To get an interview with Nick Spencer I first had to abandon any semblance of self-worth- okay maybe it wasn’t that bad. It was in a chatroom, a tinychat to be specific. I was bursting with questions and theories after reading Morning Glories #26 and took to the internet. I found a link to the tinychat on Spencer’s twitter and before I knew it, I was in a chatroom with like minded fans and Spencer himself. For the most part, the writer stays silent in the tinychat, only answering questions that don’t give away too much. After asking a few plot-related questions, I finally found the courage (or lost the decency) to ask Nick if he would have time for an interview at C2E2 that weekend. And gosh darn it, he said yes!
After his Spotlight Panel on Friday, my girlfriend (also a huge Nick Spencer fan) and I are sitting across from Nick and his wife Georgina, both pairs attempting to squeeze into chairs meant for one person. We talked about his political views and how they affect his writing, specifically with his most recent creative-owned work Bedlam. We also touched on some of the sources for Morning Glories, his treatment of governmental institutions and S.H.I.E.L.D., and how fan response plays into his work.
Although your comics are extremely violent, you tweet about gun control and other anti-violent ideas: in your opinion, what’s the difference ? What is the place of violence in art?
Woah we’re asking the big questions! Yeah, I fundamentally disagree with the argument that fiction can be responsible for these things that happen in the real world. I just don’t agree. Anytime these things happen, a ton of people line up to say that this is video games or this is tv and it’s not. It’s not because it doesn’t happen anywhere else or it happens extraordinarily rarely. The simple reality is that I live in the United Kingdom right now and they get all the same tv, all the same video games, all the same movies and then some! It’s not like British TV doesn’t have violence. It has it’s share. Somehow they’re not having these mass shootings because they don’t have easy access to guns. I think that drawing the point A to point B on this is really simple and when they start saying it’s some sort of cultural influence, you would be seeing these things much more widespread.
I ask mostly because of your comic Bedlam which is extremely violent.
With Bedlam it’s been strange. I don’t think I’ve said this publicly anywhere else because no one ever asks about this stuff! We were going to release a preview for Bedlam, specifically the first scene, the opera house scene in which there’s dead children everywhere and he’s obviously killed everyone in the room. We were going to release that the week of the Aurora shooting because obviously there are a lot of Joker parallels. Dark Knight Rises was coming out that week and there was a feeling that it was a good time to release the preview. Obviously we didn’t because the real world kind of stuck it’s head in. It’s a funny thing because I never really thought of the book in that context before and now when I write it I think about it more. I think you’ll see it reflected in the content now, but that’s not to say anything in the book is going to directly speak to these kind of things, but it may address these broader topics. I think at the end of the day we have had violent fiction for as long as we have had violence and I just don’t see the easy link up. To me we are the mirror not the real image. To confuse the two is a real dangerous thing. To me all fiction can try to do is capture and reflect and rejigger and reshow. It doesn’t create anything, it only spits it back at you. Sorry, that’s my cop out answer.
To be honest I think it was great until the end, because in my opinion Bedlam is a counter argument to the violence we’ve been seeing so much of.
To be honest, yeah, I’ve never written anything that endorses violence. In fact if you look at my work for hire stuff, my super hero work, I think it’s obvious on the page that I don’t want to write a bunch of fight scenes and that I don’t want to say the answer to some problem is beating the hell out of someone. It never feels like a satisfactory answer to me and I realize that in those comics especially, that is a very satisfactory answer to a huge part of the audience. That audience picks a book up to see a bad guy try to do something bad and for a good guy to come in and punch him. That’s what they’re waiting for and until that happens they don’t think anything is happening in the book. I don’t like to write a lot of that stuff because I don’t necessarily think it’s the best message to send.
Can you talk about what issues you are addressing in Bedlam?
The questions at the heart of Bedlam are at the heart of change and rehabilitation rather than the act itself. The act itself is just to set up this horrible thing and then question if a person can change after that. Can a person make up for that? Those are the fundamental questions at the heart of Bedlam more than any question about a violent society. As these things have happened and the book has gotten talked about around them, I start to see opportunities to address that kind of violence. But what is really at the heart of the book is: if a person has gone past the point of redemption, where are they? What can they do? If you kill 3000 people and the next day you save 3000 people’s lives, did those two things negate? What’s the math? We do this with political leaders all the time. We say, yeah, they did that horrible thing and that was really bad, but the next year they did that great thing. We give them the authority to be evaluated that way, but do we do that day to day? And if so, why is one group greater than the other?
There’s a certain word balloon that is used when Madder Red is talking, but that word balloon is also used on other people at certain times of extreme anger or rage. Is that meant to portray that everyone has a piece of Madder Red? Is it part of the human condition?
I think Madder Red makes the argument rather early on that there are certain fundamental things that went wrong very early. He makes Rousseau’s argument, that everything around us is the result of one bad mistake. Man was in a primitive state, completely unencumbered, and one day he had enough of a brain to say, “I am not as good as him.” Everything spins out of that, the whole world is a mess that was caused by that primitive insecurity. This is very much the Madder Red school of thought, that this is all a big cock up, this is all wrong. This is not what we are. This is getting ahead of the book somewhat, but it allows him to do unconscionable things because he says “I am not accountable in the ways you say I’m accountable.” His argument is, we see wild animals slaughter wild animals all the time and we think that’s ok, we don’t make a value judgement. It’s just what they do. He will make some very specific cases for why he still thinks this is fundamentally true. Now, that’s an awfully evil argument if you believe in society, but he doesn’t! He doesn’t think that any of this is correct. Then you start to ask how much you are driven by your belief system. If we live in a society that says we have free speech and freedom of belief then how are we saying that we all agree on ‘X?’ All of these political questions spring out of this initial idea.
You mentioned the Joker/Batman parallels in Bedlam and as the series progressed the characters and the book went on to separate themselves. Were you playing into that initially?
Yeah, we knew the, ‘What if we cured the Joker tagline was going to be helpful,’ and from a marketing standpoint that’s what you have to do. It’s obvious that Joker had some influence on the character, but I don’t want to write Batman fan fiction. It’s like talking about Lost as an influence for Morning Glories, you’re taking aspects of it and of course it’s recognizable but at the end of the day you have to make it your own thing and take it in another direction or else it’s a waste of time. The one thing I found kind of funny is that a bunch of people were like, ‘He’s like the Joker but way worse,” and I have to say that the Joker is way worse! They’ve had the Joker kill like a million people, it’s a comical thing now. I’m sure he’s killed that many kids.
A common theme in your work is that you can’t trust organizations of power such as the government or religion, is that something you do consciously?
Well it’s not just that. It’s a funny thing, in Infinite Vacation especially, but if you read Existence 3.0 and even in lighter stuff like my Supergirl run or Jimmy Olsen– I’ve written lots about technology and the negative side of this ever encroaching innovation. So people read that stuff and say ‘Oh are you like anti-technology, some kind of luddite or something?’ It’s funny for me because I tend to challenge myself when I write, to completely go the opposite of what my own view might be. This backfires sometimes. I wrote a Secret Avengers issue that was very clearly an analogue for Wikileaks and everybody thought I was a raging conservative for like a month! I wrote about some potential problems and said that Steve Rogers, Captain America, would not be for this. It didn’t mean I wasn’t! I’m constantly terrified. Anyone who follows my twitter knows that I’m a total bleeding heart liberal and an angry one. I get very afraid of just writing that, of doing diatribes of conservatives in my books. So I never have, even when I’ve wanted to because it’s just cheap and easy. I wouldn’t learn anything from it so I doubt anybody else would. You have to kind of sit down and say, what’s really more interesting here? Is it saying what you already believe or is it trying to come up with something you haven’t thought of before? Sometimes that will be on the other side and sometimes it will be completely different.
So yeah, it’s a thing where my books have a natural distrust of any large institution, but some of that is just good fiction. When you start bringing big government or religion or an omnipresent technology, suddenly your character is up against something we can recognize. We recognize the scope of that in a way that we may not in an alien invasion or something. We recognize that that’s how small one person is against something like that. In general I think I write a lot of stuff that’s about the individual vs the larger. I think that a lot of the best fiction comes from that.
What made me think of that question was when S.H.I.E.L.D. turned out to be kind of villainous Secret Avengers. I know it kind of makes sense to distrust S.H.I.E.L.D., but rarely are they shown in such a manipulative way.
Well, I don’t know. I think that it’s a little more complicated than that. They have a tough job and I think anytime you’re doing stories like that it’s really difficult because the reader has already ascertained certain things that you can’t undo. Like, Civil War is one of my favorite comics ever because it’s so interesting to think about. Regardless of how you feel about the individual issues, the idea behind it is just so brilliant, but the problem with it is that no matter what they did they couldn’t get people to not be on Captain America’s side. In the real world, loads of us would be on his side because it’s insane that someone can just put on a mask and we let them do whatever. But we as readers already know certain things, like that these heroes are intrinsicly heroic and that they’ll do the right thing. We can’t think of it from the perspective of a ground level citizen. So you can’t really ever buy into the idea like you would like to.
With S.H.I.E.L.D. it’s kind of the same thing. Everyone says, “How could you do that to Hawkeye!” but to S.H.I.E.L.D., Hawkey is a jackass who’s running around with a bunch of costumed crazy people. S.H.I.E.L.D. are professionals, they understand the politics and how to do deal with these things. The Avengers just show up and and blow everything up and it’s a big mess. We can look at it through the context of, “These are heroic, good people and we’re fans of them” but S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn’t ever say that. I don’t think what they’re doing is bad, I think Maria Hill is a brilliant character because she doesn’t buy it. She’s never going to be okay with all these crazy people running around having open firefights and crazy powers. She’s meat and potatos, her feet are on the ground. You know you’re writing Maria right if she’s unimpressed by all of it and wants it to stop. If there was a switch so that there weren’t gods and aliens and all these crazy things around her, she would use it.
For Morning Glories, are there any mythologies or previous texts that would benefit the reading?
At this point in the story they’re more basic things. We approached the first season as a sort of primer- like an actual primer not Primer the movie. Although it is just as convoluted as Primer the movie, to be fair! We wanted to use some recognizable things, so you see stuff like Plato’s Cave and obviously Abraham and Isaac, the Tower of Babel, these are recognizable things. As the book goes on, there will be more things that are more obscure. As of right now, it wouldn’t hurt if you read some Sumerian mythology. I say that, but then the problem is somebody goes on Amazon and buys four books about Sumerian mythology and is like, ‘You used like a sentence!’ But we don’t have five years to prep for a story so I tend to lean more heavily on things that I have a strong knowledge of, but as the book goes on I try to challenge myself more.
What things have you been relying on specifically?
Well, I grew up in a religious household, in an evangelical protestant household so I lean very heavily on things that I grew up around. At the end of the day- Grant’s talked about this, that sometimes he’s gotten some things wrong because he’s doing his research and doing his best, but he didn’t have time to learn everything and become a scholar. He had time to read a book or scour wikipedia, that’s kind of the nature of the business. We don’t have five years to prep for a story. So I tend to lean more heavily on things that I have a strong knowledge of, but as the book goes on I try to challenge myself more. It makes it a little nerve racking because someday somebody is going to say, “you just insulted my religion.”
Morning Glories has some hardcore fans who live by two things: the Multiversity in-depth analysis and the Morning Glories tinychat. I know for a fact you almost always participate in both and in the latter you answer SOME questions but mostly sit silent. Does reader interpretation play into your writing process at all?
I read all of it. All of it. I’m sure I miss some of it-
Georgina (Nick’s wife): He doesn’t. (laughs)
Nick: I read all of it! (laughs) But yes and no. I’m a long ways away from being the first person to say this, but a writer has to have a huge amount of arrogance. Even though you’re not, you have to convince yourself that you’re smarter than your audience. Otherwise you would let someone else tell the story. You have to be convinced on some level that you know better. So, in that sense no. But, I write for an audience. I know writers who never google their own work or read their own reviews and they live in a paradise I can’t even imagine. The reality is, I wouldn’t even want to do that, I don’t write Morning Glories so that it can be shut up on a shelf. I write it for an audience and I’d like to be in the back of the room listening while they’re talking about it. So, certainly it has an impact. The give and take about it is a lot of fun. On the less messy side of it there are loads of ideas that readers will have that I’ll certainly see and I’ll think “You’re right! That’s a good point!” I’ll see people connect to certain characters or certain aspects of characters and show them more of it. We certainly do lots of little winks and nods, where I kind of play to their jokes and stuff because I know they’re going to like it. They bought the book, if it doesn’t hurt me I’m all for making them happy.