Ed Brisson is a comics lifer, a solid guy whose name I first recognized through his lettering work. Lettering doesn’t get you a lot of recognition in comics most of the time, but I noticed that Ed’s name was in the credits of a number of indie comics that got me excited. So naturally I followed him to his own projects, like Murder Book, a crime anthology of sorts that eventually wound up at Dark Horse, and Come Back, a series he did with Michael Walsh that shares some DNA with Looper and appeared at about the same time but is so fucking good that it basically ruined Looper for me when I eventually saw it. And I say that as a diehard Rian Johnson fan.
Come Back is the patient zero for Ed’s run of smart, unflinching miniseries at Image, with its spiritual successor The Field pairing him with frequent collaborator Simon Roy. Last year when The Field debuted, I said it was like the road trip sequence in Inside Llewyn Davis stretched out to feature length and directly connected to Barton Fink’s hellish climax. The Field is savage and brilliant and desperately in need of your attention, and now Ed is back with The Mantle, a new ongoing series he and Brian Level are doing that continues The Field’s apocalyptic shenanigans in a world where superheroes are real but troubled. Ed hit me up on late one night on Twitter after I was complaining about e-mail interviews to ask if I would do an e-mail interview with him. He’s so charming I didn’t dare resist.
Nick Hanover for Loser City: When you contacted me about doing an interview, we immediately joked about the standard comics interview schtick of asking a creator what Big Two hero they would want to work on, but now that I’ve read (and reviewed) the first issue of your new deconstructivist superhero tale The Mantle, there’s a different Big Two schtick that comes to mind: the constant death and rebirth of heroes and villains.
The Mantle opens with a snarky punk kid taking shrooms, tripping out and then discovering he is the new “host” of The Mantle, a set of imagination-based superpowers that have a pretty poor kill-death ratio over the past century. Am I wrong in assuming the “passing on The Mantle” element of this story is a commentary on comics’ rebirth cycle? I picked up some Phoenix vibes in there, but also Abnett and Lanning’s underrated Resurrection Man. What else was lurking in the creative broth when you dreamed up this concept, Ed?
Ed Brisson: Yeah, that “Which Big Two hero would you want to write?” question is a weird one. It’s more relevant when talking about The Mantle, I guess… since it IS a superhero book. But, it’s weird when I get asked that when talking about Sheltered or Murder Book, which are completely different beasts. It pigeon holes comics into being ONLY about superheroes, which has always confounded me. It feels a bit like “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
I don’t think that the interviewers mean to be condescending when they ask. I think they’re trying to bring the conversation to a level where they can relate, or where they can play a little fantasy football with creative teams and characters, but still…it’s a weird one.
So, yeah… let’s talk about this superhero book now (haha).
Basically, the concept for The Mantle came out of an argument I was having with a friend about my frustrations with some superhero comics. I grew up with superhero books and love them, but there’s some tropes that drive me crazy in their overuse or, more often, in how little they’re explored.
For me, I love the idea of a power passing down from one host to another. The first time I remember encountering it was with The Phantom, where the title was passed from father to son. Of course, there’s also Green Lantern and others. What I like about the concept is that the powers and legacy are generally promised to be greater than the person who wields them, but it’s so rarely how it plays out. It typically turns out to be a “chosen one” style story, which can get pretty old quick.
And, in comics, when a hero passes and their legacy is passed on, it rarely lasts. I really enjoyed post-Bruce Wayne’s death when Dick Grayson took over [in Batman & Robin]. It was a great chance to tell new stories with a new style of Batman, but it was too short lived.
With The Mantle, we really wanted the idea that any one could die to play a big role in the story. Just because the power chooses its new host doesn’t mean that it’s the best choice of character. It’s not necessarily always a “diamond in the rough” situation. It’s sometimes just a shitty choice.
I’d say that the comic straddles the line of being a commentary on comics while also just being Brian Level and I having some fun with capes. It’s somewhere in between. We’re not going full Grant Morrison here, but we aren’t going full Dan Pussey either.
LC: There’s also the angle of the two “protagonists” being punks, a genre that is notorious for being proclaimed dead all the time, only to be passed on to a new generation that runs with it. That punk element is something that hooked me from the start with The Mantle; I always enjoy the use of a non-traditional comics crowd for a character base and it’s even better when the story is set outside of your normal metropolises, in this case through a Canadian setting (this must be Prince Edward Island’s first comics appearance, right?).
I know you’re Canadian, but the combination of the punk aesthetic and the Canadian setting also has me thinking of David Cronenberg, especially since the first issue has a head exploding scene that gives Scanners some stiff competition. Are you and Brian Level going to bring more of that Cronenbergian body horror element to this series? I can’t help but wonder about the meaning behind The Mantle’s archnemesis The Plague’s name, and you tease at some of his other powers by the end of the first issue…
EB: I want to claim that I meant that punk/superhero parallel, but I’d be lying if I said I did. Although, I’m going to use that now!
The reason they’re punks and the reason they start out at a punk show is pretty pedestrian. They’re punks because when I started writing, it just felt right that they would be blue-collar, small town kids, much like I was. I sort of placed them specifically at a time in my own life, when I was really into punk and even set the story in Sudbury, where I lived for a brief period in my 20s, and, more specifically, at a pub that I used to go watch bands all the time. Shit, even the band playing, The $ellout$, is a band I was in back then — embarrassingly, those lyrics are lifted straight from one of our old tapes.
As for the Cronenberg reference, that’s another parallel I would never have drawn, but can definitely see how one might– especially in reference to the one scene you mentioned. I AM a big Cronenberg fan, to be honest. Growing up, and still, I love film, especially art films or shitty horror movies. Cronenberg lives on that cross street. He’s my movie peanut butter and chocolate.
There are some pretty spectacular scenes of violence coming up, but anyone tuning in for Cronenberg style body horror will likely be disappointed. It’s really…I don’t know…it gets more “trippy” than it does body horror-y, but I hesitate to say that, because dudes who smoke weed and yell 420 out their car windows have basically ruined the idea that there’s anything interesting in drug culture for the most part. Everything gets sort of compartmentalized with that, where I think that there’s much more that could be done with it and that’s something that we will be doing over the first five issues. We’re going to make drugs cool again!
The Plague is certainly as his name implies…he’s death and he’s decay and this will play into who things unfold in a few different ways that I don’t think people are going to expect.
LC: The first issue of The Mantle stood out to me in a narrative economy sense, as well. So many Big Two comics today utilize “compressed” storytelling, where it can take six issues for anything other than “realistic” conversations and introductions to happen. But The Mantle throws the reader into its world without much handholding, dealing with the expository introduction of the story’s rules and stakes in a single scene as The Mantle’s team fill in the current host on the duties and hazards of the gig.
Your previous Image series The Field (literally) dropped readers into the narrative quickly, too. With The Field, it was easy to see why you skipped all that compression, since it’s a limited series. Did you feel more pressure to pace yourself this time around? Or is The Mantle intended to also be a comment on that “let’s stretch this out as long as possible” aspect of superheroics?
EB: I think that mostly comes from me having spent so much time doing short stories, such as Murder Book, where I had only 6 to 18 pages to tell a complete story. When you’re doing that, there’s no time to fuck around. There just isn’t the space for it. You have to get in there as late as possible and leave as soon as the story’s done. There’s no chance to write a five page scene where two drunks sit around a bar talking about the weather.
Part of it is probably also my own anxiety about my place in the industry. I’m not a household name. I’m not most people’s “go-to” writer when they hit the shop. I don’t have that flex space to say: “Ok, we’re going to do this slow burn where we spend six issues establishing the world and really getting in deep with these characters.” Maybe if I were Rick Remender or Jason Aaron or Brian K Vaughan, I could do that. Those guys are all great writers who’ve got the cache where they can, if they want, sit back and take their time with the story and they have a large enough readership– a readership they’ve worked hard to build– who’ve followed them long enough and have enough faith to give them that space they need to establish the story. But, I’m not them. I might get one issue to pull in the reader.
For me, I’ve gotta get in there and smack the reader in the face. Make them sit up and pay attention. Get them hooked. I have to write a first issue that’s going to make them come back for issue two. And issue ten. And so on. And not just for me, but for my collaborators as well. With The Mantle, if I spent 4 or 5 issues establishing why The Mantle is and what The Mantle’s background is, readers are going to check out and Brian Level is going to be drawing a book that no one reads, wondering how he’s going to feed his kids.
LC: From the look of The Mantle, I’d say Brian Level deserves to be feeding his kids filet mignon night after night. Level is new to me, but like your The Field collaborator Simon Roy, he has an inventive griminess to his aesthetic that makes him stand out from the overly shiny, “realistic” art that is currently common to a lot of mainstream comics. It seems like one of the biggest challenges with a book like The Mantle, though, is how flexible the artist has to be with character design. The first issue briefly showed off a number of previous forms The Mantle has taken and I suspect that’s not the last we’ve seen of the various Mantles over time (and in the future). What drew you to Brian Level? And what has he thought of the unique challenges of this book?
EB: I think that I’m generally drawn to artists with a bit of tooth to their work. I like that sort of rough edge to it. I’m not a fan of art that’s too clean, too clinical.
The project is one that Brian and I developed together. I approached him with the initial idea because we’d been talking about working together for so long and I knew that he would be into doing a superhero book. So, really, it’s only ever been Brian.
In the book we have a lot of fun with comics history and tropes of different eras, which Brian has been really cutting loose with. There’s very much a Silver era Mantle, an ‘80s gritty Mantle, a ‘90s EXTREME Mantle, etc. The book really is our love letter to the genre. Sure, we’re deconstructing things a bit, but if the love isn’t there…
LC: “A bit of tooth to their work” is a great way to describe the artists you work with, but I’d say it applies equally to your writing. Your series so far have focused on characters who, for lack of better phrasing, get handed some pretty shitty cards. Your time travel noir Comeback was a very pulpy work, with all the bruises and bloody ends that entails, The Mantle has ample shocking moments in its debut and The Field ran its leads through an especially trippy gauntlet. What is it about brutal narratives that interests you so much? And how do you convey that brutality without leaning too far towards the dreaded grim and gritty end of the spectrum? Do you just spend a lot of time in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside soaking up reference material?
EB: Well, my dad was a cop and for a long time, my mom worked in victim services…that is, she worked with victims of abuse, specifically sexual abuse and rape. So, these are things that I was exposed to from a pretty young age. This is what the Brissons talked about on the rare occasion that we ate dinner together. My fascination with crime was always tempered with the after effects of those events.
Over the years, that’s where my interests always seemed to land. I love crime fiction. Jim Thompson, Richard Stark, Richard Price, George Pelecanos, Charles Willeford, George V. Higgins, etc. Love them. I missed an entire month of college after discovering Elmore Leonard– I barely left the house because I was reading his books one right after the other. Burned through nearly 30 of them that month.
Growing up, I was also a huge horror film fan (still am) and I think that a lot of that also comes into play, there’s a definite influence there, with the terror that is sometimes present in the stuff I write.
I tend to think of my writing as having some grit, but I try to root everything in something that feels real. Real people, real settings. I’m not a fan of the type of setting where everything is covered with a layer of dirt and all is hopeless. If everything is hopeless, then it’s harder to care for a character. You already know they’re doomed. (Although, some have called Murder Book “utterly depressing”, so what do I know?)
LC: A lot of those literary heroes you’ve rattled off were pretty prolific, and you’ve got an eclectic array of series under your belt so far. But is The Mantle a series you’d like to keep going indefinitely? Or do you prefer to work in shorter bursts, with definitive beginnings, middles and ends to your comics?
EB: For the most part, I prefer to work on stories with a solid beginning, middle and end. That’s why I enjoyed writing Murder Book so much — enjoy, not enjoyed, just wrote a new one today. But with The Mantle, I can see going for a while– but in shorter arcs. Each being somewhat self-contained. But, let’s see how things play out. I do like the idea of having a world that my collaborators and I can go back to.