The Borderline Interview with Andrew Vachss
Borderline's Jay Eales recently spoke with the closest thing the real world has to Matt Murdock, author and lawyer Andrew Vachss.
by Jay Eales
Originally published in Borderline #18, January 2003
The comics medium is but the tip of a very large iceberg for writer Andrew Vachss. Comics readers may know him for his Dark Horse work: Hard Looks, the crime anthology series that adapted many of his short stories; Underground, based on a concept by Vachss; Cross, a series based around one of Vachss' continuing characters; Predator: Race War, a miniseries pitting Cross against the movie monster, and Another Chance To Get It Right, "a childrens book for adults," a collection of stories, poetry and fabulous illustrations by the likes of Geof Darrow, championed by no less than Oprah Winfrey on its release. You may also know of his DC work: Batman: The Ultimate Evil, a novel and tie-in comics adaptation. As a prose novelist, Vachss has written no less than 18 novels and 2 short story collections since 1985, published in 25 countries. In 2000 he received the Raymond Chandler Award for his body of work. And that's before we even get to his day job! Andrew Vachss is an attorney and consultant, with a practice operating out of New York, dealing exclusively in child and youth cases (abuse/neglect, delinquency, custody/visitation, related tort litigation); the novels are merely a way of reaching out to a bigger jury than any courtroom. His career has seen him move from volunteering for relief agencies trying to get food into the war zones of Biafra to running a maximum security prison for violent youths in Massachusetts, and then going on to put himself through law school: the word "driven" could have been coined just for Vachss. For a time, he worked as a lawyer by day and cab driver by night. As a caseworker for the New York City Department of Welfare, Vachss saw such horrors—like a baby with venereal disease—that he dedicated his life to doing everything in his power to fight against it. Not so much from any particular "love of children (Vachss is happily married without children), but more from a hatred of abusers, he'll use any weapon in his arsenal to further his cause. A major figure in the Don't! Buy! Thai! Campaign, designed to force the government of Thailand to take action against the paedophile haven that their country had become, he is also a mover behind the CARE Act, a piece of legislation intended to close a horrific loophole in US law which means that a criminal can expect a longer jail sentence for possession of a pocketful of cocaine than they would for incest. At present, most states of America draw a distinction between the sexual abuse or rape of a child and the same crime perpetrated by a blood relative. The term Vachss coined to describe this inequality is "grow your own victim" ... Just turned 60, with an eyepatch resulting from an assault with a chain when he was a boy, Vachss cuts a severe figure. Never one for small talk, he only grants interviews on his own terms, and speaks just as he writes. What Vachss has to say isn't comfortable, but then, it isn't intended to be. Borderline is grateful to him and to Lou Bank of Ten Angry Pitbulls for agreeing to an email interview just as Dark Horse are about to release new enhanced editions of Hard Looks and Another Chance To Get It Right, with additional material and covers by Geof Darrow.
Borderline: You brought writing to the comics medium for much the same reason as your move into prose, I'd imagine: to spread your message to as many people as possible, by whatever means at hand. But how did the opportunity present itself?
Andrew Vachss: I believe it was Mike Richardson's idea to adapt my already-existing material (the short stories) into the comics medium—it never would have occurred to me. But, once I was approached, it took me about five seconds to realize the potential value. And that potential is proven out at every book signing I do, where there are always several people who tell me they came to my novels through the comic books.
BL: How successful would you say your forays into comics have been? Hard Looks and Another Chance To Get It Right are into multiple print editions, but Underground disappeared very quickly, and I understand the experience you had with the Cross comic was not all that you'd hoped for. Could you give us your views on these projects, given hindsight?
AV: My views, in hindsight? The experiences divide into two sectors, 180 degrees apart. Hard Looks gave me an opportunity to "see" my material as I never had before. The adaptations were, in effect, shooting scripts for the artists. So I not only found an increased opportunity for my work to do its work, but learned a lot in the process. Another Chance exceeded my wildest expectations, reaching an audience way outside my hardcore (in both senses of the term) fan base, and busting up a few stereotypes in the process. And now for the other side. The Underground comics series was not my work. It was my concept, left to others to execute. In my opinion, its death was deserved. And Cross? Comics is a visual medium. Putting Geof Darrow covers on that interior "art" was like using a Rembrandt to wrap dead fish.
BL: What you would do differently if you were starting them now?
AV: With Hard Looks and Another Chance, you can see exactly what I would have done by looking at the forthcoming new versions of each. It was Mike's vision to expand Hard Looks (we expect further volumes, so that all the prior work can be collected in trade paperback), and I have been working on the new material for Another Chance with my brother Geof for years. I would also have added Frank Caruso's brilliant interpretation of my "Behavior is the Truth" haiku, had it been available at the time. Underground? All I can say is, never again. Not that way. Had I known how the "shared world" thing was going to play out, I would have aborted the project. I believe the Underground series, as collected (in prose) in Born Bad and Everybody Pays would make a perfect graphic novel. Here is an example, Underground graphic novels that were published in Finnish, and never appeared in the US. When it comes to Cross, there is still a lot of material yet to be adapted. And what I would do next time is simple and straightforward: I would change the artist, change the editor, and supervise the project myself.
BL: Would you say that your comics work has managed to reach a lot of people who were previously unaware of your prose work? Has there been a lot of crossover between the two audiences, do you think?
AV: Based on conversations and correspondence with fans, the comics worked beautifully to introduce folks to my prose work, especially as some of them, subsequently, enlisted for the duration. I have had considerable mail from comics fans asking when I am going to return to the medium, or for the continuation of a particular series, or new episodes featuring a particular character ... something we may get to do with "Half-Breed." I also have had people write and say they believe a particular book Shella, is the one most frequently mentioned would make a great comic, and even suggest specific artists. And it works [in] the other direction, too. I've heard from readers that they picked up Hard Looks in a bookstore expecting it to be prose—something especially likely to happen again, now that we have dual covers for the new Hard Looks—and were surprised because it was comics and they liked the comics medium. From there they went on to other comics, and not just mine. If your goal is to spread the word—and my agenda is no mystery to anyone—cross-pollination is a major technique. When someone asks me, "Why do you write comics?" I tell them, for the same reason I write editorials, essays, and articles; the same reason I give speeches; the same reason I appear on TV programs, and give interviews. Same message; different forum. There is no universal forum, so the more outreach we can do, the better the chance of forming coalitions.
BL: I understand that the Don't! Buy!Thai! campaign you were a major instigator of, and which was promoted heavily by Dark Horse during the publishing of Hard Looks and Underground, has been discontinued, at least by yourself, after the Thai economy crashed, and the laws were tightened. Do you consider the campaign a success?
AV: I could write a book about that. Here is our official position on the Don't! Buy! Thai! campaign.
BL: On the website, there is a section devoted to your recommended creators, like Tim Bradstreet, Geof Darrow and Alan Grant. Do you have any time to keep up with any comics these days, given your workload?
AV: Most of my reading is non-fiction, a necessity in a profession that is in a constant state of flux. But I would find time to read anything by Geof Darrow (for my money, the absolute, undisputed champ) and Alan Grant (who, I believe, is the finest writer working in the medium—and the one with the most to say).
BL: Do you have any current favourites?
AV: Besides anything by Geof or Alan, I especially like the writing of Cuckoo by Madison Clell, and the art of Tim Truman and Kyle Hotz.
BL: From even the most rudimentary research, you come across as very driven, single-minded in your vocation, as far back as your teenage years. Did you read many comics as a boy? And if so, which titles really fired your imagination?
AV: I read comics only occasionally as a boy. None of my crowd was into them. Paperbacks were what drew me, then. When The Getaway Man, is released, you'll see my homage to that era. When I started working in comics, it was awkward at first, because editors would assume I understood certain references, knew certain characters, etc.
BL: When people adapt your short stories into other forms, such as the Hard Looks comics by Dark Horse and stage/radio adaptations like Replay, how much input do you put in?
AV: As to the comics, when you have writers of the caliber of Chet Williamson, Joe Lansdale, Charles de Lint, James Colbert ... who needs "input?" Instead, I paid close attention, and learned a few things. The stage adaptations work to very specific rules: unlike the movies, not a word of a play can be changed without the approval of the original writer. So the trick there was to pick the best actors. I really scored with David Joe Wirth, who did the original performance of "Placebo," and Jill Kotler. They're not only brilliant actors, their gestalt is incredible. As for versions performed elsewhere, I had no input.
BL: Does everything have to go across your desk for approval, or do you trust to the editors/ producers' abilities once you've agreed to work with them?
AV: You asked me, before, what things would I change? Answer is: everything now goes across my desk for approval. But this isn't an issue of "trust," it is one of quality control. I (and several members of my crew) each, separately, read the page proofs of all my novels. Not because I don't "trust" my editor at Knopf—Edward Kastenmeier is a writer's dream to work with—but because we want the best possible product. Many of those contributions are not reflected in the credits. For example, without the brilliant input of Ten Angry Pitbulls honcho Lou Bank, Hard Looks would not be as beautifully-presented as it is in the newest version.
BL: After the accolades and attention heaped upon Another Chance To Get It Right, have you felt under any pressure to produce a follow-up in the same vein? Do you have any desire to do so?
AV: There has been a lot of intense interest expressed in a follow-up to Another Chance. I think Mike's idea, to add all-new material to the existing book, was the best solution for now. But, someday, I'd like to do another book like it. My novels are, intentionally, not for everyone—Another Chance is. It's the kind of book anyone can read, exploring my one theme from the opposite direction. I am always characterized as a "dark" writer, but fans have told me they give Another Chance as baby-shower gifts and as wedding presents—I can't see them doing that with one of the Burke novels ... or, for that matter, Hard Looks.
BL: With the new editions of both Hard Looks and Another Chance, there is additional material included, leaving readers who already own earlier versions with the dilemma of whether to buy them again. Why tinker with them?
AV: Why do people tinker with their cars? Or their weapons? Or anything they built with their own hands? To see if they can make them better. Besides, what writer wouldn't jump at the chance to go back in time and improve his earlier work, while expanding and adding to it at the same time?
BL: You took a couple of sidesteps into licensed character waters with Predator: Race War and Batman: The Ultimate Evil. Did you find the experiences good, or overly restrictive, when having to deal with the film company suits and Dark Horse/ DC management? Is it something you'd consider doing again, if the right project presented itself?
AV: "Sidesteps" is exactly the right word! I could do a very funny riff on my experiences with the Batman project. Bottom line: working with licensed characters isn't for me. I've turned down several opportunities since then, and plan to continue that strategy.
BL: Of all your prose adapted into comics and other forms, do you have a particular favourite, or favourites?
AV: I think my collaboration with Geof Darrow on the long centerpiece in Another Chance is my all-time favorite, but there's a long list.
BL: Do you intend to continue working in the comics form, or is the next big stage to shepherd Burke to the silver screen?
AV: I don't see those as mutually exclusive. Anyplace they let me set up my pulpit, I'm going to preach.
Hard Looks, (250 pages $19.95 US) Contains 11 comics adaptations of Vachss' short fiction, and 6 illustrated prose stories, including a new story: "Half-Breed," the first in a new cycle. Published November 2002.
Another Chance To Get It Right, (88 pages $11.95 US) 30% larger than previous editions, and contains 20 new pages of prose and illustrations ("Love is Behavior" written by Vachss, drawn by Frank Caruso, and a new 18 page story called "La Corazón Del Niños" featuring four all-new full-page illustrations by Geof Darrow, who also supplies a new cover.) Published February 2003.
© 2003 Borderline