Paul Kirchner on Murder by Remote Control, The Lost Psychedelic Noir Comic Classic

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Paul Kirchner on <i>Murder by Remote Control</i>, The Lost Psychedelic Noir Comic Classic

Artist Paul Kirchner and writer Janwillem van de Wetering’s Murder by Remote Control was treated as something of an oddity in the world of mass-market literature when it was published in 1986. The book predates the collected release of Art Spiegelman’s Maus by five years, when the term “Graphic Novel” had scarcely begun to percolate into the collective vocabulary of comic aficionados, let alone audiences that might have never thought to pick up a comic book before.

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Described by The New York Times as “Little Nemo meets Dick Tracy,” the novel more accurately resembles a Raymond Chandler-esque noir “whodunnit,” viewed through the psychotropic lens of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The comic follows Jim Brady, a detective enlisted by the state to investigate the mysterious death of Mr. Jones. The deceased is a prominent land baron whose history as a despoiler of natural beauty earned him a poisonous reputation among the local townspeople of a quiet little burg in Maine. Brady discovers a dark insight into the heart of human malice and desire, set on a road to understanding the strange cipher of his own existence.

After nearly 30 years being out of print, Murder by Remote Control is finally resurfacing on April 20th courtesy Dover Publications. Paste spoke with Mr. Kirchner, an ‘80s Heavy Metal veteran who now works as an advertisement storyboard artist, about the anticipations behind this new edition, the origins of his and van de Wetering’s collaboration and the evolution of independent publishing in the 21st century.
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Paste: How does it feel to see Murder by Remote Control republished nearly 30 years to the date of its American debut in 1986?

Paul Kirchner: The words that come to mind are “Delighted” and “Honored.” It felt like the book disappeared almost without a trace after its initial publication, so now it gets a second chance.

Paste: How would you describe the premise and themes of Murder by Remote Control to someone who never read the original run in ’86?

Kirchner: It’s a murder mystery set on the coast of Maine, where Janwillem lived. Maine has a wide variety of types living side-by-side: wealthy retirees, counter-culture types and local farmers and fisherman. Janwillem wove all them into the story as characters and suspects. The motive for the murder has to do with the conflict between economic development and environmental preservation. Ultimately, though, the story serves as the setting for a series of visions depicted as surrealistic tableaus.

Paste: How would you describe the protagonist of Murder by Remote Control, State Detective Jim Brady? What are his mannerisms, his motivations? What sets his particular journey apart from the conventions of an otherwise typical pulp-detective hero?

Kirchner: Janwillem described Brady in an early letter: “Being colorless, our dear detective, he can slip not only in the minds of others but in Mind itself. How can he, as a character, match the others? He can’t, but he is the greatest of them all for he is Mystery himself.”

I wrote back, “The detective is a cipher. He is the watcher; he sees all, for he can look into the dimension of time. Because he’s detached, he sees clearly, his vision unclouded by involvement. Nothing affects him, he just rights the scales. A karmic janitor, he comes in, straightens up. It’s his job.”

Steve Bissette compared Brady to the Dale Cooper character in Twin Peaks. Though that show came out a few years after Murder by Remote Control, I can see some similarities.

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Murder by Remote Control Interior Art by Paul Kirchner

Paste: You’ve talked briefly before in other interviews that Murder by Remote Control represents a significant turning point in your life. What was happening in your career around the time that sparked your desire to work with Janwillem?

Kirchner: My career was a bit up in the air when I plunged into this project. I had just spent over a year freelancing full-time for Mego Corp, developing the Eagle Force toy line and doing the package art. When Mego went bankrupt, my schedule was suddenly freed up, you might say. At the time, my girlfriend, Sandy, and I were living in a small apartment on a large rural estate. I performed various maintenance duties in lieu of rent, so our overhead was very low. I could afford to do an “on-spec” projects like this. I was confident that with Janwillem’s publishing contacts and fame as an author, it would pay off in the end. That confidence was misplaced, as it turned out.

Paste: You had said that the book represents, in your opinion, some of the best inking you’ve ever done in comics. What illustrations are you most proud of having done for the book?

Kirchner: The illustrations that I like the best are, predictably, the splash pages on which I show the background of the characters, particularly the Herb Lady, the biker and Steve Goodrich, the movie star. After I had finished penciling the 96 pages, I spent several months inking them. I’m a relatively slow inker and it generally took me two days to finish a page. There was one day when I hardly got up from my chair and managed to complete a page in a single day, but that was a fairly simple page.

I’d have to say that my inking was never better than it was in this book. Inking is a perishable skill and it rewards steady practice. When you’re in the groove, you loosen up, your hand obeys you and the ink flows nicely. When you’re not in the groove, it’s a struggle. When I was working for Wally Wood, I remember times that even he would get frustrated with his inking and say, “I feel like I’m working with mittens on.”

Another thing is that the quality of the Strathmore paper was much better then than it is now. Even after grinding off a line with an electric eraser, you still had a good surface to work on. A few years ago, when I tried inking with my old Hunt’s 22B pen nib on new sheets of Strathmore, the ink bled alarmingly. I thought perhaps this was due to a decline in my skill, but in the course of preparing Murder by Remote Control for the Dover publication, I inked a cover design I had penciled back in the mid-1980s. The quality of the paper was dramatically better than what you can buy now. I read an interview with Robert Crumb in which he said the same thing. A fan gave him a large stack of low-value original comic art from the 1950s and Crumb draws and inks on the back of it.

I still use 3-ply Strathmore 500 paper, but I now do my inking with a Noodler fountain pen, recommended by my friend Larry Hama. It doesn’t tear the surface of the paper.

Paste: What distinguishes the 2016 edition of the book from its original 1986 publishing, quality and content-wise? How was Stephen Bissette contacted to write an afterword? Who approached whom?

Kirchner: Ballantine’s edition was trade-paperback-sized, which meant that the art was reproduced at a third of the size of the originals. (The original art is 15” x 20”.) Dover is doing it right, as a full-sized 8.5” x 11” graphic novel, so the live art size is half the size of the originals, which is my preference. Also, I was very disappointed with the cover Ballantine used, but the concept I submitted at the time was not accepted. Drew Ford liked it, fortunately, so I got to ink a drawing I had done 30 years previously.

I also appreciate that Drew had me to write an introduction, which allowed me to describe how the book came to be. He recommended Steve Bissette to write the afterword and I was delighted that he was enthusiastic about doing so. I am self-conscious about analyzing my work much, so I’m glad he took on the task. He did a great job.

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Murder by Remote Control Interior Art by Paul Kirchner

Paste: In hindsight, is there anything about Murder by Remote Control that you would improve upon if given the chance? Or do you believe it exists perfectly as it is now?

Kirchner: Once you start admiring your work too much, you never get better, so I would never say anything I did was perfect. Wally Wood described satisfaction with one’s own artwork as “infantile self-love.”

In his review of the book for The New York Times, Gahan Wilson wrote, “I wished that the drawings had occasionally been a little more ethereal when depicting subjects vaporous and dreamy; their continuing solidity never quite gets past the literal kind of make-believe you encounter in circus posters.”

As a fan of Wilson, when I read that I thought, “Did I do something wrong?” It has always been my intent to draw the surreal elements, the visions, with the same sense of weight and reality as everything else. That’s the whole point, really, and it has never occurred to me to do otherwise. And I like circus posters. So I decided that this was just a difference in artistic vision, and not a knock on me. There are always strong points and weak points in anyone’s style, and what makes it strong in one way makes it weak in another. You have to come to terms with that.

Still, I tend to be self-critical, to the point that it can almost be paralyzing. When I’ve finished a project and look at it, the flaws leap out at me. Later, I may think, “It’s actually pretty good.” So while it may not be perfect, there’s nothing in Murder by Remote Control that makes me think, “If only I could do that over.” I’m happy with it.

Paste: You met Janwillem in 1981 through the mutual acquaintanceship of your brother who, at the time, was studying abroad at a Zen monastery in Japan. What was it about his work as a writer that you thought was compatible with your work as a comic artist?

Kirchner: When I met Janwillem I found him to be an exceptionally interesting and amusing person. We had an immediate affinity. He gave us copies of some of his books, and when I got home I sent him some of my Heavy Metal and Dope Rider stories. It was his idea that we work together on something. He came up with a story that catered to my strengths and gave me a lot to work with. He was a very agreeable collaborator and, as this was his first foray into comics, he deferred to my judgment. Like me, he was interested in the subconscious mind, dreams and visions, and he loved the idea of building a story that had one foot planted in an alternate reality. Without the surreal element, there wouldn’t be much to Murder by Remote Control.

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Murder by Remote Control Interior Art by Paul Kirchner

Paste: What do you think Wetering saw in your work that interested him in pursuing a collaboration? Did he ever tell you?

Kirchner: This is what Janwillem wrote to me after he got the package of my Screw covers, Heavy Metal stories and Dope Rider strips:

“There was much I recognized in your work and I was very attracted to your imagery. Amazing, how these meetings take place, the law of the universe pushing us together, ho ho, Dope Rider and the servant girl, ah, there’s deep stuff there, the striptease of the lovely knight, my old friend and spiritual father H. Bosch, Esq. and his son Magritte popping up. The old Zen masters (the very old ones, the ones no one can check on) were right, there’s strange stuff around us, Hamlet hit on that too, but the hell with them. We are right here now and we got to move on a little.

“So here’s what I had in mind. How about I come up with a story, you throw in the imagery, we peer into each other’s minds, we join into the ageless flow and we come up with a book. Gold drops from the silver-lined clouds, we split the gold on the fifty/fifty system. The gold doesn’t matter of course, but it does spread the peanut butter on the toast and buys a bus ticket. Yes, or no? We can still be friends. So let’s see. There’s something there you will admit. It’s moving in its sleep. It rolls on its side. It grumbles. Terrific pressure is building up on the inside of the eggshell. Heh heh. Shall we let it come out? To serve or control us?”

Paste: Murder by Remote Control is one of the first mass-market graphic novels of its time, and one of the first to earn a review from The New York Times. What were your immediate thoughts after its publication? Do you feel you succeeded in telling the story you set out to tell back then?

Kirchner: I was satisfied with the end result, as was Janwillem. When I sent him copies of the finished pages, he gave it an effusive review:

“THE BOOK IS GREAT. I have read it twice again. Nothing else in the genre even compares to it. Boy, there’s some exceedingly well-portrayed hidden wisdom there. It should be the campus brain-buster of the next five years. You excelled yourself. You reached right out of the kernel of your soul. Tom and the Old Wise Men of the Himalayas will be proud of you. And of me, I mean, me too. This is the ticket that will get us through the gates of hidden hells and heavens. We’ll be Knights of the Golden Chips, and eventually forgotten, for so it goes, but the experience will prepare us for new quests and make us penetrate into unimaginable realms.”

However, the process of getting it published was so long and frustrating that I began to feel I had wasted over a year’s work. I was relieved and happy that it was published at last. The review in The New York Times Book Review was very encouraging, but nothing much came of it in terms of sales. It never earned any royalties.

The funny thing is, despite all the difficulties, as soon as Ballantine gave us a contract, Janwillem wanted to do a sequel and sent me a plot outline. I admired his enthusiasm, but I had already moved on. Murder by Remote Control marked my exit from “art” comics for a few decades. It was my biggest effort, and its poor performance made me feel there was no future in that area for me.

In 1984 Sandy and I had gotten married. In 1986, the year the book was published, we had our first child and were thinking about moving out of our tiny apartment and into a house. I was becoming busy in more lucrative areas and for the next 25 years I was busy developing toy lines, drawing advertising storyboards, doing magazine illustration and writing books. The only comics I did were toy-related features for Telepictures (later Welsh Publishing): He-Man, Go-Bots, ThunderCats, G.I. Joe, etc. Only lately have I returned to my roots, reviving the bus and Dope Rider, as well as doing some comics that have not yet been published.

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Murder by Remote Control Interior Art by Paul Kirchner

Paste: How would you describe the landscape of graphic novel publishing now compared when Murder by Remote Control was published? What’s changed, for better or worse?

Kirchner: There is a great deal more interest in and respect for the graphic novel now than there was then. When we submitted it to American publishers, they seemed bewildered by it. This was two years before the great success of Maus, and mainstream publishers didn’t think they could market it. I still have a file of the rejection letters. An editor at Putnam likened it to [Robert Crumb’s] Fritz the Cat, probably the only adult comic he had seen. That annoyed Janwillem greatly. An editor at Knopf praised it, but rejected it as “more for the European appetite than the American.”

While graphic novels are more mainstream than they were then, there are fewer magazines that publish non-superhero comics than there were 30 years ago, and those that remain pay very little. It was great to get work published in Epic or Heavy Metal and then, when you had enough material, put out an anthology/graphic novel. The magazine payments could keep you afloat until you completed the project. Back then, Heavy Metal paid $200 for every bus strip they published. They paid $40 apiece for those they published recently. I’m not complaining. This is the way it is now. Magazines are no longer commercially viable. I am grateful just to have my work published.

I haven’t figured out the economic model for independent comics today. It seems people display their work on the web for nothing in hopes of developing enough of a fan base that they can eventually put out a book they can sell at conventions. That’s a tough approach, but there are artists who seem to be making it work.

Paste: What does Murder by Remote Control signify to you personally in a way that no other work of yours does? As a creative project, as a professional milestone or even as an artifact from a time in your life?

Kirchner: It signifies more to me personally than professionally. It’s a reminder of a time in my life when I had enough freedom to take on a large, all-consuming project with no guarantee of reward. I am grateful that I had that freedom and glad I made use of it. It’s a reminder of my youth and the youth of the family members and friends I used as models. Beyond that, the book represents the beginning of my lifelong friendship with Janwillem van de Wetering, one of the most remarkable people I have ever known and one who had a profound influence on me. If we had never collaborated on this project, my life would have been significantly less interesting.

Until shortly before his death in 2008, I regularly visited him at his place in Surry, Maine, a large property on a hillside that swept down to a tidal river. The property was woodsy and dotted with separate buildings: the main house, a temple for his wife’s shamanistic rites, a garage/workshop, a studio and a guesthouse. The main house was full of religious objects as well as strange artistic sculptures and assemblages Janwillem was constantly creating. All over the property were full-scale sculptures, such as a rhinoceros built of driftwood, a skeleton horse and others. His lobster boat was moored on the river, and he’d take me out in the bays to look for seals.

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