When we’ve spoken with John Dermot Woods in the past, it’s been about his work in prose. This spring, another aspect of his work as a writer is coming to the forefront: a graphic novel called Mortals, created in collaboration with artist Matt L. Mortals follows the story of an aging stage actor named Francis, who’s found respect in his field but a general lack of commercial success. A supporting role in a film and the end of his marriage both force him to consider his legacy and his mortality, and the result is thoroughly moving. I spoke with Woods about the genesis of the project, his interest in comics, and what appealed to him about the form for this project.
Where does your own interest in comics come from? And when did that interest shift into the idea of writing comics?
In some form or another, comics have been inherent to my reading since…I learned to read. Which is pretty common. But, most of us stop reading comics. Even I did, in my teenage years. (I blame Rob Liefeld.) I was fortunate enough to find my way back, mostly through the work of Lynda Barry and Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez. Calvin and Hobbes, read daily in Newsday, is the answer I always give as the inciting incident for my comics career. But, you’re asking me specifically about writing comics, which is appropriate for Mortals, as this is the first comic I’ve published that I haven’t drawn myself. And the inspiration that pops into my head kind of surprises me: Chris Claremont. I haven’t thought about him consciously much in recent years, and I often claim that I don’t know anything about superhero comics–which is sort of true in the age of the MCU–but it was Claremont’s X-Men stories from the late 80s, the ones my older brother fed me, that taught me what how emotionally moving a well-told tragedy could be. My interest in writing comics probably began when I was eight years old and I read the Marvel Mutant Massacre and I believed that Nightcrawler and Kitty Pryde would be dead forever.
On the surface, Mortals is a relatively interior story. Was it a challenge to tell it in words and pictures rather than via prose?
Comics, like stage drama, demand externality, radical showing and not telling. So it can be tricky to reveal a character’s internality. When I make comics, though, I work in a very different mode than when I write prose. Even working with Matt on Mortals, I didn’t “write” the comics per se. I go through a series of drafted notes and thumbnail drawings. For this comic, in particular, I looked to stage plays for my cues. The book’s structure is based on the classical Sophoclean model (which is referenced not-so-subtly throughout), and the characters are literal stage and screen actors. I told Matt that I wanted to write a play for the page, so that served as our conceptual starting point for this story. I tried to reveal the inner lives of my players through their outward expressions just as they might on stage.
What was your working relationship with Matt L like? Did you provide full panel descriptions, work “Marvel style,” or have some other method entirely?
Matt and I have been working together for years. This just happens to be the first thing we’ve published. And we’ve known each other even longer, since 2008, I think, when we met during a summer program at The Center for Cartoon Studies. I’ve never been tempted to let someone else draw comics that I write until Matt suggested it. And it’s because I knew that he would collaborate the way I wanted to. We’re both cartoonists and we’re both writers, so our process is very un-Marvel-conveyor-belt style. For instance, much of my scripting process is visual, and much of the writing is determined by what Matt commits to the page. We work in iterations, refining from an overall concept to the final panels and dialogue, revising it together at each stage. It’s an intense collaboration, but I think it’s the only way that would work for either of us.
I was struck by some of the moments in which the visual possibilities of the book opened up — like the scene of the couple dancing at the fundraiser. How did that work its way into the narrative?
Using the stage model, I conceived of this story more scenically than I do my other comics. In fact, it began as three distinct scenes, like three sets, one of which was the glass-walled Palm House at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. (In the revision process, several more scenes made their way in.) I chose spaces where I knew Matt could let the visuals fly, and where our characters could move in interesting ways. (This was me being greedy, as I knew Matt had the chops to render these places in a way I never could with my clumsy style.) So our characters could dance in the glass house at night, and smack the ball at each other on the cracked public tennis courts, all while they contemplated and discussed an ultimate end to all of this moving around and doing stuff with our bodies. I don’t like making “talking-head” comics (although there are some I love to read), so there’s always got to be something happening visually that creates friction with the dialogue. My idea for these movements was a concept; it’s Matt’s art that gives them life.
When it comes to Francis, there’s a lot left implicit about both him and the happier days of his marriage to Claudette. How did you figure out what to put in and what to leave out?
We’ve all heard the maxims about narrative minimalism and keeping things tight, but with comics that necessity is dire. Drawing graphic novels is long and hard labor, so economy in your storytelling is imperative. Pretty early in the writing of the book, I recognized that it was a book about endings. It seemed organic that the book would begin with an ending, a divorce, a kind of death. The love story of Francis and Claudette, which I’m sure preceded the events of this book, was a different story than the one we were telling in Mortals. I wanted to look at the lives we lead after deaths.
Through Francis’s dilemma, you’re wrestling a lot with ideas of artistic and personal success and failure. Did the process of doing so change how you viewed those?
Probably. And this is probably something I should reflect on more. Francis is a few decades older than me, but there was probably some personal speculation happening in my writing a character like him, a guy who has spent an adulthood pursuing acting, a singular artistic practice, but who has yet to define what success in that practice might be. Is it the simple question of critical vs. commercial acceptance? Is success defined by his own artistic standards? In audience-based art, like acting or writing, should we put more stock in the general popularity of our work? After all, aren’t we trying to leave a mark on the masses? I’ve spent twenty years writing experimental novels and drawing comics, so clearly I haven’t figured any of this stuff out.
Did you have a specific actor in mind as a model for Francis and his career?
You know, I didn’t. I don’t know many actors. But I think I was inspired by the struggle I see in so many of my artist friends, mostly writers, and myself. It’s hard to choose a path and to stick to it. There’s this idea that sticking with your own artistic values is pure and true and makes for “good art.” But there’s also a selfishness in approach that fights against the inherently social aspect of public art, of performance. How do you care about your audience without caring too much?
I do want to note that the Justin Stile character, the pop-star-turned-indie-actor, was inspired very directly by Robert Pattison’s choice to work with the Safdie brothers on Good Time without even reading the script, as the story goes. I also added in a twist of Bieber, an artist who always wears his torture on his sleeve. (And he’s named after my friend-since-high-school, a man who was born with the grace and the name of a pop star.)
Do you have a sense of what your next comics project might be?
Matt and I, both Paul Auster fans, have always wanted to complete a “New York trilogy” of our own. Except, in our case, New York is the state. Mortals is our NYC book. And we’ve completed almost a hundred pages of our upstate epic, but there are miles and years to go before we finish that one. Right now, though, we’re working on our Long Island book. We’ve always wanted our own Palomar (or Winesburg or Castle Rock or Yoknapatawpha County), a diorama town where we can create our own stories. So we’ve created a place called Secatague. It’s a town on L.I.’s south shore (like the place where I grew up) in which we can explore the short form, cleanse our palettes after the novel, play around with colored pencils, and tell stories about waves and strip malls and commuter trains and teenagers and the legacy of traffic and segregation that Robert Moses left in his wake. We’re having fun so far.