Ezra Claytan Daniels & Ben Passmore Make Monsters Out of Gentrification & Appropriation in BTTM FDRS

Comics Features Ezra Claytan Daniels & Ben Passmore
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Ezra Claytan Daniels & Ben Passmore Make Monsters Out of Gentrification & Appropriation in <i>BTTM FDRS</i>

From its first page, BTTM FDRS makes you uncomfortable, with an image of a crack that widens as pink dangly things droop through it. That kind of existential ick continues, broadens and tickles your insides as you read the rest of the book, a collaboration between writer Ezra Claytan Daniels and artist Ben Passmore, who seem well equipped to run a three-legged race. Is it a parable about the scourge of gentrification or an extended poop joke? It is, of course, both, down to the title, which can be read multiple ways.

BTTM FDRS, out this week from Fantagraphics is a horror comic, an amplification of new voices, a story about all the ways one can screw up while being young and foolish, a fun exploration of what one can do with complementary colors, a meditation on trends in urbanization, a Goonies-type adventure, a look at female and cross-racial friendship, a beautiful visual examination of lumpiness and more, all moderated by a skeptical sense of humor. Claytan Daniels and Passmore have sharp scalpels, and they know what to do with them. They answered some questions over email about process, ideas, inspiration and tacos.

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BTTM FDRS Cover Art by Ben Passmore

Paste: So what’s your meet cute? How long have y’all known each other and how did you decide to work together on this project?

Ezra Claytan Daniels: Ben and I met at the 2013 Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE). I was tabling that year with early self-published chapters from my book Upgrade Soul. Ben had just self-published the first issue of his series Dayglo Ayhole, but he wasn’t tabling that year. He just came up to Chicago for the show and was handing out free copies of his book. I only noticed him coming down the aisle because he looks just like me. We’re both mixed dudes with beards and bald heads. He gave me a copy of Dayglo and I was completely blown away by it. It was obvious that he was a talent about to explode, and part of me was just like, I gotta grab this dude’s coattails and try to work with him on something before he gets too big. We chatted that day and kept in touch, and we just had a ton of stuff in common, particularly around growing up mixed in small white towns. Shortly after, we were both invited to contribute to Scott Kroll and Tyrell Canon’s Speculative Relationships anthology. I thought this might be a good chance for us to try out collaborating, and Ben was down, and it went super well. I was just about to finish Upgrade Soul around that time and was in the middle of rewriting BTTM FDRS. I really didn’t want to draw it after spending 15 years drawing Upgrade Soul, so I sent the script to Ben and propositioned him to draw it.

Ben Passmore: I would just like to say my hairline was much sturdier when we first met. BTTM FDRS turned me into saggy Luke Cage! I’d also like to say that Ezra was very nice when we first met, even though it was probably obvious I’d been sleeping in an alley. When Ezra proposed the book I was fresh off of drawing a coloring book for adults for some weird company and no one was really reading my comics I’d been self-publishing, so I was pretty lost at sea. It seemed like a great opportunity to work on something inspiring.

Paste: Ezra, it seems like you’ve sought out collaboration a lot (in music and film as well as comics). Why does that appeal to you?

Claytan Daniels: I’ve always been a huge nerd about movies, animation, videogames and even audio drama, but to be honest, I only started doing multimedia collaborations because I couldn’t break into comics. I put out my first self-published graphic novel (The Changers) in 2003, and it was pretty well-received. If the comics industry had responded with publishing offers or even paid writing or art gigs, my art résumé would look a lot different today. But even though I started on this path out of desperation, doing multimedia collaborations quickly became my thing. Working on everything from animated musicals to documentaries to experimental videogames has definitely influenced the way I tell stories, and given me a more unique voice. It’s also given me a really open idea of what stories can look like. I’m thrilled to finally have a few properly published graphic novels under my belt, but I’m definitely not committed to comics as the only medium I want to tell stories in.

Paste: Ben, what are your feelings about collaboration?

Passmore: Ideally two creators aren’t competing for their own vision against the other. But, like most cartoonists I’m low-key an ego maniac and a control freak. I like to go all in on my vision and never compromise. As a result, the top of my to-do list is filled with apologies I should be writing to editors. Sorry y’all! Fortunately Ezra and I were fans of each other’s work. I really enjoyed reading, and then doing some color work on, Ezra’s Upgrade Soul and his comic The Changers. After Ezra and I had a week-long “comics camp” at his house in LA, I think we had a really good idea about what we each were bringing to the project and we let each other be kings of that area. Previous experiences definitely weren’t as pleasant, but I think the problem was consistently a lack of trust. But I’m an anarchist so I’m supposed to say I’m all about collaboration, even if I kinda hate doing it in comics!

Paste: Are anarchists really all about collaboration? I think some of them are and some of them definitely aren’t!

Passmore: In general they do. Most contemporary structures constructed in western society for radical cooperation, like the consensus process used during Occupy or affinity groups used during the anti-globalization movement, were developed by anarchists. If you don’t believe in government or hierarchy, but you need to get something done, you become a collaboration scientist. There’s a strain of anarchist ideology that could be described as individualist or egoist, arguably, starting back with OGs like Max Stirner. But that accounts for only a minority of anarchists through-out history, and even then a high percentage of them also applied Stirner’s Union of Egoists, a formation comprised of many egoists working together for a common goal. In general, anarchists both have a critique of majority rule and believe people should operate in/with society on their own terms, if at all. Obviously, this differs drastically from industrial democracies that expect citizens to prioritize the well-being of the greatest majority of people and the maintenance of the state. Anyway, if I keep going this gonna read like a Commune Magazine article.

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BTTM FDRS Interior Art by Ben Passmore

Paste: Is it hard to work together when you live pretty far apart? How did that process work?

Passmore: After the initial week of preliminary work we mostly emailed back and forth, which isn’t ideal when trying to work out strategy around things like composition. But I do the majority of my freelance through email from my dank comics dungeon so I was used to communicating through the interweb’s tubes, or whatever. Ezra also gave me a lot of room and had shockingly few notes for most of my pages so a lot of the communication was almost perfunctory. There was only a couple times processed about some art real heavy.

Paste: How did y’all come up with the color palette for this book, which is pretty distinctive?

Passmore: At first Ezra and I were debating whether or not to use gray tones or zip tones to my line work to make the world feel more toned and textured. I imagined that if we did a good job on the book, non-comics readers would pick it up, but non-comics readers don’t usually like straight black-and-white comics, so I suggested we go with a limited palette. I thought a limited palette would be as quick as doing gray tone. Boy, it was not! I’ve been experimenting with non-literal limited color palettes since reading Christophe Blain’s cowboy comic series Gus. He has a way of efficiently prioritizing mood and emphasis that’s really inspiring. The colors themselves were picked to emphasize how alien the building was—I wanted the reader to be asking themselves, “why would anyone try and make a home in this unnatural place?”

Paste: How do you think your respective cities informed the final product?

Claytan Daniels: BTTM FDRS was originally conceived as a love letter to my early 20s in Chicago. There’s a LOT of Chicago in the DNA of this book, but I wrote the later drafts of the script after moving to LA in 2015. I was really grappling with my own complicity in gentrification as a newcomer in a neighborhood with a very strong history and identity (Leimert Park), and looking back at my 10-year housing history in Chicago through slightly more wizened eyes. BTTM FDRS became a really cathartic outlet for me to interrogate the complexities of being a person of color who is still in many ways fulfilling the role of gentrifier, even if only by virtue of being an outsider.

Passmore: It’s interesting to see the ways gentrification expresses itself in desperate cities in ways that are different and the same. I was living in New Orleans and being an artist among other transplant artists that were occupying poor black neighborhoods in ways that are really congruent with what is going on in BTTM FDRS. I think if we’d moved BTTM FDRS, the only thing we’d have to change is the number of people parading on molly.

Paste: Have y’all read The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo? It seems like this book is the considerably more grown-up version of that (monsters + gentrification).

Claytan Daniels: I haven’t but I’m gonna check it out!

Passmore: It’s on my reading list now, right under Look for Me in the Whirlwind.

Paste: As trends toward urbanization continue to accelerate, what do you think is going to happen? Are rural areas going to keep getting poorer and cities richer? What do we do about gentrification? Is growth good or bad? How can artists help solve these problems?

Claytan Daniels: Just today at CAKE (the Chicago Alternative Comics Festival) a guy came up to our table and read the description on the back of the book and scoffed at the premise of a story about gentrification. He felt that gentrification was akin to an act of god, like a river flooding every spring, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. To skirt all responsibility by saying there’s nothing anybody can do about the pain caused by gentrification is like saying there’s nothing anybody can do about climate change. There are things people can do, and I think everybody kind of knows what those things are, but the solutions just don’t jibe with free market capitalism.

That said, and maybe I’m being defensive, but I don’t actually think artists looking for cheap rent can be blamed for gentrification any more than unionizing workers at a company with a $40M CEO could be blamed for slumping profits. I saw Theaster Gates give a discussion at the California African American Museum last year and someone asked him about his responsibility as an artist who has, in a way, flipped gentrification into a kind of revitalizing performance art by buying up blighted buildings on the south side of Chicago and converting them into community art spaces. He made a point that really stuck with me, which was that, while artists (particularly, but not limited to, young white artists) moving to a neighborhood certainly make it more attractive to developers, when a speculator buys an apartment building and evicts all the tenants, it’s not the artists’ names you see on the construction fence as it’s being converted to million-dollar condos. Young broke artists play a role in gentrification, and there are things every artist living in a gentrifying neighborhood should do, like supporting local businesses and engaging with the community, but artists simply don’t have the power or capital to carry the brunt of the blame.

Passmore: I think gentrification is the word we currently use for the continuation of ongoing exploitation, disenfranchisement and displacement of underprivileged people. So the question of who is culpable is easily answered by looking at who resides the closest to privilege and power. If we think of it in those terms the answer to gentrification is the same answer we’ve always had for colonialism. Art can be part of that, but I think it’s important to not overstate its usefulness.

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BTTM FDRS Interior Art by Ben Passmore

Paste: Do you like horror movies? Which ones?

Claytan Daniels: I’m a life-long film buff, and most of my biggest inspirations are movies. I pulled inspiration from a few specific movies for the BTTM FDRS script. Candyman, Demon Seed, Attack the Block, The Thing, Sisters, Akira, Ganja and Hess. We jokingly referred to the book as “Black Tremors” when we pitched it.

Passmore: I’m going to keep in all the way one hundred, horror movies freak me out usually. I love me some Event Horizon and The Thing though.

Claytan Daniels: Wanna talk about comics camp?

Passmore: I went to Ezra’s house for a week and we spent everyday eating, exercising, drawing and researching inspirations for the book together. It was mad cute. Honestly I would love to do that with every book I do, even solo books, it was a perfect laboratory for world building.

Paste: Tell me more. What time did you wake up? What did you eat? What things did you research for inspiration?

Claytan Daniels: I didn’t really have a plan when I invited Ben to LA other than to make sure we got along well enough and had a unified enough vision to pull off working on a graphic novel together for the next few years. Comics camp was a solid work week of talking, sketching, going to art museums and comic shops and watching several of the movies I mentioned that inspired the script. It wasn’t super structured, but we did try to get up early so we could get full days of work in, and since a lot of that work was us just sitting alternately at our makeshift dining table work area and in front of a TV for 12 hours a day, we tried to start every day with some physical activity—usually a run or hike. I don’t remember eating anything besides salads and street tacos.

Passmore: I remember a not insignificant amount of fusion food in our diet, which feels very LA to me.

Paste: Horror movies have a long tradition of examining racism (at least going back to Night of the Living Dead but possibly even farther). Why do you think that is? Do you think your work is in that tradition?

Claytan Daniels: I absolutely hope BTTM FDRS is seen as being in that tradition. Ben and I both take genre very seriously as a delivery method for political messages. Sci-fi and horror have often been the only place storytellers could explore thorny political ideas because the obfuscation through metaphor makes it easier to slip past gatekeepers. The Twilight Zone is probably the most recognized example of a mainstream work that was only able to tackle serious issues like race and class by recasting the real-life players as aliens or robots or whatever. In that tradition, I wanted BTTM FDRS to be something that anybody who likes fun horror stories would pick up, only to be unexpectedly provoked by. I’m constantly thinking of the famous W.E.B. DuBois quote, “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used as propaganda.” I feel like if I’m lucky enough to have a platform that people are paying attention to, and I don’t use it to try to effect some positive ideological change in people, that platform is totally wasted on me.

Passmore: When it comes to racism I think it’s the type of wound that people, particularly white people, can’t look at very long without trying to conceal it in some way under the guise of finding a “solution.” But I don’t think we can get there without really viewing it squarely together. A documentary wants to end on a prescriptive note, but a horror comic can sit with what is emotionally terrible and terrifying about gentrification without getting caught up in a call-to-action. Of course action is needed, but I think any part of knowing somebody’s subjectivity is knowing what their life looks like and how it feels. In this way I think horror can be an amplifier to nonfiction surveys of systematic oppression.

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BTTM FDRS Interior Art by Ben Passmore

Paste: One of the things that’s so good about this book is the spectrum of racism it presents, especially with regard to millennials, who tend to see themselves as color blind (i.e., not obviously prejudiced) but very much participate in a system of white privilege when it benefits them. Did y’all sketch out specifics on those issues or are they just ever present in your minds?

Claytan Daniels: Most of the cringe-inducing conversations in the book are cribbed from conversations I actually had with white people who would unquestionably define themselves as non-racist. That’s exactly the thing though, right? Racism is a spectrum and everybody is somewhere on that spectrum. “Western” society has anti-blackness embedded in its very foundation, and you can’t come up and exist in a society like that without being affected by it—without subconsciously internalizing some of it. It’s certainly easier for people of color to fall toward the not-racist end of the spectrum, but we still struggle with internalized anti-blackness every day, in all kinds of ways, from clowning on bookish kids for acting white to fetishizing lighter skin tones and eye colors in people of color. I feel like the more someone claims to not be racist, the more racist they seem to me, because they’re willfully denying the fact that we all exist and participate in a fundamentally racist ecosystem. Part of my intent in representing the “allies” in my story the way I did was to highlight the absurdity of someone feeling like they’re part of a solution when their complicity in the problem prevents them from even acknowledging it.

Paste: How did the book change as you worked on it? Did it turn out to be something different from what you had anticipated?

Claytan Daniels: The script went through many permutations as I dusted it off and reworked it several times over the course of 10 years or so. When I wrote the first draft, smart phones didn’t even exist, so all that stuff became a later addition. I also just became a more conscious and “woke” person over that period of time, so the political ideas in the concept became more solidified and confident. But once I finished the final draft of the script, I didn’t really touch it. The finished book was certainly different from what I imagined early on, when I thought I was probably going to draw it myself, but once Ben and I decided to work together on it, I tried to throw all my expectations away to just let Ben express himself. I didn’t even break up the script into panels and pages because I wanted Ben to have the freedom to tell the story how he wanted, and he’s just such a major talent that I had total confidence in his ability to create something that exceeded whatever expectations I may have held onto.

Passmore: “Major talent”? I should put that in my author blurb.

Paste: It’s also very sympathetic to its monster. Why did you go in that direction?

Claytan Daniels: That decision was entirely guided by the cultural appropriation metaphor at the core of the book. The monster is a symbol for hip hop culture. It’s an extremely powerful entity that’s benevolent by nature, but capable of great harm when co-opted by a person with malicious, or even ignorant intent.

Paste: Tell me more about that.

Claytan Daniels: The story is superficially about gentrification, but in trying to wrap my mind around the nuances of that idea, I kept seeing parallels to cultural appropriation. Both practices entail distinct stages. The usurper first fears, then covets, then takes, then nullifies and finally abandons the object of desire with no repercussions to themself. I built the structure of the story around these stages, but leaned more into appropriation when fleshing out the themes, if only because that concept has much clearer-defined archetypes. The building stands in for the superficial appeal of hip hop, and the organism that lives inside it is the fire that fuels it—it’s something no one but the people who’ve lived there for decades and are truly open to it can really understand. There’s a Nicki v. Iggy conflict at the center of the story, but there’s also the record exec who doesn’t understand anything about the culture other than its profit potential. There’s the obsessive music nerd who has all these deep-dive theories that are completely unfounded. And there’s the OG who lives and breaths the culture but never had a chance for the throne that the cute young white rapper is just handed. Spoiler alert: In the end, the only way to nullify the power of the culture is to (literally) water it down.

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BTTM FDRS Interior Art by Ben Passmore

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