Smash Pages Q&A | Stephen Graham Jones on ‘Earthdivers’

The award-winning horror writer and university professor talks about his new IDW Originals title, the differences between writing comics and prose, and teaching ‘Secret Wars.’

Stephen Graham Jones has written an extensive library of novels and prose stories, bringing home the Locus Award, four Bram Stoker Awards, two Shirley Jackson Awards, the LA Times Ray Bradbury Prize, the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award, the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction and a whole lot more. His novels, like The Only Good Indians and My Heart is a Chainsaw, tend to fall into what could be described as the literary horror genre, usually with a dose of sharp social commentary as well. When he’s not writing, he’s teaching creative writing, literature, pop culture and other subjects at the University of Colorado.

Or, he might be reading comics.

photo by Gary Isaacs

Jones is an old-school 1980s comics fan who discovered the medium in the time of Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars, and his love for them has only grown since. He not only teaches about them at the university level, but he’s also started writing them. His latest project is Earthdivers, a miniseries set to kick off Oct. 5 as part of IDW’s Originals line, beautifully drawn by the incomparable Davide Gianfelice. The time travel story focuses on four Indigenous survivors in a post-apocalyptic United States who embark on a mission to save the world: by sending one of them back in time to kill Christopher Columbus and prevent the creation of America.

Jones was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about the new series, as well as talk about some of his favorite comics to teach.

JK Parkin: In terms of the story, was this something you were thinking about from a prose standpoint before? Or is this something you’ve always had in your mind to be a comic?

Stephen Graham Jones: I’ve always had it in my mind, I think. And in my notes, I do keep story ideas like we all do. And to tell you the truth, those story ideas are generally pretty useless because you have to wait for a voice to activate them. But I do differentiate my story ideas. I guess that’s what I call them. By screenplay and novel and comic. I don’t really differentiate between the stories and novel so much.

So this was in my comic pile of things, that I would like to do on a comic book page. And I’ve got a huge, long list of comics I want to do, of course. Maybe everybody does. But yeah, I always saw this as a comic. And I think because so much of it kind of… How to say it? It’s not about the vistas that you can see, it’s about how iconic that first voyage is. And I think that it’s easier to get that across in panels and comic book pages than it is in prose.

And I think that could be because… To tell you the truth, as far as my other stuff goes and especially if it’s 15th century ocean-faring stuff, I have to do a lot of research. And then to get those galleys and caravels and sails and all that stuff on the page in the right way, I was kind of worried it might slow things down, slow the story down too much. But comic books work at a different speed than prose fiction, of course. And I don’t have to say, “This is this type of caravel. The water line is here and everything.” Because it’s all there in the way Davide draws it.

I was going to ask: are there certain things you find you can do in comics better than you can in prose?

Yeah, the main thing is — what does Scott McCloud call it? The parallel kind of build ?– Normally a transition, but it’s where you have a series of panels with one thing going on and then you have captions that are from a completely different place or a different voice or something that are kind of overlaying that. And those two story threads are playing off each other in a way that’s really tricky to do on the prose page, anyway. You could actually do it in film and television pretty easily, just with a voiceover. You saw it in “Dexter” a lot.

And it’s tricky. It’s tricky to do that. It’s not impossible to do it in prose fiction, but it’s a lot trickier.

You have the visual element in comics that can tell a lot of the story for you rather than text. What’s the whole thing about “A picture’s worth a thousand words?”

Yeah, exactly. In that first issue, there’s a thing about knots, you know, like tying a knot. And to tie a knot in prose fiction is really, really tricky because the reader has to somehow be aware of the over, the under, the loop and the pull tight. All that stuff. Really, really tricky to do. But in a comic book, you just get someone to draw it and it makes total sense.

Speaking of that, how has the collaboration process been for you? Because I imagine when you’re doing a prose story, you work with editors and other people, but you’re the one in control. But with a comic script, part of the job is to get the artist on board with your story, too.

Definitely. And Davide, he’s been on board since the get-go. Even his character sketches. He would give us a four pack or a six pack and the character can look like this. They can wear that. Hair can be like this. That, to me, was where a lot of the story happened, actually. Because I was seeing these characters at last, and they were only words to me before. But now that he drew them in certain ways, that made them into people, if that makes sense.

And the things he brought to these characters, like how they wear their hoodie or what kind of haircut they have and everything, have completely become story elements that I had never considered would be story elements. And the good thing about working with him is that he is able to make what could be a boring page very dynamic.

Because sometimes in a story you do have to slow down and let two people talk. It can’t all be sword fights and kicks to the head. But he’s able to make the art expressive enough and give it enough emotion that you don’t realize that these people are just talking. I’m really fortunate to be working with someone who has got that instinct and also that experience. He brings it. I mean, he’s been doing this a while, and he just knows what to do.

Going back to what you said about drawing people standing around talking and making it dynamic … I was curious about that, because in the story, you have two different threads going on. There’s what’s going on in the past, and then there’s the future, where it does feel like they’re standing around a lot, but there’s a lot of tension there because I get the sense that once they move on, the reader will know what happened in the past. Is that something you’re consciously playing with?

No, it definitely is. That’s kind of the dramatic arc that these three characters who are currently in 2112 are dealing with. How do they know whether Tad’s mission back in 1492 was successful or not, because they’re way out in the desert. And so they can’t see the changes. Any changes that Ted has affected are not immediately visible to them, so they have to go out and figure this out.

And one thing I figured out early on with this comic book is that while 1492 will cover 20, 30 days, here in 2112, it’ll be much more compressed. We won’t be seeing every moment of these characters’ two days or however long they cross, but we’ll be seeing… We won’t be crossing 30 days. There won’t be any big jumps. And I really like that idea of braiding together two timelines that are themselves moving at different paces. It was really fun to do.

Speaking of the future timeline, I really enjoyed the character “Yellow Kidney” or “The Yellow Kid,” who seemed like the Velma of the group, if that makes sense.

Yeah. No, I mean, that’s a good call because Scooby Doo is deep in my DNA. Yeah. He’s definitely got that going on. I completely agree.

I liked how the Yellow Kid did a lot of the research for Tad before he went into the past, which kind leads me to my question. What sort of research did you have to do for the story?

Well, to get 1492 down, I had to go back and read a lot of the accounts, versions and analysis of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage in 1492. And I ended up, just because it was interesting, reading a lot past that, too. Even though the story isn’t going to go too much past that, I still needed to know the context, I felt like.

But what I needed specifically was when they’re crossing from the Canary Islands over to the Caribbean. What are the milestones? Or when did they see this bird? When did they see this in the water? When did a storm come? When did they see something in the sky?

Those are all bells that I have to ring as the cross the ocean … I mean, not necessarily to satisfy the history buffs, but just because they’re going back to a specific point in history. And so I think that compels me to try to get that history as close to right as I can.

And we live in a world where people have access to the internet and are going to probably look at every little detail and call you on it if it’s off.

Yeah. I’ll probably get this stuff wrong, too, but I guess my hope with anything I write, is that I can make the story compelling enough that people won’t slow down to say, “Well, this word was actually not in use until 1516.” You know? That kind of stuff.

One thing that jumped out at me in the first issue was something that passed by in a single panel — the fact that all the rich people fled Earth on spaceships. It’s almost like you could tell another story and follow them off into the cosmos.

Yeah. And we are going to do a one shot. So who knows, maybe one of them will be on a generation ship or something. To the outer rim of our solar system or something; who knows? But yeah, I mean was playing with the idea that the… I’m saying the one-percenters, or I’m thinking of it like that. But really I feel like when Europeans came to America, they just immediately started using America up and not worrying about tomorrow. Just worrying about today. And then when the day comes that this place is used up, they can just blast off and go to another place and ruin it as well. And I feel like that’s what these rich, entitled people blasting off on spaceships from a place they’ve used up are doing. They’re just going to the next place. Trash it up as well.

That’s what I took away from that. But it was interesting that it’s looking at this future that’s very modern; I mean you’re seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. All things we’re familiar with. And then there’s this panel of spaceships that kind of jumps out at you.

Yeah, it was fun. And when I was throwing this idea around initially with Mark Doyle at IDW, I was asking him, “Are we going to have to do a zero issue?” In the early nineties comics would often have zero issues, where you kind of set up a world for a minute. And I was thinking of a zero issue, like a prologue to talk about this world falling down. But we ended up not doing that for the same reason that we don’t talk about the technology or magical qualities or whatever the case, because that actually isn’t the story we wanted to tell.

And what Mark directed me to was on the first page of All-Star Superman. Where if you compared that page to the first page of Earthdivers, they’re very, very similar. And what that first page of All-Star Superman taught me — which, the first time I read it, I didn’t even think about it — was that we only need to gesture towards the story because we all know the story of the post-apocalypse. We all know that the environment is on the verge of collapse. That things are going to fall down. All that stuff. So I can just glance that way so, so briefly and the reader, the audience fills it in with what they know is going to happen, I think.

I love the All-Star Superman reference. That does my fanboy heart good. But I’m also thinking of Wall-E and the people leaving, and leaving the robot behind to clean everything up while they hang out in space, and how we’re introduced to Earth at the beginning of the movie and we all just know what happened.

Yeah, for sure.

So from the interviews I’ve seen, you’re an old school superhero fan, like Secret Wars, Marvel, all that stuff.

Yes. Secret Wars is where I started and I mean, I went Marvel, DC and then when the Image started happening, I was all over Image and loved Vertigo. And since then, just everything. Everything I can get my hands on.

There was a period of my life, right when I first got married, when I didn’t have any money and it was hard to budget comic books. I had four or five years where I didn’t have a hold bag every Wednesday. But luckily the library of the town I was living in had a librarian who was a huge comic book fan himself. I’m still really good friends with him and he ordered everything. And so I still was able to feed my comic impulse even though I couldn’t afford it. So thankful for that.

So are you still reading today and what are some of your favorites right now?

I’m really digging Ben Percy’s Wolverine and I loved X23 … She’s pretty cool. Man, I’d have to look at my pile. I have this huge pile of comic that I bag and board and then don’t put anywhere. So they just kind of stack up all over my office.

I can sympathize with that.

And when you have them in a bag and board, they’re so slick. They always avalanches down everywhere. But probably my all time favorite book? I think it’s The Maxx. You know, I love The Maxx.

Oh, Sam Keith?

He does good work. Yeah. I love The Maxx forever. And of course Sandman, Watchmen, Maus. All the standbys. But as for the other stuff, Moon and Bá’s Daytripper. That’s one of my favorite books of all-time of any format, any medium. Joe Kelly I Kill Giants.

One book that I liked a lot that didn’t seem to get a lot of traction is Bad Girls. It came out from Simon and Schuster’s comic imprint. I forget what it’s called. Gallery 13 maybe? Something like that. It was so dynamic. I love it. I love when a book just feels like a pop-up book, even though it’s two-dimensional. It makes me feel like I’m reading Jhonen Vasquez’s Johnny the Homicidal Maniac again, because his stuff is like that.

Oh totally. Yeah. I’m not familiar with Bad Girls, but I’ll go look that one up after we’re done here. So I know in addition to your writing, you also teach on the university level, and I read somewhere that you actually do some comic-related lectures. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I do. Yeah. I do a lecture course just called “Comic Books.” I know some people will call it “comic books and graphic novels,” but I always kind of resist the term graphic novel. I feel like it is… It’s kind of chasing after respectability too much. It’s like saying “We know comic books aren’t respectable, so we’re going to call it it a graphic novel so that you can actually read it and not be embarrassed.” But I don’t look at that dynamic. I just like the word “comic books,” the term “comic books.”

But yeah, my big problem with teaching that course is I always get so excited before the semester starts and I order, I feel like 18 books on our list, and we only have 15 weeks to get through them. And then I spend six weeks on Watchmen. So we’re always so screwed, but I love, love, love… I started with Secret Wars because I feel like Secret Wars is… I feel like there’s a big snowball rolling from the Golden Age, from the Yellow Kid days. A big snowball rolling through the 20th century. And I feel like in the early eighties with Secret Wars, it kind of had reached some sort of big crumbling state.

So I used Secret Wars with a lens to look at the whole history of comic books, which is really fun. And then we did some generally bouncing right into Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. But Secret Wars put superheroes up on a pedestal and then Watchman and Dark Knight kind of knock it down or undercut it somewhat anyway. And then, right around that time also, I guess, Maus comes. Right around ’82. And we jump into that for way too long. We got to love Spiegelman’s cartoons. I think he’s amazing. And then we’ll go into a nonfiction vein, coming out of Spiegelman. Probably into Fun Home and maybe Craig Thompson’s Blankets or some of those, and we’ll do some Image stuff as well. I usually don’t do The Maxx because I’m afraid that I’ll just spend too much time on The Maxx. So I’ll make myself just talk about how Spawn landed on the scene. Something like that.

One of my favorite comics to teach… or my favorite writer to teach, I guess, is if I can ever teach anything by Matt Wagner. I think that guy understands comic books in a way that not many people do. And I don’t know if it’s just natural talent or it’s just that he’s been doing it so long, but his Grendel stuff is so effortless and so elegant and I can just live in it.

Totally agree. And I wish they’d had a class like that when I was in college.

It’s really cool because a lot of my students get a hold of me these days that were in those classes and they’re now plugging along either working in comic book stores or trying to become editors. They all fell in love with comic the books out of that class. And so they’re trying to live in that world now, which I’m so happy for them to be doing that.

So one more question to end things on, about Earthdivers. in terms of the next few issues, is there anything you can tell us what to expect from Tad and his journey?

Yeah. It’s not as easy as he thinks it’s going to be. Not just physically or logistically. Basically it’s not as easy as he wants it to be. I think when this mission was pitched to him, it was like “Go back in time. Stab a knife in Columbus’s heart, and save the world.” That seems like 1, 2, 3, you’re done. But when he gets feet on the ground in 1492 and he’s crossing the ocean on the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, he starts to question what he is doing, and it becomes really tangled ethically for him, which I think it should.

I mean, why should the version of the world he wants be more important than the version of the world these people are living in? Who is he to ruin everything for them just to make him and his habitat better? It seems like it’s always a trade-off. And at the same time, as we know from reading and living in time travel stories so long, there’s always a cost associated with going back and trying to change things. You never can really take into account all the repercussions.

It’s always easier said than done.

You’re always going to step on that. Yeah, for sure. You’re always like… In that Bradbury story — you’re always going to step on the wrong butterfly and ruin the world.

Suddenly we’re all dinosaurs.

[Laughs] Yeah.

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