Over the course of this blog’s history, I’ve been fortunate to have my work read and shared by major comic book sites, pros in multiple industries and the occasional minor celeb, but to this day, I get more excited when I receive a plug from Sean T. Collins than anybody else.
Sean T. Collins is a former co-worker/current friend/forever guru to all of us here at the Cool Kid’s Table. When it comes to writing intelligently, insightfully and oft-hilariously on comics, TV, movies and just about anything, STC is my standard of excellence, whether at his own blog, on one of his various ventures or even here when we’re fortunate enough to have him.
Sean spends a lot of his energy breaking down, y’know, “good” show like Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad, which I love to get his take on, but it was of course a special pleasure to read him attempt to bring some class and critical breakdown to a true American classic like Gossip Girl. As a fellow who’s versed in both art house smarty-pants stuff and daytime soaps, STC offers a unique take.
Imagine my joy then when as the final season of GG churned its way out Sean informed me, Kiel, et al that he was writing a Gossip Girl comic telling the “secret origin” of Chuck Bass! It’s fantastically drawn by Dan White and you can find the whole thing right here.
I immediately got on Sean’s case for an interview, and around New Year’s, he gave me the holiday gift of his extensive thoughts on the show, the comic, Chuck and more.
In stark earnestness, what made Gossip Girl a show you found worth giving your time to? I'm not talking guilty pleasure territory here, I'm asking what genuinely quality factors do you feel it had?
STC: As one of those obnoxious people who says things like "there's no such thing as a guilty pleasure," I have to go with stark earnestness regardless. In that light, I think it's starkly, earnestly a fun, soapy, sexy show about attractive young quasi-sociopaths getting involved in crazy hijinks. That's either going to float your boat or it's not, but it certainly floats mine.
Thinking about it more specifically in terms of its place in my viewing trajectory, maybe Gossip Girl was the first television show I was able to watch with the new appreciation for glam decadence that had opened up the music world for me a few years prior, I don't know. Looking back, I think it was the first soap I ever really watched, opening the door for The Vampire Diaries and True Blood and The Young and the Restless years down the line.
But GG always had that deliciously incoherent mixture of celebration and satire of the lifestyles it was depicting, giving it an is-it-or-isn't-it edge that most of those other shows, however much I enjoy them from time to time, can't really match. This was especially the case when the characters were all supposed to be 17 years old—what can I say, I've been a sucker for teenage sensation since I was one myself. But the decision to go full-on pervy with the love interests in the final season—Nate goes jailbait, Ivy goes Oedipal twice over, Serena and Lily have both been to seventh heaven with the same guy, etc.—showed that the show never really lost its knack for being dirty even as the kids grew up and the show lost its must-see-tv buzz. You never knew when GG was going to pull something as shiny and sleazy as a mid-'00s Goldfrapp single out of its sleeve.
Did I mention it was sexy? I mean, I sincerely appreciate that, I truly do. For squeezing Blake Lively into all those toothpaste-tube dresses, for playing lingerie dress-up with Leighton Meester time and time again, for crafting a dandy-of-the-underworld look for Ed Westwick, for every glimpse of Penn Badgley's chest hair, for every close-up on the inhumanly beautiful face of Chace Crawford, Gossip Girl did humanity a great service.
Finally, Chuck Bass and Blair Waldorf are terrific characters, as memorable as any on TV. It took them a while to get a handle on Chuck, obviously, but once they figured out what they had with him and Ed Westwick, a simultaneous Batman-and-Joker that would make "Batdance"-era Prince jealous...hoo boy. And Blair's manic perfectionism as expressed by Leighton Meester's chirpy caffeinated porcelain doll face—hoo boy again.
Going 90 degrees or so, what is absolutely ridiculous about the show to the point where it does become a guilty pleasure?
STC: This isn't so much a "guilty pleasure" thing as a "love to hate it" thing, but repetition, repetition, repetition. All those times someone found out something Serena was withholding from them, and she sighed with that slurry pitch-shifted voice of hers, "Look, I was gonna tell you, but..."—half-apologetic, half-irritated, all-ridiculous. All of Nate and Serena's four-episode-arc significant others. Rufus, the Human Turtleneck, disapproving Lily, Miss Congeniality, being cold. Vanessa spending however many seasons she was on the show busting everyone else's chops for, essentially, being Gossip Girl characters. It was fun to make fun of this stuff.
Ditto all the things they picked up only to drop. Eric Van Der Woodsen, the adorable younger brother who could have been an awesome main character if this dirty and decadent show about teen sex weren't too cowardly to show a dude kissing another dude for reasons other than Chuck/Blair intrigue. The fact that all of them spent two seasons worrying about nothing but college and then all of a sudden, blam, it's never mentioned again. The need to cycle through love interests and villains preventing them from keeping most of the best of both categories around for as long as they deserved to—when they broke the mold, they had at least as many misses—I was never really sold on Ivy or the jailbait girl, though hubba hubba in both cases obvs—as hits Juliet, the Prince.
Now then, why a Gossip Girl comic? Of all the subjects out there and even all the TV shows I know you love and are intrigued by, what made this the right source material?
STC: The quick answer is that Robin McConnell of Inkstuds fame wasn't proposing to do a zine about any of those other shows, so I didn't get the idea to do something on anything else. The less quick, possibly less accurate, answer is that Gossip Girl fits squarely into some stuff I've been thinking about a lot lately in terms of comics writing: sex, success, celebrity, discontent. The comics I've done about Drake and David Bowie aren't a world apart from the world of young Charlie Bass.
Was there an aspect of doing a Gossip Girl comic that was less intimidating than doing, say, a Mad Men or Sopranos comic because there probably aren't the same expectations attached? Knowing you, I'm doubting this entered your mind, but if it were me, I'm sure part of me would certainly be thinking "Best case, it's art, worst case, it's parody I can easily get away with" or something along those lines.
STC: Hmmm...I don't think so, no. I mean, if I were to do a comic about Mad Men or The Sopranos I wouldn't write it in the style of those shows, you know? I wouldn't be competing with Matthew Weiner to see who could write Tony Soprano or Don Draper the best. So the weight of expectation wouldn't be insurmountable, for me at least.
Why the structural choice to go with the newspaper style series of comic strips rather than one story? It's one of those things I would never have thought of and didn't realize how brilliant a choice it clearly was until I saw it laid out.
STC: Well, the whole thing clicked when I realized I could reenact the first Peanuts strip with GG characters, and that set the template for what was to come. But I'm sure on some level I was thinking about Daniel Clowes's work in this format in books like Ice Haven and The Death-Ray and Mister Wonderful and Wilson, where he uses individual strips or old-fashioned Sunday-page-length vignettes to tell an overall story. Other people have done that too—Tim Hensley and Adrian Tomine come to mind, not to mention all the actual comic strips that have told ongoing stories, Peanuts included—but I bet Clowes was what gave me the sense that you could really do this.
I know you've got a soft spot for Chuck Bass, so I wasn't surprised to see the story center on him, but what about this character intrigues and attracts you?
STC: He's just the break-out combination of actor and star on that show. As I said before, it's one of those remarkable Wolverine-type situations where they didn't quite have a handle on him at first, but they very quickly saw they had a golden goose and just kept cranking egg after egg out of him. As a result there was something of a no-prize factor in trying to figure out how the leering creep of season one and the vigilante hero of the later seasons could possibly be the same person. I was struck by the throwaway mention of Chuck losing his virginity to crazy-even-by-GG-standards Georgina Sparks when he was in the sixth grade and, because sexual hang-ups were basically the story of my own adolescence, figured that must be where the origin story would be located.
For anybody who has never read your thoughts on Gossip Girl, explain the Chuck-Batman thing.
STC: Like Batman, his one real super power is that he's unimaginably rich. He's a scion of privilege with a personality born out of tragedy. He walks the line between hero and monster. He dresses well. He's in love with Catwoman, basically. His catchphrase is announcing who he is. And he wears a lot of purple, which is a Joker thing not a Batman thing but it's in the ballpark.
How much time did you devote to actually setting this in –or lack of a better term—Gossip Girl continuity and thinking about where you knew the characters were before the show?
STC: Quite a bit, actually. I wanted it to work as well as it could, to the point where I asked Dan White, the artist I was extremely lucky to be able to work with on it, to try to find pictures of all the actors when they were 6th-grade aged and make it look like this really was an unseen season of the show. I tried to base all the relationships on whatever information about them we had from the show at the time. I think we did a good job, though I was bummed when the final season either revealed or reminded me that Serena and Georgina didn't meet and become evil friends until high school.
What did Dan think when you approached him with this idea?
STC: Dan didn't have a ton of experience with GG, but several of his compatriots in the Mindless Ones group blog did, and they set him on the path of righteousness. I think that for Dan the real appeal here was the experimental appeal of collaboration, since he mostly writes and draws his own excellent stuff.
What aspects of this do you feel like were distinctly Gossip Girl and which were just a story you wanted to tell?
STC: Figuring out what Chuck Bass would be like before he became "cool"—that was unique to that character and that world. I wouldn't have thought to write someone like that but for the show. The rest...I think a lot of it was probably just me projecting about the inner lives of the popular kids in middle school who I continue to resent to this day, honestly, and that could have happened any which way.
How did you come to see young Chuck—and to a lesser extent the other characters—as he was in this story? How did you arrive at the characterization you landed on?
STC: Like I said, I had the idea of Chuck Before Chuck. A kid with that Croesus level of money and influence, that anachronistic vocabulary and sense of self, but largely pre-sexual and without the self-confidence and swagger and style; what would that look and sound like?
Who was the most fun to write besides Chuck?
STC: Georgina, for sure. She had to be true to the character on the show, she had to be the kind of person who would terrify and turn on and transform the pre-Chuck Chuck I came up with, and she had to be a young person with issues of her own driving her to behave the way she behaved, rather than just a plot device existing to service the needs of the Chuck story.
I know you think the end game for the show should be a Chuck/Nate romance, or at least you have intimated as much…
STC: The show's been pretty wimpy about same-sex relationships, as I said earlier. No way would it make two of its Big Three male leads gay at all, let alone gay and involved with one another. To be clear, I'm happy with Chuck and Blair working out, even though I can't for the life of me see why their collusion in criminally negligent homicide was necessary for their happy ever after to take place. I'm much less happy, however, about Nate winding up, in the parlance of my wife, FOREVER ALONE. He couldn't get with Jenny in her final cameo? Come on, GG.
All said and done, what were the parts of the comic you thought hit best?
STC: I like Blair, I like Bart, I like the longer monologues, and I think I got the sex stuff the way I wanted it to be, which was always gonna be the challenge.
Did you always know that was going to be the last panel?
STC: You bet. By the way, SHAME on the show for not giving Chuck one final "I'M CHUCK BASS." SHAME!
Could there be more Gossip Girl comics in your future or is it Vampire Diaries' turn?
STC: Haha! Neither, most likely, though with any luck I'll have some more TV-related stuff coming up.