by Matt O’Keefe
Josh Fialkov has been on a creator-owned binge lately, delivering stories about brand new characters from an array of publishers. I previously talked to him about The Devilers, a series following team of exorcists from a number of different religions. His most recent work is The Life After, a series written by him and drawn by Gabo about a man named Jude who lands in an afterlife for people who committed suicide. I talked to Fialkov about the book, which just recently completed its first arc. We discussed everything from the craft of comics to religion to so much more.
You’re doing some really interesting stuff, exploring religion with both The Life After and The Devilers.
Yeah, it’s a little weird. It wasn’t on purpose, it just sort of happened. Gabe and I put the pitch together for Life After a few years before it launched and it sort of took forever to get everything settled. Then I got a call from Dynamite about The Devilers and I was like, “Godamnit, now I’ve got two books coming out simultaneously that are almost about the same thing!” [laughs] Luckily, I think the takes are different enough; there’s enough range. But definitely when you’re trying to come up with what God looks like it’s like okay, I can’t do this because I already did that over here… So it’s sort of reactive. [When writing The Life After] I’m reacting a lot to other stuff that I’m working on and other stuff I see in the world.
So which came first, The Life After or Devilers?
The Life After came first. Devilers was a concept Dynamite created internally and then brought me on to do whatever I wanted with, so it was sort of a different thing. I had the idea for The Life After five or six years ago and have wanted to do that book for awhile. And then when I met Gabe I had someone to do the book with and someone to make the book so much more. I think he’s drawing Issue 8 or 9 right now. Every page is better than the last. He was a colorist for a long time and I think when someone switches to doing all the art duties, it’s really hard to stay on schedule and balance that out, especially on independent comics. But Gabe is just a beast. He plows through pages and his imagination is unreal.
How does it change the dynamic with an artist who does all the pencilling, inking and coloring?
It’s sort of nice because you can trust every step of the comic making process. In a collaboration you do as much work as you can so that the next person in the process knows what they need to do. Gabe can take shortcuts and sort of “fix things in post.” Since he’s drawing and coloring [The Life After] he can add depth and backgrounds and use a pencil through the coloring process. It gives him a lot of flexibility and it’s nice that I never have to worry about someone miscoloring or making mistakes because he is the whole package.
How involved is Oni Press in the process?
Oni’s great. I think it’s sort of a myth that creator-owned comics are a reaction to editorial control. The fact is that a good editor, no matter where they are, doesn’t control you; they help guide you. I like working there because when i turn a script in they read it and we talk about it. They tell me when things don’t make sense and when things are off-track. As a writer, you don’t really care about continuity. You care about emotions and you care about the characters’ through lines and that stuff. Having somebody who can backstop you is invaluable. The Bunker [a series also written by Fialkov and published by Oni Press] and Life After are both super dense because there’s a lot going on. I couldn’t do them right without Oni’s help.
Ernest Hemingway is a main cast member of The Life After. Are you a big reader of his work?
I loved him when I was in high school and college. I actually like his writing more than I like his books, if that makes sense. There’s a book that was put together from pieces of forwards and introductions and afterwards and letters he wrote about how you should write which is phenomenal. There’s also the edition of, I think, A Farewell to Arms where they include all of the different drafts. He wrote like 8 different endings. You get to see [Hemingway]’s draft and get to see notes to his editor explaining his process and reasons something does or doesn’t work.
I especially love [Hemingway] as a person now. That’s where you get to see the person behind the bluster
Why did you choose him to go with Jude on his journey?
It was more practical than anything. We needed someone who would be in the afterlife for suicides who would be “awake.” Someone conscious the same way Jude was. Somebody who would have so much willpower yet still commit suicide. That’s one of the weird dichotomies of Hemingway. Hemingway wasn’t like [most creative people who commit suicide]. He was like, “Oh shit, I’m so sick and don’t want to get worse” so he killed himself. He knew everything was going to go downhill, that he was going to get sicker and sicker… I don’t know if there’s another historical figure who committed suicide in such an active way. I’m not saying it’s okay, not saying that it’s right, but [Hemingway] did it and I don’t know if you could have talked him out of it. I don’t know if there was any doubt [in Hemingway’s mind] or if it was necessarily the wrong thing.
And I identify with that a lot. My book Tumor from a few years ago is about a private eye with a brain tumor who decides he’s going to go out in style by solving a case and being a hero. I thought I had a brain tumor at one point [and it’s scary because] my brain defines who I am. I mean, it’s literally my job [to think]. The typing part is the byproduct; the real job [of a writer] is thinking.
I read your post about Robin Williams. It was one of the things that prompted me to read the The Life After, actually. What was the response to that like?
It was crazy. It was really, really positive. I think that everybody deals with stuff like depression and I think that at the same time nobody wants to talk about it. Particularly when I wasn’t under particularly good medication control, I would have migraines and think, “If i could just get out of bed I could go kill myself.” And that was just factual; if I could just stand up and get to the kitchen I could take care of this. And I’m not necessarily a depressed person. I love my life and I love my family, but when you’re in pain, whether it’s psychological or physiological, there’s no end in sight.
Did you compare yourself to Ernest Hemingway while writing The Life After?
Well, I am also a very jolly bearded man. [laughs] [But no.] I don’t think that it was random. It shaped the character, realizing that I identify with a lot of those fears. It turned out that Robin Williams [was in a similar situation]. He found out he had Parkinson’s, I think, and he was going to keep getting worse so he made a decision. I think part of the motivation of the book, especially in the first volume, is the idea that we have a black-and-white understanding that what’s in [sacred texts], even though their meaning changes as our culture has evolved. […] When you look at religious texts, none of it is black-and-white. All of it is very clearly about gradation and not judging people. The idea of “let’s not throw stones” is prevalent there and yet the first thing you see with preachers or ultra ultra conservative Christians is them throwing stones.
You clearly have a firm grasp on a number of religions. Is that something you studied for The Life After and The Devilers, or was it knowledge you had beforehand?
I’ve always found people’s relationships with faith to be really interesting. That’s part of it, but then in college I took classes about religion and was fascinated by the texts. As a writer these are all books that have lasted for thousands of years, and there’s something to the story, to the structure, to what they’re about, that resonates with people. There are very few things as old as these books. I suppose the Greek and Roman myths survived but even those don’t resonate as much. I don’t think your average person knows who Oedipus is or knows why the Oedipus complex [has the name it does]. But if you say someone has a messiah complex everyone knows exactly what that is. When you look at those books and what they were, at the end of the day they’re guides to live. They’re collections of stories shaped specifically to teach you morality. I’m fascinated by that, and also how so many mirror each other. There’s always a flood story, which makes you ask why. What makes these people who have nothing to do with each other spread a very similar story?
In the blog post it sounded like The Life After was a finite story. Do you know how long it will go?
Hopefully for awhile. It depends because it’s a really tough sell in the market. Even just looking at our conversation, look at the range we’ve done on topics! There’s so much going on in it… I could write that book forever. There’s enough to that world that I could just keep telling stories. It just really comes down to people caring about the book and supporting it.
When all is said and done what do you want people to take away from The Life After?
I’d like people to think about whether people are good or not [laughs]. Because that’s really what it is. At the core of the whole book is very much a question of if the things you do make the world a better place. Are you filling the bucket of goodwill, or stealing from it?
The first trade paperback collection and the sixth issue of The Life After are in stores now.