We can’t put the finale up on a Thursday! Who does that? So to tide you over until the big DEcomPRESSIONism finale on Friday, fellow Gathering writer, Jason Hissong did a brief interview with DEcom creator John Coker. Enjoy.
JASON HISSONG: Let’s start by talking about you. What was your first experience with comics? What drew you to them?
JOHN M. COKER: Oh wow, um, as far as I recall, I’ve always been reading comics. I’m pretty sure they at least in some small way helped me learn to read. The first comics I recall reading that really stuck with me were some hand-me-downs from my older cousins, Avengers comics from the 70s.
And I’m sure at first it was just the pretty pictures that hooked me.
JH: Do you remember any other comics you read from that time period? Do you remember the first time you really paid attention to who created the comic you were reading, or how they were crafted?
JC: A lot Marvel stuff mostly, Spider-Woman, Power Man and Iron First, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel. As far as the first stuff that I bought on my own, probably X-Men in the mid 80’s, and some Justice League from DC. 80’s X-Men is probably the stuff where comics became more than just fluff to me and I saw them as art.
JH: When did you start drawing comics? How did that come about? What do you remember about your earliest art?
JC: The first comic I ever wrote and drew was for a Junior/Senior Art Studio project in high school. It was really, really bad. The main thing that sticks out is that the antagonist was named VD. And the earliest thing I remember about my art when I first wanted to draw comics, is that I really wanted to be Joe Quesada’s clone.
JH: And then what happened? How did you develop the stye we see in Decompressionism?
JC: I think that’s my “real” style, which probably comes from growing up reading comic strips as much as comic books. After high school, for whatever reason, I just stopped drawing, I just lost any and all interest in it. I had no passion for it, so I stopped. It was about 10 years later before I picked up a pencil again. And let me tell ya, drawing is not riding a bike. That style I had in high school, that- I guess– Image style that I loved, that was gone. My ability to draw that way, my desire to draw that way was- it wasn’t there. And when I put pen to paper again, this is what was there.
JH: What made you pick up the pencil again?
JC: Girls? I figure that’s the right answer for everything, right? I dunno really, although that’s probably partly true really. I think I started drawing again to impress a girl. Also, I started getting back into comics after completely giving up the hobby in the 90s. So I started going on message boards, specifically Brian Bendis’ JinxWorld, started posting some drawings, and people seemed to dig ’em, and through that, the interest, the passion, came back I guess.
JH: That gives me a nice segue to get at the heart of our interview: Decompressionism. How did this comic come about? And, furthermore, why a web comic as apposed to a traditional paper delivery?
JC: The earliest seeds came from a dumb conversation I was having with a friend/customer at the comic shop, back like, oh, like six or seven years ago, about what kind of movie we would make if we could, who we would cast, etc. So bored one night I made a list, I’m a list maker, I made a list of characters and the actors that would play them. And we started talking about story, and the friend thought I had something. Told me I should write this **** down. But to me it wasn’t a screenplay, it was a comic, so over a month or two, I scripted out a 132 page graphic novel called “Dead Or Pregnant”
Then I shelved it. About a year or less later, I wrote and drew a comic called “Her” for my girlfriend at the time. And I used Dead Or Pregnant and those characters as the basis for that.
As for why a webcomic as opposed to print. that was all Andrew Goletz (Publisher and Editor of GrayHaven Comics). He had asked me to do a weekly webcomic to run 26 weeks for GrayHaven Comics’ website. And I was like, hmm, this could be the right vehicle for that project. And I’m glad that he did ask me, because I do think it ended up being the right format.
JH: And then Decompressionism itself. Why that title? And the subtitle: the nothing that happens is everything? Why those choices? What was your idea in selecting those titles?
JC: That was actually a rib or friendly jab to Andrew actually. At the same time he asked me to do this webcomic, we were butting heads over what he likes to call “talkies” this movement of “decompression” in modern comics. Where internet critics like to say that “nothing happens” Talking heads comics, well, I love me some talking heads comics. And when people say “nothing happens” My answer is- conversation happens, character happens, story happens. And so I wanted to take that idea, and turn it up to 11. Decompression to the Nth degree. Character and story through conversational dialogue.
JH: What are your main influences in terms of these ‘talkie’ comics? Whom were you attempting to channel while doing this strip, if anyone at all? And why?
JC: First and foremost, John Hughes films. And John Cusack. Jonah is really me having sex with John Cusack. Those were really my only intentional influences or what I was intentionally channeling. I’d also say that Aaron Sorkin, Gilmore Girls, Brian Bendis, Jeffrey Brown, and various 80s teen movies all influenced Decom, just not as consciously.
So interestingly enough, not a lot of comics.
JH: You just said something interesting. “Jonah is really me having sex with John Cusack.” I’m most interested in the first part of that comment. How much is Jonah autobiographical? How much of him is you? And, what of him is fiction?
JC: The characters are all based on real people in my life, with a little bit of some of my favorite actors swirled in. So the relationships to some degree, and the way that these characters interact with each other are “real” as far as how they are presented, but the situations, are all entirely fictional. But hopefully it doesn’t come across as fictional, because their voices are real. Or at least, real to me, and I hope that realness is picked up by the readers as well.
And Jonah is really just me calling myself out on all my bullshit.
JH: Tell me about Jonah. Why him? What do you like about him? What do you dislike about him? Was it intentional that you don’t refer him by name until the fourth chapter? And that that chapter doesn’t even feature him. And, why is that the choice you made?
JC: What do I like about him? Mostly his hair. Jonah is an interesting character to me and fun to write because he says what I think of saying but decide not to. He’s unfiltered. What do I dislike about Jonah? He’s unfiltered. He talks a lot, he uses conversation as therapy in a way. I dunno, I guess I see him as being fearless and being scared shitless at the same time.
And yeah, letting character names come out naturally in conversation throughout the strip was very much an intentional decision I made. When you and I are talking to each other, we don’t call each other by name, it would sound weird to do so. So I made the decision to only do that when it made sense. When I write, I have the conversation in my head, and if I wouldn’t say something in my head, I don’t say it on paper.
JH: Do you think that puts the reader at a disadvantage? Or is it more your feeling to drop the reader in in media res and let them figure it out?
JC: Yeah pretty much, I think people are smart, generally. And I also think that if someone likes the writing, if they connect to it on some level, not having everything spoonfed to them isn’t going to cause them not to continue. And I think watching things unfold and learning about who these characters are and how they relate to each other is part of the hook. Also, from the beginning, I wanted this to be about the conversational dialogue. To me, with Decom, the words coming out of their mouths are more important than anything else, because those words define these characters. Nothing says more about a person than what they say and how they say it. This strip doesn’t really have a plot. I mean, there is story there, but it’s story through dialogue and interaction rather than through plot. So I wanted that to be the focus. It’s almost like sequential art voyeurism. So yeah, like you said- let the reader figure it out. Drop them in the middle of conversation, let them eavesdrop for a bit, and yank ’em right back out.
JH: I know that for me one of the things I loved most about reading my first comic, Guardians of the Galaxy #1 by Valentino, was that I felt I was dropped into the middle of something grand and epic and that these characters had history, had a life. Anyway, tell me more about the other characters that populate your story. Who is your favorite? Who is your least favorite? Why?
JC: Hmm, that’s hard. I will say that ONE of my favorites, seemed to be a lot of my readers’ least favorite, and that’s Denny. He’s entirely, and utterly unfiltered. He’s the friend that all of us have, that will call us on our bullshit, and not hold anything back, no tact. But we can’t get mad at them, because they’re not wrong. No tiptoeing, no sugarcoating, but probably saying something that on some level we really need to hear.
I grew to really love to write Nicki, and specifically Nicki/Jonah interaction.
JH: We really get that sense from Denny in Chapter 14. Tell me about that chapter. It’s fascinating to me because it’s one static image and a monologue, basically. Did you know you were going to do that from the beginning?
JC: Yeah, that is almost word for word the monologue I wrote in Dead Or Pregnant seven or so years ago. It’s basically me addressing my insecurities on some level I guess. It’s basically me asking myself why I do the things I do over and over again.
JH: And do you think this changes things for Jonah? Is it at this point that he finally goes and hunts and gathers Erin?
JC: Haha, I love you. Yeah, between that and the “Go do what you have to do to be happy” scene between him and the boys, chapters 23, 24, and 25, I think.
JH: This story is really about Jonah returning to his hometown, a small town, for his uncle’s wedding. There’s a very real possibility that he’s going to run into Erin and from the first chapter we know they have a history. Let’s talk about Erin. What makes her unique?
JC: Hmm, I don’t know if she is. Haha.
JH: Why does Jonah love her?
Why can he not get past her?
JC: I intentionally didn’t get too much into Erin, at least not outside of how Jonah talks about her. I wanted the reader’s perception of her to be Jonah’s perception of her, and to some degree wanted the readers to bring their own feelings to the character. I wanted the readers to fill in the blanks in a way. It’s obvious that she’s his first love/one that got a way, so I wanted the reader to bring their own first love to the character. I dunno if that makes sense to anyone but me, haha, but wanted her to be vague to that she would be specific to everyone… yeah, no, that makes no sense.
First and foremost, Jonah can’t get passed her because, sadly, he just doesn’t want to.
JH: Let’s talk about something you mentioned earlier. “Dead or Pregnant.” At the end, Jonah comes up to Erin and asks her if she’s happy, and he says that happiness is like being dead or pregnant. It’s binary. It’s on or off. It is or it isn’t. Is that Jonah? Or is that a worldview that you have? That is, are you writing Jonah as yourself in that moment?
JC: That’s Jonah. But at the same time, it kinda makes sense to me. You can’t really afford to be kind of happy, and I know that it’s not that simple, but at the same time, you have to make that decision, figure out what makes you happy, and do that. So in that moment, that was I guess me telling Jonah to tell myself to just make that decision, and not the decision to be happy, because again, not that simple, but the decision to go do what it is that will lead to that happiness. But at the same time, I need to stop saying “But at the same time.”
Oh, and let me give a shout-out to my favorite teacher of all time, and the biggest influence on my writing, Mrs. Rooney Dively. The title “Dead Or Pregnant” came from her. It’s something she always use to say about late papers. It’s either on time, or it isn’t, there’s no such thing as kind of late, it’s like being dead or pregnant. One or the other.
JH: Another way to put it might be: what kind of life are you unwilling to accept?
JC: Yeah, figure out what you need, and do that.
JH: Did you accomplish your goals with Decom? What do you think John Hughes’ reaction to Decom would be?
JC: “There has to be something better to ****ing do here in Heaven than reading this stupid webcomic.”
I think so, although I’m not sure what my goals were, haha. Other than to entertain a few people… and impress girls.
JH: And has the latter worked?
JC: Is there free wi-fi in Heaven?
Haha, actually… yes.
JH: Nice. Do you think you would ever go back to these characters for another story? Or is it time to move on?
JC: I can’t legally answer that right now… Actually, I thought I was done with them, at least for now. But after an email I got last night, I might not be. There might be some news forthcoming. And even if nothing comes out of that. I might have a few more stories, specifically of the supporting characters, in me. We’ll see, and hopefully not anytime too soon.
JH: What’s next for you, creatively?
JC: A break? I am currently co-writing something with a very talented writer named Jason Hissong… also, really ****ing handsome dude. It’s a project called TOMORROW, and I think it’s something special.
JH: Is there anything else you want to say about Decom?
JC: It was a lot of words and I just hope that people liked reading those words, or even half of them.
TOMORROW: THE GRAND FINALE