Derek McCulloch: Battling for Great Comics

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Derek McCulloch writes some of the most interesting graphic novels that appear these days. His comics are always thoughtful, clever and provocative. In this interview we discuss Derek's new graphic novel, Pug, drawn by Greg Espinoza, which chronicles the fall of a boxer. We also discuss Derek's upcoming project Gone to Amerikay, drawn by Colleen Doran and to be released by Vertigo Comics, as well as some of his previous work. I think you'll find this interview to be interesting and thoughtful – just like Derek's books.

Jason Sacks: So tell me about Pug.

Derek McCulloch: Pug is my attempt to make a 1950s boxing B-movie in comics. Greg Espinoza, who shares my enthusiasm for obscure crime movies from 60 years ago, and I set out to channel the spirit of Robert Ryan or Sterling Hayden in a movie that's maybe written by Sam Fuller, directed by Budd Boetticher. I don't know if we managed that, but that was what we were shooting for.

JS: It does have a classic kind of feel to it. The plot is relentless, like a freight train.

DM: It had to be very compact, because the way I decided to structure it was to tell it in 59 pages. That sounds like a random number but it isn't. The story's about a boxer in the '50s, and a heavyweight bout in the '50s would last exactly 59 minutes. Fifteen three-minute rounds with fourteen one-minute rest intervals between the rounds. If you do the math on that, that's 59. So the story is told in fifteen three-page chapters with fourteen one-page flashbacks. That doesn't leave a lot of room for extraneous information. Each chapter has to be really brief since there are only 15 of them, and you really need to move forward with them at a good clip.

JS: It's a tight story. There's a lot in there, but there's not a lot of extra stuff, it seems. You bring in family…

DM: Which is important for the back story…

JS: But there's not a lot of extra back story. We don't know where he's from, much about his life aside from what you show us. Is it hard to write with such economy? With Stagger Lee, for instance, you had more space…

DM: With Stagger Lee I gave myself a lot of elbow room. I didn't restrict myself. But most of the things I've written aside from Stagger Lee have been shorter. There are not always such well-articulated reasons as using 59 pages, but for one reason or another, I put a self-imposed limit count limit on them before I start writing them. I've learned to write within that limit that I set for myself. It usually ends up seeming to be the right page count.

JS: You need structure so you don't go on forever, without limits…

DM: It's a little OCD, too, I think. I have a fascination for certain numbers and structure. For instance, the rule of three in comedy. Threes and fives, I'm big on structurally. I don’t know why that is, it's just that they seem to make stable numbers. Three is a tripod.

JS: And Pug here has three-page segments…

DM: Displaced Persons was three fifty-page sections. Gone to Amerikay - probably nobody will ever notice the numerical structure that underlies it. I tried to explain it to my editor when I was outlining it. She could not get what I was doing, but it works.

JS: Gone to Amerikay is your new book that you're doing with Colleen Doran.

DM: Gone to Amerikay is an original graphic novel with Colleen Doran. It's not being serialized. It's not part of the Vertigo Crime line. I'm not really quite clear whether it's part of a formal line, but I know it's part of a move by them to do original, literary graphic novels. If that makes it a line. I'm part of it. I don't really know that for sure at this point. I try to stay in my own little world. I'm not really paying that much attention to what anybody else is doing. I'm happy to do work that I enjoy.

JS: That book's about Irish immigration to America.

DM: Irish immigration to America. I'm not supposed to tell you too much about it, but it takes place in different time periods and has some really fantastic artwork. I can say that much.

JS: You seem to really be enjoying working with Colleen on this project.

DM: Oh yeah, she's great. She's doing fantastic work and is really into the subject matter.She seems very enthusiastic about it.

JS: Sounds like she's finding some depth in the story, too, that she brings out many subtle elements in the story.

DM: When you write a comic, much the same as writing a movie or a play, there's only so much you can bring to the final product as a writer. You obviously create the story and write the dialogue, but somebody else is bringing it fully to life. Any artist who's worth anything is going to find things in the script that weren't there, and puts them there.

JS: A good artist will find things that you might not even intend, but add to the story too. When you write prose, the writer creates an image in the reader's mind, and half the book is what the reader imagines. With comics, things are very different.

DM: It's a wider collaboration.

JS: One thing about your books is that you tend to go your own way. You don't seem to like genre work.

DM: I write about what interests me, and that stuff doesn't interest me. I can't imagine ever -- well, never say never -- but I can't think of a super-hero comic that I'd want to write. I suppose there would be a way to make it interesting for myself if I set out to do it, but there are so many other things that interest me more, that it makes much more sense to write about the things that come to me naturally.

JS: I was surprised to hear you were writing a comic about a boxer and following it up with a comic about immigrants. It seems like you kind of follow your own muse.

DM: What happens is that I'll read something, or something will strike me. With Stagger Lee , for example, I knew the song "Stagger Lee" from when I was a kid, the Lloyd Price song. But I don't think I had ever listened to the lyrics. I didn't even know it was a murder song until I read Greil Marcus's discussion of "Stagger Lee" in the appendix to Mystery Train, his great rock and roll history. When I learned the song was not just a murder ballad, but that it was based on a long line of murder ballads and that that long line of murder ballads was based on a real murder, and that the man who really committed the murder lived long enough to hear these songs about himself, there was something terribly resonant about that idea. It lodged itself in my head and I kept thinking there had to be something I could do about this. That led me to thinking that there had to be something I could do about this in comics. Because this is something that nobody in their right mind would try to do in comics. That nobody in their right mind is doing in comics. It will be different. It will stand apart. It took me a long, long time to figure out exactly how to do it. Things like that creep up on me all the time, and my process is to think through an idea – I'll like it, I won't like it. I won't bother writing it down. I almost never write anything down at that point. I just kind of wait for a couple of years, and see if they're still there. That's my internal filtering system. The stuff that lasts is meant to last. The stuff that doesn't, isn't. If I'm still thinking about it two years later, there's gotta be something to it.

JS: Most people who take on ambitious work like these books are writer/artists like Joe Sacco or David Mazzucchelli. It's kind of unusual for the writer in comics to produce such ambitious works.

DM: I don't know how unusual – I don't know that it's that unusual. Alan Moore was certainly an ambitious writer, and if there is a writer in comics in the last 30 years who's influenced me in any way, it would be him. I definitely see From Hell a template to the construction of Stagger Lee -- the approach to the historical material.

JS: Whose work do you really enjoy these days?

DM: In comics?

JS: Either inside or outside comics?

DM: Outside comics, good, because I don't actually read comics. No, I should qualify that. I happened to read Underground by Steve Lieber and Jeff Parker. I just love Steve's work, and I really enjoyed Underground. That's a contemporary comic that I've actually read and enjoyed. When I say I don't read comics, I don't mean to sound terribly snobby about it. There's lots of great people writing and drawing comics. There's just -- some weird thing happened in my brain in the last 25 years where I just lost the capacity to process comics the way I did when I was a kid. It's not the work, it's the medium itself as a reader. It just doesn't work the way it used to.

JS: I have a friend who used to say that, and she would say that her brain just wired in a way that makes it easy to parse comics.

DM: That's something I hear a lot from people who didn't grow up reading comics. My case isn't exactly like that. When I was little, comics were immersive for me. I could get lost in reading them. Somehow I just never do anymore. I'm always in the world while I'm reading them. I don't know why that is, but at least I can still write them. I get that immersive experience writing them that I can't get reading them.

JS: Maybe that's part of why you write different sorts of comics. You're reflecting the real world that you live in.

DM: Maybe, and the fact that I'm not reading comics means that I'm not dialed in to the current trends in comics. So far as I can see, most of the current trends in comics are not things that innately appeal to me. But keep buying those comics, though!

JS: You obviously still love comics on some level. You must have some love for the medium despite your ambivalence.

DM: Yeah, I mean, comics were a huge part of my childhood. My relationship with comics determined the life I've had, actually. I would not be living in California. I would not be doing the work I'm doing now. I would not be married to the woman I'm married to now. I would not have the child I have now if I hadn't been a big Marvel geek when I was 12.

JS: Thank God for Dave Sim!

DM: I give most of the credit, actually, to Steve Englehart. I was a child of Marvel Comics in the '70s, and that was the age of the writer/editor. That was the first time there really were writer-driven comics, and two of my favorites were the Steves, Gerber and Englehart. Englehart's work on Captain America and the Avengers and the Defenders... the Avengers/Defenders War, which was the proto-Secret Wars.

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