Tripwire’s consulting writer Scott Braden talks exclusively to write Paul Constant about a lifelong ambition realised with his series from Ahoy and more…
It’s no secret: Paul Constant is new to the four-color medium. But, in a sense, he’s not. He has surrounded himself with comic books all his life. Good ones. Still, that didn’t make it any less special when he got the email from AHOY telling him that the exciting new publisher accepted his pitch.
He explained: “I was visiting my family in Maine when AHOY accepted my first pitch, and it was a poignant moment. I was standing in the house where I grew up when I got the approval email. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was to write comics, and I probably wrote dozens of scripts in that same house almost 30 years ago as a teenager. When I was even younger, before I figured out that I’d never be a professional-level artist, I drew a ton of my own comics in crayon right there on the same kitchen floor I was standing on. And there I was, just past 40 years old, in the same house where I lived out all those dreams, being told that I’d finally get to write comics professionally? It was the kind of moment you always remember.
“The fact that the person who was approving my pitch was Tom Peyer, the editor of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol—a comic that I dearly loved when I was growing up in that same house—just added to the dreamlike quality of it. I can be a pretty anxious person—I’m definitely a worrier—but there was no anxiety in that moment. It was pure excitement.
“Now that I’ve been at it for a while, I do have anxiety around comics every now and again: I want to make sure I’m doing the best possible job I can because there’s this team of great people working on this book with me. I don’t want to let them down, and so I worry about that. But mostly, it’s still the kind of excitement you feel when a childhood dream comes true.”
As was said, Constant has loved comics all his life. What books did he read as a kid – and beyond?
“I learned how to read at age three by phonetically sounding out the dialogue in the old Peanuts and Superman collections that were hanging around my house,” said Constant. “Comics have been a major part of my life ever since. I have to say that Peanuts and Weisinger-era Superman comics are still a favorite of mine, but I read everything growing up. I started out reading mainstream superhero comics. I was more into Marvel than DC, but I wasn’t a total Marvel Zombie—I’ve always liked DC’s weirder heroes like Blue Devil and Kamandi and Legionnaires like Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad. I grew up with the basics: Spider-Man and X-Men and the Avengers.
“Gradually, I learned to follow the creators, so I was really into Steve Gerber and John Byrne and Steve Englehart when I was 10 and 11 and 12. John Byrne’s run on She-Hulk was huge for me, in particular. And as I grew up, the books kept up with me: Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and Concrete, and then by the time I was 16 I got into the adult and arty stuff, like Fantagraphics. I still read a lot of superhero comics, but I’m glad there are so many different kinds of comics out there.”
Being new to the comics industry, what does Constant think of the grand adventure he’s on as both a comic book writer and a comic book creator? And, is there a difference?
“I am new to the comics industry—just a couple years so far,” explained Constant, “and most of that time was spent secretly writing for AHOY before it the books were even announced. So I’ve been outed as a comics creator publicly for about a year.
“Is there a difference between being a comic book writer and a comic book creator? Not so much in my experience, but I’ve been fantastically lucky on that front. The vast majority of the comics I’ve written have been my own creation. I don’t know if I can separate the two.
“That said, I’d love to do work-for-hire stuff, because comics thrive when they’re exposed to collaboration and constraint. I think honoring and adding to a decades-long tradition of an ongoing book—a character and a world that was there before you arrived and will be there long after you’re gone—is a really neat idea. I enjoyed writing the backup stories for Tom Peyer and Jamal Igle’s book The Wrong Earth for that reason. I really enjoy making art with a whole bunch of people—especially people as talented as The Wrong Earth crew.”
Constant once said if there were more great comics on the stands, then that would be good for comics as a whole. What comics does he find stand out as the best of the best in today’s comic book market? In addition, what publishers does he think are putting out their best stuff?
“I’ve never understood creator jealousy. Art is never a zero-sum game. If someone else is making great art, that doesn’t detract from my art. In fact, we both get to build on each other and make something greater than anything we could do on our own.
“I’m a big fan of Saga, of course, and Sex Criminals, and Outer Darkness. Giant Days is maybe the most consistently good comic being published right now. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is unbelievably good and I can’t wait to read the second half.
“I drop everything to read The Immortal Hulk when it comes out. Any time Grant Morrison gets his hands on a character, that’s a must-read, so his The Green Lantern is a favorite. And I’m eager to see what Hickman does with the X-Men books.”
“For publishers,” Constant added, “I love everything Berger Books is doing. Vault Comics is terrific, and so is Black Mask Studios. I was blown away by the debut books from TKO Studios—I think Goodnight Paradise, in particular, is remarkable. It’s a mystery about a homeless man in a gentrifying beach community who is investigating the murder of a homeless woman, and it perfectly reflects the prosperity and squalor I see side-by-side every morning that I take the train in to downtown Seattle.
“And so far as the superhero side of things, I think Brian Michael Bendis is doing some of the best work of his life on the Superman titles, and his Wonder Comics pop-up imprint is everything that superhero comics should be.”
Even though Constant is new to comics, he’s already been teamed with some of the top artists in the industry. What classic comic book teams does he fondly remember – like Byrne/Claremont on X-Men – and what artists would he personally like to work with in the future?
“Of course Byrne/Claremont were a major deal for me—kind of the gold standard,” said Constant. “That’s how I learned to discern creators by name, and it’s also how I realized that some creative teams were better together than they were separately. I love a lot of Byrne’s solo stuff, like Next Men and his weird Namor run, but something about that pairing with Claremont was pure magic. Steve Gerber and Gene Colan, I thought, were an unlikely pairing that created a similar kind of sorcery.
“The Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League International era was just as influential to me as the Byrne/Claremont run on X-Men. Mark Gruenwald and Paul Ryan had a great partnership on a couple of underrated series, like D.P. 7 and Quasar. I think X-Force/X-Statix by Milligan and Allred was just as transformational as Ellis and Hitch’s Authority. I wish G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona had done 120 issues of Ms. Marvel together, because they were so clearly on the same creative wavelength. Peter David had an amazing string of collaborations on the Incredible Hulk that each worked in hugely different ways: Todd MacFarlane, Jeff Purves, Dale Keown, Gary Frank. That was kind of a master class in how to restructure a book in order to play to the artist’s strengths, I think.”
“There are so many artists I’d love to work with,” also said Constant. “For me, the real thrill of comics is when I first get that page back from an artist and I get to see what they’ve brought to my script. It’s always a joy—just a pure shot of dopamine right into my lizard-iest brain. I hope to get the chance to work with Planet of the Nerds artist Alan Robinson again. He and I are totally on the same wavelength with comics work—I think our relationship got stronger with each passing issue of Nerds, and I think we can get even better if we have the chance to keep working together.
“I’d love to work with people I’ve always admired, like Bill Sienkiewicz—his New Mutants with Chris Claremont broke my brain open. I think Colleen Doran is an underappreciated master of the form. Tradd Moore’s stuff on Silver Surfer Black is the kind of work that young artists are going to copy for decades to come. And since we’re just pie-in-the-sky-ing here, I think everyone wants to work with Fiona Staples.”
“I’m sitting on a couch in my home in Seattle,” said Constant, as he answered our questions. “I’ve got some tea going. (Chamomile lavender, because it’s too late for caffeine and I’ve already had my six or seven cups of coffee of the day.) My rescue greyhound, Oberon (we call him Obie) is asleep next to me. (He’s almost always asleep next to me when I’m writing comics, come to think of it.) It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and in between sentences I’m looking out at my small back yard, which my wife is doing an admirable job of turning into a garden.
“It’s a small house in south Seattle, but I’ve been here for a couple years and it feels very home-y. I didn’t mind renting for most of my entire adult life, but it’s nice to own because I can paint the walls bright orange and know my landlord isn’t going to be pissed off, you know? Plus, my wife (who is the handy one in the relationship) built me a library in a spare bedroom that’s lined with books and comics and everything I love, and it’s the first time I’ve ever had a place of my own that was just for writing.
“It’s a Friday evening, just after work. I have a day job writing political messaging for a progressive policy incubator. I do a lot of ghostwriting and editorials and script writing and speech writing about gun responsibility, and political economy issues like raising the minimum wage and lobbying for paid vacation time. I like to be busy, so I also co-founded a site called the Seattle Review of Books, which is an award-winning book news, reviews, and interviews site. I’ve had to sort of slip in the comics writing (and the interview-giving, and that sort of thing) to the spaces that weren’t already filled with the day job and the Seattle Review of Books. So I do the comics work on Sundays, and on Friday after work, and the other times when I wasn’t busy before. I’m a little bit tired from a long week, but I love all the writing I do, and I get to do it surrounded by the things and the people (and the Obie) I love, so it doesn’t really feel like work.”
Talking about not feeling like work, how can Tripwire’s readers get their hands on a AHOY baseball cap like Constant did – and other AHOY merchandise for that matter? Apparently, he has an “in” with the publisher . . .
“Hah,” exclaimed Constant. “Hart Seely, AHOY’s esteemed publisher, sent me an AHOY baseball cap when I signed my first contract with the company. I was so proud of it, but nothing had been announced so I had to keep it super-secret for almost a year. I almost broke a blood vessel in my brain, I wanted to wear that thing in public so bad.
“Between you and me, I know Hart has sent a few caps to AHOY super-fans, so maybe you just need to write an especially gushing fan letter to get your hands on one.”
After Tom Peyer dreamed up his beloved The Wrong Earth, Constant was “roped” in to write the various back-up stories. How did he land that gig, and how did it lead to his other projects like Snelson and Planet of the Nerds?
“When he was first starting AHOY,” Constant remembered, “Tom reached out to me to ask if I had any pitches. He used to live here in Seattle about a decade ago, and he’d read my writing in a local paper and we’d struck up a little correspondence back then. I pitched Planet of the Nerds and he and Hart bought it.
“But I’d never written a professional comic before, so Tom wanted me to practice a little bit before I went out and wrote a five-issue miniseries. He asked if I wanted to do the backups for The Wrong Earth, and of course my love for the Dick Sprang Batman era came in very handy. I love the seven-page format of backup stories: the economy of words necessary is very similar to writing for a newspaper, where you simply can’t add any more words because there’s literally no space left on the page. You have to make your point quickly and clearly. It’s the best boot-camp for comics writing that there is.”
Planet of the Nerds reads like a dystopian John Hughes film. Was the book’s creator a big John Hughes fan as a kid? Did Hughes’ various blockbuster movies help inspire Constant’s critically acclaimed series?
“I think Hughes was another youthful-ignorance situation where I didn’t really know the name of any screenwriters until I started noticing his name everywhere. He made a lot of vitally important work in a very small amount of time: Home Alone, Uncle Buck, Sixteen Candles, Mr. Mom, The Breakfast Club. His influence is throughout Planet of the Nerds, for sure, and his grasp on character hugely informs the book. Every one of his characters is so distinctive and so realistic that they live on in your head forever. I wanted these characters to feel like that: they’re basically clichés, but they’re well-rounded clichés, you know? They’re clichés, but they have rich interior lives and they might surprise you in ways that are entirely organic.”
Is Constant’s Planet of the Nerds a statement on class in modern times?
“Everything I write will always have elements of class involved,” said the series’ writer. “In my day job, I write a lot about income inequality, and so I’m hugely aware that the line between the haves and the have-nots is widening every day. I think it’s the central problem of our time.
“That said, the book’s not just about class—we talk about race and sexual politics and criminal justice and everything else that matters today, too. I’m not a fan of satires that stick to just one topic—I think readers are smart enough to keep up with a series that presents a whole bunch of ideas.
“Look at what Mark Russell was able to do with The Flintstones and The Snagglepuss Chronicles. Those books aren’t about a single thing—they establish a thesis, and then they test that thesis again and again in different scenarios and against different philosophies. He’s the best comics writer in the business right now, so I don’t want to compare myself to him, but I do want to steal shamelessly from him.”
Snelson is a laugh-riot for the depressive set. How did he come up with the series – and what motivated him to tell his washed-up comedian epic at AHOY?
“Tom mentioned that AHOY was turning the Hashtag: Danger series of backup comics into its own feature miniseries,” said Constant, “and he asked if I had any pitches for the backups. Because Hashtag: Danger is so delightfully candy-colored and wild and imaginative, Tom wanted something a little quieter and darker for the backup. I believe the exact phrasing in his email was ‘I’d like to run something dreary.’
“So Snelson is the story of a 1990s stand-up comedian who came close to the big time—he filmed a sitcom pilot, he told jokes at Lollapalooza—but then botched it. And now he’s the exact same guy, working smaller and smaller rooms, and blaming the world for his failure. It’s not a nostalgia strip, though—we comment on Comicsgate and cancel culture and YouTube and everything that everyone is talking about right now.
“When I started reading alternative comics in the early-to-mid-90s, confessional autobiographical strips were all the rage. And those strips were largely by white men who were sort of bragging about being terrible people—think Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and early Ivan Brunetti. Snelson is kind of a play on those strips, building to the idea that maybe just knowing and admitting you’re a terrible person isn’t enough to make you a worthwhile human being.
“Of course, the real reason to read Snelson is the artwork from Fred Harper. Fred is already known as a world-class illustrator who does work for The Week and the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, but I think he’s on the verge of earning huge acclaim for his comics work, too. The second Snelson strip—which is largely just two people sitting in a restaurant, eating and talking—is some of the most daring comics art I’ve seen recently. Fred’s always experimenting with how far he can stretch the absurdity of a given moment, and every new page is better than the last.”
Tom Peyer was asked a similar question with his High Heaven series. How does Constant feel about his work on The Wrong Earth and Planet of the Nerds being collected in trade paperbacks for all to read?
“First of all,” said Constant, “let me just say that I am a big fan of monthly comics, and I’m so thrilled that I am able to go to the comic shop on Wednesday and pick my latest comic up off the stands. I take a picture of my comic the shelves every time because I can’t really believe that it’s happening to me.
“But as someone who worked in bookstores for 12 years or so, I have to say that the trade paperbacks are a big geek-out moment for me, too. When I got a job in the year 2000 at Seattle’s best independent bookstore, the Elliott Bay Book Company, I created the store’s very first graphic novel collection. They’d never sold collected comics before! Now they have a tremendous section with all the latest comics, and to see my books alongside those other titles on the shelf is a big damn deal for me. Serialized storytelling is great, but something about seeing the whole book collected between two covers really legitimizes the work, and makes it feel like a complete whole.”
Finally, what future projects lie ahead of Constant? What comes next from the outstanding writer?
“I’m working on a new comic with a brilliant artist for AHOY that I unfortunately can’t announce just yet,” Constant teased. “We’re not far enough in to announce it to the world—I don’t want you to get excited for something you won’t be able to buy for a good long while. In the meantime, I’ve got some shorter stuff coming out from AHOY within the next few months as part of their horror anthology, Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror. One of the stories is about US involvement in foreign governments and I kind of can’t believe I got away with it.
“I’ve got some other ideas I’m bouncing around in my head, too, and a couple of series pitches that I’m always working on. Now that I’ve had a taste of comics writing, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop. What else am I supposed to do with my Friday evenings and Sundays—relax with friends and family? Pshaw!”