Smash Pages Q&A: Paul Constant

The journalist and critic discusses his newest project with AHOY Comics, ‘Planet of the Nerds.’

Paul Constant has a long career as a journalist and literary critic working for The Stranger and many other publications. He’s currently a writer at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator in Seattle, where he writes about politics and economics, and is the co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books.

His new comic is Planet of the Nerds, with artwork by Alan Robinson and Randy Elliott. The first issue of the series is out this week from AHOY Comics. The comic opens in the 1980s when a science experiment goes wrong, and three jocks wake up in 2019 to find that comic conventions are massive, superhero movies rule the box office and everyone uses computers. They are horrified by this world. We spoke recently about how he ended up writing the comic, the way he uses backup stories in the series, and the different roles of editors in comics as opposed to journalism.

Paul, I always like to start especially when it’s someone’s first big project, by asking, how did you come to comics?

I’ve been reading comics for my whole life—I learned how to read on Peanuts and Superman comics, and I’ve been reading them ever since. One time when I was on a three-week road trip, I realized that was the longest I’d ever gone without reading a comic, and I went into a kind of withdrawal. I had to stop at a comic shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico and drop $20 on the dollar bins just to get my fix.

For as long as I’ve been reading comics, I’ve been making them. When I was in high school, I’d write minicomics with friends, and we’d photocopy them at Kinko’s and try to sell them on consignment in local shops. But then I got a job writing at a newspaper and writing non-fiction took precedence. I love writing reviews and essays and journalism, but I always had that comics itch that had never been scratched.

What is Planet of the Nerds?

Planet of the Nerds is my first full-length comic—a five-issue miniseries about three jocks from the 1980s who are accidentally frozen in a freak cryogenics accident and are thawed out in the modern day. Chad, Drew and Steve are shocked to discover that in 2019, jocks have basically been forgotten and nerds rule the planet—superhero movies are in the multiplexes, everyone owns multiple computers and Bill Gates is one of the world’s richest men. They immediately vow revenge on the nerds.

How did you end up connecting with AHOY?

AHOY’s editor-in-chief Tom Peyer used to read my newspaper writing when he lived in Seattle, and when he started Ahoy, he reached out to ask if I had any pitches. Did I ever! I sent him the pitch for Planet of the Nerds, and he bought it. But because I hadn’t written a full comic script in a long time, he asked me to write some shorter backup stories for AHOY’s flagship title, The Wrong Earth. I’ve been working with AHOY ever since.

What was it like working with Alan Robinson on the book?

One of the things I love about comics is the collaborative nature of it, and Alan is an ideal collaborator. Tom and I talked about what kind of an artist Nerds would need, and we agreed that we needed someone who was good at physical comedy and facial expressions and backgrounds. There’s a lot of action in Nerds, but like most science fiction you have to ground the fantastical elements in a realistic world. Alan was brilliant at drawing pratfalls and lived-in apartments and the facial expression of a confused jock trying to figure out what an iPhone is. He immediately became more than just the artist on the book—he’s an equal author. Whatever I write, he gets it immediately, and then he returns a page that surpasses my wildest expectations.

What was the experience like of sitting down to write a comics script? You may have made some minicomics in the past, but I would imagine there is a certain learning curve as far as writing a comic.

As I said, I’ve written a lot of comics with friends, but I’ve never written a professional comic script. It’s a little tough because there’s no one agreed-upon comic script format—movie screenplays all follow the same basic rules, but nobody ever decided what a comic script should look like. So I read a ton of different scripts and saw what worked and what didn’t work, and then I tried to write something that I thought would be easiest for the artist and colorist and letterer.

Most of the script is just a clear description of what happens, without too much over-explanation. Once you realize you’re only writing the majority of the script for maybe half a dozen people—the editor, artist, colorist, and letterer—you can divert your writerly energy to the part that everyone will read—the dialogue.

Tom Peyer is an editor and a writer. What was collaborating with him like and how did you find the writer-editor relationship in comics compares to that of the writer-editor relationship in journalism?

Great question! I’ve been reading Tom Peyer’s comics since before I knew the name Tom Peyer. I was blown away by Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, which Tom edited, and of course Tom’s Hourman series is an underappreciated superhero classic. So working with him is a genuine nerdy thrill.

So far, I’ve found that most of the editing in comics happens before the writing. Tom works on the ideas and helps me focus the story before I even write a single word, so I have the confidence to go in and write knowing pretty clearly what’s going to happen. We’ll do edits after for clarity and theme, but most of the hard work comes before. In journalism, it’s almost exactly the opposite: you turn in an almost intentionally bad first draft and then you and your editor have to patch it up after.

So comics editing is more collaborative and supportive and preventative. In journalism, editing is almost like emergency medical care.You have the main story in the book and you also have backup stories.

Say a little about the relationship between them and why you wanted to tell and structure the story this way?

One of the things I love about AHOY is their commitment to bonus material. Every comic comes with short stories and essays and poetry and a backup comics story, so you’re really getting your money’s worth. Tom was very receptive to my idea of the Nerds backup stories being spotlight stories on the individual characters in Nerds. The main story is sort of an ensemble with a big cast and a forward-moving story. The backup stories allow us to get into the characters’ heads a little more, to learn about their motivations and their inner lives. You don’t have to read the backup stories to follow the main story, but you’ll feel differently about the characters when you read the whole thing. They’ve all got some surprises and secrets to them.

And I love that the backup stories are all drawn by Randy Elliott. His art is in a similar vein to Alan’s, but he’s got a little bit of an alternative comics vibe, which gives the stories more of an internal feel to them. We’re really getting into the ugly, raw parts of the characters’ heads and histories, to find out what makes them tick.

You are also among other things the co-founder and editor of the Seattle Review of Books. Do you want to say a little about the review and what you and your colleagues are doing to help promote books and be a part of this literary conversation.

One of the important parts of my role at the Seattle Review of Books is that I direct people to organizations and events and books that I think our audience would like. So I actually don’t talk too much about my comics stuff on there because it’s kind of a conflict of interest.

It’s important as a journalist to be really open and transparent about this kind of situation. So when I first started writing for AHOY, I published a post explaining that I wouldn’t review any of AHOY’s books, and I wouldn’t write about any of my collaborators because I couldn’t be impartial about them.

But obviously my work as a critic influences my work as a writer and vice versa. And before I started writing, I worked for 12 years in bookstores. I still feel like a bookseller at heart. So I love to recommend other books in interviews, and do everything I can to promote books that I think are interesting. The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation by Renee Nault is one of the best longform comics I’ve read in a good long while, for instance, and I love all of the books that Berger Books is publishing. Promoting good comics is good for readers, it’s good for publishers, and it’s good for society as a whole. We could all use more good books in our lives.

So what’s your final pitch for Planet of the Nerds and what we can look forward to in the next issue?

This series has been so much fun to work on and I can’t wait to see what you think of it. Planet of the Nerds is sci-fi and adventure and social satire in the vein of Idiocracy and Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck series. It has comedy and compelling characters and a little bit of pathos. If you remember the 1980s, this book will make you think differently about your past. If you were bullied as a kid, this book will make you think about the person on the other side of the atomic wedgie. We’ve got a lot of surprises left to reveal, and I think we wind up in a very interesting place.

As for issue 2, it’s possibly the most madcap issue in the whole series: we’ve got a riot at a comic convention, a brush with the law, and a dark night of the soul in a public park. This one’s got it all!

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