Monday, February 14, 2011

Deconstructing Destructor with Sean T. Collins pt. 1

(All art by Matt Wiegle, except the sketches, which are Sean's)

If you’ve read this blog with any regularity over the past few years, you surely know of the collective love, admiration and respect we have for Sean T. Collins. He’s our buddy first and foremost, but he’s also one of the very best writers there is on the Internet when it comes to pop culture and a range of other subjects. He’s probably the only guy I know who can bring equal passion and insight to underground comix, Gossip Girl, Lord of the Rings, politicis and David Bowie in rapid fire succession. On my best day as a writer, I strive to be a fraction as good as Sean is seemingly effortlessly.

For most of his life in one form or another, Sean has been slowly but surely building an opus called Destructor. The project’s most recent iteration is in web comic form from Sean and his longtime collaborator Matt Wiegle. Kiel and I put our heads together to get all the info we could about Destructor and ended up with a spoil of riches.

Enjoy this extended interview (part one today, part two tomorrow) which by the end of we do believe you will know more about Destructor and perhaps Sean than you ever realized you needed to and fall in love with both.

Ben: To start, hit us with the Cliff Notes version of who Destructor and his crew are, where they live, what their situation is, all that jazz.

Sean: Aw, but that would be telling! [Laughs] Alright, fine. To answer this question, I went through the "About Destructor" blank verse poem I wrote and the press release I put together to see what I've revealed, because I don't want to go much further than that if I can help it. But basically, Destructor is a person in a biomechanical suit of armor who traveled to a group of planets called the Alpha System, where he became a criminal, then a crimelord, then a warlord, then a conqueror, at the helm of a group simply called the Mob. His closest friends and allies in these endeavors are a rogue Army officer, General Grunt, and an extremely powerful robot, the Wall. The world they live in is a science-fictional one -- there's routine space travel, multiple sentient species, sophisticated self-aware robots, cyborgs, laser guns, and so on -- but depending on where you are, there are levels of technology and varieties of wildlife that are more reminiscent of fantasy. And there might be other fantasy elements down the line. We'll see.

Ben: I know the secret origin of Destructor is that you came up with him, his cast and his world as a kid, but I wanna know more--can you remember vividly how you created Destructor? If not, give me your closest approximation.

I actually remember this quite clearly. I was standing at the head of our big white kitchen table, flipping through this illustrated SilverHawks storybook. I wasn't even into SilverHawks, I didn't have any toys of theirs, so I don't know how I got it -- maybe a friend loaned it to me? Anyway, it had a page where you could see the various members of the main bad guy Mon*Star's mob of villains, illustrated basically from the waist up, which I interpreted as mugshots. I loved the image of all these bad guys one after the other -- they were certainly more interesting designs than the SilverHawks themselves -- so I took three big, attached sheets of computer paper from our old-fashioned printer and started making up and drawing my own. Destructor, an armored warlord in the vein of Darth Vader and Cobra Commander (and Mon*Star in non-hair-metal-barbarian mode, now that I think about it), was the first character I drew. Right underneath each drawing I would write the characters names and specialties, just like a G.I. Joe filecard.

As for Destructor's in-story origin, I honestly can't remember a time when I didn't know how and why he got his armor. There's a phrase to describe it that I'm sure I'll introduce into the comics long before I actually "tell his origin story," if you will, and that phrase has been in my head since I was a kid. But the full origin story I didn't flesh out until I was in high school -- a junior, I think.

Ben: A lot of kids who dig comics and the like come up with their own creations, but few stick with them quite as you've stuck with Destructor. Why do you think you never "grew out" of wanting to tell the story of this character?

Sean: Because I'm immature? Seriously, I was "playing" the Mob probably well into college. But the fact of the matter is I really can't separate Destructor and company's story from my creative and imaginative life at all. I couldn't grow out of it any more than I could grow out of having an imagination. It's just always been there at the core of everything. It's a stew into which new ingredients were introduced as I grew older and got into different things and had different influences. He-Man is in there, Star Wars is in there, Clive Barker is in there, Twin Peaks is in there, The Illuminatus! Trilogy is in there, World War II and serial-killer and mafia books and documentaries are in there. Everything that makes me me is in there. I can't grow out of me.

Kiel: Aside from what Ben's been after in terms of what's continued to attract you to this world of characters, in what ways are you creatively being challenged to present the things so personally familiar to other readers? In other words, do you have a sense for how this piece of fiction works in terms of being engaging to a perceived audience or in terms of responding to what you see in typical adventure comics, or is this still very much you just making up stories without worrying about all that?

I can tell you right off the bat that Destructor is not a response to typical adventure comics. It’s not a critique or a salute or a homage or a satire or anything of typical adventure comics. It’s simply my adventure comic. I guess that…well, if you’ve read my writing on action and adventure comics you know that I have pretty concrete and passionately held ideas about how to make good action sequences on the page, so I’m certainly trying to apply that; to the extent that those ideas arose from reading a lot of not very good action sequences, I guess that’s a way in which this is a response to them. Fortunately Matt is just really good at action, which as I said is one of the reasons I wanted to work with him in the first place, so that kind of makes it a moot point. They were gonna be good action sequences regardless of what I was bringing to the table.

But anyway, speaking to the main thrust of your question…You know, before Matt built the webcomic site and started posting the pages as a webcomic, this would have been much easier to answer. I think it’s probably still really easy to answer: In all the ways that really matter, yeah, it’s just me making up stories without worrying what an audience would think. I don’t understand making art in any other way, to be honest. I mean, I understand, but I don’t think I could do it. I’ve tried in the past and it’s been a failure, albeit a learning-experience-type failure. When I said that Destructor is simply my adventure comic, I meant that I wasn’t reacting to other adventure comics directly, but I also meant that it’s my adventure comic. It’s the adventure comic I want to write and read. The only other consideration is that it’s also the adventure comic I want Matt to draw and read and enjoy. So I have an audience of two. And all I can do is hope that what that two-person audience enjoys, a larger audience might enjoy as well. But that’s out of my hands.

Now, the reason I hesitated a little bit is because putting it up on the web, and seeing people react to each individual page, has me thinking about individual pages and what they do and don’t deliver. Not in a pandering way, or in an attempt to be a crowd-pleaser, mind you. But when someone tells you “Wow, you guys really understand the webcomics medium,” which someone did the other day, it makes you go, "Uhhh, do I?" [Laughs] And then you start thinking "Okay, so, every page needs to deliver." But that's more a concession to the demands of the form than it is to the audience, I think. You worry about the former and hopefully the latter takes care of itself. Or not. It's up to them. I really feel like once I've written something and Matt's drawn it, it's out of my hands and I have no right to tell people what they should think about it or how they should react to it.

Ben: Why is Destructor a bad guy? Is this deeply reflective of who you were then and are now or are villains just fun? Or little of column A, little of column B?

Sean: Well, for one thing, as I said above, the image that sparked me first putting pencil to paper was of bad guys, and bad guys were just a lot more fun to draw. They could be much more individuated in terms of outfits and even species than the good guys, in my experience at that time. Whether you're talking about He-Man, Star Wars, G.I. Joe, or The Lord of the Rings, which were my childhood favorites, the main good guys were mostly human (or human-looking) and mostly dressed in relatively normal-looking clothing. The bad guys, on the other hand, were robots and skeletons and monsters and shrouded sorcerers and ghosts and werewolves and dudes with awesome giant weapons and swords and guns and armor and stuff. They're just cooler-looking -- Chewbacca, Man-E-Faces, and Snake Eyes notwithstanding.

I also knew right away that making bad guys like Destructor and the Mob my main characters would give me freedom to do more stuff. Luke Skywalker couldn't use a giant space station to blow up a planet. He couldn't wear awesome giant scary armor. He couldn't boss people around with the Force. He couldn't preside over a palace full of creepy creatures with a giant monster in a pit in the basement he could feed people to when they pissed him off, or make people walk the plank into a giant mouth in the middle of the desert. Bad guys just got to do cooler, radder stuff!

So those are the two fun answers to that question. There are also two more serious answers. The first is that maybe making these guys bad guys was one of the beginnings of my interest in dark material, which became a lot more prevalent as I grew up. Now, as a kid I was scared to death of anything "scary" -- I had no interest in heavy metal, I was terrified of seeing a modern horror movie, I was totally freaked out by the posters and video covers in the horror section of the local mom-and-pop video store. I did however like the villains in the shows and movies I watched and the books I read; I also really liked old monster movies, both Godzilla, which I watched on Channel 11 on weekend afternoons, and the Universal Studios stable, which I really only knew from those wonderful orange Crestwood House hardcovers about them, which I got from the library. But by the end of high school I self-identified as a horror fan -- first via Stanley Kubrick's darker movies, then via Clive Barker's films and books. I also was a budding serial-killer buff. And probably most importantly of all, the rise of alternative music meant I was listening to things like Ministry's Psalm 69, which meant I was wearing a lot of black. And none of this has really gone away. I think that in person I'm very friendly and jovial and polite, and online I'm very garrulous and upbeat in the tone of most of my writing, which if anything probably tilts over into being overbearing or arrogant at times. But inside me…I don't know how to put it. I'm not an optimist about life, human life and life in general, I guess. I wish I were! I wish I wasn't stuck with the kinds of thoughts I have about how life works. I'm better than I was a few years ago, when I was really struggling with these thoughts, but they're still there. And maybe Destructor was a way to give voice to them even then.

The second serious answer, which I'm hesitant to even bring up because I'm not really sure if it holds water, is that I was very briefly a victim of relatively mild but still at-the-time disturbing abuse as a youngster. Don't worry, I'm fine, and I was fine at the time too! I still feel anger at the people involved, of course, but I remember at the time that I never had any hesitation about telling my parents, never had any doubt that this was anything but an aberration from the way I was supposed to be treated and that it would be brought to an end and I would be safe and happy again. It didn't impact my long-term sense of security and self-worth, is what I'm saying. And indeed, once I was able to inform my folks what had happened, that was all she wrote. I really never thought about it being a serious incident in any way. But when I was in high school or college, I was going through some files in my parents' house and discovered some IQ and personality/psychological test I'd taken that I didn't remember, along with the psychologist's report. I wish I could remember what my IQ was on that report! But anyway, there was a bit in the summary where the shrink talks about how I was given some toy animals to play with, and I did some scenario where some predators were menacing some prey until some other big animals came and rescued the animals who were being menaced. This seems perfectly normal to me -- I mean, people rescuing people from other people is basically the plot of all heroic fiction ever! -- but the shrink suggested it had something to do with what had happened to me. Maybe Destructor, who no one will ever boss around ever again, had something to do with it too.

Ben: One thing I've always loved about you is that you're a guy whose appreciation of and tastes for art in all its form goes all over the place from Clive Barker to Gossip Girl and back again. What of your many influences would you say played most into the creation of Destructor and have worked their way in over time?

Ha! I gave a brief list above -- it's hard for me to talk about Destructor without talking about its influences, I guess. But the big ones, roughly in order: Star Wars, Tolkien, He-Man, G.I. Joe, classic monster movies, "enigmas" (Atlantis, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs), Julius Caesar, young-adult fantasy series (Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, a bit of Ursula K. LeGuin, a bit of Robert Asprin), Batman, Marvel trading cards, the Gulf War, Stephen King, war documentaries (especially World War II), superhero comics, Frank Miller, serial killer documentaries, mafia documentaries, Clive Barker, 1984, Nu-Marvel, Fort Thunder, Scott Pilgrim, Los Bros Hernandez, Boards of Canada, Robert E. Howard, George R.R. Martin.

(The interesting thing is that the influence of Howard and Conan crept in second- and third-hand: "Destructor Comes to Croc-Town" was conceived as a Conan-style wandering-warrior story long before I'd actually ever read or seen any Conan story or comic or movie. Since then, I've read all of Howard's Conan stories, so that influence is probably even more pronounced.)

Ben: You and Matt Wiegle are both Yale graduates--do you think your professors were prepping you guys for something like Destructor? Also, do you think anybody from Harvard could make something so kick ass? What would a Harvard version of Destructor be like?

I really can't speak for Matt since we had very different majors. I think he studied sculpture, and I was a "film studies" major. I don't know if he was making comics in class, as opposed to the student newspaper, which is where I first saw his stuff. But we had a mutual friend, Josiah Leighton, who did try to make comics in art classes, which went over like a fart in an elevator at the time. This was ten, fifteen years ago now -- really a different world from how comics are treated in academia today. But I think the professors whose classes really meant something to me -- film, English, and photography, mainly -- would have said hell yeah, go for it. They were already fighting against a weird anti-film bias at the university. "Yale is not a trade school" was the catchphrase used to explain why we didn't have the actual filmmaking equipment and facilities, and classroom emphasis on making films as coursework, that you'd see at NYU and USC and what have you. So I can't imagine they'd have rained on the comics parade if it were something I was pursuing at the time, though it wasn't. And though he didn't teach there, the film scholar and critic David Bordwell, who has written very intelligently about comics as well, was quite influential on the film studies department via department head Charlie Musser. So I think my professors, at least, would have been fine with it. And of course, the whole point of film is to tell a story visually. I chafe at the notion that comics shouldn't use film techniques and terminology when it suits them, any more than film shouldn't use theater or photographic or literary techniques and terminology when it suits film.

That was probably a more serious answer then you were looking for, huh? [Laughs] As for Harvard, they're too busy making Facebook and napalm over there. Boola boola!

Ben: How did you and Matt meet and what attracts you to his work as an artist?

I was familiar with Matt's work in the Yale Herald before I knew Matt himself. I imagine we actually met through Josiah, who also was an artist for the paper and was in some of Matt's classes, but we really got to know each other better when we were both inducted into the same secret society at the end of junior year. The bonds formed by shouting secret slogans in an underground lair and tailgating nude in the back of a rented truck at a Havard-Yale football game are never severed.

Matt's comics have always impressed me. I love how imaginatively and solidly constructed his characters are, and when you're doing a sci-fi/fantasy strip, it's so important to have the characters look individuated and appealing on first glance. He's also very good at pacing, which in his student-newspaper strips and most of his minicomics he uses to be funny, but which I've learned is totally germane to action sequences as well. And I think the combination of his cartoony style and rough-hewn line reflects on a very basic level the way that Destructor started, literally, as child's play, but has grown up with me. The moment I mentally abandoned the idea of making Destructor comics in a "mainstream" way and realized the idiom of alternative comics suited it better, what was in my head ended up being pretty much exactly what Matt wound up putting on paper.

To be continued...


Sean T. Collins said...

I'm enormously grateful for this opportunity, Ben and Kiel. Thank you!

Justin said...

I love Destructor,and my son really likes the cartoon version.