interview

An Interview with “The Kingdom” Creator Jason Bienvenu

the kingdom cover

Our own Gardner Mounce recently spoke with Jason Bienvenu, the creator of The Kingdoma comic about “a magical realm where animals have evolved in the absence of mankind.” You can also read Gardner’s coverage of the series here.

GARDNER MOUNCE: First, tell us a little about yourself and your background.

JASON BIENVENU: Jason Bienvenu (b. 1979). I’m an illustrator and designer born and raised in South Central Louisiana (Lafayette). I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts, with a concentration in graphic design from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I love collecting action figures, playing video games, and hanging out with my wife, Natalie, and my daughter, Elizabeth.

GM: When did you first know you wanted to write comic books?

JB: In the fall of 2011 I did a lot of animation work for an Xbox XNA game that never got produced leaving me frustrated that I had done so much work on a project that wouldn’t see the light of day. At that point I decided that I wanted to take on a project from start to finish that won’t cost me an arm and a leg; a project that I could learn as I go.

From there I began making little Post-it notes on the look of some of the characters and jotting down ideas. By the spring of 2011 I had begun what would become the first issue of The Kingdom.  I had a story arc/road map of where I wanted the series to go, but nothing set in stone. At that point I was still learning how to create my first comic and wasn’t even sure I would finish the first issue!

While struggling through the first issue, I realized how fun and rewarding it was, and my wife Natalie and I would go over dialog together and it really began to come together.  By the time I finished the first issue I told myself, “Okay, you can do this.”  So I created a Kickstarter to help fund the printing of the books and the rest is history!

GM: Which comic book creators inspire you most?

JB: When I was doing my comic research I picked up Mike Mignola’s Hellboy books and studied them and took in as much as I could from them. They are still a huge influence on me today.

But in a real face-to-face sense I would have to say my friends Kody Chamberlain of Sweets and Punks and Rob Guillory of Chew really helped me out more than I could ever convey in words. We were friends before I decided to start doing comics and I was actually shy about asking them for the longest time, but once I did they gave me really invaluable advice on everything comic wise, from the art and how to transfer line art to digital format to how to have a successful showing at comic conventions. I can’t thank them enough for that.

GM: What are your ambitions for your writing career?

JB: I know a lot of people want to work on the “big” books like Batman and Captain America, but right now for me, I have stories that I want to tell and I have several writing partners on other projects that I am super excited about, so at the end of the day, for now, I would say I want to be able to continue creating comics and would love for the work I create and will produce in the future to be published so that more readers will have the chance to enjoy it.

GM: What was the most challenging aspect of working on The Kingdom?

JB: I’d say the most challenging part of working on The Kingdom was the last two issues of the story arc. I would work my day job, then stay up until 2 a.m. working on each issue, which took about three months to finish both of them. My wife and I had just had our beautiful little girl so there was no guarantee that when I was done at 2 a.m. that I would actually get to sleep the rest of the night, ha!

GM: What was the most thrilling?

JB: I’d say the most thrilling part for me was when I received the trade paperback edition in the mail and I felt the weight of it in my hands and flipped through the pages, and just looked at what I created with the help of my wife and all the Kickstarter backers. It was one of those, “wow, you really did it, kid” type of moments.

GM: What is one unexpected thing you learned while working on The Kingdom?

JB: That I am a comic book creator! This was the first comic book I ever created and I honestly wasn’t sure if I would ever finish it, but once I got the first issue down I felt like I had found my groove and I really feel like I found out what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. That was a great feeling.

GM: Which character in The Kingdom do you most identify with?

JB: I’d say Pale. Pale is basically me, but Thane has a lot of aspects of me in him as well, ha!

GM: As the sole creator of The Kingdom, you don’t have the difficulty of explaining your story to an artist or interpreting a writer’s story. With that in mind, what is your process for creating an issue? Do you write a script first?

JB: Whenever I created the story I knew where I wanted it to go. I had a “roadmap” but I felt like the story should be very organic. I wanted to let the story unfold and I had a lot of fun surprises along the way. For instance the rat Reekey was basically only a plot device to get Pale from point A to B, but I wound up liking him so much that he became this major part of the story and I really like to work that way. Also my wife, Natalie, is listed as editor but in future prints she’ll be listed as writer, as she helped me with much of the dialog, especially between Mala and Thane, who are basically me and her.

The process: whenever I start an issue I look at my road map. Then I close my eyes and literally envision the entire issue one page at a time. As I finish a page I draw it out as a “thumbnail” sketch in my sketchpad and add dialog, like a good joke or important plot point, and continue on until that book is completely thumbnailed out. Then I move onto the dialog and finally start on the artwork itself. Once all the artwork is completed I go in and add all the word bubbles. Then I print it out and Natalie and I go over all of the dialog and make sure it all fits and sounds right and that there are no typos, etc.

GM: Do you have a day job? If so, what is it and how do you balance your day job with working on comics?

JB: I still have a day job, so I do lot of comic work on weekends and at night and during holidays, which can be really grueling and difficult at times, but also very rewarding.

GM: When writing The Kingdom, did you outline the entire plot in advance or did you create it issue by issue?

JB: Yes I outlined the entire story arc, but it was more of a “roadmap” as I knew where I wanted the story to go but I allowed for it flow and have a more organic feel, which allowed me to take what I had built up from the previous issue and incorporate it into the next.

GM: Is there a type of scene that’s harder for you to write than others? (Love, action, suspense)

JB: I found from working on other comics that for me a large page of dialogue between a couple of people was difficult because as the artist I have to make several panels of people sitting on a sofa look engaging and interesting, which was really challenging but fun at the same time!

GM: What advice would you give to young writers?

JB: Never wait for permission to follow your dreams.  Once you know what you want in life, go for it. You’ll make mistakes but it’s the best way to learn and never be afraid to fail.

GM: How would you have been stereotyped in high school? Jock? Band nerd? Theater kid?

JB: I’d have to go with class clown, ha!

GM: What are you reading right now?

JB: I try not to read anything while I’m writing, and I’m working on issue eight of The Kingdom right now.  However, the last thing I read was The Hobbit, which was a Christmas gift from my wife. I would sit in bed and read one chapter at a time and just take it all in; what an amazing book!

GM: What’s next for you? Any future projects?

JB: My next project is called Vamped, about a group of nerds being introduced to the world of Vampers. It’s a dark comedy written by Donny Broussard and illustrated by me. Think Clerks meets The Lost Boys! We are three issues into a six issue story arc and have recently started work on issue four. I’m also working on a sci-fi noir with Brando Gary called Dusk, which I’ll start on when Vamped is completed this summer.

GM: Is there anything you’d like our readers to know about you or The Kingdom?

JB: This project started out as a personal challenge and turned into an inspirational project for me. Growing up with dyslexia presented its own set of challenges, so I tended to fall back on the amazing 80s era that was around when I was a kid. The same era that promoted fun and joy is what I wanted to bring back and share with you guys. I hope that this story inspires you to share in that same nostalgia and that you have enjoyed the story as much as I have enjoyed creating it.

GM: The character designs in The Kingdom are wonderful. Do you have a favorite one?

JB: Thanks! I have to say that character design is one of the aspects that I enjoy the most when creating comics.  Pale’s character design is very near and dear to my heart, even though his look evolves throughout this story arc.

I really wanted his outward appearance to suggest what was going on under the surface in his mind and heart. I also wanted the reader to worry a little that he wouldn’t wind up being the hero they thought he was.

GM: Can you describe the process of developing the design of that character?

JB: With respect to the character design of The Kingdom, I was very focused on each character’s look and feel, and the first thing I thought was “each character has to be distinct!” I wanted the reader to know who they were even if they were in total silhouette.

After I got their look and feel down, I focused on the color scheme. I found a lot of inspiration from the 1980s Masters of the Universe and Thundercat cartoons and toys. Those characters had very bold and wild color schemes that in some cases should not have worked, but they really did and it taught me a lot about my own color palette.

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A “Conversation” with James Franco: Celebrity Poetry

James Franco

Austin Duck

To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I get so irritated by James Franco. I just do. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, in general, I’m not a very nice person, and it’s no surprise that I (oh yes even I) have found a celebrity that I use to channel all of my frustrations with personal failures onto. I mean, c’mon, look at this stupid face.

But that’s not what I want to write about. I want to use this space below to try, in some way, to figure out why Franco is doing what he’s doing, to try and get inside his head. Recently, amid all the Facebook and Twitter fire he’s been getting from his newest poem in DIAGRAM and his “book review” that showed up in Vice, a friend of mine, someone whose ideas I take very seriously, asked us (the hungry pack of MFAs who love to trash Franco at every turn) to take a step back, to consider what he’s doing from a different angle. For her:

Uncomfortable as it makes me to admit it, I am interested in [Franco’s] perspective. He’s an actor, and I think he’s a good one. Acting is a delicate and demanding kind of translation. I can grant that he has an aptitude for art, although not so much for the medium he has fifty degrees in. He has the rare (among poets/ardent fans of poetry/scholars) distinction of having a great deal of influence in Hollywood — he’s at liberty to try things most poets/fans of poetry/scholars are not. That has some value to the world… and I’d rather it exist than not, even if he doesn’t please other poets/fans of poetry/scholars with his output. In other words, I think he’s in a position to do some great things, and unfair as that may seem (esp. given the shit-tons of good poetry by non-names that goes uncelebrated, unpublished) I’d rather him try those things and disappoint us than not try.

This got me thinking about what, really, his project could be, what he could be getting at, what sort of aesthetic he’s actually after. Sure, we all know him as the Frank-Bidart-imitating, couldn’t-write-his-way-out-of-undergrad-without-his-name poet who keeps producing less-than-satisfactory work (by poetry culture’s [hahaha like that’s a real thing] standards anyway) to sell to a massive (for poetry) audience, but why? Does he maybe have a grand idea that his writing chops just can’t approach?

I figured the best way to clarify this was by having a conversation with him. Of course, I don’t know him (though we almost went to the same graduate program for a minute), and I doubt he’d talk with me, but he has such a body of work (poems, interviews, book reviews) about writing, that I think his opinions on the matter are pretty much available.

Here we go:

All of Franco’s words come from interviews and poems published in the following places: CurbedViceThe Daily BeastYahoo NewsHuffington PostChicago TribuneDIAGRAM

Austin Duck: At what point did you get interested in poetry? How do you see it relating to your experience in acting? Your vision of making art in general?

James Franco: I was in my first year at NYU, and our assignment was to make a short film that was an adaptation of a short story. They gave us a list of stories to choose from, but at Warren Wilson this teacher I had brought in Frank’s (dark, disturbing, serial-killer driven) poem “Herbert White,” and it was amazing. That was the first time I read him. And I think I have since learned to be awake to those kind of moments, when you get impulses of connection. These impulses are visceral. It wasn’t only because it was about a killer. The killer had been fused with something else. Frank [Bidart] was playing with both sides of the coin. There are moments in the poem when the killer takes down his mask, and the poet shows through.

AD: So you feel like art is a kind of simultaneous masking and de-masking? Both a mirage come up and a human come through? Would you care to say more about that?

JF: Sometimes, I would like to live in a tight space and be a spy on the world. When I was younger, when I had no friends, my mom drove me to school because I lost my license drunk-driving, and we wouldn’t talk, we would listen to Blonde on Blonde every morning, and life was like moving through something thick and gray that had no purpose. And now I see that everything has had as much purpose as I give it, [it carries] less and less of [its] original pain, And become(s) emptier, just [a] marker really, building blocks, to be turned into constructions and fucked with.

AD: So memory for you, then, is what? A marker? A mask? Is the past a kind of costume you slip into when you think you can remake it? I know you’ve done some work in performance poetry as well. Would you say that this idea, the idea of performing a past self, a self othered, is key to the art that you make? I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind that the othering is absolutely necessary in acting; even in This is the End, when you play yourself, you’re not really playing yourself. You’re taking a construction and “fucking with it,” right?

JF: I write confessions and characters, and that sort of thing. [Once] I called my class at UCLA, and told them to watch Apocalypse Now, and that it used Heart of Darkness as a model, and that we’d watch Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness, the making-of, the following week, I told them Hollywood and its high and low priests and priestesses become icons that [we] can manipulate to find poetic truth rather than journalistic proof. I guess you can read it as fetishizing, but it’s more of an ironic form of fetishizing. Once I choose a subject, I’m not going to shy away from portraying that.

If you go back to something like General Hospital, it’s because I like that it allows for people to look at something with fresh eyes, or to rethink a situation. If it’s my involvement that does it, and I’m going against tacit beliefs of entertainment hierarchy, if I’m messing with that, that’s interesting to me.

AD: So while you have interests in characters, in the cracks that appear in their personas, you’re more interested in pushing formal boundaries, messing with people’s perceptions of who you are? Can I ask you something blatantly? Are you more interested in the work or in how the work makes the public perceive you?

JF: I’m going to try to not let anyone put me in a box, and that certainly applies to the things I do outside of acting. There’s a tacit belief that actors shouldn’t write books, they’re sort of allowed to direct movies but there will be a lot of skepticism, and they shouldn’t do artwork, or music. There are these invisible roadblocks to gain entrée to these areas for actors, and you kind of have to crash through those invisible barriers. I know why those barriers are there. People are skeptical of anyone who has any bit of celebrity going and doing anything else because they might be wary that they’re cashing in on their celebrity, or that they’re doing these other pursuits not because they’re genuinely into them, but because of their celebrity in other areas. I understand that skepticism, and think it’s valid. But I told myself that if I was going to go back to school and study these other things, I knew I was going to get some shit, and that people were going to be prejudiced without even knowing what I’m doing, and that’s the price I have to pay for doing what I want to do. I think a lot more people that “care” and pay attention to what I’m doing have turned and understand that I take all these other disciplines seriously. I think it’s better now. I’m sure I still have a lot of haters, but I don’t really interact with them.

AD: It seems to me, then, that you’re interested in something a little more “pure” than many people give you credit for. “Poetic truth” I think you called it. How would you characterize that “truth?” Is it the same “truth” that you’re after when acting?

JF: If I were to act in the film about Obama, all I would need to get down, aside from the outer stuff—and I know that’s important—is his essential kindness. Poetry’s just like that, like hearing a performance going on. It is a portrait in some ways of someone trying to make sense of his world. I was taught to grab a reader, not push them away, and, I guess, that’s what I know of how to be a poet. The way I view it, poetry is like the movies, this monster at the center of the room, articulate, and behind it, a poet figure peeks out, a torque that acts as a through-line to ideas. And his ideas came out of a cheap, dime-store, medical case study that came out of Lowell and Bishop and Ginsburg. It goes on and on. Remember that the bricks of LA were mortared with thick Indian blood.

AD: Oh I see, so it’s about history. You seem to see the poet as inhabiting a kind of history that she makes, again, human, that we’re all imitating one piece or another and, in finding what’s human in the work, we find it with ourselves. Your work, particularly, engages in the history of Hollywood, the history of film, just as your films seem to be engaged in the history and the moment of literature. I think I get it: You engage in Hollywood because acting and film, like poetry, are obsessed with moments—of masks dropping, of traditions shattering and becoming alive. The history of literature and film are all about reinvention, about bringing back the dead, and, as I think you know, the only way to do that is with the human, the real. Is that about right?

JF: Hollywood is an idea. I want to get into the thick of it. Movies won’t be around forever.

AD: Do you think you’ve achieved this in your work?

JF: …

——————————–

While I still think that Franco’s written work, ultimately, isn’t very successful, I think that he has a vision and is pursuing a worthwhile project.

Fuck. I have a lot of tweets to delete.

Image source: The Guardian