Catching Up With The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys Writer Gerard Way [Full Interview]


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As the former lead singer of glam punk heroes My Chemical Romance, Gerard Way knows how to tell a story. Concept albums Three Cheers for Sweet Revengeand The Black Parade unspooled bittersweet, goth-tinged tales of resurrected gunslingers and postmortem cavalcades into the band’s theatric thrash with style and substance. Way made the full transition to scripting with his 2007 Dark Horse comic The Umbrella Academy, the portrait of a dysfunctional family of superhero misfits searching for purpose while saving the world from mind-bending threats. A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and a former intern at DC’s Vertigo imprint, Way proved just as adept with a pen as a microphone, winning an Eisner Award in 2008 for Best Limited Series.

Today marks the debut of Way’s new series The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, a heady descent into post-apocalyptic intrigue and grind house psychedelia that completes the story started in the 2010 MCR album Danger Days and its videos for singles “Na Na Na” and “Sing.” Along with co-writer Shaun Simon and artist Becky Cloonan, Way paints a conflicted world where a gang of teenage vagrants fights a totalitarian corporation and its legion of vampire-masked drones while a pair of android prostitutes shares a secret bond.

Over two interview phone sessions, Way chatted with Paste about his new comic’s connections to his past as a commercial recording artist and what inspired his aesthetic shift from white face paint to red hair dye. Way also digs deep into the underlying sociological issues at Killjoys’ heart and how Dora the Explorer, the Blade Runner documentary, and the Sega Master System influenced it.

Paste: Congratulations on your first issue of The Fabulous Lives of the Killjoys. This is a continuation of the story you started in your Danger Days album from My Chemical Romance. Did this plot emerge after you finished the album or was it a part of the story the whole time?

Gerard Way: The deal is that I had written three videos (“Na Na Na,” “Sing,” and “The Only Hope For Me Is You”), and the third video had never gotten made. By the time we had completed the second video, we just ran out of budget money. At the time, somebody was managing us and not keeping an eye on this stuff. Long story short, there was no budget. So I wrote a video, and of course it ends up being the most expensive one, as the last part would usually be. But we couldn’t make it!

Killjoys started its life as a very different comic. It was heavily-rooted in nineties Vertigo post-modernism. There’s a lot of very cool, abstract ideas in it; I wouldn’t even call it a superhero book. That (comic) was a visual and thematic inspiration on what would become the album Danger Days. It was pretty loose, though. This was going to be my interpretation of the story, so there’s way more science fiction involved. And what I need to say to the world needed to be a little more direct, so I boiled it down to something that’s still very smart and challenging, but I thought was definitely easier to understand through song or visual.

Then (Killjoys artist) Becky Cloonan drew a 7-inch for “The Only Hope For Me Is You,” which was going to be the last video single. I realized I was out of budget, so I said ‘just make this the girl from the first and second video at 15. And have her shave her head or chop her hair off like in The Legend of Billie Jean, because that’s how the video was supposed to start.’ So (Cloonan) sends this drawing over and I’m on tour with Blink 182 in a hotel on an off day. I get this drawing and I’m so immediately blown away by it. I call Shaun, my co-writer and co-creator, and I say ‘open your email, I’m going to send you something.’ I ask him ‘how does this image make you feel?’ We talked for two hours. By the end of the conversation we both realized that that image was the comic, and the third video was basically the comic. So we figured how we were going to make this interesting and exciting for six issues and complete the story. And that was the final direction. It was pretty obvious to us.

And I like the fact that the story was about The Girl. It’s basically about somebody who was selected for this higher purpose who simply didn’t want to do it.

Paste: This story arc dates back to around 2009, which is when your daughter, Bandit, was born. Does Bandit inform the character of The Girl at all? 

Way: (Co-writer) Shaun Simon was the first of our friends to have a child, and it was really crazy to even think of that. And then when (Way’s wife and Mindless Self Indulgence bassist) Lindsey and I had Bandit, I got it. And that’s when Killjoys really started to click. And I do see my daughter in her, because, for better or worse, she’s going to be her own person when she grows up. She’s going to be amazing, obviously, and have her own dreams. I just think there are going to be occasions where there’s this kind of weirdness based on what her parents used to do for a living. I think there’s an element of that even in the comic where The Girl used to hang out with these dudes who were shot, and people have different opinions of them. Some people like them, some people hate them. She has to deal with that. That’s the cool thing. You don’t get to see that stuff in comics.

Paste: One interesting element of the issue is the Draculoid masks, which force the wearer to experience an artificial perception of fear and victimization shared by all other Draculoids. It all feels vaguely political, reminding me of when Glenn Beck attacked your song “Sing” as propaganda after it appeared onGlee (there’s also a scene where the Draculoids complain about loud music). The main irony is that the masks came before Beck attacked you. Were you reacting to anything specifically when you first created the masks? 
Way: (MCR guitarist) Frank Iero had that mask. It was just an aesthetic thing. ‘70s horror masks are pretty incredible. There’s something that’s really amazing about that era of painted rubber and hair. It kind of represents the past of the band. I liked the idea of them now becoming our enemies, just chasing us down or haunting us. All the Glenn Beck stuff, that came from a place of being in a rock band that started literally playing in basements. Even when we got big, it still felt like that same band playing in basements.

This isn’t even a jab at the record label, but when you have a large success like The Black Parade, the stakes really get high and a lot of people rely on your success, even magazines. You’re just part of this industry that feeds on a monetary exchange, which is fine — I’m not bagging that. So you’re expected to transform into this thing that’s a rock band. ’It’s cool that you’re like this, but now we just need you guys to be a rock band, and you need to become stable and we need to know what to expect from you.’ That kind of pressure can really mess with your art and really mess with your head.

So the whole Better Living Industries thing is about being part of the solution and part of the problem. Are the Killjoys the heroes? If you want to look at it in a nihilistic 15-year-old point of view, watching A Clockwork Orange for the first time, I guess you could see them as the heroes. Are Better Living Industries (BLI) really the bad guys? Who’s the bad guy? I feel like The Girl just wants to hang out with her cat.

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Paste: So The Killjoys aren’t necessarily the heroes and Better Living Industries aren’t necessarily the villains; this comic is more grey. It reminds me of The My Chemical Romance song “Teenagers,” but these teenagers are a bit crazy and Clockwork Orange-ish. 

Way: To bring it into A Clockwork Orange, I think I saw that when I was way too young. I had a couple of really cool friends when I was a kid, and we’d find cool music and movies and show them to each other. My friend Dennis had a copy of A Clockwork Orange and he’d already seen it once, and he was like ‘we need to watch this.’ I was sleeping over his house — and I think we were literally 15 — and we watched it. I remember my first reaction to that film was very similar to my reaction to Taxi Driver or my first reaction to Watchmen, where you just immediately gravitate toward Rorschach in Watchmen or Alex fromClockwork. And then you start to get older and realize that character wasn’t a hero at all; they’re really bad people who didn’t do anything heroic.

When you’re exposed to that as a youth, you misconstrue stuff. Sometimes you literally only take it on the surface, and you see any strong action that’s done with conviction as the right action, and you start to realize later on in life that just because you felt strongly about it, it doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do. And that’s one of my feelings that I tried to inject into The Killjoys, especially with the characters of The Ultra-Vs. (Shaun and I said) ’let’s literally make these characters 15-year-olds watching A Clockwork Orange, just pulling all the wrong shit from it.’

Paste: Are there any modern-day equivalents of Better Living Industries? 

Way: In a lot of ways I feel that BLI wasn’t based on any specific corporation, it was just based on us. I felt that’s also what you could become: if you start off as a 15-year-old watching A Clockwork Orange and go to that extreme so young, you could become the person in the white office saying what’s right and wrong, saying what people should and shouldn’t do, making sure everything’s very clean. Those two types of people are literally the same person, they’re just at different extremes. I just based Better Living Industries on us as people. Whether we realize it or not, a large amount of us likes things to be organized, structured, clean, cleaned-up. That’s what we like, that’s what we go for.

Children’s programming for the most part, not all of it, is literally children coming out of some sort of camp or mill. And that’s not a hyper, aggro punk view on it, that’s just a fact. And so not only is that happening, but kids are responding to that. And parents are totally comfortable with the kids watching that. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but it says a lot about who we are. As free and crazy as we want to be, and how much we want to make the world a canvas, there’s also a part of us that doesn’t want to make any mark.

Paste: Did you notice this from watching what Bandit watches? How do you deal with this as a parent? 

Way: I noticed it when I finally got to see a show like Yo Gabba Gabba!, and I realized there was such a high contrast in children’s programming between a show that people are taking a risk on and really trying as opposed to a show they know is just going to work. I didn’t realize at that point that there was such a high contrast in that kind of artistry. Flat out, Dora the Explorer…I don’t care if the people who made it are nice people, there is zero artistry that goes into that. There’s also, I believe, zero reference to the real world. I don’t even think images are Googled to have them correctly drawn. You’ve got that, then you’ve got Yo Gabba Gabba!. I know I’m friends with those dudes, but the reasons I became friends with them was because I admired their work. The people really try, so I notice that a lot. There’s a lot of bad stuff, there’s some good stuff. You just have to dig it out.

Paste: Talking about the general aesthetic of the comic and the Danger Days album, there’s a huge difference between the art direction of The Black Parade and Killjoys as both a comic and album, and it was mirrored sonically in the music as well. Was there anything that jumpstarted the bright, jarring color scheme and the garagey sound? 

Way: As a musical starting point, (Danger Days) was protopunk and garage rock. So it started with The Stooges and then I put it through a science fiction lens. I went on this musical journey where, if this started with The Stooges, it ended with The Chemical Brothers. I remember listening to Exit Planet Dustwhen I was 14. That record, more than a lot of punk records, made me want to get up an run away from home. A lot of the digital came from that. I know EDM was happening at that time when we were making (the album), but it was still very underground. People weren’t winning Grammys for it yet, and it wasn’t on the radio. Right at that moment we were making Danger Days and we were a year and a half ahead of EDMexploding. The kids are getting their energy from machine-made things, not human beings playing through the same gear as the last band. That’s where that also came from sonically; I thought that was going to be the best idea to communicate.

Paste: You cast Grant Morrison as the villain Korse in your videos for “Na Na Na” and “Sing,” and he also survived into the comic. Some of the visuals remind me of The Invisibles as well. Did Morrison have a hand in the story at all? 
Way: Well, he did and he didn’t. He did in the sense that to me and Shaun, (Morrison) was our biggest inspiration and our influence. It’s as if Shaun and I were in a band together and we loved Queen. We love ‘90s Vertigo. To us, if we had to pick a favorite from that (era), it would be The Invisibles. So in that way, Grant had a giant hand in it. There were also really cool collaborations that would happen when I was doing wardrobe designs and would sit with Grant. I’d already made his weapon at that point, so I handed him his gun and asked ‘how do you see this guy?’ or ’what’s in your subconscious that you want to come to the surface? Who is Korse?’ He immediately, because he’s Grant, had a vision for how he wanted to look. He said ‘I think he should be a bit of a dandy,’ which I had never thought of at that time. That made me think of Edward James Olmos’ character (Gaff) in Blade Runner. This guy’s a bit fancy, and he grooms himself very well. Grant even had all this crazy backstory for Korse that was really awesome. Spiritually and emotionally, artistically — more so in a guidance sense — (Morrison) was very, very hands-on with it.

Paste: I know you’ve cited Mad Max and The Warriors as influences, but I also saw some parallels to anime like Akira. Did that play a conscious hand? 

Way: Absolutely. I was at a convention in New Jersey, and this was when conventions were still small; it was in a small area of a local hotel, like a Hilton. I walked past this TV, and this guy had a ton of VHSs, and I looked at this animation that was gorgeous. It wasn’t rotoscoped, and it also wasn’t like Voltron. I had read Akira as a comic, and had heard about them making it into a movie, but back then you got your news from the back of the issue you were reading. I knew exactly what that video was when I saw it, because one of the gang had just been beaten up by a Clown, so he was vomiting blood. I would never forget that shot. I bought it immediately. I spent all of my money on just that. I just went home with aVHS that I played every day. Constantly.

Having been a huge fan of the comic, too, there’s a lot I took from it. There’s a total reason the back of my jacket looks like Kaneda’s. But it was always important to me, even if I was reappropriating, to push myself design-wise to say, ‘well I like Kaneda’s pill, but how do I one-up it?’ That’s my challenge for the day. How do I make this different or a little more interesting? I turned it into this weird, graphic skull by adding crossbars under it to really make it a poisonous thing. Akira was huge. The Trans-Am to me is basically Kaneda’s bike. If I didn’t have red hair, I’m sure I would have been wearing red.

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Paste: Did you ever play the videogame Jet Set Radio Future
Way: In terms of having an influence on me, that came out a little late. But there was a game called Zillionthat was out for my Sega Master System, and that was a little impactful too, like Phantasy Star II for Genesis. There was some interesting stuff that threw its hat on the ring on this project.

Paste: What’s the most obscure or esoteric influence?

Way: There’s a film called Mr. Freedom by a French director who’s pretty bananas, literally about American superhero violence. Blade Runner wasn’t as much an influence as the documentary about the making of it. That had a bigger impact on the entire project. Watching the interviews, (director) Ridley Scott spoke about how challenging it was to get what he wanted, and how many problems it caused and how many bridges it burnt. Just what a struggle it was to have his vision seen through. I guess I really identified with that. There’s a quote from him where he references his camera as a weapon. I’d never heard a director do that and I started to see my art that way and see music that way. So that was actually the biggest influence, this documentary.

Paste: What do you want people to walk away with after reading this 6-issue miniseries? 

Way: I think the main thing I want them to walk away with is a deeper understanding of the artistic process. I would love it if they walked way from it, despite it having some stereotypical trappings of science fiction and dystopian society, getting something new out of that. We’ve all gotten amazing things from Ray Bradbury and Logan’s Run. I just don’t think we’ve ever gotten the other side of that. We know that it’s bad to be a Sandman shooting people because they’ve turned 21; we don’t ever get to sympathize with why they do it. There’s a bit of sympathy for the devil in this, especially if people take away that we’re all kind of the devil in a weird way. We all have a hand in promoting safe culture. It’s easy to say ’he’s such a bad guy,’ but would I have done the same thing? There’s a lot more sentiment in this than there is in The Umbrella Academy and there’s also a lot more nostalgia. I just want them to get something different from science fiction in this.

Paste: You’ve also been tweeting some incredibly original Batman art from a 2008 pitch. Is there a reason for releasing it now? 

Way: I guess it all comes back to that essay that I wrote when the band ended, where I intended to be completely obtuse and secretive when the band was existing, and when it stopped existing there was no need for secrets any more. So I started applying that to all aspects of my life. I was cleaning my office and I ran across what I felt were these really cool designs of Batman that I was proud of. I’m sitting there going ‘what if this never comes out? Why am I going to keep this in a box?’ I started to feel that way about a lot of stuff. What’s the worse that happens? Eventually the book gets made or it doesn’t get made because I released stuff. As it is now, I don’t have time to write it, so I don’t see that happening in the future. I stopped being so precious. I stopped being so greedy with my art. In a weird way, it’s this greed based in fear, and I have boxes of stuff that nobody’s ever seen that I keep to myself. Some of it I obviously should — not everything’s for sharing. I stopped being precious with everything, and I’m applying that to my life and the music that I make and the comics that I make. I don’t believe anymore in the hype machine or the strategy. I believe that you make something and then you share it. There’s no reason to wait.

 
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Posted on 06/12/2013, in Gerard Way, Interview, True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks for the article, was great to ‘catch up’ on it all… have not been following the Killjoys comic info. So the Interview was a good read. 🙂

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