Feeling wholly independent: a David Lapham interview
by Nicola Peruzzi e Antonio Solinas
Leggi l'intervista in italiano
Hi David, welcome to De:Code. It´s been a couple of years since you´ve been working for mainstream comics. But your latest work, Silverfish, even though it is under the DC/Vertigo brand, looks like a sort of homecoming, at least for the themes.
Speaking of Silverfish, I can see a lot of different influences on it such as your own indie work. The set, in fact, seems to be borrowed from a Stray Bullets story. Second, the story is reminiscent of a Lynch or a Hitchcock movie. Are there any other influences we´ve missed upon the initial read? In general, who would you list as your influences?
Sure both Hitchcock and Lynch are a big influence on me. Vonnegut is another big influence on me. Segar’s Popeye really affected the way I look at things in my work. I tend to like things that have a slight absurdist streak. In this particular book cheesy 50’s horror films are at play here. The setting is less taken from Stray Bullets and actually is a slightly fictionalized setting of a real town I grew up next to—which, of course, was hyper-fictionalized in the Stray Bullets town you’re thinking of.
Your commitment to Stray Bullets has been incredible. How difficult was it for you to keep the focus only on one comic for about 10 years? What about sales? Were they big enough to afford financial security?
Well, for many years yes. We did fine. In the last few, with the industry tailing off a bit and having kids and less time, we regrettably haven’t reasonably been able to publish. I still hold out hope though, that’s why I haven’t taken Stray Bullets to another publisher. It’s MINE dammit.
After years of self-publishing with El Capitàn, your publishing house, you decided to work for Top Cow, DC Comics, and then Marvel Comics. Now you´re working full time for the mainstreams—what are the reasons behind this change?
See above. Purely practical. But don’t take that as me not having fun. It’s been great to work on Batman and Spider-Man and some of the work I’ve done. Terror, Inc. my current Marvel book was a BLAST. And, of course, my Vertigo work is very close to the real me. Silverfish and now, especially, Young Liars, is the next evolution of pure Lapham.
What´s the status of Stray Bullets? We´re stuck at issue 40. Are you planning to come back to it? What about your other anticipated indie project, The Paradox Man?
See above again. Yes, I feel really bad I haven’t been able to get out at least 41 which is the climax of the current arc. It’s just tough to stop the train for 6-8 weeks and say I’m going to do this. It’s just not practical in this moment. I know it frustrates a lot of people, none more than me. But at the same time, I haven’t gone away. I’ve found a way to be me and put out the uncompromising stuff I think represents me.
The Parallax Man was an idea that I developed as a script. I’d love to put it out as a comic. Once I get El Capitan up and running again, I’ll find a great young artist I can take advantage of and put it out (HA!). The story, the world is created. I love it.
In the Stray Bullets letter column you once said that no crappy movie would ever be made from your comics. I think that the kind of storytelling of some recent TV Shows like Lost is comparable to the basic concept of Stray Bullets. Do you think that Stray Bullets could work as a TV Show, and why?
Yes. It could. I think the last few years, cable has shown the TV series can be reinvented to be less bland and more daring. More…novel like. That they can be hard edged like a movie but more expansive in ways that movies can’t. More like comics can, actually.
It seems to me that on some of your mainstream comics you´re trying to bring your personal vision on crime and mystery onto the major leagues. For example, the Bastellis story in Daredevil vs. Punisher, in my opinion, is the core of the mini. Is it hard to avoid the heavy hand of the editors, having your way working for the major leagues?
No… My editors have all been great. They know who I am and what I do, so they can’t be surprised when I give it to them. I’ll say that the biggest hurdle is ME. How do I marry what I do best with a superhero concept. I love superheroes. I grew up on them. I love a great fight scene and crazy concepts. How do I fit that in and still make it me and not just a generic retread punch-‘em-up. Also I understand that these superheroes are brands and it’s the companies job to protect them. I know I can’t have Peter Parker shooting heroine. I know that Daredevil doesn’t kill. Sometimes it’s frustrating, for instance I had a great Batman story about Bruce Wayne when he was a kid at boarding school, but DC just did not want to define that period of the characters life so specifically. I get it. That’s why I like Terror, Inc. so much, because it was a character not many people remember, I had a huge latitude with what I could do. But again, I do keep in mind that Marvel is and action based line of books, so I’m not going to try and get too heavy. At Vertigo, with Young Liars, I can basically just be me %100.
Now, tell us a little something about your personal history as a cartoonist. Could you describe your beginnings at Valiant Comics?
I started at Valiant. My first story I drew was called The Ultimate Warriors Ultimate Workout, for the 2nd issue of a WWF comic magazine Valiant did briefly just before the superhero universe took over. I was awful, but they got the legendary Stan Drake to ink it so it looks all right. Without going through every detail. I was at Valiant for a year and a half or so, I learned incalculable amounts from all the veterans there, specifically Jim Shooter. And I got to create and cocreate a ton of characters. Eventually it all went to hell when they forced Jim out, but I can’t tell you how lucky I am in this day where everyone is spread out across the world, to be able to learn and actually apprentice my trade. It really doesn’t happen much, if at all, anymore.
After that, you were among the Defiant creators. What do you remember about that experience?
I helped found the company. I remember quite a lot. We had a ton of good ideas, but the market was rapidly changing at that point and from when we started and what we expected everything completely changed by the time the books started coming out. The market basically tanked after the Image/Valiant collector implosion. I think it really killed us. We didn’t have time to bring the universe together, work out the kinks, that kind of stuff. We did at Valiant. We started and nobody was watching. Then once we had that solid base, we exploded. Then, of course, they sold the company and ran it into the ground (Valiant not Defiant).
You´ve worked with one of the most controversial figures in the comicdom, Jim Shooter. He´s said great words about you, such as the ”new Frank Miller.” Did this ever act as a limitation, having your work compared to Miller´s?
Like I stated earlier, Jim is an incalculable teacher of the comics medium. He’s a hell of a force and it’s a damn shame he’s not more involved in the medium today. We can never have enough craft and solid storytelling. The lack of it has really eroded our base the last decade plus.
You started working on superheroes but, after your Valiant-Defiant years, you did not go back to capes. Even when you worked with superhero publishers, you chose urban vigilantes that are far from being flying big guys in spandex. Are you not interested in ”classic” superheroes? Any chance of seeing you working with them?
Sure. I’d love to take a crack at Superman. A lot depends on circumstance. I don’t sit around thinking, “Hmmm… I wonder what Dr. Strange would be like in my hands….” I’ve got too much on my plate to daydream that far out. But if someone asked, hey, you wanna do a Dr. Strange story. I’d take it as a challenge, and it’d be fun. That’s how Batman happened. Daredevil, too. On a certain level, I’m not “into” guys with big powers. There’s a lot of explanation that goes into… Thor… for instance and all the stuff he can do. Batman is easier. He jumps around, he beats the crap out of people, he has gadgets. He has daily interaction with regular folks. It makes sense to me.
You have a particular affection for stories set in the late Seventies – mid Eighties in the American Province. In your stories the set is alive, acting as one of the main characters, in my opinion. How much the set is important for you?
Very important. I see everything moving in my head. Even a fight scene. I try and use the environment. If the characters are in a hotel room, then the bed is an obstruction. The TV might get smashed. Is their liquor in the room. Can we use that? Can someone get brained with the bottle. The only way to do this is to create an environment. In Silverfish the entire last 40 pages is basically a finale where the killer chases the kids through a boardwalk amusement park. So part of the fun is to use all that stuff and create action that could only take place there.
The things that I love the most in your stories are the dialogues – always raw and realistic – as well as the perfect cinematic storytelling. How much time did you spend on these aspects? In general, could you describe your working process?
Dialogue and scenes are what I enjoy most. One thing that’s sometimes frustrating is dealing with the reality that you have limited space and comics take a long time to draw, so lots of good bits and exchanges have to be cut. But often I’ll start a comic or a scene just writing dialogue. Working out the exchange between two characters. I just let them talk. Let funny stuff, biting stuff, expository stuff, let it all come out until you find the nut of the scene. Then you have to go back and chop out 90% of what you’ve written. Sometimes writers can overwrite when they do this. You just have to know you can’t keep everything. And you can’t forget about the visuals. As an artist, too. I know when I get to the layout stage and start creating those environments, I’ll further cut the dialogue and come up with visual bits and visual ways the characters can express themselves. Anyway, the fun part is writing scenes.
Crime comics seem to be one of the main sub-genres of comics, nowadays (even in superhero comics). Anyway, I find some of these comics rather boring and uninspired. Given the fact that it´s not your case, how hard is it to come up with something fresh that does not resemble the other crime comics on the shelves?
I don’t think about it. Well…when I do superheroes I do. When I do Spider-Man or Batman I do. How can I marry me and superheroes to give people a non-generic take on their favorite character. But on Stray Bullets or Silverfish or Young Liars or even Terror, Inc. which I had enormous latitude, I just “do my thing”. Crime is a great genre, and I love it, but I don’t usually do straight crime. I do little dramas about messed up and scarred people and then use all the fun crime stuff on top of that. I guess what I’m saying is, I think my stories are unique because they’re very much me. You may hate them but you can’t copy them.
You won 2 Eisners for Stray Bullets and a nomination for a short Matrix story. How important has it been for an indie creator to win an award like that? Has it influenced your subsequent works?
My thoughts on awards are they’re kind of silly. We’re not a sport or a contest. However, they are kind of fun, usually as a way to be indignant during an enjoyable dinner with friends. “Can you believe they gave THAT pile of crap best whatever?” Most awards are based as much on popularity as they are on quality. That’s not at all to suggest the winners of awards aren’t deserving, just that often they’ll be five great nominees and the book that sells the most--and is therefore is known by more voters--will most often win. So my thought has always been, they’re kind of silly, but as long as they’re giving them out… I WANT ONE. I don’t know if it means anything, my paycheck didn’t double. My sales didn’t double. But I do get to hype myself in Bios with “Eisner winner David Lapham was born on a minefield in Viet Nam… etc…”
In your opinion, what does it mean to be an Independent Creator today?
Depends what you mean. Since I’ve been working freelance for the big boys for the last few years, a lot of people wouldn’t call me an independent creator. But I do feel like one. I feel like no matter what I work on I’m incapable of not making it me. Making it a David Lapham story. So for that I feel wholly independent.
Do you think there´s still space for self-publishing in the American Market?
Yes, but it’s hard. I never “self published” because Maria ran that side of things. But even the “two-man game” or small press situation you have to put in a lot of time energy and hustle to make ends meet. Or you have to hope you make some Hollywood deals to keep you going. The market is smaller, so you have to work that much harder for the same buck. And if you don’t keep up your consistency or output your fan base will erode. And don’t fool yourself. Drawing a comic takes TIME. If you hack, people will know and you’ll lose fans. Hell, if you hack, YOU’LL know and you’ll lose your motivation for doing your book. Time is a big enemy.
Of course you can redefine success and say I don’t have to earn my whole living doing this, I just want to express myself without interference. I want something that’s mine. Then you do still have access to the same distribution, printers, the internet, etc.
What are the basic differences between writing your own stuff and writing stories for characters owned by somebody else?
I think I got that one covered above.
Are you still reading comics? What do you like to read?
When I was 16 I worked at an ice cream restaurant and stopped eating ice cream. I’m not that bad, but I do have two kids and I work on comics… nearly all the time, so trips to the comic shop are infrequent at best. Unless somebody clues me in about something, or one of my friends sends me their stuff, I’m a little out of the loop.
Do you know anything about the European comics scene? What about Italian comics?
Nope. I’m waiting for you to clue me in.
Our last ”trademark” question. Name 3 comics everyone must have on their shelves.
1. The Complete E.C. Segar Popeye
And since I can’t say Popeye three times and saying Stray Bullets would be immodest:
2. Palomar “The Heartbreak Soup Stories” by Gilbert Hernandez
3. I have all the comics, but is there a complete Frank Miller Daredevil? That’s what got me into comics. If not I have to still say Watchmen. Alan Moore at his deconstructionist superhero peak and Dave Gibbons is unbelievable. The coloring rocks too. I miss the pre-computer coloring days.