Tony Fyler talks to Montynero, author of the Death Sentence comic books.
If you’ve been paying the kind of attention we like to imagine you have, it won’t have escaped your notice that we go a bit gaga over the Death Sentence comic-books. There are many reasons for that – they touch on all the fundamental things in life (love, sex, art, meaning, creativity, life, death, power and more), they’re always exquisitely, creatively drawn, the story entangles you, and the heroine’s not afraid to let loose with a hearty “Cockwomble!” when necessary. Plus, it has a great story hook, rife with philosophical questions: G+ is a sexually transmitted disease that gives you heightened abilities for the last six months of your life – then you die. What do you do?
We caught up with MontyNero, the writer behind the series, to talk life, death, art and creativity.
Hi Monty. In the collected Death Sentence Vol. 1, you gave a revealing glimpse of where the idea for the story came from – the imminence of parenthood, and that sense of a ticking clock to do something great and true. Given the success of Death Sentence, and the follow up Death Sentence London, do you still feel that urge? Does achievement dull the urgency of creation, or spur it on to outdo itself for you?
Yeah, probably more powerfully than ever. I was glad the first book was well received but, y’know, it was just one book. There’s a lot more to do.
Assuming that Death Sentence itself isn’t the obvious answer to this, if you had G+, what power would you hope for, and how would you spend your last six months of life?
I’d hope G-plus would make me a genius at writing, which I’m certainly not now, and spend the last six months with my family writing numerous masterpieces of world shattering importance. People would weep over my legacy for generations. Haha!
There are philosophical questions in the Death Sentence comics, so how important is the idea of ‘art’ to you, the creation of something that speaks to others, or speaks for your experience?
Vital. Not just art, though – creativity in general. Art is just one manifestation, in the comic we have music, and comedy, and horticulture! Haha! However it comes out – it’s all about creativity. Creativity’s the key reason we’re the dominant species: we can imagine very complex ideas and then make them real. Everyone has untapped talents, and if their creativity is stifled their desire for fulfilment and validation manifests in other ways. Negative ways. I’m saying creativity is natural, all children have it, and it just gets beaten out of some people by life. I mean, most jobs are incredibly restrictive, both in the hours required and the methodologies employed. That frustration weighs heavily on the soul, in ways people don’t or can’t explicitly acknowledge because they’ve become institutionalised to accept it. It bends people out of shape, and leads them to some strange behaviour - hedonistic behaviour - or a sense of entitlement. People are basically looking for ‘rewards’ in the wrong places because their day to day existence is not rewarding in itself.
How far ahead did you write the story arc for Death Sentence? Did you envisage Death Sentence London at the beginning? Is there a clear arc in your head already for the third, fourth, fifth storylines? Will we be seeing Death Sentence New York? Death Sentence Mumbai? Death Sentence Dundee?
I’ve written the fourth volume. I’ve got the fifth and sixth volume storylines roughed out. We’re going to be getting away from huge multi-cast action stories to focus more on individual characters in future. Martin [Simmonds] will keep drawing to capacity, I love his stuff, and there’ll also be a few one off stories, with new artists pitching in, which I’m really excited about.
What’s your writing process? Give us an idea of how you go from idea to fully-written work.
I like to plot the whole thing in advance. Not to say I won’t change something as I go but I always have the framework taking me to a satisfying end point. I love plotting and it’s a strength of mine, I think, after a lot of practice and study. By the end of the plotting process I’ve got a sentence or two on a card about what each scene needs to do. Then I just write the scene as dialogue, reams of dialogue, until someone says something which sounds credible and entertaining. I’m always looking for a fresh way to play the scene. When I’ve found that moment of truth I’ll lose all the rest. I write the whole issue as dialogue first, cut it up into panels, and then write the panel descriptions last. That gives the dialogue flow a very natural bounce. Obviously I know what the panel description will be, but I think if you stop and start going from dialogue to panel description it’s bound to fuck up the natural rhythm of a conversation. Dialogue can’t be over thought. I mean, you need to have a clear idea where each character is emotionally at the start and end of each scene, and the dialogue needs to get them from A to B. That’s a given. But as long as that box is ticked, dialogue should just flow naturally. Usually the first pass is the best pass with dialogue – certainly the most natural.
We’re in no hurry, so don’t stop on our account, but beyond or as well as Death Sentence, what themes or ideas are you interested in exploring in new or future work? Or will those be the things that appeal to you when you’re thinking of new work?
Death Sentence volume 4 is all about obsession, and social media, and internet stalking. It’s about the artifice of intimacy the internet brings, and how you can feel closer to someone you’ve never met on the other side of the world than someone next door. It’s satirical – and action packed. And it’s about revolution, and South America, which I write about a lot for some reason. Monty’s in it too, because it’s set before Death Sentence Vol 1.
What is it about the comic-book medium that makes it special to you as a forum for storytelling? What does it give you that you can’t get elsewhere? In one review, we mentioned the idea of a Death Sentence movie – would that appeal to you?
Comics are nothing like films, or books. It’s frustrating how many comics are just storyboards for films now. Respected work, from big authors – it’s using twenty percent of the bandwidth a comic can provide. It’s tedious. I literally get bored reading these kind of stories, unless they’re brilliantly plotted or stunning original or something. There's no depth. I’m quite hard to please, as a reader; I want great characters, cunning plots, action, surprises, humour, but also big ideas, themes, subtexts, subtlety, resonances and lyrical stirring language and prose. There aren’t many comics that do all that. So I wrote one. I don’t think about films at all, when I’m writing. If I ever want to make a film, I’ll write a screenplay, but comics are comics. It's a completely different medium.
If you had to self-assess, what would you say it is about Death Sentence that’s really caught the public imagination?
It’s an object lesson really. Whether it’s good or not is initially irrelevant, I’ve found. It’s ‘an STD that kills you in six months but gives you enhanced abilities’ that catches the imagination. An intriguing proposition in 13 words. People either decide they want to read it, or don’t, based on that. It’s the way the world works, sadly. The fact the comic is really good gives it legs, and word of mouth, glowing reviews, so it does have a part to play longer term. It gives our work longevity. That’s why we’re still making Death Sentence years later, which is fairly unusual. Most new writers go and do something else for a few years, because they have to.
In a story that’s at least partly about art, how important has it been getting the right artists to translate the story into comic-book reality? How closely do you work with Martin Simmonds, for example, to ensure the feel is right in DSL?
Well, I’m very careful about who I work with on creator owned. Firstly, we’ve got to like each other. So I only work with people I’ve met, or hung out with – face to face. We’ve got to be on the same wavelength and enjoy each other’s company before we think of working together. Secondly, you’ve got to be a better comic artist than me, which isn’t hard, but as an artist I think I’m a good judge of who has was the right skillset and who doesn’t. Once that’s established, I don’t interfere. I get out of the way. I’m just the writer – you’re the artist. The last thing an artist wants is another artist hanging about with ‘ideas’ – you have to respect the boundaries. ‘Treat people as you’d like to be treated’ is my philosophy. Then you’ve got to demonstrate real enthusiasm and initiative. I’m not interested in people just doing a job. If you don’t care about the characters and the story like I do, then it’s not going to work. So once that’s all established, at the start, well, I can leave you to it. Martin will beaver away for months without me seeing anything. I've said what I need to in the script. He’ll usually send me pencils for feedback, and if I’ve got anything useful to say I’ll email him my thoughts, but it’s up to him what he does with that. But a lot of the brilliance of a comic book comes from the final touches. Things can go from okay to brilliant with a few hours’ adjustment. We just chatted on the phone about an idea I had for volume 3, which’ll take the whole thing to a new level. A really original idea. And it means him painting some new stuff over the pencils that wasn’t there in the thumbnails. But he’s as excited as I am. I gave him the choice, stick with what we’ve got or go for this thrilling twist on things, and he was mad for it. Which I love. I chose the right guy to work with, y’know?
Plenty of geeks think they could write comic-books. Most of them are probably wrong. What would you say are the essentials to doing it well? And what advice would you give anyone trying to break through in this medium?
Do original stuff. Don’t copy anyone else. Work on short stories: beginning, middle, end, payoff, theme, subtext, character. Get it all working in a short before you try anything more ambitious. Five pages, something where you can afford a good artist. You learn a lot quicker that way. Be humble. Show your stuff to everyone you know, online and in person, and listen and learn from their feedback. Then do it all again, better. You’ll know when you start writing great stuff, because people will tell you. People love finding amazing new creators – it’s not hard if you're brilliant. Getting to be brilliant is the tricky bit - that takes a lot of practice.
The collected edition of Death Sentence London #1-6 will be released on March 23rd 2016. The original Death Sentence graphic novel is available now. To find your store visit: http://www.comicshoplocator.com/