Interview: Mark Landry on Bloodthirsty, Katrina, and Diversity

Mark Landry is what we could call “conscious.”  After I reviewed the first issue of Bloodthirsty, his comic series via Titan Comics, he reached out to us via Twitter which lead to a discussion about the message of righteous indignation he was trying to convey thus far.  It’s easy to assume that a comics writer–Landry is also a screenwriter–would mine interesting tidbits from current events and pretend to care in the comic that information inspired him or her to write and create.  But you would be wrong to make that assumption about Landry, because our exchange was proof that his level of social awareness and consciousness is bona fide.  He’s not mining the news for inspiration and simply not caring.  He is heavily invested as not only a writer, but a native of Louisiana, and it shows.

Read our review of Bloodthirsty #1

GM: Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview with us Mark.  We’ve only got about a week or so until Bloodthirsty #2 comes out, and I’m chomping at the bit here.  I absolutely loved the first issue.  Hurricane Katrina seems to be relegated as an abstract memory in the country’s collective mind.  Why write a comic based around Katrina and the effects—both real and fictional—now?

ML: Thank you for your review of the first issue. Yours is the review I send people when they ask for information about the book. You seem to get what I’m trying to do with this story on every level.  Exactly.  The fact that the storm has already receded into our national “abstract memory”–as you astutely put it–is exactly the reason to bring it back up. It was a 9/11-sized tragedy, in terms of lives and property lost. But this wasn’t an attack from an exterior human force; this was a systemic failure–over decades–of our domestic structures to protect our citizens and municipalities from natural disasters. This should never have happened in the U.S., and the worst part about it–the real point of keeping it in our collective consciousness–is that it could happen again.

GM: There is a level of political awareness and to be honest a sense of righteous indignation in Bloodthirsty.  Were you ever concerned about how readers would react?  Were there times where you wanted to hold back at all?

ML: No. This project has taken me over four years of blood, sweat, tears, and every cent I had to bring it to life. One doesn’t put that kind of energy into something that he or she feels is so unimportant that it could survive being sugarcoated or dumbed down. It’s the kind of energy that’s put into a protest, which is one of two pillars that I believe art and storytelling are here for; the other being to inspire. If the same piece can do both–protest and inspire–then you’ve really used the time, energy and gifts effectively. Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” and Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” do both in cinema.

GM: Honestly, you could have approached Bloodthirsty using a white character, but you opted for a biracial character, whose father is white and mother is black.  I know I said in the review that I was impressed, but I’m going to say this again, I was super impressed.  To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised, especially because I don’t think a lot of other comic creators would have made the same choice.  Why did you ultimately choose a character of color to be the hero in Bloodthirsty

ML: I’m glad you brought this up, because we would want to live in a world in which such a choice shouldn’t be a surprise or even noteworthy, but we just don’t live in that world yet. The reasons (plural) for creating this particular hero are multifaceted, but I feel like they’re braided together into a fairly strong thematic rope.

First, the themes that I struggle with as a writer and as a human being have always been the plight of the outsider, the other, the mythic hero’s journey; and this has everything to do with economics. I grew up in a working-class household in a mostly black neighborhood in south Louisiana and attended public schools that were half white/half black. Some of my friends were white, and some were black. Yet there was racism all around us; there still is, especially in the South. Because of this, I felt the positive effects of white privilege growing up, but then I was also exposed to resolute hatred and intolerance from other white kids from more affluent families, say, if I dated a girl from a more upper-crust school. This was threatening to some of these boys because I was “passing” as worthy of their elite company. It’s basic human nature, I suppose: one group (in this case, the more affluent white kids) declares war on an “inferior” group (ambitious kids like me) because the second group presents a perceived threat to the first group’s mating pool (or other resources that determine power). Not that anybody was “mating,” but the territorial instincts are the same. This shaped my worldview quite a bit.

Second, Louisiana is a multicultural state, and New Orleans is a multicultural city. For the main hero to be just another white dude–with no real (or some flimsily contrived) connection to the place he’s saving–would be a cheap, disingenuous and cynical choice for me as a writer. I would be lying to everyone about who I think can really save New Orleans. It’s not specifically a white guy, it’s not specifically a black guy; it’s all of us, looking past the smokescreen of race to the real threat. So I see Virgil–metaphorically–as a union between black and white members of the working class, who can only be oppressed and defeated if they’re focused on divisive differences as trivial as the color of their skin.

Lastly, if I want to read a story about a hero who happens to be white, all I have to do is pick up any Marvel or DC book. And I cherish my favorite Superman, Batman and Spider-Man stories. But over the past 50 years or more, haven’t we more or less creatively tapped out the white hero keg? How boring would it be for me to try and create a character that’s “like” Batman or “like” Superman? I’ll just read the ones that everyone else has already covered. I’m interested in covering things that are more relevant to my world, which may be getting overlooked by other writers. That’s where the fun is.

GM: You’re background is in film, most recently as a screenwriter.  Was the transition to writing comics easier or more difficult?  Can you see yourself giving one up for the other?

ML: Some people like to draw lines in the sand in order to protect their territory. A screenwriter might say that a comics writer wouldn’t know the first thing about structuring a screenplay, and vice versa. But even the people saying that know–deep down–that this isn’t necessarily so. But they say that in order to protect what they fear are scarce resources (jobs or market share).

The truth is that–if you’ve spent your entire life reading books, reading comics, watching movies, and studying storytelling–the chances are pretty good that you can write a decent story in whichever medium you choose.  But you have to put in the work.  Every story has a beginning, middle, end, and various more subtle structural elements.  The nuances of writing for the screen [versus] for sequential art are not to be ignored or diminished, but they are not barriers for the writer who is eager to understand them. Anyone who says different is just trying to protect his or her turf.  I am a writer.  Period. I’ll write in pencil on a napkin if someone will read the message; it’s the message that matters.

That said, I did put the work in on Bloodthirsty. I conceived of it as a graphic novel from the beginning, wrote draft after draft, read all the books on comics theory and practice that I could get my hands on, consulted with pros like Georges Jeanty and David S. Goyer, and got feedback from a bunch of my trusted writer friends before publication. I also brought on two trusted editors–Chris Fortier and John Hazners–before the publisher’s editors got involved, to make extra certain that the story I intended to tell was being told effectively within the medium’s capabilities.

I now feel equally comfortable in (and challenged by) both mediums, and can see myself doing both–which would be heaven on earth–until the day I die.  In fact, I’m writing a socially conscious screenplay right now, which I got tapped to do as a result of people having read Bloodthirsty. Simultaneously, I’m planning another comics project.

GM: Comic book movies are a thing, but so are TV shows based on comics like The Walking Dead, Outcast, Constantine… Do you see Bloodthirsty going to the big screen or the silver screen?  And which actor would you cast as Virgil? 

ML: Trai Byers. In fact, if anyone is able to get him a copy of Bloodthirsty, I will wash this angelic delivery person’s car. When I saw him in Selma, I got really excited. I thought, “There’s Virgil!” Then he pops up on Empire, and I’m like, “Ooh! Ooh! There’s Virgil again!” He has both the empathy and the physicality to really bring the role to life. Somebody get this man a copy of this comic book, STAT!

I think the project would be an attractive one for either medium (film or TV) to adapt. If I could just snap my fingers and make it happen, I think it would be a premium format (read “rated R”) series. This would require adding more of the subplots and elements that I had to trim in order for the first arc to fit into five issues, but the content is there to support it. And I think it goes without saying that there’s plenty of potential for Virgil to fight corruption, greed and oppression until the character gets so old that he can’t fight anymore…and then, there’s also Dante.

GM: Tell us about the villains Virgil is facing in Bloodthirsty.  I mean, they are literally bloodthirsty and quite ruthless.  What is their motivation?  And what attracted them to New Orleans?  They seem to be fixated on people of color and those who are disenfranchised.

ML: Right! When a lion is hungry, it doesn’t pick out the strongest and fastest gazelle to attack; it attacks the easier target. Humans are no different. It is within our animal natures to oppress classes of people so that we can exploit them. That’s what disaster capitalists live for, and they make billions doing it. So the villains in Bloodthirsty–the ones in charge, whom you haven’t really met yet–moved to New Orleans after Katrina to take advantage of the depressed real estate market. They bought up the city–including the dome–at pennies on the dollar, and as Gene Hackman’s Lex Luther would tell you, land equals power.

In addition to the disaster capitalists at the apex of the hemovore (our real-life vampire) hierarchy, there are lower-level enforcers who are responsible for doing the dirty work of harvesting blood for the upper-echelon, elite hemovores. Just like in any other hierarchy, the people on the lower end of the totem pole have to get their hands dirtier–or in this case, bloodier–than those at the top. These lower-echelon villains are the ones whom we’ve come into contact with thus far in the story: Mother Taneesha and the Hell’s Belles.

GM: What has it been like seeing this project come to fruition and working with Titan Comics?

ML: It’s been a long and arduous production process; raising the money and hiring the various artists for the book. The script was finished in 2012, and the entire rest of the process has been trying to get the art finished and publication secured. Titan have been lovely to work with; they are happy to let the story be what it is, and they don’t get involved in the creative process much. This is a big relief as a creator, because if this had been a licensed franchise, there would be layers of edicts from the license holder on down the line. I hope Titan are happy with the book, and that they’ll continue to want to publish more Bloodthirsty stories.

GM: [We do too!] What else are you working on right now?  Please tell me we’ll be getting more comics from you in the near future or after Bloodthirsty wraps.

ML: Yes! I’m working on–like I said–a socially conscious screenplay, very much in keeping with the thematics of Bloodthirsty. I can’t say more right now, but I’m very excited to see this one move forward (fingers crossed). It’s with a couple of very solid producers right now. In terms of comics, I’m writing an action satire, which I can’t really sink my teeth into until Bloodthirsty is fully out and done. But I’m excited about it; I hope to have more information for you by the spring.

We’ll be looking for it, Mark!  Thank you so much Mark, Cara Fielder and Titan Comics for allowing us to do this interview with Mark and setting it up.  Look for our review of Bloodthirsty #2 as soon as it drops… I’m chomping at the bit for it.