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EXCLUSIVE: Brian Michael Bendis Interviews Chuck Palahniuk on “Fight Club 2”

by  in Comic News, Movie News Comment
EXCLUSIVE: Brian Michael Bendis Interviews Chuck Palahniuk on “Fight Club 2”

This past weekend, famed novelist Chuck Palahniuk made his comic book writing debut when a prelude to the highly anticipated “Fight Club 2” was released as part of Dark Horse Comics‘ annual Free Comic Book Day offering. Later this month sees the release of Dark Horse’s “Fight Club 2” #1, the first issue of a 10-part series written by Palahniuk and illustrated by Cameron Stewart and colorist Dave Stewart, with covers by David Mack.

It’s a significant event — both seeing a writer with the profile of Palahniuk work in comics for the first time, and a story with the pop culture footprint of “Fight Club,” an acclaimed novel that inspired the cult-favorite 1999 film, getting a sequel in comic book form. So to mark the occasion, CBR enlisted a special guest interviewer by the name of Brian Michael Bendis — the superstar writer of “Ultimate Spider-Man,” “Powers,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and much more — to talk about “Fight Club 2” with Palahniuk, in Bendis’ first guest interview for CBR since he spoke to David Mamet in 2010.

CBR TV @ SDCC: Palahniuk Took 20 Years & Psychotropic Drugs to Make “Fight Club 2”

Both Portland residents, Bends and Palahniuk were already acquainted going into this chat — the origins of “Fight Club 2” date back to when mystery writer Chelsea Cain of the Gretchen Lowell series invited Palahniuk to a dinner party also attended by Bendis and fellow comics vets Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick. All three encouraged Palahniuk to give comic book writing a try — Fraction worked with the novelist on his transition to the comics medium — with their efforts helping to inspire this series.

In their wide-ranging chat, Bendis and Palahniuk discuss the learning curve from prose to comics, the joy of collaborating with Stewart, his long-time friendship with Mack, upcoming scratch-and-sniff bookmarks and the potential of future comics work beyond “Fight Club 2.” Also, in honor of this unique interview between two creative powerhouses, CBR is offering you the chance to win one of four life-sized severed “arms” — signed by Palahniuk and originally distributed by Dark Horse as “Fight Club 2” promotional items earlier this year at retailer event ComicsPRO. Details are at the bottom of this article.

Brian Michael Bendis: I have many questions, and I’m so glad we get to do this, because these are things I actually wanted to talk to you about when we see each other socially, but I never want to bother you with my nerd process nonsense. We haven’t actually had a proper conversation since this went into production — so here you are, you’ve produced your first comic book/graphic novel. How are you feeling about it?

Chuck Palahniuk: I have so little experience to compare it to — I am feeling enormously grateful to [Dark Horse Comics Editor-in-Chief] Scott [Allie] and Cameron [Stewart] and David [Mack] and Matt Fraction for really walking me through this whole learning curve, how to tell stories in this almost entirely different way.

As a storyteller, how are you feeling? Do you want to run screaming back to novels, or is it, “This is exciting — I get why all you crazy comic book people are so jacked up all the time”?

I looked at every medium, trying to identify what its strengths are. One reason for going with Cameron was, he’s criticized as being too cartoony. So I realized I could show some really gruesome and challenging things — some really provocative things — and there would be wiggle room because of Cameron’s style. They wouldn’t have to made as literal as they would in a movie.

Absolutely. The same criticism fell on Mike Oeming, who you’ve met, when we did “Powers.” “That’s not how cop books should look.” “No, we’re going to get away with a lot of shit because that’s how it’s going to look.”

Exactly. Movies are so hamstrung. They have to make things look visually realistic, and that limits what they can depict.

So I’m guessing from your tone that you’re enjoying this process and this collaboration immensely.

I am.

Some people love it, some people don’t, y’know?

Writing novels is such a lonely thing. I have my workshop every week, but even that has kind of fallen apart. So the collaborative process has been fantastic.

What kind of workshop?

For the longest time, I met with Chelsea [Cain] and Lydia Yuknavitch, and several other writers, every Monday night. We would review each other’s work, reading it out loud, and then we would praise it — and then we would tear it apart, and then we would get kind of drunk. So it was kind of a party and kind of a workshop.

That’s cool. In art school we used to do that — we’d put our stuff up, and rip each other’s faces off, complimented each other. I remember those days.

How has it fallen apart? Just everyone’s busy?

Everybody’s busy, for the most part. People are either promoting their work or they’re in production cycles. When people are in promotion, it’s really hard for them to bring work to workshop.

That’s one of those things — people always ask, you probably get this too, “Why Portland?” Like it’s some mysterious cult that we’ve joined. Stuff like that — you get to have a workshop with your fellow authors. It’s very cool.

You’re enjoying the collaboration — I knew you would. That was one of our big selling points when we were needling you to attempt this, even though I wasn’t sure if you were enjoying us needling you or not. Is there another one on the horizon, or is it too early to tell?

I could very easily see, if not another “Fight Club,” I could see doing the sequel to my book “Rant,” which is set, at this point, to become a James Franco movie. If that actually comes to fruition, I could see bringing out a “Rant” sequel in graphic novel form, at the time that the movie’s released.

That’s interesting. Have you guys talked about it seriously, or is this a thought you’re having at the moment?

I’ve talked about it with my primary reader, my beta reader, and that’s it.

I’m glad to hear that!

So let’s rewind a little bit. This came to fruition, we have a mutual friend, Chelsea Cain, who’s a very excellent writer on her own — who’s also about to make her comic book debut, for Marvel Comics, this summer, which is very exciting — she had us over. It was us, Matt and Kelly [Sue DeConnick], and a couple other people. The conversation leaned towards us talking about the business of comics. I think what you’ve discovered is that comic book people tend to go through waves where they talk more about the business than they do about the art sometimes — you caught us in a wave of that. Because we’ve all talked each other to death about it, we kind of all turned on you — just as fans we were like, “I would like to see Chuck do a graphic novel, that sounds awesome.” Generally, there’s a real visceral taste to your work, that almost heightened kind of genre feel, that does make good graphic novels and comic books.

While we’re talking to you, I literally wasn’t sure if we were annoying the hell out of you. [Laughs] It was, at one point, me, Matt and Kelly just going, “Do it! You should do it!” At least that’s how it felt to me. What was your thought balloon while we were going on and on about our nonsense?

The comic book people I had met all seemed to be so good-natured and much more socially adept than literary fiction publishing people.

That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. [Laughs]

They’re more likely to work with each other in different combinations and different teams. Literary fiction, you work alone, and you present your product at the very end. I kind of admired that. I wanted to be part of a team for once.

That, I can understand; we do love our collaborations. But I have this fear and philosophy — for anyone to get good at their jobs in the creative field, no matter what it is, you have to spend a lot of time alone in a room. A lot of time. And with that comes social inadequacies. What other people build up as social behavior, you’ve given up in the time you’re putting in your 10,000 bad pages, or whatever. I’m always amazed that no one’s been murdered at a comic book convention. They put all of these socially inadequate people in a room, and there are usually a couple of tables of weapons for sale, too. So when you referenced us socially, in a positive way, I was shocked. [Laughs] I so see us as not that. But you are right that collaboration is a big part of it.

What I see at comic cons is what I see when my dog has been inside the house all day because it’s been raining, and I finally take her out, and she’s around people, and she just wants to jump and lick and greet and interact with everyone. She’s so happy to be in society.

That is absolutely true. But like a dog, sometimes they can jump the fence. [Laughs] That’s what I’m waiting for.

So how’d you hook up with Cameron? I assume through Scott?

Through Scott. There were a couple of other artists Scott had recommended, and Cameron had a really great punk aesthetic — where the heads were a little bit bigger than the bodies. And he was literal enough that I knew that his illustrations would carry a lot of plot. I tend to plot really heavily.

Let’s talk about that — your growing pains from novelist to graphic novelist. What do you want to talk about in the process there? I don’t want to pull back the curtain any farther than you do.

The first draft was so awkward and raw and talky. Just enormous narration and voiceover and captioning, and really poorly unpacked physical action. And too many scenes where it was just one head talking to another head, back and forth — that tennis match dialogue, which I hate. So it’s been a matter of unpacking the physical action, and then cutting two-thirds or three-quarters of everything that’s said. And then inserting all these subplots, so that I had things to cut to every few panels, and I have something really strong at every page-turn reveal. Which is another real trick to learn — pacing the story so that as the page turns, they get a real bold payoff.

Absolutely. I think what people are going to take away, visually, from the first issue at least, is dropping the pills on top of the lettering. You actually obscure some of the narrative. So you went from a very talky first draft to a final draft that actually had the art obscuring parts of the narrative, to create another narrative. Was that in the early draft, or did that come in the art process?

That’s been all along. Fincher was so great at deconstructing the medium with the “Fight Club” film; breaking the fourth wall, having the film break and having the sprockets show, having splices show. Just kind of acknowledging the mechanics of film within the film. That was such a wonderful trick that I wanted to do something like that with the book itself, and have those things that lie atop the page — almost like in a David Mack collage, but seem to break that fourth wall. There will be different things in different issues.

It was an excellent choice, because I thought it actually bridged the gap — you’re going to have an audience that is excited about a sequel of the book, you’re going to have an audience that may have never read the book, but visually think of “Fight Club” as the masterpiece that is, and will come to the comic book and see almost a punk aesthetic feel to it, on top of these choices that are very unique. I was actually racking my brain to think if I saw anyone do that trick in another comic, and I couldn’t think of it. I’ve seen the panels break apart and such, but just the style of the art, and the art dropping on top of narrative is very interesting. I do think if you’re a fan of the movie and have not read the book, it’s a pleasing thing, yet not ripping off of the movie.

There’s something really compelling about occasionally occluding dialogue and occluding faces that makes it kind of frustrating, but also negates what’s being said. Negates dialogue. Doesn’t hold it as so precious that every word has to be there.

Exactly. And it’s actually more interesting what you’re not seeing, like the old adage.

I also want to talk about you and David Mack, who have known each other a long time.

David wrote to me years ago when I used to have these mailing windows, when everybody in the world could write to me during one month, and I would answer them all. David wrote during one of those windows.

I’m assuming that was probably the first germ of the idea, because there’s a vague similarity — it would be hard to put my finger on. When I think of David’s work and I think of your work, there’s something underneath the surface that’s very similar that I really enjoy, and I’m assuming that’s what gravitated you two towards each other. You certainly see it on the covers.

The covers are fantastic. David is, in my mind, really adept at depicting the subconscious — the less aware portion of the brain. And Cameron is really good at depicting the conscious. So I think they complement each other.

What’s also funny — I’ve told you this story, but I’ll say it here — David comes to Portland often and stays at my house, at least a couple times a year. And then he would go out and have lunch with you, and then come back and say, “Hey, I just had lunch with Chuck Palahniuk.” We had never met, you and I, so I was like, “That’s cool, man!” After a while, I was worried you were his Tyler Durden, that he wasn’t actually meeting anybody — that if I had rode my bike by Peet’s Coffee, I would see him talking to the wall, and that you weren’t really there. [Laughs] So I was glad when I met you that you did acknowledge that you knew him. That made me feel better. Not that I think David might be crazy — of course not! Who would think that? There’s nothing about him that would make you think that.

[Laughs]

This is a very exciting thing — the fact that you even took the chance in this part of your career to try this new venture, and was, I think, so successful in it. I do think that the mistakes a lot of novelists make when they try this is that first draft that you talked about, that was overly talky — they have a hard time embracing the visual medium of it, and realizing that the visuals are more important than the word. I think that you’ve made this journey so successfully is a relief, as a fan. It’s very exciting. It’s exciting that there may be more — that this might be another venue for you to tell stories, and I think that in the long run, that it’s going to be a very important part of who you are as a writer for the next few years.

I’m excited that you’re even thinking about doing new stuff, and I’m sorry to be so over-the-top about this. When I heard that you were going to do this, immediately my Jewish guilt kicked in, and I felt responsible that if you didn’t enjoy this process, I was going to feel bad, that we bullied you into this. So I’m glad that it wasn’t a bad experience.

My first cardinal rule, after a life of really terrible jobs, is that whether or not I enjoy a job is my decision. If I’m not enjoying it, that means I’m not doing it on a big enough scale, or I’m not doing it in the right way.

Wait until you see the scratch-and-sniff bookmarks that are being printed right now!

For this project?

Yeah. In San Diego I’ll have the first batch. They’ll be the smells for issues #1-#5, and probably by the New York Comic Con, I’ll have the smells for issues #6-#10. It just seemed like the perfect medium.

What are the smells?

I’m not going to tell you! We’re going to have a contest. Whoever can identify all 10 smells will win something huge.

Is there a Tyler smell?

There is not a specific Tyler smell.

That’s hilarious. So let me ask you this: I hesitate to even say it, but if I don’t ask it, I’m doing a disservice. So “Fight Club 2” — any movie talk around this? Or is it too early, not on the table?

There is a lot of movie inquiries, and there have been some television inquiries, but my real focus is on Fincher, who has got the stage rights, and he’s working with Trent Reznor right now to put together the score. They’re going to take a year to do the score, and David’s idea is to create a rock opera that will run simultaneously in several different cities.

For the first book, or this book?

For the first book.

Fantastic. You said television — are we talking like a Netflix, HBO big, giant, epic thing?

I’m not sure how much to say, but the big nibble we’ve had is from one of the big three networks. But Fox controls so many of those rights now, it would be a decision on the part of a lot of people.

Interesting. I’m fascinated — the movie came out and it didn’t make money, right?

Right. It lost people their jobs.

I read that [“Fight Club” producer] Art Linson book [“What Just Happened?”] — you ever read that book?

No, I didn’t. He must have talked about it, didn’t he?

It’s a great deal of the book, actually. It opens and closes on “Fight Club,” and the battles of getting it made and such. They made a movie about it — they don’t call it “Fight Club” in the movie, but there’s a movie that the director and the studio are at war with each other, and it’s clearly supposed to be “Fight Club.” You should read it, it’s a good read if you can stomach it.

This far away from it, I could endure it. I would enjoy it.

In retrospect, it’s a very successful movie, right? Has it made its money back? How do they quantify it at this point?

Fincher had a whole lot of figures about the DVD sales, because that’s where it really took off, and it continues to sell. Every time they repackage the DVD, it sells again.

That’s fascinating. It’s interesting that a movie can find such a life over the years. Sometimes a movie comes out like that, and it all kind of just disappears. It’s nice that it finds its audience. It’s very gratifying.

There are so many movies — like “Harold and Maude” — that come out, and they cannot be assimilated by the culture. So it takes years or decades for the culture to really grasp something like “Citizen Kane,” that was just too different. It wasn’t really part of the cultural mojo at the time. But the movies that are assimilated immediately, they just disappear.

Or they’re just sold wrong. They’re just presented to the public in a way that’s off-putting or incorrect. Like that Tom Cruise movie that came out last year — it was actually fantastic. It was marketed terribly. Some of the worst marketing I’ve ever seen. This “Mad Max” movie — it’s being so marketed so well, you’re like, “Could it be this good?”

People like us, you’re sometimes beholden to the marketing a great deal. People forget how much it can color people’s perceptions. I think “Fight Club” might have had that — it was being sold to a mass audience. That’s in Art Linson’s book: It was sold to a mass audience like it was an action movie. On that level, people were confused by it. And here we are years later, and the fallout has been so fantastic.

It’s funny, it’s been on TV recently. It seems to never go away from television for more than a few months at a time. It’s kind of a perennial, everywhere.

And you know, “Choke” is on TV all the time.

You’re kidding! You must get different channels than I do. I’ve seen it maybe once or twice.

I seem to stay on the pay movie channels a lot for some reason. Yeah, it’s always on.

God bless.

How do you feel? You like that movie, right? That’s a good movie.

It was a great movie until they botched the big, climactic scene. And then there was no money to reshoot that scene, so they had to kind of cobble together an ending. It’s always kind of heartbreaking — maybe how Fincher feels about “Alien 3.” You know what it was supposed to be, and you have to accept what it is. There’s a difference there.

I quite like it, and there are a lot of excellent performances. It’s about a subject matter you rarely see in any kind of mainstream media. I thought it was a pretty fascinating movie.

I’ll stop embarrassing you. I’m very glad that we got to talk a little bit, and I’m very glad the process of making comics was a good one for you. I’m excited for people to read the comic — I do think it’s Cameron’s best work. It’s everything Dark Horse Comics does right.

I feel kind of guilty, because I really feel like I’m pushing him to depict things that he’s not very comfortable with. He’s made a couple of statements about going to Hell for the things I’m asking him to research and draw.

[Laughs] I have many different collaborators, and I’ve discovered that some people, you need to write that way for, because they need to get it out of them. Sometimes pushing people into their dark areas actually makes them a better person to be around. You’ve met Mike — if I don’t write a violent scene for him every three issues, he will just draw one. I just have to aim it in the right place.

You find new things about each other. I think as you get further into it, you’ll see — you start writing for that artist’s perspective, and now you’re writing in a different style than you would have on your own. And that’s one of the things I’m most addicted to when I’m making comics.

Well, thank you so much. I’d love to come to your house for another Friday night dinner. Feel free to invite us.

Absolutely!

The book is fantastic, my highest recommendation. A whole year of outstanding new “Fight Club” stories from the author — from his pen! There’s no ghostwriter or anything like that. This is really you writing this comic, making your graphic novel debut. Because in comics, sometimes that happens — I just want to make it clear that you’ve actually written this.

Yes, I’ve written it. I popped my cherry.

Excellent work by Cameron Stewart and David Mack, and by our awesome friends at Dark Horse Comics. Thank you for taking some time to let me embarrassing to you.

Any time! Thank you so much.

“Fight Club 2” #1 is scheduled for release on May 27 from Dark Horse Comics. Be sure to enter our latest contest to win a piece of “Fight Club” history signed by Chuck Palahniuk.

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