Delving Into White Supremacy For Vertigo’s American Carnage – Conversations With Bryan Edward Hill, Part 1

by Gary Catig

Bryan Edward Hill is a talented writer for different mediums. He’s worked in TV on both Ash vs. Evil Dead and the upcoming Titans on the DC Universe streaming service. In addition, he is a rising star in comics working on several Big Two projects including Wildstorm: Michael Cray, a recent run on Detective Comics, and the just announced Killmonger mini-series. Although we’re almost three quarters through the year, Hill still has big plans for 2018. He spoke with to discuss his upcoming DC titles, American Carnage and Batman and the Outsiders. It was such a stimulating and insightful conversation, it could not be contained in a single post. Part 1 mainly focuses on his new DC Vertigo series
Gary Catig: Among the different projects you have, you’re involved with the relaunch to celebrate twenty-five years of Vertigo. How do you feel being involved with such a prestigious imprint with a rich history for creator owned projects? Do you have a favorite Vertigo comic?
Bryan Edward Hill: I was a big fan of crime Vertigo. I love Sandman, and Death especially, but most of the Vertigo books I read were 100 Bullets, Scalped, Preacher, that kind of thing. It was a little intimidating thinking that I would be a part of this initiative because I’m relatively new to Big Two comics. I’ve been writing comics for a long time, but pretty new to the land of Marvel and DC.
At first, I was a little nervous. I don’t know if I should be on a platform this big so soon. When you get into the work, that just goes away eventually. All you can really do is the best job you can of storytelling, and hope that it is up to the standard of the history of the logo. It certainly compels me to work harder to make the books more impactful and make the scripts have more meaning, because I realize that I am now part of a long legacy of really great storytellers.  You want to make sure you hold up your end of the bargain.
GC: You mentioned some great books. I think Scalped is one of my favorite Vertigo books out there.
BEH: Yeah, it’s great. Jason’s work on that is certainly an inspiration for me. Just his level and depth of understanding of character, and the way he put emotion into that story. All of those things. I was always interested in, for lack of a better word, the “literary” aspects of comics. I just haven’t done much work in that vein until now.
GC: You have a promising new series coming out in November with Vertigo called American Carnage. I was fortunate enough to read the first issue from the giveaways at the Vertigo panel at San Diego. I enjoyed it a lot, but for our readers who may not be familiar with the project, could you describe the premise?
BEH: It’s a pretty simple premise. An FBI agent is found murdered, and the FBI suspects that a white supremacist movement is behind that murder. They want to investigate who could have done that, but they don’t have anyone they can really turn to there at the agency who’s very good at it. They go to an old agent who has been exiled from the FBI because he’s made his own mistakes, but he also happens to be a very good undercover agent, and he’s half black but looks white. This character, Richard Wright, who’s a little emotionally unstable, has to go into these organizations in California to try to find out who’s responsible for the crime. Once he gets there, he realizes that there’s a whole tapestry of power and ambition working there and he has to determine who is at fault and get closer to the center of this thing without being corrupted by it.

GC: Carnage reminds me of a previous Vertigo series, Incognegro, which also has a half black protagonist that went undercover to solve a murder, but your story takes place in modern times. What I found interesting is the backdrop. It takes place in LA, a liberal metropolitan area in a deep blue state. I know you go out to the suburbs and find a large white supremacist gathering. It makes me think of where I grew up, which is also in suburban LA. There have always been whispers of the KKK influence out there. It’s something that resident’s don’t want to talk openly about. It’s surprising where you can find these groups and that they can be literally anywhere.
BEH: Well, that’s one of the things that I wanted to explore, right? We tend to think about these stories in a regional sense. We take racism and say, “Well, that’s a problem of the South. Or that’s a problem of the Midwest. That’s a small-town problem. In big cities, we’re blue. We’re tofu and sushi and all of that. We’re much more elevated and evolved than that stuff.” That’s not the experience that I had with my research.
If you look back to the Rodney King case, that was Simi Valley. There’s a legacy there. I wanted to subvert expectations and stereotypes with American Carnage. We tend to say, “Those southern people are little less than we are. Or the Midwest, they’re a little slow on the uptake.” That’s just mental. That’s a cultural prejudice that people can carry that makes it easy for us to say, “The monster is their problem, not our problem.”
What I witnessed in my research is that California has a lot of these groups that are seeded in various ways. Whether you’re talking about old school, white sheet-influenced organizations or if you’re talking a sympathetic mindset that can live inside law enforcement itself. It’s a very real, national problem and part of the reason why I adopted Trump’s term, “American Carnage” as the name of the series is that I think this is a problem that affects all of us. I think it destabilizes the country, it creates division and that makes everyone’s lives in America worse. It’s something we all share and too often we tend to look at issues that are happening in the country and say, “That doesn’t really affect me. That’s not really my problem.  That’s their problem.” It affects all of us because If we have a society where we distrust, hate, judge and vilify each other, then that destabilizes America itself. That seemed like a good reason to use “American Carnage” as an umbrella title.
GC: I get it. I see a lot of apathy for things that are occurring from people I know, and I think that’s something you’re trying to bring light to. You want to initiate a reaction from these people.
BEH: Yeah. Also, hopefully when you read the first issue, none of the characters felt like cartoons. None of the characters felt like one dimensional monsters. People, no matter how reprehensible their lifestyle might be, or how frightening the point of view might be, they got there from a place. They got there from childhood. They grew, they experienced, they adopted certain things, and it’s really important to me to keep the humanity in all the characters and not tell the reader how to feel about anything. Not tell the reader how to think about anything but to present this world openly and honestly and let readers come to their own conclusions.
GC: Also, part of what inspired American Carnage was your research and first-hand experiences into white supremacist groups. I know you went onto message boards and you even met face to face with people as well. What was your major takeaway after your investigation? Were there any big surprises, or was it what how you’d thought it would be?  
BEH: I guess my biggest surprise was that there are different factions of this stuff. You got everything ranging from backyard cross burning types to more cleaned up, respectable, corporate or political wings of this stuff. And all of these factions aren’t working together. There are groups that have different ambitions, and ambitions create jealousy. There are resentments. Inside that broader culture of resentment, there are little micro-resentments that different groups have with each other.
I thought that would be an interesting thing to explore. When we say “racism”, we tend to treat it like a monolith. Like there’s a fence, and on this side of the fence are the non-racist people and on that side of the fence are the racist people, and they all kind of work together. None of this I found at all. There are class issues there. There’s elitism even within the movement. I wanted to chronicle that stuff. What it taught me was that there will always be a reason why you’re not like other people. Even if you remove all the people that look differently from you, you’ll still find another reason to dislike people. There is no way to get to sociological purity. It just can’t exist. If you remove differences in culture, then you can have differences in class, and those are still going to persist, and they exist in those moments. I found that interesting. It made me think that there’s more here than just a simple solution to it.
Also, I don’t like having a shallow emotional concept of things. I like having more specific experiences. When I can I sit in front of someone that hated me for surface reasons and I can talk to them. You can see a little bit of how they got to where they got. And you’ll find things that you might have in common.  With agents of anger and hatred, you are really looking at fear. Fear is the cause. Anger is a symptom of fear. Hate is a symptom of fear. What I saw was that some of the things that these people were afraid of were fears I can recognize. Not the racial fears, obviously. Fear of not being able to succeed. Fear of not having a place in this society. Fear that power is being taken away from you and given to somebody else. You can see how these fears create holes and gaps in people’s self-esteem. When someone has a vacuum where self esteem should be, that is when they can be influenced. That’s when someone can fill you up with propaganda and tell you your fear is justified. Your anger is justified and now let me give you a reason. Now let me tell you what you can hate so you can get rid of that fear.
That is what I really wanted to engage. I wanted to lift the veil of the one-dimensional conversation we’re having about this stuff and think about it more in a humanist way about what are the flaws that we all have in common. How are these flaws exploited by people to their own ends and there’s exploitation on both sides. You can see it in the FBI, and how they operate and also see it with Morgan, the antagonist of the story, and how he operates. I still believe that we have more in common as people than separates us. If we focus more on what we have in common, I think we can eliminate some of the vitriol and anger.
GC: That’s an interesting perspective and take on how you’re approaching this project and I look forward to reading more of it.
BEH: Well, thanks man. It would be a pretty simple and uneventful, and uninteresting, thing if I said, “Racists are bad and let’s get ‘em.” It’s funny, there was someone on Twitter, and I guess they were pretty far right wing, who said, “Bryan, you’re writing an anti-white book. This is anti-white trash.” If a book about white supremacists reads to you like an anti-white book, you have a very narrow and disturbing definition of “white people”. I certainly don’t think most white people are racist, or that white supremacy is the common ideology of the country. I would call this a crime book. It’s about ambition and situation. It’s about violence. It’s about how people use fear against other people. It’s about universal ideas. It’s just set in this world that, unfortunately, seems very relevant to our culture today.
Part 2 of our conversations with Bryan will be coming out soon so keep an eye out for it. American Carnage is illustrated by Leandro Fernandez and will be out from Vertigo/DC Comics on November 21st.

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