A Brandon Graham Interview


BURNS: When you got introduced to the editors at Tokyopop, you already had some King City pages done, right?

GRAHAM: Yeah. I had started King City. I got a job working at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, and I was really, after hitting my head against the wall with all the Vertigo stuff and not getting anywhere, and even the NBM stuff, they said, “Alright, we’ve published enough of your porn. It’s not selling like crazy. We don’t need any more of that right now.” I hit this kind of wall. “I’ve got nowhere else. No other direction to take my comics.” So King City was a real big deal for me, because I’m not a fan of the comics industry: the business side of comics. It was really a breaking point where I was just like, “You know, these guys don’t like me? Well fuck you too.” So I started King City with the attitude: “This is my comic. I’m going to do it for myself.” I just started drawing it without any plans, and I did about 40 pages before I showed it to anyone: until I found any publisher. I tried to get NBM to publish it, but they turned it down. Then Becky Cloonan, who was a part of Meathaus, was doing her East Coast Rising at Tokyopop, and she introduced me to them.

Did they take to it immediately?

It was lots of phone meetings and lots of talks, but it was really exciting that they were willing to talk to me. I was expecting them to turn it down. Originally it was called “Cat Master,” and they really didn’t like the title. I’ve been debating, if I do more of it in the future, just calling it Cat Master. So “King City” was just the throwaway title. I was just like, “Aw, I’ll call it the name of the place.” When they accepted it it was the most exciting thing in the world for me, because aside from doing porn comics it was the first time I could just do the comics I wanted to do and live off of it. I remember literally jumping up and down on the bed and being like, “HOLY SHIT!” (Burns laughs.) I was staying at Filthy Rich’s place at the time, and I would have to use his computer. I didn’t have a phone at all. All I had was a clock radio, and whenever I was going to get any work done I would call up Rich, and he was up in Inwood at the very very top of Manhattan, and I would go take a train for an hour up there and just stay for like a week.

BURNS: Did you have an editor on King City? What was the relationship with Tokyopop like?

Well at first, I can’t remember the woman’s name, but at first there was a woman who was the editor on it. She was really friendly and really jokey about it, and I remember her telling me things like, “If you call me after three o’clock I might be drunk so don’t bother.” I got along with her really well. Then she left and I had another editor who I really didn’t get along with. He was really adamant about me sending in layouts. I had to do layouts for the entire first book before hand: thumbnails. For me, that’s the hard part about doing comics, it’s the writing and the layouts. I can draw pretty fast, but doing panel layouts and writing was really hard. So it took me … I basically would do a layout a day. It took me a year to layout the first King City: the first 200 pages or whatever. I remember threatening to quit over having to do layouts for the entire book, and being like, “There’s no way I’m doing this for book two. It was really frustrating because I didn’t get along with that guy very well. I remember getting the Eisner nomination and being like, “Oh, cool! This will buy me some credit over there. They’ll treat me nicer,” and him being like … I forget the line … something horrible about how Eisners don’t sell books. (Burns laughs.) I was like, “This is the first time people are recognizing my shit you asshole!” It was a really dramatic change, because after he left, the guy Troy Lewter, who was the last King City editor, came in and had read the first book. He was really in to it, and I got along with him incredibly well. We would hash out all the possibilities of what we could do on the comic. It was completely, by far, the most positive editorial experience I’ve ever had.

So did Tokyopop tell you at the time why they were going to stop publishing original books by American creators—after book one had been completed?

GRAHAM: Oh yeah, it’s a very boring story. Basically the returns—you know, bookstores can return books—were incredibly high. Borders sent back a huge amount of Tokyopop books. Tokyopop just realized that a lot of their American comics weren’t going to sell. And I was always kind of frustrated. I didn’t feel very backed by them. King City, the first one, came out and you couldn’t find it anywhere. They were trying to sell it to comic book stores, but comic book stores were already feeling a bit alienated by Tokyopop.

Why was that?

I just got the impression that Tokyopop was really pandering to bookstores more. Basically because you can sell manga in bookstores better that comics stores. Not to shit talk the recently dead, because I did get a lot of good stuff out of Tokyopop.

BURNS: Were you already working on book two when they let you know that they weren’t going to publish you anymore?

GRAHAM: Yeah, it was kind of terrifying. I was almost done or pretty close to done. I was actually at the scene, I think it came out in the Image books as issue 10 or issue 11, it’s basically right when Pete and Joe are about to rescue the alien girl. Originally the whole thing was going to be three books long, so I had a lot more story than I ever showed, but I kept having to cut it down because Tokyopop was like, “This has a set deadline, it has to come out at this date.” I think book two was originally going to be 150 pages, and then when they called me up and said, “Ok. Stuff’s weird right now. We don’t know what’s going on with the book. Put it on hold for now,” I just kind of stopped drawing it. I think their plan was to put it online. The whole thing was very frustrating.

BURNS: So how did Image get involved and finally strike a deal about the rights?

GRAHAM: I think a couple months before the hiatus I met this guy Joe Keating. I met him through Moritat, and it was me and Corey Lewis, we went out to a pizza place with him and Moritat. He was the marketing guy at Image. When the Tokyopop situation worsened I contacted everyone frantically like, “What can I do?” And Joe was really helpful. He introduced me to Eric Stevenson who runs Image, and they went out of their way to talk Tokyopop into making a deal. But it was funny: Tokyopop wasn’t really willing to talk to me at first, because they’d dropped all these books and they had a ton of different artists all pissed at them. Twenty different people all calling them every day and threatening their lives or whatever. My editor was really nice during all of it, but I could tell that he couldn’t do anything, and he didn’t want to put me in contact with his bosses who could do anything because they were just getting harassed. Everyone was really upset about their books being put on hold. So I just started putting my stuff on my LiveJournal. I decided I was going to do some crappy lettering on the computer, because Tokyopop had been lettering it in-house, and then just start putting it up on the Internet. I think I posted the first 20 pages, and then I got a phone call from them the next day saying, “We need to set up a meeting,” and we had a conference call. They basically called me up to scold me about putting King City online, I think, but it worked because it got their attention. It’s such a bad lesson in comics: every time that somebody’s told me to just be quiet and not say anything, “We’ll deal with this,” and nothing comes, they say, “Just be quiet and wait another week.” So just being like, “That’s it, I’m putting it online,” and they immediately start dealing with me again. It showed me it isn’t always good to listen to people. What the companies want isn’t always in the artist’s best interest, obviously. While they called up kind of mad, his guy Mike who was the vice president there was really on my side, and he said, “You know, Brandon has some points.” I was really upset with them and they kept saying they were still going to publish it. It was a big contractual thing. I could have taken it to Oni or Image, but in the contract it said that as long as Tokyopop agreed to publish it they get to keep the rights, and that included putting it online. My argument was that I didn’t want the readers of tokyopop.com. I didn’t think they were my people at all. I don’t want Sailor Moon fans reading King City. I was really un-diplomatic. I said, “I don’t want retarded 12-year-old girls reading my stuff.” (Burns laughs.) So basically, I had already been talking to Image. I wasn’t planning on publishing it through them; I just wanted advice, and Joe and Eric at Image were incredibly helpful and just said, “Yep. Have ’em talk to us.” I just mentioned that to the Tokyopop guys and it got moving really quickly, and then it took nine long months of constant negotiations to actually hammer out the deal.

BURNS: Wow. What year was this?

GRAHAM: Uh … three years ago?

BURNS: Nine months of negotiations just to start getting the issues published.

GRAHAM: Yeah, and while that went on I couldn’t deal with it so I just ended up drawing Multiple Warheads. I did 50 pages of Multiple Warheads and a bunch of short stories in that time. Stuff that hasn’t been published yet.


BURNS: So in the time between drawing King City six and seven you were diagnosed with cancer. Do you feel comfortable talking about that?

GRAHAM: Oh yeah, totally.

BURNS: What exactly happened?

Basically … a lot of good jokes came out of that … One of my testicles got huge. I went to a Harborview Hospital free clinic near my house. I was living with Corey Lewis and my friend Jacob in this tiny little house up on Beacon Hill in Seattle. I could just walk to the hospital. So I went down there, and I remember being like, “I’ve got this problem I want to see you guys for…” (Laughter.) At first they were really dismissive. “Aw, god. It’s probably just … we’ll give you a cream or something!” and then seeing my nut and just being like, “Oh shit! We need to deal with this right now.” It was just a couple days before I was into surgery. I remember, the girl I was seeing back then, the surgery was called an orchiectomy, and for recovery she rented—I keep mentioning Lord of the Rings—she was like, “You need Orcs. You need orcs to recover from your orchiectomy.” But it was so surreal and so quick, the idea of going to surgery and having cancer all of a sudden. I remember going into surgery: they give you a pen and have you go into the bathroom. They said, “Mark which one we’re going to get rid of so we don’t screw it up.”


(Laughs.) Yeah, exactly. It was hilarious because I remember being there with the pen and just being like, “I could really damage myself if I was just like, ‘Cut off everything.’”

BURNS: “No, no keep the big one. I have huge testicles. This one shrunk.”

GRAHAM: (Laughter.) “I want to impress people.” So it was really a quick surgery and the recovery was pretty quick. Then I went into radiation after that for a while. They tattooed a bunch of dots on me to line me up with these little predator dots every time I went in. I gained a ton of weight then. You’re supposed to lose it, but I would just go to McDonald's every day because I was so wiped out from the treatment. Another funny part about that: the first Tokyopop book was coming out around then, and at that time I had the editor I didn’t get along with, and they kept fucking with my stuff. I would put slang or broken English in there and they would correct it and send me the proofs. I would have to go through all of my scripts and double check anything and be like, “Put ‘ain’t’ back in here!”

Brandon Graham is a terrible speller.

(Laughs.) They changed the logo on the original one. I think the original logo has this crappy tire track thing along the side, and they put bad pink graffiti arrows. I remember fighting with them like, “You can’t use this cover. It makes my stuff look like shit. The last e-mail I wrote them, which actually convinced them, I signed it, “Serious as cancer.” (Laughter.) This is the one time I’m going to be able to use this.

BURNS: I have to say this.

GRAHAM: After the surgery they sent me to a sperm bank. It’s just good grist for the mill for comic books.

BURNS: So the rational was, “In case you lose the other one…”

GRAHAM: Yeah that was exactly it. In case I lost the other one, they wanted me to keep some. And the thing about the sperm bank … a lot of the staff were pretty young nurses. They send you into a room to masturbate into a cup, and you watch pretty-young-nurse porn in there. I remember asking them, “Are you all comfortable with this?” They all had a good sense of humor about it. I would go in and always joke about how I wanted to wear a full business or tuxedo on, and then quickly get the business done and then change into Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt smoking a cigarette. (Burns laughs hysterically.) Because these things in life, I remember going in there and just, every guy you see in the lobby you’re like, “These people are going into rooms to masturbate. That’s weird.” I remember seeing a guy with a beard and a turban and being like, “This guy doesn’t masturbate!” The whole thing was really surreal, and the radiation was bizarre, but it was one of those things that in retrospect it was like, “Oh, weird, I had cancer.” And I forget that I’m missing a nut every once in a while and that I’ve got these weird dots tattooed on me. It’s just one of those things that at the time was really casual and later on holy shit. I got an email last year where somebody wrote me casually like, “Man, I’d give my left nut to draw like you.”

BURNS: (Laughs.) It wasn’t intentional?

GRAHAM: No it wasn’t intentional at all. He sent me two emails apologizing, like, “Oh my god. I’m so sorry,” but I said, “No, no it’s funny.”

BURNS: That’s fantastic.

GRAHAM: But it’s sort of the same thing like with the World Trade Center: me being around this weird dramatic stuff and at the time being like, “Man, this is weird, and just joking about it.” Then later on looking at it in retrospect and saying to myself, “Oh, that was fucked up.”

BURNS: So did the experience really even change your approach to King City?

I always felt like it would affect my work more than it did, but I haven’t really seen anything. I had a really good support system of friends when it happened, so it was cool how it worked out. Everyone was helping me out and everyone was cool.

BURNS: So, to try and bring things full circle, we’ve been loosely talking about your experience and life in cities, and how your experience in cities influence your work, but do you ever catch anything the other way around? When you’re creating cities, a city like King City or the Dead City in Multiple Warheads, does that ever change how you think about cities in the real world?

GRAHAM: Definitely. I think just science fiction and being into comic books has dramatically changed how I view the world. I’ll look at downtown skyscrapers a lot and just try to figure out what goes on in all the different windows. I’m sure the reality of it is really boring, but it’s hard for me not to be like, “Oh, of course there’s guys summoning Cthulhu and all kinds of crazy bullshit going on in those windows.” Part of me knows that that’s not how the universe works, but I’m so used to putting that stuff out. I was talking earlier about Moritat walking me around Seattle and showing me the hidden parts in cities. It’s like it must be there. Even if it isn’t, I love the idea of hidden interesting stuff in any given city.

BURNS: It’s your city. Even if you don’t see inside those windows, it’s your city and it could be anything you want.

Yeah, totally.


BURNS: So now you’re living in Vancouver with Marian Churchland. How did you two meet?

GRAHAM: Oh, we met at a comic book convention.

BURNS: (Laughs) Once again.

GRAHAM: Yeah, it’s horrible. The Marian thing, it kind of goes back farther. There was this guy named Lock. He did a bunch of online comics. His stuff is really Masamune Shirow and Otomo influenced. I would write him back and forth when I was living in New York. I was really into his stuff. He was friends with Brian O’Malley who did Scott Pilgrim and Corey Lewis who did Sharknife, and I became friends with all of them through him, and Marian and her best friend Claire who were up in Canada were also paying attention to all their stuff. They got involved in that same group of friends. So I kind of knew of her through them but didn’t actually meet her till years later when Corey and my roommate Jacob, we came up to one of the Vancouver conventions and Marian and Claire were here. I remember, you know you meet artists and it’s very casual like, “Oh, cool I’d like to see your stuff sometime,” and then us going to Marian’s apartment and her pulling out her Beasts pages she’d been working on that Image published. They were these huge Paul Pope-sized pages. Like three times the size that I draw. Beautiful European influenced stuff. It blew my mind. I was very ready to be like, “Oh, cool nice stuff,” and it was like, “Holy shit this is amazing.” I felt like I was getting too cocky about stuff, having an attitude like, “Oh, yeah there’s a lot of good stuff out there. I’ve seen it all. I pay attention to what’s coming out now. I know where the great artists are.” Just seeing her stuff and having no idea there was stuff this good going on, it really made me think that there must be stuff that’s good going on everywhere. It really played into the idea that there’s crazy shit going on behind every window. I remember Moritat picking up me and Corey from her place later on—I did a comic about this later—he just kind of jokingly said, “So which one of you’s gonna screw her?” And me just being shell shocked. “I can’t. I can’t touch her. She draws too good.” This was someone I didn’t want to hook up with and then alienate because I was so impressed by her work. So I became friends with Marian and we would hang out all the time, and then only a year and a half after I actually met her did we even start dating. I was really trying to be a gentleman always. I think it worked out for a while, but then it became really hard to date someone in a different country, because I was in Seattle still. Then I just ended up moving up here to Vancouver and we got secret married without telling anyone.

BURNS: So you are married. I was wondering.

GRAHAM: Yeah. It’s such a weird thing. I call her my girlfriend. I don’t wear a ring or anything. We got married like, “Oh ok when I move to Canada we’ll get married.” It’s worked out well. It’s funny … I think of her as my girlfriend. We also got married the day before James Stokoe and his wife Marley got married. Marley Zarcone who does comics too. I remember calling them up and being like, “Beat you!” (Burns laughs.) They’d been together like 10 years or something, been planning the wedding for a long time. And me and Marian … we were just driving down the street and I was like, “Hey. Let’s get married.” Just by coincidence, Richard Starkings, the guy who does all of the computer lettering and does the comic Elephantmen, he was in town, so he came with us to get married. He and Moritat were the witnesses, which was really bizarre.

BURNS: This is comic book gossip gold.

GRAHAM: The whole thing was incredibly unromantic. Like signing papers, and I remember the coffee maker had like an inch-thick layer of mold in it, in the room where they have you wait. Then the judge came out and was like, “Nyaaa, you guys’ll look good in photos together. Sign this stuff.” Then I ended up coming to Canada. Marian had this apartment up here that was basically the size of a bathroom, this tiny little grungy place with no windows at all. I was so excited to be away from any distractions where I could just draw my comics. That’s kind of when I started King City two. I really could just focus on banging out the pages. I wasn’t really interacting with anyone but Marian for six months or something while I worked on that. It’s been a big change. I just got my own apartment. Now me and Marian are in the same building but we each have our own place. It’s the first time I’ve had my own space and it’s blowing my mind. We don’t work together. Right now she’s got a deadline. She’s working on some Vertigo issue. I bought groceries with her this morning, but I probably won’t see her until we’re ready to pass out. I’ve known artist couples who draw on the same desk. I don’t know how they don’t kill each other.

BURNS: Was your family pissed when they found out you got married?

GRAHAM: My mom, like I said, is pretty Catholic, and she was just, “Finally.” (Laughter.) Then she kind of nudges me. “So are you guys going to have kids?” I’m like, “No no. We draw comic books. We can’t have kids.”

BURNS: We can’t afford kids.