This month, Dark Horse Comics released the trade paperback and limited hardcover of “The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys” — capping a years-long creative venture from former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way.
Written with friend Shaun Simon and drawn by artist Becky Cloonan, the “Killjoys” comic represented the final chapter in a saga that began with MCR’s million-selling 2010 album “Danger Days.” In that record and its accompanying music videos, Way and his bandmates took on the personas of post-apocalyptic freedom fighters in a California wasteland who clashed with the Draculoids of Better Living Industries and their field leader Korse (played on screen by comics writer Grant Morrison). But the comic version represented an epic story all its own as the book fast forwarded the story years past the videos while in real life, its creation followed the breakup of My Chemical Romance. As a result, the “True Lives” comic focused on the mysterious lead character known as The Girl coming to grips with the many forces out to control her life, presenting a very different ending to the saga than Way initially envisioned.
CBR News spoke with the writer about the long trip towards “Killjoys” completion, and below Way delves into how the worldwide success of the band both complicated and fed into the comic’s story, why he wouldn’t have it any other way, what made the characters from Morrison’s Korse to the Killjoys slide into shades of gray and how with the final volume out, he’s ready to return to his “Umbrella Academy” series.
CBR News: Gerard, getting “Killjoys” the comic into its final form was a journey that took numerous twists and turns from the conception of the MCR album on through to this graphic novel. What stands out the most about that whole creative experience?
Gerard Way: Wow. It was difficult. [Laughs] It was a really difficult project to undertake for many reasons. I always had my music, and then I always had comics. With “Umbrella Academy,” I had a pretty amazing welcoming when that book broke out. It was nice to not have it be viewed as a vanity project. So I was very guarded about mixing comics and music — very guarded. But it just felt like the right thing to do. It felt like I needed to attempt it no matter what — no matter how hard it was going to be or how much waiting it would take.
If I look back on it with any regrets, the only one is that it took so long with this comic. I think that was the result of the music becoming the master over the book. That’s my only regret because everything else came out exactly as it was supposed to. I’m extremely happy with it. It was amazing to work with Shaun and amazing to work with Becky to finally get this done. And the story came out just as I wanted. In the end, it’s very different from anything I’d done before.
But the one thing looking back was that it was a shame to have it come together later considering it was tied to the music. My Chemical Romance at that point was a pretty major machine. It dictated everything else that had to happen — when it was going to come out, how it was going to come out and everything else. It even put the breaks on the comic for a while, and that was a real bummer.
The final version of the book seemed to roll with that by setting the story years after the characters in the album and the music videos had lived. Did pushing the timeline forward free you up to ultimately do whatever you wanted with the comic?
Absolutely. That was definitely a conscious effort. It was either do the original “Killjoys” comic we’d wanted to do — which was very different and would have been great, but the thing about that is that I think you’ll see concepts from that pop up in Shaun’s work and my work in the years to come. It’s not necessarily recycling old ideas that were lying around, it’s just exploring ideas you never got to explore. I know Shaun and I are always going to want to explore those themes, and if it’s on our own, that’ll be how it is.
But the idea to move forward in time freed us up immensely. The last thing I personally ever wanted to do was write myself into a comic. [Laughs] I felt like I could write my friends in, but I didn’t want to write myself into a comic because that’d be too strange. And to be honest, the whole story we were coming up with was always about the Girl. Even those videos were really always about the Girl. She may be a small part of those in some ways, but they all revolve around her.
Let’s talk about the storylines in the book. The Girl obviously forms the spine of the story there, but also had a big focus on Blue and Korse. It felt like completing the story of the Girl necessitated pulling all those other characters into her orbit over the series. Was that a challenging task to take all those disparate elements of this world and link them together?
Absolutely. It’s one of those situations where you could’ve just done 12 issues and really gotten a lot out of this world. But we agreed on six pretty early because it had been so difficult to get it done. I think a longer series would have led to a lot more information and maybe even a calmer pacing than was in there. It almost felt like we were out of time.
But the pacing did ramp up in the book as it went along. The first few were chock full of ideas, but the final run was full of splash pages and fight scenes. How did the story grow in size as it went?
The scope of everything was bigger than we realized when we were working on it. It’s one of those books that really did evolve. It wasn’t in the can way ahead of time, and that’s personally how I like to write books. I know that can be scary for some people, but that’s how I write “Umbrella Academy.” It’s the seat of my pants, and I kind of know where I’m going, but mostly I just do it. This one is something that by the end it evolved to be pretty epic in scope, and we had to pull the camera back and get a real view of this whole world. It started as two settings with lots of characters to deal with, so pulling out helped that a lot. It helped get a sense of the world that the conflict was happening with.
In particular, the details of the book were stand outs. I know a lot of comic readers will immediately identify Becky’s version of Korse as a spot-on Grant Morrison caricature. Did you get to discuss his comic version with him?
We never actually talked about how he was drawn, but I would imagine we was psyched on it. I felt the same way. I think Becky really nailed it where she did this trick of keeping it within her style while also staying in character with him. She captured it on the page but through her lens. But he and I never got to talk about that. We did talk about the book, and I think he was totally into how he was portrayed. He was very supportive of the direction we took with the character.
When this book and the whole project started, the focus was very much on “heroes vs. villains,” but as it went along you got much more into shades of gray. I think, by the end, maybe the theme was “fans vs. fanatics.” You played with young people in love with something fighting against dogma being pushed down on them. How did the themes of this book grow and change as you went from album to comic?
That’s a good point. That was a really important thing for us to bring for the table. Shaun brought ideas from his angle of having been with [My Chemical Romance] since the beginning, and I brought things from the angle of having played in front of a lot of people across the world. When you do that, things get taken over by a new ownership, and your stuff takes on a different meaning. That’s not to say that meaning is wrong, but it may be different from what you intended. We definitely wanted to explore that. When you get as popular in a band as My Chemical Romance was, sometimes you wonder if it’s being jammed down people’s throats. You have no idea, really. The scope is so vast at that point, it’s hard to tell. I think one of the last shows we did in England, there were 70,000 people there at Reading and Leeds. You don’t even know how you got there, and your brain is trying to process it all. You don’t know what those people’s view is of you or why they’re there — what they see in what you did. Because it’s not up to you anymore. It’s their personal experience of what you’ve made.
So I wanted to explore all that. One of the goals was to say, “Are these villains really bad, or are they just adults? Have these guys missed the point, or is it fair to say that the kids have missed the point?” I know I’m speaking kind of babble at this point, but I’m trying not to. [Laughter] It’s really complex! The main idea became, “What gives me the right to make something and dictate how somebody sees it or uses it?” You just can’t do that. It’s not painting anybody as a real villain. When we started this, I thought we were going to expose everyone in the Killjoys — including the characters the band portrayed — as villains. They were using this Girl to get what they wanted. That was the notion that people were going to find out. That third video was about the fact that me and the guys in the band weren’t the heroes we’d made ourselves out to be. We were guys using this Girl to blow up a city. It was constantly playing with this notion of “What’s a hero? What’s a villain? Are there either? Who’s alive at the end?”
On that front, I felt like the most personally relatable character in the book was Blue who had been heavily exploited by this massive corporate structure, but in the end her story became all about keeping a connection with a single other person. It was a much smaller story. Did that become a central idea because in the end, the band and everything else aside, this was just you making something with your friends?
I think so. And I’m glad you pointed her character out and her relationship with Red. I think Shaun and I found that that was the most important relationship in the book because it was simple and because it was about making a connection with another human. In a great way, I think it overshadows this conflict of “corporation versus rebellion.” I think it makes the reader realize that the human connection is what’s important. Even though one of them is not human, that connection between two individuals is the most important thing. It’s far more important than who’s winning the Coca-Cola wars.
It also allows for big robot fights.
Exactly! [Laughs] Just one big Messiah robot who’s come back to free all the other robots.
Now that the collection is out and it’s the last piece of the entire Killjoys experiment, what’s next for you in comics? This story started out as a story idea, bled into the music and then came back out as a comic. Are you going to keep music and comics separate from here on out?
I’m going to follow whatever the art tells me to do. If the next thing I do in music happens to be connected to comics, then that’s what it wants. I don’t think connecting the two negatively affected the projects aside from one dictating when the other could happen. That was probably the one negative. I’m learning to be less guarded and hoarding away ideas. I’m learning to get better at sharing.
I was under this intense self pressure starting probably with “The Black Parade,” and I felt this intense pressure to say, “If I’m going to do this stuff, this is the only time I’ll ever be able to do it.” I think sometimes that can be a healthy way to think of things — the idea that you’re only going to get one shot at this. But as I get older, I realize that you may not be alive tomorrow, but let’s say that you are and that you have 30 or 40 more years. That means you get to make a lot more stuff. Don’t worry about this being the only thing you’ll put out.
Where I’m taking my comics now is that I’m back into new “Umbrella Academy,” and I want to get two of those series done together so we have lots of “Umbrella” out there again. I think that the next thing I’m interested in with comics — as I move forward with music too — is something more long form. I want to do an ongoing series to really explore the stuff you can’t in a limited series. I love the format of “everything is its own album.” “Hellboy” taught me that with how [Mike] Mignola did it. He was the guy doing it better than anyone had done it before — six issues at a clip that had their own identity. That’s worked well for “Umbrella” where I could say, “It’s only six issues so each one has to count.” But having said that, I’m looking forward to attempting something ongoing.
The TPB and HC collections of “The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys” are on sale now from Dark Horse Comics.