King City by Brandon Graham is a comic book about a guy named Joe and his cat Earthling in a far future metropolis run by spy gangs and evil sorcerers. It’s full of weird drugs, black magic, luchador masks and oddball humor.
This month Image Comics published a collection of all 12 issues of King City, which was originally serialized from 2007 to 2010. After a battle with testicular caner Graham literally gave his left nut to finish the book. He’s now working on Prophet for Image and Multiple Warheads for Oni Press. I caught-up with him to talk about Moebius, graffiti, technology in science fiction and more.
How many details about the city were conceived in advance? Did you create maps, or list of facts and details about the world the book takes place in, or did you just make it up as you went along?
I had some rough ideas about the characters but I pretty much made up the city as I went along. I was always trying to base places off of somewhere I’d been. I think of Joe and Pete’s place in the 2nd half of KC as being in Seattle’s China town. The diner where Pete meets Exiekiel to get information about the alien lady was me trying to draw a diner in Queens.
King City, to me anyway, has a very spontaneous feel. I imagine you just making up each page as you went along, packing them with as much detail as possible. Or did you have a more structured plan for each issue?
I had a real rough structure for everything but I try to allow for a lot of drawing what I’m in the mood to draw. And I usually lay out the book in 4 or 5 page chunks as I go along.
It’s nice to just follow your mood with a page and try to find new ways to stay interested in what you’re doing. I like to think about what’ll be fun to draw on the next page forcing me to speed up on what I’m doing because I’m so excited about what’s next. And then there’s days where I’m just not thinking about what comes next and I’m just having fun making lines on paper.
King City appears to take place in the far future, and there are references to certain technological advances like nanotechnology. But in some ways it seems really low tech – I’m not sure we ever see anyone use a cell phone or the Internet. For example, Anna seems to have no way of reaching Joe or Pete remotely, she has to walk to their apartment to find Joe. Did you consciously decide to avoid having the characters use certain technologies or was this just the way the story worked out?
Yeah, it was on purpose. I avoid certain things like cell phones or the Internet or anything too modern that would seem dated really soon. I was trying to make it feel like it was happening now but with all the sci-fi fantasy elements I felt like throwing in. Excluding all the crazy sci-fi-ery, the technology is probably at the technological level of the early 1990’s because that’s about what I can wrap my head around.
I think a lot about different eras of science fiction and how they portrayed the future. The sci-fi that reflects modern technology seems sleeker and smaller, and it makes sense but it doesn’t look as cool to me. I’m a big fan of the look of big clunky utilitarian 70’s sci-fi. But maybe KC is “20 minutes in the future” of 1992.
Graham’s tribute to Moebius
King City actually reminds me a lot L’Incal by Jodorowsky and Moebius and other old European sci-fi/fantasy comics. Moebius recently passed away, can you talk about his influence?
Yeah, Moebius is probably the artist whose work has influenced me the most. Him and Howarth, Shirow and Barlow. I like the Incal all right, but I’m really obsessed with the work he did alone.
I feel like he took a lot of the freedoms American underground comics were doing in the 60s and pushed them to a whole new level adding all kinds of elements from science fiction novels and really creating something new.
I’ve always been so impressed by the joy he seemed to put into everything he did. His comics read like he’s having a great time working on them and the nerve in some of the stuff he pulled off is fantastic. How he’d allow himself to change a character’s look so dramatically in the middle of a story or jump from something completely serious to the ridiculous. I could go on forever about all the elements of his work and his life that have impressed me.
I know you haven’t done graffiti in a long time, but did being involved in the graffiti scene in Seattle as a kid affect the way you perceive the urban environment? Do you think you’d draw cities the same way if you hadn’t been a part of that?
Yeah, I think it definitely affected how I think about cities, certainly the way you interact with your environment when you’re running around drawing on it. It’s nice to be able to fuck with the world around you – changing signs or just writing a response to an ad directly on the ad or having to draw something to fit on the surface you’re drawing on.
Bigger than that, I think graffiti really influenced how I think about the scene I’m in.
Can you expand on that?
The graff writers I was around really pushed the idea that the culture has to be treated with a fair amount of respect. You’re expected to know the history and you have to earn your place in it.
I think the comic industry gets dirty because people make the excuse that it’s a job. For me it’s that if it’s where I’m going to spend my life then I want to make it a scene that I’m proud of.
The pillars of hip hop influenced you when you were younger – what, outside of comics, influences you now?
Still a lot of hip hop, I think in the last couple years the wordplay in rap has really driven a lot of what I put into my stuff.
I think I’ve been really influenced by some of the authors I’ve been reading. Robert Heinlein’s way of rethinking the way future relationships work and his whole out look on life being so different from mine. I’ve been influenced with how William Gibson structures his books and certainly the way Haruki Murakami writes about food and music.
My misses Marian has been a huge influence as well. She’s coming at art from a much more fine art/literary way of looking at it than I was used to. She’s really good at challenging my ideas and helping me think about what it means to be a life long artist and how I talk about art. A big thing I learned from her early on was the idea of talking about the quality of work not from a “this is the best” but rather “this is my favorite”.
Prophet cover by Graham’s wife Marian Churchland
Given the amount of improvisation in your work on King City, how different is it to be a writer, instead of an artist, on Prophet?
The whole approach is pretty different. It puts a lot of the weight on the guy drawing it, plus we go back and forth on the layouts and script. I do the text after the art is done so there’s lots of room to improvise.
I think it uses the same skills that I use in my solo work but it feels like a different animal.
Other than Prophet what are you working on?
My main thing is Multiple Warheads that’ll be coming out later this year from Oni press. It’s a fantasy comic set in a fictional Russia. and I’m putting together an 80 page book of my sketches.
The Comics Journal’s interview with Graham
Inksuds’ video interview with Graham
Graham on what it’s like working with Liefeld, and the matter of how women are portrayed in comics