I first met Larry Young when we were in college, half our lives ago. Neither one of us remembers the exact meeting, but it had something to do with gin, Nastassia Kinski, and, of course, comic books. Larry doesn't drink gin anymore, having switched over to the single malt, and really is more of a Sandra Bullock man now. But we'll always have Chaykin.
You ever see someone you thought was predestined to end up doing what they did? That's Larry and working in comic books. Back in the early Eighties, back when First and Pacific and Comico were our companies of choice, comics was all the guy would talk about. Who was working on what, how creator's rights were impacting the landscape, whatever. He was the guy who told me what a "skip-week" was, but, you know, I was the one who lent him the first forty issues of "Cerebus" and blew his mind, so I sort of returned the favor.
Anyway, so we were both English majors, planning on growing up to be Kurt Vonnegut, or something, and Larry got a gig in an advertising agency doing paste-up, which he turned into a design job at a newspaper, which led to writing features, which led to an art direction gig. Somewhere in there he was an advertising manager and wrote a "Star Trek" special for MTV. Hard to keep track. Anyway, he finally assembled all this real-world knowledge and started just… writing. In his spare time, really, and not the wearing-a-tweed-jacket-with-leather-patches-on-the-elbows kind of writing, either. More of a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-damn-the-torpedoes sort of writing. Just a put-up-or-shut-up kind of thing. I mean, it's like he woke up one day and said to himself there was nobody stopping him from doing comics, and, you know, he wanted to do comics, so, in the absence of anybody stopping him, he should just go ahead and do it. Do comics. So he did.
And if you've been reading indie and alternative comics for a while, you probably know the rest of the story. He wrote "Astronauts in Trouble: Live From The Moon," and pitched it around to the top publishers. Everyone passed, and after having read Dave Sim's letters pages all through the Eighties and Nineties, he decided to just step up to the plate and swing for the fences. And AiT/Planet Lar was a home run, and then he got "Nobody" from Oni and "Channel Zero" from Image and then he started in with producing the original graphic novels and he really hasn't ever looked back. So on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his publishing company, I figured I'd ask him some questions he doesn't usually get, since most people haven't known him for as long as I have. And maybe I can get him to say something to me he might not say to anybody else. Let's see, shall we?
Rob Lavender: What's it like being Stan Lee instead of Kurt Vonnegut?
Larry Young: Well, you know I always thought I'd be living on Cape Cod on the ocean in a house with a dog and my pipe and my shelves of books with my name on the spine and whatnot, and I worked it to the point where I'm living in San Francisco on the ocean in a house with two cats and my Scotch and my shelves of books with my name on the spine, so all that's pretty close to the boyhood vision. Livin' the dream, man.
RL: So, we know AiT is a publisher of fine graphic novels, and we know that you and Mimi [Rosenheim, the AiT president] are branching out into doing the monthly books, and the ancillary swag and the action figures and the statues and all. I mean, you and me, we talk, and I know you get a hard time from the kids because maybe sometimes they don't really, really understand that you guys are running a business and not playing around. Now, what I want to know is: how do you pick a book to publish? There's gotta be some sort of criteria.
LY: Nope. It's how it hits me. Or Meem.
RL: So it's a crapshoot?
LY: Basically. If I like it, or Mimi likes it, or Ryan [Yount, submissions editor and production coordinator] likes it, we'll do it.
RL: What do you look for?
LY: Why? You pitching me something? Heh heh. The best thing for any aspiring creator to do is go to the Image Comics Web site and look at their submissions policy. That's pretty much what I want to see. Image doesn't set up creative teams because they say they don't "have the facilities for this." And if Image doesn't have the facilities, li'l ol' me sure doesn't either. I still get a bunch of shit from people about it, regardless. But what can you do? If these folks want to do comics, they're going to do comics, no matter what I say, or Jim Valentino, or Erik Larsen, Mike Carlin, or whoever. They want to do it, they'll find a way.
RL: Let's talk about all that shit you get.
LY: What do you want to know?
RL: What's that all about?
LY: Damned if I know.
RL: You always have been sort of an innovator… kind of an iconoclast. Always out there pushing the envelope of whatever you were doing.
LY: Yeah, beat of a different drummer, that's me.
RL: And historically, innovators have always been targets. People who challenge the status quo make others uncomfortable, because they're pushing the "different." And, you know, you're not exactly shy about making your differing opinions known, and I'm sure that sometimes rubs people the wrong way.
RL: That's a fair thing to say?
LY: Sure, but, you know, I couldn't care less. Like you said, it's not exactly a new thing for me to be swimming against the current, and I know who I am and how I was raised and I know where I come from, so some douchebag with keyboard courage spewing crap on some Internet message board somewhere doesn't mean shit to me.
RL: Ha! That reminds me of what you said in Boston.
RL: "I'm not in comics to make friends, I'm in comics to make comics."
LY: Hell, yes. Making comics is the goal, you know? You make friends later, that's great. You make comics with your friends, even better. But Mimi and I have put up a shitload of cash dollars to make our comics, and I'm sorry, but I'm not overly concerned with stepping on toes if those toes are in the way of us not just making our investment back but making a tidy profit, too. Somebody wants to cry that I was mean to them on some message board, that's fine. Crybabies aren't buying our comics, anyway, so I'm willing to let that segment of the audience go underserved by our company.
RL: You don't care what "people" say about you?
LY: Are "people" ever right? I mean, does anyone know the true facts? I don't care, man. I don't. If my dad, or my missus, or you, or someone who knows what's going on says "boo!" than maybe I listen to them. 'Cause I respect them. But some schmoe who wouldn't know me if they sat next to me on the bus says they think I'm abrasive, well… I have to say I don't give that sort of thing much credence, not at all. Say I tell you I want to do a graphic novel based on one of your characters, and you're sleeping with Yoko Ono. And Yoko has some kind of personality conflict with me, based on nothing. She just doesn't like me, for whatever reason. Yoko and I have no business relationship whatsoever, but she still tells you I'm gonna screw you out of your due. Me, or my lawyer, or our foreign-rights chick, or whoever. Me and my people gonna stiff you, according to Yoko. And you believe her, because you lay down next to her each night. Am I supposed to get all up in arms? Am I supposed to fight the fight and yell the yell? C'mon. People are adults. They align themselves with whom they align themselves. You wanna listen to who you wanna listen to, and I wanna make money for my creators. Somebody wants to listen to Yoko, they get Yoko. They wanna listen to me, they get me. It's simple math.
RL: You gotta strong sense of self.
LY: Man, I don't even know what that sort of thing means. Of course I have a "strong sense of self." That's all I got. That's all any of us really has. It's not me and James T. Kirk and The Man From Atlantis and whoever up here in my head; it's just me. I don't understand why anybody doesn't know who they are, since that's all any of us are ever born with…. Just us, in our own heads. That's all we got.
RL: All right; tell me about the "Planet of the Capes."
LY: Whaddaya wanna know?
RL: Ha! How about this to start off: What were you thinking?
LY: heh heh
RL: I guess we have to set this up if people haven't read the book yet. "Planet of the Capes" isn't just a superhero book. I heard you describe it as if "Switchblade Honey" was Warren Ellis and Brandon McKinney doing "Star Trek," then "Planet" was you and Brandon taking a shot at telling a "Watchmen"-esque story.
LY: Yeah, I said that, although it slightly pains me to admit it.
RL: What did you mean by that?
LY: I guess I'm of the mind that there's nothing new to say with superheroes; that it's all been done. Damn; by the time Batman and Kamandi met back in that Jim Aparo issue of "Brave and the Bold"… #120…
LY: … I figured every superhero story you could do had been done. So I was on the phone with Joe Casey, who sort of tickled me into crafting a superhero story. But my spin was that it'd be an allegory for superhero comics, using every stupid convention OF superhero comics. Somebody had a great line about it; they said "Planet" doesn't hate superheroes, it thinks they're funny. I loved that one. People saw that characters would represent different aspects of the industry; their actions would be consistent with the point we were trying to make about those aspects.
RL: This seemed to be a more polarizing work than those "Astronauts In Trouble" books, or even "True Facts," that you'd done in the past…
LY: Well, you're on the action-adventure bus or you're not, yeah? Sure, there's subtext to the astronauts if you look for it; Col. Macadam (a hard man, just as his name) going up the rocket in the middle of "Space 1959" is a nod to Ahab riding the whale in "Moby Dick," for example, but you don't have to know that to dig on the story. But in "Planet," the subtext is the story, so that a close reading is not only rewarded, but required.
RL: That may be asking too much of the comic book reading audience. I've been surfing around the Web sites, and I gotta say, it's pretty funny, the reception that book has been getting.
LY: Any work, man; you're on the bus, or you're not. It's not the bus' fault if you miss it.
RL: But I can't get over the whole "You're the comic book messiah/you're a demon retard" schism the commentators brand you with, depending.
LY: I'm just a dude making comics, man.
RL: C'mon; isn't that a little precious? You gotta know that what you do shines a little brighter because you're the King of Independent Comics.
LY: I know you're saying that tongue-in-cheek, but really. I'm just a guy who loves comics so much, he has to make his own. I know I'm a target of the Peanut Gallery, but c'mon… you're gonna try to get me to say something unkind here soon, aren't you?
RL: So, "Planet." Why are some people writing that you are a genius and others are saying they couldn't get the taste of that book out of their mouths for days?
LY: I couldn't tell you.
RL: No idea?
LY: It's all about the expectations and world-view that a reader brings to the table. One sort of cat sees a superhero saying he just wants you to care and thinks, "Wants me to care? About what?" and looks into the work looking for things to care about and to process meaning and to look for symbolism and to weigh metaphors and whatnot. Another person will look at the same superhero prancing around and think, "Obvious Batman rip-off with shades of Captain America by way of The Phantom! Worst! Comic! Ever!" All I gotta say is that I wrote and Brandon drew for the first person and not the second. People see what they want to see.
RL: That's not a very commercial outlook.
LY: Good thing I own my own company.
RL: Yeah, but you have to make money to stay afloat…
LY: Well, yeah, but my stuff stands the test of time, so far. "Astronauts In Trouble" was so successful, it anchored the company. "True Facts" is our fourth best-selling book, and the profits from that get folded back in to the company, to pay for experimental comics like "The Annotated Mantooth!" and books I personally want to read as a fan like "Last of the Independents" and "The Couriers" series and "Demo" and the like. Circle of Life, man. And "Planet" is making us money, so there you have it. The people who will respond are responding, and the people who don't, well… thanks for your thirteen dollars. Maybe you'll like one of our other fifty books, or one of the upcoming slate.
RL: Never tempted to pander to the superhero audience?
LY: Well, not pander, no. But "throw another baby?" Sure.
RL: You want to explain that, or should I?
LY: Just a short-hand from "Cerebus," where Dave has the mother bugging Cerebus to kiss her baby for three or four issues, and he finally stops and grabs the kid, kisses it, and then chucks it into the crowd, obviously killing it. Then he says something like, "Sometimes you can get what you want, and still not like it."
RL: So that's it with you and the audience with "Planet of the Capes?"
LY: Yeah, the people who wanted to see what I'd do with superheroes got mad when I didn't give them a superhero story, and gave 'em a cautionary tale about the direction of comic books as an industry.
RL: There's lots of experimental stuff in that one book; characters as embodiments of concepts speaking in metaphor, compressed storytelling, even the package itself comments on the form of comics, with the black ink/big dot color/white paper look of it as you read through. Isn't that asking a lot of an audience that's used to crying about Hal Jordan not being Green Lantern anymore?
LY: Well, like I said, Brandon and I were trying to add to the scene with "Planet," and not just do a fist-fight story for the sake of showing a fist-fight.
RL: Doesn't seem to me that they got mad because it wasn't a superhero story; seems to me they got mad because there was something else going on and they missed it.
LY: You say tomato…
RL: That's fair?
LY: Well, sure, as much as anything's fair, I guess, but it's not my concern, honestly. But I look at it as those are the folks who missed the bus. The people who got on the bus are getting the ride of their lives, and the bus will come around again for the people who missed it. If this one didn't do anything for you, the next one will. It's all good.
RL: When's the "Demo" trade coming out?
LY: Sweet baby jeebus, not you, too.