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Baker's Dozen
Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

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BAKER'S DOZEN for 07/19/2006

Joshua Dysart thoughts on his Swamp Thing run

The last time Joshua Dysart paid a visit, we talked at some length about the impending 2004 Presidential election and his latest book, Tex, a rather scathing satirical look at the life and times of George W. Bush. Unfortunately, since that topic was foremost in everyone's mind at the time, we didn't talk at any real length about Josh's newest assignment, scripting the new monthly adventures of Vertigo's own muck monster in Swamp Thing. Well, that oversight on my part has proven to be a real shame, as Dysart's take on "the Good Gumbo Man" has proven to be one of the most inventive, idiosyncratic and just plain surprising runs in that title's storied history. In fact, I still hold strongly to the belief that issue # 26 marked the publication of the single best issue of Swamp Thing since Alan Moore had his name in that book's credits.

Well, all good things must come to an end, and so it is with Dysart's time with "Old Swampy". With Vertigo planning to release the final issue of Swamp Thing's current incarnation at some point during the next few weeks, I thought it was about time that we caught up with Josh and discussed what working on this title has meant to him, what he tried to do with the title and had hoped to accomplish during his tenure, as well as what he's got planned for the future.

Swamp Thing

Bill Baker: Before we talk about the ending, I was hoping you'd talk a bit about the start of it all. For instance, I was curious about some of the reasons you decided to write Swamp Thing?

Joshua Dysart: It was offered to me. It's as simple as that. I would've never had the audacity to pitch Swamp Thing on my own. You must understand, Mr. Baker, we speak of sacred things now. Swamp Thing comes to one. One does not pursue it. Maybe that was a fault in my approach to the book, this overbearing reverence. Maybe it was a strength. I can't really say. Now, having admitted that it was a gig I never thought about acquiring on my own, you must also realize that the moment that carrot was dropped in front of me I leaped at it. I wanted this project more than I'd ever wanted any other before. I figured if somebody had to write Swamp Thing it might as well be me. Not because I was the best man for the job--that probably would've been Mike Carey--but because I wanted it. So I guess the question then becomes, "Why did I want it?"

My storytelling default seems to be horror and I believe that Swamp Thing is one of the very few "horror heroes" that truly matters. What he represents is vast and multi-layered. He is the perfect metaphor for the human spiritual journey. He is to horror comics what Superman is to the spandex scene. He is Promethean. Also, I knew that very few titles would come along that would allow me to be almost completely creatively free. Swamp Thing, because of its history, allows for that. Actually, it sort of demands it.

But to be fully honest I was in a pretty precarious financial situation around the time Swamp Thing came through and I probably could've gotten wrapped up in any kind of crap (as I have in the past) just to make rent. I was very fortunate that it was one of our medium's most interesting characters. And I've continued to be fortunate in that vain ever since.

The details of how it all officially went down are these, I was asked by Vertigo to pitch a mini-series for the Arcane character. I crafted a six-issue bim-bam called Arcane in Love. Karen Berger dug it, but around this time, due to circumstances I don't really understand, they'd begun the search for a new Swamp Thing writer and because of this Arcane pitch my name was tossed in the hat. After jumping through a few hoops, I ended up being asked to turn my pitch, which had very little actual Swamp Thing in it at the time, into my first story arc. I restructured it considerably and scaled it back to four issues so we could meet scheduling difficulties and that was it, we were off. It was a bit of a whirlwind really.

Swamp Thing

BB: What did you want to do with the character and series, at least initially? And how did that blueprint change over time?

JD: My initial idea about it never really changed. I wanted to return to the series' House of Mystery origins, which to me meant more pulpy horror and a gratuitous use of monsters. One thing I felt I could do that was unique for the series was focus on the horror of nature. I feel like traditionally Swamp Thing has always celebrated the beauty of nature--and nature is beautiful, don't get me wrong--but there is Yin and Yang in everything, and I think that in a world with the Marburg virus which essentially liquefies your organs inside of a week of first contact or cordycep mushroom spores that settle in caterpillars' then grows out through their heads until it kills the insect--subsequently those spores are harvested as aphrodisiacs in Tibet. So I imagined this absolute lack of compassion (as we define compassion) that nature has could be the driving engine of the book. I felt this would create a fascinating moral construct for Swamp Thing, who is very human in his ethics, to face.

For the character I wanted to explore what it meant to be on the other side of the God mind. I felt that with Alec I could express my belief that on the other side of God is humanity. I wanted Alec to get over the idea of being a God. To make a choice. To desire to be as mundane as a creature with his level of power can be. At first it's his brutish, clouded mind that keeps him from ascending to the Godhead again. Then it's his fear, there's an innate sense that life as a God contained nothing but a parade of horrors. Finally it's a choice he makes because he's just done with the celestial roads. That's his struggle, the struggle to be average. To live a quiet life. To be left alone.

Swamp Thing

BB: You got to work with a truly amazing group of artists during your Swampy run, ranging from Corben to Jock to regular artist Enrique Breccia. What was that experience like for you, and what effect might those shifts have had on your approach to storytelling, your scripts, etc.?

JD: The experience has been absolutely amazing. I've learned so much about my craft over the course of this book. You can definitely see evolution happening if you read the run straight through (save for a few moments of stumbling here and there). As you mentioned, whichever artist I was working with at the time very much affected the story in every way. I ran right at their strengths. I think that's one of the most important jobs of the comic book writer, and one of the most difficult. I don't care what anybody says, this is an artists medium, as it should be, and my job is to try and give the artist something they can blissfully drown in. So with Enrique I threw in lot's of Latin surrealism; with Tim Green I went deeper into character, because his faces are so graphic and emotive; with Ronald Wimberly I wrote something that kept him moving nimbly from style to style; with Corben it was all about mixing the psychedelic with the physical and the material; with Dean Ormstrom it was about monsters and girls; with Jock it was about his amazing sense of composition. Each script was tailored to the artist. Maybe that lack of consistency turned some people off, or the fact that the artist often dictated, through their style, the turns the story would take. But to me, it was like having my own playground and each artist was a different jungle gym.

Swamp Thing

BB: What are some of the high points of your tenure on the book? How about pleasant surprises? Did any of those present themselves?

JD: I'm very pleased that I got an issue like 26 ("Burying the Bones") into the world. It's about as true to my personal sense of narrative as I've managed to achieve in my paying gigs and that feels really great. I don't mean to suggest that it's my favorite issue -- about 1/3 of the issues in the run I'm very, very proud of -- but 26 came the most effortlessly.

As far as pleasant surprises, I would argue that that's exactly what the creative process is, a series of pleasant surprises. So in that sense the pleasant surprises were innumerable and daily, as were the personal struggles. But working on this book certainly deepened my friendship with Jon Vankin (my first editor on ST), and introduced me to Pornsak Pechetshote (my second editor on the book). I consider both of them to be personal and true friends. And it started my professional relationship with Karen Berger, who has done so much for this industry and has been tied to so many of the comics that inspired me when I was growing up. So that was all pretty damn pleasant. I know that smacks of ass kissing, but what are you gonna do? It's the truth.

BB: Do you think you accomplished what you wanted to with Swamp Thing? Anything left unsaid which you'd hoped to address?

JD: Well, the themes I wanted to explore are in there. Whether I explored them well or to the fullest is a matter of opinion, but I got them in there and that's something, especially considering how fast we wrapped it up. So no, ultimately there's nothing left unsaid. There are angles on those themes left untapped and stories left untold, and there is a sadness in that. I was particularly looking forward to telling the story of Arcane giving birth to his child in hell. Also the Raconteur's Stories are all close to my heart -- once you learned more about them it would've become much more apparent that they represented a sort of surrealist history of the South. Unfortunately I was never able to explore them as fully as I wanted. I'm also bummed that I didn't get to bring back Chester, that was something I really wanted to do. And finally Paul Pope had agreed to draw a two-part story arc that I wanted to take place mostly in 1900 (during the passing of the "Louisiana Cousins Marriage Act"). But scheduling difficulties with his Batman: Year 100 meant we didn't ever get around to it. That one hurts the most, because I don't think I'll ever get a chance to work with Paul Pope again, who is -- in my opinion -- one of the great geniuses of the medium working right now.

Swamp Thing

BB: Are there any lessons, hard-won or otherwise, that this particular journey might have taught you as an artist or professional you'd care to share with us?

JD: Wow, well as a writer it was incredibly empowering. The daily hammer of a monthly gig, the pressures of working on something that everybody in the world has an opinion about... all these things have really made me more comfortable with the creative process. And though the book has been called pretentious crap more than once, I personally think it has forced my storytelling to grow in leaps in bounds. I experimented a lot on this book. And some things worked while some didn't, but it all brought about growth. I also realized while working in this gig that my aesthetic has no fun it. And that was an interesting revelation that I'm still trying to deal with.

As a professional the lessons are much different. The commercial failure of the book has made me think about my place in the mainstream. And made me more aware of the reader and their perceived tastes. I can't say just yet how that will affect my writing, but perhaps a little less self-indulgence in the future might be the end result of this failure. Which is sort of shame, all my favorite artists are self-indulgent. Perhaps it takes real, genuine, unquestionable talent to successfully be self-indulgent. I don't know. I hate to think I'll play it safer next time around, but that's how it feels.

I read recently, and I'm not sure where I found this, but Warren Ellis said something to the extent of, "When working on these mainstream properties your job is to give them exactly what they've seen before, just do it better." That's not really the course I took, I mean much of the book was familiar, but a lot of it was really out there in its structure and how it embraced ambiguity as storytelling device. So maybe Warren's right.

Swamp Thing

BB: What did you get from this project, professionally? How about personally?

JD: Well, my climb through the industry has been a pretty steady one, and it's hard to say if it was the project that has brought about my newfound sense of comfort I feel professionally, or if it's just time and maturity. This coming San Diego Con will be my 9th in a row as a professional. That's how long I've been writing comics, and most of them I don't want found. But with that time put in, and the legitimizing power of Swamp Thing, I've finally begun to find my own voice. The projects that are in the pipeline are all either personal or dream properties like Conan. Professionally, it's the best place to be right now.

Personally, I think the heavier workload made me grow up quite a bit. I live in a beautiful place, Venice Beach, and staying home and doing nothing but work is getting easier and easier. I guess it all feeds each other.

Though I must admit, my mind was strangely "sharper" before I got into comics; I leave it to you to go and figure that one out.

Swamp Thing

BB: So, what's next? What does the future hold for you, and when can readers expect to see your next project hit the stands?

JD: By the end of the year my King Conan mini-series from Dark Horse will hit. It's called Conan and the Midnight God and will be drawn by Tone Rodriquez. It's the first time I've worked with him since Violent Messiahs. Tone and I broke into this industry together and it's a special thing to be working with him again. Other than that I'm feeling at home at Dark Horse and Vertigo, which means more stuff is in the works at both houses and the universe will have its say as to what will see the light of day. The walrus was Paul.

There is a property I'm working on with an amazing Canadian anime artist. (Isn't globalize fascinating?) Her name is Camilla d'Errico. It's called Helmet Girls and it's a fantasy allegory for the industrial revolution. Imagine if Hayao Miyazaki teamed up with Shinya Tsukamoto and they remade Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a female protagonist, and you're halfway towards what we're thinking about.

I'm still trying to find time to get started on the sequel to Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril. Working with Sal Velluto is a true, true joy, and I'd like to get back to that. Oh, and I'm producing a panel for the West Hollywood Book Fair in Los Angeles. It's called The Pulp Grind Manifesto -- Writing the Monthly Comic Book. That's on September 17 (2006). So far Mark Waid, Allan Heinberg and Brian K. Vaughan have agreed to be on it. So if that sounds cool and you're in the LA area, Google the book fair and come on down.

As you can see, I'm all over the place. Swamp Thing was a major stage in my life both professionally and personally. Two formative years. So, now I'm just turned on to see what's on the other side of it all.

Swamp Thing

BB: Anything else you'd like to add before I let you get back to work?

JD: Yeah. I'd like to plug my website, I swear to God I'm going to update it some day, really. Still, it's pretty representative of who I am, so check it out. And from what I understand they'll finally be unveiling the Captain Gravity And the Power of the Vril trade in San Diego. It's a work I'm very proud of and it features 30 extra pages of story and art that takes place in the occult circles of 1930's Munich, when Hitler was the marketing director of the Worker's Party. I have two Swamp Thing trades out as well (Love In Vain & Healing the Breach) I'd love for them to collect my last nine issues, which are some of the best, but for that there has to be a precedent set by sales on the other trades. So, you know, that's up to the market.

Alright. That's it. I'm all pimped out.

<< 06/28/2006 | 07/19/2006 | 08/09/2006 >>

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