Smash Pages Q&A: Ezra Claytan Daniels

The creator of ‘Upgrade Soul’ discusses ‘BTTM FDRS,’ his collaboration with Ben Passmore.

Ezra Claytan Daniels is a writer, illustrator and designer who made a huge splash in comics when Upgrade Soul first came out. It may have made a huge impact on a lot of readers and critics, winning the Dwayne McDuffie Award in 2017 and being nominated for several awards over the past few weeks, but it was a hard sell to publishers and started out as an app.

Fantagraphics just published his second book, a collaboration with Ben Passmore. BTTM FDRS is a horror story in a very best tradition of the genre. The story of gentrification in a Chicago neighborhood tackles race and class, and involves a monster that is linked to an old building. It’s thoughtful and funny, disturbing and shocking, and Daniels was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and his process.

How did you come to comics?

I always liked to draw, and even had a comic in my high school paper, but I always thought I’d become a film director. I went to art school and made some short films. This was before you could really stream video online, so I quickly realized that, at the level I was doing work, my potential audience was way smaller than my friends who made mini-comics. With a mini-comic, you could print up a hundred copies, sell them at zine and comic shows and at local book and record stores; people could lend them to their friends or leave them on the bus. Comics just seemed like a much better way for me to reach an audience, so I started focusing on that.

How do you describe BTTM FDRS?

At cons I pitch it as a horror/comedy about gentrification in Chicago. If that peaks a person’s interest, I tell them that we pitched the book to publishers as “Black Tremors.” It’s a story about a recent art school grad who moves into a blighted neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, drawn by the cheap rent. As she settles into the building and gets to know the locals, it soon becomes clear there’s something otherworldly and maybe deadly about the building itself.

The people who live in the Bottomyards are there for different reasons, and you manage to get these different voices and perspectives in the narrative, which seemed really important to you.

The emotional core of the story for me is examining my own complicity in the cycle of gentrification. That meant accepting the blame I deserved, but also looking at all the different players and the different ways people profit on underserved neighborhoods. I guess a part of my desire to deconstruct the cycle was determine if it was possible to exist in this cycle responsibly. In the end, I think there are ways to do so MORE responsibly, but ultimately it’s like Ben is constantly telling me, “there is no pure consumption under capitalism.”

You’re writing this book but not drawing it. Were you interested in drawing it? How did you and Ben Passmore end up collaborating?

My last book, Upgrade Soul, took me 15 years to finish. As I was eyeing my next project, all I knew was that I was not going to draw it. I met Ben around this time at CAKE in Chicago and fell in love him with his work immediately. We’re both mixed race dudes who grew up in small white towns. We have a lot of shared experiences, so we bonded real fast. I never imagined a style like Ben’s for BTTM FDRS, honestly. I always imagined a more straight-forward horror aesthetic as I was writing it, but as I got to know Ben and his work, I became convinced he could bring a really fun and novel approach to the material.

What was the process of working with Ben? What was your back and forth like?

I write everything in screenplay format because that’s how I learned to write. I think screenplays are easier to read, too, so it makes it easier to get feedback from friends. In fact, when I finish a script, I always post it to the Black List, where you can pay a reader 50 bucks for a screenplay evaluation. I find it super helpful to get feedback from someone I not only don’t know, but might have completely opposite tastes and political leanings. I got a phenomenal response to the BTTM FDRS script on the Black List, which gave me the confidence to invest in hiring an artist to draw it. So when Ben and I started on BTTM FDRS, I just sent him the screenplay. I mean, I think very much in comic terms, so the setpieces relied heavily on comics language. Nothing had to be drastically rethought, but it wasn’t broken into pages or panels or anything. I wanted to give Ben as much freedom as possible to adapt the story. He’s an amazing cartoonist, and I chose to work with him because I loved his voice—so I just wanted to let him take the steering wheel after I did my part. Our back and forth was very minimal once we started. He’d send me penciled pages and I’d only ever need to give very minimal feedback. I think because I’m also a cartoonist, my feedback always came with very specific low-labor solutions. Sometimes I’d even just make the change myself instead of bothering Ben with it. Like, if there was an object in the background that disappeared in a panel, I would just draw it in.

Talk a little if you would about the book design and the page layout and how you wanted this story to look in that sense.

So, Upgrade Soul started as an interactive iOS app. The pages of Upgrade Soul were actually designed to fit an iPad screen, but also be stackable to fit a standard American comic book page. When we first started working on BTTM FDRS, we didn’t know what was going to happen with it. Based on my 15 years of failing to find a publisher to put my work out, I was looking at self-publishing, and potentially doing an app in the same format as Upgrade Soul. So I had Ben draw the pages the same way. When we submitted to Fantagraphics, the book was in standard mainstream comic format, but I mentioned we actually had the option to cut all the pages in half and double the page count to make a little brick of a book. It took about 2 minutes of back and forth to settle on that format. It just feels so much more unique and claustrophobic. It also doubled the number of page-turn reveals, and I feel like the story feels more brisk in the reading, like a book of Garfield strips. I love the format.

I’m especially interested in the creature and the look of it. How did you want it to look? Because it does have that creepy organic which is very unsettling – and beautifully designed.

Ben could speak more about the specifics, but the script describes the creature as a mix of plumbing pipes, worm segments and centipede legs. Ben has a knack for that kind of stuff, so he just took it to another level. The thing with the cleaning apparatus looking like a cartoon duck is a thematic reference I wanted to weave throughout the story to the minstrel origins of modern comics and cartoons. Chucky Ducky is an old cartoon character in the story, and he’s modeled after Daffy Duck, Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse and Little Black Sambo, which were the most popular cartoon characters of their day. These characters were direct extensions of the blackface minstrel tradition, which is the original and most enduring monument to Black cultural appropriation.

The creature at the heart of the book – and here I’m spoiling it a little – is a benevolent creature. It can be destructive and weaponized but that’s not what it was meant to be. I thought, well, that’s culture right there.

Exactly. The creature is meant to be a metaphor for hip hop culture. The history of the creature in BTTM FDRS hits a lot of the same beats as the history of rap, from its street-level origins, where very creative people were cobbling together this powerful thing from disparate elements. And it’s a crucial, vibrant expression that was fueled by, and made even more potent and urgent by all the shit society dumps on Black America. But then once corporate America realized its value, it became commodified for an audience that wasn’t the same one responsible for creating it. Corporate record labels trying to sell rap records to white suburban kids by pandering to their view of Black America as a monolith of misogyny and violence is what set the tone of mainstream rap for decades – even to this day, largely. That cultural perception makes it very easy for people who don’t actually know any Black folks to write us all off as criminals with no political value, and I have a really hard time believing that’s all by accident.

Not to give anything away, but in the last scene the media arrives and they are the villains. From how the local news frames the events to the casting director for Vice working on a show “about badass chicks and, like, female empowerment.”

I think it’s in line with the reflective nature of the book, looking at the complicity of every one of the players. The media serves a vital purpose in society, but it also can, and frequently has been, used as a terribly destructive force. From the rampant over-reporting of Black crime in the 80’s to the baffling attempts to humanize white mass murderers today, the way news organizations decide to report events is extremely consequential. Throughout history, the contributions of marginalized people have been silenced so thoroughly that today, people will use “Western Civilization” or “Modern Civilization” as euphemisms for Anglo-European culture. The reality is that, every pillar of what we now call civilization was created by people of color. Math, science, language, government–none of these things were born in Europe. The only thing Anglo-European culture really excels at is taking credit for other people’s work, and committing this revisionist history to the curriculum.

What are you working on or interested in working on next? Are you going to be drawing whatever the next book turns out to be?

I’m working on a few things at the moment, which I obnoxiously can’t announce yet. I will say that I’m not drawing anything in the foreseeable future. In fact, none of the stuff I’m working on is even comics. We’re hopefully gonna be making a big announcement regarding the Upgrade Soul movie soon. But the one big thing I can talk about is that we’re relaunching the Upgrade Soul app for iOS in the fall, along with a vinyl release of the score, by Alexis Gideon, coming out from FPE records. I’ll be at SPX, MeccaCon Detroit and CXC with that, all in September. I’ll also be debuting a new non-fiction minicomic at SPX about the evolutionary origins of narrative and empathy that I’ve been working my ass off on forever. It’s been the craziest year of my life, career-wise. I’m just trying to stay productive and keep moving forward. And I can’t wait to share the new stuff coming up!

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