DF Interview: Duane Murray looks at childhood grief, imagination and the power of comic books in ‘Better Place’
By Byron Brewer
This sidekick misses his superhero... After hearing that his grandfather has gone to a "better place," a boy sets off on a grand adventure to find him, dressed as his favorite comic book character.
Dylan just moved to a new house, with no friends, and a mother who doesn't have time for him. Luckily, he has his granddad. Together, they are Red Rocket and Kid Cosmo, who save the world from evil every day with the power of imagination! But one day, Dylan learns that his granddad is suddenly gone… to a "better place." Now, Kid Cosmo will have to save the day, all by himself.
Debut author Duane Murray joins artist Shawn Daley (Samurai Grandpa) for Better Place, a touching story about family, grief, change and growth… so touching, if fact, the solicit endeared this graphic novel to me. I immediately caught up with scribe Duane Murray to discuss it.
Byron Brewer: Duane, tell us a little about the inspiration behind Better Place. Is this something that has been on the Murray back burner awhile?
Duane Murray: This is a long story. It was on my back burner for awhile, and then on some front burners, and then a simmering burner and then on someone else’s stove and then cooled down and put in the fridge, and then I pulled it out and put it back on my burner and gave it my full attention when I decided to make this a graphic novel a couple of years ago. It has gone through many different iterations and even with another collaborator. Basically, the [core] story I came up with over 15 years ago. Although I have been a lifelong comic and graphic novel fan, I worked in the film industry, and was into making very independent films with no budget. So after seeing the movie Gerry (which is basically two characters walking around lost), and walking out of the theater, the story just kind of came to me. Someone gets told a loved one has gone to a “better place” and so the person, believing this to be an actual place, sets off on a journey to find this “better place" so they can be with them again. It’s basically a mash-up of memories of my grandparents dying, my love of comic books, being an only child with a single mother, my Catholic School upbringing, and the movie Gerry, oddly enough. It’s original incarnation was going to be a small independent film with adult characters.
Byron: This graphic novel is said to be a celebration of vintage comic book imagination crashing against reality. Tell readers a little more about Better Place.
Duane Murray: Better Place is about an imaginative young boy who loses his grandfather and is told he has gone to a ‘Better Place’. So he sets out on his own, dressed as his favorite hero and treating this like a comic book adventure to find this ‘better place’ so he can be with his grandfather again. That’s the basic plot.
Going a bit more thematic, Better Place is about how the necessity of growing up shouldn’t mean having to leave all the aspects of childhood behind. And that a “Better Place” isn’t a place at all, but about where we are emotionally in ourselves and our relationships to the people we love. It’s ultimately a love letter to comic books, childlike imagination, and those adults who not only encourage that imaginative behavior but participate in it.
Byron: Introduce us to your protagonist Dylan. What can you tell us about his relationship with his grandfather?
Duane Murray: Dylan is loosely based on me, or rather memories of myself as a child. His relationship to his grandfather is loosely based on my relationship to my grandfather, with a sprinkle of my uncle and my grandmother. This isn’t an art imitating life situation necessarily, but more tapping into some real aspects of my life to create this relationship. I was an only child with a single mother who worked a lot. She did not rush my “growing up” or try to shield me from things, however. It did mean I played a lot by myself and created fantasy worlds in which I played in. I absolutely used to ride shopping carts down mall parking ramps while narrating. I just did it by myself. My grandfather and I would pretend together, but it was always as a tag-team wrestling duo as opposed to comic book superheroes. And I got into comic books by reading my uncle’s old early (and unfortunately moldy) copper age comics at the cottage (I still have some of them). And my grandmother was the first person I saw in a casket and thought, “That person is no longer there. It looks like them, but it’s not. They’re somewhere else.” And so the Dylan/grandfather relationship is based on all of those things, but intensified to where Dylan’s grandfather is his best friend, and in this situation, his only friend, and losing him means losing everything and so he will do whatever he can to be with him again.
Byron: Will Dylan’s mom have a large role in this book?
Duane Murray: Though we may not see her as much as we see Dylan in the book, her role is almost equal to Dylan’s. While Dylan goes on a physical journey to find his grandfather and is confronted with the reality that he is gone and has to deal with that emotionally, his mother goes through an emotional journey of dealing with the loss of her dad, and now her son who has run away, while also confronted with the reality that if she had provided Dylan with the love and attention he got from his grandfather, he may never have ‘run away’ in the first place. And that she both wants Dylan to “grow up”, but also tries to protect him by not being able to say that Dylan’s grandfather is dead. Both go through a separate journey but come together in the end, so yes, Dylan’s mother is integral to the book.
Byron: What other characters will readers meet? Can you spotlight some of them here?
Duane Murray: The story is episodic in nature and so along the way he meets people who bring him closer to the “Better Place”. Whether it’s the imaginary place he thinks his grandfather is, or to the ‘crashing reality’ of the realization that his grandfather has died. Two of those characters are a man in the old age home Dylan thinks his grandfather might be, who believes his wife is also in this “Better Place”, and they hatch an escape plan together, as well as an adopted tween girl, who is at a graveyard visiting her birth parents’ grave, and who inadvertently sends Dylan further on his mission, putting him in danger, when what she was trying to do was hint to Dylan the reality of the situation. Dylan meets a couple of other people along the way, but those two are the most prominent and influential.
Byron: Will Red Rocket and Kid Cosmo be important to this story?
Duane Murray: They are important to the story in that they are the imaginary characters that Dylan and his grandfather pretend to be. So much so that Dylan treats this search for his grandfather like it’s one of their pretend adventures, inspired by the comic book stories Dylan has read from his grandfather’s old comics. They also play a role in ‘inspiring’ or ‘pushing’ Dylan toward his goal as he reads the comics on the journey (with pages supplied by some of the best indy cartoonists out there), and parallel the coming-of-age story as Dylan grows from sidekick to central hero of his own life.
Byron: Talk about the art of Shawn Daley.
Duane Murray: I mean, what’s there to say? This book would not exist without Shawn. He brought life to these characters and hopefully made them his own. His art has the perfect balance of the fantastical whimsy and grounded emotion that I hope the story has. Shawn brought the visual emotion to the book and was a great collaborator. I hope this book brings him the attention he deserves. I hope to work with him again, because I think we make a good team. I will never be able to say enough good things about Shawn, his high level of artistry, and his kindness and generosity.
Byron: Duane, what other projects in which you are involved can you tell readers about?
Duane Murray: I find it difficult to talk about future projects, because I don’t like having egg on my face when the projects you work hard on, don’t ever come to fruition, which is more often than I think people realize. Especially considering this one took over a decade to actually materialize. So with that said, I’ll simply bring up my current front burner projects, which include a (hopefully) series of children’s books with Shawn about an only child and their imaginary friend, and another comic story that I plan on actually doing as a 6-8 issue limited series that would get collected at the end a la 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank about a pair of former teen stars who don the old costumes of their superhero characters and stage crimes to fight and post on YouTube to try to regain their former stardom, only to inadvertently attract the city’s biggest crime boss who wants them out of the picture. I am trying to emulate that book in both format and tone. It’s been fun writing it, as it’s another one of those former back burner projects. I am about halfway done writing and then I’ll do a search for the right artist for it. Otherwise I continue to act in things and write with my best friend in trying to create other movies and TV shows. I’ve had some things percolate and go into development, but again, it seems pointless to talk about them at this stage, but they include a couple of pretty cool adaptations of existing comics and novels. That’s all I can really say – and man, I hate when people do that and I just went and did it!
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Duane Murray for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. The Better Place OGN from Top Shelf/IDW is slated to be on sale October 27th!
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