Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a new weekly feature where we speak in-depth with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These conversations will range from analyses of their current projects to a look at the lives they lead outside of comics. Our first guest is Greg Rucka.
Greg Rucka made a name for himself as a novelist before he began writing comics, but he’s been doing both so well for so long, it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t. He’s the man behind the Atticus Kodiak novels series and three Tara Chace novels. He wrote one of the segments of the direct-to-DVD movie “Batman: Gotham Knight” and has also worked in video games. Comics fans no doubt have their own favorite projects from the Eisner Award-winning writer, but just a few of his credits include “Whiteout” and “Gotham Central,” one of the architects of the weekly DC Comics series “52” and co-creator of the current Batwoman, Kathy Kane.
Rucka currently writes “The Punisher” ongoing series for Marvel Comics in addition to the webcomic “Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether” and preparing for the next arc of his Oni Press series “Stumptown.” Last week, Metropolitan Books released Rucka’s newest novel, “Alpha,” the first in a new series. Rucka will be on tour for the “Alpha” in the coming week, appearing in Scottsdale, Arizona, Austin, Texas, Houston and Dallas, but he took time out before the book release to talk to us here at the Sunday Conversation.
CBR News: Are you a big amusement park guy?
Greg Rucka: [Laughs] Am I a big amusement park guy? I love going to Disneyland. Where I grew up we didn’t have a whole lot of theme park choices near us. Marriott’s Great America, at the time up near San Francisco, was the closest one. I’ve always loved going to Disneyland simply because of the absolute commitment and complexity of the illusion that you’re buying. You go and you are being sold an entire experience that in truth begins long before you actually enter the park. I’ve always been fascinated by that and fascinated by what’s really going on versus what they’re showing you. For somebody like me who likes to know how things work, there is a logistical fascination with the fact that when you’re at Disneyland, you never see anyone emptying trash cans, for example. You’ll never see that. Trash cans are emptied below ground. That says so much right there. You’re not creating trash at Disneyland. And what is required then to perform to the park specifications. In the case of Disneyland, you’re a cast member regardless of what you’re doing, which again is reinforcing that this is an experience being presented to you, this is what you’re buying. There’s always been that.
And on a separate level, hell, it’s fun.
When you frame it like that, going to Disneyland really is like being on “The Truman Show.”
Absolutely. And when I was younger and far more inclined to be cynical I would look at it and be like, “Oh, it’s all bullshit. Look at the stupid sheep buying into it.” Of course, I still went anyway, you know? And there’s something to be said for literally submitting yourself to that experience. They charge a hefty price for that experience, mind you, but I find the whole thing fascinating. I’m going off into the tall grass a bit, but we’re living in an era and an age where democracy is secondary to capitalism and capitalism is media-reinforced and in many ways media-driven. If you look at these big theme parks like Disneyland and Six Flags, those are one of the sharp ends of a very, very honed corporate spear. That spear is designed to take your wallet and empty it, at every turn wherever they can. Not only in the park but on television, in the movie theaters, the shopping malls, the grocery stores. It’s all part and parcel of the same package. Everything is on message.
It’s always been interesting for me to walk through a Six Flags when they’ve got a Superman movie coming or whatnot and see how they’re attempting to — God help me for using this word — synergize those experiences. You can look at it as, of course, you’re being manipulated and whether you know you’re being manipulated or not, it may not matter if the manipulation is successful. I was listening to some marketing expert and he was saying that those people who make themselves most aware of media manipulation are the people most subject to it and most easily controlled by it. Which is a frightening thought for those of us who think that we’re all too clever for those naughty folks. I always feel like I should hasten to add that my personal feelings notwithstanding, it is what it is. Asking a corporation to not try to take all of your money makes about as much sense as asking a baby not to cry when it’s hungry. It’s going to do what’s in its nature. Corporations aren’t people but they’re beasts and like an animal, it will do what it can do to survive. Capitalism eats money. That what it needs to survive. They’ll get it and will go to obscene lengths to acquire it.
Every time we have a conversation, regardless of where we start or what we’re talking about, we end up veering into the tall grass. I don’t know what that says about us.
I think it says we probably think too much.
I know that you have kids. How has the experience of going to a park with them been different for you?
My daughter is about to turn nine so about five years ago for her fourth birthday, she wanted to go to Disneyland. I was at a place financially where we could make that happen, so we did. I have a photograph of her in the Cinderella dress that she wanted for her birthday present, dressed up as a little Cinderella princess sitting next to one of the Disney Cinderellas who is showing her how to fold her hands in a properly coquettish fashion. I was talking to my daughter last week because we watched this wonderful documentary, “Miss Representation,” and she started talking about how much she likes Black Widow and she’s not into princesses and she doesn’t understand that. I said, “You know, sweetie, I have the picture I can show you that when you were four that was it.”
You’d have to be an idiot to have read my work and not have figured out that I am a feminist, so obviously both Jen [Van Meter, Rucka’s wife and fellow writer] and I have tried to raise our daughter in that fashion. And even given that, at four, she wanted to be Cinderella. So you can try to defend against the message as best you can, but as long as you’re in the society, the message is going to get through.
When you go to a theme park or something like that with your kids, as a parent it’s a different experience from when you go with your friends in your twenties. When you go with your friends in your twenties, the world is your oyster. The park is there for you. You’ll stand in line and make your in-jokes and complain about the fact that you can’t get beer, but the experience is yours. When you go with kids, it belongs to them, and as a parent your choices are driven by that, i.e. I never would in a million years want to do the Magic Princess Morning, but my daughter wanted it for her birthday so of course I’m there at seven a.m. to make sure she can get it. Like I said before, you’re spending a lot of money to receive a very tailored product. We’re talking a lot about Disneyland, but the thing is WilsonVille in “Alpha” is very clearly a Disney analogue.
Look, the whole experience is what you’re buying. My daughter wanted to go when she was four and my son wanted to go when he was six. I have pictures of him with a lightsaber and a Jedi robe fighting Darth Vader. Laugh if you like, but for a six year-old, how awesome is that? How awesome is that to be six and swing a lightsaber against Darth Vader? That’s pretty frigging awesome.
Like I said, the older I get, the harder it is to toe the cynical line. I can still kid but at the same time I can recognize, look, we paid a lot money for these moments of bliss that my kids are going to remember. Or in my daughter’s case, not remember. What do I remember? I remember doing the things. I have this picture. I remember the smile on her face, but she has no memory that she did that. That was a blip on her radar. On the flip side of that I suppose going back to corporations eating money, kids don’t have money, it’s the parents.
Now has everyone in comics moved to Oregon to be your neighbor by this point?
[Laughs] Yeah, actually I think it’s now in the Marvel contract.
You and Jen moved to Portland in the ’90s, right?
Yeah we moved up here in ’98. We were living in Eugene prior to that. We were there for five years while Jen was getting her degree at the University of Oregon. When we moved up to Portland, Oni was just starting up, Dark Horse was there, and I think Top Shelf, too. Fantagraphics is up in Seattle. I don’t think it was nearly as lousy with comics folk as it is now. [Matt] Wagner was there. I think Steve Lieber and Sara Ryan moved to Portland about six months before Jen and I completed our move from Eugene. I suppose somebody can probably get funding for a study about why Portland has so many comics folks. I have no good answer. I know that [Brian Michael] Bendis is single-handedly responsible for at least five different comics people moving to Portland.
After fifteen years, can you see the place changing to the point where “Portlandia” has become a catchphrase?
You know I’m one of those people that, I suppose, takes himself too seriously. I look at “Portlandia” and the first episode I watched I was like, “That’s unique to Portland? That’s not unique to Portland.” And the rest of it, I went, it’s a sketch comedy show. When I first moved to Oregon after graduate school you would drive up I-5 and there would be a sign as you came across the border from California and it would say, “Welcome to Oregon, now go home.” [Laughs] And people would have bumper stickers that read “Oregon Native.” You would see bumper stickers that would [be] California license plates with bullet holes in them. It was very much the sense of, go away, we do not want you to know about us. What “Portlandia” exemplifies is that the secret is out. People are aware of Portland in a way that they weren’t for so long.
I haven’t seen the city change that much, all said, so I suppose that means that the people who are coming are coming because they like what Portland was and they want to preserve that. I’ve lived in a lot of places and I’ve never been terribly attached to a location before, but I’m faithful to Portland. Every time the opportunity to work in LA comes up my agent always says, “Will you relocate?” My response is, “It depends on how much they’re going to pay me.” I’m more than happy to commute if I have to. The thing is you’re talking to a dad. I’m talking about my kids, so obviously I’m a dad, but this is where we want to raise our children. Is it as strange as you see on TV? Yes. Is what you’re seeing on TV all of it? No. That’s some of it. Yes, you will go to a restaurant and people will ask about the pedigree of the chicken that they’re about to dine on, but the great thing is that there’s always something else.
I’m a big Portland Timbers fan and the Under-23 reserve team played a game yesterday. For ten bucks you got to go to the game, there were maybe 1500 people who made it out to the stadium for the game on this Tuesday evening. My son wanted to come and I have a picture of him doing his homework in the bleachers before the game starts just so he can be at this thing. To me, that’s a very Portland experience. Tuesday night, it’s the U-23 team, and the Timbers Army has a presence at the game and we’re standing and chanting and cheering. When the Timbers played Houston in Houston, in Houston’s brand spanking new stadium, we’re looking at all these empty seats in Houston for their home team. You cannot buy, beg, or steal a ticket to a Timbers game right now. If they’re playing at home, it’s a sellout. That’s Portland. [Laughs] We don’t have a baseball team, our soccer team sucks right now, but we’re behind them. That’s Portland. I heard the waiting list for season tickets is something like three years long now. And we stink on ice at the moment. [Laughs] We support the team and we love the team but we’re not supporting the team because they’re winners, you know? [Laughs] It’s not like we’ve got Beckham. That to me is a wonderful descriptor of what Portland is.
One thing I will say about Portland is Portland is not so much blue collar as it is “put your head down and do the work, dammit.” People expect you to do what it is you say you’re going to do. I really do feel that there is an ethic to this city that says, go have fun, enjoy your life, enjoy everything that the Pacific Northwest has. You want to go hiking, we’ve got that. You want to go hunting, we’ve got that. You want to go fishing, we’ve got that. You want to go biking, we’ve got that. You want to sit around and read books and go to movies and drink beers, we’ve got you covered. But put in your hours. Everybody expects you to put in your hours. The Portland slacker is, in my experience, a myth.
Are you a big soccer fan?
Oh yeah. I got it from my dad. My dad played football at Berkeley and lost his knees as a result, so growing up there were sports I could play and sports I couldn’t. I couldn’t play play football, but I could play soccer. He would take me to games way back when the San Jose team was called the Bees and we would watch it on TV when we could. He instilled in me an appreciation for the game and I played for a long time. I was never terribly good, but I was persistent. I would run and run and run and run and run. I may not be great on the ball, but I wouldn’t stop. For some people it’s baseball, for some people it’s football, for some people it’s basketball, for me I follow soccer and God help me I’ve infected my children.
So other than sleeping, do you have any hobbies?
Do I? My major form of recreation is to go play stuff on the XBox, but even that’s getting harder to do. There’s more and more work that needs to be done. Honestly, the other hobbies tend to be soccer-related. I assistant coach my son’s team. When you’re a parent, everything you’re doing in your free time is mostly directed towards the kids, so if I’m not writing I’m running the kids from one thing to another. My daughter is doing a lot of children’s theater, so she’s got rehearsals and we run back and forth for that. It seems like I used to have more time. I used to have a regular gaming group and we would play RPGs, we would play D&D and things like that, but we haven’t done that in years. Mostly I find myself turning to computer games, but I have even less and less time for that. There was a period where I was into “World of Warcraft,” but I’ve recovered, thankfully.
Your newest novel, “Alpha,” was just released. Having read an advance copy of the book, it feels like the first of a planned series.
There is a three-book arc that this is the first part of. I’m undecided as to how final the ending of the third one will be. There may be more with these characters or characters related to them beyond that, but right now, “Alpha,” “Bravo” and — right now we’re calling the third one “Charlie”, though that may change — are a three book cycle, and ideally fairly self-contained as a result. Hopefully they’ll be easily accessible as well. There’s not a whole lot of continuity. I think the first book of a series you can come in and everything should be there. Jad as a character is pretty fully formed when you meet him, and clearly he has a body of experience and skill to justify the story in “Alpha.” But he’s got a journey to make. I’m working on the second one right now and the third one will test him even more than the second one does.
You also have “The Punisher” coming out every month and the webcomic “Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether” coming out twice a week. Is there anything else on the horizon?
The new “Stumptown” arc. I just spoke with James Lucas [Jones] at Oni yesterday, and he said they’re going to solicit it for September. “The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case” is the next arc. So that’ll be in Septemeber. And then there’s some other stuff brewing, but I can’t talk about it yet, unfortunately. [Laughs]
That’s the way it always is.
It is. And the thing is, I’ve got a real bad record of announcing — with the best of intentions — something that I believe will be coming out and for one reason or another, it goes snafu. Frankly, I get nervous even talking about “Stumptown” right now, just because I would much rather wait until it’s solicited. I will say with “Stumptown” specifically, and I feel that in general about my work, we’re not soliciting anything anymore unless we’re sure we’re going to hit the dates. I just don’t ever want to get into a situation that we found ourselves in with the last “Stumptown” arc. I do not want three or four months wait between issues. We’re going to make damn sure that we have every one of these issues locked and loaded before we’re even going to tell people, “Yes, you may order them.” It’s a horrible way to treat the audience, frankly.
And I imagine it’s tough on your end because it’s creatively frustrating.
Oh yeah, it’s staggeringly aggravating and in the market as it stands today, nobody’s in a position where they can afford to alienate their readership. You just can’t do that and it’s a shabby way to treat your audience, intended or otherwise. The desire, obviously, is to not treat the audience like that. [Laughs]