Committed: Interviewing Jason McNamara, “Terror is a great motivator”
With the publication of his newest book The Martian Confederacy, Volume 2: From Mars with Love, I sat down with San Francisco-based comic book writer Jason McNamara to discuss the process of writing his diverse range of independent books. All images shown here are exclusive sketches from The Martian Confederacy by artist Paige Braddock.
A New York Native Jason McNamara relocated to San Francisco in 1997. He began his comic book career in 2003 with the publication of Less Than Hero, (which he describes as “a junkie super hero spiritual comedy”) and has continued to test the boundaries of comic books ever since.
Sonia Harris: How did you get into writing comic books?
Jason McNamara: I was raised on comic books, my father taught me how to read with Spider-Man comics. It’s hard not to imagine the moments of my life broken down into John Romita panels. As an adult I studied screen writing, but like so many comic fans I wanted to create my own. More than other genre, comics seem to attract people who want to make comics, that is to say that the line between fans and creators is easier to cross.
Making comics is a strange thing to do. Outside of the industry, I’m always forced to explain to people what a comic book writer does. If I say I write comic books, they assume that I draw them. If I tell people that I write graphic novels, they think I write smut (i.e. that it contains ‘graphic nudity’ or something.)”
SH: Can you tell me more about the process of collaboration on comic books?
JM: You have a partner who can support what you’ve done. I have no problem losing popularity contests, but I’m probably nicer to my co-creators than I am to anyone else in my life. When I work with people I try to give them as much leeway as possible to do their job. I generally work with people I’m friends with, people I care about and creatively trust. We’re making art together and there is an intimacy there. Tony Talbert [McNamara's collaborator on Continuity and First Moon] is my best friend and when were working, we’d pull all-nighters drinking, fighting and throwing white-out all over his inks. It was great.
Paige Braddock is one of my favorite people in the world but she’s also the busiest, if we weren’t working together on projects I don’t know that we would be as close. We joke that we’re ‘creative life partners.’ I take the energy we spend on our book seriously and it makes me very protective of my creative partners.
When I write a first write a script, I give as much direction as I can. In some ways I try to make the instructions to the artist a story in itself, so it has it’s own zing. Then I get the art back and I letter it. When I letter it, I letter on the page so that I can see what works and I rewrite things so they compliment the art better. I edit as I go. This is why it is essential that I letter my own comic books.
I think you can tell when a letterer, artist and writer are literally not on the same page. I like to move the eye around, so that you’re taking time to absorb the art. As a writer you want to control how your story is read. Too many books I read for instance have the balloons laid across the top of their panels. If your eye isn’t asked to look at the artwork through balloon placement, your comic reading experience is going to be shortchanged. I’m always looking for ways to build atmosphere and slow the story down.
The only book I didn’t letter was Continuity so although it is well-liked, it is hard for me to get behind because I read it now and I feel like it needs an edit. I’d like to take out 40% of that dialogue. It was personal, it was my first graphic novel, I think I was trying really hard and could have unclenched a little bit. With First Moon, (the book I did immediately after Continuity with Tony Talbert), there are pages and pages where I took dialogue out, because I saw that the art was telling the story. I learned from Continuity.
When it came out, the publisher released Continuity as a pdf in the same month that the print version was published. At the time there were over 30,000 downloads. It was one of the first full graphic novels to be released as a pdf but that didn’t seem to have any effect on our orders. It was two completely different audiences. After that we won the Xeric award for First Moon.
SH: How did you and Paige Braddock begin collaborating on your current, ongoing comic book The Martian Confederacy?
JM: Paige [Braddock, the artist on the Martian Confederacy books] and I first met at a convention, we were both on a panel about Bay Area cartoonists. Paige approached me because she wanted to do something that was different than Jane’s World [Braddock's biographical comic book.] In her sketchbook she had these illustrations of trailers on Mars, bears and topless women….
You know when you watch a trailer for a movie and put the story together in your head? That’s kind of what I did. I put all of her sketches up on my wall and lived with them for a while until eventually the story just came to me. At the time I was reading a lot of post-colonial writers like Jamaica Kincaid and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so that influenced my desire to set the story in a post-colonial era Mars. I want the story to be a summer action comedy romp, that just happened to be inspired by the Monroe doctrine. He joked that “My next comic is inspired the Bill of Rights. It’s a real nail biter.”
My personal taste is so different from Paige’s that this was an opportunity for me to show my range. I tend to gravitate towards horror, crime noir and shock but for the Martian Confederacy books I wanted it to come off like a PG movie or an old-school, ‘Comics Code Authority’ approach to storytelling. There are a lot of implied adult situations in the series but there is absolutely nothing R-rated in there.
Ten years ago, if you told me I’d write a book about a tran-sexual robot, a drinking talking bear, and a shallow thief, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that was the book that came out when I started to write. Now I can’t imagine ever not writing about them, I care about them. They’re alive and a part of my subconscious. This second book, (From Mars with Love) wasn’t even supposed to be a romance, it just went that way. At first I wrote a 20 line outline for Paige and after I wrote it, I saw that it could be a homage to sequels, and there is always romance in sequels. Where else can you take that relationship? It was a good excuse to get them together.
From Mars with Love was an opportunity for me to echo some of the sequel movies I’d loved growing up, throw in references to some of my favorite PG movies. For example, there’s the father/son dynamic from the Star Wars movies. The kids are enslaved which is a reference to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The sheriff showing up on vacation is from the James Bond movie Live and Let Die.
Also the robot repair scenario was a nod to the great overlooked Cherry 2000 with Melanie Griffiths.
Even though From Mars with Love is a sequel, it has to stand on it’s own. It just needs to be one movie you can be satisfied with even if you haven’t read the one before it. You need to be able to pick the books up out of order and still enjoy them. Whenever they film a second movie at the same time as a third, you know there’s a problem. Things like Back to the Future pt 1 & 2, The Matrix 1 and 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 1 and 2… all of those are movies where I came away from part 2 feeling like I’d been cheated. If its half a story, that’s not right. I wanted to avoid that.
SH: Are there any places where you noticeably changed your original script in the process of creating the book?
JM: There’s only really one place that really stands out for me. There was a speech that I gave to an alcoholic mum who promises to stay sober if she can get her kids back. When that doesn’t happen she falls off the wagon, which is what an alcoholic would do. With alcoholism in my family I wasn’t comfortable changing that. I couldn’t tack on a happy ending to her arc it would be irresponsible.
Paige suggested taking it out and other critics have also mentioned that as being harsher than the rest of the story… maybe they’re right, but I wouldn’t change it. That’s how it would have happened. Maybe if I’d kept the speech… but there wasn’t any room for the speech, physically. In the end I tried to give the idea of the speech, with less metaphorical hand-holding. I think its fine, the outcome is the same. Less writing is always better for comics.
But I understand Paige’s point. There were so many happy endings and for this woman to have her guts ripped out… Maybe that’s something for my therapist to talk about, or I could tie a copy of the book to a brick and throw it through my mom’s window, screaming “WHY?”
McNamara laughs bleakly and continued “I liked it, I think that maybe if the rest of the book might have been more cycnical it wouldn’t have stood out so much.”
I do enjoy comedy, and these books were written specifically for Paige. It’s like a game of telephone but with only one person. I tell the story to her and she turns around and tells the story to the world. I think that’s a really important part of storytelling in comics and in fact, the more people you add to a storytelling process, the more problems you’ll have, which is why I prefer to do my own lettering. Paige does all the pre-print set up and works with the printers. It’s just the two of us from top to bottom.
SH: What about the timing of this book, can you talk about deadlines?
JM: I’ve never missed a deadline, terror will make you come up with something, it’s a great motivator. But yes, this book was 6 months late. Paige set a deadline for herself and then her day job as vice-president of Schultz morphed into being a lot more hands on, she had to do a lot more travelling, that schedule got derailed. It doesn’t take as long to write a script a it does to draw one.
Paige is an incredibly busy person who manages her time well. So why would I rush her? I don’t think you’re going to get good work if you rush someone. It’s one thing in mainstream publishing, but this is different. If the artist on Spider-Man is late, they’ll get a fill-in artist, but for a creator-owned, personal book, you can take the time to let the everyone do their job. There is no need for an artificial deadline. In fact, in this instance the “lateness” gave me time to market the book. It built anticipation. In fact, I preferred it and I want to start marketing the next volume of The Martian Confederacy at least six months ahead of time.
SH: What is next for you?
JM: I worked on Project Ajax for Cognito comics. It’s an interactive animated graphic novel about the CIA’s first official mission that resulted in the overthrow of Doctor Mossadegh in Iran in the fifties. It’s a unique reading experience, they’ve essentially combined the best qualities of comics, motion comics and animation for their reader. It’s also a very timely story.
Any book could be your last, so I want to work with talented people. Rahsan Ekedal and I have a twilight zone inspired noir story we’re working on. And Greg Hinkle and I are working on a graphic novel about a victims rights crusader who is forced to become a serial killer in order to free his kidnapped girlfriend.
Tony Talbert and I also have a book that’s perpetually three quarters done. It’s called SUCKER and it’s about a guy who comes back from the dead to eat children and fuck his sister. A vampire book, kind of… as bad as it sounds I promise it’s the thinking man’s incest book.
My parents took me to a lot of horror as a kid. American Werewolf, Children of the Corn, Halloween 2 when I was six years old and I loved it. Of course it scared the bejeesuz out of me, but it was such a fun feeling to be terrified.
The next big convention is the Alternative Press Expo. I thought about doing SPX in Bethesda MD and I’ll see about others. APE is local for me and Paige will be there, so it’s like the company picnic for indie creators.