Great Power, Responsibility & Avatar: Steven Grant talks 'My Flesh Is Cool'

Imagine that you could be anyone. Literally.

Then imagine Steven Grant (writer of CBR's own "Permanent Damage" column) combining that idea with the classic theme of great power and responsibility, all with the unique flavor you'd expect from Avatar Press. To learn more about this intriguing combination, CBR News spoke to Grant about the project and got the basic details anyone needs to delve into the three issue mini-series, shipping December 15th.

"Okay, 'My Flesh Is Cool' apparently starts out as a crime comic, which it is," explains Grant. "The 'hero' is a professional 'troubleshooter' -- usually 'troubleshooting' is a synonym for killer, but not always, as we demonstrate in the first issue -- named Evan Knox, who has a couple of interesting characteristics. 1) He's a pretty nice guy, the sort of guy you'd love to have lunch with. 2) In order to fulfill his commissions, he uses a designer drug that allows him to throw his mind into other people's bodies and operate through them. He never physically gets near the actual crime, never gets his own hands dirty, never fails. It's the ultimate in action without personal responsibility. And that's where things start to fall apart for him: someone has figured out what he's doing and wants 'the power' for themselves, and they've managed to turn someone close to him. He doesn't know who but there aren't that many people who are close to him, so he thinks he has it figured out but he's wrong because even a life without consequences ends up having unexpected consequences. The first issue ends very badly for him, and the second issue takes a major swerve. I never lose the crime comic aspect, but it also becomes a science fiction story and a horror story. Talking about 'responsibility' is a major cliché in the comics business - 'with great power comes great responsibility' and all that, but when was the last time you actually saw Spider-Man do something responsible? What I'm trying to do in 'My Flesh Is Cool' is actually deal with issues of responsibility. Evan is a fairly responsible guy, considering what he can do. He doesn't use the drug recreationally, he doesn't 'abuse' his power outside the scope of his job. He doesn't even particularly like to kill people. But, you know, what would you do if you could do anything you wanted without fear of personal repercussion, without anyone even knowing it was you who did it, no matter how public your actions? Would any claims to morality or responsibility keep you in line?

"That's where the book goes.

"I'd go into the other characters, but it's difficult to without giving away major plot points. Evan's the focus, though. He goes through some really bad times."

While the mini-series does deal with issues of power and responsibility, Grant aims to eschew the contemporary mold and create a truly "real" protagonist, whose "heroism" will be to the reader to decide. "I somehow doubt anyone who reads my work regularly will spend too much time wondering whether my lead characters will be 'good guys soon.' But I think every lead character needs some sort of moral compass, some line they won't (or, in theory, wouldn't) cross. If you look at someone like Mick Thorne in 'Damned,' he's not really consumed by issues of good and evil, or even morality, but he's got his own code, a concept of the way things ought to be done regardless of whether the rest of society's pleased by it or not. A lot of people admire that attitude, a lot of people would like to live that way or at least imagine themselves living that way. Evan Knox, though far from being the same character, is much in the same mold. Evan does bad things, but he doesn't really see himself as a bad person. He has a certain level of scruples, he doesn't go looking for trouble. Overall, he's a pretty live-and-let-live kind of guy. Of course, you could just as easily say of most villains they live by their own code, regardless of the dictates of society. The main way to not lean too far to either side is to not lean too far to either side, though often it's hard in process to tell how far you're leaning. You follow your instincts and tell the story you set out to tell, and hope for the best. Way too many people worry about how their characters will ultimately present, but not every character can be a role model. I've never really considered any character I've written to be a role model. That takes a lot of the pressure off, and it allows for a nice level of ambiguity, which is interesting. What you don't know about characters is always more interesting than what you do know."

The inspiration behind "My Flesh Is Cool" comes from much the same place that you see the material in "Permanent Damage" originates- Grant's desire to challenge conventions of society and explore a broader perspective. "I don't know if I needed to write it. I wanted to write it. The series evolved out of a number of things that have been bopping around my head for quite a few years, including the title, which I wanted to use somewhere, starting with the notion of being able to act through someone else's body without fear of detection. This got mixed in with observations on our cultural tendency to try to avoid responsibility for actions, which you find fairly widespread throughout all segments of society, this idea that whatever you can do is okay if you don't get caught. Certainly Wall Street and a lot of politicians seem to operate with that mentality, even as they castigate criminals, hit-and-run drivers, the entertainment industry, etc. etc. for trying to dodge responsibility for this or that. But there wasn't any single driving incident, no. These things just go into your head and bubble around for awhile, and then little creatures bubble out of the primordial chaos and eventually a story congeals. It's more of a constantly ongoing process than specific inspiration."

The soul searching and philosophical points raised in the series no doubt required a lot of commitment and dedication from Grant to explore fully, but thankfully, he found this series didn't require a lot of research. "Well, given the subject matter, there aren't a lot of ways to research it. It does get political in the second issue, so there was some study of behavior patterns that I could extrapolate from. I had to get the geography right, any ballistics information, the usual small stuff. But overall it was pleasantly research-free."

Looking at the business aspect of "My Flesh is Cool," the series faces some interesting challenges- coming from a smaller company like Avatar, not featuring an established property and Grant, for better or worse, not being a considered a superstar writer. Series with the aforementioned elements have a hard enough time gaining ground in the market even if they are from bigger names like DC Comics' mature imprint, Vertigo, so how does Grant approach selling this series? "I'm not sure what the best way to market it is. Marketing's a very dodgy thing these days. The publisher generally controls it. We did put out a nice preview book; unfortunately, immediately afterward the artist hit a series of snags, and as a result instead of coming out two months after the review book it was something like eighteen months so that effort was pretty much wasted. As I've discussed in 'Permanent Damage,' the direct market splits marketing into two stages, one to the retailers and one to the readers three months later, and most publishers only focus on the former. If the retailers don't order, the readers don't see the book anyway, and at that point there's not a lot that can be done except try to get good reviews and word of mouth and start promoting future issues and pray for a trade paperback collection. So it's a problem. It's not entirely a matter of people being unwilling to try something new -- in a lot of cases they simply never hear of a book before it comes out and the retailers don't order the book so potential readers never get a chance to see it, the option to browse just largely isn't there anymore -- but to the extent it is, there are a lot of reasons for that, mainly having to do with years of audience trust, faith and willingness to cooperate being abused. It gets complicated, and there's no easy way out of it. I suspect the best way to promote a book these days may be to do a story or issue with the character and give it away free online in advance of the publication of the comic that wouldn't duplicate the material, but that's also an expense most publishers won't be willing to take on. So...

"As far as mass appeal goes, I don't know. Not mass mass appeal, certainly; there's enough sexual content in 'My Flesh Is Cool' that it's not going to be mistaken for a kid's book. But, sure, why not? If anyone actually knew what constitutes an idea with mass appeal, we'd all be doing them. I'm sure there are people who'd say, oh, Evan Knox isn't a standard 'good' character, but there have been worse who've been the centerpiece of some very popular movies. So who knows?"

Creating a book with a super powered lead character, Steven Grant is taking a decidedly mature approach, but some pundits have taken the view that what the industry needs is a return to the "fun" roots of comics in the 70's and such.

Note to readers- don't ever suggest that to Grant.

"Uh... no," confidently replies Grant. "'Fun' is in the eye of the beholder. Someone pointed out to me today that the central characters in virtually all the series in 'Shonen Jump' are basically lovable doofuses. (Doofi?) I remember '70s comics, and most of them weren't all that much fun. It was a time when a new set of clichés were becoming institutionalized in American superhero comics, and a lot of those clichés are still with us today. Do I think there's room for 'lighter' super-characters? Sure, lots. Do I think we should be looking at old comic books for inspiration, or trying to reclaim older sensibilities? Not at all. That's not going to put us in touch with a larger audience, or even really please the hangers-on we've got now, because it won't make them happy. To the extent that 'fun' comics are comics that engage the reader and keep the reader interested and eager, hopefully raise a pulse or two, yeah, fun comics, bring 'em on. But what worked in other times simply isn't going to work now, and the cancellation lists are littered with enough 'fun' comics to prove that."

That raises the question of, ironically enough, responsibilities that creators have to the industry and themselves: do they create books that they feel would be "best" for the industry as a whole or do what satisfies them personally? "The two go hand in hand," contends Grant. "The most interesting stories and characters are the ones creators are passionate about, that keep the creator interested. Obviously there are shades of these things, but... what constitutes 'best' for the industry? Who decides that? Is it what sells the best? Is it what provides the best role model? The best stories or art? It's pretty much a waste of time to be concerned with what's 'best' for the industry; it's hard enough as a creator to just please yourself. (And if it isn't hard, you're probably doing something wrong.)"

Since Grant isn't a penciller, he goes looking for the ones he feels are best for his work and once again, he says he's found a fresh voice who really manages to take the comic to the next level- namely, Sebastian Fiumara. "Sebastian was brought to my attention by a Spanish agent named David Macho Gomez, who represents a number of artists now. I thought he had good storytelling and his figure work was pretty attractive, and his style wasn't overtly derivative of anyone else's but had a freshness that you don't often see in new American artists. (Sebastian's from Argentina.) I brought him aboard and pitched him to Avatar. We had a few problems with his schedule, but everyone was pretty happy with his art."

Besides the stunning art and new approach to a classic theme, Grant suggests a couple more reasons to check out "My Flesh Is Cool"- "There's only two really good reasons to read 'My Flesh Is Cool' that I can think of: you've never read anything like it before, ever, and it will change your life! Trust me.

"And remind me to tell you about 'Sacrilege' sometime..."

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