The Comics Reporter by Tom Spurgeon
Used by permission of Tom
A Short Interview
With James Vance
posted August 13, 2006
|Here's one more piece of evidence
that we as comics readers live in a time of embarrassing riches: a
new edition of James Vance and Dan
Burr's classy 1980s comics series Kings
In Disguise from a major book publisher slipped into the marketplace
last Spring and almost no one seemed to notice. Kings In Disguise
tells the story of life on the road during the Great Depression through
the eyes of young Freddie Bloch, with particular attention paid to
the informal social networks and off-the-cuff alliances that by necessity
replaced the standard societal framework and same-age peer relationships.
It is told with a minimum of fuss, ears and eyes wide open to many
of the now less-celebrated political impulses of the era.
In addition to the release of his signature work in comics to date,
playwright and author James Vance has not one but two interesting
projects on the horizon: a sequel to Kings In Disguise again
with Burr and a resolution to his late wife Kate Worley's groundbreaking
the Cat Dancer with series artist Reed
Waller. The following interview was conducted in April over the
TOM SPURGEON: Can I ask where you're geographically located
now? I seem to remember you being a Midwest guy.
JAMES VANCE: I'm in Oklahoma right now. I'm in Tulsa.
SPURGEON: How do you like Tulsa?
VANCE: It's comfortable, it's cheap, and it's sophisticated
enough you can get whatever you want. Not too in love with itself.
SPURGEON: I have to admit, when Norton sent me an ARC of
the book in I think February, that was the first I'd heard you guys
were doing a new edition. How did this deal come about?
VANCE: Through no negotiation of my own whatsoever. [laughs]
I have agents -- Denis
Kitchen and Judy Hansen -- and in this case I think it was Judy.
Because Norton is bringing out the [Will] Eisner stuff, they've been
in touch with them. At some point Judy mentioned to them they also
represented Kings In Disguise and would they be interested
in that? I guess they were. The two of them knocked out a deal by
which they would reprint Kings In Disguise, and bring out a
SPURGEON: What you can tell me about the sequel?
VANCE: I think it was probably "no sequel, no reprint"
-- that would be my guess, but I don't know. I guess that's why you
have agents, so you don't have to hear about those things. Tell you
SPURGEON: Is the sequel something you long wanted to do?
Did Denis and Judy come to you for it?
|VANCE: Denis knew there
was an idea for one. He and I had talked about it back when Kings
was coming out as a comic book, as a periodical. The whole thing is
based on a couple of plays I had written in the late '70s, very early
'80s. One of them was a short play called Kings of Disguise,
which got fleshed out big time to make the graphic novel.
The other one was a thing
called On the Ropes, which
was written earlier but takes place later. That has some material
that can be re-done and expand the characters' story a few years
down the road. That's essentially what this is. Kings takes
place in 1932, and this is mid-1937. It picks up Freddie, or Fred
as he's calling himself now, a few years down the road. He's a teenager
now. And I get to do more horrible things to him.
SPURGEON: How's it feel to work
with that material after such an extended period of time?
VANCE: Well, the character is fun to re-visit because
I understand him pretty well. The basic storyline, the core storyline,
is something I worked out back in 1979. So it's still kind of familiar
to me, like a friend I'd known years ago. I'm mostly enjoying it.
Of course, I'm working with Dan Burr. I can't see doing it any other
way. That helps a lot. Just seeing what Dan's done in the pages
he's sent back so far. The way he's managed to mature Fred from
that 12- or 13-year-old kid that we saw in the first book, where
he's still recognizably himself but he's obviously becoming a young
man. It's kind of inspiring to see how nicely Dan works. His work
if anything has gotten better. The Kings stuff got pretty
terrific the more it went along.
SPURGEON: Can I ask how the two of you work? Is it full-script?
VANCE: It's full-script. I knew nothing about how to
write in comics when I started. Kings was the first thing
I'd ever done. I come from a medium where everything is full script,
so that was the way I started here. I've never done it any other
way because I've never needed to. One alternative is I guess what
they call "Marvel style" -- I've never truly grasped How
that works. I was on a panel once with a couple of guys who had
made very respectable careers working Marvel style, and I mentioned
that always struck me as turning down the TV and making up the dialogue
as the show progressed. I never quite understood how it works. So
it's full script.
Obviously Dan has leeway. I always tell him, "If you can come
up with any better idea, for God's sake do it. You're the artist."
He has the words to begin with, and Dan's very sensitive to translating
people's thoughts. That's what I loved about Kings in Disguise
-- you could read the people's minds. You didn't have to say, "And
then he got angry." Dan could tell you if they were angry or
upset or even feeling ambivalent about something. So I give him
the words to start with, and he takes it from there. I give him
a description, but if he has a better idea, I want him to do it.
|SPURGEON: Did you
grow more comfortable as Kings in Disguise progressed? It seems
like you're more formally comfortable in the latter half of the book
-- the pages vary more, there are more silent panels. It feels like
it opens up.
VANCE: There were two reasons for that. The first reason
is that yes, I became more comfortable because I didn't know what
I was doing when I started. [laughs] I was trying to adhere to some
strict ideas I had picked up from reading about how people I liked
did the work. Obviously you read the Eisner stuff, but also trying
to follow some ideas of Harvey Kurtzman's. There's an influence of
Harvey's in there, whether it's obvious or not. As we went along,
and I became more confident with what I was doing, at the same time
we had an understanding as the characters went further and further
out in their story, the pages would open up more and more. You get
out of a small town, you get out of the confines of boxcars. The further
the story went the more open the art became, to try and accomodate
the idea that they're going further and further from home. They're
more in the open, and in alien territory. I thought Dan communicated
that pretty well, too.
SPURGEON: How did you and Dan work in terms of the visual
research? Did you feed him material, or did you leave it up to him
to be accurate in terms of the things you were asking him to depict?
VANCE: This was mid-'80s, so we didn't have a lot of resources
easily available to us now. So I was looking at reference material,
I was Xeroxing things and sending them to him snail mail. "This
is what the logo on this pulp magazine looked like." Or "Here's
a picture of Detroit in 1932." He did his own research, too.
He found books and things he could work from. There were piles of
research flying back and forth through the mail. Now with the Internet,
we have all those resources. He's finding things himself, and I'm
sending him links. It's much easier.
SPURGEON: It doesn't seem like much time has passed between
the setting of the two books, although it must feel that way to the
lead character. Is 1937 a different enough time to make the experience
fresh for you? Does it feel like revisiting a world or are you plunging
into a different world?
VANCE: The character knows more, so it's different in that
way. The world knows more than it did in 1932. It was still reeling
in 1932, going, "My God, what happened to us?" Trying to
recover from this depression. By 1937, it's become a way of life for
a lot of people. For all the talk about the recovery is on the way,
they were still in a depression.
A lot of people had become used to having nothing. They're no longer
quite as stunned by this thing that has happened to them. Now they're
just living that way. Truthfully, at the point of the script I'm in
right now, I'm keeping in the back of my head and informing the way
I think of the scenes -- I'm about to get off the rails from what
you asked me... The first story is a picaresque. The second story
can't be, because otherwise you're doing the same story over again.
I don't know if people will see it as a likely sequel to the original
or not, but it's certainly a follow-up to the main character. He's
certainly been informed, and influenced and molded by the things that
happened to him in the first book, as well as the incidents that have
come in the years since then.
SPURGEON: Is this character someone you could return to
after the sequel?
VANCE: He certainly could be. He's enough of a blank slate
because he's learning -- the things that he's learning are sometimes
wrong, so he has to re-learn -- but yeah, you could go to him again.
He's still young enough and there's still so much interesting history
that you can cover over a person's lifetime who was born say around
1920 or so. You cover quite a few years and still realistically be
around and realistically be functioning. It's something I've thought
about. I don't know.
At the moment -- I don't know what you know about my situation. I
was married to Kate Worley.
SPURGEON: I do know that.
VANCE: Right now Reed [Waller] and I are working together
to finish up Omaha from material that Kate left us. So I'm
writing the sequel to Kings simultaneously with finishing up
Omaha. I don't have a lot of time. To be honest, I was flattered
they wanted to bring out Kings again. To me, it was something
I did years ago, and people said nice things about it, and I've moved
on. Now that advance pieces are coming out, people are saying how
much they liked it before, some of which was news to me, but it's
nice to hear. I'm committed to doing it as much for the sake of following
something I did that worked well, as I am for Kate's sake. It was
something she was always in favor of me doing. She always hoped I'd
be able to do a sequel. Whenever I would get in that situation that
I guess all writers get in, they start making fun of their own work
or feel like they're really not accomplishing anything, she would
wave that at me. [laughs] She'd say, "Look at what you did."
As much as Omaha, this is kind of for Kate, too.
SPURGEON: Can I ask how Omaha is progressing?
VANCE: We're on schedule, I can tell you that. What do
you want to know?
SPURGEON: How big of a piece is there going to be to finish
VANCE: I'd have to do the math. But it's going to be enough
to fill up a decent-sized graphic novel. If you don't mind me doing
some figures... I have this stuff on my computer. If I had a computer
back when I did Kings -- I typed that on a typewriter. Dan
got these scripts with white-out all over them... I don't miss hundreds
and hundreds of pages of that.
I think there will be 150 new pages, all told.
SPURGEON: Are we going to get that as its own unit, or as
a part of a one-volume presentation?
is reprinting the whole series, and the final volume will be all the
new material. They're serializing it right now. I think most people
are waiting for the collection. I think that will be in 2007. I may
be off on that. Reed and I are actually working on that right now.
And we're cranking it out for serialization, to make the deadlines
for [NBM Publisher] Terry [Nantier]'s magazine. Of course we know
that it will all be collected in one big gulp. Kate left us a lot
of good material to work with. Other than the fact I'm intimidated
by tweaking Kate's stuff, it's good stuff to work with.
I read the original Kings in series form...
was it collected after the original run?
VANCE: It was. I have a copy here. It came out in... I
guess in 1990. It had all six issues and a ten-page piece I wrote
for Dark Horse Presents that could be inserted into the final
episode of the comic series.
SPURGEON: There is definitely a political consciousness
in the book which speaks to the events of that time -- but was it
also relevant to the 1980s? Was there something you wanted to say
about those times in the book?
VANCE: Specifically no, because I wanted it to be a document
of ideas from the time, not something I twisted into a contemporary
statement. The follow-up set in 1937, we still have a lot of people
who thought communism wasn't a bad idea. You skip ahead ten years
and it's not wise to say that out loud. That probably would have been
true of the time the original book came out, but was I saying that
people should re-think the idea that maybe communism wasn't a bad
idea? [laughter] No, I wasn't doing that. When you ask me what I was
saying -- and I'm a little uncomfortable with a statment like that
-- but I was saying that perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to condemn
people outright for not being part of the mainstream. I think I can
go that far. That's certainly what happened to our Depression-era
commune late in the book, called Bucktown I believe, which evidently
did happen. Such things did happen, maybe not as violently as we depicted
it in some cases. But there were little impromptu settlements like
that were burned out by the people living in the areas around, because
they didn't like folks taking up space with their radical ideas. And
probably bringing crime and filth and who knows what else into their
pleasant little communities. But no... who was President in 1988?
SPURGEON: That would have been the last year of Mr. Reagan's
VANCE: About the only possible connection I can think of
is Reagan's famous statement about how 25 percent of homeless people
really wanted to be that way. I supposed that could have applied,
but I never said anything about it. That would have been too cute.
I wasn't interested in doing that kind of cutesy stuff. I need some
other kind of vehicle to make statements like that. If we take Fred's
life up that far, if there ever is another follow-up, that might be
worth looking at. But not in stories of the Depression.
SPURGEON: You've talked about realizing how people liked
the story when it came out. Do you have any sense how the field has
changed since the original collection? Do you have the sense that
there is a wider array of similarly serious graphic novels?
||VANCE: That's started
to dawn on me. After I stopped working in comics a few years ago,
and was applying myself to other things, I more or less lost touch
with other stuff. I've tried to catch up since I've been back doing
this stuff again. Yeah, it's interesting... it's kind of -- I'm going
to lose the word now -- let's just say I'm pleased to see that successes
of the Spider-Man movie and graphic novels haven't completely
swayed everyone to just doing grown-up superhero comics.
|I'm glad to see there's other
stuff still being done that's more like drama rather than melodrama.
I read something called Blankets a couple of years ago that
I gathered had favorable word of mouth and won awards. It's nothing
I would have done, but I was pleased to see that he was doing a story
just about people. I certainly didn't start that, but it's something
I plugged into when I started doing Kings. It's nice to see
that still happening.
I've seen some things, some grown-up takes on superhero things, some
things that Alan
[Moore]'s done for instance; they're a hoot. They're a lot of
fun. I'm so glad he did them. But that's not all that he does. The
thing is, the people that are thought of as being the best writers
in the field now, are the ones who were thought that way when I was
doing Kings in Disguise! [laughter] Alan's still the best of
us all. Neil
[Gaiman], whenever he gets back into comics from time to time,
still turns out wonderful stuff. That's the way it was back in the
late '80s. Some people have moved up, but they haven't surpassed those
two. So in a way it feels like the same thing but with more company
than there used to be.
SPURGEON: Kings doesn't stand in bold relief the
way it used to.
VANCE: It was kind of a sore thumb. It was neither a superhero
comic, a superhero parody, nor an autobiographical piece. And that
seemed to be about all you could do at that moment. A few of the pieces
was publishing -- there was Dan
Clowes' stuff, Peter
Bagge's stuff -- that was uncategorizable in a way but you could
also say were humor. You could call it something. Nobody seemed to
know what Kings in Disguise was. They either liked it or they
didn't like it, but they didn't like it because it was a good one
SPURGEON: Do you think of your audience at all? Do you ever
think in terms of remaining clear in a way audiences can understand,
or do you look at the page as an opportunity for problem solving and
not think in those terms at all?
VANCE: I don't think about it that way. When we started
Kings in Disguise, we started with the agreement that I would
write a book that wasn't for children, but it was something that anybody
any age could read. I more or less stuck to that. There were a couple
of moments where they said, "You're pushing the edge there. You
might want to back up." They didn't stop me, but they said maybe
let's not duplicate that. That was pretty much what I did. I kept
in mind the audience was general, not so specialized that we'd lose
half of them, and I was writing from the point of view of someone
who was 12-year-old. Even though he was an adult obviously looking
back on when he was 12, he was keeping his 12-year-old perspective.
That made it easier. I could explain things to him. Anything people
needed to know would be explained to them along the way.
I do think audiences are smarter than most people will give them credit,
unless they write for the public and realize they figure a lot of
things out with very few clues. In this sequel, it's about 40 pages
or so before we get into about what's been going on in the world.
We set it here, this is what's happening, we're in this world, and
I assume people are intelligent enough to figure out what I'm talking
about until I get to the point where I have to plant some necessary
information. I want to make it clear, but I don't want to make it
simplistic. If that answers your question.
SPURGEON: It does. And thank you, because that answers all
of my questions.
VANCE: Well then, you should have asked me that one first!
Kings in Disguise, James
Vance and Dan Burr (Introduction by Alan Moore), WW
Norton, 208 pages, April 24 2006, ISBN: 0393328481, $16.95.
2006 Tom Spurgeon