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DF Interview: Rick Remender takes social media to Nth degree in Tokyo Ghost
By Byron Brewer
Superstar writer Rick Remender explores the more nightmarish qualities of social media and its effects on our culture in his new book, Tokyo Ghost, a series awash in early 21st century influences magnified to the Nth degree.
Dynamic Forces sought to delve deeper into the world of this comic, on stands now, and so we phoned Rick. This is what he said.
Dynamic Forces: Rick, you are probably one of the best known names in comic books today. Why the swing away from Marvel Comics to more creator-owned fare? (Not that you have not been doing well on the scene before, with Black Science, et al, from Image.)
Rick Remender: First and foremost, I have recently had some health issues in my family that demand my attention, so I’ve had to cut back my workload a bit. And the Marvel work, while fun and lucrative, takes a different kind of time up in terms of having to coordinate with other books and other editorial offices, and spending a couple of weeks a year in New York at those retreats. So for me I was faced with a choice to make and I chose to take a break from the Marvel stuff and to focus on my own work for a while. I’ve also been doing the Marvel superhero work for seven or eight years now, and I feel I should take a break from it, wait until my battery recharges before I do any more. I don’t want to be the Jay Leno of Marvel Comics, where I stay too long and start producing subpar work. I want to make sure any job I take, I have a fire in the furnace and I’m excited to do it. That’s a number of reasons all mixed in there, but sort of why it was time for me to go back and focus on my own work, which is currently quite fulfilling for me.
DF: Before we get into Tokyo Ghost – love that title! – can you tell us as one who has written for both the Big Two and creator-owned the different way you may approach each?
Rick Remender: I develop and create my own titles with my artists sometimes, sometimes without. Every artist wants a different degree of input. For a title like Tokyo Ghost, it started off with a phone call with Sean Murphy about two years ago, maybe a little more than that now, where we discussed one aspect of the book, which was samurai culture. That discussion led into a number of things that interested us, and then we spent a few months talking about the characters and some of the various aspects of the book, and developed it from the ground up. So at that point, you’re defining your characters, what they would do and what they wouldn’t do, who they are and what they are. And you get to build the house however you want to build the house. At Marvel that’s a bit different. In some cases that can be a positive. In terms of Uncanny X-Force, I didn’t choose the cast, but the cast of that title really spoke to me and I ended up enjoying the process quite a bit. On Uncanny Avengers, I didn’t choose the cast, I didn’t get the cast that I wanted and it was a little more challenging for me. I’m still very proud of the end result and what we ended up putting together with it. So it’s a roll of the dice, and at least I was never in a position of control where I had much say in it. Development-wise, it really is the difference being the person who creates something whole cloth exactly the way he wants to, and the other one is a work for hire job and the company has certain needs and certain things they require of you. There’re a lot of things today going on within the company that will change what you do, and change how it’s perceived, and change how valid it is perceived by the fans. It’s just very different pieces of the ups and downs.
I’d be lying if I said I prefer working for somebody else than working for myself. The industry was not supporting my desire to create my own books, so after nearly 10 years of trying to make creator-owned books work, from 1997 to about 2007, I was very grateful to have Marvel hire me and to offer me a way to make a living. In doing so, I ended up learning a great deal working there. The editor who brought me in there, Axel Alonzo, who’s now the editor-in-chief, had a tremendous amount of faith in me when no one else did. In my mind, it’s always been Eric Stevenson at Image and Axel Alonzo at Marvel that both sort of granted me a career and allowed me to do what I wanted and to do it my way in many, many cases. I can’t think of any other editors that would have allowed Tony Moore and I to create Franken-Castle at Marvel other than Axel. But it’s a job, and it’s very difficult, and there’s a lot of politics and things that I don’t know if that’s the best place for me or where I fit. I’ve walked away from jobs at Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox and Electronic Arts. I don’t love being in committee and trying to be creative. I prefer getting on the horn with the artist and cooking up what we want to do and then bouncing it off of an editor and sort of building it that way, where the end product, if people hate it, it almost doesn’t matter to me because it’s at least exactly what we wanted to make.
I’d rather live and die by my own work and my own voice. That’s a luxury that we have right now in a marketplace where people buy creator-owned comics. If the readership decides they don’t want creator-owned comic books, then I’ll be back to figuring out how to be excited by the superhero stuff that I grew up with like I did for the last eight years.
DF: Everyone, even today, talks about the late Steve Gerber’s experience at Marvel ...
Rick Remender: I think everybody has a varying degree of experience. The Marvel work is work. It’s a job. It pays money, and it pays money on a steady regular basis. Sometimes it can be very, very fun, and sometimes it can be easy. Working with Tom Brevoort on Captain America, we got along very well and we had a lot of fun with it. On other books sometimes are not so easy and smooth. Every book I’ve done, I’ve had a different experience depending on what the company needed and wanted, and in the various politics of people who are rooting for you and people who are not rooting for you. It becomes an office place. It’s like any political atmosphere, and I don’t find that to be conducive to my ideal artistic situation. But of course, at the same time, no job where you’re being hired to do something is. I’m very fortunate that right now I can take a break from that and support my family doing books that I create whole cloth and have an audience for it. Obviously a lot of the work I’ve done for Marvel has built that audience, and I’m not unaware of that fact, so they’re symbiotic, these two things. I think Steve Gerber and a lot of those guys learned a lot of lessons that my generation could see. If you conceive Howard the Duck, don’t put Howard the Duck in Marvel comic books. If you create Howard the Duck, then self-publish it. I guess back then there weren’t a whole lot of options.
Now we’re in a place where we can do our books and create our creations, then we can live or die by their own merits and if they succeed, the creators are the ones who benefit from that entirely.
I was an animator. I was an animator and a storyboard artist and an illustrator, and I started off at 20th Century Fox, and at Warner Brothers; and then I became a director of animation, and an animator at Wild Brain animation in San Francisco. At that time, I was teaching animation at the Academy of Art University. That led to me storyboarding video games at Electronic Arts in Redwood and the Bay Area. All the while while I was doing all those jobs, I was writing and drawing my own comic books. While I was storyboarding some James Bond video games for Electronic Arts, one of my books, Fear Agent, made it around the office and I was hired to be one of the writers of a game called Dead Space that they put out. Dead Space did tremendously well and that led to me doing some other game work.
DF: So how did the concepts for Tokyo Ghost come about? Is this something you have been working on awhile, and was artist Sean Murphy aboard at that time?
Rick Remender: Sean and I cooked it up entirely together. I had an idea for a samurai story and he had some ideas for some sci-fi stuff, and we literally spent months and months on the phone talking about these characters and these worlds and cooking up what we wanted to do and say with it. Merging that chocolate and peanut butter in a way I don’t think people had seen before. It was an entire product of collaboration between us, and after about a year of building it, Sean did the first issue. He’s working on issue #5, and we’ve got a good head start on it. The book will ship like clockwork and hopefully this strange mix we’ve concocted here will appeal to people.
DF: Who are Debbie Decay, Led Dent and Davey Trauma? (Shades of early Stan Lee! What great comic book names!)
Rick Remender: The names were inspired by the band members of the band The Cramps. I was listening to The Cramps when I was writing this, and I wanted to come up with character names that reflected the cool names from those band members. The characters themselves, Led is a constable , a Judge Dredd type super cop for the conglomerate that rules the aisles of Los Angeles, and Debbie Decay is his partner, and she is tech-free, whereas Led is a tech addict. She ends up becoming a codependent and taking the role as caretaker to Led, who is constantly distracted and confused. They have been in love for some time, and her love for him and her history of neglect leads her to this codependent symbiosis between the two of them that we see kind of unfold in the first issue, which has obviously been happening for some time. Their first target is Davey Trauma, who is part Inspector Gadget and part junker, whose mind is sort of trapped inside the Internet, and he can’t tell the difference between the Internet and reality, so everything to him is just a video game level that he’s trying to conquer.
DF: Tell us about the storyline of Tokyo Ghost, about its dystopian future and how the love of tech today MAY just be heading us there.
Rick Remender: One of the things that Sean and I wanted to explore was everyone’s addiction to technology, the overwhelming influence on how people interact and attention spans. After reading a good bit on various futurism sites, I began to extrapolate the damages that we would see as people go from cell phones to chips in their heads, where they have fifteen holoscreens floating in front of their faces, sort of extrapolated from what we’re seeing around us where there are mental and other real crises that we are facing as a species that we are ignoring or outright denying are happening and keeping ourselves distracted by the Internet and focusing on pedantic nonsense like celebrity shoes and all of the various bullsh*t that we can see people arguing and debating online about celebrity pop culture, while we have government-sanctioned robot drones flying over New York. It’s a very strange time, and we wanted to take that and magnify it into something where we could potentially have a little social commentary on what’s happening around us.
DF: Speaking of, there is quite the bit of “social commentary” in the book, it seems. An undercurrent on purpose?
Rick Remender: Is it an undercurrent on purpose? It’s definitely a part of the story in terms of magnifying where we think we’re headed with our current technological addictions.
DF: Who are “tech addicts”?
Rick Remender: We all are. I am, my kids are, we’re all losing our attention span. And really, what are you going on this? Playing Angry Birds, you’re checking Twitter, you’re reading. I mean, I shut it all down and just using it to read New Scientist and National Geographic and the Times, and a few other magazines now. When I have the instinct to go check Facebook, I go, “No, go read an actual substantive article and quit being a dummy.” But it’s very difficult.
DF: So are you an especially “techie” guy?
Rick Remender: Sure. If I look at my desk right now, I’ve got a 5-terrabyte hard drive, got my wireless router, got my iPad and my Kindle, my iPhone, two monitors set up to be linked. I’m dialed in and I’m teched in. Up until a couple of years ago, I was checking Tumblr and Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. It’s all bullsh*t. It’s all nonsense and bullsh*t. It’s just useless information that’s garbling up my mind and keeping me from deep thinking and being able to immerse myself in novels anymore. So I have gotten rid of all of them except for Twitter which I have convinced myself is necessary for promotion, but I’ve been on the precipice of canceling even that. I think that it’s a great experiment that I’m getting close to opting out of because I don’t think that any of it makes me happier and enriches my life.
I would read novels and I couldn’t get a chapter into them without reaching for my phone to go check what some bullsh*t was on Instagram, like what did somebody in Brooklyn have for lunch, or somebody took a picture of a sunset somewhere. It’s nonsense. Or I’d go to Facebook and some guy I went to high school with was on some kind of racist rant about something. You just see all these things, and I shouldn’t still be in contact with some dude I met in high school, but he friended me on Facebook, and I didn’t feel like saying no, so now I get to hear what he says. The whole thing is just too much information and none of it, you know, none of it is enriching, none of it is fueling my spirit to be a creative human being. It’s just distracting me, it’s calling me away from what I’m doing, and it’s ruining my attention span. I’m somebody who enjoyed the first 20 years of life without having the Internet, and Generation X is the last generation to have experienced that, and I see what’s happening to the last generation. I don’t see a lot of positives from it. I’m just trying to walk away from it, as much as I can.
You just go back and read Emerson and Thoreau, and you see how important it was for them, Walden Pond, the disconnection with modern society and the reconnection with nature. I was a Boy Scout, and I spent my youth hiking and camping and spelunking a mile deep in the caves, or whitewater rafting, or the rest of my time was spent skateboarding. I was outside doing stuff. When that connection was severed and I became a workaholic in front of a computer screen, and trying to process all of these various streams of information I plugged myself into, my happiness quotient dropped so very substantially. For me, anyway, I think it’s just something I want to stay away from as far as I can.
DF: How has it been working with Sean and seeing this come to fruition?
Rick Remender: I think Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth are two of the best artists working in comics. They’ll probably go down in history as one of the best art teams in history. It’s nothing but a pleasure to see what they do with the scripts and see things come to life in such talented hands.
DF: Did Sean design those cool motorbikes?
Rick Remender: Sean designed everything, absolutely.
DF: Rick, what else may be coming up currently or in the near future from your keyboard?
Rick Remender: Just continuing doing what I’ve been doing. There’s a book I wrote in 2006 called Devolution, and we finally found the right artist, a guy named John Wayshack, to illustrate it. That’s coming out from Dynamite. John is working with colorist Jordan Boyd, who also colors my book Deadly Classes. They’re both just amazing. It’s interesting to see this story I wrote almost 10 years ago come to life in such talented hands. That’s also on the dock, and I think it will be coming out in early 2016.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Rick Remender for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Special thanks to Dan Adkins who greatly assisted with this interview. Tokyo Ghost #1 is in stores now!
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Grab your copy of PUNISHER: IN THE BLOOD #1 (OF 5) - SIGNED BY WRITER RICK REMENDER
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