Rachel Pollack has been a published writer for more than 50 years, and in that time she’s had a number of different careers. She is one of the great living experts on Tarot, having written many books (including the 1980 bestseller Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom) and has designed multiple Tarot decks. She is the World Fantasy Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novelist of Unquenchable Fire (1988), Godmother Night (1996) and other books. More recently, her book The Beatrix Gates (2019) was part of PM Press’ Outspoken Authors series. Her comics career was relatively short, but casts a large shadow; reading Pollack's comics today makes clear that her work was not simply good, but ahead of its time. She wrote New Gods (1995-96) for DC, Time Breakers (1997) for the publisher's short-lived Helix imprint, contributed to the Vertigo crossover The Children’s Crusade (1993-94), and reimagined old DC characters in The Geek (1993) and Tomahawk (1998).
For many of us though, Pollack will always been remembered for her brilliant, iconic run on Doom Patrol (1993-95). Taking over the series from writer Grant Morrison was a challenge, but Pollack managed to enlarge and deepen the title, to continue what Morrison did well, but find ways to make it weirder while also allowing the characters to change and grow and come together as a family, yielding some truly profound and iconic moments. Much of what she did has been erased or ignored by DC since, but the company is finally publishing a collection of her run this autumn, which will hopefully bring new readers to her work.
In recent years Pollack has contributed short comics to various anthologies including Mine! (ComicMix, 2018) and Dead Beats (A Wave Blue World, 2019); she has co-written an upcoming comics series and is writing another. This is in addition to writing a memoir and more short stories, and continuing her work on Tarot. She was very kind with her time as we spoke this year about queerness in comics, the late editor Lou Stathis, magical realism, trusting the mystery, and much more.
* * *
Alex Dueben: I want to talk about comics, but I wonder if we could step back because I know a little about you from your writings, but I’m curious about the role that fiction and stories played in your life as a child.
Rachel Pollack: Very very big! [laughs] Here in Rhinebeck where I live, there’s a street called Mulberry Street and every time I pass it, I think of that Dr. Seuss book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. I realized that was his first book and it might have been the first book I read. And while I understand the publishers pulling it for racist imagery, to me as a child it exalted story, and making things up. It seemed to be my life. [laughs] The idea of story being upper most above anything else. I began writing very young. My father made up stories. He used to tell us stories in the car to keep us quiet. Very silly stories. One time he made up this story for me about King Nosmo. It took me a long time to realize that “Nosmo” was “no smoking”. [laughs] I got it from him, to a large extent. I remember when I was eight or nine years old I first tried to write. I wrote an epic. I had a big old thick pad and I was going to rip off some comic book story I read. Of course I didn’t get very far. But that was my beginning and I just kept going.
Reading your work I would have guessed that you were exposed to a lot of comics, a lot of Silver Age superheroes and science fiction and weird fantasy work.
It was great, great stuff. I’m old enough that I caught the tail end of the 1950s and I got to read the original Captain Marvel before DC put it out of business and I still revere it. I still remember those incredible stories. I remember when I studied Greek mythology in college and on my own – I’m kind of self-educated in a lot of these areas, even though I went to college and have a masters degree – and I discovered that moly was an actual plant. That when Captain Marvel goes “Holy Moly” it’s a reference to The Odyssey, of all things. I was so floored by that. I was thrilled that this funny saying in a Captain Marvel comic all those years ago was something real. Or mythological, at least. That was wonderful to discover. Realizing how those old Captain Marvel stories really connected to some deep stuff, as silly and delightful as they were. When you’re a kid reading comics, you don’t think about the people who make them. At least I didn’t. They were just there. So I would get The Marvel Family, which featured Captain Marvel Jr., and Captain Marvel Jr. had his own comic because he was popular, and he looked different in that comic. I remember thinking, how can he look different? He’s the same person. [laughs] I had no idea that it was because they were drawn by two completely different artists.
When did you start writing professionally and being published?
I sold my first story to New Worlds, which became a quarterly rather than a magazine, in 1970. It was called “Pandora’s Bust”. [laughs] It was such an exciting moment. I had been sending out stories for quite some time. A few years of getting rejections. And here and there getting encouraging rejections. Back then everything was hand-typed because there were no computers, and so they would send you your story back, so you could send it to someone else without having to retype it. I was used to getting big envelopes with my stories back. I came home from work one day, I was teaching at a college, and there’s this regular envelope. I looked at it and the return address was Michael Moorcock! I was like, why is Michael Moorcock writing to me?! It was such an unusual experience. Then I realized what it was and I couldn’t wait to rip open the envelope.
I was writing and selling stories throughout the '70s but I didn’t have a book published until 1980. My first novel Golden Vanity was published in July 1980, I think. At the same time my first Tarot book, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, was published. Someone told me that my first three novels were all seen as debut novels. [laughs] Golden Vanity disappeared without a trace, but Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom has been in print ever since. We just had the 40th anniversary edition. It’s remarkable how two books came out at the same time and one went in one direction and the other in a completely different direction.
When you sold that story, were you living in London then?
No. I moved not long after. I left the States to live in Europe around June 1971 and I was there for 19 years. The story sold somewhere in the winter. Although it’s possible I’m wrong. I remember when I did go to London, I wanted to meet Michael Moorcock and I know I had sold him a second story.
When did you first become interested in Tarot?
It was actually 1970. That was the year I discovered Tarot. Or Tarot discovered me, as I like to say. And I sold my first story. Right around the spring of 1970. The following year, the spring of 1971, I came out as trans and a lesbian. And then I left for Europe. It was all one year. My whole life changed in one year. It was an amazing year. A year of my life taking off.
I remember your piece, "Trans Central Station" [published in The Beatrix Gates], and there were a number of lines that have stuck with me, but you talked about how Schrödinger's cat is the right metaphor if we think of the box as a closet.
It’s interesting to think about. Schrödinger's queer. [laughs] Out or not out? Which is it? You don’t know until the box opens.
To fast-forward, the story is that you took over writing Doom Patrol after meeting Tom Peyer at a party.
Tom and I both wrote introductions for the Omnibus volume. I wrote mine first and then I saw his and corrected mine. Because I did not remember all the details of how we met. I vaguely thought that Neil Gaiman, who I had met at a writers conference, had invited me to this event. It turned out that Neil was there, but we were both there because it was a reception for the Science Fiction Writers of America. He introduced me to Stuart Moore and I was gushing to Stuart about how much I liked Vertigo – it wasn’t even Vertigo yet – but particularly Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. That it was such an incredible brilliant thing. He said, well the editor is right here, which was Tom Peyer. So I was gushing to Tom and I said – and I wasn’t trying to get a job – “I’m not looking to write a monthly comic but if I ever was interested, Doom Patrol was the only thing I could imagine writing.” He said, “Actually, Grant’s leaving in a few months, why don’t you send me a sample script?” In his introduction he wrote that he was desperate to find somebody. I’m not sure why. But that’s why he responded to me. He sent me one or two of Grant’s scripts I could look at for reference. Neil sent me one of his scripts, I recall. Maybe I looked at an Alan Moore script, or maybe that was later. But I got a sense of how people do it and what I wanted to do. And the script that I sent him was the first story. He liked it enough that he said it should be my first issue. I wrote it based on what he told me [about how] Grant was going to end it, and where I would want to go with it. Basically I just had them move to Rhinebeck. [laughs] I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to move the cast who are weird super cool wild strange superheroes to some nice little village in upstate New York. [laughs]
That feels a little less weird now.
I suppose so, yes. [laughs] I thought that the last stuff that Grant wrote about was dealing one way or another with repressed sexuality and repressed identity and things like that, so I just thought it would be fun to deal with that in a more direct way. A friend of mine, a writer named Jack Womack, had become enamored of this book which is a manual for the police and insurance people to distinguish between suicide and sexual accidents. Because there are ways that people have to get themselves excited that bring them to the verge of death. And sometimes they make a mistake. For insurance companies, there’s a big difference between accidental death and suicide. So I thought, why don’t I make some ghosts of people who died that way? I had this whole plan and I asked Jack if I could borrow the book, he loaned it to me, but the stories were just too sad. So I just made up these bizarre things. And I didn’t do that much with it but they had them in the house. “SRS”. Sexually Remaindered Spirits. So that was kind of the start.
I was so impressed with what Grant did and how they revived [Doom Patrol] when they began their run and basically I did a version of that. Playing with what they did in a different kind of way. I got a lot of negative response from some of the fans. It struck me later that part of the problem was that as a woman writer I was looking at it very differently than a lot of male writers when looking to take on a new thing. What you were supposed to do in the male dominated comics field was either slavishly copy the previous person – or just destroy him. In this very Freudian Oedipus Complex way. Destroy everything he did and start over completely. I revered what Grant did, but I wasn’t just going to do the same thing. So it was this middle ground of taking off from what they did, but not junking it. I think people had trouble understanding that. But to be fair, I was taking an extreme position of being wild and radical and weird and challenging [readers] to figure out what the hell was going on. Grant did that kind of thing, but they knew where the line was. They knew how to bring people to where [readers] could get it and then have the weird stuff be extra. At the beginning I was too much on the weird side. It wasn’t too long before I was getting it and honing in on what I wanted to do.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For the purposes of clarity, Grant Morrison identified as male at the time of Doom Patrol’s writing, but has since come out as nonbinary.]
Reading the run, it’s possible to see early on you’re trying to start from where Morrison ended it and you’re rethinking it and setting up something new. But I was curious about finding your voice and getting a feel for how comics worked and how to write them. Because it feels like it takes a few issues for you to get comfortable.
To me it took a few issues before I figured out really what I was doing. I had lots of ideas, but they didn’t quite gel. One thing that I was really disappointed that nobody actually got was there were ancient enemies called Fox and Crow. This was a parody of a DC funny animal book when I was growing up actually called The Fox and The Crow. But nobody got that reference. Which is kind of a shame. [laughs]
That feels like a very Vertigo thing to do back then.
Which is one of the things I loved about Vertigo! It was wonderful. Along with Grant’s Doom Patrol, Animal Man and all kinds of great things were being done.
I keep thinking about the Tiresias War story, and of course it took a while to build up to that storyline, but I can’t help but think that it took you a little while to get a feel for how to write comics before you could tell that story.
And Ted McKeever came in then! Working with him was really special. It was really interesting. I forget exactly how that started. One of the things I liked to do was pick up some things that Grant left and play with them. They had this whole thing about the Pentagon being underground and I forget it all now, but I took off from that. Tiresias was a character I’ve always been fascinated by. In Greek mythology he was this sex changing seer who was at the core of a lot of different things. One is that he told Odysseus how to get home. He also revealed the secret to Oedipus that he murdered his father. Things like that. I loved the idea of this character. I can’t remember how exactly I thought of the idea that there were these creatures that pre-date our reality. That everything was in flux, nothing was fixed. Then this group called the Builders came in and they decided to make things be fixed so that nothing could change. Tiresias rebelled against that and tried to bring back the old ways. The Doom Patrol became his allies. In particular Kate, the transgender character. What was fun was that the prophecy was that a combined character of male and female had to overthrow the Builders. You would think some people imagined that Kate would be this person. Or maybe Kate and Tiresias because they were both “mixed.” No. Because Kate was always a woman. She wasn’t half and half. Tiresias would now be called nonbinary, maybe? To me the great thing was to have Cliff be the male part and that worked really well I thought. That was exciting. I loved the way Ted McKeever drew that. Robotman discovering he has breasts was a fun moment.
I was going to bring up Ted McKeever, because Doom Patrol may not be the first book I think about when I think of his work, but when I think of your run, I picture his art.
It was so much fun working with him. It was such a challenge. I had to send him a script fairly early. Not because it would take him a long time, but because we would have to get it back early enough to put in dialogue for the parts he didn’t bother to draw. [laughs] I would give him all these details but he was Ted and he drew it his own way. There were some details that he just didn’t feel like would go with the flow of the images. So then Lou Stathis the editor and I would sit down and fill those bits in. Ted was wonderful to work with. His pages were so beautifully done and challenging and fascinating.
So he was interpreting the script and finding the visual flow of the story, but you would have to make sure a detail got mentioned or rewrite the dialogue.
Yeah. Some of his panels would be incredibly detailed and others would be very quickly sketched. Which was great because it gave you this sense of moving energy. Energy moving and solidifying and moving again. It really fit the kinds of stories we were telling. Things would break down and shift and take form and shift and break down again. It was perfectly suited. It was wonderful to work with him.
You worked with a few artists over the course of the run including Linda Medley and Richard Case.
That was so great that Richard stayed for my first run and drew that first story. That was really kind of him to do that. We recently did a small story together in an anthology, Dead Beats, that was a fun story. Richard Case did a wonderful job on the transition story, but Linda had the task of really bringing the new team, and their new existence, fully to life. And she did it beautifully, with a kind of precision and flair.
You mentioned Kate, and Kate was many things in the book, then and now. But she was really the emotional heart of the book.
She became that. Cliff had a certain unease. The same with Dorothy, who felt so much shame. When I started Tom told me things that Grant was leaving and not leaving. I could not do anything with Crazy Jane because she was special for them. Tom said to me, there has to be someone in bandages. Doom Patrol always has someone in bandages. He just loved that image. So I had George and Marion, which were the names from the old TV show and movie Topper. The movie was from the 1940s and the TV show was from the 1950s. They were these martini-drinking ghosts who were always tempting this very staid banker named Topper to go on the wild side. They were the ones who were never ashamed or embarrassed to be themselves. The introduction of Kate was an important moment because they were going to go to town and Cliff and Dorothy come up and say, how can you stand it? What do you mean? Going down the street and having people stare at you and look at you because you’re freaks, how can you stand doing that? They said, we feel like we have two choices. One is to stay home and hide. The other is to go out and have a good time. To us it's pretty obvious what to do. That was to me a very important statement. If you’re different, so what? So what if people will look at you? Go and have a good time!
I don’t think you get enough credit for Dorothy.
She was Grant’s character.
Yes, but you did as much if not more with her.
I liked the character very much. She was very special to me. The outcast kid. I wasn’t entirely an outcast kid, but I identified with that a lot. I just loved the idea – and I took it much further than Grant did, I think – that because she was an outcast, her imaginary friends were weird because she had no social references. And then they had powers. They were super-powered imaginary friends. I think Grant hinted at this. I made it much more specific obviously. It came from basically getting her period. That was really where the imaginary friends got their superpowers. That energy. The blood flowing energy. Which has always been seen as magical. But as an outcast kid with imaginary friends, that’s where the energy came from. I remember that we did an issue in which this menstrual flood was about to engulf the town. [laughs] This did not get a great reception. I said to Lou [Stathis], too much? Did we go too far? [laughs] I got why people would object, but it was fun to do. And again, that was a Ted issue and it was filled with wild images of this red wave coming and automobiles and buildings getting caught up. It was so much fun.
One reason that I think of her as “your” character is because you made her the center of the team.
Including her insecurities and vulnerabilities made her the center of the team. Her not really understanding her own powers.
Issue #83 and False Memory really brought all that to the forefront.
I loved doing that story. Almost everybody had happy false memories. They just wanted to lose themselves in fantasies. Dorothy and Kate were the ones who couldn’t do that. Especially Kate. Kate’s whole life was trying to think beyond her painful younger self and then the memories that came back were painful memories. She and Dorothy never had that certainty that some of the other characters had.
That issue gets at so many things that you do and one is the issue of certainty, especially with Kate, her false memory “explains” her and her life and she rebels against that whole notion.
In a certain sense you could say that was her second rebellion against who she was supposed to be. The first one is that she came out and transitioned. The false memory for her was the lingering remains of society’s view of her. Now she finally got to triumph over it by not succumbing to that negative view. You don’t analyze the characters when you write them, you just trust that what comes up to you for them is meaningful.
And Dorothy fights back because for her it’s about a denial of her pain. Those two responses were very moving.
The three stand alone stories were among my favorites. I had rebelled against the idea of doing that because I was just always thinking in terms of four- and five-part stories. But the artists needed a break so the editor said, can you do a stand alone story? I didn’t like the idea but then I came up with Codpiece, which was wild to write.
Out of that Kate emerged. I’d been wanting to do something with a character like that. Basically a friend of mine, Chelsea Goodwin, said, you’re writing a superhero comic? Can I be a character? I’ve always wanted to be a superhero. That’s what started me thinking about having a transgendered superhero. And Kate is [named] for Kate Bornstein who is a famous writer and radical and wonderful person. That became the focus for a lot of people but Codpiece was really what drove the story originally. And was such a fun character to write. He cracks me up.
It was actually based on 1950s Green Arrow. [laughs] Green Arrow in the '50s and maybe even into the '60s was a takeoff of Batman. A low rent Batman. He had all these trick arrows to make him more spectacular, there was a boxing glove arrow, a firework arrow, a missile arrow. [laughs] It was so ridiculous because he had this narrow little quiver. I remember in a letters column someone wrote in and asked, how does Green Arrow fit all those large arrows into that small quiver? They said, that’s Green Arrow’s secret. [laughs] I thought that was so wonderfully ridiculous. So that was basically the inspiration for Codpiece. Just playing around with some of the male insecurities. I think I mentioned to you this bizarre reaction we got from some letter writers. They thought Codpiece was an attack on them. They thought I was satirizing comic book readers. Which I would never do.
Here’s what I have in my notes: “Codpiece. Completely ridiculous. And yet…” [laughs]
I sigh on hearing that some people responded that way, but also, it doesn’t surprise me that some did.
I’m sympathetic to that because I realized afterwards that this is how comic book fans are often portrayed. As fat nerds who live in their mothers’ basement and have never had a date. Which is so insulting and not true. So I can see that people might react that way.
Also, I recently had a fantasy of reviving Codpiece. [laughs] To write a one-shot story in which Codpiece is the hero of the incel movement. It’s the weirdest movement in the world. It’s so strange. These people who feel they are horribly oppressed by women who don’t want to have sex with them. What?! [laughs] Codpiece obviously would be their champion. He was revolutionary and ahead of his time! [laughs]
I said before that your entire run was ahead of its time. Admittedly I’m not the only one who has said that.
I got that. As you know, I enjoyed doing it and I thought it was good stuff but then it was gone and I’ve moved on. And then I was invited to a transgender literary conference and to be a keynote speaker – which was great. When I got there, it turned out I was a hero. Because of Doom Patrol. There was a whole generation of young transgender and queer cartoonists who saw that storyline and Kate as this great inspiration. That was a wonderful experience discovering this. I’m sort of glad I didn’t know it was happening. I’m glad I was surprised by this. It was nice.
One of the interesting things about Doom Patrol is that they’re a team and a family – which are terms that get thrown around, but they’re working on themselves and helping each other in a way that rarely happens in comics.
Well the model for team comics has, to some extent, always been the Fantastic Four all those decades ago. Before then they were always “chums”, to use an old expression. Fantastic Four and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was revolutionary. It was based somewhat on Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown, which was a DC comics before that. Fantastic Four was the model, but the bickering was never real, whereas in Doom Patrol, there were real issues and real conflicts. And yet they ended up coming together and being there for each other and learning from each other.
That moment where the characters come together and they make space for Dorothy to dance. Which is such a beautiful quiet and deeply moving moment.
Yeah. What I loved about the idea about Dorothy was that she didn’t have any friends; she only had imaginary friends. But because of that, her imaginary friends were based on her own weird imagination. But each of the imaginary friends had superpowers because she had superpowers she didn’t know she had. I just liked the idea a lot and that was part of what I went with and tried to develop. That her imaginary friends had no connection to human or general kids' culture because she was totally rejected by everybody.
You spoke before about George and Marion and their attitude and choosing to go out and be happy.
In that episode that was one side and the other side was Dorothy and Cliff who just could not stand the way that people looked at them and snickered about them. They just could not get out of those people’s eyes and just be themselves. That’s always been the problem for outsiders. People who were visibly not normal, visibly outsiders. To be stuck in the mind of the people looking at you and not be able to be free of that.
Over your run you really tackle that and Cliff really evolves over time. When the Builders offer Cliff and Kate “ideal” bodies, they laugh at the notion. Earlier I don’t think Cliff would have responded in that way.
At the very least he would have been challenged by it. He really had to get to know that who he was was something very special. The issue “Bootleg Steele” [#74] was another of my favorite stories. I can’t remember how that idea came to be. I think because there were bootleg copies of games and things like that which were just ripped off, and Grant’s idea to bring back Cliff was downloading his consciousness and then reloading that into the remade robot. It struck me, what if that got stolen? And there were bootleg versions of him? Kate is trying to give him the ability to deal with this. He says, well, what am I? I’m just a copy. I’m not real. She says, no, you can’t justify yourself logically. You have to look deep inside yourself and say, “I’m Cliff Steele and I’m a human being!” That’s what gets to him. Not any sense of proof or why it’s okay for him to believe in himself; just that he has to do it and it has to come from inside. At the end when they destroy the factory, the factory owner says to him, what makes you any different from them? you’re just a machine! No, Cliff says, they’re machines and I’m not. He got that message that he’s not inferior, not just an imitation of something real. That I think was a turning point for him.
The Builders are rigid and about control and order and of course the Doom Patrol are weird and against that, but you get at something much deeper about change and mystery and uncertainty. And those ideas run throughout all your work, but it’s central to Doom Patrol.
It certainly was part of what gripped me about doing it and why I was so happy to do it. And it was so much fun, too.
When did you learn that Doom Patrol was being canceled?
That’s a very good question. I’m trying to remember how much lead time we got. I think it was certainly before the last story arc, the Kabbalah storyline. But not much before. This is my memory, though, and it’s been quite some time now. It may very well be that I started the storyline and then I was told? I didn’t get a lot of notice. I’m not certain exactly how much time it was.
Was it just that the sales dropped below a certain point?
I gathered that, yeah. They wanted to go in a different direction, but it was sales. I was recently told by somebody that my run on Doom Patrol sold better than all the subsequent versions after it. Which I thought was quite fascinating. My sales were down from Grant Morrison’s so I can see why they might have said, we need to go more mainstream again. But it didn’t do that badly compared to the market.
After that when it was being revived, they would say, it’ll be less weird. Most of us went, then what’s the point? DC already makes tons of not weird comics!
[laughs] People have asked me from time to time if I got feedback about it being too wild or queer and I said, not at all. But my sense is that right around the time that Lou [Stathis] died and I was finishing up is really when the corporate side took over more? They wanted to have these Vertigo comics be more accessible. I don’t know because I wasn’t part of the whole world, but they went more into the movie and TV spinoffs, which requires a certain level of more accessibility. Now they have a Doom Patrol TV show which is doing pretty well and is pretty weird, which is nice.
When you have an editor who has your back, that makes all the difference. And after he died, you didn’t have a champion.
Yeah and that’s what happens. His death was sad on so many levels. His memorial was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever attended. His wife was there and she was saying that many people felt that it was so tragic for her that she had such a short time with him and then she had to spend time taking care of him while he was dying. She said, you don’t understand, that was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. It was so incredible. Just an amazing funeral. But then it went on and after his death his assistant took over and what I was doing was not his interest. Then he became editor-in-chief at Marvel after. And so that was okay. I would have liked to keep going, but, what the heck?
Were you planning far ahead or just writing one story arc or two at a time?
I had one or two storylines I wanted to do. One that we couldn’t do because it would get them in trouble. Legally. There was a team of super villains who were called the Dead Quartet and it was based on how people would see famous dead people who come to them in times of need. Elvis Presley and the Virgin Mary in particular. So the Dead Quartet consists of these four dead people who come back and help people and it was going to be the Virgin Mary and Elvis Presley and I forget who the other two were. DC said, no we can’t do this because A, you can’t go against the church. And B, you can’t go against Graceland. [laughs] They pointed out that when Elvis Presley appears he’s never called by name, he’s called “The King” because Graceland owns the name. So I couldn’t do that, although I did end up doing it in a novella.
The other one was a Tarot story called "ATM: Automatic Tarot Machine". That would have been fun because I would have got to kill off the entire team. It would be about this homeless guy who finds an ATM card and puts it in the machine and it says, welcome, Automated Tarot Machine, type in your passcode and he types in 0001 and becomes The Magician and he cycles through the whole major arcana of 22 cards – and when he gets the Death card he kills everybody. [laughs] Except Dorothy? I forget how but at the end she steals the card from him and types in 0020, which is resurrection, and then the team is resurrected and they come back and send him back to being The Fool. That would have been a fun story to do. But who knows, maybe someday I’ll use it.
Dorothy and a lot of aspects of your run got ignored as DC decided to make them less weird. Or maybe it’s not surprising.
It’s the kind of thing that happens. Vertigo got lost in general. It wasn’t quite as outrageous. I mean, Grant’s version and my version of Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and a few others that were so wonderfully bizarre.
That’s the thing about comics. You write a story that matters but also, next month it could be completely thrown out as if it never happened.
I told you one of the problems I had with the fans was that the model for how a new person takes over a series was, in a certain sense, Freudian. You either become the father, the previous person, or you overthrow them totally and do something totally different because you’ve taken over. I didn’t think about that way. I thought, I loved Grant Morrison, what can I do that would be me, that’s inspired by what they've done, that will carry on what they've done, but not slavishly copy it. I think people couldn’t get that. I think some people had trouble grasping what I was doing in that sense. But I could also say that I was not making it clear. It was my fault as the writer to not clarify what I was doing.
I wish that you could have had a longer run. It sounds like you could have written a few more years would have happily done that.
Probably. It was great fun to do. And I don’t think you ever run out of ideas. You could run out of interest in continuing something, but if you really like it and connect to it, I don’t think you run out of ideas. You respond to what’s happening. I mean I could see now in the whole emergence of transgender being not mainstream, but certainly more visible, I could see doing stories in reaction to that. Like Kate saying, so what, I’m obsolete now? Everything has to be nonbinary? Ways you could play with those kinds of things. It would be fun to do Doom Patrol becoming the darling of woke campus people, but then campus political correctness starts getting the best of them. They get invited by some radical campus group and then get attacked when they say something that’s not correct.
They would be heroes until they started talking.
Exactly! [laughs] Until they started being themselves.
Identity and duality are a major theme of comics. And they’re part of the queer nature of comics as well.
Oh yeah. People talk a lot about the subtext of what superheroes are, but one of the things they definitely are is queer. Because they have all these powers that don’t come out until they change their clothes and dare to go out in these wild costumes. And not hide. This gives queer kids the fantasy of being able to be who you truly are and be powerful. And doing that gives you superpowers, because you’re no longer hiding. One thing I remember thinking about Superman is, why did he keep being Clark Kent after his parents died? He did it for his parents supposedly. But why did he keep doing it? There was an old Superboy comic in which the town turns against him. The cover is people throwing rocks at him to run him out of Smallville and Ma and Pa Kent are joining in. One of them whispers to the other, we have to do this so people don’t suspect that Superboy is really Clark. It occurred to me that he stays as Clark Kent because he’s been taught to be in the closet. And that is basically Clark Kent is the closet. When John Byrne relaunched Superman it was so brilliant because in the relaunch Clark Kent was a person and not a disguise. And Superman was his job. I love that he did that. It was such a brilliant idea. But before that, Superman was the real person and Clark Kent was a disguise. And why would he pretend to be this person? So I came up with the idea that Clark Kent was in the closet. His parents had taught him to pretend to be an ordinary person.
The phone booth is the closet!
In preparing for this I found an essay that made the argument that the theme of Grant’s run on Doom Patrol was normalcy vs. weirdness but that the theme of your run was growth vs. stagnation. And I had never put into those terms but I liked that framing.
I would say that my theme was that weirdness is normalcy. [laughs] But growth vs. stagnation is a good way to say it. I like that. There keep being challenges to go beyond themselves. They have no choice.
I think you influenced Grant’s later work because a few years after, those questions of growth and change became central to their work. But before you mentioned the late Lou Stathis. Everyone who worked with Stathis has spoken of him in glowing terms.
He was wonderful. He was very committed. He loved what I was doing and he was committed to my doing it. He told me once that DC was saying that the book wasn’t selling enough and maybe I wasn’t right for the market and he said to them, if we’re not going to publish Rachel Pollack, then what the fuck are we doing? [laughs] What an incredible thing for someone to say. What a stand for someone to take on a writer’s behalf. But also he was a wonderful editor to work with. He could see what it needed. Where I was too loose and what needed to be tightened up. He gave me good directions. He was a great guy.
He had an interesting sensibility in terms of the projects he edited and people he worked with, but wow. That’s the kind of editor everyone wants. One who doesn’t just understand you, but fights for you.
Of course! Someone who stands up for you and fights for what you’re doing.
During this period Vertigo had a crossover, The Children’s Crusade, and I think it may have been the only Vertigo crossover.
As far as I can remember. But I’m not certain.
You were a part of this and the Doom Patrol Annual was a part of it. What do you remember about it?
It was a little bit difficult from my point of view. The theme required me to go back to an earlier set of characters that I had gone away from. That’s my memory. I might have the timeline wrong. I do remember that it featured Dorothy, who I loved as a character, but basically this was a Sandman spinoff. All the other books had to fit in with that. It was a good story, but I’m not sure I would have done exactly the same thing if I hadn’t needed to fit it in. The characters I came back to, the other children, personally they were part of something that were not what I wanted to do. Again, I may have the timeline wrong. I thought that my part was not as satisfying as I would have it be. But overall it was a great story. All the parts generally fit together. But I felt I could have done something a bit more than I ended up doing.
From my memory, it sort of fit together but not necessarily comfortably?
Well, crossovers are like that. With Vertigo, the kinds of characters and storylines were so particular and connected to the writers and artists involved that it was a bit of a difficult fit to put them all together in one story.
When it was collected a few years ago, parts were cut, a whole new middle section was added, because it doesn’t quite work as a standalone thing.
I’ll say that for my part, perhaps I might have made more of an effort to fit it into the overall storyline. Maybe I was a little bit hanging onto “my characters” a bit, which is not what you’re supposed to do in a collaborative effort. I enjoyed doing it. It was a good story.
Like you said, Doom Patrol was a different comic than Sandman or others in terms of tone and approach and they didn’t mesh easily.
The inspiration that Grant Morrison had for Doom Patrol was connected to radical avant-garde art movements. I can’t remember if they said it in an interview or someone said it about it, but they did it in reaction to people saying that after Watchmen, it’s no longer possible to do anything new with superheroes. They just rebelled against that. There’s always something new! What’s lacking is imagination. So they took it in a new direction. Doom Patrol was always about oddballs and outsiders and people that don’t fit in.
You also wrote a couple Vertigo Visions books reviving old characters. For a lot of us younger readers we had no idea who any of these characters were, so they might as well have been brand new. You wrote The Geek and Tomahawk.
The Geek wasn’t that old, of course. I picked [up] off of Neil Gaiman’s story [in Swamp Thing Annual #5], which was based on a character by Joe Simon. He was interested in the hippies in the '60s and '70s and he came up with this. He had no idea what to do with it. [laughs] Neil put him in the Swamp Thing universe. Alan Moore’s idea was that everything had an elemental. Which I loved. I loved that whole idea. The Geek was the doll elemental according to Neil’s idea. Now everything I did was about something. I didn’t just do something because I thought it would be a cute thing to do. When I was asked to do this – or maybe I chose to? I can’t remember now – I ended up doing something about abuse and survival. Based on stories people had told me and things I’d read. Brother Power was the doll elemental but there was an abuse elemental called Doctor Abuse. Which is a takeoff on a very old silent movie called Doctor Mabuse.
It was based partly on this strange story that someone told me many years ago in London. When I was in London it was a very exciting time. Gay liberation. I met all kinds of people. And there was a wonderful, very smart guy, who was part of the older generation. He’d been part of the drag circuit in the old days and he told me about these rent boys, as he used to call them. He had a client who was a very famous conservative politician. A Tory. He said, you would recognize the name if I told you. I had to guess because there weren’t many I recognized. The boy had been hired to go to this guy’s house and the job was to have dinner with him. [He] didn’t actually do any sexual acts. The entire evening they had dinner. This very elegant dinner just the two of them with wine. All that happened was the man talked to him. He never got undressed. There was no physical activity. The man just talked to him for a couple hours. And at the end, the man took out this box and it was full of diamonds. He told the boy, take a diamond, that’s your pay. So the prostitute left and he said to my friend, I hope I never ever go through anything like that again the rest of my life. This man took one look at him and found all his weak spots, all his shame, all his fear, and ground him in it for hours. It just about destroyed him. I was so taken by that horrible story that I made him the villain in my Brother Power story. Brother Power as the Geek, this outsider figure, would connect with that. And then he has to save this young woman. That was a powerful story to write.
Then when they said to me what older character would you want to revive, I immediately thought of Tomahawk. I have no idea why. I read it as a kid, but it certainly wasn’t my favorite. My favorites were Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Like everybody. And yet, that was what came to mind. I think subconsciously I knew that I could take on the subject of the white encroachment in North America and what the Revolution really was about. Which was about slavery and the wiping out of “the savages” as they called the Indians. And it was about freedom and democracy, too. A very strange thing, the American Revolution.
I reread them last week for the first time since they came out, probably, and both are deeply unsettling in very different ways. You described The Geek better than I could and why it’s so unsettling.
And I think Neil wrote him that way.
I think so. And the fact that the book was drawn by Mike and Laura Allred, readers probably expected it to be brighter and funnier, and were not prepared. And Tomahawk is unsettling in a very different way. In a way that we are not legally allowed to talk about in some states at the moment.
If it had only gotten into school libraries, it would be banned immediately!
It was a very different take on not just the Revolutionary War, but this period, than what is typically presented. As you lay out, the British settlers saw the wilderness and anyone who lived there as inherently evil.
It was very frightening. I remember thinking how Boston was “civilization.” Not New York, but Boston. And yet it was small. And everywhere outside of it was forest. And there lived “the savages”, as they called them. It was an interesting thing to think like that mind. And what would it mean for a white guy to be kidnapped by the Indians and not raised as them, but to became one of them, to an extent. Where does that put him in terms of his own people? It was an interesting subject to think about.
And that one reason for the Revolution was that the British government limited the colonial expansion and prevented them from taking land.
That was one of the complaints of the colonists against the Crown. That the Crown was keeping them from taking Indian land and killing the savages. The Declaration of Independence argued that the Crown was riling up the savages against them. But really the Crown was saying, you can’t take all their land. That wasn’t noble. The Crown cared more about the beaver trade than farming. Their priority was keeping the beaver trade with the Indians going. It was a complicated situation. Beaver skin hats were made for the upper class. And the people who made them would go mad because of the chemicals. “Mad hatter” came from the chemicals used to cure beaver skins. It’s a wild story. The Indians and the colonists and the hatters and the upper class and all the repercussions of the transatlantic trade. It’s a fascinating story. Someone should do a whole research book on the beaver trade.
And of course one reason that the colonists won the revolution – and won the Indian wars in the 17th Century – was in part because the colonists abandoned European tactics and thinking about warfare and they had to adopt a different way of thinking and fighting and living.
It was a very complex relationship between the colonists, the revolutionaries, and the natives. Because to some extent there was a whole idea that they were savages and we had to wipe them out. We were entitled to do that because we were civilized. They did not have a civilization and therefore they didn’t matter. On the other hand, Washington and others studied the Articles of Confederation of the Iroquois to come up with ideas for the Constitution. And then all of the great noble founders were slave holders. Which is a pretty wild idea if you think about that.
And while the Allreds were an odd choice for a story that was so dark as The Geek, Tom Yates is the perfect artist for a story like Tomahawk.
He was wonderful. He was perfect because he had this classical style. It was formal and detailed and was just perfect for a story about this period.
It made all your subversive elements work so well.
Here’s my favorite thing that I got to do in that book. For years it used to annoy me that there would be scenes in movies and books where some Indian would be talking to a white man and they would say something like, “we want wampum.” Ridiculous pigeon English. I would think, that’s because you didn’t speak their language. So I had a scene where Thomas Hawk is demanding to be released so he can go home. But he only knows a few words so he says, “Me want go home.” And the Indians are saying, he says he wants to go home but we really can’t do that, can we? [laughs] That was fun to do.
I would love to do more of those revivals. I would love to do a Fox and Crow book. To do a funny animal book in a modern style. I wanted to do a version of Atomic Mouse. Do you know who Atomic Mouse was? It was an early comic. One of those companies that DC took over at some point. It was an atomic age version of Mighty Mouse. Atomic Mouse was this meek mouse but he had these U-235 pills – uranium – and when he would take one, he would become Atomic Mouse and this big muscular superhero. I actually pitched this. My pitch was a realistic story about somebody who was a guinea pig in a 1950s atomic experiment for the military. And they would give him these pills which would send him into this alternative world in which he was this superpowered mouse figure. And he was suing the Pentagon because he was dying of radiation poisoning. It was too wild and too crazy. Also there were some questions about property rights and whether they could do that or not. I wish I had gotten to do that. It would have been a fun story.
During this period you also wrote New Gods.
That was wonderful. I revere that project of Kirby’s. I think it’s a true work of genius. And I don’t really mean entirely the way it proceeded. The dialogue could be awkward or stilted, but it came from such a deep place. You can read it and see where it came from in his unconscious or subconscious. There was a [Mister Miracle] story where the the escape artist goes to this office building to confront someone and this person is a part of Darkseid and so [Mister Miracle] confronts him and he makes a deal with [Mister Miracle]. I will do what you want, if you can leave this building without using any of your powers and without harming anybody. [Mister Miracle] says, sure. Then the man pumps paranoia gas into the air system of the buildings so the entire building becomes crazy raving violent paranoids and they start trying to kill [Mister Miracle]. And he can’t hurt anyone. I always thought Kirby had gone to DC headquarters and he thought, wow, suppose this building was pumped full of paranoia gas, what would it be like? He did all kinds of stuff like that. Like when Darkseid captures the Forever People and he gives them over to DeSaad. Well the concentration camp is Disneyland and they’re in these prisons and they’re shouting at people, help us, get help! And people are laughing and cheering. You see from outside that people think it’s just an exhibit. It’s something fun. They don’t get that people are desperate and being held prisoner. Again, Kirby moved to California and he went to Disneyland. For a lot of people, Disneyland was talked about at the time as the perfect city because everything was under the surface. There’s a famous essay where Ray Bradbury wrote about Disneyland as the perfect city. But Kirby went and he saw it and made it a concentration camp. That kind of stuff so excited me. It all came from such a deep deep place and the chance to write it was just thrilling.
The New Gods are hard to write and I think everyone struggles a little.
Especially following Kirby!
Following Kirby is hard enough. But also he had this big story and never really managed to tell it. And some people have almost tried to turn them into superheroes. Do you tell very different stories? It’s a hard gig.
That was the thing. To me, the way to think about it was that they’re not superheroes. They’re gods. There’s a difference. And every god is a god of something. I had a lot of problems with that because it was a commercial comic and they were hiring commercial artists. I had a lot of trouble with the art. To me as a feminist they were distorting women’s bodies and the women characters. After I finished I joked to someone, I would have resigned in protest over the art if they hadn’t fired me! [laughs] The last artist – again, he was doing what they wanted him to do. But for me it didn’t work. And so when the editor told me that they fired him, I said, good, maybe they’ll get an artist I can work with better. The editor said, actually, you’re fired too. [laughs] I think it was John Byrne who was taking over and demanded everyone else be removed so he could do it his way. I was proud of the stories we did. I think we did some interesting stuff. I really tried to make them gods. I remember thinking about Highfather and how what he did was so monstrous. He gave his son to live in hell. To be brought up on Apokolips by these monstrous abusive parents. What does it mean for someone to do that to his son? I got into an Oedipus storyline. That was interesting to do.
That element doesn’t get discussed much.
One of the ideas I would have loved to have done involved Orion, Highfather’s son who was raised on Apokolips, and he has his beautiful face and his evil face. The evil face is his real face. The beautiful face is a mask to make him more acceptable. I had this idea that he ends up becoming the ruler of both New Genesis and Apokolips. He takes over from both his fathers, his real father and his adopted father. And to do this, he hires as his chief advisor – Two-Face from Batman. [laughs] I thought Two-Face was the perfect advisor for Orion. I would love to do that story. That would be fun to do.
You also wrote the miniseries, Time Breakers.
I loved that. Time travel is a great, great story idea. I was so happy I got to do that.
It was edited by Stuart Moore, who famously got you into comics.
A terrific guy.
I remember the short-lived Helix imprint. Which didn’t last long.
Not long enough!
It didn’t, but it featured some incredible talent. Michael Moorcock, Lucius Shepard, Elaine Lee, Tim Truman. And Time Breakers by you and Chris Weston.
Another wonderful artist.
It featured a team of people who don’t solve or avoid paradoxes, which is usually how it works, but create time paradoxes.
Yeah it was the other way around. I’m writing a memoir now and part of it is about my writing and so looking at all of my writing and just seeing that one of my big themes has always been that imagination creates the world. And story creates the world. Without it, the world is going to run down like a clock. So for the world to keep being renewed, there has to be the continuous infusion of paradox, of story, of impossibility. And time paradoxes are a symbol of all that. I’d read all these time travel stories when I was young and they were always about how to avoid paradoxes. There were stories about time travelers whose job was to prevent paradoxes. Which is a silly idea.
You have a text piece in one issue and mention a couple Heinlein stories that dealt with paradoxes.
He embraced this idea of paradox. He loved it.
Time Breakers had a weird wild 1950s science fiction story energy to it. And I’m trying to find a sophisticated way to say it included a lot of things you love.
Yeah. Mythology, for example.
Mythology. You have a blind librarian named Luis. I can’t imagine where you came up with that character.
[laughs] Not enough people realized who that was! It was pretty obvious. I even said he was Argentinian.
Angela is briefly a cat burglar in 1960s Paris.
Chris had the great idea to model her after Audrey Hepburn, which I thought was just wonderful. A great choice. Then [with] the more grownup version she’s more savage looking because she’s a warrior now. Which was a nice way he developed the different ages of her.
Those elements, and the time periods they jump to - you were incorporating a lot of what you loved and you seemed to be having fun.
Yeah. I did a challenge to readers to see if any of them knew where the name of Aithon, the Greek warrior, came from. No one did. It’s the name Odysseus gives when he comes home disguised as a beggar and greets his wife and she doesn’t recognize him. I’ve always believed that she knew who he was right away. And he knew she knew. They were playing a kind of game together. Even though it says that Athena clouded her mind, she was his equal. No one can cloud her mind that she wouldn’t recognize him. They played a game together and Aithon was the name he gave. So Aithon is Odysseus. But no one got that.
Speaking of Borges, so much of your work is magical realism or has been influenced by it in different ways.
I’m so inspired by it.
When did you first encounter it?
That’s a good question. I know that the book that really knocked me out is the one that everyone was knocked out by – One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was once at a science fiction convention and I was on a panel with four or five other writers. At question time someone asked, what’s your favorite opening sentence in a novel? And immediately we all started reciting the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later.” I mean, how many books start “many years later”? When is this book taking place? [laughs] I think I’d read Borges before that, but I didn’t put him in the same context. Borges is very much an intellectual looking at literature whereas One Hundred Years of Solitude is very much a story. That was a big big influence on me. And then I read all the other ones at that time. Julio Cortázar and others. It was very exciting writing to me. It was a realistic novel that did not try to be realistic. It had real people in wonderfully bizarre circumstances. I remember that first sentence and that line about discovering ice. Like ice was this strange magical substance. Which of course it was!
I know that we could spend the rest of the day talking about Tarot and only scratch the surface, but you’ve made a few Tarot decks over the years in addition to writing many books on the subject, and one of them was a Vertigo Tarot that you made with Dave McKean.
It was an idea of an editor named Sharon Kattuah, who brought it to Karen Berger, the editor-in-chief, who loved it. She got together with Neil [Gaiman] and Neil said, we have to bring Rachel in on this. The four of us went to a hotel in the city and we spent the weekend coming up with characters and scenes for the 22 Major Arcana cards, as they’re called. Neil recruited Dave, I guess? We came up with the characters and the particular scenes from the comics that Dave would illustrate. He did the Minor Arcana on his own, but I gave him some information on the elemental energies and the basic thematics of those cards. And he’s Dave McKean, so the art was amazing and strange and beautiful. And then I wrote the book, but he designed the book. He decided that the text would be laid on the page like the figure of a character. Unfortunately that meant that at least half the pages would be blank which made the text very, very small. [laughs] But it’s a beautiful book. It was very popular. The first printing was a limited edition and sold out immediately. The second one sold out almost immediately. Then I think they went to a larger printing, but it’s sold quite a bit. They might even still have some on sale. I’m not sure. If it is no more, it’s been in print for quite some time. I would get royalties for my part in it. I was surprised it was still selling after so many years.
You’ve made a few Tarot decks over the years. Is that odd for it to be so popular over a long period of time?
Well one of my first books, as I said, has been in print since 1940. [laughs] I mean, for 40 years. It’s been in print since 1980. I went back in time to publish my first book before I was born. [laughs]
We can talk about Time Breakers more if you want! [laughs]
[laughs] That book sold well and some other books of mine are still for sale. Other stuff doesn’t last. Some of the books did not stay around that well. My own Tarot deck, The Shining Tribe, has been out of print for a while now. I do have an art deck that I produced. I think that’s the best way to have that, but it’s a lot of money. Tarot is an up and down field. Some things go on forever and really click with people. And once they click, they click. It has its own momentum. Because people coming into it will ask, what should I look at, what should I read to learn? And many people say, read this Rachel Pollack book. I still get letters and e-mails quite frequently from people saying how much it’s meant to them. About Doom Patrol, also. Not as frequently, but every now and then I get these incredible letters from people.
In the '90s, you were writing these comics and you were still writing prose. I would argue that Godmother Night, which was published in 1996, is your best novel.
I vacillate between that and Unquenchable Fire. I like all my books. I’m blessed to be able to enjoy my writing; many writers can’t. I think one of the great curses that can happen to a person is to be a writer who dislikes reading their own work. I can’t remember who it was, a very famous writer, said in an interview that she can’t stand to reread her work. What a curse, I thought. I expect I’m my biggest fan. [laughs] But I do, I enjoy rereading my stuff.
I think that Godmother Night and Unquenchable Fire are your best novels. But during this period you were writing fiction, you won the World Fantasy Award, and you were writing about Tarot, and writing comics. The 1990s was a very busy and creative period.
It was a wonderful period for me. It was thrilling to be able to do these things and get published and be recognized. And it was especially thrilling because each arm of those three different things were things I deeply believed in. Nothing was written just to pay the bills. It was nice to get recognized and that people were receiving it in a very positive way.
To your knowledge, is there a lot of crossover between your readers who know you from fiction, comics, or Tarot?
Amazingly little, actually. More now than there used to be. Now you can find out more about people you like. It’s always been a little bit of a shock to me that people don’t follow up on someone if they like something to see what else that person might have done. It’s interesting.
I have heard from others who write prose and comics, or nonfiction and poetry, or whatever, and often there’s not a lot of crossover even if they’re doing basically the same kind of work.
Yeah, it’s the same kind of work but different audiences are reading them. But maybe because my comics have a certain literary quality to them, back in that period, that it opened people up to look at the prose more? I know Unquenchable Fire was read by some people in comics. A lot of Doom Patrol fans said they loved it. Godmother Night, not quite so much I think. I think Unquenchable Fire was the novel that got attention from comics people. Like I said, when people ask what I think is my best novel I vacillate, but Godmother Night is quite probably number one. It just came together so beautifully, I think. I was very happy with how that story came together.
I’m not saying there’s no crossover. There’s some. And lately there’s more. I think because of the internet. People look at the Facebook page and see different things or they see someone talking about other things the same person did, and so on.
I will admit that I had read and still own a lot of your comics, but I came across your novels by happenstance.
There was a movie about Ed Wood – called Ed Wood – and there’s this scene in which the backers have driven him off because they’re worried he’s losing all their money. He’s furious and storms off the set and he goes to this bar – and Orson Welles is there. They sit down and have a beer together and they’re commiserating – and they’re exactly the same! What they say is exactly the same. What they’re experiencing is exactly the same. Except that one of them is a great genius and the other one’s an idiot. [laughs] But for them, there’s no way to tell the difference. That was a very haunting scene. If you’re someone who feels your work is not properly appreciated, are you Orson Welles or are you Ed Wood? [laughs] Who knows?
Getting my fiction sold and published has always been much more of a struggle for me than my nonfiction. It’s amazing to me also that people who are such fans of one part of my work often don’t even know about the other parts. I mean there aren’t that many writers who do many different things. There aren’t many who do fiction and nonfiction to start with. And when there are, they’re usually more connected. Mine are but not in obvious ways.
And you have a large body of work of fiction and nonfiction and comics.
I get letters from readers of the comics who say something like, I know this isn’t the most important part of your work, and I say, no, you’re wrong about that. It was absolutely central. Doom Patrol in particular is central to what I have done.
I think you said that you weren’t doing any of these things for money, they were all things you loved and believed in.
To be fair, Vertigo paid better than most fiction publishers. [laughs] DC pay was pretty decent back then. I don’t know how it compares to now with inflation, but I felt it was pretty decent pay back in the '90s.
So I have to ask, did comics leave you or did you leave comics?
To be honest, more the first part. The kinds of thing I was doing – and would have liked to keep doing – were no longer fashionable, in a certain sense. To my view – and this is very much a personal view – they wanted to do stuff that was radical and still works within the mainstream of the line. Like Batman being darker. He’d been dark, but make him darker still. [laughs] That’s still going on. You want dark, we’ll give you dark! It wasn’t that they wanted to make everything nice and cozy again, but they did not want it to be that weird. And that’s what I was doing.
Vertigo got less weird and there were fewer wild chances taken and a lot of that space disappeared.
What’s been nice for me is that people who did know my work invited me to do things. I got some anthology work. Joe Corallo almost single-handedly brought me back into comics. He recruited me for Mine! and then other anthologies. We’re co-writing a comic together. He’s just great. He’s a wonderful guy. We have great conversations about comics and we’ll talk about the Flash or some subject like that.
So there are more comics coming up? This is a happier ending to the interview than I was expecting.
Joe and I just wrote a five-part story called The Neverending Party. Now I’m doing another project that I’m writing and Joe is editing.
Has the process of how you write comics changed over the years?
That’s an interesting question because there’s been this big break. I would say not really. Some of the stuff more recently has been collaboration.
And you write everything by hand, do I have that right?
Absolutely. With fountain pens. Antique and modern fountain pens. It’s my great passion to collect them. I have way too many!
Its’s an interesting process because writing by hand with a fountain pen in a beautiful notebook is very intimate. You get really deep into it. My handwriting is terrible. I write very fast and everyone who’s ever lived with me or been close to me has had the same recurring fear – that I’ll die and leave behind an unfinished manuscript that’s not been typed up and they won’t be able to read it to type it up. [laughs] I have to really struggle to read it which forces me to get into it again very deeply. It’s part of the process. And then however many revisions after that I just revise on the printout and in the computer.
This is how you’ve always written everything?
Yeah because I’m really really old. [laughs] When I started sending stuff out, we didn’t have computers. I remember my first one wasn’t even called a computer, it was a word processing machine. The software was so limited that they had to dedicate the machine to that purpose. I’m a classical old person. I’m sick of these new ways of doing things. I don’t want to keep changing!
You said before that you’re also writing a memoir.
It’s called Along the Way I Told a Tale: My Life in Tarot, Storytelling, and Magic. So I’m going to cover everything. It’s a big book. Right now I’m almost done with the first draft, which is always hand-written for me. It’s monstrously overwritten. I say the same things a couple different times. Because I can’t be sure what I did two notebooks ago so I’ll do it again and see what I’ve got and I’ll just cut out huge amounts. You have to do what the story wants.
Your last book, The Beatrix Gates, was a short book, but it did a really good job of capturing your work and introducing you.
I really like the stories that Terry [Bisson] and I chose together. The title story is connected to Doom Patrol in a way. It’s all about trans themes but does through a kind of parable. It’s very, very daring in what its about. And then there’s the lesbian bar story, which is a classic mythology story about how death came into the world, but told as a short story set in a lesbian bar. Then my story about Joseph in the Bible and how Moses is the villain as far as he can tell. I got the chance to write an autobiographical essay and raise up some issues. It was really fun to do. And the interview was great.
The title story, The Beatrix Gates, was written in a period in which trans liberation was really starting to happen, but I think there’s too much looking backwards. If I was doing it again I might not have done that in the same way. Actually I did do a short version where that whole story within the story was taken out and it was all just about the future paradise, Nano-Trano-Paradiso. I felt like people focused too much on that story of oppression, which is not really what I like to talk about. I prefer liberation to oppression. So I might change that if I was doing it again.
With so many of your stories, no one is sure what will happen in the face of magic and strangeness everywhere and there is no guarantee of success and there is no easy way out – but there is possibility.
Yeah. That’s one of the big themes. That along with the idea of trusting in yourself and trusting in the mystery and the story. And not having to have everything explained and neatly filed away.
I feel like trusting the mystery and not having things explained is key to a Rachel Pollack story.
I think so. When I look back, that’s what emerges. It’s great for a writer to have a chance to get published and write about her life, but also write about her books. So I just go through them all. I call it the secret origins of the novels. A comic book turn of phrase. But I look at how the novels came to be and I realized that they’re all to some extent about the unknown, the mystery and just embracing it. And seeing where it takes you. Doom Patrol does that, of course.