Matt Kindt is getting a lot of attention these days for his ongoing series “MIND MGMT” which he’s writing and drawing every month at Dark Horse, along with his current DC Comics gig writing the Martian Manhunter backups in “Justice League of America.
For many readers, though, Kindt has been creating graphic novels for years. Complex, thoughtful, intricately designed, they’re not like many comics on the shelves and early on marked Kindt as a unique talent with a gift for pulling apart genre stories, discovering how they work and then putting them back together in a different manner. The result is an experience for the reader that requires effort to reassemble the pieces of the puzzle and reconsider how the individual elements relate. The stories never stop being exciting genre tales, but the end result certainly makes for a unique reading experience.
Kindt’s most ambitious graphic novel to date is “Red Handed.” Published by First Second Books, it concerns a Dick Tracy-esque detective and a series of seemingly unrelated actions — some criminal, some not, which are part of a much larger crime.
CBR News: “Red-Handed” is a really amazing book that’s obsessed me a little over the past week. Where did it start?
Matt Kindt: It’s been a couple years since I finished it. Honestly, it might have been an interview asking me what some of my early influences were and it occurred to me that “Dick Tracy” was one. I’d never thought about it or mentioned it before, but someone had asked me and I started thinking. I had read tons of “Dick Tracy” reprints in comic book form and just loved them. They had cool gadgets and they were really violent, even by today’s standards — people are getting shot in the head and burned alive! I think at the time I was like, wow — this is grittier than normal comics I was reading at the time, like Marvel and DC. I think that’s where it all came from. But it wasn’t until that interview where I realized it.
I like interviews sometimes, because it’s sort of my version of therapy where I can figure out what I’m about. [Laughs] I think the interview inspired me because I hadn’t paid tribute to the crime stories I loved when I was a kid. I think that’s sort of where it started, this homage to “Dick Tracy.”
You can tell that you have some affection for it just because of how you send it up.
I hate parodies and I didn’t want it to be that.
It’s not a parody of Dick Tracy,” but you are pulling it apart and showing how it doesn’t work in a real life sense.
Or how it really would work. He’s doing a great job, but what are the real consequences of that sort of thing?
Tell us a little about your approach, because the book is told in a fragmented way, jumping between real life and this comic strip. It jumps around in time. This is very deliberate. How do you assemble it?
It’s always an organic process. I have ideas for different moments in the story, so I outline that and weave different things together. There’s not some magic way I do it, but especially with this one, I had this idea. I remember sitting in eighth grade civics class, looking out the window and daydreaming about, what if I threw a quarter out the window and some guy picked it up and used it to make a call on a pay phone and helped somebody to do something that causes a chain reaction where somebody ends up dying? All because I threw a quarter out the window! It’s one of those weird daydreams. It stuck with me forever, thinking it would be a good story, but it’s never been a good story I could ever figure out. With this one, I started having these ideas for these smaller crimes and how they could fit together and then I was like, oh — this is that story where it all ties together, one leading to another like a chain reaction.
It does have, at its heart, a Moriarty-like figure who sees the shape of it, and it’s not an accident. At one point, she asks the detective, what are you charging me with me? He says, an accessory, and she says, but I didn’t conspire and there was no crime.
I guess I wanted to figure out how you could commit a crime without committing one. At what point does liability stop and start, and by way of that, what is crime at its basic level. What is good and bad?
That comes out in the conversation between the two of the them about what is crime and what does it mean.
One of the reasons I put that in there was because I wanted to have more meat on the bone. The other thing is, that’s the kind of conversation I have with myself. I consciously wrote that not thinking this person is right and this person is wrong and we’re going to prove that the hero’s wrong and the villain’s right, or the other way around. I wanted it to be an honest conversation where, here’s two opposing viewpoints and they’re trying to one-up each other. Then, at the end of the day, you have to figure out what side you’re on. I didn’t want it to be a book where it’s like, oh, here’s what crime is about and here’s what’s good and bad.
It’s the kind of book where neither is pure, but they both think they’re better than most. By the end, it’s hard to say which has done more good.
I don’t think either one was totally wrong. Bad things happen because of both of them.
Not to spoil how it ends, but what he does after the climax does give credence to her perspective. He may not believe what she does, but she pointed out the flaw in what does.
I don’t think you can have a character like that guy and not have him change by what happened — without spoiling it. Even though he would argue the whole way, the truth was getting through to him. If there’s a message to the book, it’s to try to care about people. [Laughs] It’s a crime book, but it’s a crime book with a heart, I guess. [Laughs]
There’s a line about how the police have all these gadgets and CCTV and things are relatively safe, but the technology doesn’t make him safe. It’s a crutch. One of the news stories is that the crime rate never drops, he just solves more cases. There’s a systemic flaw.
Yeah, that’s the thing; he’s a great detective, but he’s not preventing any crime. It would be great if he could put some of that detective skills to preventative measures as well. I don’t know. At the end of the day, I wanted it to be an entertaining story.
True, but I think all the great mystery stories are about more than just what they state.
That’s true, and I tried to put into this my thoughts on all of that. Like the idea of owning property, which sounds super-dry when you say it out loud, but a guy doing a painting and who owns the painting? How do you own it? What happens when you cut it up into pieces? That’s interesting to me. Different aspects to crime which I think are fascinating. All these little different ideas and things like fun crimes or crimes where there are no victims, but they fit into a bigger picture where there are victims.
I think that’s been one of the hallmarks of your work throughout your career. I bought “Pistolwhip,” which you drew, and “2 Sisters” and “Super Spy” both of which you wrote and drew. For more than a decade, you’ve use genre tropes, often figuratively and literally reorganizing them to think about the story.
As a creator, I want to tell a story that’s going to be fun to draw. Usually, anything in a genre like crime or science fiction has fun stuff to draw, just from a superficial standpoint. Also, I don’t know how many crime books you can read before you feel like you’ve read the same crime story over and over again. It’s like, what can you do different? I’ve tried to attack it that way. Honestly, when I was done with this book, I thought, wow — it’s funny I waited this long to do a crime book. I had forgotten about “Pistolwhip.” That was like ten years ago. In a way, it’s interesting to me because here’s my take on the crime genre when I was ten years younger and here’s my take ten years later.
How conscious are you of the book’s construction? In “Red-Handed” and other books, you’re requiring the reader to put time in and solve how it fits together. That takes more effort than just reading from first to last page.
I guess I’ve tried to make something where you can breeze straight through it in an hour and you get the story, and then you go back and look at it again later and there’s something else there. That was one of the things I picked up when I was in art school. One of my teachers showed us work by an artist who would hide little things in the paintings. She called it time bombs, because you don’t realize until later. I always try to think about that in books. I think it’s a little easier in books because you’ve got hundreds of pages. Part of the fun of crafting a book is building it in a way that works on one level, where you can just read it straight through and enjoy it, and then it works on another level where you look at it later and maybe pick something up or notice something you didn’t before.
One of the ideas in the book that I loved was the writer who uses a warehouse space to write a short story. Where did idea come from, because I really want to do that.
[Laughs] I really hope somebody does it. It’s way too much trouble for me to do it, but I want somebody else to do it. The idea came about by driving my daughter around in the car — this was years ago, when she was just learning to read — and she was reading everything. She would read all the signs while we were driving around ,and that’s all she’s saying back there, every word she could see. I was like, that’s funny. If you could put those in the right order, it could make a funny story. Then I had this idea and how would you do that — you’d need a warehouse to write anything of any length. I thank my daughter for that one.
There is the suggestion in the book of the relationship between art and crime, which reminded me of that famous William Faulkner line, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”
[Laughs] Yeah, I guess. What’s in the book, that’s my take on it. There’s something interesting to me about the value of art and how value is placed on it. I mean, there’s a price tag on the book, but paintings? I’ve always had a fascination with the art world in general. What are people willing to pay for this? It’s like the only value in art is the value the viewer is putting on it. It’s not like it can be used for anything else. It doesn’t have a dual purpose. That’s always intrigued me. One of my great dreams is that I wish I had, when I was eighteen or nineteen, tried to travel across the country using only art. I wouldn’t take any money. I’d just get in my car and use art to either barter or trade to pay for food and see how far I could get using art as money. But I’m too old now and I have a family and I’d probably run out of gas and nobody would want any of my art. But it’s one of the things that I want someone else to do it. [Laughs]
There’s also this relationship between the photographer and the voyeur. The idea that photography is inherently voyeuristic isn’t new, but is that your perspective?
I don’t know. Maybe? I think what’s more interesting there is the idea of frame of reference. How you can take a photo and crop it to show it in a different way and then make art out of it. Basically, a guy is taking dirty photos, and then someone else is cropping them in a way that makes them art. What is she doing to transform that thing that people look out on. Also, how you can frame something in a way that makes it valuable rather than something pornographic.
The photographer will also stage fights and take photos of those. The idea that the photos depict something real but not real.
There’s a double-edge there with the photographer staging these real conflicts and taking photos of it. It’s kind of horrible. She’s trying to capture this reality but at the cost of people and their lives. In a way, it’s her trying to find this ultimate truth by any means necessary. If you think about acting, I’ve read about these directors who torture the actors or do something to upset them for real to try to get that performance. There’s something interesting about it but it also makes you feel horrible.
It’s much closer to Sweeney and his performances than art. This idea of taking something considered “trash” and turning it into “art” made me think of Roy Lichtenstein.
Yeah, although I hate Lichtenstein. [Laughs]
In a way, she’s doing a similar thing. She’s stealing the guy’s photos, cropping them and becoming successful off of it. This is where the parallel ends because I don’t think comic books are trash. [Laughs]
How did you end up publishing it through First Second Books?
My agent. I gave him pitches, he took it to them and they liked it. There’s not too much magic involved. They wanted to do it. I hadn’t worked for them before and I liked the opportunity of doing something with a bigger publisher to get the book in bookstores. They were great.
Did your process or anything about how you worked change for this book?
Since my first book, I haven’t done anything different. I come up with the outline and then I draw it and letter it and turn it into the editor and get some notes and fix things here and there. Then I finish it. Every book I’ve ever done has been that way. My working relationship with every publisher I’ve worked with has been kind of the same, and the editors have always been great. I think that’s part of the benefit of having done my own thing from the beginning. Here’s what I do. People know what they’re going to get and I just keep doing it. [Laughs] It’s been great. One of the differences at First Second is that they gave me an advance, like a regular book, so I had money to live off while I made the book. That was great.
Honestly, one of the bigger changes was the title. My original title was “Strange Crimes” and they asked me to come up with some different options for it. I came up with “Red-Handed,” which I liked better. Actually my original title was “The Strange Crimes of Red Wheelbarrow.” I was trying I wanted to come up with a long title that sounded strange and awkward.
I loved the cover design for the book. The front and back covers really encapsulate the book in a fun way.
The cover process was like every other cover where I like it to tell a story. The first thing you see gets you into the vibe and what’s going on. I like the idea of the cover and back cover that work together. I don’t know if you noticed, but the subtitle on the back cover is different from the subtitle on the front.
Where did you come up with name of the city, Red Wheelbarrow?
It was from a William Carlos Williams poem. It’s one of the few poems that I like. No offense to poets everywhere. I like the poem and I like that image. And I like the idea of this guy stealing dirt and the idea that a lot of the crimes aren’t really crimes. Can you really steal dirt? I guess you can.
Right now, you’re in the midst of “MIND MGMT.” So much of your work has been graphic novels, so even though you have an end in mind for “MIND MGMT,” is it a very different experience?
It’s different in that you really have to make sure those twenty-four page chapters really work by themselves because you’re reading it monthly. Ideally, you’re reading it once a month, so I want that experience to be unique and good and worth waiting thirty days for. But then I’m also basically making a gigantic graphic novel. [Laughs] In a couple more years when it’s done, it’s not going to be a monthly book anymore and people are going to be able to sit down and read it all at once so it’s interesting. Other than having the book out in twenty-four page chapters, it’s just like working on a really, really big book.
In the book’s thank yous, you mention that Brian Hurtt inked one panel. What’s the story behind that?
Brian lives in St. Louis and we get together once a week, at least. We’ll sit somewhere and draw. One of us is always inking or drawing something, so when that page came up, I said, hey — ink one of these panels. It’ll be fun, and I won’t tell anybody. It fit the concept of the page and he did.
Is there a big comics community in St. Louis, and do you get together with other creators much?
Yeah there’s Kevin Huizenga, Dan Zettwoch, Cullen Bunn. I see Brian the most because we do it full time for a living so our schedules are the same — we can get together anytime we want. [Laughs] It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been interacting with other creators and talking about stuff and trading ideas and getting feedback. It’s been great. I think I’ve gotten better because of it.
Do you think that helps, especially for something as big as “MIND MGMT?”
I don’t know. I feel like I’m kind of alone on “MIND MGMT.” Because my deadlines are so tight and I’m constantly working on it, I don’t have the same luxury of time that I do on graphic novels where it’s like, hey, read these pages and let me know what you think. I don’t even know if Brian’s read the first six issues, yet. I think he’s waiting for me to finish so he can read it all at once.
Is it a very different experience because it’s just you, month in, month out?
It is. It’s not dissimilar from “Super Spy.” When I did that book I had just gotten laid off. That was my first comic I did where I was doing it full-time. I did a chapter of “Super Spy” every week for a year. I did basically eight pages a week for a year and put them up online. The only one setting the deadline was me. I eventually got readers, and if I was a day late, they’d let me know. I feel like that was training for doing a monthly book because that was about what I’m doing now. I’m getting more direct feedback as I go along and doing a section at a time and people are following as I go. It feel like I’m doing that again.
I know that takes up most of your time, but have you been thinking about other ideas and possibilities?
I have a list of ideas longer than I’ll get to before I’m dead. I’m just trying to decide which one I feel like doing next. I have another ongoing ready to go with Dark Horse when “MIND MGMT” finishes up. I’ve started writing that now. I’ve got a kids book I’m doing with Brian Hurtt in our spare time. I’m writing, he’s drawing, I’m painting. No deadline or publisher yet. I’m writing some stuff for Marvel and DC and I’m having fun with that.