Thanks for Sharing, Chuck Palahniuk
Two decades after he introduced the world to Tyler Durden, the Fight Club author jabs into a brand new medium with Dark Horse ComicsPhoto by Allan Amato Comics Features Chuck Palahniuk
What’s the last thing that got under Chuck Palahniuk’s skin?
What could possibly disgust the guy who made more than 70 people faint during readings in 2005 with “Guts,” a short story that would appear a year later in the equally stomach-churning novel Haunted? That guy who, more recently, penned a death scene around a girl supposedly yanking her grandfather’s penis through a jagged hole in a bathroom stall in 2013’s Doomed? The dude who has, more or less, mapped a career from finding meaning in your family’s worst story?
Of all places, Palahniuk was grossed out at his veterinarian’s office.
The cult novelist was supposed to feed his dog two pills, a task made easier if the capsules were stuffed inside brown, lumpy treats called “pill pockets.” It’s a dog-owner trick, designed to make the pills taste like chicken, a generic hickory-smoked meat or peanut butter. The pill pockets make the whole ordeal more palatable for the dog, but Palahniuk’s balked at the offering. The writer packed the pill pockets in a Tupperware container, then gave them to his vet tech, who asked if the dog swallowed her pills.
“That’s what’s in this Tupperware,” Palahniuk said, which confused the vet tech.
When people bring in something brown and lumpy in a Tupperware container, it’s usually dog shit.
“I said, ‘people bring in stool samples with their good kitchen Tupperware?’” Palahniuk recalls. “He started telling me stories about everyday dishes that people bring dog and cat crap in. It’s completely made him stop stealing people’s lunches out of the refrigerator. People would bring crap in, then carry their lunch in the next day in the same container. I was appalled by these stories. It got me thinking about a funny short story. I have yet to write the ultimate poop story, but it makes all my friends laugh…”
In Palahniuk’s presence, people can’t help but share these stories. And for the better part of two decades, it’s been his job to pass them on. One friend of Palahniuk’s “pegged” himself with a carrot—that is, stuffed the veggie up his butt—and later inspired the infamous protagonist of the aforementioned “Guts,” a man who found his ass on the wrong side of a swimming pool filter. And all these years later, he’s still at it.
For one tale in his first collection of short fiction, Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread, Palahniuk drew from Portland headlines. Some teen, goofing off in a grocery store parking lot, fell on a radio antenna. The metal rod penetrated his skull. “That got me thinking about people who might damage their brain intentionally,” Palahniuk says, and that’s the genesis for “Zombies,” a short story that details a group of kids who shun their looming adult responsibilities by administering amateur lobotomies.
And nearly two decades after the release of his debut novel, Fight Club—which rocketed to cult status after David Fincher’s excellent 1999 film adaptation—Palahniuk is set to revisit the story that started it all. He’s delving back into the world of his bruised narrator, now named Sebastian, who’s weighing fatherhood, mortgages and a lowered sex drive. He’s at middle age. And of course, we’ll see the id-fueled personality hiding in his subconscious, Tyler Durden, who will appear in both the 10-part graphic novel sequel that kicked off via Dark Horse comics last week, as well as Make Something Up.
Palahniuk was promoting Fight Club 2 at Comic Con International: San Diego, as Dark Horse Editor-in-Chief Scott Allie remembers it, when a young woman cornered Palahniuk. She wanted to tell a story. Later that day, “he proceeded to tell one of the worst second-hand teenage mishaps ever, involving a euthanized dog and anal sex,” Allie says. “He stood at the podium relaying this to a group of retailers, who at this point in the program are usually being assaulted with movie trailers and details of sales incentives. There was a little giggling from the room, a little gasping and a lot of wide eyes. Some people thought the story was going to cost us some sales. All I knew was that no one was going to forget our presentation.”
Even Matt Fraction—the scribe behind such comic epiphanies as Sex Criminals, Hawkeye and Casanova—embraced that spirit of sharing. Years before his career in sequential art storytelling took off, Fraction was a broke artist visiting Portland’s now-famous Powell’s Books.
“Fight Club must have been in paperback, because I had read it,” Fraction says. “I couldn’t afford hardcovers.” Palahniuk was reading from his most recent book, Survivor, and when Fraction got his book signed, he shared his own nugget of information. “I told him, ‘at Walmart, when kids go missing, they call that a Code Adam,’” Fraction says. “He wrote that down.” And on the phone with Palahniuk, this journalist is holding back. Because this one time, he used one of those sinus-flushing kits the wrong way. Water went through the wrong passages—and his right eyeball filled up with liquid. It bulged out of the socket, threatening to pop, and when he stepped into the ER, the receptionist just sent him straight to a doctor and saved the paperwork for later.
It’s natural, Fraction says. Around Palahniuk, we can’t help but liberate the most grotesque and bizarre details of our personal human journey. Call it therapeutic, cathartic, whatever—but after the might Palahniuk’s displayed on the page, maybe we readers, cinephiles, comic nerds just trust him as the appropriate home for our worst offerings.
“You can’t help but try to pry out your worst stories around him,” Fraction says. “He’s so polite. At no point do you think, ‘Oh shit. This guy has heard a million things worse than this. He just wants to eat dinner by himself.’ He’s breathtakingly patient and kind with people who want to share terrible things with him. It’s surreal, the conversations that people can’t help but have with him, but I’ve never seen him make someone feel like they’re not the center of his attention—even if they said something absolutely horrible or horribly timed.”
Palahniuk says his career depends on those stories. It’s the reason he can write a book a year, evidenced by his prolific stream of relatively experimental output: 2014’s pulpy, female-focused Beautiful You, as well as 2013’s Doomed and 2011’s Damned, a two-part novel that followed a formerly rich—but no-less dead—girl named Madison Spencer, who aims to foil Satan’s Doomsday plan.
“Being out and listening to people’s stories, it’s about finding commonalities and identifying the larger human phenomenon that’s being illustrated in a lot of different anecdotes,” Palahniuk says. “And then I get to write something like ‘Guts,’ which is three anecdotes patched together that illustrate how isolated we become from our family as soon as we achieve our sexuality. The sadness of losing your family when you become a sexual being. It’s my method, that journalistic method, that provides me enough material that I can write.”
“As with all things good in Portland, it started at Chelsea Cain’s house,” Fraction says.
The dinner at Cain’s is practically Palahniuk-fan lore now. It’s the dinner invitation every comic fan in the U.S. wanted, with attendees like Fraction; Bitch Planet, Captain Marvel and Avengers Assemble scribe Kelly Sue Deconnick; novelist Chelsea Cain; and Brian Michael Bendis, one of Marvel’s chief architects. And maybe it was just a meal between friends and creative-types, but a long-debated idea of Palahniuk’s began to take shape around that table. He was doing some investigating of his own.
“He had thoughts,” Fraction says. “He was thinking about a sequel to Fight Club—which was just surreal. He was thinking about doing it as a comic, and was just asking us questions. How does this work? He was sniffing around not just the medium, but the industry. Brian [Bendis] and I were incredibly encouraging. We wanted to see what kind of comic Chuck would come up with. It was surreal.”
Fight Club 2 couldn’t be a novel, Palahniuk figured. Its contents would be too abstract, too grim to exist as words on the page. A film would be too literal or fall under the shadow of director David Fincher’s immortalized adaptation, a version that Palahniuk’s lauded since its release. Maybe Palahniuk hadn’t been immersed in comics culture—though he remembers the old EC Horror strips of his childhood fondly—but he had a conviction that sequenced frames were the only medium that could carry Fight Club 2.
When David Mack, Fight Club 2’s eventual cover artist and the auteur behind such works as Kabuki, explains why comics work, it seems obvious—especially as a medium for such a kinetic, riled-up piece. In fact, the words themselves could’ve been uttered by a much blonder man—one with a decent recipe for napalm.
“In my early formative years starting on creator owned comics with Bendis, he spoke of comics as the rock ‘n’ roll of literature,” Mack says. “Comics are a unique hybrid medium. They are always interesting and relevant when they are fueled by personal vision and passion, and pull from outside of what has been done before in that medium…You don’t need a license to make comics. You can have a personal vision or collaborative vision, and get it right from idea to reality in a direct and primal way.”
It makes sense. But at this early phase, a Fight Club comic wasn’t popular with everyone. “My editor at Random House, he originally said that this would destroy whatever legacy I had as an author,” Palahniuk says. “He said, ‘It’s a bad idea, a train wreck.’” Luckily for comics fans, Fight Club’s author had a little more foresight on the idea of legacy, and that dinner was all the reinforcement Palahniuk needed. Comics was the medium for Fight Club 2.
“He wrote it beginning to end,” Fraction says. “I have a Fight Club 2 manuscript, and it was all finished. The thing I read was a completed draft. Beginning, middle, end. It could have been between nine and 20 issues of comics. There was just this kind of massive slab, like a scroll. [Laughs].”
Random House editors be damned, Fight Club 2 was meant to be a comic.
“I hate that, when I walk into a room and everyone expects me to know everything,” Palahniuk says. “[With comics] I get to be the idiot again, which is wonderful.”
If Palahniuk was a student in the comic world, he couldn’t ask for better guides. Fraction served as his 101 professor, escorting him through the basic concepts and strategies. Scripting. The page-flip reveal. Dialogue. After decades of writing fiction, Fraction says it was clear Palahniuk had the tools to write a good comic—it’d just take some adjusting how he applied them.
Paragraphs were replaced with panels. Dialogue could be pared down from long sentences to a pithy line, or maybe hacked completely. Palahniuk was already a visual writer—ask anyone who faded out of consciousness through the line “piss-slit of his boner” during “Guts.” Every quotable Fight Club chorus—”I am Joe’s white knuckles,” or, “You are not your khakis”—proclaimed him a master of to-the-point dialogue.
“I hate pages of books that look like a whole cascade of quotes alternating down the page,” he says. “That just drives me crazy.”
After that dinner party, Fraction and Palahniuk started to collaborate via email. Palahniuk sat down with a collection of Fraction’s Sex Criminals, and he reported back by asking, “There are 940 panels. That’s what I should aim for?”
“I think there were moments at first when he took things like that too literally,” Fraction says. “Then he realized that it could be however many [panels and issues] he wanted. It was like if I decided to write a novel and couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t control the page flip.” But that’s also where the lightbulbs started going off for Palahniuk. Like Fincher’s movie created a self-awareness by rattling film or breaking fourth walls, Palahniuk could do the same with comics.
“In a novel, you don’t get to choose where the reader gets to turn the page, and that seems like the kind of thing Chuck could really exploit, right?” Fraction says. “There’s a gimmick where you try to make something exciting happen in the last panel, and it makes someone flip the page over. You could almost hear the lightbulb go on when Chuck realized he had control over that.”
One massive scroll of a script later, and Palahniuk had graduated to his master’s class. It’d be held with Dark Horse comics, the Oregon-based publisher of works like Frank Miller’s Sin City and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Class started, naturally, in a Portland comic shop called Things From Another World, where Editor-in-Chief Scott Allie went through stacks of comics with Palahniuk. His interest in the project was simple: he’d been a Palahniuk fan for two decades, even among the head-scratchers walking out of an early viewing of Fincher’s film. “I saw [Fight Club] in a run-down theater in Portland almost 20 years ago, on a screen that was basically a big pockmarked plastic board,” Allie says. “A lot of the people walking out hated it, but my friends and I were speechless, deeply moved.” Now—years later—who wouldn’t read a Fight Club sequel?
Though Palahniuk hadn’t committed to Dark Horse yet, Allie’s suggestions began to cement the team that made Fight Club 2 a reality. Allie showed Palahniuk the work of Cameron Stewart, whose Eisner award-winning work has graced the pages of writers like Grant Morrison and Ed Brubaker. And Stewart’s work was just what Palahniuk desired; the artist’s unmistakable panels proved to be cartoony enough to broach the tough-to-swallow nature within Fight Club 2. “It’s that cartooniness that allows me to get away with things that are so intrinsically tragic,” Palahniuk says. “Comics are ideal for channeling the sadness, but not overwhelming people with it.”
“My goal was to just make him look at it all, and tell me what he saw so I could learn where he was coming from visually,” Allie says. “I probably did a lot of talking that day, so there was a lot of sharing of ideas there. It was really informative, for me, in terms of what he was really looking for in comics. I’d already presented Cameron as my preferred option for artist on the book, but that day at TFAW cemented it. Everything he said reinforced the idea that Cameron was the guy. He loved Sean Phillips, for instance, but found [his work] too realistic for what he was going for. He responded well to some artists who I don’t think are that good, but when I’d ask him for specifics, it was always something that I would see a better version of in someone like Fabio Moon or Cameron.”
Dark Horse won out for Palahniuk. He loved its community and camaraderie, and it was important that he could sit down—face-to-face, in a room—with his editor. But, most importantly, his vision ran parallel with Allie’s. In fact, the Dark Horse EIC simply wanted to read the comic locked inside Palahniuk’s brain—and that was the sole negotiation needed to lock down Palahniuk’s agent.
“At Dark Horse, complete creative control is sort of the boilerplate deal, but the agent was, rightly, so concerned with nailing that down, that we spent the most time on that,” Allie says. “But then from the second it was signed, Chuck’s been deferring to the rest of us … I think because he knows all of us, Dave, Nate, all of us, are in it to do his book his way. No one’s ego is running interference.”
With Stewart cemented as the artist and Allie as editor, Mack was set to create the cover art for the book. Fight Club 2 was in session. And like Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writing classes that eventually led to Fight Club’s gut-punch, minimalist style, Palahniuk had another chance to be the student—the idiot. Now, the writer didn’t just need stories to fire his imagination. He looked to his team for answers. “[Allie] put the team together and broke his back to teach me this thing,” Palahniuk says. “It’s such a learning curve, and I was a slow learner.”
But Allie doesn’t necessarily see it that way. “Chuck is just the right balance of confident in his abilities and very modest,” Allie says. “I get to work with a number of very talented people, and the best of them balance that. If he thinks he’s a slow learner, maybe that’s why he was so willing to listen, to soak it all up, to defer to a bunch of guys who’d been doing it for a while, and all care deeply about our individual crafts—from Fraction to the team on the book.”
That script—and soaking it up—led to an exploration of the comic medium itself. Palahniuk didn’t just want to write a good comic. He wanted to write a piece that was self-aware and completely mastered and unraveled its medium, one that created a certain kind of honesty by playing with how information is presented.
“I had to really tell [Allie] that I wanted to mess with all the conventions,” Palahniuk says. Again, he looked at Fincher’s screen adaptation of Fight Club. Fincher broke the fourth wall. He made the film rattle, break and splice in front of the audience’s eyes. Palahniuk wanted to do the same with the very book readers held. “I want to have things bleed off the page. Do all of these things comics are not supposed to do that would be the mark a poorly produced comic to imply chaos. He was the one that was able to teach me those bad things.”
The chaos is there in issue #1. You see it in the pills and rose petals that lay on top of issue #1’s panels. They blot out dialogue and obscure faces. In this different medium, we feel like we’re dumped back into the world Palahniuk started and Fincher launched into the pop-culture stratosphere. But it’s only a glimpse of what’s to come in the series’ 10-issue run—one that will delve deeper into Tyler Durden’s latest operation, “Rize or Die.” It’ll also expand on everyone’s other favorite support group addict, Marla Singer, who’s doing her best to inject a little Durden inside her life. But the story will also revisit some old favorites: “I realized that people really wanted to see some characters back, and I’d have to bring people back from the dead,” Palahniuk says. “I wanted to surprise people, but I also want to give them the thing that they’re really emotionally attached to.”
With the bulk of the series ahead, the team behind Fight Club 2 is reluctant to give anything away. Based on the response Palahniuk’s received from the first several installments, he’s rescripting the subsequent issues. “I want to make sure that what comes is even better than what came before, and that I exhaust every idea.” But one thing is for sure and, after reading the first few issues, this truth Palahniuk’s friends at Random House will back up: Fight Club 2 was meant to be a comic.
“His script was so direct and pure and crystallized,” Mack says. “All the beats work, all the information is there. And he left the right room for the artist to be playful and creative with composition as well. He did not get in his own way. He is a very clever writer like that. The script shows all his strengths, and he leaves room for the artist to show their strengths.”
“What most struck me was how innately comic it was from its inception,” Fraction says. “He wasn’t coming here as a tourist. He wasn’t coming here to cash in because he heard these graphic novel things make money. He was a writer with a story to tell, and this was the vehicle that story needed to be in, to jumble several bad metaphors. What was really striking was how dead-on he was, from its inception, that this was a comic book.”
“The artist, to me, is not someone who should hide away. They have a sense of social responsibility, if only to prove that they exist,” Palahniuk says.
Palahniuk might’ve found a new love in the sequential art of comic books, and it’s a welcome break from the isolation of crafting a novel alone. But his obsession with drawing out emotion on the page seems far from over, if Make Something Up is any proof. Here, we get 22 stories—the aforementioned “Zombies” and “Expedition” included. On the surface, it’s Palahniuk Classic. “The Facts of Life” sees a couple’s genitalia go up in flames, mid-coitus. “Phoenix” brings a house down—literally, in flames—after a cat ignites and tears through the home. In “Romance,” a guy comes to terms with his friends’ criticisms of his now-wife. “Dude,” the friends say, “did it ever cross your mind that maybe—just maybe—Britney is mentally retarded?”
Groans aside, the evidence is there that—even after two decades—Palahniuk is still a student of his own craft. He still calls his stories “songs”—though over the years, his genre has changed. Like any musician aiming for maturity, Palahniuk’s recent, more-experimental output isn’t as much about that grabbing chorus, nor is it about honoring the debut album that was Fight Club. Think novel Pygmy’s near indecipherable dialect, Beautiful You’s flowery, pulp-romance prose. Still, those gut-punch lines find their way. “The Facts of Life” might wind up in a coital weenie-roast, but he gets to that finale after three pages of propulsion—his longest sentence.
“I wanted it to seem just completely breathless,” Palahniuk says. “With a lot of the stories, I’ve been playing with fake conjunctions. In ‘Facts of Life,’ it was ‘even if,’ ‘even then,’ ‘even though,’ ‘even when.’ That was a fake conjunctive clause. In ‘Loser,’ it’s ‘this, only this,’ so using those phrases to twist a sentence mid-sentence and the repetition of those. In ‘Cannibal,’ it’s the word ‘because.’ Using that word ‘because’ so relentlessly. It’s all kind of a way of making the songs seem more like 1980s songs with drum machines. The drum machine was always there in the ‘80s.”
But most importantly, Palahniuk is still there to take in our stories. The ones that we can’t help but share with him. And as patient, as cool as he seems to his peers, he sees it less as a chore—this is his job, his responsibility. But just remember—when he walks into a room, don’t expect him to know everything.
“The artist, to me, is not someone who should hide away,” he says. “They have a sense of social responsibility, if only to prove that they exist. In a way, I’m frustrated by the degree of anonymity of the things people present in the world.”
Like who, Chuck?
“Oh, this isn’t going to make me popular,” Palahniuk says. He’s laughing. Reluctant. After a statement like that, he has to share, anyways. “You’re going to get me crucified, but Banksy drives me a little crazy, and the woman who writes The Hunger Games books has made such a cottage industry over remaining hidden and not allowing images of herself to be created. I don’t think it takes away from the art produced. But I think it takes away from young people getting the reassurance that this art comes from people, that they themselves can produce this…I find that if I’m approachable and people can communicate with me, they’re more likely to tell me fantastic stories that fire my imagination.”
And before Palahniuk hangs up the phone, he leaves me with my own story. I ask, “is there anything you wished I’d asked?”
He says, “Do you have gonorrhea?”
I ask him if he does. After all, that’s a juicy detail. One I’d thank him for sharing.
“No, I do not. I’ve tested negative for gonorrhea. Everyone should know that.”