Comics and Storytelling: A Conversation with Mat Johnson
By Alex DuebenApril 21, 2018
Incognegro has recently been republished by Dark Horse in its new imprint Berger Books, edited by the legendary Vertigo editor Karen Berger, and Johnson has teamed up with Pleece to write a prequel for Berger Books called Incognegro: Renaissance. The new book draws on Johnson’s love for and knowledge of the Harlem Renaissance, and incorporates both fact and fiction in interesting ways.
ALEX DUEBEN: I started reading your work when you began writing comics at Vertigo more than a decade ago. This is incredibly nerdy, but I have this very clear memory of reading The New York Times review of Pym and going, wait, I know Mat Johnson.
MAT JOHNSON: [Laughs.] I’m happy to hear that because you’re the only person who’s ever told me that, to be quite honest. I have two sets of readers for the most part. I have comic readers who just don’t get the idea that I do novels at all, and then I have novel readers who just don’t read comics. I was surprised — I thought there would be more crossover. It’s really cool to hear that you read both.
How did you end up writing comics in the first place?
The first thing I ever read of my own volition was comic books. I was a very reluctant reader. I probably had something that would be diagnosed today as a learning disability. I did not read until pretty late, compared to a lot of my peers. The only thing I was interested in was comic books. The first comic book I got was a reprint of Hulk #1. In those days, the corner stores would sell comics with the covers ripped off. They ripped off the covers and sent them back to the publisher saying we didn’t sell this and then they’d sell the rest of the comic book. I was a comic book addict up until I went to college. I would go down to the comic book store every weekend. I was always reading comics. I stopped in high school because basically I didn’t have the money for it, because they were very expensive. But I also tuned out after the Image explosion. There were a lot of comics that looked really pretty but they would just go nowhere, and it was a waste. I didn’t get back in until I was a senior in college and somebody told me about Sandman. I got up to date with what Vertigo was doing, which is part of why it was really cool to get to work with Vertigo then and to work with Karen Berger now. That ignited everything again.
Meanwhile, I’d fallen in love with the novel. One of the reasons was because the novel was cheaper. For two dollars I could buy a brand-new comic book, or for the same two bucks I could go to the used bookstore that was in Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philly and I could pick up a novel that I would read for two weeks. The novel was easier to carry around. Girls didn’t look at me funny. I became a writer and a novelist and got my MFA at Columbia. I had one book that didn’t do particularly well, either commercially or critically. The second one did worse. I hit a dead end with that.
David Hyde was a former publicist at Vintage who was now working at Vertigo. I knew him and he knew about my love of comics. He said, you should come over and pitch. It seems so obvious now, but at the time there was far less collaboration going on between literary fiction and comic books. I was a Columbia MFA so it felt like I was a classically trained ballerina who was stripping out by the airport on the weekends. Comics have changed a lot in the American imagination. What we thought about comics then was superhero stories, and now superhero stories are primarily film and our understanding of the graphic novel exists in a way that it didn’t before. At the time it felt really crazy. The job I have right now I’ve had for 10 years and when I interviewed for the job, I had on my resume that my comics were coming out and they said, that’s just a crazy thing you’re doing on the side, right? That’s not what you’re really doing? And I had to go, oh yeah, yeah, sure. [Laughs.] My work comes out of one place, but it’s been interesting that I’ve been able to work commercially and artistically in two different mediums.
Did you experience a big learning curve when you first started writing comics?
It wasn’t a big learning curve. Denis Leary had a standup bit where he talks about how his dad was a smoker and he didn’t care what brand, he would just smoke anything. He would smoke a branch off a tree. I feel that way with storytelling. There’s not as big a difference as people tend to think. That also has to do with the fact that I’ve read so many comics over the years and, like a lot of comics book fans, I can tell you about the artistry of comics, how different artists use panels.
At first I was basically writing movie scripts. I would have multiple actions in a panel. Like, panel one, a guy walks in and sits down at the table. Panel Two, he gets up and opens the window and sits back down. There was all this movement that I had to cut, but a lot of that’s basic craft that people can point out in an afternoon. One of the things that fascinates me most about the graphic art form is that you can take a scene that you can do in three panels and you can have that same scene play out over 22 pages. Once you realize that, that’s the craft aspect. But the question after you have that realization is, what do you do with it? The exciting thing about coming into the form is how to execute the uses of time, the uses of symbol — how to employ these things on the page, and how to keep getting better at doing so.
I asked that because it was eight years between your second and third novels, Hunting in Harlem and Pym, and during that time you were writing comics.
I wrote the first draft of Pym in a year or two and gave it to my agent. My agent had it for a couple months and I was like, what the hell am I going to do? That’s when I wrote the Hellblazer spinoff Papa Midnite, which was based around the research I had already done for The Great Negro Plot. There’s an ongoing back-and-forth with the artist, but the main writing of the script would take a month to a month and a half per issue. So every time I sent a version of Pym to my agent, I had a couple months and that’s when all those comics got written. It got to the point where I didn’t think Pym was going to be published. I had this weird situation where I thought of myself primarily as a novelist, but I thought, my prose career is over. I had two books that nobody really read, and people were actually reading these comic books. It is a weird path and it isn’t how I planned it, but it was an incredibly great fortune and at the end of the process with Pym it finally gelled, after eight years. I was working on Pym from 2003 to the end of 2011. I had this book I’d been working on long term and I had all these shorter-term projects. I think what makes my career look different is that the shorter things are comics, but a lot of writers do this. They’re working on a novel and they’ll write short stories on the side.
I learned a lot from the comics that I think helped me pull off things in Pym and afterward. I didn’t know how to tell a story as well as I do now before I started writing comics. In graphic form, you cannot hide. You can’t have beautiful prose or lovely character profiles and hide the fact that you can’t tell a story. In literary fiction, there’re tons of people who can’t tell stories who have established careers and are incredibly respected and award-winning, but you’re not reading their books for the story, you’re reading for the innovation of the prose, the quality of the insight. They get away with it because there’s an assumption of genius in literary fiction. If you read the book and it’s boring because there’s no story, but everybody tells you it’s brilliant, you just think, I must not be smart enough to fully appreciate this work. [Laughs.]
In comics, you can’t pull that. Comics is barebones as far as the storytelling goes. We’ve had a history of failed narratives in comics that were beautifully rendered but there was no story and nobody cared. I talked about the Image explosion and that era of producing comics for a boom market. The quality dropped. Look at Heavy Metal comics going back 30 years. Those were creator-owned comics done by illustrators, work that was so far ahead of the work going on in the States at the time. But many of the stories were not that great. They were stories written by people who had directed their primary creative energy toward being better illustrators, not great storytellers. The artist was king when I was a kid. John Byrne did X-Men in my mind. I didn’t know who Chris Claremont was — nobody cared about the writers. We just cared about the illustrators. Now we’ve gone completely in the other direction to another extreme where people oftentimes only care about the writer. I learned how to tell much sharper stories from having to construct comic books where I couldn’t hide behind my other strengths. Pym is my favorite book that I wrote. It’s not a perfect book, but what I love about Pym is that it took me 20 years to be able to write that book. There’s a lot of stuff in that book that I had to write the other novels and I had to write the graphic novels and I had to do a lot of research to be able to write. Loving Day for me was similar, but more in an emotional sense. Emotionally I had to get to a point where I could write Loving Day and deal with my own racial anxiety issues. It’s a very vulnerable, dangerous book, and I had to build to that. For Pym, I had to read a ton to be able to put it down on paper, and the comics were a big part of that.
I reread Dark Rain this past week and I was really impressed with the ways you moved between characters, between stories, between different types of stories — the tonal shifts. You do that in Pym and Loving Day in a way you didn’t with your earlier novels.
Let me say, I have not read Dark Rain in eight years, so I’m going to take your word for it. [Laughs.] I am really happy to hear that. I think that’s the challenge. There’s a writer I know named David Mura who said that with every book you become the writer capable of writing that book. They’re all somewhat out of reach or they’re all somewhat beyond your immediate skill set, and so you have to become that writer. That’s why choosing projects is a really interesting, exciting process even though it’s fraught with anxiety. You want something that you can pull off, but you also want something where there’s a risk that you can’t. It’s somewhat beyond your existing skill set. Dark Rain was about a contemporary event that moved me a lot. I had just moved to the Gulf Coast and a lot of it was written during an actual hurricane. Rita was in Houston and we had to evacuate. Which was an unwanted irony.
Coming off of Pym and Loving Day, which were pretty big books …
They weren’t huge but they were huge for me. [Laughs.]
They were bigger than most people’s books, how about that? But you’re coming off two successful books, so why did you decide to write another comic?
I would write comic books all the time if I had the actual time. I teach full-time and I have a family. I would have kept doing comics but Vertigo went under. It was the end of an era. I wouldn’t say the comics world is fickle because it loves what it loves, but the market fluctuates very heavily. Sometimes graphic novels are the thing and other times serial is the thing, sometimes limited series are everything and other times it’s about longer runs. It’s constantly in flux. I’d been looking to get back in for a while, I just haven’t had time to do it. My basic enemy is time. To get back in you have to go talk to people, you have to come up with ideas, and if the ideas get turned down then you have to revise them. The sweet part was Karen Berger getting back into the game. Here’s someone I’ve already worked with, whose work I respect immensely. You take Karen out of the picture of American comic books and you have a dramatically different landscape. I’ve been getting emails for years from teachers who want to put Incognegro on their syllabus or a library is doing a group read and they can’t find copies because it’s out of print. At the minimum, Warren and I were just trying to get it back in print. Karen came in and said, what if we get this back in print and we do an improved version, and start a new one? Dark Horse is really the best of both worlds. We can have a creator-owned project but we can get support and work with legends of the game who are doing some of my favorite comics right now. I just feel really lucky.
For the new edition of the book, the artwork is done in gray tones. Is this something that you and Warren wanted to do initially?
Honestly the discussion we had was: Why the hell didn’t we do this in the first place? Nobody thought the book was going to be big. It was an easy pitch. I was paid a very basic rate, which was not a lot of money. I have made probably eight times as much money going to universities and high schools to talk about Incognegro than I was ever actually paid for it. The style matches comic strips of that era — not a lot of shading, mostly just inks. It fits stylistically for the period, that was the artistic justification. The artistic justification this time — and I think we should have done this before — is that book owes a lot more to noir film than it does to comic strips. The shading to me connects it with film noir, and I like that it looks more cinematic in this version. It’s an opportunity to create this film noir version of a story that could never have been made at that time, but that both speaks to this time and that time. That’s the hope.
When you sat down to think about what became Incognegro: Renaissance, how did you end up with this idea of a prequel?
Jon Vankin was my immediate editor at Vertigo years ago, and we planned at least three books. We planned to move it dramatically forward in time and I was interested in switching the main character around. I wanted to pick up five years later, when Zane’s twin brother from the first book has become the quintessential Harlemite. We were planning on taking it through to World War II, even possibly beyond, but the tides shifted and we shelved that. We moved on and tried other projects, but we had always planned on doing that. As far as the prequel, I had four different ideas, and the prequel idea came out of conversations with Karen about the Carl character from the first book. That he was a great character and wouldn’t it be cool to see that character more. The other thing was that Zane is basically a realistic superhero and in the American comic book tradition, you always have origin stories. That’s the story that gets told again and again and again, so coming up with an origin story just seemed like a no-brainer.
In Renaissance, you get to write about the Harlem Renaissance. While it’s not as dangerous as covering lynchings in the Deep South, we see that it wasn’t carefree.
Right. I’m fascinated with that era. The murder that sparks the mystery is based on a death that happens to a character in Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring, a quintessential book about the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes are characters in it. It’s just a fascinating book. In that book, this pathetic failed writer tries to get revenge against the literary world by killing himself at a party and hoping that when he dies they’ll take his manuscript and finally publish it. Unfortunately, dumbass does it in a bathtub and the water spills out and erases his entire book. It’s a really horrible, funny, but also heartbreaking moment. I’ve always felt bad for this character, so here I thought, what if there’s another version? We can create a slightly different reality, and that was the spark. Add to that all of these other things that are going on in the period. The opening party owes a lot to Thurman. The Van Horn character owes a lot to Carl Van Vechten and his book Nigger Heaven, which was his white person exposé of black Harlem. That book was also very controversial at the time, in part because of the title but also for reasons of cultural appropriation. It was so cool to bring in these literary influences, but obviously Pym does that, too. In Hunting there’s a character named Snowden because Snowden in Catch-22 dies and I always felt bad. [Laughs.] I already have all these parts of this world, and it’s one thing to say that you’ve got to set something in the 1920s if you can’t imagine how the ’20s looked. How they buy food on the street. How you take the subway. Already having a knowledge base about that period makes it a lot easier. When I’m writing it makes it feel like I’m going home to a literary imagined space.
A lot of people know some of the major works and writers of the period. Do you have a favorite, or someone people don’t read but should?
It would be Wallace Thurman. He was a guy from Salt Lake City, Utah, who ended up in Harlem. He was incredibly brilliant and he was smart enough to realize that even though they were so hyped on this new creative explosion in Harlem, it was also a boom. He was petrified that he and other people just didn’t have the talent to keep it up. He was also one of the people who started one of the greatest literary magazines of the period, Fire!!. Then he died at a very young age. He was 32. I think if he had lived, he would have launched a new generation. Plus, the character in Infants of the Spring who kills himself is openly gay. Many of the characters in the book were openly gay at a time when that just wasn’t happening in much of storytelling. The book doesn’t go into great detail, but it also doesn’t hide it at all. I find that just incredibly fascinating. If Thurman had lived, he would have had such a major influence. I would love to do something with him in the future and I probably will. It’s like with Pym, something that should have happened next but didn’t happen. Edgar Allan Poe’s Pym ends in this way that asks you to go, what happens next? The same thing with Thurman and that version of the Harlem Renaissance. So many tragic ends that also raise the question, what if things were slightly different? What could have happened?
I wanted to ask two questions about Incognegro and how things have changed in the past decade. One shift is that in the past few years we’ve had a number of books by Katherine Collins, Fran Ross, and others that are being rediscovered and discussed. These stories about race and identity and American culture that came out and have been hiding in plain sight. And your books, Loving Day especially, feel very much a part of that tradition.
Definitely. That’s a great point. The canon of African-American literature has always been one of my obsessions, in part because it’s been defined largely by the needs of the greater white audience. If that’s the case then you realize the works in there might not actually be the most impressive artistically, might not be the most impressive intellectually. They are the ones that communicated best with the larger, predominantly white audience. Not the black audience, the white audience. If you say that and then you go back to the art form and say, we’re going to define things differently, then you start to get different books. Totally different books sometimes. And sometimes not — for instance with Beloved. But then there are books that didn’t come into the conversation before. Ross’s Oreo is a great example of that. It’s not a book that meets its era. It comes in the middle of the black power movement, and it’s a decidedly different take on identity and especially on gender, at a time when patriarchal aspects of the black power movement were not being challenged.
One of the reasons I love Infants of the Spring is that it’s a wonderful book, but it wasn’t a book that white people who were looking to find out about black life were interested in. It’s a book about angsty poets afraid that their prose was being overvalued. I worried for a long time that my work would be along those lines, but now I’m fine with that. [Laughs.] Loving Day and Pym have been really weird. Neither book was heavily financially promoted. Pym was originally supposed to be published as a softcover, and then slowly the reviews came back and within two months it was switched to a hardcover. It came out and did okay, it made some waves in critical circles, but it really got a life over the years that followed. The same thing happened with Loving Day. I’m writing this thing about this militant biracial commune squatting in a park. I don’t think we’re going to get rich. [Laughs.] When it came out there was a much bigger reaction than I ever expected. It’s also a book that has sold more since the first year. I like that. Part of that is low pressure. It makes me feel like I can just do whatever the hell I want. I don’t have to worry about commercial interests in that sense. Part of that is that I don’t think I’ll ever have a huge commercial success, but I’m really cool with just being able to put ideas out that I haven’t seen. I don’t have the Medicis, but I do have academia. A tenured job that allows me to do that.
The other obvious thing that’s changed since Incognegro first appeared is that the new version is coming out in a very different atmosphere politically.
Yes. It’s a hell of a lot different than it was 10 years ago. Unfortunately. I didn’t plan for this. Not a part of the promotion. I think a lot of this crap has been there, but the scary part is what’s being emboldened. I don’t know. It’s easy in some ways to be an academic and look at the past and make sense of it. It’s a lot harder to make sense of it when you’re in the moment. I assume this time I’m going to get more hate mail.
In Incognegro, you have a line about how race is a strategy, it’s just people playing roles, and white people don’t understand this.
I think I would have written that differently today. Because racial demagogues do understand it. That’s their strength, understanding that. To me the best example of contemporary racial dynamics involving white supremacy was at Charlottesville. One of the white supremacist protestors got broken away from the rest of his pack and got chased off into a corner. The second he was alone and vulnerable, he ripped off his white polo and said, “Hey, I’m just kidding, it was just a joke.” That’s the strategy. He’s fine being out there when he’s protected, but when he was alone and vulnerable, it was just a joke. We have this constant discussion, is this racist or not? Is this person racist or not? It’s such a stupid question and it’s stupid because we’ve made racism a moral judgment. What we’re asking is, is this a good person or a bad person? Nobody can answer that question. I can’t answer that question.
There’s a line in Pym where the protagonist Chris is complaining about romantic fantasies of Africa, and he decries the white-created fantasy of Black Panther, but he loves it. This is Black Panther month. Are you excited about the movie? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I’m ecstatic. I don’t want to write anything critical about it because what it offers as far as mythmaking for my own kids is so great that I don’t want to challenge it or think about it too much. Also, as with all comics stuff, it’s very easy to overthink. I feel like Black Panther is owned as a myth figure by the African-American community in a way I never felt like it was before. As much as I loved it, it was very much a creation of white artists and intellectuals about what a possible black hero could look like. Now they did a fantastic job, which is really a tribute to the level of talent that was there, and also to their politics. You look at Marvel at that time and it was incredibly progressive. I love the idea that young African-American people get to see themselves in this light, which never would have happened when I was a kid. That’s the most exciting thing. Besides that, just as a fanboy who goes and sees Marvel movies, I hope it’s good. [Laughs.] It’s a wonderful character and always was. I own all the Jack Kirby Black Panthers. The character has always had a special place in my heart. I really appreciate Marvel over the years going and getting black voices to contribute to the book. Reggie Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay. I’m excited about not just the movie, but how they’ve been thinking about the character and the myth.
Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, the Paris Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, and many other publications. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Sarah Chihaya talks to Adrian Tomine about his writing process, Asian-American literature, and the Bay Area....
R. Sikoryak on his new book, "The Unquotable Trump."...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.