Mat Johnson On Race, The Right Wing & "Right State"

Comic book writer and novelist Mat Johnson is no stranger to talking about race and politics in America. Johnson's previous Vertigo Comics graphic novels include the post-Katrina heist story "Dark Rain" with artist Simon Gane, and segregation-era noir "Incognegro" with artist Warren Pleece and have dealt with such topics as identity and violence.

In "Right State," Johnson's newest graphic novel featuring art by Andrea Mutti, the writer turns his eye towards a new topic: the influence of the media on politics.

Centering on conservative media pundit Ted Akers, the graphic novel follows Akers as he goes undercover in an extremist militia group to ferret out an assassination plot against the second black President of the United States. With "Right State" slated for release in August, right in the middle of the 2012 presidential elections involving America's first black President, CBR News spoke with Johnson about the book, touching on everything from the criticism "Right State" is already receiving to race and identity in the White House.

CBR News: "Right State" deals with the investigation into a possible assassination attempt against America's second black President, and it's coming out just in time for the election. What's the genesis of this story? Did you begin writing it with the intention for it to be released during the 2012 election?

Mat Johnson: No, that's more the publisher, which understandably wanted it to come out in a topical way! I came up with the story three years ago as I was working with my editor at the time, Jon Vankin. We basically followed each other on Facebook and we were looking at a lot of the militia stuff that was happening and finding it interesting, and we started coming up with the idea there. The book was written over two years ago, but they delayed it coming out until around the elections so it would be more topical.

You rely extensively on research. While you were looking at American militia groups did you spend a lot of time researching the explosion of hate groups that appeared after Obama's 2008 election?

Usually my research is based around stuff that I'm already doing. Instead of coming up with an idea and then going and doing the research, usually I'm reading tons of things and that's when I come up with an idea. I was reading stuff on this and checking the press reports coming out of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which follows different hate groups, and I was interested. But I didn't want the book to be some sort of left-wing polemic. The thing that interested me the most about the militia groups is they represent a political ideology but in physical form. The ideas they represent -- some of them are extreme, some of them are less extreme and their representation of them are extreme -- but they give kind of a physical form to those ideologies. So if you're writing an action story, and the stuff I've done with Vertigo has been stuff that mixes history or contemporary politics with genre writing, it seemed the perfect story to do something like that. And I always loved '70s conspiracy movies like "The Day Of The Jackal" and half the movies Gene Hackman was in, so to be able to write that type of story seemed like it would be fun.

Your Vertigo work has been a mix of exploring history, race and politics, and you also write prose novels with many similar themes. Why do "Right State" as a graphic novel rather than a prose novel?

I explore similar types of ideas but usually in a dramatically different way. When I'm working on a graphic novel story, the story length is closer to a short story than a novel; the graphic novels that I'm doing, which are usually under a 150 pages, that's usually a longer short story. So one, it's just a matter of the size of the story. But even bigger than that is the question of whether it's a visual story -- if the story is largely internal, or if the story has the complexity that's harder to do just with visual storytelling then I would do it in a novel. With this you're following in the story just a couple of days and all the storytelling happen with movement, not conversation, not internal thoughts. So I thought it would look good! [Laughs] And there are other reasons too. Sometimes there's a type of complexity that works better in visuals than it does by naming it. Also the comic work I've been doing for Vertigo been more straight genre, like thriller or mystery. The work that I do in my novels is influenced by genre, but it tends to be a different type of story, different structure.

Talking about the story itself, the solicit says there is a plot to assassinate the second black president and a conservative media pundit is going undercover to investigate. What can you say about the story and protagonist Ted Akers?

I think the plot description is going to get me in trouble! [Laughs] I've already gotten several e-mails since the plot description went out -- it's a powder keg!

Really? What type of e-mails?

I got e-mails from a place and people that shall remain nameless that really worried I was saying all Republicans were racist. To me, the story is learning what the repercussions of your views are, and that's something that's always interested me. It's one thing to believe something in an abstract sense; it's another to see the actual effect of that belief on the world. I wanted to have this character who is a conservative too, he's not coming in this from an alien perspective, but he's seeing the effects of his own actions and his own worldview in a way that doesn't negate them but shows the danger of them. The main character is a pundit who ends up, because he's a trusted pundit and because the situation is dire and last minute, put in as an informant to investigate this militia. While he's an informant he gets pulled into this whole mess of it. I wanted to put him into the world I was reading about and see what his reactions would be to that world, but I didn't want it to be a political statement in terms of being a right-wing perspective or a left-wing perspective. I wanted to have it be more about the difference between saying things and seeing people actually doing things.

There's been a lot of discourse in this country about that line between pundits encouraging things and people acting on that encouragement--

Yeah, and as our discourse has become more and more toxic that question rises again and again. We've seen it in the last four years and we've seen it in other points of time too; when the discourse gets really volatile oftentimes you see a reflection of that in society, and everyone always seemed shocked when things happen. Having the President be black in the story was less a political comment to me than I just like having black Presidents -- it could have been Herman Cain, but I guess that didn't work out! But I was just more focused on this protagonist who has been talking all this stuff actually being confronted with people who believe what he's saying when he doesn't believe what he's saying.

We have a weird political situation now because you can go on TV and you can say absolutely obnoxious, volatile things. Instead of being criticized for them, you end up being rewarded for it. It turns into this highlight reel -- the more obnoxious thing you say in public the more that clip gets sent around the Internet, the more people know who you are, the more money you get, so it feeds into the whole thing. It's the same thing with pundits and politicians. I've been fascinated by the rise and fall of Anthony Weiner. Looking at him before his scandal, he made a career out of basically talking to the camera and making points very aggressively. When you look back on it, now that there's all the calm, you can see there was this whole atmosphere being contributed to it. I'm a news junkie so I watch the news every day and I read every day, and watching how our mass media culture has affected our political culture has been an important thing to look at.

Talking about the line between punditry and action I can't help but think about things like the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords last year. Did that influence your writing at all?

I already finished the script when that happened, but when I saw that -- the person responsible is mentally ill -- but when I saw that, that's the thing I worry about. I'm a general optimist; I think most people are fairly sane and even when they say horrible things they aren't going to do them. Mostly through history people do keep their heads. It's the exception when people act crazy. But there are a lot of crazy people out there, and that's what I get scared about it -- when I saw that, watching the event and then watching the reaction to the event and the jump to blame one side or the other which muddles it further, it made me know that I was on the right track at least to talking about those ideas.

You said just from the plot summary alone you're already receiving e-mails worrying and criticizing you -- what impact do you think the book is going to have when it comes out?

I've had e-mails in my inbox criticizing me no matter what I've done! [Laughs] The last book I did was about Hurricane Katrina and I got e-mails for that, I got e-mails and reviewers criticizing "Incognegro" and some people get upset that you try to deal with serious issues in comic books at all and some people get upset because your story is not their story. It has nothing to do with facts, it's interpretation. So I would imagine I'll get some of those with this one; it's not that it doesn't affect me but it doesn't affect me to the degree I'm going to change what I'm doing because no matter what you do someone is going to be there telling why it's horrible and wrong. I don't know what if any impact this book or any book I've worked on had. I never know what the reactions to the book are going to be. Every book I've done had a different reaction and a different readership, but it's interesting.

You play a lot with the themes of race and the fluidity of identity -- with this conservative pundit going undercover, are you tapping into those same ideas?

I think when I'm working it just goes along those lines, I don't even notice it sometimes until it's over and I look back on it. You have basic DNA to your storytelling. I can tell this when I look at other writers where there are things that get repeated. In my case it's not intentional, it's the way I view the world so it's the way it comes out in the story. The neat thing about writing is in some ways the readers get a clearer view of what you're doing than you do.

Given that your artist, Andrea Mutti, is Italian, did you find yourself having to explain concepts to him about American politics and culture in order for him to hit the look you wanted?

No. I mean I've never met him and I do get the feeling there are things being translated back and forth; most of the stuff is unique to America but there's different versions to it in other countries and Italy certainly has a long history of dealing with these issues of political polarization and violence. He got it. I wanted to use Mutti because I really liked his work. There was a type of realism to it that I thought would work well for this story. He's probably the most realistic artist I've ever worked with, and I thought that would translate very well. Other than the first work I did with Vertigo, which was a "Papa Midnight" series for "Hellblazer," every artist that I've dealt with has been European, so there's always been this sort of somewhat of a dissonance but it hasn't been a problem. There was a couple of points with ["Dark Rain"] set in New Orleans where I was worried Simon Gane wouldn't really get the city even though he was a really amazing artist, and on the first book which was on racial passing, "Incognegro," I was worried Warren Pleece wouldn't get the ambiguities. But the thing that's exciting about working with DC is you get top talent. That's the biggest reason I've done stuff with them, I get to work with these people who already get it, they're professionals on a whole different level.

With Andrea, because it's a book of the moment and even though at the time I didn't know it was going to come out during the election, it is still a contemporary book. I wanted the work to have gritty realism and when I look at Andrea's work I feel like I can almost smell the characters, the detail and moment seem very much alive. I love his pages. I just feel honored, the detail that he puts into a lot of the work is amazing, and he's the fastest artist I'd ever seen; every day I'd wake up and there would be new pages and they'd just be brilliantly rendered with a lot of detail of the background. A lot of people don't know his art yet, but I think he's at the beginning of a really big career.

Outside of the contemporary politics what genre are you pulling from? Is "Right State" more of an action comic, or more of a noir or spy-thriller?

I teach writing and I tell my students the basic thing in a mystery is when you have to find out who did it, and an action story is you know who did it in the beginning but you have to find a way to negotiate the conflict. I like to use a little of both and there's both here. I love using action-type stories for the visual medium because you can see thing unfold. I read a lot of comics; comics were the first things I ever read. But with this book I was thinking of those '70s movies I grew up watching on TV, seeing those kind of political dramas unfold. I went back and actually watched a couple, my editor and I watched "The Day Of The Jackal" and talked about how it was laid out to get a feeling for having tension in the moment and tension in knowing what's going on but also having the truth of things be just out of reach and how you move that to conclusion. The novels I do are lit fiction and are fun but they're more about prose and wider sort of ideas. With genre work the difference is that you're not trying rewrite the structure, so the way you make it special is to do that dance in an interesting way.

With the title "Right State" there seems to be a lot implied from right wing to the right way of thinking. What was the thinking behind the title?

Well, originally the title was different, so Vertigo is more responsible for that title than I am! [Laughs] On this book we went over it seemed like a thousand titles until we came up with the right one. The "Right State" is taken from a quote in the book, and for me what it references is the people in the book's belief that they are going to return the country to its rightful position. Of course it also has political leaning too, but I didn't even think of that until those responses and I was like, "Oh, people are going to think the title is 'Evil Right Wing People!'" I feel so completely powerless to how people are going to receive my work, I really do, and so I can't beat myself up over how people are going to react anymore, because if I did I couldn't do anything. At this point, maybe it's getting older, I'm willing to do whatever the hell I want and letting the chips fall. Hopefully that doesn't end in a bad place! [Laughs]

While you said one of the reasons you have a black President is because you like the idea, in media there has been a long-standing narrative of a black President getting assassinated, from serious discussions about it on the news when Obama was elected to TV shows and comedy routines -- even the joke in the Chris Rock movie "Head Of State." Was that something you were tapping into, that though we've had a black President the idea still exists?

No, I wasn't thinking that! [Laughs] The bigger reason really is that I think if you're one side, left or right, it's easy to see the other side being the Other and have distance from you. They can't understand you're emotions, they can't empathize with your life and they somehow have dramatically different emotions and needs and agendas. It's even easier to do that when the person you're focusing on is of a different ethnic background, class background, sexual preference, whatever. I don't think there was much less furor going on if Hilary Clinton had become President. My wife doesn't agree with me, but I believe it wouldn't be that different than if a white Democrat has gotten in. I think the schism has less to do with race and more to do with other things.

That said, I think the tone of the schism we have right now is heavily influenced by race, but I think it was already there. All you have to do is look at when Bill Clinton was in office and you had multiple independent investigations, you had his impeachment, so those things were already happening. I think it's easier to turn someone you're focusing on, in this case the President, into an alien if that person is of a different race. I think it's easier for the people in this world to look at him like a usurper, whether he's somehow not born here or there's something else that delegitimizes him. It's easier to say, 'That's not the true President, we have to take our country back,' because they're looking at someone they don't recognize. I think that adds to the dimension. We have had other assassinations in this country, and those assassinations have been because of intense political discord, whether you're looking at the '60s or the 1860s. But aside from the Secret Service's actions of late, I don't think they're doing any less of a job so I'm not more worried about it now.

Was there a specific militia you modeled the terror group in "Right State" on?

It was an amalgamation of groups. The interesting this is when people talk about these groups, or when they talk about Al Qaeda or terrorist organizations, there's not one set model. There are a variety of different groups and a variety of different models. Some of these groups are just excuses for guys to get together to drink beer and hang out on the weekend, and some of these groups are very scary. Most of them are small groups; occasionally bigger ones will come about, but all of them are unique. There was a point in the beginning where I was thinking I should focus it on one group and take their style of doing it. But I decided it wasn't fair, even to that group, because one, it's implying they're doing something that they're not and two, if these are all unique organisms then I should pick from different ones and come up with something also unique.

After "Right State" do you have another graphic novel or prose book in the works?

I don't have any more Vertigo books planned; I'd kind of like to own my own stuff going forward so I'm working with Warren Pleece who illustrated "Incognegro" and we're going to do an online comic together. I started scripting that out and he started doing illustrations for it. That will probably be up this summer sometime. That'll be free and have a dedicated website, and that will be a straight fantasy book which I've never done before but I really like reading that stuff. Then I have a novel coming out with Spiegel and Grau who did my novel "Pym" and that should be probably out in 2013.

What would you like people to take away from "Right State?" Is there a central message or point you want to get across?

I enjoy the discussion that comes after. I feel like [if] I have a central point and I'm hitting it heavy then all you're going to get from it is my point, so if I can do work that instead gets you to ask questions that something more can come out of it than my initial ideas. But I also want it to be enjoyable. I try to do work that is engaging and entertaining, but also when you're done with it, offers you something more to think about.

"Right State" by Mat Johnson and Andrea Mutti is on sale August 8.

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