“In America We Need to Either Scream or Laugh About Our Political System”: Talking Citizen Jack with Sam Humphries

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Given today’s ecosystem of Super PACs and special interest groups, it isn’t hard to find double-talk, compromise and corruption in politics—so much so that an actual demonic bargain wouldn’t be surprising. Such an infernal bargain lies at the center of Citizen Jack, a new comic from writer Sam Humphries and artist Tommy Patterson. The series follows a boorish Minnesotan named Jack Northworthy as he mounts an unlikely run for President, with the help of a creepy demon named Marlinspike. The comic blends horror and satire in unexpected ways, with a protagonist who doubles as both a compelling central character and a notable cautionary tale. Paste talked with Humphries about Jack’s origins, dolphin political commentators and how it all connects to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Paste: The idea of a President who’s largely an outsider is one that’s hard to shake, from the candidacies of Ben Carson and Donald Trump this year to the third-party runs of Ralph Nader and Ross Perot in previous elections. Where would you say the appeal of this comes from?
Sam Humphries: Citizen Jack is a horror comedy, because in America we need to either scream or laugh about our political system. We don’t even mention Democrats and Republicans in Citizen Jack. This book is not about ideology, it’s about how the system is broken—and outsider candidates are a part of the problem. Often outsider candidates are offered as proof that the game is an open system built for change, but most of the time I find them to be the opposite, birds never let out of the cage by the gatekeepers, distractions while politics as usual grind on in the background.

The illusion of the outsider candidate is appealing because of their novelty, and the twin icons of “the rebel” and “the underdog” both of which are very popular in America. We like people who appear to have ‘broken free’ of the rules, and thus are able to be “straight shooters” and “tell it like it is.” Probably because we long to do the same in our own lives.

Sorry, did you want to ask me a cheery question first? [Laughs.] Citizen Jack is really funny, I swear!

Citizen Jack Cover Art by Tommy Patterson

Paste: In the first issue, we get a sense of Jack’s relationship with his ex-wife, his father and the town where he lives. How much of his personal history did you need to know before you started writing?
Humphries: A great deal of it, probably more than we’ll ever touch on in the book, but a lot of it that we’ll slowly peel apart issue by issue. I know his family history, his hockey career and his political career. I know what he did on his senior prom (got drunk in the bathroom and puked on the principal).

I was inspired by Hilary Mantel, who in her novel, Wolf Hall, seems to know every detail of every major and minor historical character, and is able to call them up at the drop of a hat. I admire her very much. What I know about Jack is probably a pitiful fraction compared to what she knows about Thomas Cromwell’s third stable boy, but I gotta start somewhere!

Paste: Jack’s past as a hockey player also plays a big part in the series. What made this particular sport an interest?
Humphries: There’s something about the bare-knuckled lunacy of politics that is very similar to hockey. Not to mention, hockey is the national sport of Minnesota! I grew up in Minnesota, just like Jack, so I knew hockey would play a big part in who he is as a character. It’s central to how and why he meets the demon, Marlinspike. Like a lot of hockey diehards, I am fascinated by the role of enforcers, or goons, in the sport. They’re not prized for their hockey skills but deployed to be fighters and brawlers so their teammates can make the big plays. I found a lot of parallels to that in American politics, probably too many.

Citizen Jack Interior Art by Tommy Patterson

Paste: How did you and artist Tommy Patterson begin working together?
Humphries: Mutual friends and comic artists Ryan Stegman and Nick Pitarra played matchmaker. They were our Dolly Levis. Tommy is a New York Times bestselling artist for his work on Game of Thrones—which is beautiful, but stylistically 180 degrees from what I was looking for. Tommy basically said no problem and delivered three sample pages in the style you see now in Citizen Jack—it was like magic, or like he made his own deal with the devil. It’s gorgeous stuff, horrific and hilarious. It was love at first sight.

Paste: Demonic intervention aside, the series’s tone is largely realistic—though one of the supporting characters in the series is a talking dolphin. What brought that angle into play?
Humphries: I could say making Cricket the smartest, uh, creature in the room is a jab at a media industry that has devolved into self-parody. But, I need the media industry to promote Citizen Jack. So instead I’ll say…Cricket the Dolphin is the Breakout Character of 2016, You Won’t Believe What He Does Next!

Paste: In an interview you did with io9, you said that you considered the demon Marlinspike to be the book’s “most innocent character.” Does that mean that there’s a side of him that we’re going to see more of in future issues, or is it more a statement of how corrupt virtually everyone else is?
Humphries: Both, I guess! Yeah, there’s much more about Marlinspike that we are going to see in future issues. Where he comes from, what he wants, why he thinks it’s worth the trouble to get himself a puppet president. All of that will be revealed in the first six issues. But, also, yeah, Marlinspike is this giant death demon with wicked wings and malicious horns, and he moves in murder and ambition…but the humans in the book that put their pants on one leg at a time and eat cereal and smile real nice don’t really have any moral superiority over him. He’s just playing the game they created.

Citizen Jack Interior Art by Tommy Patterson

Paste: So far, Jack remains a compelling character while also being brusque and unpleasant to those around him—to say nothing of making a bargain with a demon. How do you find the right balance of making him a protagonist worth following without losing the darker aspects of his character?
Humphries: It’s a tough balance. Having a main character that is unpleasant 100% of the time is not going to be a fun reading experience. Heck, it’s not gonna be a fun writing and drawing experience for me and Tommy. So he’s got to have his sympathetic elements. You need to root for him as a character, even if you don’t want him to be president. But there’s something inherently relatable about Jack. There is no way he should be president. There’s no way most of us should be president. But if a demon came up to us and said, hey, you could be president…and I could make it happen…what would any of us say? If you wouldn’t at least pause to consider it…I call bullshit. [Laughs.] We all want a deal with the devil.

Citizen Jack Interior Art by Tommy Patterson