For sheer pulp exhilaration, depression-era strongman The Goon represents an undeniable high point in comics. Created by writer/artist Eric Powell in 1998, the long-running series follows the titular Goon and his sidekick, Franky, as they duke it out with all manner of the occult, including an unsavory figure known as the Zombie Priest. The Goon may abound with irreverent humor, but it can also dive into bleak austerity, matching the grizzled mood of its main character. Powell’s stylized, nuanced art captures this dynamic as well (embodied perfectly in the emotional “Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker” sequence that follows The Goon’s expression as it slides into despair while staring in a mirror. It’s quietly stunning).
The latest story arc, “Once Upon a Hard Time,” debuts tomorrow, and possibly ends the series. In a recent Reddit AMA, Powell noted that, “it may be the last story entitled The Goon I ever do.” With this bittersweet announcement and the news of deluxe hardcover editions releasing later this year, Paste caught up with Powell over the phone, discussing everything from his favorite football team to the current state of creator-owned comics.
Paste: The Goon moves from moments of comedy to some very dark emotional spaces. How do you work out the balance between irreverent moments and wrenching scenes?
Eric Powell: I kind of just go by instinct. I don’t work out a plan where I have to have seven pages here, and then I have to have a comedy beat in order for this to work. I really write scripts and work from a gut instinct. If it works for me when I’m reading it, hopefully it’ll work for the reader, too. It’s not a technical process. I don’t agree with formulaic writing. There’s a lot of books out there, especially with screenwriting, that tell you, “Oh, in the first five pages, you have to have this, and you have to have an action beat here,” or whatever. I don’t agree with that. I think it becomes predictable and kind of boring. I’ve never really written comics that way. I go off of feel, and try to keep it exciting and entertaining for myself. If it doesn’t seem too out of place, I just kind of run with it.
Paste: In terms of the larger mythology of the series, you have elements from folktales and gangster pictures, all in the same world. Is there a similar instinctual thing going on there?
Powell: With The Goon, I’ve taken everything that I love and thrown it into a blender, and that’s kind of what came out. A lot of the stuff just comes from the type of material that I like to draw, really playing to my strengths, to a point. I really love the Depression-era ‘30s and ‘40s kind of look — cars and dress and everything like that. We never really say exactly when or where the story is taking place. Obviously, it’s set in some weird version of that type of time period. I tried to come up with something where I could do anything I wanted. I think I came pretty close with The Goon.
Paste: It’s a small thing, but I love whenever the old-looking football uniforms make an appearance.
Powell: I’m a big Green Bay Packers fan. I’m from Nashville; I’m not from Wisconsin. One of the reasons that I became a fan, though, is because I just love the history of the game. You can’t get much more historic than the Packers being there from the beginning. The uniforms in that football story definitely came from the ‘20s and ‘30s look: the striped sleeves and the sweaters and everything.
Paste: How did you end up becoming a Packers fan?
Powell: I liked the fact that the town owned them. You have this tiny little town — Green Bay, Wisconsin — and they have a pro football organization. I made a trip to the holy land kind of thing, where I went and saw a game there for the first time, and it amazed me. I grew up in a little area between Mount Juliet and Lebanon, Tennessee, these tiny little towns. It was as if you took my hometown and put a professional football stadium there. It’s this little neighborhood there, and you turn around, and there’s Lambeau Field, this giant stadium. I love that. I love that about them. I love that you don’t have some millionaire, billionaire owner, and it’s not a major city. It’s this tiny little town, and all they have are the Packers, and everyone there loves them. For me, I can’t not be a fan of that team. That’s my team. I don’t care if I’m from Nashville — that’s my team.
Paste: When did you decide to do the hardcover library editions?
Powell: A lot of other books were getting library editions, and we held off, because we were at that weird midpoint. We had a lot of collections out there, but did we want to put out hardcover editions? It was one or the other; we could either have the softcover trade paperbacks, or we could switch over to the library editions. How would that affect sales of one or the other? We were up to the 12th collection, and were wondering when would be the right point to pull the trigger on it. I think we all just got to the point where we said, “Yeah, now’s a good time.” We were going to have enough out there that we should go ahead and collect them and put out some nicer editions. We had a lot of fan requests to put these things out in a nice, shelf-worthy presentation.
Paste: Do you have any favorites for other library editions that are available?
Powell: I haven’t seen a whole lot. Unfortunately, I hardly get to go out to comic shops that much; the closest one isn’t that close to me. Of course, the Hellboy ones are very nice — the whole presentation, the way they’ve matched them up with the art book and everything. Those are the first ones that come to mind. I’m most familiar with the Dark Horse stuff, because I see it most often. Dark Horse has been doing some great collections of the EC archives, and the Warren magazines and everything. I’m excited to have anything out there that I can sit on the shelf next to those two, on my own shelf.
Paste: You’ve talked about how the upcoming miniseries is going to bring some sort of conclusion to some of the characters in The Goon. When did you get that idea?
Powell: The Goon isn’t necessarily a book where I started out and I had a definite beginning, middle and end. I had milestones that I wanted to get to. When I first started, with the first issue, I had the vague idea in my mind that he got the scars on his face in Chinatown, and his heart was broken by a woman in Chinatown, or something like that. I had a big seed that grew over time. Since I did the “Return of Labrazio” storyline a couple of years ago, I had the same kind of idea growing in my mind, that the next big conflict would be this coven of witches from the same race as the Zombie Priest coming to town, and that would start up a whole other war. That story grew and grew and grew in my mind, until it’s come to where it’s at.
As I started working on it, I started seeing that it was a final chapter, that I had been setting up from the very beginning. I realized that I shouldn’t fight this; I should go with it. I should let this be a final chapter. So I am. I’m running with it, letting the story do what I think it needs to do. We’ll see how it goes from there.
Paste: How did certain things in the mythology come about? There seems to be an underlying logic to some of the more mysterious characters, like the Zombie Priest, even though everything isn’t revealed. Do you plot some of that out, or is it more instinctual?
Powell: I know what the Zombie Priest and the other witches are, but I don’t want to put too much of that down on the page. I really believe in giving the reader enough to keep it interesting, and not hold their hand through it. It really kills me when I read an author, and I think something’s great, and then they go a step too far and give you too much information. It kind of kills it, you know? It doesn’t matter how great of a writer you are. Everyone has their own personal taste and their own thing that they like, or their own way that they’d like to see a story go. And if you give them enough to make it interesting without having to spoon-feed them every detail, I think the reader’s mind fills in the story better for them personally then you ever could. I want to give enough to make people interested, and give them an idea — “Oh, the Zombie Priest and this coven of witches come from a different race.” I’m not going to hold your hand through the story and tell you exactly where they come from, and how they’re there and everything like that. I will give you some of that information, but I won’t give you every detail to where there’s no interpretation whatsoever. I think interpretation is one of the joys of reading something.
Paste: I feel like when you’re doing something that has elements of horror, revealing too much can be especially problematic.
Powell: Yeah. It’s definitely a killer to me. With horror movies lately, I’ve noticed…the creaking door is enough to get you scared. You don’t have to explain what the monster is in every detail. That kind of kills it. Once you’ve explained what the monster is, it’s not quite as scary. But if you know something’s in the shadows, but you don’t know what it is, that’s where the horror comes from.
Paste: In one of the older trade paperbacks, when you first introduced The Buzzard, you talked about how that character had come about via a completely different project, and that you realized that it made sense to put him into The Goon’s universe instead. Have there been other characters like that over the years?
Powell: The most recent example of that is a character that was just in the last miniseries. Kid Gargantuan was an idea I had for a totally different thing. And a really different thing, because it was more of a science fiction angle. I thought, “I really like that name, and I’m probably never going to get to that sci-fi idea, because it lost its luster to me, but I like the idea of a boxer being named Kid Gargantuan.” So I put him in The Goon. I needed a character there, and I thought, “I’m going to use that name for this guy.”
Paste: It’s such a good name.
Powell: It sounds like a ‘30s boxer.
Paste: With your bringing this storyline to an end, are there other projects set outside the universe of The Goon that you’re excited about?
Powell: I have a project that’s contained within The Goon’s universe. I’m going to do that as a follow-up to “Once Upon a Hard Time,” which starts coming out in February. I have that. It’s in the same universe, with some characters that I’m going to introduce that build it out a little bit more. I do have a couple of projects that I want to get to, and I think that I probably will in 2015. At the end of the year, at least, I’ll be tackling a couple more of those projects that have been put on the back burner because I’ve been mainly focusing on The Goon.
Paste: Do you think they’ll be in a similar vein, or are you trying out different genres?
Powell: One, I’m pretty excited about. I haven’t figured out exactly where I’m going to take it yet. It’s kind of a genre-mixer like The Goon, but two different types of genres. I think it’ll be pretty good.
Paste: Are there any writers or artists who you haven’t worked with that you’d like to collaborate with?
Powell: Oh yeah, there’s tons. There are so many good writers out there right now that I would like to work with. Also artists, but it’s hard to find artists, because…there are so many good ones out there, but they’ve all got work. They’ve all got other projects going on, so it’s hard to line stuff up. Especially since I deal mostly with creator-owned stuff, you have to work out paychecks and stuff like that, which is not a guarantee in creator-owned comics, when they have Marvel and DC paying them great page rates. It’s hard to pull people away from stuff like that. There are a ton of writers I would love to work with. There’s too many to name. Luckily, I’ve gotten to work with Geoff Johns on a Bizarro Superman story. That was a lot of fun. Scott Snyder — it’d be fun to work with him. You could go through the list: Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore. There are a lot of dream names in there. I like Joe Hill’s work a lot.
There are lots of good writers in comics right now. I think we’re hitting a high point, especially with the creativity within the industry. It’s a different time. When we’ve had high points, it’s been, “Here’s this polybagged variant cover thing!” where people have just been going after it for the collectability. Right now, people are going after comics because they want to read them, which is awesome. There are so many good artists and writers working in comics right now, it’s kind of crazy.
Paste: As someone who’s been involved with comics for a while now, do you think there’s one underlying cause for that?
Powell: I think it’s more accepted now. When I was a kid in high school, I used to bring comics with me to school. Of course, I didn’t care. It wasn’t an, “Oh, you big nerd!” kind of thing. The crowd of kids I ran around with wouldn’t care if you called them a nerd or not; they wouldn’t give a shit. I read comics in school, and it was one of those things where there was hesitation if you pulled something out in the middle of the classroom; would some jock guy try to rag on you or something? Whereas now, I think it’s way more accessible. Way more people are reading this stuff. With the movies and everything, it’s becoming really mainstream. And now there’s a way more diverse crowd reading comics. When I was getting into comics, there were maybe a couple of women working regularly in comics, and now there are so many women making comics, which is a great thing. And it leads to more diversification of content, which only helps. It’s a big change. Getting more people in comics and producing different types of stories for different types of people instead of staying focused on one demographic. I think that helps a lot.
Paste: It seems like, even relative to ten years ago, more and more people are talking about stuff that’s creator-owned; it’s not just about who’s writing something for Marvel or DC.
Powell: It’s a great thing. I kind of bull-headedly stuck to making creator-owned comics. I mean, I dabbled. I did stuff for other publishers, but my main focus was sticking to creator-owned comics and building up creator-owned comics. Well, in hindsight, I’m not sure that was the smartest way to go. I see guys who worked for Marvel, and they’re getting that readership from Marvel, and then they jump off and do a creator-owned comic, and it’s selling through the roof. And it’s great that they’re able to do that. I think those guys are smarter than I was. I think the idea of exploiting the system was better than working against it. But it’s great to see so many creator-owned comics right now selling crazy numbers. It’s pretty amazing, and I’m really happy to see it.
Paste: Looking at what you’ve done in The Goon so far, are there any regrets as far as plotlines you didn’t explore or things that you might’ve wanted to do differently later on?
Powell: The first issue of The Goon was the first issue of a comic I ever wrote and drew entirely myself. That stuff is a little painful to look at. In the later issues, I pretty much explained everything that I’ve wanted to, or traveled down any plotlines that I’ve wanted to exploit. There’s a couple of things in there that I haven’t followed up on, that I’m still planning on following up on. A few unexplained things here and there in the storyline; people think, “You never explained that.” Well, I haven’t yet. Those things will be explored at some point in time.
Paste: You’ve done issues of The Goon that mocked the “we’ve done five variant covers!” impulse, and you’ve mocked sparkly vampires. Do you have a sense of what the next thing is that will annoy you enough to make it into an issue?
Powell: I’m sure there will be. I’m pretty easy to set off, I think. [laughs] But nothing right now. I can’t think of anything right now that I’m finding ripe for satire.