I Wanted This To Be Dangerous: Black Mask’s Matt Pizzolo Talks ‘Godkiller’ And Pushing The Limits Of Comics [Interview]
Since co-founding Black Mask Studios with 30 Days Of Night writer Steve Niles and Epitaph Records owner (and legendary punk musician) Brett Gurewitz in 2012, Matt Pizzolo has established the company as a home for all manner of genre-busting, boundary-pushing comic books – their initial slate included the all-star Occupy Comics project, Darick Robertson and Adam Mortimer's hyper-violent sci-fi series Ballistic, Matt Miner's animal-liberation vigilante yarn Liberator, and Matthew Rosenberg and Ghostface Killah's 12 Reasons To Die.
Black Mask is now in the process of launching their second wave of titles, and first out the gate is Pizzolo's return to the role of comic creator, collaborating with artist Anna Muckcracker Wieszczyk on a new incarnation of his dystopian multi-media Godkiller project. Upon its release last month, Godkiller: Walk Among Us #1 became Black Mask's first ever title to go to a second-printing, and with #2 hitting comic shop shelves this week, we sat down to talk to Pizzolo about the inspirations for the series, his collaborative process, and his vision for Black Mask as a creative and commercial endeavor.
ComicsAlliance: How do you describe this book to people? I read the first few issues that you sent along, but I'm still not quite sure how to categorize it. It's obligatorily "sci-fi", but without the trappings that the term tends to imply. There are no spaceships, no lasers, very little technology at all, in fact – it's almost like a cyberpunk sonata, but with all the robotics torn out.
Matt Pizzolo: Yeah, I like cyberpunk sonata, man, that works. It gets called sci-horror, which I guess works as well as anything. Issue #4 of Walk Among Us starts breaking open the quantum physics stuff, which then becomes a bit harder sci-fi -- almost speculative science -- in the second arc,, Tomorrow's Ashes, but even at that point it's an amalgam of science with theosophy. Theo-sci-fi?
The intended genre is mindf--k, really. In the way that The Illuminatus Trilogy penetrates your subconscious and rewires your modes of thinking. Kind of a dirty concoction of Heavy Metal Magazine and [black and white] outlaw comics channeling Jodorowsky and Otomo through Batailles and Tsukamoto... It's not polished and clean like prevailing contemporary comics, it's filthy and scratchy. Everything out there right now feels really safe to me, I wanted this to be dangerous.
CA: So why this story? Your background is in film, so what made you want to tell this tale in comic form?
MP: I was actually more interested in comics than film early on. It's kind of a weird story how I wound up in film in the first place. I got kicked out of high school but managed to test into an arts school instead of going to delinquent school; they had a play writing program and I wound up there, but I was just writing underground comics in play format.
And so I went from there into film school for screenwriting, but even in film school I was mostly trying to write comics until I got kicked out of there as well. I was obsessing over more eclectic type comics, smart horror like Cry For Dawn or personal books like Brooklyn Dreams. It was the early-to-mid 90s, I was working at St. Mark's Comics in NYC, and I just couldn't find a path to tell my kinds of stories in the days of Youngblood and "The Clone Saga".
The black and white comics explosion that captured my imagination was ending, and indie film was in a renaissance the way comics is now. I was living out of a backpack in Alphabet City during NYC's violent rebirth, and I wrote a film called Threat about fringe kids enduring cycles of violence until a few survivors decide they should be focusing their anger against the wealthy elites who pit regular people against each other.
I'd pitched a cyberpunk comic to this small publisher called Flatline Comics who put out a comic called Flatbush Native that I really dug. It was kind of an inner city superhero – Flatbush was a different neighborhood then than it is now. And I got to talking with the editor there and he suggested I step away from genre and write something real. And that's why I wrote Threat... It could just as easily have become a comic but it wound up being a film. And when it hit film festivals I got to tour Europe and spent most of the trip gazing at churches and museums.
I was mesmerized by the juxtaposition of pagan art and Roman Catholic art – it's as if the art itself is embedded with holy war, the religions and mythologies and cultures competing for disciples through art. And specifically, the painting "Triumph of the Cross" on the ceiling of the Vatican's Hall of Constantine blew my mind. It's a painting of a shattered pagan statue on the floor with the crucifix taking its place atop a pedestal. There's nothing subtle about that to me. It's saying art is war. It's saying "Mission Accomplished".
CA: And that's part of what you're going for in Godkiller? That sort of confrontational, in-your-face punk vibe?
MP: Yeah. I feel like wars of philosophy are still waged through the arts today. It's become cliche to talk about our favorite writers and artists worldbuilding and crafting mythologies. Many of us have our moral codes more influenced by movies and comics and books and music than by any institutional religion. It's not by accident that Disneyland and Vatican City are pretty damn similar.
But I personally could never really relate to most contemporary mythologies. For me and the people I came up with the closest thing to a Hogwart's owl visiting someone's house was a home invader or a collections agent or a cop looking to drag you out in handcuffs. So I wanted to craft a little story for f--k-ups and misfits, people who've not had guardian angels or magical destinies, people who've left pools of blood on the concrete behind them. A little mythology of our own. It sounds ambitious, but that's not how I mean it.
The things that have meant the most to me, that frame my personal mindset, a lot of them are moments from songs or films or comics that 99.99% of people have no idea exist. I just wanted to make something that might be part of that for somebody who can't relate to the stories 99.99% of other people can relate to. Godkiller is not for everybody. Not because it's an acquired taste or because it's kind of niche – it's not for everybody because Godkiller hates most people.
CA: How did the story itself come together? Did you know right away what the plot would be, or did you start by establishing the atmosphere, and then just let the details grow naturally from that foundation?
MP: I'd spent years crafting the bigger story world, the mythology, the bible of the whole thing. And then I just sat down and wrote this mini Godkiller: Walk Among Us straight through... but Walk Among Us was just a small story that takes place in the Godkiller world, the mythology I'd spent years crafting is only referenced... all the characters and plots were new.
By that point I'd been writing screenplays in Hollywood and I'd just done like a hundred drafts on this Knights Templar project that was in development hell. And I didn't want to deal with any plot breakdowns or development notes or any of that sh--, I just wanted to scream onto the page and whether it's good or bad just have that creative catharsis go out into the world with its own integrity intact, warts and scars and oozing open sores and all.
When you polish and rewrite something over and over, the plotting might get cleaner but you also sand off the things that make you nervous, that make you feel vulnerable, that you're not totally sure you're comfortable letting the world see. I didn't want Godkiller to be perfect, I just wanted it to be honest. And I think the beating I'd just taken in all those Templar rewrites had drilled enough format and structure into me that Godkiller's plot foundation wound up being relatively firm just by osmosis, so I didn't think too much about that part... it could stay loose but it still has bones.
CA: How did you find Anna Wieszcsyk? And how did you know she was the right collaborator?
MP: On DeviantArt, in like 2008...[she was] like 20, in art school in Poland, and I was riveted by her art, it wasn't like anything I'd seen before. It was grimy and beautiful and sad and angry. And everyone I showed it to said she was the wrong choice for Godkiller, so that's how I knew she'd be perfect. I sent her very vague script pages with really loose descriptions, and what she gave back was either exactly what I'd had in mind or far better. So I trusted her 100% from the jump-off. I've barely ever asked for a revision in the six years and 600+ pages since then.
CA: Was it conceived as a multimedia project from the get-go? You've previously released pieces of Godkiller in both comic and animation form…
MP: Well, I had the idea to do it as a weird digital art/video project... Anna illustrated it panelized in comics but it was always part of the plan to experiment with building it into some form of video, we just didn't know if that would work at all. I started printing the comics on-demand and selling them at conventions while working on the animation, which I termed an "illustrated film" – it would now considered a sort of proto-motioncomic, but at the time it was intended to be more like Chris Marker's La Jetee, or something Ralph Bakshi would do as a joke while shitfaced. And then the Watchmen motion comic happened, the producer of that saw Godkiller and dug it, and in the craziest twist Warner Brothers wound up distributing Godkiller. It's still kind of baffling.
CA: So how has the project changed over these last six years, between the original versions and this new take?
MP: For me what's changed the most is how much it's taken on a life of its own. I don't necessarily feel like I'm in control of it anymore, but it's still on me to write it and get it out into the world. Sometimes it feels like an albatross, but at a certain point the albatross becomes your best friend... like you're war buddies. That's how it feels, the way it's all evolved.
But we don't spend a lot of time going back and actually changing things too much. Most of the issue #1 that came out last month is the same art as what Anna drew six years ago, just re-formatted and re-lettered. There was a prologue we added in the animation that we added to the front of the comic, that's pretty much it as far as going back and changing things. I think the main differences looking at the work as a whole is how much it changes in motion moving forward, the shifts between arcs. The storytelling and art style change dramatically between Walk Among Us and Tomorrow's Ashes.
CA: Are you still working in the way you did initially – giving descriptions and dialogue, and trusting Anna with the look and pacing?
MP: Yeah, the scripts are pretty loose, I trust Anna to do a lot of the visualization. Most of my writing training is in screenplays, and it's a different approach than comics because in a screenplay you're never allowed to overtly state camera direction or anything like that, your job is to write it in a way where the director visualizes the camera direction you have in your mind... and if the director doesn't see it that way, that means you blew it as a writer. So I hope to convey to Anna what I have in mind without telling her what to do, and when she departs from what I had in mind it's usually because she has a better idea.
CA: This is a book that is fairly steeped in both sex and violence, but those elements don't seem like they're just there to get attention – they're a pretty integral part of the surroundings, almost a natural side effect of this unnatural world. Do you spend much time considering those aspects of the story: when and where you deploy them, and the degree of what's shown and what's just implied?
MP: I don't really plot out sex and violence intentionally. I mean, it's pretty pervasive in Godkiller, so I don't even know that it would be possible to structure it out... if you're going to write a mythology for f--k-ups and misfits then unconventional sex and harsh violence is going to be systemic to it. It's like asking if I plot out my characters' breathing. I'm glad it doesn't feel tacked on, I think there's so much repressive desublimation these days that sex and violence really require authenticity to earn a role in art. There's nothing I find more revolting than a violent scene written by someone who's clearly never experienced that level of violence.
And regarding the sexual components... I totally get the argument that some creators are sexualizing characters in a base way, and I'm not defending that type of sexualization because it's stupid and destructive, but if you're writing a serious work, if a character is to be real, it has an intrinsic sexuality. I don't care if you're writing Spider-Man and there's never even a kiss shown in the book, the writer and artist should know Spider-Man's sexuality and all the nuances of it – that's character, you can't extract the sexuality from a character without completely dehumanizing the character. Sex just happens on-panel in Godkiller because it's all a bit more lawless and we see our characters in situations that might be left off-panel in other books. But that's largely a matter of where the artist chooses to place the frame.
I definitely write a lot of sex in the scripts, but it's collaborative, and Anna sometimes takes it even farther than I'd intended... There's a sex scene in Tomorrow's Ashes that I'd imagined as one page and I was surprised when Anna expanded it to six. It's a collaboration and we figure it out as we go.
CA: You and Black Mask really shot onto people's radar with Occupy Comics, and since then, you've gained a reputation as a someone who's not afraid to push the envelope when it comes to taking on societal issues, and is willing to use the medium to address complex topics. Has that approach helped lay the groundwork for Godkiller's relaunch?
Matt: Yes and no. Godkiller is more part of Black Mask's DNA than people realize. I was friendly with Brett [Gurewitz] for awhile, but then he saw Godkiller on his own, I think on Netflix or something, and that's what got us talking about collaborating... And then when he saw what I was doing with Occupy Comics, he proposed working together to get these kinds of art driven ideas out there. Of course, that was a pretty incredible, once-in-a-lifetime proposal, since Brett is pretty much the king of using media to address complex topics.
And I met Steve [Niles] on a horror panel at San Diego Comic-Con, when I was talking about how many people had watched Godkiller online and he was excited by the potential of these audiences we both know are out there. And of course he had a similar experience with 30 Days Of Night reaching people who may not ordinarily be buying comics... So we just got excited about brainstorming.
The idea behind Black Mask was to try and bring back that risky sensibility of gritty indie comics that we both love, while also doing outreach to bring in new creators and new audiences. And we wanted to make sure it wasn't just "the Steve & Matt company", so that's why we waited 'til the second slate before including our own books.
But I think your point about using the medium to address complex topics is truly the goal, and it just happened to be projects like Godkiller and Occupy Comics that connected us all and showed the potential for it to work, showed that there's an audience for this stuff. Black Mask is not necessarily always overtly political or issues-based, it's mainly just that the books are all really about something... A point of view, a way of seeing the world.
CA: So are there titles in the works that you're especially excited to unleash, perspectives you're extra-psyched to present?
MP: All of it! I'm as excited about Grant Morrison and Vanesa Del Rey delving into the Tibetan Book of the Dead in Sinatoro as I am about the spacepunk-psycho-opera Space Riders, the more overtly political Our Work Fills The Pews, the radicalism of Critical Hit, the dirtyglam Last Song, and any/all of our other titles. It's a range of voices, all of whom I think are unique. We want to be publishing great creators' passion projects – it's more about the passion of individual voices than a strict adherence to a particular mandate.
For me personally, my experience with comics my whole life is that comics felt the most vibrant and important and dynamic and alive when they were just off the rails crazy, when they were a place to tell stories you couldn't tell anyplace else. And it's weird to be in a time when comics are arguably as well written and illustrated as they've ever been, but story-wise TV feels edgier and riskier than comics. I was looking around at all these publishers and they're all so goddamned sane. I felt like comics really needs some insanity right now. And that's where Black Mask comes from, bringing insanity back to comics.
CA: And bringing it back around to Godkiller; is there a grand plan in place for the series? Do you have more stories planned beyond these two arcs, more explorations of this world on the way?
MP: Yeah! There's a lot more of it built than people realize. Anna's illustrated all the way through a third arc already. We're not presuming or taking for granted that the comic market will embrace it; we hope it will, in which case we'll be putting out new comics for a long time to come. But we're so far out ahead because there is a very devoted audience for the animated version and they've been waiting a long time for the next installments.
Since Anna pencils, inks, and colors every panel herself, it takes literally years for her to get through an arc. So there's much more finished that we haven't unveiled yet, and much more to come, even beyond all that!