them once they’re gone.
Palahniuk: [Laughs] Yeah. But it’s kind of thrilling to find Portland being the center of some universe.
Nrama: Bringing in Fight Club 2, what was the most interesting part of the experience of doing a story in a comic book format?
Palahniuk: There were so many aspects of telling a story differently – having to dictate the visuals in each scene and the composition of each panel, and motion through an action at the very beginning or the end of each’s completion.
So all those tricks for completing – for suggesting motion, and for setting up a reveal at the end of every right-hand page so the beginning of every left-hand page as you turned the page would have that payoff, and that constant set-up and payoff, is pretty brutal if you’re not used to plotting heavily.
Nrama: I feel bad for writers at Marvel and DC, because they have to plot around where the ads are placed in each issue.
Palahniuk: But if you muff your page-turn reveal, the ad will save you. It will put a thing there that you need to make the page-turn reveal work.
Nrama: That’s an interesting phrasing to come out of your mouth, “The ads can save you.”
Palahniuk: Most of the time, Cameron Stewart saved me. Cameron did a heroic job of making my very amateur scripts work, in terms of reveals and pacing and making all the actions clear.
One thing I really like about Cameron is that I think I could really burden him with a lot of plot, where he could be burdened with all this plotting and all this intercutting.
Nrama: I’ve known his work since the early 2000s - he was the inker on Deadenders with Ed Brubaker and Warren Pleece, and was on Brubaker’s forum, and he’s come a long way since then. He’s got a real ability to be figurative and realistic at the same time.
Palahniuk: I thought he had a punk sensibility, too - the way that his characters are composed of the kind of lean, sparse body that is very good at depicting gesture, and then they have a slightly larger-scaled head. That seemed very punk to me.
There was a Canadian artist I contacted at the very beginning, “Pia” was her name –
Nrama: Pia Guerra, from Y: The Last Man?
Palahniuk: Pia Guerra, yes. I thought she had that style and liked it so much, but she was overcommitted and couldn’t take on the project. But there were aspects of her work that were things I also liked in Cameron’s.
Nrama: That would be interesting, having the artist of Y: The Last Man drawing Tyler Durden. Had you read that one?
Palahniuk: I have not.
Nrama: I think you’d dig it. You know, because a lot of your work deals with masculinity and aspects of toxic masculinity.
Palahniuk: It’s funny, I would have chosen her work for her drawing style over any politics or history – I tend to choose people for things based on what they can do, rather than who they are.
Nrama: That’s a good reason to choose people.
Do you think Fight Club 2 will read differently now that it’s in one volume, as opposed to individual serialized issues?
Palahniuk: I know a lot of people were holding their breath - what people do these days is like “binge-watching,” sitting down and watching the whole season at once, instead of installments. So I’m counting on that, yeah.
Nrama: Anything you write is serialized for you as a writer while you’re writing it, anyway - you’re the one who has to complete the story.
Palahniuk: And I’d written the entire story arc before I’d even submitted it to Dark Horse, because I wanted the artist and the editors to know who the major characters were, what locations would be showing up - a lot of attention to detail for the things that would come back again and again.
But - as the issues were coming out, I was going to comic conventionss, and talking to people, and finding out what their expectations were. So I was constantly going back and rewriting the issues that had yet to come to market, so that I could accommodate all these expectations that I was finding out about at the last minute.
Nrama: That becomes a big part of the climax of the book - the expectations for it versus the presentation of it. I want to say “the reality of it,” but there’s so many realities in this story.
Palahniuk: [Laughs] It gave me someplace to jump every time I needed to cut to a different thing - there was Marla, there were dreams, the writing group, all these different options.
Nrama: Did you ever read that run on Animal Man where Grant Morrison inserts himself into the story at the end?
Palahniuk: No, but I’ve heard of it! How is it?
Nrama: It’s interesting, because it’s done as kind of a commentary on how very fun, silly concepts become dark and gritty, and it’s the author saying, “Here’s why I did the story the way I did, and maybe I should be nicer.”
Nrama: Speaking of comic books, I was also curious if you’ve ever read Matt Wagner’s Grendel?
Palahniuk: I’m afraid I haven’t, sorry.
Nrama: I was just curious because of the suggestions you make about Tyler in this story. Dark Horse publishes it, actually.
Palahniuk: That’s the kind of big mythology I wanted to build - because Clive Barker has done that, and Neil Gaiman has done that, Stephen King has done that. And I want to do that - take a story and open it up in that big way.
Nrama: You’ve mentioned wanting to do Fight Club 3 - can you provide any updates on that?
Palahniuk: You know, I’ve got it maybe three-quarters written, but I want to sit it aside and do a novel-novel, so that I don’t overlook any good ideas. I really want to take my time.
In a way, with Fight Club 2, I felt like I was pulling a lot of punches, because I was adapting to a new medium, and I was reintroducing people to these characters, and I didn’t want to be too over-the-top with the subject matter.
With Fight Club 3, I want to make sure I go completely over-the-top, in a kind of guts, traumatic, really scarring way. Because I did not do so in Fight Club 2.
Nrama: Well, that’s terrifying.
Nrama: I wanted to ask what were some of your favorite comic books and creators, and if there’s been any influence from comics on your work.
Palahniuk: You know, I really have to be confess, my favorite comics are the ones done by people I know. Matt Fraction, I love Sex Criminals, and Matt’s archer…
Palahniuk: Hawkeye, right. See, that’s showing my ignorance! And there’s David Mack’s Kabuki. And I get introduced to comics through friends of mine who do comics or are into comics – Kelly Sue DeConnick, I love Bitch Planet.
Nrama: So did you become friends with people in Portland who were doing comic books, or people you knew who knew people who did comics?
Palahniuk: Exactly, the latter circumstances. Chelsea Cain, who does a series of thrillers, and is writing Mockingbird now, threw a dinner party and set me up completely. She had Brian Bendis and Matt and Kelly Sue, and they ambushed me and told me, “You’ve got to do this.” And that’s how it started.
Nrama: Had you read any comic book prior to that?
Palahniuk: Boy, I hadn’t read any comics since Classics Illustrated and the horror comics of my childhood in the 1970s.
Nrama: More Creepy and Eerie or EC reprints?
Palahniuk: You got it – Creepy and Eerie. And Ripley’s Believe It or Not comics.
Nrama: They’re reprinting Creepy and Eerie at Dark Horse - some great, messed-up stuff.
Palahniuk: There is! And it’s a pain to reissue, because the original pages were so cheap that you can’t scan them without getting bleed-through from the page on the other side. So everything has to be kind of traced and redrawn.
Nrama: Would you ever want to work on comic books that weren’t your own characters – like a work-for-hire or something for an anthology?
Palahniuk: You know, I wouldn’t rule it out. But there is so much mythology, so much backstory to every character now, it takes a lot of reading just to get the character right.
Nrama: Did you have any guides as to how to understand the format of a comic book script?
Palahniuk: I actually bought a book, one of those “Idiot’s Guides” to making your career in comics. That was my only training for how to write a script, and then I gave my cobbled-together scripts to Chelsea and Matt Fraction, and they advised me on them.
I was a little afraid of adopting someone else’s style or tricks. I wanted to try it myself first. Sometimes, when I teach, it’s the things that my students do wrong that are the most captivating and fresh. So I wanted to try and do it wrong first, and kind of make a style out of being wrong.
Nrama: In terms of doing prose and screenwriting, have you found you’ve learned any techniques from comic books that you’re applying to those forms of media?
Palahniuk: When I got the script back for Lullaby - I’m a co-writer on that - I really did tear it apart looking for ways to cut scenes, trim dialogue, to emphasize reaction so there’d always be some piece of business going on in that scene, the characters wouldn’t just be moving their mouths.
So it’s made my scriptwriting more interesting - the characters are much more rich.
Nrama: Do you feel it’s harder to write a good comic book than it is to write a good novel?
Palahniuk: Hmmm. In a way, the comic is easier, because the structure’s already in place. You have this automatic way of jumping from one moment to the next - panel one, panel two, panel three.
In a novel, that transitional device is much harder to get right if you want to be original. In Fight Club, I use rules as a kind of chorus, and every time I wanted to jump ground temporally, I’d insert another rule.
In so many of my novels, I use chorus - trying to break off traditional sorbet points before introducing a new whatever. In novels, you have to come up with a structure that’s perfectly natural and can destroy itself, the narrator’s way of speaking. In comics, you have that structure already.
Nrama: More of a personal curiosity question - how much do you see of Tyler Durden’s attitudes in the Men’s Rights movement? Because you see a lot of “masculinity” in fandom - anger over the Ghosbusters being women and so on.
Palahniuk: It’s funny, because Tyler Durden represents a kind of an ubermensch, and gives it a name, and people are really attached to that archetype. So it’s been a lot of fun to play with that archetype, to be able to stand on Tyler’s soapbox and say those over-the-top kind of things, and then chicken out and just be myself. But it’s fun to put on that mask - it was fun to be Donald Trump for 200 pages.
Nrama: You talk about this in the book - people admire Tyler, he’s a demagogue for them, but I get the sense that you do not see that as a good thing.
Palahniuk: You know, not in and of itself. You always need that balance between the more aggressive person and the more repressed person. So the books are always about maintaining that balance between the two.
And in Fight Club 3, I actually crap out and bring in a third entity, so Tyler and the Narrator have to team up and battle it, and they’re not always battling one another. And that’s going to be interesting – it makes the book that much more different.
Nrama: What are some of the bits of writing you’re enjoying in different media – movies, television, music, books, etc.?
Palahniuk: Hmm. So much of what I’m doing right now is research for a very long, formal kind of book, and it’s such dry, boring stuff. To tell the truth, I have been putting out feelers and talking to people in the Manosphere, because I want to find out what they’re talking about, their changing language.
So much of Fight Club was this huge deal of studying language, how people were talking - the men I worked with, the guys at the gym, who they were, what their concerns were, so I could echo those in the book. So now, I’m trying to catch up - these men going their own way, and these separatist movements, and these splinter groups, and how they talk, and how they think. I feel like I’m just catching up with the culture.
Nrama: That’s an ironic thing about writing – you’re by yourself a lot, you’re isolated from the world, so you have to catch up on it a bit. And then you wind up commenting on it, in ways that maybe other people can’t see while they’re living their lives.
Palahniuk: And it’s interesting to find patterns among people, as they’re telling anecdotes from their own lives – people going through the same things, but in a lot of different ways. So that’s interesting.
Nrama: Was curious about this – they did two hommages to Fight Club within about a week of each other last year on the shows The Leftovers and Mr. Robot, complete with variations on “Where is My Mind?” I just wanted to know if you’d seen these, and if so, what you thought.
Palahniuk: No, I didn’t! You know, it is so in the culture, I can’t keep track of all the references! Though my friends are always calling and going, “There were references to Fight Club on Jeopardy the night before!” It crops up everywhere! I saw it on that Comedy Central show, Workaholics – it is carpeted with Fight Club references.
I think, in a way, doing a Fight Club comic book was my way of seizing control of the intellectual property again. [Laughs]