“Everything is Horrible and We’re All Going to Die”: Mat Johnson and Samuel Sattin on Writing Comics, Novels and the Apocalypse

Comics Features Samuel Sattin
“Everything is Horrible and We’re All Going to Die”: Mat Johnson and Samuel Sattin on Writing Comics, Novels and the Apocalypse

Writing compelling fiction is a lot of work; writing compelling fiction and memorable comics requires an even deeper array of skills. Mat Johnson and Samuel Sattin are two of the few scribes who sit among a growing group of writers with a foothold in each discipline. Johnson’s work includes politically charged comics like Right State and Incognegro for Vertigo Comics and novels that bridge satire and pulp surrealism, including Pym and and the September-released Loving Day. Sattin’s books include League of Somebodies and The Silent End, and the first collection of his comic with artist Chris Kohler, Legend, about animals living in a post-apocalyptic city, recently published by Z2.

Johnson and Sattin have known each other for years, and on a Friday afternoon in mid-November, the two hopped on the phone to discuss the differences between writing prose and comics, the outcome of the recent Presidential election, the end of the world and much more. An edited version of their conversation follows.

I: On Writing Comics

Paste: Let’s start at the beginning-how did you two meet?

Samuel Sattin: Mat was coming to take a look at Mills College.

Mat Johnson: I was up for a job. We got to hang out for a bit. I thought about the job, but I couldn’t afford to live out there. I don’t understand how people do it. We hung out that afternoon, and we’ve been in contact ever since.

Johnson: So, how’s the [comic writing] process been going?

Sattin: It’s been good! I remember, four or five years ago, I asked you for an example of a pitch, so I could see what one looked like. You did—I think you sent me the one for Incognegro. I remember looking at it and thinking, Holy shit—this stuff is mystifying. I’ve always read comics, and I love them. But I was still starting to figure out how to write a book. I was sitting there looking at comics, and I don’t think I was quite ready at the time to undertake it.

Legend Cover Art by Chris Kohler

Johnson: Your pitch for Legend—I showed that to my comic book students last term. It’s a fantastic pitch: it’s gorgeous, and you get the idea of what the book’s going to be from it. It was a nice job. I love that I have pitches like that on the stuff I’m doing; usually, the pitches that I have, by comparison, look pretty half-ass. You definitely learned something beyond what I did. The artist’s work, the way it’s in the pitch, is gorgeous, too.

Sattin: One of the things I’ve come to learn about comics is that a lot of it is different, professionally, than writing novels and books. I’ve seen some pitches where people put the idea and the high-concept pitch, and it’ll be a couple of pages, and it’s done. When I was looking at yours, the one thing that I found interesting, that I don’t think I got at the time, was that you were thinking in terms of page turns. You were thinking about it in terms of a visual thing.

Johnson: I still do. I just did a pitch for a sequel to Incognegro—I finished it last week. I did the page-layout thing first, and then I turned it into paragraph descriptions of what would happen. It’s helpful to me to think visually first. That’s the benefit of the medium.

Sattin: It was helpful to me. It was something to think about: when you’re turning the page, it’s different from when you’re turning a page in a novel. Chapters make more sense, or scenes. With a comic, you really have to think about what’s going to be revealed on the final panel of a page and on the first panel of the next page.

Incognegro Cover Art by Stephen John Philips

Johnson: That said, are most of the people reading your book doing it in print or online?

Sattin: I would say, probably mostly in print right now. A certain division of it is being read online. Looking at the way in which it’s been formatted online, especially with comiXology, the way that works is completely different. Sometimes I look at it and go, Wow—so that’s how you interpreted it. If it’s a spread and you’re going from place to place on it, you think, That’s not what I meant at all. I mean, it works!

Johnson: It’s rare that anyone’s writing to that. One of the websites, Mark Waid’s Thrillbent, I enjoy because he was writing directly for digital. So he was taking advantage of that with the way panels were being revealed, and using the same panel and changing the dialogue, or slowly revealing the scope of the panel. That would probably be very hard to put into a script. That seems like that was something you would do if you were creating the visuals as you went along. It’s going to be interesting to see where it goes. Right now, most of the comics I read are digital, because I don’t have the time to go to the store.

Sattin: More shelf space, right? It’s funny, because it almost works in reverse, too. Do you know Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods? It’s cool stuff. It’s horror comics, and she was first doing them online. The way she formatted it, you’re going through this landscape, so you get this sense of claustrophobia. When you read it in book form, it’s still great…

Johnson:…but it’s a different experience.

Sattin: It’s really interesting.

II. On Writing About the End of the World

Sattin: The feeling in Oakland right now is dismal. It’s like being in the middle of a wake.

Johnson: Houston’s not much different, believe it or not. Just adjusting to the new reality for the next couple of years. It’ll be interesting to see what effect it has on art. Art simultaneously seems more frivolous and more important. I’m going to have to resettle with that and see what happens. It’s hard to know what’s next when you have these major societal shifts. The major societal shift when Obama was elected seemed like a year of people figuring out what world we were in. I think the same thing’s going to be happening this year, too. There’s no agreement on strategy, there’s no agreement on response, there’s no agreement on what is actually happening. It takes time for that to become settled.

Sattin: Being heavily progressive, I see things through that lens, so [the 2008 election] was a very positive time. Embracing different changes in a new, better world where we could dig ourselves out of a mess. Now, I feel like there’s a pall over everything now. I see people starting to get back to work, as far as being interested in creative work again. When you said the word “frivolous,” that struck a chord. I was thinking about how, here I am writing about the end of the world, and a lot of people have been, too. A lot of people have been writing about the post-apocalypse and [writing] lot of genre fiction that acts as cautionary tales. I remember having this feeling-and it was a really cynical feeling-of, Oh my god, what did it do?

Johnson: We just talked the apocalypse up. Our constant obsession with a dystopian world has led people to go, “Fuck it! Let’s do it! This guy looks like our best chance to end the world—let’s go for it and see what happens!” People vote for whomever for a variety of reasons, and there’s no one way of why people chose whom they chose. But there has to be a significant faction of gaslamping assholes who thought, You know what would be funny? If this guy’s president. And now we have to see what that means. There’s been so much storytelling about the end of the world, or the end of society—some of my favorite stuff, like Children of Men, which I was showing my class this week. In my own work, I’ve had elements of that. I think it’s been on our minds, anyway. It does seem like a prophecy foretold.

Sattin: You’re right about Children of Men. You’re talking about the movie, or the book?

Johnson: I didn’t like the book at all. I tried the book, because I liked the movie so much. It’s not P.D. James’ best.

Loving Day Cover Art

Sattin: They’re examples of these plausible dystopias. Children of Men, for me, was probably one of the most plausible [ones]. Which is why it was so harrowing, you know? There’s also a lot of hackneyed stuff; it became a trend. I wonder if it cheapened it, in a way.

Johnson: How the world ends is the ultimate story. And most of us—well, at least, I thought—are not going to see that. It’s understandable that we have fantasies about what that might be. They’ve always been there, but in the last 15 years, since 9/11, we’ve had so many different versions of that. Even when you look at Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, you get the same sort of apocalyptic fervor. But there, it seems like an apocalyptic fervor in response to the civil rights era, and the fact that the world was changing from the 1950s version of reality to a scarier reality, where what you have is, literally, the last white man walking the landscape. That’s the same impulse behind the image of Trump.

Sattin: That’s what won him the election—it’s white fear. I remember seeing a tweet of yours from a couple of years ago where you said that we’re seeing all these films and books about the end of the world while we’re waging wars abroad, and yet here we are, scared of existential threats.

Johnson: We specifically have all of these narratives about alien invasions, where aliens are going to take over. Things like Dark Skies and Colony and Battle: Los Angeles. We project what we’re doing to other places onto ourselves as a nightmare. We’re imagining we’re Iraq; we’re imagining we’re Afghanistan. That’s what makes them interesting, too—and that’s what I think is going to be interesting about this world response. The art either directly reflects or becomes an inverse reflection of what’s going on.

III. Art and the 2016 Election

Johnson: There was a [Superman] storyline where Lex Luthor became President, and I keep thinking about that storyline. At the time, I thought, This is totally unrealistic! Why would they vote for him? And they did it.

Sattin: We voted for a man who lives in a tower plated in gold.

Johnson: Who’s demonstrably lying. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s a big personality and it’s all a big circus. They’re choosing what channel to watch in the next couple of years.

Sattin: You were saying that about people who just want to see things burn. I remember hearing reports of people talking about why they voted for Trump in the Rust Belt. They were talking about how they weren’t angry—they just wanted a change, they said. And I thought, What does that mean? You wanted to see something happen. You wanted to see an explosion. There wasn’t an impetus or an anger behind it, except for the anxiety about demographic changes and the things we know.

Legend Interior Art by Chris Kohler

Johnson: It’s the same reason that a 13-year-old throws a rock at a window. Why did you do it? I don’t know—I wanted to see it break.

Sattin: Writing post-apocalyptic work, you start to see how narrow that is, and what you can actually do in it. In some ways, it’s a really interesting thing. In my opinion, there isn’t a ton of room for what you can do with the post-apocalypse, especially now. For the last eight years, we’ve been talking about how art can be used for social change and social justice, and trying to move things in a good direction and talk about representation and being inclusive. And now, I just wonder if the genre is going to have to reframe itself to go forward. Do you think people will keep pushing forward with the same ideas? Do you think people will have to push harder, or do you think there’ll have to be some recalibrating?

Johnson: Artists and people who love art often overstate how powerful art is as a motivating factor in society. It’s nice to say that it can be earth-changing, but if you’re being literal, what is it doing? Talking about my own work, I think that sometimes it makes people who already agree with me feel like they’re being reinforced, and have some clarity about that thing that they already think. I don’t think I’m changing a lot of people’s minds. I think those people aren’t choosing to interact with the work itself, anyway. I think that has value, and can reinforce different points of view, but the vast majority of storytelling that’s done on television, which is the biggest mass medium, is from a center-left perspective. We still have a majority of actual land, and probably half the country, that’s more conservative than the stories they’re being given all the time. It’s humbling. All of the work that’s been done to push back against racism and anti-semitism, and it’s still there. It’s not going anywhere, and it seems like there’s a whole new wave of shitheads that are embracing the energy of hate, and all of the storytelling in the world hasn’t erased it.

Sattin: I think that’s really insightful. You look at television, and you look at it being a cultural zeitgeist for what’s happening, or what people are feeling, and you think, Okay, we’re trying to move in this direction of being more inclusive. Especially if you work in writing or you work in the arts or you work in comics, you think even more with a leftward slant. I live in the Bay Area as well, which puts me in another bubble. When the election started coming out, I started seeing all of the horrible things that were being said. Not just by the Trump campaign, but also by people on social media, all the racism and anti-semitism that you were mentioning, all of that started surfacing. I thought, Holy shit! Nothing’s changed. I don’t know that that’s completely accurate-

Johnson: It’s like they’re diseases. As long as there’s some of it that exists out there, it has a chance to grow and build. Rational human beings are talking about a Muslim registry. How fucking scary is that? We’ve done religious registries before—it did not end well. Almost all of the discussion of xenophobia is “You’re being offensive.” That’s a legitimate discussion, but we are very quickly in a different discussion right now, where we have people like Steve Bannon, who at Breitbart has actively racist, Islamophobic, anti-semitic stuff out there. That leads to a place that’s a lot more dangerous than anyone’s feelings. It’s horrible. Everything is horrible! Everything is horrible and we’re all going to die.

Sattin: That’s the title of this conversation: “Everything is horrible and we’re all going to die.” I think there’s also the element of, when people get offended, there’s this element of, “I don’t like the way you make me feel.” You try to surround yourself with like-minded individuals. The Bay Area is a microcosm of that: people live in the Bay Area in a very different way than they live across the country, in terms of the way they talk and the way they act, the things you say and the things you can’t say. You forget that there are real fights out there—not “forget,” but you choose to think that the one that you’re fighting is more important.

Legend Interior Art by Chris Kohler

Johnson: It’s not just a fight between people who basically agree on the principles, and are arguing over the fine print. There are people out there who are fighting over a fundamentally different social reality. A lot of those tactics depend on shame. I’m shaming you for not referring to these people the way they’re supposed to be referred to; I’m shaming you for having either direct xenophobic thoughts or thoughts that could be interpreted as being intolerant. But the real enemies, they don’t give a shit. There’s no shaming them.

Sattin: They don’t care.

Johnson: And they embrace their own hatred. You saw this idea repeatedly over the course of the campaign—Trump with the taco bowl, which is like something out of one of my books! It just seemed like satire. But that’s not a campaign-ender, because he has no shame about it, and his audience has no shame about it. They’re fine with it. It’s a reminder of how insular the Left’s discussion has gotten. Its tactics are meant to apply to people who basically agree with the general principles. It’s not meant to apply to people who are actively vying to be racist and xenophobic and sexist.

Johnson: Right now, I’m rethinking the projects I’m working on in accordance with all of this. I’ve got a novel that I’m significantly into, but this definitely affects it. I’ve got the next comic book project. And I’m working on a TV show, and if that show happens, it’ll definitely be affected by this world.

Sattin: Everything has to change. That was the initial shock, for me, at least. It was how wrong I felt, and a lot of people I knew. It wasn’t even a feeling of mourning; it was a feeling of being completely wrong about the world. In terms of writing, everything that is being done now, at least on my end, you have to change in order to understand. What I thought was right is no longer valid. So yeah, everything is horrible.

Johnson: Everything is horrible and, again, we are still all going to die.

IV. The Future of Legend

Johnson: What’s going on with Legend now? What’s the next step?

Sattin: Now, it gets released; we get the graphic novel out there and we see how people respond to it. It’s a weird time to be releasing the book, but at the same time, we’re proud of it. We like where it went. We’re trying to see where that goes. From there, we work on the second part, the resolution, and see where it goes from there. Right now, I’m thinking about the things you were talking about earlier—how do I think about this book in terms of the current political situation?

Johnson: I’m really enjoying the story, and I think you’re doing a great job. It’s neat to see your storytelling grow over this time, as well. You’re still writing novels, right?

Sattin: I’m working on another novel right now.

Johnson: My daughter loves your YA book.

Sattin: She does! That’s so good to hear. You’d said that she was drawing some sort of bookmark, or something like that…

Johnson: She loved the crew, and drew them all out, and told me which one was which. I was going to send them to you, but then she swore that she would never speak to me again.

V. Prose and Comics Storytelling

Sattin: You inspired me to get into comics writing. I’ve always been into comics, but when I met you, I really loved your work. You made me think it was possible. I wanted to talk about some of the differences that we find between writing comics and writing novels. It’s not just the page turn, and I think that novelists might have a hard time finding out how that transition works. How did you start out? You wrote novels first, right?

Johnson: I had two novels published before I had any comics stuff. I had already been writing prose for 15 years. I definitely came from prose first. At first, I was translating my prose skills into comics, but eventually, they felt like two different skill sets. I was working on my last novel as a TV show. That seems very, very similar. The physical, visual storytelling—that translated very, very well. I was very glad that I had done comics first, before doing screenwriting. It’s not the same thing, but there are so many similarities that the transition was a lot easier.

Sattin: One of the things that I learned from collaborating with an artist is that you have to realize that the vision that you have is going to be different.

Johnson: It’s collaboration. You’re giving up complete control, but what you’re gaining is somebody else’s talent being added to the equation. When it goes well, it’s better than anything you could have done on your own. And when it doesn’t go well, it’s a fucking disaster. When it goes well, it’s great. I work alone, so doing collaborative work feels like a break. It’s the joy of not being stuck in my own head all the time.

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