Superheroes and supervillains are secular gods in a modern myth. They are archetypes. Superheroes represent the best of humanity and its potential; supervillains represent the worst. Superheroes are aspirational; supervillains are a warning. And there are characters who exist all along that continuum. Power corrupts. What happens when these superhero/modern gods succumb to human foibles and weaknesses, realizing that might truly does make right and because they can do a thing that they should — and without any rules or limits except those which they impose on themselves?
Based on Darick Robertson’s and Garth Ennis’s comic book series of the same name, the new critically acclaimed Amazon Prime TV series “The Boys” offers an answer. These out of control superheroes must be policed, controlled, humbled and ultimately brought to heel. In “The Boys” this task is taken on by a group of vigilantes who are tired of super-powered humans abusing their power, fame and all the other material rewards which come from it.
I recently spoke with Robertson about the creation of “The Boys” TV show and the original comic book series, the obligation and responsibility of artists in the age of Trump to tell the truth, and his choice to be public and vocal about his own liberal and progressive political values in a moment when many other comic book writers and other creators have chosen to be silent.
Robertson also reflects on collaborating with comic book icon Garth Ennis on their celebrated and lauded run on the Marvel Comics series “The Punisher.” We also discuss his beloved cult-classic comic book series “Transmetropolitan,” his new Image Comics series “Oliver,” as well as the challenge of writing an unbelievable real-life character such as Donald Trump.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Unlike many comic book writers and graphic novelists you are very vocal and outspoken about your politics. How did you make that decision?
A sense of obligation. I’m known for a character in my graphic novel “Transmetropolitan” who is a journalist. Working on that book with Warren Ellis really woke me up to many issues. He knew more about what was going on in American politics than I did — and he was from London — and that made me feel ashamed. This was during the 1990s under Clinton and it was easier then to not pay much attention to politics. But in hindsight I think that was an illusion. It was willful ignorance.
I was very vocal during the Bush years. Obviously, I lean left so I did not have as many problems with Obama. But with Obama I also did not see as many obvious machinations and untruths being circulated as what took place when Cheney and Bush were ginning up war in Iraq. With Trump it feels like we are living in a post-truth society. Am I afraid to speak out? No. I feel like it is my obligation as an American to do so. I think everybody should speak out. That is what freedom of speech is for. Am I going to alienate my audience? Well I think my audience likes “Transmetropolitan” so I doubt it.
Do you believe that artists have an obligation in troubled times to tell the truth?
That goes back to citizenship. It is important to be informed. I work alone most of the day so I enjoy having the opportunity to engage people in conversations about politics on Twitter. I try not to attack people because they disagree with me. I try to keep it focused on the facts: Did this happen or didn’t it? If you cannot agree on basic facts then we’re lost as a society. As historian Timothy Snyder has been pointing out in his books about authoritarianism the moment we cannot agree on what truth is then all resistance is futile.
At what point are the American people complicit? Because Trump is who Trump is. There is nothing subtle about him.
Trump is basically flaunting it all the way. It’s amazing to me. I grew up in a home with Reagan Republicans, a Christian evangelical, right-leaning military, law enforcement family. Those are my roots. In the beginning this moment with Trump looked very familiar to me. It was as if my family dysfunction became national dysfunction. But I don’t believe my father would have liked Trump. He didn’t like Nixon. At the same time, people who claim to be evangelicals are also saying that they don’t believe in healthcare or being helpful to the people seeking help at the U.S.-Mexico border. That is contradictory to me. I read the Bible as a kid. I was baptized at 13. I know what is taught in the Bible and what we are seeing now with how right-wing Christians are behaving is not it.
Do you think that if you sat down and wrote a fictional story about Trump’s America that anyone would even believe it?
I’ve said this a number of times. If this moment with Donald Trump was fiction you would get laughed out of the room for writing it. The idea that America took a man who pretended to be a success on television, and then put him right in the White House is laughable on its face. But when you see beyond that scenario it is laughable until you start to cry. I guess that’s when they win.
Your work is center left and very pragmatic. How did you break from your family’s political views?
I’m not anti-conservative. A lot of those beliefs are ingrained in me. But I have to balance that out with mercy, and in some cases, common sense. We do live in a world where it is not shaped just around your own limited needs and ideals. We all have to share, because whether or not you’d like to live in a world where there are no immigrants, immigrants are still there. Whether or not you’d like to live in a world without Democrats, Democrats are still there. So the idea that you’re just going to have it all your way and that might makes right leads to some very ugly outcomes.
What hope is there for us as a society that is supposed to be the “number one country in the world” as so many people like to proclaim, but then you look at the facts, the statistics on issues such as health care and other topics, and America is not doing very well at all?
Today’s Republican Party and conservative movement are not “conservative.” They are destructive, revanchist, and backwards looking radicals in the worst sense. Donald Trump wants to be a tyrant. He has never lied about that fact. America in the age of Trump is in an existential moral and political crisis.
Donald Trump was completely honest when he said, “I’m greedy, greedy, greedy.” It all works out for him — and is really the ultimate goal of his machinations. If it’s working out for Trump and he is getting away with what he wants to do, then everything’s fine in his world. For Donald Trump it really does not matter what is good for America. None of that seems to enter into Trump’s plans.
If you were going to import Donald Trump into either “Transmetropolitan” or a new comic book series or graphic novel, what would you do with him?
As far as entertainment goes, Donald Trump is definitely the best show in town. I don’t know that anybody would believe it. Even during the campaign and up to the election the reporters and journalists and pundits were in denial and laughing about Trump’s chances. And yet here we are living in the reality of President Trump.
So as not to demonize people, I would say this, I think that there’s a point where everybody who believed what Trump was selling wanted something good for the country. But anybody that really dug a little deeper who wasn’t willing to put on a Trump t-shirt or a red “MAGA” hat would see that Trump has been a con man most of his life and it’s all unraveling around him as we speak. It’s bubbling to the surface so fast. There are some people who are just hateful and Trump speaks their hate for them. I don’t want anything to do with those people.
It is like George Orwell’s “1984” where Trump’s people do not believe in the truth or reality as it actually exists. This is as Orwellian as it gets. People are complacent and we as a country keep rolling along where every norm gets shattered and then by the next news cycle it is all somehow OK. That is the part where it makes it hard to imagine how a writer could take what is happening with Donald Trump and make it into fiction.
How do you manage being creative for a living?
It’s changed over the years. I’ve done this for a long time. I started drawing comics right out of high school when I was 17, and I’ve been doing nothing but for most of my life, and I find that creativity ebbs and flows. Tom Petty used to sing, “Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks.” I love cinema so I try to draw the movie that I imagine in my head or the comic book I would like to read.
So it helps to be a fan of what I do. I still love comics. I still think they’re very underrated and are an art form that’s just starting to find its footing. There’s a lot to be said for the genre as a medium. A lot of people confuse the superhero genre with being indicative of all comic books. They don’t realize that Senator John Lewis did a comic book about his days in the Civil Rights [movement] and won awards for that, and how Art Spiegelman was able to take the story of his father’s Holocaust survival and turn it into an incredible graphic novel that won the Pulitzer Prize. And sometimes that nuance can get lost on people who don’t understand that words and pictures can work together. As Neil Gaiman said, if you take great writing, it becomes prizewinning literature that you preserve in museums. You take great art, you put it in museums and people line up to see it at the Louvre, but if you put the two together, it’s only for children. So it is dismissed.
How did you fall in love with comic books?
My dad was an airline mechanic and my mom was a homemaker. I didn’t have any kind of clear path into being an artist. I just liked it. I drew since I was little. I got positive attention for my art as a child. At a young age I was able to draw Snoopy and Tweety Bird pretty well, so my cousins or whoever would be like, “Hey, draw me a Tweety Bird,” and my mom would have me sign my name to the pictures.
I was around 10 when I think I discovered comics and it was a “Hey Kids!” comics spinner rack at my local pharmacy. Up until then I remember comics coming into my life in a way that people would just give them to you. My dad’s barber, for example, would have a stack of comic books and as soon as they started taking up too much room he would pull them off the shelf and just hand me the stack. I would go home and read them. Or I’d inherit my sister’s hand me downs which would be like “Richie Rich” or “Archie.” And she liked romance comics too, which is interesting because I was too young to care about the romance, but I did love the storytelling. I didn’t know at the time that many of the superhero artists were working on those romance comics.
I really just loved how I could follow the pictures and it would create a sense of motion in my mind. I knew that I was doing the work mentally and that those panel gutters were breaking time. Then I discovered George Perez’s work early on with “Teen Titans” and he would do incredible things with the page layouts. And then Frank Miller was doing “Daredevil” at the time and also the “Wolverine” series. “Dark Knight Returns” comes out right when I’m 14 or 15. Then I am ready for the mature comics. And then of course “Watchmen” came on the scene.
The Punisher is my favorite comic book character. Your work on “The Punisher” and especially the “Punisher: Born” limited series as well was very special. How did you approach the character?
With “The Punisher” I worked with the best Punisher writer ever, Garth Ennis. What I liked about what Garth brought to “The Punisher” was that his Punisher said very little and did a lot, and I think that that’s where the character is the most interesting. The Punisher is a calculating smart guy who goes after his objective without a whole lot of dramatic nonsense in the middle. I approach “The Punisher” the same way that I approach every comic book. I did a little acting when I was 18 and really loved it. But I never saw any future for myself in it. As I said earlier I also love cinema and bring those sensibilities to my comics and graphic novels.
I tried to put my acting into the character. Rather than the Punisher being in the room, I tried to get into the Punisher’s head. I try to imagine what he would be thinking or what his facial expressions would be like. I am trying to perform through my pencil.
I did a tremendous amount of research for “Born” to get the backgrounds and the details about the Vietnam war as accurate as I could. I had one of Marvel’s assistant editors at the time — his father was a Vietnam vet and actually served on a fire base like the one I drew in “Born” — loan me his father’s personal photo albums. So some of the the little details that were in the background are taken from candid personal photos and not documentaries or other traditional reference materials. I wanted to bring that authenticity to the story. It weighed very heavily on me. “Born” was not just entertainment. It was about the Vietnam War. People fought and died and lived in that war. And if we were going to do a Punisher story that dark I wanted it to feel authentic. This was important for me, we had to show the proper respect.
Beyond that, “Born” was also a story about somebody going crazy. The best idea that Garth posited in that story was, “Is the Punisher a regular guy who went crazy when his family was killed or was he a crazy guy that was looking for a reason to become a vigilante?”
Your comic book series “The Boys” is now a TV series on Amazon Prime. How do you feel?
“The Boys” has been a really interesting journey. I’m so very excited about the show. The creators have been so great with including me. I have gotten to be on the set and meet the cast. I have seen the scripts. They let me see a rough cut of the pilot early on. Eric Kripke, who is the writer and producer of “The Boys,” has been extremely dedicated to making sure that we’re happy. He talked to Garth. He talked to me. He asked what was important to me, what I wanted to see in the show and it is in there. They’re doing their own thing with the TV show so I have to let go at a certain point. “The Boys” TV series follows a different timeline, but where it counts in terms of adapting the comic book, it is all completely there. The creators of “The Boys” TV series completely understand the property.
When I went to the set, for example, I walked in and the front doors of the offices where they run the whole production were covered in my artwork. I’m walking down the hallways and everybody has got a picture next to their name — and it’s a picture from the comic. I meet the cast and they are wearing costumes based on my designs. They hired me to do some artwork for the show. I feel very respected and appreciated as a somebody who created the comic book. Even the viewers who do not know the original comic book are going to love the TV series. It’s been very exciting. As a kid, this is what I dreamed of. I had always hoped I’d create something that would grow into something bigger than me and it’s happening with “The Boys” for sure.
Do you feel successful?
I think the moment that I really felt it, and it was very emotional moment for me, was they had a chair on the set of “The Boys” for me with my name on it. Seeing my name on a director’s chair on an actual sound stage that was built around my comic was a huge experience: wow, OK, I’ve done something right. But most days I do not feel successful. I’m afraid to let myself ever feel too successful, out of fear of letting it corrupt me. I think creatively, once you feel like you’ve crossed the finish line, you either get lazy or you stop, and I don’t intend to do either anytime soon. I’ve worked with some amazing writers, publishers, colorists, inkers and editors, all these different people made my life and my creativity possible. So it is hard for me to take a victory lap all by myself.
I don’t want it to sound like false modesty. I recognize that I’ve been successful. But all the things that were successful are the things that were supposed to fail, and all the things that I thought were going to be huge are the things that didn’t work out so well. It’s been a weird game that fate has played with me.
What is some of the connective tissue between “Transmetropolitan” and your new comic book series “Oliver”?
I don’t see “Transmetropolitan” as a dystopia. I actually just see it as tomorrow. The reason is that if you took somebody out of 1855, and you dropped them into 2019, they would freak out. But at the same time, you and I move around through 2019 with our day-to-day concerns, but it doesn’t seem that weird to us because we live in it. It’s our time right now. So I see the same thing with Spider Jerusalem’s world in “Transmetropolitan.” We don’t know what year that is supposed to be. We left it intentionally vague. But Spider leaves his house and goes to a restaurant. He eats on a regular basis. He can get smokes when he wants them. His life is relatively normal. The big thing that we didn’t predict is that people would still read newspapers and that I didn’t see the iPhone coming, but a lot of the rest of his world has much stranger technology. God knows the politics of today have certainly caught up with “Transmetropolitan.”
“Transmetropolitan” is the opposite of what’s happened in “Oliver.” In “Oliver” everything has collapsed. There is an authoritarian government holding on in a post-war world and there is an irradiated environments. Again “Oliver” is post-apocalyptic whereas “Transmetropolitan” is just tomorrow.
What emotions do you want the readers of “Oliver” to experience?
I think it’s a hopeful story. Oliver is born into a world where everybody has been beaten down and they spend their time looking down and he makes them look up. When meet him, he’s a little boy, he’s jumping on the rooftops and he’s kind of a Spider-Man-like character. Oliver is optimistic. He’s too full of hope and goodness to actually succumb to the cynicism of his world. We need more of that. One of the best things that’s coming out of this time with Trump is that while it’s hard to be in this rainstorm, the storm is going to pass. Many horrible things are going to be exposed and washed away. I think we’re seeing change that needed to happen. And the only way it was going to happen was by things being exposed and getting really bad.