Putting Matt Kindt's Super Spy Under Surveillance

A comics interview article by: Tim O'Shea
Matt Kindt's Super Spy, which was released by Top Shelf a few months ago, is the latest reason I will always trust Top Shelf to deliver unique storytellers to the market. As described by Top Shelf: "Super Spy is a super-deluxe, full-color collection of 52 interwoven spy thrillers about cyanide, pen-guns, heartbreak and betrayal. Spanning the countries of Spain, France, and German during World War II, each story follows the everyday life of a spy, exploring their small lies and deceptions, as well as the larger secrets they hide. A children's book is something more than it seems; a woman swims the English Channel to deliver a deadly secret; a German spy desperately seeks escape for herself and her daughter; and a spy continues to serve his country even beyond death. A gorgeous full-color graphic novel that not only reveals the nature of espionage, but how an individual can be lost in a world of lies and deception, and still manage to find redemption." I recently email interviewed writer/artist Kindt and found him to be as engaging and intelligent as his latest work. And now that I'm done with the interview, I'm going to go hold my paperback cover up to the light for a secret message.

Tim O’Shea (TOS): You seem to have an appreciation of multimedia, you recently had an art show regarding spies, in addition to this book, and you did a brief video clip explaining a portion of the creative process that can be found at youtube. This book stems from originally being a series of webcomics. Do you think the cross-platform exposure you have allows you to broaden your audience?

Matt Kindt (MK): I really do think so. The great thing about the web-comic was that I had formatted it to fit my PSP (Playstation Portable). There were a lot of reasons that went into me formatting it that way. One, was because I’d just gotten this PSP and there was really no content to download for it at the time. And a friend of mine that also had a PSP had scanned in some of [my] older comics (2 Sisters) and had put them on his PSP to read and they looked great. And then the idea of being able to tax-deduct my game machine because I was using it for business purposes was the capper.

Anyway, I decided to do that and some of the developers at Sony actually contacted me and invited me to contribute the strip to their on-line media manager – which was basically like an itunes for the PSP where you could download movies, music and comics. Once I started providing the comic through that, I was getting around 4,000 download a week. That was just from the Sony downloads. I didn’t really have a good way to measure people that were just reading on-line since it was through Top Shelf’s site but that was really exciting to me. I saw those Sony downloads as 4,000 readers that had probably never heard of me or read many, if any, indie comics before.

The video I did as a tool to help me when I teach ‘making comics’ to kids. I would do demonstrations in class but having the whole process sped up, from thumbnails to inks, was just something that the kids got a kick out of and it was fun to do.

And the art shows, again are just a fun way to basically have a spy-themed party. I have encrypted messages that have to be decoded and there are clues all throughout the gallery space (and the book store attached to the gallery – Subterranean Books here in St. Louis). All of the clues end up leading to the actual books that either influenced my work or are directly reference in my comics. After you decode all the clues, then there’s a prize at the end.

All of that was just born out of my boredom with art shows. I wanted to have some kind of show/event that would be more than just looking at a few things hanging on the wall.

TOS: How much are these stories based on real events within WWII?

MK: I’d say about 25% is based on actual events. But that 25% is some of the craziest un-real type of things I’d read about in WWII.

Here’s a list of some of the “real” stuff:

--The 3-man underwater submarine that they rode like a rocket was real.

--The chapter Life’s Goal was real – but I don’t want to blow the surprise of that chapter if someone hasn’t read it yet.

--The Safehouse chapter was something that actually happened (to the seal anyway).

--The Cairo Nights chapter was actually based on some real events that I read from a memoir of a woman spy during WWII.

--The Polly Goes to the Beach chapters were inspired by the things that Margret and H. A. Rey (the authors of Curious George) really did. Most of that was real, but they had a monkey instead of a parrot.

--And the German Atom Bomb project at the end was real.

There’s more than that, but that was most of the crazy stuff that probably seems made up but isn’t.

TO: Am I correct in assuming that it is not necessary to have read 2 Sisters: A Super-Spy to enjoy Super Spy?

MK: That is totally true. I love it when books cross over but I don’t like having to read multiple books to get a complete story. So that’s how they work. I stopped reading monthly comics a few years ago because I just couldn’t keep up with the story month to month – I’d forget characters and events and it was just hard to read that way. So there are a few little not-so-hidden things in Super Spy that tie in to 2 Sisters but nothing critical. And nearly all of the characters from Super Spy appeared in the background somewhere in 2 Sisters. But that’s just keeping everything in the same “universe”.

I just wanted the books to slightly cross-over. Just to make it all seem more “real”. I love in the book Carter Beats the Devil (by Glen David Gold) he references a character from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A Novel (by Michael Chabon) as if he was a real person. That was even better since it was two different authors.

TO: There are trends in comics buzz, I've been watching the patterns for years, and so I can notice when a book's buzz is building, as Super-Spy is right now. Super-Spy is starting to garner nominations for awards (the term "best of year" being used in some circles). You also recently won a Harvey for your design of the Moore/Gebbie Lost Girls book for Top Shelf. Do you take more pride in awards you receive for your storytelling versus the pride for the awards that your design work receives? Or are you equally pleased, be it awards for stories or design?

MK: I guess getting an award for the story means a little more. Only because there’s more of me in it. There’s a lot of little personal stories that I put in the books (Super Spy especially) that are really just pieces of autobiography dressed up. So there’s just a lot more emotional investment in creating a story. But an award is an award, so I’m pleased to get nominated and win for anything. I like designing too.

I think the design of books gets overlooked a lot of times and it shouldn’t. The design and feel of the book is really integral to the books message. So I’m really happy that book design gets recognized by the industry. I think that’s really important and I think you can see that as an industry, there is a lot more care and attention and money being put into the design lately. The smaller publishers really seem to support that – Top Shelf and Drawn & Quarterly, etc… they really stress the importance of the look of books and I’m lucky enough to have pretty free reign on the design.

Super secret design note! If you hold up the cover of Super Spy to a lightbulb there is a super-secret special effect that happens! (This only works on the paperback)

TO: In terms of the coloring on the book, you worked mostly in subdued noir-ish tones, venturing into non-noir colors for the most part in only one or two tales--mostly with Polly Peregrine (Dossiers 0161944, 171944 and 0241944). In developing the project as a whole, did you try to avoid crafting tales that would require breaking with the noir-vibe? What was your overall approach on coloring the tales?

MK: When I was making Super Spy I was always really conscious of the color. I didn’t want to just have everything in full color because it was a full color book. So I keyed the colors to locations. England and Germany were in cool colors and France and Spain were in warmer colors. When the war is over, everything goes to full color, just to kind of symbolize that transition – that break from war, and life starting over. The Polly Peregrine pages I wanted to look just like children’s book pages so that’s the brightest thing in the book. I just thought that was important to show sort of this other-worldly color since those pages are “fiction” within the reality of the novel.

TO: Given the nature of spy work, a few characters die in this book, understandably. After writing the death of a character, was there ever any of them that you regretted killing after the fact. Or are you even the kind of writer that develops an affinity for certain characters, per se?

MK: I never really feel bad after killing a character. I guess I just imagine these characters and their lives and every one of them has this life span that’s sort of set already. I’m just telling you what happened to them. So in a way I don’t feel responsible. It wasn’t me that did it! I’m just the messenger. With that said, I always feel like I haven’t shown every moment in their life, so I can always go back (without blowing any plot points) to whoever and show a different moment in their life before they died. Everybody dies, so knowing a character dies isn’t a surprise necessarily. It’s the circumstances that make it interesting.

All the characters have a lot of interesting stories left to tell (dead or alive), I just told the few that happened to fit together in this book.

TO: I'm astounded at the extremes in the dialogue and overall narrative of the book. There are some stretches of the book where there's the minimalist of dialogue--some pages none at all. Then there are other pages where you find a way to cram more words on a page (and yet did not compromise the visuals) than I thought possible. How much advance planning or revision does it take when you're attempting either kind of page?

MK: It definitely takes more planning to do an all-visual page or sequence because it’s got to flow and read and make sense without any words used to help it along. I love doing that but it takes a lot of time and page count and when you read those pages it just goes by so quickly. I love reading those kind of books but they never last long enough.

Creating a text-heavy page is very different (and much easier I think). I really wanted to have some dialogue driven pages (The Shark chapter). Where it reads as a first person account of a story being told. I loved writing that in the voice of the character and telling this really horrible and terrifying story. It’s fun to break out and write a sequence like that.

But as a reader I think that rarely works. There’s always this weird shift when you go from reading pages of comics to a big page of text. Like “ugh, now I have to slog through all these words to get back to the pictures again”. Which is usually how I feel. Book 5 of Promethea – one of those last chapters was like that. All this really dense text with one illustration per page and it was really hard to get through. Not that it was bad. But as a reader this pace is kind of set and expectation and the text usually grinds it all to a halt.

So, knowing that can happen, I just wrote it first-person as an interesting story someone is telling you directly and hoped it would work. There’s no exposition – it’s just “this happened, then this and this”, which is a little more exciting to read.

TO: Back to Polly Peregrine (the children books about Polly the bird and her owner {the old man} [within the Spy book]). As the dad of an 8-year-old, who reads these kinds of books on a regular basis—you really captured the nonsensical nature those books can sometimes have. I was cracking up when you had the old man play ball with Polly on the beach--and here's this old guy nailing this parrot with a giant ball and then "playfully" burying her in the sand up to her neck while "he ran off to play with his girlfriend, Betsy". The "what the?" expression on the bird's face while it was buried in sand was the funniest moment for me. Were you afraid that this interlude (while serving as a juxtaposition for the rest of the tale and its tone) might derail the book's tone?

MK: Hmm. Well, since you’re asking that question – now I’m worried! I have a daughter too (4-year-old). So I read a LOT of kids books and I was doing that during the creation of Super Spy so that was probably a big influence (at least on those chapters). I did make those pages so you could read them to a kid and they would be entertained. I wanted them to be as real as possible. But there is a subtext there too – everything that happens on those pages has a parallel in the “real world” of the book. So I guess, I kind of like that juxtaposition of something funny and silly but when you think about it in context, it ends up being a little heartbreaking.

That juxtaposition to me is something that happens all the time. The authors of Curious George went through all of what I showed (and some) but still ended up creating these great silly books simultaneously.

TO: Also, visually, setting the children's story in the book provided a unique visual opportunity. You show the artist crafting the tale, you show bits of the tale appearing as printed word, and finally you show a mother and child reading on of the books at one point. How hard was it to structure the work in a context of two to three levels as it were?

MK: Those are the kind of puzzle pieces that just kind of fall into place easily, after you write and re-write it countless times. Kidding (kind of). I don’t know. For that sequence I really wanted to show the disintegration of the couple as they struggle to create these books and escape the Nazis and then lose the thing they love the most. But after all that, there’s something bigger than themselves that they created. The book exists and it’s touching other peoples’ lives. Something I think every author kind of hopes for and I guess and they achieved whether they realize it or not.

TO: Somewhere I thought I heard that the book can be read in two ways, the traditional way, page by page. But some folks are reading it in the order they would appear if the book were arranged based on dossier numbers. Were you surprised to see folks try the latter approach, or had you structured it this way in the hopes that some would?

MK: I honestly didn’t think anyone would do, it but people are! One reader told me he read it that way (chronologically) first because he would probably be too lazy to do it that way on the second reading. Which is okay I guess. The idea behind that was to read it as presented for the most dramatic effect. And then you could go back through and fit the missing pieces together if you didn’t get it all the first time through.

Honestly, I’m happy that it works either way. When I was writing it I was really trying to keep each chapter distinct, so you could read each chapter in ANY order and it would all work.

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