Talking Craft, Blame, And The Future With Ezra Claytan Daniels

by Noah Sharma

Last year I found myself standing in Lion Forge’s enveloping, carpeted booth at New York Comic Con. Though the company was strongly supporting its Catalyst Prime universe of monthly superhero books, I had discovered their graphic novel selection and was eager to pick through their offerings. I found a bunch of covers that caught my eye and, toward the register, I noticed a particular book on display.

“That guy is so smart,” a distinctive voice said from beside me. “This book is amazing.”

I turned around to find David F. Walker looking down at the display with me.

Mr. Walker was there to take a meeting with some of his editors at Lion Forge and had to leave quickly, but I’d been reading his books for a few years at that point and I respected the intelligence he brought to his work. Who got him to feel that way?

That encounter gave me the push to pick up Upgrade Soul and take a look and I’m so glad I did. Though it took me a week or two to power through the book, reading and rereading in segments on trains or while waiting in lines, when the end of the year rolled around I put it in as my pick for the best OGN of 2018.

Ezra Claytan Daniels’ Upgrade Soul is a story about cloning, normalcy, and identity and it’s thoughtful, dense, heartfelt, and personal. It demands your attention and respects your intelligence the more you acknowledge its own. So I was shocked but delighted to see that Daniels was already releasing another graphic novel ahead of this year’s San Diego Comic Con.

All of Daniels’ work so far is a heady blend of sci-fi and horror that always tackles real and often uncomfortable experiences in notably human and nuanced ways so I made it a priority to sit down with Mr. Daniels shortly after the release of BTTM FDRS.

Noah Sharma: The first thing I wanted to kind of ask about was with Upgrade Soul, how did you go about developing the different versions of the Nonnars- of- y’know, did you start from just ‘this is a way that a character could react to this premise’, or was it kind of, seeing this character then trying to split them in different ways?

Ezra Claytan Daniels: I don’t feel like I had much of a strategy in the beginning. I think I wanted- my main goal was to create compelling characters. And I wanted Henry, who is Hank’s clone, to be sympathetic yet selfish in a way that could be perceived as being evil.

Interior art from Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels

But I think it wasn’t until I basically, like, pretty much finished the book that I started to realize that Henry represented the character traits that Hank wished he exhibited earlier in the book. So like earlier in the book Henry is screwed over because he’s not assertive, he can’t speak up for himself, he doesn’t know how to take what he wants or fight for what he wants. That happens to him over and over again in his life experience. And Henry basically takes what he wants, manipulates people to get his way, fights for what he wants, and so he basically just represents all the things that Hank wishes he could have been. And the same for Molly and Manuela.

Molly’s character trait that she is deficient in earlier in the book that I didn’t really get too much into, but she has a hard time expressing her feelings and she has a hard time dealing with trauma. So there’s like a traumatic incident that happened early in their marriage that Henry talks about later in the book that Molly never dealt with and she suffered through that. And Manuela, her clone, is like born to deal with trauma but in such a way that it drives her to suicidal thoughts. But Manuela represents like everything that’s lacking in Molly’s personality.

NS: That’s really interesting.

Interior art from Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels

I was also very curious, how did you reckon with… kind of the specifics of a disability narrative in Upgrade Soul and kind of how you portrayed it differently between Lina and the copies?

ECD: Yeah. That was definitely the hardest part of the book for me because it’s- I mean, writing a science fiction about clones and mutants is easy because those things don’t exist. But writing a story about a woman who has a physical disfigurement, which is something that a lot of people suffer from, was something that was well beyond my experience of life and I felt really self-conscious and I had a lot of conflicting thoughts over whether I should even tackle this story. Um, and certainly tackle it- And I knew that if I chose to tackle this story in that way that I would have to take it very seriously and do a lot of research, do a lot of reading, talk to a lot of people, to try to do justice for this character. And so Lina, the character with a physical disfigurement in the story, became basically the main character of the last act of the book because I really wanted to center her as a character and as a person with agency and dreams and lusts and hopes that were exhibited in all the other characters in the story. But still that remains the thing that I’m most self-conscious about(?) with regards to the story because it’s the same that the thing that’s, like I said, so far-removed from my experience of life.

Interior art from Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels

NS: Henry and Lina immediately kind of take to each other in the book…because kind of Henry sees beauty in things that are outside the norm and that people don’t understand. But their situations are so different in reality. I mean, Lina is, y’know, really had to struggle for her whole life where’s Henry is very new to the world and immediately has immense power, physically and socially…

ECD: Yeah.

NS: Because of the situation he’s in. How did you kind of balance that difference of experience between the characters versus their kind of desire to see each other, to see themselves in each other?

ECD: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I mean, I guess it’s- it’s compli- I think one of the- one of my- one of the crutches I leaned on in trying to tell Lina’s story was trying to find corollaries between the experiences of someone with a disability and facing discrimination based on that disability and someone who’s facing discrimination based on the color of their skin, which is something that I can totally understand and wrap my mind around. And so once I found those corollaries, it made a lot easier for me to kind of extrapolate or imagine what it might be like to face similar discrimination.

But I think, even within the realm of facing discrimination as a person of color, there’s certain degrees to which you face those experiences. And myself, as a person who identifies as black but is very light-skinned and reads white in a lot of circles, I face a lot less discrimination than people that are even a few degrees darker than me. And so, even though I’m in the same boat as someone who faces those discriminations, I have a lot greater privilege. So I think that’s- maybe that’s reflected in Lina and Henry’s relationship. Because Henry has great privileges that Lina’s never experienced, but he’s still lumped in with- in the same boat as someone with a disfigurement.

Interior art from Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels

NS: So how long did it take for you to craft and conceptualize Upgrade Soul, because it is truly- like, one of the things that like really defines it to me is just how dense [it is], how many different issues you could have sectioned off into different works if you had wanted.

ECD: *laughs* Yeah.

NS: How did you- how long did it take until you were confident that it was one narrative that was working together?

ECD: Well, I worked on the book for fifteen years…

NS: *whistles*

ECD: From beginning to end. And I think it was only by virtue of me spending so much time with the book that I was able to go back and layer on these different themes and suss out different ideas. I’m working on an adaptation of the story now that we’ll be announcing soon.

Um, and I’m going back and I’m rewriting some stuff from the book and adding some stuff. And finding more layers to add and more narratives to add. So, like, it’s- I think my whole- the story with Upgrade Soul is that I worked on it for fifteen years and every few years I’d reach a milestone and pitch it around to publishers to see if anybody wanted to pay me to put the book out.

Nobody would even give it a shot. Like it would just get crickets anytime I pitched it anywhere. And then I would go off and do something else and leave the book for a couple of years and then come back to it a couple years later, dust it off, and then go back and rewrite things that my more recent experience of life could elucidate and flesh out a little bit more. And so I think by virtue of me going back every couple years and rewriting things and fleshing things out, it just became something that’s really dense and layered. Not because I’m like a brilliant writer but because I took so much time and kept going back as a- like every time I would, y’know, I would become a better person and a more skilled person and a better writer and a better illustrator and then go back and redo the things that I had messed up before. I think anybody, given that amount of time, could do something that’s that good. No, but something that like has that kind of depth. Sorry.

NS: No, it’s fine.

ECD: But I mean, this is like- I don’t- I don’t mean to sound like petty or anything, but, like, especially being at Comic Con and looking at the writers that are really, really well revered in the comics community—and specifically I want to mention Tom King as a writer who beat me for the Eisner that my book is nominated for last night. But Tom King won several Eisners. He was nominated for several different books. He writes like ten books a month. He’s a very prolific writer. And Jeff Lemire too. These are two guys who do very good work consistently and are doing super prolific work. But I’m like, if Tom King or Jeff Lemire worked on one book for two years instead of ten books every month, imagine the depth that they could bring to their stories.

NS: Yeah. Yeah…

So now I just wanted to [ask you]: what’s your writing process like? How do you like to work. And what helps you?

ECD: Um, I feel like I work constantly. I’m always thinking. I think I probably do most of my work in my head before I even put things to paper. Like I’ll write scenes in my head before I put it to paper. So I’m working, whether I’m on a bus or riding my bike or something. And I basically just kind of take inspiration and… harness it whenever I feel it, and don’t try to force it when I’m not feeling it.

I think that’s a big lesson I learned recently in my creative career is that if I’m not feeling inspired and I try to force it and try to work even when I’m not feeling it, it’s a waste of time because I’m gonna have to redo that work and fix it anyways. So if I’m not feeling inspired I go out and do something that’s going to inspire me and then I do the work.

NS: Turning to BTTM FDRS now. I think, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the elements that kind of stands out about the book is kind of the blame of it. I think we get — probably overly — caught up in blame on issues of privilege and gentrification. Um, but I think something that’s really cool about it is that — as much as there is… there is blame, there’s no- it’s not relieving anyone of blame — there are those gradations you were talking about in the panel.

ECD: Mmm.

NS: Y’know, people who generally come out on the right side. Darla is constantly having to offer excuses, she feels obviously uncomfortable. Julio’s always aggressively kind of asserting his credentials to let you know that he’s on the right side of things. Um, how did you kind of find where people belonged? Like where it felt like someone was getting too much blame or was getting a bad shake based on, y’know, dealing with an issue that is bigger than these characters.

ECD: Yeah. Well the whole story is, I mean, the impetus for telling the story is me grappling with my complicity in gentrification. As a young artist who moved to Chicago in the early 2000s to an underprivileged neighborhood and lived in a place that I was probably displacing families that had lived before, but not even realizing what I was doing because I was too young and ignorant at the time to realize that. And then slowly, over the course of my first few years living in Chicago, realizing the systems that were in place, the cycles that were going on, and then the role that I played as a young artist that was coming to these neighborhoods and making these neighborhoods look sexy to developers and outsiders and yuppies that were looking for investment opportunities. And so the whole story is really just me trying to, like I said, grapple with those feelings and trying to embrace(?)—not embrace but accept—my blame and my role as a gentrifier. But also find out who’s-

Interior art from BTTM FDRS by Ben Passmore

I didn’t really know how to put it, but I- I always- I point to this lecture that I saw by Theaster Gates, who’s a super fantastic and famous and very successful artist in Chicago, whose thing is, um, he’s known recently for buying up blighted properties on the South Side of Chicago and turning them into public art spaces for the community. So he buys these buildings, renovates them, and turns them into these beautiful public art spaces. And I went to a talk with him and someone asked him about the role of the artist in gentrification. And he said something that really stuck with me, maybe because it relieved some of the blame from me, but I thought it was also really brilliant, which is that people like to blame the artist for these cycles because the artists are front and center and the artists have an individual name that can be attached to these things. But it’s not the artist’s name that’s on the bronze plaque on the front of the building when the building gets flipped and turned into million dollar condos. That’s the name of the developer. And so his point is that poor artists simply don’t have the power or the capital to bear the brunt of the blame. These systems are funded and fueled by, y’know, billion dollar investments that come in after artists have moved in. So there’s definitely a role that artists play in like making these places attractive to developers, but I don’t think it’s fair to put all the blame on artists as frontline gentrifiers.

NS: I think another character that really stuck out, while I was reading it at least, was Chuckie. He’s very mysterious for a lot of the book and he- I feel like he doesn’t quite get the same- he has his own narrative that’s going on in the background and never fully intersects. I was kind of curious how you see him, particularly in relation to this creature that’s living inside the walls.

ECD: Yeah, so the- the key secret of BTTM FDRS is that it’s, on the surface, a story about gentrification, but, under the surface, it’s a story about cultural appropriation. And all the characters in the story represent archetypes in hip hop and rap.

And so the main characters, Darla and Cynthia, represent like a Nicki Minaj/Iggy Azalea, archetype. Chuckie represents the OG rapper like Grandmaster Flash, who’s like one of the original originators of the culture but was never given the chance at the throne that someone like Iggy Azalea can just come in and be like, “I’m a rapper now,” and she gets like number one on the Billboard charts.

NS: Right.

ECD: So Chuckie’s a person who just like.. y’know, like the backpack rapper, who’s out there doing open mics and freestyling and like has got the skills and he’s like born and bred in the culture. It’s in his veins. He was just like never given the backing to actually make it to the- to crossover into pop culture. So that’s where Chuckie comes from and that’s what I wanted his narrative to say.

Interior art from BTTM FDRS by Ben Passmore

NS: Upgrade Soul you worked on forever and you worked on by yourself largely.

ECD: Mmmhmm.

NS: How was the collaborative process on BTTM FDRS?

ECD: Oh, it was insanely seamless.

I worked on BTTM FDRS– the script for BTTM FDRS was also a long time in gestation. I worked on that- I wrote the first draft of BTTM FDRS in like 2006. So that was also like [a] very long time in gestation. I wasn’t working on it as actively as I was with Upgrade Soul, ’cause that was like my magnum opus, but it was a script that I sat on for a long time and would go back to and dust off and add stuff to as I became a more comfortable writer.

So, I was working on the last draft of the script for BTTM FDRS the same time that I was finishing Upgrade Soul. And having spent fifteen years drawing Upgrade Soul, I was like, “I’m never drawing a comic book again.” So I started to- in the back of my mind I was looking for artists to maybe collaborate with on BTTM FDRS.

And I happened to meet Ben—Ben Passmore—at CAKE, when I was starting to have these thoughts. And it was before Ben put out Your Black Friend. So he was- I met him at CAKE and he was there with DAYGLOAYHOLE. And, uh, he wasn’t really like a known guy. Like I had never heard of him before, I’d never seen him around before. But I saw DAYGLOAYHOLE and I was just like, “This guy, it’s a tragedy he’s not a household name because he’s amazing and so confident and so like, he’s got his style and it’s like unique and it’s singular and it’s beautiful.” So immediately I was like, “I gotta find something to work on with this guy.”

Interior art from BTTM FDRS by Ben Passmore

BTTM FDRS I always imagined as being more of like a more realistic illustration style because it’s a horror story. And I think it- it was never such a comedy until like the later, later drafts of the script. I think even after I met Ben and started to imagine Ben drawing it did I go back and beef up some of the comedy elements to it.

But I met Ben, I loved his style, and I just started to imagine like maybe Ben’s style would be a good fit for this book even though I always imagined drawing it like a Sean Phillips kind of way. Like a very noirish… like dark style. And so I hit Ben up to see if he wanted to do it and he was down.

And I just basically- I write in screenplay format, like film screenplay format, just ’cause that’s how I learned how to write, not because I’m like trying to sell screenplays. So I basically sent Ben a film screenplay. It wasn’t broken down by pages or panels or anything it was just a film screenplay. I gave him free rein to adapt it as he saw fit. I didn’t really give him directions on like, y’know, how to break scenes down or whatever. I was just like ‘ I trust you. I love your work. I know you’re an amazing cartoonist. Just add your personality to this and make it your own.’ Then he basically just started sending me pages and it was so amazing I just kind of threw my hands up and I was like ‘just run with it, you’re killing it.’ And, a couple years later, he sent me- he finished it. And yeah. So that’s how it *laughs* that’s how it happened.

NS: That’s great! I have to ask, were there things that are in the finished book, which is much more comedic, that- that didn’t have to be changed, things that are horrific that just became comedy as soon as you as you draw them with the permission?

ECD: *laughs* Uh, I think- I mean Ben’s art definitely amped up a lot of the comedic elements. And I think his art kind of gives the whole thing a sense of humor that I think was not in the original script. I think in the original script it’s like a horror story with some funny things that happen. But I think his art gives the whole thing like a dynamic thrust and a portent of humor that’s completely Ben.

Interior art from BTTM FDRS by Ben Passmore

NS: So—we may have actually already touched on it—but one thing I like to ask is, um, if you could go back and give yourself advice when you were starting out—however you want to define that—is there something that you feel would have- would have helped to hear that you know now?

ECD: Man… I mean, I don’t know. It’s- it’s- I mean comics is a tough thing because, like, when people ask me like what advice I could give to up and coming artists, I would never suggest that someone follow the same path that I did. Like I’m forty years old! I just turned forty and my first book just came out. And it’s because I focus on telling a story that nobody wanted to touch until recently did people want to start telling diverse stories. And I happened to be in the right place at the right time where I’ve got these like IPs or whatever that are like already developed, ready to go.

But, yeah, I guess my advice to my younger self would just be to stop stressing and take the work seriously and do your best work and not to wait for permission to tell the story you want to tell.

NS: Both of these books very seriously and very directly deal with serious issues of marginalization and social justice in various ways. How much do you think your work can or should be separated from its allegorical and symbolic weight?

Like is- is it- ’Cause I feel like, with many works, you could, y’know, someone could be like offended if you try to remove that, but, at the same time, some [writers] could be offended if you don’t take it as a story in its own right.

ECD: Yeah.

NS: So how much – what ways do you feel – that they’re connected or inseparable?

ECD: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I feel like the social justice themes of my stuff is inextricable from the work itself. But, at the same time, the reason I tell stories using the tropes and packaging of science fiction and comedy and horror is because I want these stories to become palatable to people who wouldn’t typically pick up a book about gentrification. Like if you read a review about BTTM FDRS that says it’s a rip-roaring horror comedy, like I want my like, y’know, racist neighbor or whatever to pick it up and not like realize what it is and then read it and then like-

Interior art from Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels

But, at the same time, there’s parts in Upgrade Soul and BTTM FDRS where the characters in the story have explicit conversations about these issues and I did that intentionally because I didn’t want anyone to be able to read this completely through and not realize that there’s not another level of what’s going on. Um, so I think if you took those conversations out of the book, which are very like they’re- those conversations feel distinct when you’re reading the book, right?

Like you’re reading BTTM FDRS and like this funny thing is happening and then these two characters have like a mad real conversation!

NS: Yeah.

ECD: In the middle of everything. And if you took that conversation out it would just be like a fun horror comedy, right?

NS: And I think you can even feel it in the work- the one I think of immediately is, uh, Julio and Darla at the bar.

ECD: Yeah.

NS: And they’re- they’re literally just surrounded by people all having fun. And the rest of the room kind of disappears and they just have a very serious conversation about like their judgements for each other. And then literally the bar like reappears-

ECD: *laughs*

NS: -to cheer them on when they’re like ready to- ready to just kind of be cool with each other.

ECD: Yeah, totally.

NS: And then the last things is, largely just because we came out of this [very dark] panel, uh, in your experience of writing your stories, um, how does writing horror as a genre still connect to hope for you?

ECD: Oh, man. To hope?

NS: Does it?

ECD: *laughs*’

NS: Maybe that’s a better- does it connect to hope?

ECD: Yeah. I don’t know that it connects to hope. I think for me horror is more of a catharsis and telling these stories, especially with these- with my underlying political agenda, becomes a catharsis for me to see characters and archetypes and players suffer in a way that they’d never suffer in real life.

NS: Yeah.

ECD: And I think like writing a scene where the landlord of Darla’s building is brutally eviscerated and dismembered by a monster was cathartic for me to write and to see the art come back from Ben. And I think that’s ultimately the reason I write those stories.

NS: No, I definitely- I literally was flipping through Upgrade Soul in the room. And it- it occurs to me that, y’know, you kind of in both stories do have this figure of barely- barely in control authority who kind of escapes unscathed for most of the story-

ECD: Yeah.

NS: And then finally has- has this-

ECD: *laughs*

NS: This moment where he catches up to them at the end and then I don’t- I’m not going to pretend that I know you well, but you don’t seem like an angry guy.

ECD: *laughs*

NS: In your- in your bearing, in your demeanor. But-

ECD: Yeah. But that’s why! Because I have this outlet! And these stories. And like I can like physically hurt these people in my story-

NS: *laughs*

ECD: In a way that I would never dream of hurting them in real life.

NS: Right. It’s really cool. Well thank you so much for talking to me, man.


ECD: Yeah, no problem.

Upgrade Soul and BTTM FDRS are available in from Lion Forge Comics and Fantagraphics Book, respectively. The new Upgrade Soul App and soundtrack will also both be available on October 25th.

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