Interview: Joshua Dysart on Valiant’s Harbinger, the Comic Book Industry and the Comic’s artform

Joshua Dysart’s earliest comic book work was the insanely awesome Violent Messiahs (seriously, go find a copy and read it). Since then, he has worked for DC, Vertigo, Dark...

Joshua Dysart’s earliest comic book work was the insanely awesome Violent Messiahs (seriously, go find a copy and read it). Since then, he has worked for DC, Vertigo, Dark Horse, Image, IDW, Penny Farthing Press, and Random House Books. He has specifically worked on such well-known titles like Swamp Thing, Conan, and Hellboy. Dysart has also been involved in the creation of incredibly successful media tie-ins. He wrote an original one-shot comic for Universal’s Van Helsing, and wrote comic books for the videogames Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and Hellboy. He’s penned two music-themed tie-ins. In 2007, Dysart wrote a Manga-styled comic book titled, Avril Lavigne’s Make 5 Wishes, and 2010 saw published Dysart’s graphic novel based on Neil Yong’s album Greendale.

In 2010, Dysart finished Unknown Soldier for Vertigo. He spent a month in Northern Uganda researching for this story, which went on to earn him two Eisner nominations, positive internal coverage, and critical acclaim from creators like Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Brian Azzarello. Currently, Dysart is writing the relaunch for Valiant Comics’ Harbinger. (You can get a sneak peak of Harbinger #1 here.)

You can learn more about Joshua Dysart’s life and work from his homepage here, and you can stay up to date on Valiant by visiting their homepage here.

Nicholas Yanes: I’m curious to know, when did you decide that you wanted to be a comic book creator? Was it a gradual realization or did you stumble upon an old issue that you couldn’t put down?

Joshua Dysart: I was forced into it actually. I’d been reading comics my whole life just about, and had even tried as a kid to whip my friends who could draw into helping me tell my stories, but I never imaged I could actually make a living writing comics. In my early twenties I’d published some terrible poetry and short stories in print journals (before the internet, B.I.) and had even done some early script supervision work for an unsuccessful movie production company. By 1995 I’d kind of given up on writing, or at least on trying to get published.

Then a friend of mine, Jan Utstien, fell in love with a comic book artist named William O’Neil. They wanted to self-publish a book and they needed a writer. So, after living down in Mexico for a while I came back broke and looking for a gig. That gig became the first incarnation of Violent Messiahs, a black and white that we self-published. I’ve been writing comics, and learning how to write comics, ever since. In the long run taking that job was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Yanes: Besides wanting to be a comic book writer, what do you think you did right to get into the industry that many fans fail to understand?

Dysart: You know, it’s a different time now. We didn’t have the internet, as I said. We didn’t have digital distribution. So in all truth, the one thing I did right was to go to every single freaking convention in existence and make myself a presence in the industry. For ten years, from 1996 to 2006 I made virtually no money (I got my first paying gig in 2001 but it didn’t seem to make me less broke somehow). And over that time the people who invested in me lost oodles of money.

My partners and I set up our own booth at every single show and we never turned a dime. But we kept doing it. I chose comics as a lifestyle at that moment, not as a career. In 2000, even though I was barely scrapping by, I decided to quit day jobs forever and essentially couch surf, house sit, and write comics. That choice had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with perseverance.

Yanes: You’ve done a lot of work on comic book media tie-ins. Do you approach these stories any differently than other comic book titles?

Dysart: Not really. I have an ethical take on creativity. As long as I’m being true and respectful to the creative act and the purpose it serves in my life, then it doesn’t matter where the source inspiration comes from. I think one should never, ever sell their personal aesthetic out, even when they’re selling out, if that makes sense. So while these licensed properties certainly have their demands, parameters and expectations, you still have to turn in the best work you can and keep it in your true voice somehow.

I’m extremely proud of the work we did on Avril Lavigne’s book, even though, in all honesty, I’m not a fan of her music. You’d be amazed how many of my regular readers picked that book up expecting to hate it and then actually dug it (Comic’s Journal called it “The best silk purse from a sows ear we’ve ever seen” or something to that effect). And that’s how you have to approach everything, both the ghastly, crassly commercial and the wonderful, revealingly personal. Ultimately, I’d like to get away from these kinds of comics though. I believe in comics for comic’s sake; not comics as middleman or promotional item or even “content house” for other media. Still, a man’s got to eat.

Yanes: On this topic, when one considers that comic books have such a small consumer base when compared to movies, novels and other mediums, why do you think so many comic book tie-ins are commissioned?

Dysart: That is an excellent question. I ask myself that all the time. First off, I think Hollywood has a blind-eye to the realities of the comic book marketplace. I don’t think they understand what a soft market we’re in. But it goes deeper than that. The truth is that somehow comics have been able to alter the culture forever without being a mainstream medium for much of their history.

We are the foundation that Hollywood builds its Summer movie slate on. We are the stream of narrative that every other medium relies on for inspiration. We’re the Golden Goose that’s been locked away in a dark closet of the subculture, laying our eggs, ultimately, for others to take to market. That’s because there’s something here… in comics, something important to society and art and it’s hard to put your finger on just exactly what it is. I think that’s what they’re trying to tap into when they commission a comic.

Yanes: You wrote the graphic novel adaptation of Neil Young’s Greendale and a graphic novel featuring Avril Lavigne. Given that comic books have sound effects and lots of dialogue, but are still a silent medium at the end of the day, what are your thoughts on the relationship between sound and comics?

Dysart: I love writing comics about (or inspired by) music. I think it’s the perfect medium for that precisely because we have no sound and it’s all implied. Right now I’m working on the Dark Crystal prequel graphic novel series and in it we have a song… a sad, sad song, that forces the narrative down certain paths. I don’t have to write or perform that song. I just have to write down the words, “The saddest song on Thra” and the reader will do the work for me. This is the strength of comics.

In a blinking, screaming, streaming world comic books are the last vestiges of cave paintings and hieroglyphics. They ask you to provide the motion and the sound. They look to you for participation as much as you look to them for inspiration. Superman doesn’t fly. He hovers. You make him fly between the panels. Neil Young’s music is not heard when you crack open Greendale the graphic novel… it’s imagined. That’s why comics are timeless. And why it’s sad that the larger audience doesn’t usually expect more from them.

Yanes: Without a doubt, Harbinger is my favorite Valiant title. I like the rest, but there is something about a corporation and its CEO secretly attempting to take over the world for the good humanity that always stood out in my mind. What are some of the aspects of this series that appealed to you?

Dysart: You sort of nailed it on the head. That’s a huge part of the appeal. But throw into the mix the idea that it’s the impoverished youth who are going to rise up and, for better or for worse, try to undo the CEO’s plans and you’ve got a really potent mix of themes: wealth vs. poverty, baby boomer control vs. youth revolt, corporation vs. the individual. Now is the time for this for this kind of story. Hell, it’s always the time for this kind of story.

Yanes: Given the latest debates over if corporations have too much power, are you worried that Harbinger might come off as preachy?

Dysart: Well, it’s my job not to make it preachy. That’s an execution issue. I’ve wrestled with walking the line between entertainment and pretentious moralizing to one degree of success or another my whole career. Violent Messiahs was about freewill vs. determinism. Swamp Thing was about the struggle between the individual and the collective as well as between civilization and the wild. Unknown Soldier was a pulp study of East African politics and how war affects civilian populations. It’s just my bag, you know? It’s the only way I know how to write. I pick a theme that interests me and hope that a story blooms from that theme.

Yanes: Additionally, despite fears of corporations having too much power, the masses love charismatic corporate leaders (a few examples being Walt Disney, Donald Trump, and Steve Jobs). With that said, how are you going to approach Toyo Harada? Will Harada have a similar Cult of Personality as real world corporate leaders?

Dysart: Yes, absolutely. This is that particular place I love to write in, that place where two seemingly conflicting things both contain a great amount of truth. Harada is not going to be a cookie cutter villain. He never was one, so why start now. He’s very charismatic and I hope to make some readers even choose his side at times. The species’ fear of institutions coupled with their obsessions over the personalities that run them is fascinating to me.

Yanes: How similar to the 90s titles is this new Harbinger going to be? Without giving away major spoilers, are the main characters going to be coming back? Will we be meeting new ones?

Dysart: Yes to all of the above. We’re approaching this a lot like an Ultimates book. Same story you loved before, but with new characterization, different pacing and a fresh coat of paint. There’s just so much that’s good in the original Harbinger, and I want to be able to riff off of it, so expect it to be more like a reupholstered old couch instead of a totally new piece of furniture.

Yanes: The summer of 2012 is shaping up to be the Summer of Valiant. After that, what are some of the long term goals you have for Harbinger And the Valiant Universe?

Dysart: I can’t say too much, but we’re working towards something big, and all the books are going to be a part of it. Apart from that, as far as Harbinger goes, I just want to keep building the story. Accelerating the conflict. Growing the cast. I want to take this book to issue 100, then knock its legs out from under it. But for that to happen I need the readership to give it a real chance. So I really hope everyone picks up issue #1 and give it a shot.

Yanes: Outside of your Valiant work, what are some other projects you are working?

Dysart: I’m currently writing The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths Bk 2 for Archaia with Alex Sheikman and Lizzy John drawing and coloring respectively. I’ve finished writing the globe-spanning political action thriller Patrios for Full Clip Productions, and we hope to be attaching an artist and rolling into full production soon. And I’m starting to hammer out time to work on the sci-fi culture graphic novel Helmet Girls: Origins Vol. 1 with the amazing, stupendous, fantabulous Camilla d’Errico this year.

Yanes: Will you be working on any advocacy or education initiatives?

Dysart: Well, I mentor and help teach a class at Otis College of Art and Design called Comic Books and Social Justice Issues, so I’ll be doing that next semester (finals for this semester are next week). But right now I’m just focusing on the work.

You can learn more about Joshua Dysart’s life and work from his homepage here, and you can stay up to date on Valiant by visiting their homepage here.

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