Smash Pages Q&A: Craig Hurd-McKenney on ‘The Magic If’ and more

The publisher of Headless Shakespeare Press discusses his return to publishing, his latest Kickstarter and more.

Craig Hurd-McKenney was writing, editing and publishing comics for years in the early 2000s. He edited and published the anthology Stalagmite, collaborated with Rick Geary on multiple books and received a Xeric grant to publish The Brontes: Infernal Angria. After many years away, Hurd-McKenney has come back to comics with a new printing of a comic he’s written and published through his own Headless Shakespeare Press, with some other comics available for free on the site, a Kickstarter for a new book and plans for at least two more books a year for the next few years.

The Magic If is a departure for Hurd-McKenney. While most of his work is fantastic, this is a comic about a relationship involving a self-destructive magician, and the result is a deeply felt story about jealousy and anger, and a queer romance that isn’t like anything else on comics stands right now.

I asked why he wrote about the Brontes, why he left comics and coming back after years away. Hurd-McKenney is also currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Some Strange Disturbances, a Victorian Horror comic featuring artwork by The Magic If art team, Gervasio and Carlos Aon. It went live after this interview was conducted.

How did you come to comics?

I was peripherally interested as a kid, thanks to Saturday morning cartoons. I think my very first comic was World’s Finest #273, and I got that at a friend’s birthday party. But it wasn’t until I picked up Uncanny X-Men #178 at the convenience store next to my middle school that I became completely invested. As an adult, I did a stint at Fantagraphics and was at The Comics Journal, doing some writing and other odd jobs for about a year, a year and a half.

What is The Magic If?

Literally, “the magic if” comes from the Stanislavski Method for actors. It’s a term that encourages the actor to consider “what if?” questions to fill in the gaps in their character, but also to envision the consequences of finding oneself facing that “what if?” situation in terms of actions they would take. I’m not an actor, but I found that really interesting in terms of personal agency. Can you envision outcomes and make choices that lead you to those outcomes? And what would get in the way of those choices becoming reality? Usually, it’s us. We get in out own way. So as it relates to my comic of the same name, I wanted to tell a story about what I was feeling about the comics industry as a younger man. I substituted stage magic and sleight of hand for comics. Wynter Steele, the magician in my story, just can’t seem to catch a break because he keeps getting in his own, obsessive way.

It’s a story about a magician but really it’s the story of a relationship story and it’s about being obsessed with competing against other people and being self-destructive. Which is relateable to many of us. So much of your work has been fantastic, what was it like making a realistic and quiet story like this?

You are absolutely right that this was a departure in genre for me. But, in terms of storytelling, it really was not so much of a departure for my interests and experiences. At the heart of The Magic If are characters about whom (I hope) the reader can care, and I think that’s always a hallmark of my work. Also, I am obsessive compulsive, so I wanted to see a character like me, with a fixated mind. When I was writing it, I was just starting to experience how my OCD could really damage my interpersonal relationships and I channeled that learning into The Magic If.

Now for people going, was The Brontes something I was supposed to read in high school but didn’t, what is it?

I don’t think anyone should have read anything other than what they read in high school, by the way. So if you missed reading the ladies then, I wouldn’t fret. The Brontes: Infernal Angria has some set up for fans and new readers alike, like a new introduction, a new first page and a family tree to help point readers in the right direction. Having said that, The Brontes is pretty similar to The Magic If, in that it is a story about obsession. As children, the Brontes created what are essentially zines, by today’s standards. The zines featured stories set in two fictional worlds, Angria and Gondal, and the plots are somewhat byzantine but they are definitely way more sophisticated than what most children would be writing about in their youth. My jumping off point was that. How on earth could these kids have been so socially astute at such a young age? Well, what if Angria was real and the stories they were telling were experience firsthand?

I joke, and I have read the Brontes, but I had never heard of how they fictional worlds in childhood until I read the comic, actually. How did you learn about it and where did the idea of the comic start?

I had been a fan since high school. My sophomore English teacher quite literally performed Wuthering Heights for us. I was entranced. And years later, she & I together visited Haworth, the village where the Brontes grew up. It wasn’t until I was there, and saw the tiny Angrian stories, that I learned about their childhood work. I grabbed the only available books from the Parsonage shop so I could read up. This was all pre-Internet, so it was a total stroke of luck that I ever learned about it.

Your collaborator was Rick Geary and the two of you had worked together, with you editing him. What was that collaboration like and how did you work together again on The Brontes?

Working with Rick on Blanche Goes to Paris was a dream. Rick’s scripts are like illustrated novellas, so you get a very clear picture of what the finished story is going to feel like. I think on Blanche, I had one question about an action that a character took and he tweaked that slight thing, but other than that, it was a very easy job for me. As a fan of his Blanche stories, to be able to have another one out in the world was a little self-serving, but I think Rick’s fans also appreciated it, too. I’m hoping we’ll be able to get to the next story some day, Blanche Goes to San Francisco. In terms of The Brontes, that was part of my initial contact with Rick. We discussed Blanche and The Brontes at the same time, and the script for Blanche was already finished so we went with that one first. Thanks to the Xeric Grant back in 2004, we are able to do the first 1/4 of The Brontes. I’ve lost several computers since then, so the script for The Brontes has essentially been recreated three times now. The intervening years have been helpful to the script, so the delay on The Brontes was all my fault. I’ve brought it up several times since 2004, and Rick has always been game to get back to it, for which I’m very grateful to him.

You got a Xeric Grant for the book as part of the fall 2004 class with David Heatley and Fred van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey and others. You had been making comics for a while by that point but what did it mean and what did it do for you back then?

Now, there are things like Patreon and Kickstarter – real game changers in terms of creating comics. But back then, it was all grants. The Xeric was the only reason The Brontes happened. It meant I could produce the work! I was able to pay Rick his going page rate. Every artist who has worked with me gets paid, and (hopefully) paid well. I have never been a fan of the “this is exposure” logic under which some people are asked to create books.

It also meant some broader recognition of my work, with some built-in marketing thanks to the Xeric brand and to Rick’s body of work. The recognition was admittedly edifying. I am still extremely proud that we received the Xeric honor. And who doesn’t want to feel seen, understood? So it was a humbling, important life moment for me.

With all the good stuff the grant brought, it also brought out some really nasty stuff, too. I was surprised when some questioned why I even got the grant, since I had already published Rick’s Blanche book and two issues of the Stalagmite anthology. Suddenly, I felt I had to explain why the Xeric Foundation selected me when in reality the selection itself should have been enough for people. And rather than saying that, I said nothing. I let that noise get in my head and it was debilitating. I did it to myself because I was young and wanted to be liked and valued. But I hadn’t really earned it then, I guess. I’m older, so in hindsight, I can see what a dumb, obsessive thought process I let myself succumb to. I’ve learned how to break those feedback loops, and those self-inflicted pressures are no longer there. Overall, it’s nice when people “get” the work, “get” me, and I’m not going to stress when people don’t “get” it or me. The work will speak for itself.

Now after many years away you’re getting back into comics. Why did you go away and why did you come back?

Like I said, I psyched myself out. Having my worthiness questioned shook me: I became paralyzed by it, was hurt by it, in a way I would never feel now as a fully-formed adult. The 2018 me just wouldn’t have taken it so personally. I hope there’s a lesson here for folks who are creating. There’s a lot of criticism and rejection. It’s part of the job. You just have to keep working because you’re only as memorable as your last work. When I stopped writing, I created a lose-lose situation for myself. I wasn’t producing anything, I disappeared from editors and publishers memories, and that was totally on me. As much as I’d like to blame someone, I only have myself to hold accountable. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I wasn’t inert during my time off. I went back to school and got my PhD in Technical Communication/ Rhetoric. I helped raise a kid. I got married. I learned a lot about myself, about what really mattered, and about what I could endure. As a result I have more to say in terms of my comics writing. Thankfully, the comics landscape is so much more diverse now, too. I feel like industry biases and assumptions about what will sell are constantly being rewritten and proven incorrect. There are more women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and intersections of all three involved in the industry now. It’s an exciting time to be coming back to comics, Internet trolls and toxic masculinity aside.

Talk a little about Headless Shakespeare Press. You have four books listed on the website to come out in the next two years. Do you want to talk a little about them and about what you want to do, the kinds of stories you’re interested in telling?

I actually have seven books in the works, but two are secret because they would spoil some of the four you are talking about. And I’m just starting to tinker with the idea of the third. It’s called Station Grand and it is set in space. I have always wanted to tell a story in space. But I’m not ready to say anymore about it just yet.

Of the four you mentioned, Some Strange Disturbances will be the next book out – early 2019; watch for the Kickstarter campaign. It is a horror comic set in Victorian England. My trio of main characters are all on those fringes of society I talked about before with the Xeric, and they have to find their way in a world that is sometimes more horrific than the monsters lurking around the corners. I think people will really fall in love with these characters, especially LGBTQ folks. The next book is Proxy, Inc. It’s about a black girl in high school who is trying to combat bullying by offering herself up as a proxy for the abuse. It’s very much rooted in our national identity crisis right now, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. House With No Closets is similarly entrenched in social media abuses, something I’m fascinated by as a result of my time at Google. It’s set in current-day India and is based on the story of the Prince who came out and opened his palace to the LGBTQ community. And then there’s Cuck, a story that explores what American masculinity is today, given the alt right and white supremacist undercurrent that wants to “take back” masculinity. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen toxic masculinity on display, but it’s certainly become more brazen.

I hope people will stick with these upcoming projects because I believe in all of this work so much, and there aren’t other books like them out there. It also means that Headless Shakespeare is back again for the foreseeable future.

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