Could Obsession Breed Compassion? Christopher Cantwell Discusses She Could Fly
by Hannah Means Shannon
She Could Fly is a comic series being published as part of the Berger Books line-up at Dark Horse that initially might have some familiar elements for comics fans. One of the original ideas behind Superman was that the comic made readers believe that a man could fly, and that’s still used as parlance for a comic that really does an excellent job creating a sense of wonder in readers. In this new series, written by Halt and Catch Fire’s co-creator Christopher Cantwell, illustrated by Martin Morazzo, with colors by Miroslav Mrva, and letters by Clem Robbins, there is indeed a flying human being, but it’s the starting point of a much bigger narrative, and the organizational principle around which a story about human experience turns.
We meet central character Luna Brewster in the first issue of the comic, and her observations about the mysterious flying woman have already become obsessional for very personal reasons that are gradually revealed. The concept of flying, of elevation, and rising above human life offers for Luna a sense of empowerment, freedom and escape that helps her combat her undiagnosed obsessional thoughts, thoughts which terrifying her and make her feel detached from the world around her. But as we move into issue #2 of the comic, arriving in shops next week, the cast of characters in the story widens further and we begin to understand that Cantwell and Morazzo are crafting a loose, but carefully strung web of interconnected lives and events that, like everything in the comic, carries the tension of real-world repercussions for the choices people make.
I would hesitate to call She Could Fly a thriller, but when a woman blows up in the first issue, you might expect the shrapnel, at least emotionally, to keep flying. What begins as a compelling story in the first issue drops you into a highly charged atmosphere with the second issue, so it’s the perfect time to jump on board for this series.
Writer Christopher Cantwell sat down with us at San Diego Comic-Con 2018 to talk with us about She Could Fly, exploring the nuances behind the story’s conception, the characterization of Luna, and some of the driving forces behind the story.
HMS: When I picked up the first issue of the comic, I didn’t know much about it, except that I’ve been very interested in the Berger Books line. The title and premise made me think about the way that people have reacted to signs and wonders throughout history, like the medieval people referring to comets as “bearded stars”. In this story, too, people are seeing something wonderful and they don’t know what it means. Did you intend that kind of feeling?
Chris Cantwell: I think so. If you’re going to set a story like this in modern day, I was wondering, “What would it take to really blow peoples’ minds now?” And the answer is: “Probably more than you’d think.” There’s so much crazy stuff happening, and it’s happening so fast that people don’t even have time to process it.
I read an article a couple of days ago that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been walking around San Diego Comic-Con. At Comic-Con, we’re seeing robot storm troopers that respond to your voice. But as this article says, India’s going to be uninhabitable in 100 years because of the heat, and people can’t go to sleep there until 4AM. People hear that and think, “Crazy!” and then they go to Starbucks. I don’t mean to sound cynical about it, but what would it take for you to stop looking at a phone and actually look upwards? And what would it take for you to look upwards for even longer? If there was a person flying in the sky, I think that would legitimately get peoples’ attention. But even in our story, it kind of has peoples’ attention, and yet you still get the sense there’s a lot of other stuff going on. Then the flying woman blows up. And people kind of just move on. Except for our main character, who has latched on, and can’t let go.
HMS: That is fascinating, too, because she is a perspective character. Should the reader feel like she does?
CC: I think so. That’s the character that I’m writing through. I identify with all of them, and they all have qualities that I’ve poured some of my hang-ups into. It’s funny that people keep saying that it’s a variation on a superhero story, referencing a flying woman, because I have friends who have Pure O OCD [Purely Obsessional Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] as well, and we talk about it sometimes as if it is like a superpower. As if she, Luna, is a superhero. She can go into infinite detail about a table, for instance. I was just at a model railway museum with my son, and he was blowing through the whole thing, but I needed to sit there. I couldn’t leave until the steam train made its way around this beautifully intricate truss. I needed to see that.
You can make anything into a rabbit hole, and that is incredibly powerful, but also incredibly unwieldy, just like a lot of super powers. It’s whether you’re a slave to it, rather than the other way around. And I think that’s where Luna is, in her life. She has a lot of push and pull, psychologically, between, “I love this. I love everything about this woman. I can’t stop thinking about it.”, and “It’s totally fucking up my life. I’m skipping school. I’m putting people in danger. I’m putting myself in danger. And yet I just can’t stop.” That’s the crossroads where she finds herself.
HMS: That’s really fascinating. Looking some of the things that Karen Berger has edited before, I would say that she’s always presented challenging material, and this book is challenging, too, because of the way it includes and addresses mental health issues. This is a better time to be talking about mental health in comics than even a few years ago, but still it’s not exactly common. It’s still rare for lead characters to be differently abled, or have some issues that they are struggling with. Did you feel that it would be unusual to present a character like Luna as a lead?
CC: I felt like comics would be a wild place to do that because the art would really allow you to showcase it in a way that was unflinching. I think you’d have trouble recreating some of this stuff even in film or TV, which is where I usually work. And I think as years go by, people are able talk about more things. One of my favorite shows is Pose, and I think about whether that could have ever been on the air 15 years ago. There’s just no way. Two of the characters have HIV, but it’s not the focus of the show. It’s just there. I think stuff like that is fantastic.
I do think that mental health still gets a little bit of a gimmick slapped to it a lot of the time, like “He’s a detective, but…” We all remember Monk. Then you have a show like Legion, which is probably closer, but the main character is not made to integrate with the rest of society. He just can’t. That’s not the fault of that show, it’s just a different place to take the mental health discussion.
The more insidious or pervasive feeling is, “We all have our own private shit. We wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, and you have to pack all that stuff away into its different compartments, and then you have to go out.” Whether it’s to come to Comic-Con in a costume or do an interview, we’re all here doing these things, and we all have our own shit. Even if a person has zero mental illness, which I just don’t believe, since everyone’s got a hint of something. Since there’s no binary, it’s just a hint of gradation…
CC: So, there’s just stuff we don’t share with each other. And I don’t think the opposite is the answer, saying, “We must have no privacy”. It’s just that there are more sides to people. And when we realize that, then you get compassion. Then you get understanding.
HMS: Yes, for sure. Do you think there’s a virtue in presenting a character, and fully unrolling that character, even if they are kind of falling apart in front of the viewer, in a way that normally wouldn’t be given those beats? You used the word “unflinching”. These are internal events that would usually be summed up, glossed over, or hinted at instead of being shown and spelled out, for instance. Even in the first issue, I feel like we are with Luna, and we are seeing these stepping stones for her. Like you said, it’s not a gimmick.
CC: At this point, I’d love to keep telling this story, and we’re going to do a couple more issues next year, too, which is great. I don’t know what Luna’s ultimate end is, just like we don’t know about ourselves. But I think therapeutically, for myself at least, and maybe this is selfish in regard to the viewers, I love to take fictional characters and then slowly destroy them. [Laughs] You know what I mean?
HMS: I might have suspected that! Hmmm.
CC: I don’t think it’s malicious. I just think it’s a process for myself. The character I most closely identified with in Halt and Catch Fire died. That was a decision as a group. But my wife certainly is bothered by it, saying, “The character who was an avatar for you, you killed.” Yes, I did. I think it’s just a way to work all this shit out. It feels like the X-Men Danger Room, as I said to someone else today. It’s just like, “Let’s go in here, and go nuts for a little bit. Then we’ll step out. And we’ll be cool for a second.”
HMS: It seems like there’s plenty of literary precedent for that, with writers killing off their perspective characters. And Carl Jung would have plenty to say about that, struggling with the Shadow.
CC: Right. A better way to look at it is, with Luna or anyone else I write is: I like to really put them through the ringer. And then I try to show that they are going to be okay, even if they’ve died. Or even if it looks like, from the outside, that they’ve lost everything. But they are going to be okay. Because I need to believe that, as a person, too. With what I have [Pure O OCD], the Doomsday scenario is that I lose everything. I just wrote something for an issue in the next series of She Could Fly where a doctor is asking Luna, “How does the narrative end?” And she says, “I die alone.” And he asks, “Well, what’s scarier than dying alone?” She says, “Having everyone hate me after I’m dead.”
HMS: Woah. That’s quite a jumping off point.
CC: You can go farther with all this shit. I need to tell stories where that ending isn’t the truth, because so often it’s not. So often, unless you really, really do some terrible stuff, you wake up the next day, and you move on. You will live the next day. You will transit in and out of whatever this situation is, and that’s that. These are the stories that I just have to tell, for myself and my own sanity.
HMS: By Luna reaching a place where she’s going to be okay, you kind of mean, “The place that she’s at”, right? Not necessarily physically, or situationally, but mentally. She reaches a certain internal state?
CC: Exactly, yes. An “equanimity” or “peace of mind”. That’s the language I would use. Even if the mind is tremendously fractured, an equanimity is reached.
HMS: I think the descriptions for the series kind of hint at that. They mention that there’s a possibility for Luna that through following this extreme obsession to its conclusion, it might be her ‘level up’ for herself. She might reach a point where she’s reconstructed herself a bit, or something like that.
CC: Yes. She probably has to walk into the fire to make herself simultaneously better, even if that also means a little worse. Maybe those two things can co-exist.
HMS: Would you like to talk a little bit about Martin Morazzo’s artwork on the series? Because Luna’s expressions are so great.
CC: He’s so great. We work on that the most together to make sure she has the right facial expressions. But he is so great at dialing that in. And he picks the greatest angles for the action, since you’re really going off these single tableaus. He digs deep on the research, since he’s living in Argentina. I’m writing stuff that’s taking place on real street corners in Chicago, and he will go on Google Maps and he find out how all that stuff looks, and where the buildings are, and he will educate himself. He knows what an Italian beef shop is. He knows the Orange line on Wabash and what the L platform looks like. His attention to detail is obsessive, so I clearly appreciate that. He’s just really great.
HMS: I think with the subject matter you’re working with, the connection to Luna is so important for the reader, and so I can’t imagine it being drawn by someone else, once I saw the art.
CC: Yes. I feel like it’s his own. And that indelible print is what you really look for from an artist on a comic.
HMS: Well, I look forward to seeing the rest, and I even look forward to seeing it as a collection, since I think that will be beautiful, too.
CC: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Huge thanks to Christopher Cantwell for taking the time to talk to us at San Diego Comic-Con and sharing his insights!
She Could Fly #1 is currently available from Dark Horse Comics. She Could Fly #2 arrives next Wednesday, August 8th, 2018, in comic shops!