I didn’t read so much as inhale Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands. Afterwards, I needed more. Being a comics reader, I went for what he had on the rack. His Batman and Green Arrow arcs were equally consuming, but completely different from his prose. Now, I was excited to talk shop with him over the phone. I wanted to get to know the mind of the guy behind such distinct stories.
Having a conversation with Benjamin Percy is like having a literary discussion with the world’s most thoughtful grizzly bear. His gravelly baritone is enough to shame Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, and Percy’s not putting on airs. That’s just how he sounds. Fitting for someone who refers to his writing studio as his ‘nightmare factory,’ and seems more than a little obsessed with societal collapse, government/corporate surveillance, and giant, albino bats. A writer who’s comfortable taking the reader beyond the plausible and into the fantastic, just to prove he can make you believe every word.
As the new writer for DC Comics’s Green Arrow, he has the added voltage of the world’s most visionary storytelling medium boosting his ideas. Pushing them upward, outward, into uncharted realms of the bizarre. And yet, his characters are haunted by emotions and desires that are all too familiar. A tether reaching back into our world that make his stories not just imaginative, but relevant.
The Rumpus: You’re a man of many hats, and many interests. You write stories, novels, and more recently, comics. You strike me as a real ‘nerd’s nerd.’ I mean that in a good way. How did your interest in storytelling begin?
Benjamin Percy: I love comics. I’m a lifelong comics reader. I grew up in rural Oregon and I have distinct memories of my mother taking me to the mercantile and while she shopped I’d be deposited at the end of the aisle at the comic rack. One issue was all I was permitted to take home with me. I’d spend a lot of time studying them all over and selecting that one issue. I still have many of those ragged, stained comics today that fill up many, many boxes. I was an obsessive comics reader, I guess. My first memories of reading come from comics. I’m talking about anything from Batman to Warlord to Swamp Thing to Daredevil.
Rumpus: How’d you make the move from comic book aficionado to comic book writer?
Percy: I loved comics—as a reader, a fanboy—but for whatever reason, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might write my own. Not until Scott Snyder started cranking out scripts. We had been in touch for a few years, a friendly correspondence, both of us short story writers who had put out a collection. I taught his story Blue Yodel in my workshops; he taught my story Refresh, Refresh in his.
When he broke into comics, I was intensely curious about how he had done it. He encouraged me to try my hand at some pitches and very generously shared his own—for both American Vampire and The Wake. He also put me in touch with his editor and friend, Mark Doyle. I wrote up an elaborate pitch for a series called Red Moon that was rejected—and good thing, because it became my breakout novel. I toured the DC offices with Mark and sent many more pitches over the years, but it wasn’t until 2014 that he called and said they had a need for a two-issue Batman arc. So I’ve been knocking on that door since 2009.
Rumpus: I read your Batman two-shot Terminal and really enjoyed it.
Percy: Thank you, thank you. Yeah, corny as it sounds, it was kind of a childhood dream come true.
Rumpus: Was there a particular approach you were aiming for with such a well known and long-written character?
Percy: If you look at Batman and how he’s generally represented you have all these over the top scenarios all these whiz-bang gadgets. Constant action, and some of the villains are as otherworldy as it gets. I wanted to do something different, and sort of noir. You’ll notice in the first half of that two-part story, Batman doesn’t even throw a fist. He’s a detective. And the fantastic scenario—this aging virus that takes hold of this plane—I was trying to tap into fears about Ebola that were raging at that time and also I was trying to tap into everyone’s obsession with the Malaysian airline’s disappearance. So there were two things right there that people could connect to that would exacerbate their fearfulness.
Rumpus: What about comics sets them apart for you from other mediums?
Percy: I love the reading experience. The way the image and the text is layered it’s this really complicated, rich, storytelling medium. The layout of the panels on the page informs the story. An issue might only be twenty or twenty-two pages but I’m spending half an hour with or more with each issue just studying it from different angles and re-reading it and re-reading it. It’s like a movie. I’ve experienced so much development hell in Hollywood. This is the way to finally get a movie made. The actors are always available and the special effects budget is unlimited and it’s so fast. I mean, I hammer out a script and three months later readers are responding and that’s such a gratifying thing as a writer, not to feel like you’re just lost in the dungeon for years on end as in the case of when you’re hammering out novels.
Rumpus: Do you get tired when people don’t understand the density of comics?
Percy: Their experience is just limited. There are certainly stupid comics out there just as there are certainly stupid movies or novels. If all you know is Transformers 4 then you can write off Hollywood. If all you know is James Patterson you can write off literature. But if you’re picking up some comics by Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman you’re in for a literary experience. The Sandman isn’t just one of the best comics I’ve ever read, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read period.
Rumpus: That’s how I feel about Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing.
Percy: Those DC/Vertigo comics of the ‘80s are what I strive for. Even though there’s plenty of good stuff out there now I particularly love the ‘80s Vertigo comics.
Rumpus: You wrote a short story called Refresh, Refresh that was adapted into a graphic novel by Danica Novgorodoff. What was the process of collaboration like between you two?
Percy: When Danica got in touch with me to say she wanted to adapt it to a graphic novel I handed over the original draft of the story, the forty-pager. When the Paris Review published Refresh, Refresh they said it was three stories, and wanted to publish one of them. So she used the original ore, and refined it in her own way. She asked me for an itinerary. She headed out to Oregon and visited all the locales for I believe a week. She made sketches and sent me things occasionally. It became her story.
Rumpus: There are several powerful themes running through this story: war, adolescence, family, father and son dynamics. When you started to work on Refresh, Refresh, did you have something in mind you wanted to write about?
Percy: It’s definitely a father-son story. A story about growing up with an embattled sense of masculinity that the characters are struggling with, and it’s a story about war. I set out with the express purpose of writing about Iraq. In 2005 I encountered all of these news stories and programs about the war but no short fiction. Plenty of fiction has come out since, but at the time there wasn’t much so I wanted to write a story that was about the war but was political without being polemical. I didn’t want to say the war was good or bad but this is war.
Rumpus: The young men in this story seem lost. They’re acting out in strange ways with each other and the small world of the town they’ve grown up in. What’s going on in their minds to make them behave so?
Percy: The boys feel a push and a pull. They’re proud of their fathers and they’re revolted by the war. They like to play-act the violence they imagine their fathers are up to overseas and they also gather in this circle in their backyard to box in order to swing the pain out of their systems. So it’s a complicated piece, it’s not meant to make you feel one way about anything. That was one of those stories where I put everything I had into it. I was publishing short stories pretty regularly at that time and rationing out a lot of what I had like, oh I’ll put these three things in this story, and these four others in this one, and so on, and this is a story where I just went all in. And for about two weeks afterwards I just felt like the well was dry. Just laying on the couch in a daze. It paid off. I don’t know if I’ve ever written a short story like that since.
Rumpus: There’s sort of a quietness to it in Danica Novgorodoff’s adaptation that I think is largely due to the art, a lot of panels and sequential stuff that aren’t so much about dialogue but mood and atmosphere. Is that present in the original story?
Percy: Well, it’s present in the description of landscape. The boys throw themselves into the wilderness to hunt or burn around on their dirt bikes. They’re dwarfed by the landscape of the Cascade Mountains and the sandy wash of desert. The landscape kind of calls attention to itself and dwarfs human activity.
My favorite moment in the comic comes at the end right before the boys head to the recruitment center. It’s a curious thing, being able to capture interiority with art. She doesn’t use any text in this moment, something I was able to fall back on like a crutch in the story. She instead has this sort of washed out vision of what’s awaiting them. Just the man with the black sack on his head. There’s the oil fires. There’s this sort of vacuum of Iraq they seem drawn towards. I love that visual beat that happens. And then they walk into the recruitment center. It’s a really cool example of the cerebral made visual.
Rumpus: That’s the incredible thing about collaboration, and maybe especially comics where that’s a possibility, because prose is such an insular activity that it’s hard to let other people in until a certain point in the process.
Percy: I found collaboration to be a terrible thing in Hollywood because there are so many people involved you have to make a thousand little compromises to every project and every single scene is a committee decision. It’s maddening. But with comics you’ve got an artist and you’ve got a writer—and I’m speaking mostly about Green Arrow here. I’ve handed in seven scripts or so—through December at this point and my relationship with Patrick Zircher is probably the most exciting collaboration I’ve ever experienced as a writer, the way we challenge each other and make each other better.
Rumpus: Speaking of Green Arrow, you seem to really hit your stride with the reveal of villainous corporation, Panopticon. What gave you the idea to comment on drone tech and surveillance in this way?
Percy: Snowden. The NSA revelation. The Target breech. The Citibank breech. Every week, another company’s data gets compromised. Social media privacy concerns. My pal’s email got hacked. My neighbor tried to file his taxes and somebody else had already done so and collected the refund. I could go on. We live in a world where we’re constantly being tracked and pirated and it’s creating this sense of national paranoia. I was also playing off the unfortunate headlines concerning Ferguson, Baltimore. Systemic racism. Profiling. How those who are meant to protect us sometimes hurt us. The story—in this three-issue arc—is a veiled, incendiary version of what’s happening in our country right now.
Rumpus: Oliver Queen (aka Green Arrow) is a busy young man with a lot of different responsibilities/sides to his life. CEO. Brother/father figure. Vigilante. He bears a strong resemblance to Bruce Wayne. How is he different, or how are you writing him differently?
Percy: Green Arrow has a history as a political firebrand. I’m channeling Dennis O’Neil and bringing this progressive quality back to the comic, making our hero a social justice warrior. Oliver is also going to struggle with his privilege. He’s a white, rich, handsome male. That’s not someone anyone can relate to. I’m doing my best to ground him, complicate him, make him feel disgust and guilt over his advantage and disconnect from the rest of the world.
Rumpus: I love the blend of horror and sci-fi commentary you’ve got going on here. It really plays to your strengths and makes for an interesting read. Is this juxtaposition of ‘old and new’ if you will, a reflection of Green Arrow’s character aesthetic, as a modern man who intentionally uses an outmoded implement as icon and first choice in weaponry?
Percy: In future issues, you’ll see other versions of this, when he refuses to fly a private jet, when he keeps his lifestyle more intentionally minimalistic (when he could afford any luxury), when he climbs a rock face without gear for pleasure and exercise. He’s trying to purify, simplify, become more elemental. Separate himself from our noisy, needy, fast-paced world.
Rumpus: Changing gears slightly, let’s talk some about your latest novel, The Dead Lands, a sort of re-telling or future-telling of the Lewis and Clark expedition with a post-apocalyptic flavor to it. Lewis and Clark and their exploits have been greatly mythologized. Did that make them riper fodder for The Dead Lands?
Percy: They’re already mythic characters so I guess it wasn’t that hard to push them into this fantastic realm. I took who they were and turned up the volume. Everyone loves an odd couple, from Abbott and Costello to Sonny and Cher. I made Lewis more of a solitary studious type and Clark more of a rogue, and I split them even further, complicated them even further, by dividing them by gender as well so that Clark is a woman. They play off each other. They’re aligned with one another and at odds with one another and that just adds all the more interest to the dynamic.
As for the mythology of their expedition, my hope is that the post-apocalyptic angle would make their journey feel perilous and relevant once more. Because if you think about Louisiana, if you think about this enormous territory that was coveted by the US, France, Russia, and England, if you think about how when Napoleon sold it to Jefferson for 15 mill, we doubled the size of our country. No one knew—well, white people anyway—what was out there. The expedition was the equivalent of blasting off for the moon. They wondered if there were woolly mammoths still roaming about. There were untold horrors and untold wonders that awaited.
By irradiating the landscape as I do, by making St. Louis believe they’re the last outpost of humanity I have created an infinite America, a new America, and the outcome feels unknown as opposed to when you pick up a historical novel or a non-fiction account of the Corps of Discovery, and we all know how it’s going to turn out. So this is a revisionist history that’s a gateway to a nightmare future that might seem possible.
Rumpus: It’s en vogue to say characters come first when crafting a story. But The Dead Lands is such a road story I have to ask, what came first, the characters or the idea to write this style of narrative?
Percy: I grew up in Oregon in the shadow of Lewis and Clark and my mother is kind of a hobby-historian so she took us to every Lewis and Clark historical landmark, and offered up too many impromptu lectures. We visited Fort Clatsop so often we should have had a punch card. We went to the bicentennial. She gave me their journals when I turned twelve. I’ve always wanted to write about them. Originally I thought I’d take on a nonfiction project where I would re-create the passage and a publisher even bid on that alongside Red Moon, but the logistics and time commitment weren’t going to work out for someone with two young kids. So I thought maybe I’ll do a historical novel but it’s been done and done well, and then I came up with this post-apocalyptic riff.
So the seed of the idea is post-apocalyptic Lewis and Clark. You have the situation and you have the characters intertwined and I think that is most always the case for me. The seed of the idea is, here’s this thing that’s happening, but the reason this thing that’s happening matters is because the people who are traveling through this narrative gauntlet, this emotional arc that gives it that sense of human urgency that makes us give a shit, that makes us feel ourselves transformed by the final page.
That’s how I work more generally. I have a scenario but almost always it’s entwined with at least one person to begin with. One voice. One person’s history and desires and then I sort of expand from there and I’m thinking about books novels two years, always at least a year until I actually commit to the keyboard. I’ve got these scrolls of paper that I hang up in my office in a closet just off of my office and this is my idea room, my nightmare factory, and I have a big title at the top of the scroll and on the left hand side I have these character sketches with these kind of Wikipedia entries on the characters, and then once I figure out who they are I can figure out what they want and once I figure out what they want I’m able to put obstacles in the way of that desire, and that’s where plot springs from. These threads reach across the scrolls and I sort of step back and look at all these threads once I have them and figure out how to splice them together and break up chapters. Have one character’s story inform the other, and so on.
Rumpus: Color is a big part of your description. It is effective and present on every page. Can you talk about that choice to highlight that sense to such a degree?
Percy: Well, I think my leap into TV and movies and comics is in a way natural because I’m a visual storyteller. If you look at any one of my short stories or novels, they sort of unscroll cinematically. Every scene is concrete in my mind. I can walk around the room and pick things up. I can describe at length every feature on the character, though I might only supply a glimpse of this on the page. So if I’m writing color into that I’m also writing texture, I’m pushing the image more than anything else. Trying to create this vivid sensory experience that is a dream-come-to-life. So you’ll rarely encounter any passage in my fiction that is abstract. It’s almost always grounded. I’m trying to supply just enough detail so that it sparks to life and you have this holographic experience.
Rumpus: You verb language. Take nouns and turn them into actions. Is that a method to quicken pace, to put you in the front seat of a story a style choice you’re making for another reason?
Percy: I’m thinking of one example that my agent gave me a hard time about, ‘thumb.’ I was using’ thumb’ as a verb. Somebody’s ‘thumbing off the safety on a weapon,’ or someone’s ‘thumbing on the radio.’ Now, I don’t want to overstate my intentions, but I’m always trying to make language fresh and interesting.
Pre-publication I’m reading and re-reading and re-reading my work, usually aloud, trying to polish it up as best I can. And I’m interested very much in the music of it all, the rhythm of it all, and I’m hopefully getting better and better at that. And that explains why when I stand over the podium and crack open my book for an audience I cringe. I suppose I haven’t plateaued yet. You should, as a writer, always be disgusted with your previous work.
Rumpus: The idea of ‘pandemic’ comes up often in writing and at least twice that I know of in your work. I’m thinking of The Dead Lands of course and your Batman story in Detective Comics, Terminal. This is territory that’s been explored but people keep coming back, there’s an interest there. What is your interest as a writer, what’s the draw to go there?
Percy: Well, it scares the hell out of me. Maybe even more so now than before. In general, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction has never been hotter. If you look around you see on the news that California’s drying up to a crisp. You see a man on trial for detonating a bomb at the finish line of the Boston marathon. You see people at odds with police and rioting in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore. You see ice caps melting. You see Ebola laying waste to people in Sierra Leone. The end of the world has never been more popular because the end of the world has never seemed more probable. And, disease especially, it always seems like it just takes that one mutation to lay waste to everyone.
Maybe it has something to do with my upbringing as well. My parents were for a time back-to-the-landers, my father hunted all the meat we ate, I grew up on venison, elk, and bear, which is why I sound like this. Heavy diet of bear. And you know we grew our own vegetables we had fruit trees, we had a chicken coop, a cow, 27 acres of land and you know in part because of that and in part because of all the books I was obsessed with growing up—from Hatchet by Gary Paulsen to The Stand by Stephen King—falling off the grid and large scale disaster have always been active parts of my fantasy life.
Rumpus: Ursula LeGuin said sci fi writing is not about the future but the present. What from our present are you addressing in The Dead Lands?
Percy: As in the case of many of the stories that I’ve written I’m not trying to editorialize. I don’t want there to be a message at the end of anything I write. Otherwise you wouldn’t trust the characters. They’d feel less organic and more like puppets that are sharing the author’s opinion. But you can look at this book and wonder, is this about environmental devastation? is it about the one percent? the swelling divide of American wealth between the one percent and the rest of the population? is it about American imperialism? And you can also look at the past and look at what could’ve come of our country. The Louisiana Purchase I was talking about before, things could’ve gone differently. Aaron Burr, who appears in the novel, is a great American villain. He wanted to make Louisiana into another republic. He was a strong advocate of slavery and I’m riffing off that in The Dead Lands, showing in this future, what could-have-been.
Rumpus: Your prose is sometimes more ‘out there’ than your comics; is this intentional on your part?
Percy: I have plenty of comic pitches out there right now that I’m hoping will get picked up that are wildly outrageous. Including a sword and sandal fantasy epic, but Green Arrow is very gritty and street level. The Detective Comics story is grounded in the real world and I suppose that’s reflective of something I’m playing around with regularly, which is, how can I make the extraordinary ordinary? How can I take something that’s fantastic and make it seem credible?
Rumpus: Tom Waits said in an interview that he thinks when the Earth’s good and tired of us, it’ll scrape us off its back. Do you think our obsession with The End is because somehow, we know we’ll be the architects of our own demise even if it is a ‘natural’ process in which we are merely a blip on the radar screen?
Percy: I don’t know if we’ll be architects of our own demise or not, but we’re definitely blips on the radar screen. The dinosaurs had their shot, we’ve had ours, the world will keep spinning after we’re gone.
Rumpus: Top five current comics titles?
Percy: Gotta give you seven. The Massive. Southern Bastards. Saga. Midnighter. Bat Girl. FF. American Vampire.
Author photo © Jennifer Percy.