Over the course of your life, you might’ve had the opportunity to visit some famous fictional cities like Gotham City, Camelot, Metropolis or even Vice City…. But you’ve never been to a town like this.
King City is a sprawling mess of a town that’s not just the setting but almost one of the characters in cartoonist Brandon Graham’s comic series of the same name. Edging out the city for the choice role of lead character is that of Joe, a mythical catmaster with a companion cat that is equal parts Garfield and Swiss army knife. Together, they’re an (almost) infallible team that sleuths, spies, set-ups and destroys anything for a price in their unique line of work. After a too-long absence that’s mostly to blame on a romantic relationship gone wrong, Joe returns to the city to do an ultimate job.
Originally released as a manga-sized graphic novel by TOKYOPOP in 2008, it found a second home in recent months in the arms of Image Comics thanks to a unique co-publishing deal between the two publishers. Since the original graphic novel was out-of-print, Graham and the publishers decided to reprint that book in single issue format over the course of six issues. And now with six issues under their belt, the new seventh issue of King City hit stands earlier this month in a new story arc for readers of the original book or the recent series. We spoke with Graham about the book, its future, and what he was up to between the issues.
Newsarama: King City #7 just came out --- and in a way, it’s season 2 of King City as it’s when the series turns from reprinting the original TOKYOPOP OGN into new material. Any thoughts on being able to release this new material on your part, Brandon?
Brandon Graham: It's exciting. When I'd started the 2nd half of King City it was really important to do better comics than I'd done with the first half. It's like competing with myself. And throughout the whole rollercoaster of it switching sizes and how it was being released and the co-publishing deal. It feels like a Christmas miracle to be this close to seeing it in print.
Nrama: King City #7 starts off with a flashback to Joe training to be a Catmaster at a place called the farm. Can you tell us about the training regimen and what it takes to be a Catmaster?
Graham: I only show a little of how deep the catmasters go into the dark arts of cat. I imagine it would take more meditating under waterfalls and centering your chi while someone shoots at you with a potato gun than I showed in the issue.
A little later in the series i get into the je ne sais qua-lities it takes to be a catmaster. In the past I described catmasters as being like Green Lanterns but I've come to think of it as a little different than that. They aren't there to be police sometime's they're criminals. They're picked because of being interesting in different ways. The cat is like an art grant that can do anything and purrs.
Nrama: Fast forward to the present day, Joe’s working as a catmaster in King City. Joe’s going after some brains here for his sometimes-girlfriend Beebay and her gang the Owls. What’s he doing it for – and why does she want it?
Graham: By issue 7 there's some evil shit out in the world, a giant cthulu monster demon king that has been preparing itself in the far east for a return to King City. Joe has been helping Beebay to gain any information so they have an idea what they're dealing with. The brains he steals are from the demons' victims and are all full of ideas.
Nrama: Meanwhile, Joe’s roommate Pete is still mooning over the water girl he found and gave up to some bad guys. What’s Pete thinking about all these?
Graham: Pete is a good dude who to get by in King City has had to do some things he's not proud of. Even though he may not have had a choice at the time he feels that he should have done more to not have to turn the nice extraterrestrial girl over to the goons that took her.
Nrama: For those that don’t know Pete – can you tell us about him?
Graham: Pete Taifighter is an old friend of Joe, the catmaster. When he was a teenager he was part of a gang of guys called Mask, the gang is now defunct but he still wears the mask, since that gang was a big part of who he is. While Joe is into picking locks, Pete is into building puzzles and traps and he doesn't swear much.
Nrama: Where would you say King City is going story-wise in upcoming issues?
Graham: It's always hard to encapsulate what I'm trying to do with it. On the big scale there's the giant monster threatening to destroy the world but that's almost unimportant to how each of the characters is trying to deal with their own lives. There's a big theme of trying to do what you can with yourself while other forces are trying to pull you in directions you might not agree with. I feel that way in my life a lot. It's all autobiographical basically but with shit loads of bad jokes and science fiction.
Nrama: Using this interview as an excuse to go back and re-read King City and your previous books, I see a majority of your work taking place in very urban environments – metropolises and the like. Have you primarily lived in big urban centers, or what is it that draws you to drawing the big sprawling cities?
Graham: Yeah, I've spent almost all my life living in large cities, (Seattle, NYC, and now Vancouver BC) it's what I'm used to. I really like to think about how much goes on in a city all at once. Just thinking about all the lives being lived at once in any city block is pretty exciting to me--so much going on at once.
Nrama: Poring over your books I see a litany of easter eggs, hidden messages and intricate work in the backgrounds of page. Can you describe your own thought processes in drawing out a panel and making this part of your work?
Graham: I really want to have fun while drawing comics so a lot of the junk in the backgrounds is whatever I can do to keep myself entertained as I work. You get a lot of time to think when you're drawing a page for 6 or 8 hours ---If I'm drawing a building it can be fun to imagine what goes on inside it and sometimes it's just me writing about what's going on in my own life. I try really hard to forget that anyone will ever read the stuff I do so I can just draw.
Sometimes that can turn into a Where's Waldo page; I can get into that mode of when I'd draw as a kid drawing tiny stick men having adventures in the background while I make stupid noises to myself. BLAT! BOOM!
Nrama: Looking at your artwork I see a very organic style, with some influences by indie comics like Vaughn Bode, but also some European and Asian influences. Reading your blog I see you consuming and always thinking about new work by others – so talking about yourself… how would you say your style developed over time? At what point did you really see yourself being “ready” for pro work?
Graham: I got exposed to a lot of diverse comics early on. My parents read underground comics and Tintin / Asterix books and my older brother showed me Heavy Metal and manga. I don't think I'll ever get over that stuff. A lot of what I do has been me trying to make something close to how cool what I saw as a kid was.
And growing up in Seattle without a local comic scene I was part of was a big part of it. it got me into graffiti so I could be around other artists as a teenager. It changed how I looked at art the idea that you could write or draw on anything. The excitement of what you could get away with had a big impact on me.
A big part of my philosophy on art grew out of coming up with theories, talking with friends of mine --stuff like how circles make things look futuristic or how stories always seem more interesting when you see characters eating or going to the bathroom--stuff that real humans do.
I don't think I ever thought I wasn't ready for my work to be printed. I remember being 16 and feeling like I couldn't wait to be doing nothing but comics. I can look back and see when I still had a lot to learn--but one cool thing about comics is there is always more to learn.
I'm always a little sour on the idea of what a comics pro is. I get frustrated when I see artists having to jump through hoops to break into doing pro work. I feel like we loose a lot of great creators to other mediums already. If someone's doing cool work I want to see it get out and get read.
Nrama: This series is all about cats, so I should ask – what pets do you have of your own?
Graham: These days I am petless, but my inlaws have a dog named Moss that I hang out with a lot. He's this huge dinosaur of a thing that acts more cat than dog. He's a gentleman whose friendship had to be won over.
Nrama: I’ve read that you took a break between finishing what became King City #6 and #7. When you did return to the series, did that break help or hinder you getting back into the groove with it?
Graham: I've taken a couple breaks over the course of drawing the whole series. I do side jobs sometimes to fund my comic book lifestyle and I've been working on Multiple Warheads -- my Russian werewolf epic series I'm putting out after King City.
Nrama: What was the break like – and did you do anything else between?
Graham: That break was a dramatic one. At the end of what was King City #6 (or book 1) I got testicular cancer and had to get radiation and surgery. Not to drag down the tone of this fine interview, at the time it didn't seem as dramatic as it sounds now. One funny story that came out of it is when I was arguing with the original King City editor at TOKYOPOP about how I wanted the first printing of original King City to look I got to sign an email "serious as cancer!" When life gives you lemons --you make inappropriate jokes I guess.
Another funny thing is because of the whole deal I got sent to a sperm bank where pretty young nurses put you in a room that among other porn had pretty young nurse porn. It's a great thing for my comics that life can be so ridiculous. Grist for the mill.
Nrama: But after it all, you were able to get back to King City work. What’s it like to be able to return to the book after such an absence?
Graham: I think it's interesting to have to get back into something. It can be both exciting and scary if I like the work I'm coming back to I hope I can keep up the same quality, and if I'm unhappy with what I've done I need to come back and improve on past mistakes. Make the new pages better in ways the old stuff might be lacking.
Nrama: From what I can tell, you working on King City has been your longest work on one sole project. What’s that been like for you to live with this and be able to develop an initial idea over issues and years?
Graham: It's about 4 times longer than anything I'd done before. Mannnnn It's been a huge deal to me. It's never gotten any easier. I always try to treat it like a series of short stories pasted together so each chapter can hopefully be dense enough to be entertaining on its own.
Nrama: How far ahead are you now in drawing the series, and how long do you expect the series to run?
Graham: Right now I'm about half way through the 12th and final issue. It's a weird spot to be at I've been trying to get as much out of these last pages as I can. I hope to be able to do more with King City in the future.
Nrama: This was part of a unique partnership between you, Image Comics and TOKYOPOP. How has this arrangement worked out?
Graham: Overall I think it worked out fairly well, as far as TOKYOPOP there's been moments of frustration having something so connected to myself's rights tied up with them. I feel like it's a trade off, before doing King City I was very limited in who would publish my work and now I have more options than I have time to draw. My editor Troy Lewter has been really fantastic.
As far as the Image co publishing deal. I fucking love the guys at Image. Eric Stephenson and Joe Keatinge really went to bat for me. I would kiss those guys on the mouth if I didn't think it would damages my future chances of doing work with them.
Nrama: Now that King City#1-6 is out and the TOKYOPOP original OGN they put out years ago is out-of-print, is there any chance of Image or TOKYOPOP doing a new collection for the first arc?
Graham: I'm not sure what the future of that is. TOKYOPOP has the collection rights. It'd be cool to see it collected but also I'm a big advocate of single issues. I really prefer reading single issues so as nice as a trade would be, these individual issues is my ideal format for the series.
Nrama: This King City comic series has not only features you, but several of your friends doing back-ups and alt. covers like Marian Churchland and James Stokoe. At one point, I remember you being part of studio called YOSH! Can you tell us about these close friends of yours and the camaraderie involved?
Graham: It's really important to me to be around other artists doing work that I fear and respect -- people who will keep me in line and keep me excited about comics. It really ups the ante. Pus it's nice that comics doesn’t have to be some solitary lonely life. I think at one point Forgetless, Orc Stain, King City, Beast and KillAudio were all drawn in the same apartment.
YOSH was the name of an old house me and some comic book friend live in. I like having house names, what was origonally just YOSH is now-- Dicecat, Bathat, Ice station Zebra and Base camp. lots of places to draw comics in.