For Max Bemis, lead singer of the rock band Say Anything, performing in front of a sold out crowd doesn’t compare to the nerve-wracking decision to write a comic book. But Bemis, who describes the comic book medium as his primary creative passion — he proudly cops to reading thousands and thousands of comics — makes his writing debut in April with the release of “Polarity” from BOOM! Studios.
The four-issue miniseries follows Tim Wood, a Brooklyn artist, who stops taking his bipolar medication only to discover he has superpowers. Bemis describes the story as an action-adventure with a dose of dark comedy, but admits “Polarity” reflects some of his own experiences dealing with bipolar disorder.
Comic Book Resources spoke with Bemis about what pushed him to finally write a comic of his own, as well as where the protagonist of “Polarity” begins and Bemis ends. Bemis was on the road to a gig in Austin, and our discussion quickly turned to comics beyond his own, with the frontman listing off some of the series he had brought along for the trip — “B.P.R.D.,” “Journey Into Mystery” and Brian Wood’s “Couriers” — and talking about his intense comics-collecting habit.
CBR News: After years as a musician, what finally pushed you to write a comic?
Max Bemis: Well, it’s funny. I’ve been partially wanting to do one for a long time. I’m so immersed in the world of reading comics — it’s literally my greatest passion. The idea that I might write one because I’m already a songwriter, and I grew up writing screenplays and short stories and stuff, was sort of an obvious thing in the back of my head. But I felt a little intimidated because it is my favorite medium. It’s almost like when you meet a girl you really like and you want to call her and ask out, but you’re slightly nervous because you like her so much.
It’s actually a funny story. One of the main things that got me moving again and wanting to do it again was the book “Kabuki,” by David Mack. [It] has this whole reoccurring theme in the last few books about this character that starts to create comics and gets over her fear of creating them and it empowers her. I was reading that and I was like, “Oh my God, I need to stop being a puss,” you know? And I’ve had some good meetings with certain people, especially with BOOM!. Once I really decided to go for it, they were the first people I got in touch with and from there, this happened.
What’s your house look like? You must have rooms full of books —
I do. I actually have an entire library in my house because I don’t collect single issues. It’s all trades and hardcovers. My goal is to generally collect things in the best format possible. It’s a commitment on several levels, mentally and financially, but it brings me the greatest joy out of anything else in my life, outside of like substantial human relationships. [Laughs] But beyond that, it’s definitely number one.
“Polarity” follows Timothy Wood, a Brooklyn artist who goes off his bipolar medication and discovers he has superpowers. You’ve talked about dealing with bipolar disorder yourself, so superpowers aside, how personal a comic is this?
I would say it’s definitely more personal than the average mainstream book. When you get into the world of indie comics and slice-of-life stuff, it’s almost more common for it to be fully autobiographical. But in the scheme of telling sort of an action-adventure, dark comedy-type of a story, I think it’s more autobiographical than most people are willing to deal with.
But the character isn’t me. There are a lot of difference between me and the main character. It’s almost like all my worst qualities — and then some of my hopefully endearing qualities — sort of amplified, because the character has a lot of neuroses that I’m not as consumed by, that completely destroy him. I just wanted a character who could send the arc of what happened to me, and be able to tell it through a much more exaggerated lens. We wanted the character to be sort of exaggerated as well.
Where is Timothy at when the story starts, and is he someone that will use his powers for good or evil?
Tim is a young artist, struggling with his place in the Brooklyn community as well as his self-loathing, which results partially from the fact that he’s bipolar and partially because he’s only getting attention for work he did while manic.
When these “powers” come into his life, it’s part of his internal struggle as to how to use them because he’s such a wounded guy: Â selfishly or selflessly. Although I don’t want to give away what path he chooses, I can say it’s a major turning point in the second issue.
Are there any comics that have done a good job capturing what it’s like to be bipolar, or have addressed mental illness in a way that spoke to you?
You know, actually I’d have to say no. And this is no slight, even though some of my favorite creators have tackled mental illness. Specifically, [Brian Michael] Bendis, and he’s literally, possibly, my favorite writer. In the recent “Avengers” books, both Norman Osborn and the Sentry were depicted as being mentally ill. Norman Osborn is known to be bipolar, but he is [portrayed as] such just by being a creepy asshole. I think that a lot of people just kind of confuse the fact that he might be bipolar — which does make total sense with the character — with the fact that he’s an evil, unhinged guy. I’ve seen it used a lot as almost a slight. I like his depictions of mentally ill characters, I just prefer there to be more that are relatable.
I’ve heard of an indie book recently that was written by a girl that was more of a realistic depiction, but I haven’t read it yet. “Polarity” isn’t realistic by any means, but I like to think that it captures the good and the bad, and it isn’t just a cliche. I’d like to think that even if people have a problem with how I portray it, they can’t knock that I haven’t experienced it. At least I know what I’m talking about, whether they agree with how I portray it or not.
How have you been handling the balance between writing comics and music?
I find it very easy to fit in the time writing, actually. It’s a part of my life that — the work carries the least amount of baggage. It’s the easiest, quickest and most fun of all the different things I do.
If you step away when you’re making music, the music stops being made. Whereas you can walk around all day and think about dialogue and story ideas. You can write [comics] with a movie in the background, while you’re hanging out with your friends and wife or whatever. But when it comes to music, you’re just there, frozen in front of a computer, recording, in a studio or doing a show.
Actually, at this point, given that it’s my first work and I’m so amped about it, and I’m not jaded or cynical in any way about the art form, I find it to be the most just straight-up fun thing to do that I do.
What’s been the biggest surprise of the comic book writing process?
One of the only things that I was nervous about going into it was — I know the medium, front to back, because I’ve read thousands and thousands of comics. But it’s like, to be able to do the pacing intuitively and breaking down things into panels, especially fitting something into a 22-page comic, y’know, any writer given too legroom will just babble and ramble. He can let the story take its time to an unhealthy extent, I feel. But since we’re all given these constraints as writers, I was little nervous about being able to do that. But it was actually really intuitive and I haven’t had much of problem keeping myself in line. I was surprised at BOOM!’s reaction to my first draft. The comments, although very informative and very constructive, were not like, “OK, you had no idea what you’re doing.’ That was like a nice surprise to hear. [Laughs]
How’s the collaboration with your artist Jorge Coelho going? Have you seen any of his pages?
Great, so far. I mean, he’s literally done everything right. I’ve had like two comments for him, and we’re already in the inking stage of the first issue. So far, I haven’t seen one thing that I didn’t like. I just love his work and this book looks great so far. I’m stoked.
Without giving too much away, is “Polarity” a concept you can come back to after the initial four-issue story?
I’d say, with the character specifically, or the concept, there might be some possibility, but I’m not planning it that way. I’m definitely trying to wrap up the story and have it be a self-contained book.
Do you have plans to write more comics in the future?
Oh, yeah. There are already plans for a specific second book that I’ve working on — sort of just in the very, very, very early stages for it. And beyond that, I mean it’s my plan to write to be a full-time comic writer as well as a [musician] — if I’m good enough. I think we’ll know by the reaction to the first book if I’m even good enough to continue pursuing it. If everyone loathes it, I’ll probably still do it sparingly — but even if some people like it, I’m definitely going to want to continue to write several books a month and do everything a normal comic writer would do.
“Polarity” #1 goes on sale in April and comes with a free download for an original song by Max Bemis.