Talking Comics with Tim: James Smith

Today  James Smith's Gang of Fools makes its ACT-I-VATE debut. To mark the debut, he and I did a brief email interview. I apologize to Smith for perceiving the tale as being set in the future, but rather than edit my mistaken perceptions out, I leave them intact to avoid further confusion. Here's the official description of the story: "Aditi's got one week to come up with ten grand for rent. Diane needs a cool condo in a hot neighborhood to boost her Q rating. Paul simply cannot keep it in his pants. Ishmael's keeping a secret from his own dancehall revolutionaries. Laila's autobiographical porno has attracted the Russian mob, and Mr Chips hates you. Yes, yes he does." As part of the run-up to today's debut, Smith collaborated with animator Daniel J. Kramer on this animated clip. And I'm really grateful that Smith was willing to discuss important trends like pants.

Tim O'Shea: In reading this brief reaction to your work by comicsgirl in which she characterizes it as " futurist urban paranoia". Would that be an apt description or would you go about describing it differently?

James Smith: Probably would take issue with the "paranoia" bit, as I don't think the comic betrays any sort of fear or discomfort at all the admittedly horrible social conditions it portrays. And if I'm feeling particularly bloody-minded, maybe I'd whine about the "futurist" part too. All the fancy, sci-fi stuff in Gang of Fools is only a slight embellishment on what our most precious natural resources-- drug-addled MIT engineers-- are working on as I type this. "Urban" works, though.

At MoCCA the tagline I used was "sci-fi action hipsters and the people who hate them." I consider it slice-of-life with a sprinkling of autobiographical porn and floating robot cops. You know, like how we live today.

O'Shea: The tale is set in the future, and one character in one sentence tosses around terms like "ni**a" and "f*g". In your version of the future, are these words as derisive/offensive when used as they are in the present day.

Smith: I actually had to go back and re-read the thing to figure out what "f*g" meant, which probably makes my point better than anything else I could say.

But, for the people in the cheap seats, Gang of Fools isn't really about the future. It's about today, and the characters speak pretty much the way people speak today. It isn't that I think those words will one day lose their offensiveness; it's that everyday I overhear the conversations of people for whom such language is already inconsequential. Put it this way: right now, there's someone posting on 4chan who will one day be President. I don't imagine we'll be any more civil next week or next year.

(Tangent: was Neal Stephenson the last person to explore the return of highly-ritualized civility in an SF setting? Did I miss a week where someone did something interesting with steampunk?)

O'Shea: How long have you been producing Gang of Fools and how did it find its new home at ACT-I-VATE?

Smith: I am crap with dates. And names. And money. But I think I've been drawing GoF for two years now? And have been thinking about it and writing scripts (none of which I've used) for a year or two before that. I do know that when I started George Bush was President and I was in a terrible mood. If enough people read and then buy Gang of Fools, I will be able to repay my gambling debts to Dean Haspiel. And therein you have your second answer.

It is, I should mention, extremely flattering that the folks at Act-i-vate saw GoF and were willing to associate themselves with it. It's like getting asked out by the high school quarterback all over again (except this time I will not puke on the Ferris wheel.)

O'Shea: Do you think the ongoing migration to digital platform (and the ever-increasing popularity of iPads) will be of benefit to webcreators like yourself? How do you hope for your work to best capitalize upon this current trend?

Smith: The Internet is a fad. And this "pants" thing will never last.

New avenues of reaching readers is ostensibly a good thing. Increasingly sophisticated means of leeching cash out of their pockets? Even better. The thing I fear, however, is fragmentation. There's been a lot of talk lately-- books, interviews, drunk hobos with signs, etc.-- about our inability to keep up with it all. I'm not going to go off on some neo-Luddite rant here, but putting stuff on the Internet increasingly feels like pissing off a windy cliff. I'm hoping that wide-spread adoption of web-enabled devices means a greater ability to target a smaller but more invested audience.

At the same time, we all like to feel as if we really did discover this new comic or that new band. The more able we are to pinpoint an audience, the more that audience balks at being shilled at. I can imagine how iPad apps might circumvent this problem, but until you buy me one I won't be able to test my theory.

O'Shea: In creating this cast of characters, was there any one in particular that proved more troublesome to you in terms of trying to find the right voice or look for the character?

Smith: It took me a while to figure out what the landlady looked like. It isn't so much that finding a character's voice is hard-- it's more that working to web serialization rather than to the printed page alters the amount and pace of information you can get across. So sometimes you have to tweak language in odd ways to make the storytelling work. But Aditi doesn't talk like Diane, so you solve that "problem" in different ways for different people.

(Problem being in quotes because this is my idea of fun, for I are a nerd.)

O'Shea: Anything we need to discuss that I overlooked?

Smith: My Harvey nomination? Hah.

Actually, I just hope folks give Gang of Fools a little time to play out. I'm really excited to see how it reads in multi-page chunks, rather than page-by-page. Given that no one was initially even supposed to see this thing, it's as close as I could get to what the inside of my head looks like. Unfiltered id can be weird, but also fun. So: have fun. And wear pants.

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