Max Bemis‘ stories come from the heart. The Say Anything frontman-turned-comic book writer dealt with his bipolar disorder in “Polarity,” a mistrust of society and government in “Evil Empire” and with “Oh, Killstrike,” he tackles parenthood and comic fandom.
His third creator-owned series at BOOM! Studios, “Killstrike” — illustrated by Logan Faerber — focuses on Jared, a new father who is usually more concerned with talking about what’s wrong with the comic industry than he is with becoming the best dad he can be. All that changes when Killstrike, the blood-thirsty vengeance-obsessed ’90s anti-hero Jared loved as a kid, comes to life. Worried about the people he cares about, Jared does his best to protect them from Killstrike, but winds up on a journey to find his own absentee father.
Both a love letter to the books of the ’90s that influenced an entire generation and an examination of what it takes to be a father, “Killstrike” mixes introspection with humor. The result is a buddy story between a man and the character he once loved, but is now embarrassed by.
CBR News spoke with Bemis about mining his personal experiences for his comics work, looking back on ’90s fandom and how his children inspired the story of a man teaming up with a crazed lunatic.
CBR News: When we spoke about “Evil Empire,” you mentioned that you used that story as a way to work through some fears about society. Would you say you’re doing that with this book as well, perhaps on a more personal level?
Max Bemis: It’s a cliche to say, but they’re all pretty personal. They all encapsulate different aspects of my extremely active inner life. “Evil Empire” is a lot about my hopes and anxieties about the world and society, and “Killstrike” definitely focuses on people’s personal relationships, my personal relationships and people’s personal relationships to comics. Comics are almost like a weird, second, less-important life to me. I literally spend so much time and effort on this, what is essentially a hobby, but is also a passion. There’s a lot of framework to look at the way readers relate to comic books in the same way they relate to their parent or their own inner child. That’s the metaphor of the whole thing.
It’s an interesting dynamic, because unlike movies or TV, comics is a medium that started out very popular and became niche. And because people had to work so hard to get into comics, there seems to be more intensity in that relationship. It sounds like part of that is reflected in “Killstrike.”
Completely. The main character is so far deep into that culture that he’s lost sight of what it ever meant or what it was supposed to mean. That’s an easy thing to do in the circumstances you were describing. Same thing with music, same thing with art and film. If you’re so immersed in the fandom or the appreciation or the cynicism and the standards of what is cool or bad, what’s allowed or not allowed, you can lose sight of that. That comes with what you were talking about, where it is a niche. We feel ownership, and it gets twisted up by what we find bad in ourselves, and we apply it like, “This writer is ruining comics!” or, “This era of comics ruined comics!” Jared is obsessed with that quality of fandom until he gets thrown into this adventure and it tests his will to be a cynic.
How does Jared feel about Killstrike before the events of the book? Does he still like this childhood favorite, or has he moved on?
The character was his favorite when he was like, 10, and now he’s a complete joke to him, which tends to be a lot of Millennials’ experience with the ’90s anti-hero comics. It’s become a common blog joke. It’s the most common thing to slander the comic fan of the ’90s, early Image comics, the things that Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and all those people were doing. At this point, he’s such an elitist comic jerk that he actually hates the fact that this character has come to life because it represents everything he’s embarrassed of in his past. Basically, he has to shepherd around this huge, hulking behemoth of a character who’s a complete embarrassment, and be able to live with himself. He has to develop a relationship with him while he’s on this quest. The real journey of the book is Jared’s quest to find his absentee father. Killstrike is kind of his guide and it turns into this farcical buddy comedy that’s quite dark.
It all goes back to me becoming a father. I had to examine my relationship with my parents, my relationship with my self, my wife and everyone in order to be the best person possible. Thankfully, I’m the type of dude who’s been in therapy for my whole life, so there was a period of intense self-loathing — and then I pulled myself out of it because I have an amazing family and friends. My wife is amazing, my daughter is amazing, but I could see if I was a little pushed in any particular direction [that it would fall apart].
In this case, Jared never knew his dad. If that were the case, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a new father. I’m exploring the darker side of how I felt in a lens where I can imagine someone not even having the cushions that I’ve had in my life to help me feel better about it.
It’s almost like a “What If?” comic, but focused on your own life in that way.
It’s exactly like that, and with the future, and worrying about the future. The cool thing is that it sounds really heavy, and those themes will hit your over the head a little bit. It’s like when you watch “Knocked Up,” there’s a million morals to that story, but mostly you’re just enjoying Seth Rogen being dumb and Katherine Heigl. It’s not necessarily banging you over the head or anything unless it wants to, and it’s a joke that it’s doing it. I think people will be able to enjoy the comic without doubting their own will to live. It’s not necessarily super dark.
Obviously, the concept of parenthood was a driving force behind “Oh, Killstrike.”
Completely. I’m on my second daughter, we had her a few weeks ago, and I had the idea for this comic after having my first daughter, Lucy. I was working on “Evil Empire,” and as anyone who has read the series will tell you, it’s maybe the darkest [thing I’ve written]. I was immediately drawn to doing something that had more heart. Not really “have more heart,” but something that was more catching and kind as a story. I do think it was because I had a daughter. Specifically, “Killstrike” addresses my fears about being a father and, as I tend to do, encapsulate my worst qualities in some of the characters and my struggles to be a good father. I really worry about it a lot. The main character doesn’t really worry about it enough and that is one of my biggest fears, being someone like that.
Were you one of the kids reading all of those ’90s books? Were there specific ones that inspired the creation of Killstrike?
Oh yeah, of course. All of them. As soon as I started getting an allowance, it was for comics. I would just go [to the store]. I didn’t really have a concept of new comic day, I just thought they showed up at any given random time at Golden Apple in LA. I would just show up and was like, “Ooh, ‘WildC.A.T.S.!'” It was all that — “WildC.A.T.S.,” “Spawn,” “Cyberforce.” I got into it too late to even know that these creators worked on Spider-Man and the X-Men. I just knew that they created the friggin’ Violator. It was huge for me. It got me into comics, straight-up. I think I liked those comics more than I liked “X-Men.” I just remember being at my friend’s house and he was like, “You gotta read this ‘Spawn,'” and I loved it.
The funny thing is that, now, the “Spawn” catalog got released digitally — the entire series — and I’m re-reading it from the beginning. It’s so good. I love it. The art is really dynamic and cool. Even now, I love that stuff. It all led to such cool stuff, like the WildStorm Universe and what it became. Its influence is so amazing, but if you go through a long period of time distancing yourself from it and not appreciating it, you can very easily pigeonhole it.
All those Image books inspired more dynamic artwork at DC and Marvel, plus attempts to make books more edgy and interesting in the process.
It immediately got co-opted and kind of saved [the industry], in my opinion. Some people say it ruined it, but I think the creative enthusiasm that those comics had uplifted the industry in a way. It’s now being put through a different lens, where there’s a heavy influence on the writer, and that’s awesome. But I think without that testing-the-limits mentality, I don’t know if we would have gotten where we are now. Keep in mind, before I got there, I’m sure there was a time when I was in denial of that.
We all have those books that we loved as kids, but maybe don’t hold up so well upon further, more grown-up inspection.
It’s easy to get the chills. First of all, I think some of those comics are better than others and need to be judged on their own scale. They’re not all the same quality. You have to separate your own self. You’re just embarrassed by yourself, you know? As funny as it is, you’re like, “I love this, and that’s why I hate it,because I hate myself slightly.” That’s the deal.
Is that a big part of Jared’s journey in “Killstrike?”
It’s all about him. Killstrike, in a way, is very dependable and is kind of a good guy when you get past the fact that he’s blood-crazy and this freak monstrosity. Jared is the one who’s kind of all-over-the-place. It doesn’t appear so when you see Logan’s beautiful artwork, where you see shrimpy normal guy and then the freak.
I noticed that Logan drew a variant cover for “Polarity” #4. Did that lead to you working with him on “Killstrike?”
I actually became familiar with Logan’s work because he did an art piece based on a Say Anything song. He was so good, I was like, “Man, I cannot believe this amazing artist likes our music.” He was so good, we hung it up in our bedroom. I got in contact with him and we remained in contact. I knew I wanted to work with him. It immediately clicked in my mind that this story is so loose and imaginative and all-over-the-place and bombastic and charming, hopefully, and that’s very much what Logan’s deal is. He provides the energy. It would not exist without that, straight-up. I can’t imagine a different artist drawing this book. Anyone who looks at it will at least say, “This is the guy who should be drawing this series.” He’s ridiculous, and he’s a great guy.
Was it helpful moving from something as dark as “Evil Empire” to something that’s more light-hearted? At least, it sounds more light-hearted!
I can’t even describe how much. I wrote both of them at the same time. I just finished writing “Killstrike” and wrapped up “Evil Empire” right around the same time, so I was alternating between the two and doing a little bit of work-for-hire stuff on the side. It was a constant battle between the super-intense, depressive state that “Evil Empire” would put me in versus “Killstrike.” It’s weird — you’d be looking at me writing and you wouldn’t know, but inside I’m toiling. It’s like the difference in a song where you write a really heavy, depressing song versus an uplifting one. They both flex the same muscles, but it induces a different feeling when you’re drawing from different places.
A few years ago, Robert Kirkman told me he loved having a book like “Super Dinosaur” to switch over to after writing “Walking Dead,” because it was more light-hearted.
That’s the most perfect example of a book that it would be so fun to jump back to. I’m finding now that I’m writing more comics, it’s actually important for me, emotionally, to spread myself out in that way. Not only could you become one note as a writer, but your emotional well being [would suffer] because you’re tapped in so deeply to that kind of hinges on it. Some of my favorite writers write constantly depressing stuff. I can’t even imagine what that must be like.
This is your third creator-owned series. Do you feel like you’ve learned more about yourself as a writer or about writing in general since starting out?
Completely and a lot of that is thanks to the people at BOOM! I really owe a lot to the comics community, the creators and fans who have treated me like a real writer from the get-go. I feel like “Polarity” was an unreasonably cool way to launch my career. That encouraged me to step it up in a big way constantly. That’s what I’m trying to do in music. I’m not saying I’m achieving that or that I’m any good at all, but definitely, in my own mind, I have to at least impress myself and try to write the comics I’d want to read. Based on the friendships I’ve developed and the encouragement from the community that I’ve had, I don’t know if I’d have the gusto to say to myself, “Oh, this is good,” unless someone validated it, and there’s been a lot of that. It’s been an incredible journey, just these three series. I want to do this very seriously for a very long time. There’s a lot of cool stuff coming up.
What are some of those other upcoming projects you have in the works?
The main thing, outside of my creator-owned stuff is a sort of long-ish run on “Crossed: Badlands” this summer, which is one of my favorite comics. I’m completely honored to be amongst the stable of ridiculous writers who make me look like complete shit who have written for Avatar and have worked on a property that Garth Ennis created. That story makes “Evil Empire” look like “Killstrike.” It’s so dark, but everything I do has some element of humor, dark humor, to it. I’ve read every issue and I think it’s one of most emotionally dark books that I can think of.
Later in the year, there will be more creator-owned stuff. It was important for me to complete several series of my own creations before I jumped too much into freelance or working with other companies or any of that stuff. Now, I feel I’ve somewhat earned it, so I’ve got stuff in the works all over the board, but I’m trying to take it slow because I think all the best writers do and I’m trying to learn from people who are smarter than me.
Plus, you have a lot of other stuff going on between parenthood and the band.
Yeah, that’s the crazy thing, but I don’t really think about it that way. I try to think about it from the perspective of, if I had these opportunities to write comics and I wasn’t a musician, I’d be friggin’ freaking out. For somebody who has only been writing comics for not that long, I want to be thankful and gracious for that. As a comic fan, it’s a dream come true, so I don’t want to squander any of that. I’m definitely not going to let the fact that I am particularly busy get in the way of being a full-time comic writer as well as a musician.
“Oh, Killstrike” #1 from Max Bemis, Logan Faerber and BOOM! Studios arrives in comic shops on May 20.
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