As the former lead singer of glam punk heroes My Chemical Romance, Gerard Way knows how to tell a story. Concept albums Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge and The Black Parade unspooled bittersweet, goth-tinged tales of resurrected gunslingers and postmortem cavalcades into the band’s theatric thrash with style and substance. Way made the full transition to scripting with his 2007 Dark Horse comic The Umbrella Academy, the portrait of a dysfunctional family of superhero misfits searching for purpose while saving the world from mind-bending threats. A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and a former intern at DC’s Vertigo imprint, Way proved just as adept with a pen as a microphone, winning an Eisner Award in 2008 for Best Limited Series.
Today marks the debut of Way’s new series The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, a heady descent into post-apocalyptic intrigue and grind house psychedelia that completes the story started in the 2010 MCR album Danger Days and its videos for singles “Na Na Na” and “Sing.” Along with co-writer Shaun Simon and artist Becky Cloonan, Way paints a conflicted world where a gang of teenage vagrants fights a totalitarian corporation and its legion of vampire-masked drones while a pair of android prostitutes shares a secret bond.
Over two interview phone sessions, Way chatted with Paste about his new comic’s connections to his past as a commercial recording artist and what inspired his aesthetic shift from white face paint to red hair dye. Way also digs deep into the underlying sociological issues at Killjoys’ heart and how Dora the Explorer, the Blade Runner documentary, and the Sega Master System influenced it.
Paste: Congratulations on your first issue of The Fabulous Lives of the Killjoys. This is a continuation of the story you started in your Danger Days album from My Chemical Romance. Did this plot emerge after you finished the album or was it a part of the story the whole time?
Gerard Way: The deal is that I had written three videos (“Na Na Na,” “Sing,” and “The Only Hope For Me Is You”), and the third video had never gotten made. By the time we had completed the second video, we just ran out of budget money. At the time, somebody was managing us and not keeping an eye on this stuff. Long story short, there was no budget. So I wrote a video, and of course it ends up being the most expensive one, as the last part would usually be. But we couldn’t make it!
Killjoys started its life as a very different comic. It was heavily-rooted in nineties Vertigo post-modernism. There’s a lot of very cool, abstract ideas in it; I wouldn’t even call it a superhero book. That (comic) was a visual and thematic inspiration on what would become the album Danger Days. It was pretty loose, though. This was going to be my interpretation of the story, so there’s way more science fiction involved. And what I need to say to the world needed to be a little more direct, so I boiled it down to something that’s still very smart and challenging, but I thought was definitely easier to understand through song or visual.
Then (Killjoys artist) Becky Cloonan drew a 7-inch for “The Only Hope For Me Is You,” which was going to be the last video single. I realized I was out of budget, so I said ‘just make this the girl from the first and second video at 15. And have her shave her head or chop her hair off like in The Legend of Billie Jean, because that’s how the video was supposed to start.’ So (Cloonan) sends this drawing over and I’m on tour with Blink 182 in a hotel on an off day. I get this drawing and I’m so immediately blown away by it. I call Shaun, my co-writer and co-creator, and I say ‘open your email, I’m going to send you something.’ I ask him ‘how does this image make you feel?’ We talked for two hours. By the end of the conversation we both realized that that image was the comic, and the third video was basically the comic. So we figured how we were going to make this interesting and exciting for six issues and complete the story. And that was the final direction. It was pretty obvious to us.
And I like the fact that the story was about The Girl. It’s basically about somebody who was selected for this higher purpose who simply didn’t want to do it.
Paste: This story arc dates back to around 2009, which is when your daughter, Bandit, was born. Does Bandit inform the character of The Girl at all?
Way: (Co-writer) Shaun Simon was the first of our friends to have a child, and it was really crazy to even think of that. And then when (Way’s wife and Mindless Self Indulgence bassist) Lindsey and I had Bandit, I got it. And that’s when Killjoys really started to click. And I do see my daughter in her, because, for better or worse, she’s going to be her own person when she grows up. She’s going to be amazing, obviously, and have her own dreams. I just think there are going to be occasions where there’s this kind of weirdness based on what her parents used to do for a living. I think there’s an element of that even in the comic where The Girl used to hang out with these dudes who were shot, and people have different opinions of them. Some people like them, some people hate them. She has to deal with that. That’s the cool thing. You don’t get to see that stuff in comics.
Paste: One interesting element of the issue is the Draculoid masks, which force the wearer to experience an artificial perception of fear and victimization shared by all other Draculoids. It all feels vaguely political, reminding me of when Glenn Beck attacked your song “Sing” as propaganda after it appeared on Glee (there’s also a scene where the Draculoids complain about loud music). The main irony is that the masks came before Beck attacked you. Were you reacting to anything specifically when you first created the masks?
Way: (MCR guitarist) Frank Iero had that mask. It was just an aesthetic thing. ‘70s horror masks are pretty incredible. There’s something that’s really amazing about that era of painted rubber and hair. It kind of represents the past of the band. I liked the idea of them now becoming our enemies, just chasing us down or haunting us. All the Glenn Beck stuff, that came from a place of being in a rock band that started literally playing in basements. Even when we got big, it still felt like that same band playing in basements.
This isn’t even a jab at the record label, but when you have a large success like The Black Parade, the stakes really get high and a lot of people rely on your success, even magazines. You’re just part of this industry that feeds on a monetary exchange, which is fine — I’m not bagging that. So you’re expected to transform into this thing that’s a rock band. ‘It’s cool that you’re like this, but now we just need you guys to be a rock band, and you need to become stable and we need to know what to expect from you.’ That kind of pressure can really mess with your art and really mess with your head.
So the whole Better Living Industries thing is about being part of the solution and part of the problem. Are the Killjoys the heroes? If you want to look at it in a nihilistic 15-year-old point of view, watching A Clockwork Orange for the first time, I guess you could see them as the heroes. Are Better Living Industries (BLI) really the bad guys? Who’s the bad guy? I feel like The Girl just wants to hang out with her cat.
Paste: So The Killjoys aren’t necessarily the heroes and Better Living Industries aren’t necessarily the villains; this comic is more grey. It reminds me of The My Chemical Romance song “Teenagers,” but these teenagers are a bit crazy and Clockwork Orange-ish.
Way: To bring it into A Clockwork Orange, I think I saw that when I was way too young. I had a couple of really cool friends when I was a kid, and we’d find cool music and movies and show them to each other. My friend Dennis had a copy of A Clockwork Orange and he’d already seen it once, and he was like ‘we need to watch this.’ I was sleeping over his house — and I think we were literally 15 — and we watched it. I remember my first reaction to that film was very similar to my reaction to Taxi Driver or my first reaction to Watchmen, where you just immediately gravitate toward Rorschach in Watchmen or Alex from Clockwork. And then you start to get older and realize that character wasn’t a hero at all; they’re really bad people who didn’t do anything heroic.
When you’re exposed to that as a youth, you misconstrue stuff. Sometimes you literally only take it on the surface, and you see any strong action that’s done with conviction as the right action, and you start to realize later on in life that just because you felt strongly about it, it doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do. And that’s one of my feelings that I tried to inject into The Killjoys, especially with the characters of The Ultra-Vs. (Shaun and I said) ‘let’s literally make these characters 15-year-olds watching A Clockwork Orange, just pulling all the wrong shit from it.’