Sam Humphries is about to hatch the unthinkable: a story about presidential politics someone may actually enjoy following for the next year.
That's because the writer behind Marvel series like "The Legendary Star-Lord" is teaming with artist Tommy Patterson for "Citizen Jack," -- a November-launching Image Comics series that mixes horror and comedy with the story of Jack Northworthy, a man destined to be president thanks to the help of a hellish demon.
"This is a really fun time to be writing this," Humphries told CBR News as Facebook feeds everywhere get assaulted with the latest Onion-esque Donald Trump quote or the newest interminably boring twist in Hilary Clinton's e-mail scandal. "This series is about politics, but it's really a horror comedy for people who hate politics. It's a book that takes its frustrations out on the right targets."
Below, the writer explains why those targets aren't Democratic or Republican, pontificates on how American political discourse is a horror story all its own these days and shares how "Citizen Jack" will work to tell a story both terrifyingly true and hilariously farcical all the way up to election day and beyond.
CBR News: Sam, your new Image series is about a loudmouthed presidential candidate whose road to the White House is empowered by help he gets from a demon. I swear I tried for an hour to think of a way to start this interview without referencing Donald Trump, but I failed. [Humphries Laughs] But it does seem like strange and somewhat fortuitous timing that this book you've been working on is arriving just as this campaign season is getting so wild. Do you feel there's some synchronicity there?
Sam Humphries: Well, "Citizen Jack" is bigger than Trump. As big as Trump is right now, Jack is bigger. And a lot of questions that people are having right now -- scratching their heads and wondering how this is happening and why this is happening -- those are the kinds of questions we're answering in "Citizen Jack." So yeah, it's actually a little bit scary that as we were planning this book about a truly scary presidential candidate, the electoral process and the political machine as a whole delivered a candidate somewhat in the same vein as Jack Northworthy.
It's interesting because we heard so much before this election cycle got underway from both parties about how this presidential race would be one where the candidates focused on the issues. It wasn't supposed to be a dog and pony show on cable TV. And if that actually played out, it might be worse for your book. But the politics have almost proven why there's a need for this story.
First of all, that whole line about the issues is bullshit. It's all a dog and pony show. And the reason behind that is because people who work at Fox News gotta eat. People who work at MSNBC gotta eat. People who write for the newspapers and bloggers gotta eat. They're all part of the same machine. If this was just an election run on the issues, then the attention would go down, and people would stop getting paid.
So politicians can keep saying "This is the year we're going to run a clean campaign" or "This is the year where we're not going to call people names" or "We're not going to use people who are marginalized as props for our campaign." But that's never going to happen. That's why the system is the way it is right now.
With the way the campaign is going now -- not just with Trump but with the Hilary Clinton e-mails or Bernie Sanders or whoever -- we're over a year out, and it's already crazy. And it's not going to get less crazy or weird the closer we get to election day. So to a certain degree, I do feel justified in making "Citizen Jack." I feel lionized. It certainly would have been frustrating for me if the politicians had done what they promised and delivered a back to basics campaign without any sensationalism whatsoever. We would have been caught with our pants down.
I obsessively watch the election news all day long and then I hate myself for having done that. [Laughter] Is that what you're like, and does this story come from some of that tension?
Yeah. I'm alternately inspired and disgusted by our political system. It's really gotten to the point where for me it has nothing to do with partisanship or ideology. "Citizen Jack" is my response to how we got here. I'm not even that old, but I feel like things have definitely changed in recent years. Within politics and within the government, good things and bad things have happened. Good things and bad things will always happen within limits. But the tenor of politics and of governance has gotten worse. It's gotten more divisive and more aggressive, and I don't think it's evolved in any way that improves the lives of the American people.
Looking at the first issue, Jack as a character is all the things that represents that mindset. He's brash and crass and selfish... but it seems like you're also working to make him sympathetic. That reflects our politics too. Whether it's someone as overblown as Trump or someone as career-focused as Hilary, we want to believe they're real human beings at the end of the day. Was finding that balance in Jack hard?
Absolutely. A friend of mine read the first issue and asked me, "How did you find this line?" and the answer is that I did not start on page 1 and find the line. I went back and forth over the line a few times as I was writing. There are some iterations of this story that were way more out there and crazy. The newscaster known as Cricket the Dolphin is a refugee from those drafts. But then there were some versions that were way more down to earth and realistic. They were more straightforward in the vein of "House of Cards." But that stuff can be really dry! I wanted to lean into the fact that this was a horror comedy. That's what makes this come alive to me. Politics can be inspiring, but they can also be alienating. They can really piss you off. But horror is cathartic, and comedy is cathartic. I didn't want "Citizen Jack" to do to people what you and I feel when we watch too much cable news. I don't want people to come away from this feeling "Our world is fucked up and crazy, and now I feel depressed for having read this."
So when it came to Jack himself, I knew from the beginning that he needed to be a sympathetic character. In a book like this, that's easier said than done. The way I've described Jack is that he's a man that in no way should be President of the United States. There's absolutely no angle you can look at Jack and say, "Yeah, he could do a good job as president." And that goes for everybody no matter where you're at on the political spectrum. But there is something about the political machine that will enchant people who should not be in politics. It will captivate people and draw them in like sirens on the shore. For its own purposes -- for the cause of the continuation of the machine -- it will take these people and chew them up. It will ruin their lives and then spit them out.
The way you describe that political reality, it almost sounds like a horror story! Let's talk about that horror element and how that expresses itself. It feels as though a lot of that falls on Tommy Patterson's shoulders as the artist. I was unfamiliar with his work coming into this, but he seems to have a Geof Darrow/Chris Burnham kind of style that can go from intense detail to really expressive cartooning. How did you bring him into the series, and how has he helped establish the tone?
I actually found Tommy through some mutual friends: Ryan Stegman and Nick Pitarra. And you'll never catch me saying nice things about those guys. [Laughs] But Tommy is actually the New York Times best-selling artist of the "Game of Thrones" comic series [published by Dynamite]. He does have this really great clear line style here, but in "Game of Thrones" he was doing a totally different style of penciling that was kind of a '90s vibe. I think it shows how good of an artist that Tommy is that he's got styles upon styles within him, and he brings out whichever one fits the story best.
So Tommy coming on really transformed "Citizen Jack." It transformed what I thought we could get away with and how much we could lean into both the horror aspect and the comedy aspect. Tommy does a great job with Marlinspike the demon, and in subsequent issues things get very dark and very bloody and very gory, and he does a fantastic job with that. There's some real haunting shit. But he's also an incredible cartoonist, and the way that he draws Jack specifically really helped me get into that character. And just like we were saying earlier, that helped make him more sympathetic. Tommy's so good with faces and so good with very expressive cartoony faces that aren't too cartoony. You can relate to them on an emotional level, and that made me realize that I could go a lot further with the emotions of the characters in this book and lean on his acting skills. He's fully the co-creator of "Citizen Jack." He's done so much for the book and transformed so much about how I think about it. We're way beyond the point where I could imagine anybody else drawing it.
How are you viewing this as a long form story? There seems a lot to unpack with this story from who exactly Marlinspike is and what he wants to what he more established candidates in this election will say about the rise of Jack.
I'll say that we've got a long, long plan for "Citizen Jack." Talking too much about it would involve spoilers, but we've got solid plans for the first six issues and plans for the next couple arcs to come after that. We'll see more of Marlinspike and learn about his origins, his nature and why he'd do this. We'll also learn more about Marlinspike and Jack's relationship over time. We'll see the first time they meet when Jack is a kid. And we'll definitely in the near future be coming into contact with the two main candidates of the election. They're not Democratic or Republican candidates. We don't use those words at all in this book because that's not what this book is about. We're non-partisan in our satire. This is not about ideology or point of view on the issues. It's about how the electoral process has corrupted ideology and point of view and really corrupted the issues.
You're getting this book off the ground 14 months before the actual election. It seems those two things have to speak to each other just a little bit. Could the events of the this election cycle bleed into the series in any way?
Yes and no. Watching the Trump machine roll on has given me some confidence that we're doing the right thing here and are on the right path. But things in our book do move fast -- almost too fast for the news cycle. We've got the campaign trail, Jack's national convention with his party where it comes down to a vote for the nomination. We've got presidential debates. We've got all sorts of stuff planned out now, so we're running ahead of the presidential campaign. So what I think you're probably going to see is "Citizen Jack" affecting presidential politics instead of the other way around. [Laughs]
"Citizen Jack" debuts November 4 from Image Comics.