With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.
The reader: The cartoonist responsible for The A.V. Club’s top mainstream/superhero comic of 2013, Dark Horse’s Mind MGMT, Matt Kindt has a talent for using the comic-book medium to toy with the reader’s perception. An Eisner and Harvey Award nominee for his work on books like Pistolwhip, 2 Sisters, and Super Spy, Kindt is constantly pushing the boundaries of the medium, using his knowledge as a writer, artist, and designer to create consistently riveting works that look as good as they read. In addition to the monthly Mind MGMT, Kindt also writes the Valiant ongoing titles Unity and Rai, and will be co-writing this fall’s highly anticipated miniseries The Valiant, teaming with co-writer Jeff Lemire and artist Paolo Rivera.
Frédérik Peeters, Aama: 1. The Smell Of Warm Dust (2014)
Matt Kindt: I got that book from a friend of mine. Do you know Brian Hurtt, who does The Sixth Gun? He’s a cartoonist. He lives in St. Louis. I rely on him for a lot of books because I don’t have time to follow comics or get much anymore. I actually stole that book from him, because it looked cool. And I was like, “Oh, man.” I don’t read a lot of comics anymore, truthfully, because I don’t have time or I’m reading them for work. And that one I was flipping through—there’s an ape in here that smokes a cigar and he’s got a robot lower-half and human legs or something. This sounds like my kind of book, by looking through it.
I love science fiction. It hasn’t been done enough in comics, which is weird, because superheroes are kind of science fiction, but a subgenre of science fiction. But seeing something hard sci-fi like [Aama] is refreshing. As far as what I like about it—I love the world-building and this idea of this guy who has these sort of fragmented memories. And the way it starts out, when he’s in this crater and he doesn’t remember how he got there—that’s the kind of stuff that I really enjoy. Starting the story in a weird place and then finding out how he got there, that’s one of my favorite storytelling techniques.
AVC: Do you have a fairly extensive knowledge of European comics?
MK: No. I’m a fan of Moebius and I pick up the odd thing here or there. There’s a Pinocchio book [Pinocchio by Winshluss] that came out a few years ago that I really liked. But it’s in French. So I just tried to figure it out. I think Drawn And Quarterly or somebody finally printed an English language version of it. But I haven’t picked that up yet.
AVC: I think the thing I’ve noticed reading a lot of Humanoids and stuff is just how much emphasis they put on setting and making every environment really lush and full.
MK: Yeah, that’s true. Oh, I read all those Dungeon books. It’s a series by Lewis Trondheim and—what’s his name? His name’s escaping me. [Joann Sfar is the co-creator of Dungeon. —ed.] Those are really good, too, and they jump all over the place. But the stories are just crazy, and the settings are different, and it’s funny. I find that when I’m writing my own stuff, I end up starting with the setting first. Where do I want this story to take place? Because I’m drawing it, so I’m attracted to things like that, where it’s not taking place in New York City. It’s kind of earthbound. It’s somewhere interesting visually. Which is what I love about that, too, though: The world-building, the scene-setting is some of my favorite stuff.
Frank Espinosa, Rocketo (2005-06)
AVC: The setting is a big part of Rocketo, specifically a post-apocalyptic setting, which is something that you used in Revolver. I feel like a post-apocalyptic setting is an easy way to immediately shake-up the reader’s idea of what the world is when they go into a story.
MK: Yeah, what I love about that is the visuals. These really odd visuals that you get, like these giant beasts emerging from the water or island settings or secret headquarters and that kind of stuff—stuff that I’ve loved since I was like 10 years old. I think every 10-year-old kid loves it. And putting that into a modern storytelling sense with an adult story is interesting to me. I shy away from real-world; everything’s based in reality stories. Especially with comics—I don’t want to just see people sitting there, talking. I want to—if they’re talking, let’s have them talking someplace strange.
AVC: Rocketo definitely has a retro sensibility, something that can be seen in a lot of your work. But your stories are also very progressive and modern. Do you feel like there are a lot of creative opportunities in using that retro visual style for a story that’s exploring new ground?
MK: One thing I’ve always been in love with is the trappings of the pulp genres, like spies and science fiction and robots and all that. But growing up, none of those stories really had any stakes to them, and the cartoons were just for fun. And so, taking those trappings and putting the little candy shell with a really heartfelt story inside is what I’ve always tried to do. Because I think there’s part of me that’s going to always be immature and like a giant robot, but then the grown-up part of me wants a story that I can care about, too. It’s something I think doesn’t get done enough or very often at all.
Jack Kirby, “Fourth World” (The New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, The Hunger Dogs) (1970-2008)
AVC: When did you first discover Jack Kirby’s work, specifically the “Fourth World” titles?
MK: It’s funny, because I think Jack Kirby’s one of those creators where you love them or you don’t. And I think when I was in high school I loved stuff that was realistically drawn. I was into mainstream superhero stuff. And Jack Kirby, I didn’t like him; this stuff just looks ugly to me. And then, the older you get, the more you see all the different art movements that have run through comics. And then you come back to Jack Kirby and you realize how great he really was, and the sense of layout and the color and the bold inking and just the insane ideas. And that’s the thing that I came back to as an adult. I think the first I ever got was—what was it—it was something “Dogs” [The Hunger Dogs]—it was one of the first graphic novels that DC had done with Apokolips.
The stuff that was so weird to me when I was younger. Now that I’m an adult—man, it’s still weird, but it’s weird in a really inspiring way. You’re just reading these crazy comics by this guy who’s just—these ideas just flowed out of him and he put them on paper and he didn’t care. It’s one insane idea after another. And some of them work and some of them don’t, but all of them are insane. And when they started reprinting those “Fourth World” books, those hardcovers, I started picking those up, and I think that’s the first time I read all that in one place.
I’d read here and there and some Eternals stuff and some of the “cosmic” stuff, but never that much, and not all at once. And it just was super inspiring. There’s so many raw, great ideas in there. Which, honestly—everything I read, I read so critically that I kind of have a problem with everything I read. But I really don’t read for entertainment anymore. I just read for good ideas, just to see good ideas, seeing people jamming as much as they can into something to see what works. And that’s the stuff that appeals to me.
AVC: Have you ever thought about what you would do if you got the chance to work on those “Fourth World” characters?
MK: Honestly, it would be a dream job. I think that’s one of the jokes at the DC office. I think everybody that has worked for DC has a Kamandi story idea. Because I had to get in line to do that. Everybody wants to do it. I don’t think the stories are the best stories ever written, but I think there’s so many raw, great ideas in there that are so original, or so out there, that you just kind of want to take it and just take a piece of it and build a story around just a piece of it. Like the Mother Box thing—I have an origin story for the Mother Box. I just want to do a story about the Mother Box. And that’s just one little sliver of what those stories are. But, yeah, I would love to do that sometime.
AVC: You get to do the kind of world-building of something like the “Fourth World” on books like Rai, where you have more freedom because it takes place so far in the future. You can do whatever you want and it doesn’t have to impact anything else. Has that been challenging at all for you? Or is that just a lot of fun?
MK: It’s challenging in the man-hours it takes to do the work. Because I think I put more hours into the script for that first [Rai] issue, and then the first story arc, and then the whole pitch. I put more hours into that than anything I’ve ever done, including Mind MGMT, which is my own thing. But the difference is setting something in the future where you have to fill in the gap—the 2,000-year gap—and imagine what things are like and why they’re that way. It’s a lot harder than setting something in the past, which is what I’ve always done, or setting something in the present, which I’ve also done. You really do have to build the whole world rather than take the world as it is now or as it used to be and sort of spin it from there. It was a lot more work, but honestly it was a lot more fun, too, because I felt like I could tap into my Jack Kirby-ness and come up with as many crazy ideas as I could and try to figure out how to weave them together. That’s been a ton of fun.
Robert Venditti and various artists, X-O Manowar (1992-present)
AVC: This is the most conventional superhero title of this group. How does it fit in with the theme?
MK: Honestly, to me it’s just a genre-bending thing. And I think the core idea for that character—where he was basically a barbarian in a high-tech suit of armor—was such a fun idea. And then jamming Conan into Iron Man into something weird and completely different always appealed to me. And honestly, part of it is thatI’m friends with Rob [Venditti], the guy that writes it. But I didn’t read it for a while because I’m friends with him and it’s always weird to read a friend’s book, because you can’t separate your friendship and knowing that guy from the work. But I was reading that and I was like, “This came from him?” It was just so good and it was so exciting that I was able to forget who wrote it. So it’s one of my personal favorites, just because I’m proud of what he did. And also I just love that idea and where he took it; rather than Iron Man, solving problems here on Earth, he went into outer space and just got crazy and just was a lot of fun.
AVC: What are some of the perks of working with Valiant, where you have this young superhero universe that is still being developed? You don’t have years and years of continuity you’re working with. Is it easier than writing something for DC or Marvel?
MK: Yeah, it’s definitely a little more streamlined. There’s less of an approval process that needs to be done because the universe is still so new. And I think that is the appeal to it. At least for me, from a creative standpoint, I don’t want to put just another superhero comic into the world because there’s so many already. But I still like the genre. I enjoy it and it’s fun to write. But there’s so many good characters out there already. I’d just as soon take somebody that has some history or some background or some fan base already where people kind of like the character and sort of put a spin on it or make it new or reimagine it. And the beauty of the Valiant universe is it has been around, but it’s rebooting it all. You can start from scratch with just the basic, core character and then make it your own, which is fun. To me, I equate it with what it might have been like to be in the Marvel bullpen at the beginning, when you were trying to figure out who’s going to be on the Avengers. That kind of stuff is super fun. The kid in me is just loving it. And as an adult, I get to tell grown-up stories with those kid characters.
Darwyn Cooke, Richard Stark’s Parker (2009)
AVC: This is another one of your unconventional choices for the theme. What was your reasoning for including it on the list?
MK: I don’t know if it fits the theme exactly, but I wanted to put it in there anyway. It’s one of the few books that comes out and I’m super excited. I’m actually aware of the date it’s coming out. I pick it up when it comes out and I read it right away. So it’s not sitting on a shelf and I never get to it. Honestly, I love Darwyn’s art. I love the storytelling. It’s the crime genre, which has been done to death, but to me that’s pure cartooning. The storytelling and the way he does it as good as he does. And I think I just enjoy the panel-to-panel storytelling and the way the action unfolds, and that’s, to me, what’s fun about comics. There’s a writing part, there’s a drawing part, but to me, the fun is putting those together and figuring out how to tell the story in sort of a fun way that’s engaging instead of—I don’t know. I think a lot of comics can get too wordy, so then you read it and you’re not looking at pictures. Or you’re looking at the pictures and it takes you two minutes to read. And I think those [Parker] books just run that fine line where the pictures are great and there’s just enough words to carry you through. And to me, it’s just some of the best storytelling in comics. So I had to put it in there, regardless of the topic.
AVC: I actually do think it fits fairly well, in terms of challenging the expectation of what a crime comic should look like. Cooke has a lot of experience doing these moody, dark stories, but not necessarily anything as gritty as the Parker books. Were you familiar with the original Parker novels before reading the graphic novels?
MK: No. I’d heard of them, but I don’t read a lot of crime books necessarily. I was following Darwyn because I love his stuff. DC: The New Frontier is one of the best books. So I was like, “Oh, okay, I’ll try these.” It is funny, because they’re super gritty, but then the style’s fun-seeming on the surface. And it contrasts a little bit with what the stories are. But it just all goes together.
AVC: If you could adapt a prose novel or a series of novels to comics, what would you choose?
MK: Oh, man. It’d have to be a Philip K. Dick book. And, I don’t know—I don’t know if I could pick one. Man in the High Castle’s great. VALIS is really good. Probably any of them.
Dave McKean, Cages (2010)
AVC: Were you reading this as it was being released back in the ’90s?
MK: Yeah. I was in college and those issues were coming out and it took forever. I don’t know if it took like a year between issues or what. But I was buying those when they came out and I just couldn’t wait. It was like an event when the next one came out. And it was blowing my mind cause he was doing the covers for Sandman” and he’s done—to me, he’s known for his illustration and painting. But then I’m reading this and I’m like, why doesn’t he—these are some of the best comics, the writing’s really good. And I think his paintings and his photography’s great, but just the ink and linework he’s doing in those is some of my favorite stuff. I love that art. Yeah, that’s one of my favorite books of all time.
AVC: Did that book influence you in terms of pushing your own visual style?
MK: If anything, it just opened my mind to how you can work in comics and what sort of style you can use. It emboldened me a little bit to think that maybe my style would be able to find a readership. He was mixing photos and then he was doing this line art that was quirky and rough and loose, which is the kind of stuff that appeals to me. And I come from a fine art background, so seeing these illustrations that weren’t completely polished, and there wasn’t a lot of feathery kind of stuff that you see in most mainstream comics. But seeing that and being able to see that he’s drawing from life but he’s not using heavy photo reference necessarily but the drawing’s really have a life to them was just super inspiring.
AVC: Going with the themes of that book, have you ever had any sort of creative “cage” you struggled to escape? Any project that you worked on that you were having trouble getting through?
MK: Not really. I think I have the opposite problem. I have more ideas and more things I want to do than I have time for. So I end up taking more than I should and then working all the time. I don’t ever feel trapped by anything except time, you know. I wish I had more time. I wish I could stay awake longer. I’m so happy doing everything I’m doing, I have more opportunities than I know what to do with, which seems ridiculous.
Grant Morrison and various artists, The Invisibles (1994-2000)
AVC: If I had to guess a comic that would be on this list, it would probably be The Invisibles.
MK: Yeah, there’s a reason it was the first one that popped into my head. I was reading that when it came out. Those issues—I remember buying the first issue because it had a weird sort of craft-paper cover, I don’t know if you remember that. But it was printed on this craft-paper in black and white, or two color, and then there was another cover inside and I was like, what’s this? It had like a hand grenade and it was neon and just everything visually appealed to me about it. I knew Grant Morrison from Doom Patrol before that. And I liked Doom Patrol, but I caught it at the tail end, and I was just kind of waiting for him to do the next thing so I could get started from the beginning.
So when [The Invisibles] came out, it just blew me away. And then the letters pages in that series were just crazy, too, because you’re following [Morrison’s] life as the comic was coming out and all this crazy stuff is happening to him in his personal life, and it was coming out of the letters pages, and then you just realize that he’s writing this comic and he’s believing everything that’s in it, which has always kind of appealed to me the same way that reading Philip K. Dick does, where the stories are crazy and science fiction and there’s this pink laser that’s beaming these messages into his eye and he’s hearing stuff on the radio. And then you find out more about him as a person and as an author, and you realize that some of that stuff is nonfiction. You’re like, “What?”
So I really like that. I like that there’s—whether you believe everything or not, I like that they’re presenting this as their reality or as their truth. And it’s under the fiction umbrella, but in a way, it’s not. That’s always interesting to me, which is why I love embedding true things or true stories or true conversations I’ve had in things, into fantastical stories. Some people don’t really know where the truth ends and the fiction begins. That appeals to me.
AVC: This is also one of the few books on your list that has different artists working on it. When you’re collaborating, do you appreciate having different artists to interpret your vision?
MK: It’s interesting. I would prefer—in an ideal world, I could stop time and then just draw everything I write. But that can’t happen. And there’s a lot of stories I want to tell that I don’t think my art style is right for. So collaborating is fun. I’m picking projects that I want to draw and then I’m writing other projects that I’d like somebody else to draw, just depending on what the subject matter is or what the story is and, you know, trying to find an artist that fits it. It’s a totally different process. It’s a little nerve-racking cause you don’t know what you’re going to get back. But I’d say 99 per cent of the time it’s something as good or better than I’d written in the script or gives me an idea to do something else.
I definitely try to make a point of talking to the artist I’m working with, I think that’s important. Even work-for-hire stuff, I don’t want to turn in the script and the artist just draws it and then it’s done and we haven’t interacted at all. I think that’s not a good way to work. I try to go out of my way to talk to the artist. Clayton Crain on Rai, we’ve had some conversations—he doesn’t like talking to the writer. And I was like, “Hey, if you want to talk, let’s talk.” I put everything in the script, but I’m always open to anything. And then he e-mailed me, and he was like, “Hey, can I call you?” And I was like, “Uh-oh.” He never talks to the writer. And so he called me up, and we had this great conversation. He was excited about some of the ideas and he just wanted to talk and I was so glad to hear from him and have a conversation.
The first thing I ask an artist is, “What do you like to draw? What do you want to draw? What are you inspired to draw?” And talking to [Clayton], he gave me all sorts of things he likes to draw, things he’s into. And I just made a list of those and then incorporated them into the story. An inspiration or like a little jumping-off point, almost like little writing exercises I used to do all the time with some friends of mine. We’d get these writing exercise talking points where it’s just a random thing, like, “Write a story about a guy who got divorced who has a notebook and orange juice.” Somehow. And then for 10 minutes, you just write everything. Write for ten minutes, a story, and see what you come up with. But I enjoy that improv part of writing where you take these elements that maybe don’t go together or you can’t see how they go together and try to weave those into something interesting you wouldn’t normally think of.
AVC: The Invisibles is also the book that I feel is closest to Mind MGMT in terms of psychic manipulation and unseen forces influencing society and characters fighting against those forces, although Mind MGMT is considerably less metaphysical and cosmic. Did Invisibles have an impact on you in terms of exploring those aspects of the story and using a comic book as a tool to delve into deeper social issues?
MK: I can’t say I consciously had Invisibles in mind when I was working on Mind MGMT.
If anything, all the topics appealed to me. So it’s just natural for me to do something with a lot of those same elements in there. I would say, looking back at it, what I love about Invisibles is how it’s kind of a gonzo comic. It goes so crazy, pushes things so far, which is what I love about it. But my personality isn’t like that, even though I can—so when I was approaching Mind MGMT, I was trying to think of what I believe in.
I know Grant put a ton of stuff in there that he believes in and things that he thinks are real and there’s an element to that, all the conspiracy stuff. And I was like, “What would I do? What do I believe, and how far do I think we could push it or push our minds or whatever?” And so I tried to push it as far as I think is believable. And so instead of just trying to come up with the craziest stuff I could think of, I tried to think of how far you could push it and then maybe push it like ten percent further and couch everything in our real world, but take two steps sideways to what maybe could be or might happen or might be able to be impossible in some way.
But to me, it’s all about the characters, so at the end of the day, a lot of that stuff is just window dressing. It’s all personal stories or creating these characters that are based on people I know or things that are real. And just dress it up a little bit so it’s awfully entertaining.