An Interview with Alex Ness, by David Yurkovich, 2007

In 2007 David Yurkovich interviewed me for, and in 2008 that interview was lost due to malicious hacking of that website. David Yurkovich was and is a great writer and friend, and he recently sent me this, saving it from oblivion. And I thank him for that.

Please enjoy this...

A Google search yielded more than a million results for Alex Ness. Who are you, and what's the secret of your success?

I was born in 1963 to a desperate woman who had been raped New Year’s Eve 1963. She gave birth to me despite her disattachment to me, and I was adopted by a family from Northeast (pronounced Nord-eest) Minneapolis. I grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, have spent most of my life loving where I live, and feeling my way through a life with Northcentral/Midwesterner’s eyes. I went to university off and on, graduated with a history and political science degree, went to graduate school in the same areas, but always wondered what the hell I was and who I was, and why was I getting education in an area I could not really see myself working in. All the while I loved reading, drawing, painting, and writing poetry.

I’ve been married to my best friend, the former Elizabeth Wallace, since 1988, and in 1998 I was blessed to have a son with my wife. I began writing online in 2000, and have written about comics and fun stuff since 2002. I am barely successful, so the secret to what I’ve accomplished at this stage of life is not dying yet. I should not say that. If being happy is successful, I am, very. If having friends and family you adore is being successful, I am, very. But in this materialistic world success is measured by wealth, fame, or feats, and I’ve little to show in those areas.

You wear many hats—among them, writer, poet, reviewer, interviewer. Which hat fits the best, and why?

I think that the answer that seems right here is each of those hats are different but fit differently and are proper for certain occasions. I am not equivocating; I will outright answer that of the many things I am, poet best describes me, but I am a poet often times in outlook while I do the many other roles I fit. As a reviewer I use my outlook towards poetry as a means of understanding a work and hopefully expanding a person’s appreciation of the work by explaining various aspects of that work in a short but powerful way. I have read many books, learned many facts for no reason, it would seem, but to have them; however, as a poet I use those facts to establish a verisimilitude or true feeling to my work.

That same attempt to inform my poetry informs my fiction writing. As an interviewer that attempt to know the truth so that I can create fiction that rings true makes me ask questions to understand a talent, more than anything else. People might take issue with some of my lesser interviews or less-mature interviews, but regardless of outcome, or perception, I rarely would say I was going through the motions; I honestly believed what I was asking. But it has been clear to me for decades that I love poetry and that it works for me in a manner that nothing else comes close. I think it fits the way my brain works, so poetry is how I best express the information and intuition within.

You've interviewed many—many—individuals both within and outside of the comics industry. Which interviews were the most satisfying, and what made them so?

Well, really, this is not that hard to answer because you remember your successes, but actually I prefer to think of the work I’ve done interviewing as a continuum that success rate has risen, while my own degree of satisfaction in what I’ve done is improving. So my own valuation of what I’ve done might be different than someone else’s.

The five most rewarding interviews were Robert Venditti, Grant Morrison, Jim Krueger, Mike Grell and James Turner. In the case of Robert Venditti, I should say it was almost a marriage made in heaven of what he wrote about and what I have researched. As part of my growth as an intellectual, I studied the trends of the future, and Rob’s work SURROGATES clearly plays amongst the ruins of the future, and the hope therein.

Grant Morrison is something of a dream for me, he writes with a beautiful eclectic worldview, as well with a post modernist outlook. His work has long inspired me. When the interview came in, I had tears in my eyes reading his answers. Jim Krueger and I came into contact with one another in an odd fashion. I loved picking his brain. He is highly intelligent and we are simpatico on many fronts. The Mike Grell interview was odd. At first it was a haze of two or three questions sent and a quick response, and then, I lost my hard drive and Mike got busy. When I got back to the Internet world, Mike had essentially forgotten about the interview and my e-mails went unanswered. Finally, a mutual friend intervened and the interview resumed at its fever pitch. Ultimately not because of the interview but because of the friendship that grew later, I grew to appreciate how much of Mike comes out in the interview. Often I learn about a talent, but you never know what their real self is outside the interview. Well, Mike is Mike wherever you find him. He can be crusty and such, but, to me, he has been nothing but a great friend. I adore him and the interview was the doorway to that friendship.

Finally the James Turner interview; it was about paradigms and deeper stuff that was so clear in his work, and as such, I was really excited to expose the brilliant mind behind the brilliant work. NIL and REX LIBRIS by Turner are the best works to come out from SLG in my opinion, and both have James Turner as their creator/parent.

How long has poetry been an interest?

The first written work I have that is collected was a poem, and a pretty good one, about my mother from when I was 6 years old. I added a picture drawn in red crayon of her. The moment I heard poetry is the moment from which I’ve been interested.

What is it about poetry that you like?

To me, there are aspects of existence that appeal because it is how we are wired. Others from acquiring the taste. In terms of poetry it is emblematic of how I think and how I am wired. I think in big, big pictures and try to break it down into small bites for others to understand. Poetry can be logical, intuitive, emotive, explanatory, thoughtful, thoughtless; anything goes. I am moved by it. It allows me to express my views in a way that spoken word or written analytical remarks would not.

Who are your influences—not necessarily limited to poets?

Oh yes, influences...I draw influences from all across the map creative-arts wise. In terms of poets, William Carlos Willaims is my favorite poet, and by far my greatest informative influence upon my own work. I adore many different poets, Poe, Dickenson, Spencer, Byron, Shelley, but while I read them all, my influence in poetry is with Williams. But my poetry is informed and influenced by other sources and genres and mediums.

Ernest Hemingway’s work is so stark and real it informs my work because it teaches me how to be honest. Lord Dunsany is the opposite in terms of stark, it is so lush you learn how to explain when needed. Jackson Pollack, Pablo Picasso, and Edward Hopper all deeply influence my work because of the fact that they all took single images to express emotions, and did so in singular, powerful manners. Lastly, I am moved by Akira Kurosawa; his films show painfully achingly desires to be honorable, and true. I’ve pursued much in my life as a matter of honor, despite being unworthy of such a thing. My work explores honor as much as other themes.

Pardon the obvious goofiness of this question, but what is the single-greatest poem ever written (discounting, of course, Rush’s THE FOUNTAIN OF LAMNETH)?

So many poems and so many styles to say one is nearly impossible. My personal favorite is THIS IS JUST TO SAY by William Carlos Williams, but BEOWULF if read as verse and poem rather than prose is probably the greatest poem, in my mind, in the Western world. The great haiku poet
Matsuo Basho likely wrote the greatest poem in the Eastern world but which one would not be easy to choose.

One of your favorite comic book series is Eclipse's SCOUT. What is it about this series that appeals to you so greatly? When did you first notice Truman's work?

While I love SCOUT and consider it a favorite, there are also some other comics that score highly and upon a daily basis change places with SCOUT: Grant Morrison’s DOOM PATROL run, Roy Thomas’ INVADERS, Mike Baron’s BADGER.

Having said that, SCOUT spoke to me in a way that I was stunned to find out. I’d not read the first series while it was coming out on the stands; I’d read some issues of SCOUT WAR SHAMAN new upon the stands and was transfixed by the simple, direct, even strangely beautiful story of an Apache warrior fighting the good fight with children at his side. The art was gritty but really nice to look, and the story felt real more so than anything I’d read at the time. With the final issue (no. 16; December 1988) I cried upon reading the last pages. It had power and grace, all things a memorable tale needs. I gathered up all the previous issues and found myself in hog heaven. And since issue no. 16, I have been waiting for the next volume in the series.

I noticed the work of Truman early on at First Comics and later on GRIMJACK. It was not my favorite work of his, and GRIMJACK was not my favorite character, by any means; but it was the impressive presence on the newsstand/comic shop through the cover work that Truman did on GRIMJACK that announced his being an artist of great skills. Later on with the book AIRBOY I became a fan. I can honestly say that while Truman’s writing has not always had the best art accompanying it (when not his own art), his writing affects me equally powerfully as his art. There is a level of humanity unreached by others; at the same time it works as adventure and action.

Truman is a dear friend, he is beyond talented and he has a deep compassion for the wounded of the world. I think that for artists of Americana he should forever be remembered as one of the very best. If you took a survey of critics and reviewers right now there might not be a universal acceptance of such a statement; however, his work has a timelessness about it, and while the fads of the present will come and go and burn bright or be considered “hot,” those who create timeless classic works will always exist, and will grow in respect.

To me, comic books represent a strange dichotomy. I still long for the comics of my youth, but as the saying goes, that time is past. Do you think that today's comics are better than the comics of yesteryear? Do you think it's fair to even make comparisons of this nature, or is this sort of comparison akin to comparing the special effects of a 1950s sci-fi film against today's digital effects technology?

I certainly cannot deny that the comics of my youth are still able to affect me as they did. I read Jack Kirby and just smile. I do not try to add layers or criticize the lack of anything, it is what it is. For me they are touch points to my past. I remember the comfort they gave me when I read them. So I think your question, while fair and well stated, is a bit off. Sure, comics are better today. They are better in terms of maturity, quality, production, writing, art; everything about them has a more mature ability to entertain. I think that as a degreed historian I view things differently than most, I do not see the acts and accomplishments of the past as being less worthy as the present; I see them as the building blocks of the present. We have a number of great creators to thank for this, but rather than the names Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Brian Bendis, who are all supremely talented, we should celebrate all the people who opened doors, who built foundations, and who brought comics to where they are today. I love old comics, and have no issue with telling people how great they are, but I also do not hold them to the same criteria as I do any work I am currently reading. If it is unfair to do this, it is nonetheless a positive way to deal with the works of my past. I think it must be grossly unhealthy to go around criticizing anything that no longer or never did appeal to you. If not cynical, that is nonetheless negative.

As a Jack Kirby fan, is there a particular Kirby era that appeals to you?

Oh yes. The era I enjoy most in 1969-1979, when Kirby seemed to be trying to answer all the great questions he’d held in for decades. His work might not have appealed to some, either in writing or art, but for me it struck a chord in that it was simultaneously adventurous and fun, while asking big questions about existence. THE NEW GODS and THE ETERNALS were confusing to a number of people I knew, but for me, even as a kid I could really see that Kirby was attempting to understand the big picture, through the eyes of epic heroes. The dialogue was wonky, the anatomy certainly Kirby’s and Kirby’s alone, but for me it played well into the bigger panorama that Kirby worked in, and I adore it. I remember returning home from a Canadian fishing trip with my dad and uncle, and I bought a three-pack of comics—CONAN THE BARBARIAN no. 62, CAPTAIN CANUCK no. 3, and the prize…CAPTAIN AMERICA no. 207. It fascinated me to such a degree that I tried to understand the storytelling aspects of it, because it lingered so in my mind. I still have it, because I still study Kirby. And while I read the other two comics once and gave them to my brother, I still read the CAPTAIN AMERICA.

In the last few years we've seen a multitude of comic book-related films, including the HULK and FANTASTIC FOUR (both co-created by Kirby). What is your opinion of comic book properties that make it to the big screen? What properties that haven't yet been developed would you like to see developed?

I think that when you consider comic book-related films you have 300 and SIN CITY and everything else. However successful anything outside of 300 and SIN CITY was or is, it likely is not to the level of 300 or SIN CITY. I did not altogether “enjoy” SPIDER-MAN or SPIDER-MAN 2, but I do not like the character so I am content that they were well done but out of my range of interest. I thought the HULK movie was garbage, and I thought that the CGI Hulk looked like Gumby. I liked DAREDEVIL; while mostly due to Colin Farrell’s insanity, the movie showed a lot of love for the character. I like FANTASTIC FOUR but saw it with my boy so I saw it somewhat through an 8-year-old’s eyes. It was fun. BATMAN RETURNS was good; Christian Bale was a fine Batman and a great Bruce Wayne. I thought SUPERMAN RETURNS looked like crap so I cannot judge it; I did not see it. I am sure I am missing something but cannot remember.

Having now bowed toward Frank Miller, wherever he might be, there are different areas to go. I can see IRON MAN as a James Bondesque feature; with great effects it could be a wonderful movie. I think a great majority of comic work that seems unlikely to be made into movie is because the story is already done, that anything done to it would likely fail. For example, a very good friend told me that I had to buy a comic—it was this, it was that, and it sounded great. I bought it. And frankly I laughed more in his telling me about it than the actual reading of it.
I think a number of properties might be that way. On the other hand I could see a great JON SABLE, FREELANCE coming out, NEXUS in live action; POWER MAN done by Quentin Tarantino would really be fun to watch. It’d be dirty and vulgar too but...

I love asking this next question because it's so absurd: Where do you get your ideas?

Ideas can come to you from normal activity that leads your mind to wonder. They can happen when you think “what if...” and ideas can happen when you sit down and try to write. It isn’t that you cannot just create something in a vacuum, because I think you can. But if you begin a process where you have a germ of an idea and brainstorm it, or feed that germ with information it is very useful. It is that the more something that is fictional feels real that you are able to move in areas that have great returns. So getting an idea is something that first comes from inspiration and intuition, but following that up with effort and energy allows it to flourish. I’ve been told by a number of people that I am a good “idea” person. While it was meant as a compliment, to me it means that I need to work better upon the follow-up of developing the idea fully.

You've had long-term health issues that you continue to deal with, yet your creative output never seems to slow down. How to you manage to keep your creative energies high even when you feel low physically?

It’d be reasonable I think to argue that the creative passions are a means of release. When I write a poem I get an endorphin rush. I might well have colitis, arthritis, gout, kidney stones, and the big one—diabetes—and more, but they have nothing to do with my ability to express. I’ve also made precious little money, so between being poor and sick, it rather bites me when I try to relax. I feel compelled to work out of a fear that I will die and leave my family only debt as proof of my existence. I think being sick saps your will, but, whatever else I am, I was born with a need to express myself. Being sick does not prevent that; it just changes the direction of it. I think sometimes bad things happen, but you have to persevere. On the other hand, when I learned my mom has Alzheimer’s and my brother had two heart attacks, it devastated me. When my boy is sick or my wife is sick, it wounds me deeply. And when those sort of things happen
I feel depressed and lose some of my ability to be creative.

Although films like SPIDER-MAN continue to set box-office records, it seem that the comic book industry is still a niche industry. What can the US comics industry do to attract readers?

Comics are indeed a small industry, but that doesn’t mean that they should not think big. Being a niche industry might have advantages too, such as being able to attract highly talented creative talents from other mediums.

I think that while the comic book industry has shrunk, the worldview of comics has grown. Not every studio is out to use comics as a demonstration of a film intellectual property concept. Stories for the sake of them are what will “save” comics, if that is the correct term. The mainstream US comic book industry needs to open up the channels for new voices, rather than tell the same old shit. You look at great publishers across the board, from DC to Dark Horse, from Marvel to Image, from IDW to SLG, a great many publishers put out great product, but in many ways it is similar to itself. If you go to Top Shelf to Alternative, from ASP to Daikuwaka, you find great product.

However, no matter the quality, it seems to be about the same things. The world outside of comics does not sneer at them as in the past; however, it does see comics as being all about capes and tights, and fat guys who are virgins, and such as that. I applauded CrossGen for trying to broaden the readership of comics. Had they done a couple things differently and comic readers were more willing to try new things, I think that they might have succeeded. So offering well-done work, like the work Viper Comics is producing, that is not all about super-heroes is a first step. Another step might be to return to some of the storytellers who’ve been abandoned by years out of the industry.

People like Tony Isabella, William Messner-Loebs, and others wrote successful comics back when the market was more robust. I believe that they knew how to write all-ages comics. My son and I were scouring a back issue bin of cheap comics and almost every comic in the there was too mature for him. He asked, “How come so many comics are written for people who are older?” I told him that it is entirely due to older people having money. So, a cheaper-priced level of comics might well help the industry grow consumers of their product.

Describe a few of your favorite current favorite comic book series or creators.

Ya know, normally this would be an easy question. But lately I’ve hit a rut that I cannot get out of. Usually I am very hot for one series, but lately I like lots but not love anything. I like Virgin Comics offerings; SNAKEWOMAN, DEVA and SADHU are all very interesting. I think Josh Howard’s work at Viper continues to be impressive and is quite appealing to me. I like a lot of Image’s books, even SPAWN, which is kind of weird to me. I bought it at the beginning of the run despite having issues with the concept, and here I am 168 issues later still digging the character. SAVAGE DRAGON has been a rock-solid book at Image, with few peaks or valleys, so I think that is good, too. I think that since most of what I’ve seen that I love has been mini-series, perhaps that is why I am without a “one” book; it is on the way perhaps. I just hope it arrives soon.

Writers often use their characters as a venue for expressing political, social, or religious beliefs—do you regard this as either good or bad?

I see absolutely nothing wrong with it. I see a lot of what is done in that fashion as being poorly done, but that is not the same as whether it should be attempted. I was listening to a band that sang about God and such, and all I could think was how it was bad propaganda. If you set out to create something and you end up using it as a tool to preach a message, any message, you need to understand that if poorly done your work might well be so bad as to harm your goal, rather than to help people achieve it. I do like some Christian bands, I do like some works that are propagandic, but overall it should be good before it should be anything else. But is it wrong to have characters in work represent your view? I hope not. So many writers and artists place their hearts and souls into their work it’d be very sad to impose restrictions upon such things. I’d say if you can do anything well, and do it within the confines of the work without making that work laden with the burden of your views, then do it.

If you were given an opportunity to write an established character (either in comics or prose fiction—e.g., Sherlock Holmes), which character would you want to write, and why?

I wanted for a long time, a long-ass time in fact, to write a story using OMAC just prior to the Great Disaster, where he is faced with a biblical proportioned Armageddon and forestalls it, leading to the messed up world that is seen in KAMANDI. But Jack Kirby did enough, and I would hate people to perceive that I’d like to correct anything because all I’d want there would be to add layers, not disregard anyone else’s work, and to certainly not create a continuity hitch that other writers would have to try to repair. OMAC has been used by other writers in a manner that would really make what I’d like to do an impossible task. Other than that there are others but not in any long-term sense, more a story-arc covering—fill in the blank. Also, I would have to admit that I love THE SHADOW and would likely have some stories there to write, but I could live not doing so as well.

There are almost no established characters I would want to write. It is because I liked and am satisfied with previous works that I have no desire to correct them. Also I should say, it has always been my opinion that if a character is written or even drawn poorly, the answer to such an episode is that I believe that it was not important, or it was not part of what I consider canon for a character. So unless I had something important to say I would prefer to say nothing in that regard.

Who is your worst critic? Is it yourself, your peers, a family member? How do you separate yourself from your work to review it objectively? Is self-objectivity possible in your opinion?

Ha. Fun question. When it comes to my poems I am nearly bulletproof. I am happy with them if you are reading them. If I do not like poems I just get rid of them. The same is true with anything I’ve done art wise. I just see no reason to keep things I do not love. But with other work, I stand a bit more naked to the world; it is because it is less personally creative and more interactive with others.

Reviews are properly criticized because they are commenting about creative work, that is, a creative endeavor. I can see people taking issue with anything said because people have different views of what is good. Also, and I think this is important, I’ve moved from seeing myself as someone who reviews products to someone who presents them. The difference would be more in line with how I view my role as a reviewer. At one time I was receiving dozens of books per month, comics, games, books, even DVDs and music; if I counted the number it would approach 100.

Getting all that but reviewing 12 to 15 works per month meant making an active decision. What do I choose to write about of those items I’ve considered? I decided most all the time to chat about stuff I liked because I felt it deserved the attention of the potential buyers of the product. If I reviewed 15 works of 100, and 14 of the reviews were positive, it does not mean I like everything, (although I confess I do look toward the bright side and try to find something positive to say), it simply means that I am presenting these items as being worth your attention.

Interviews are considerably different. Sometimes I’ve written bad questions, usually out of despair because no matter what you attempt, you cannot place into words what you wish. Sometimes I’ve asked questions that were not fully wrought; that is, I did not consider the answer I’d get, so I did not prepare myself for a glib response. I would certainly accept oodles of blame for my own bad work. On the other hand, you can ask perfect questions and still get shit answers. No matter how good the question or even, for that matter, how bad the question, much of the success of the interview rides upon the willingness of the interview subject to answer what they’ve been asked. I made serious attempts to ask questions worth answering to a couple big names, but they had no time and so they answered the easy questions, and sent back unanswered the serious ones, leaving me with about an 800-word interview of crap. I won’t name names, but it is hard sometimes because I realize that the talent is busy, but if you say yes to an interview you should try to actually answer the questions asked. A friend I know interviewed Pat Lee regarding his horrible treatment of employees in the DREAMWAVE fiasco. The answers were canned and no follow-ups were allowed. But instead of seeing the interviewer at fault I saw the nature of the game. The only way Pat Lee was going to answer anything was under preconditions. So you had a choice of something limited or nothing. I think most people would take something over nothing.

Finally, when you create something in the realm of fiction, you are doing something that must stand up, and must be open to collaborative changes. I am a writer, and an artist in my mind only; if I want to make a comic, I either need to collaborate or quit because I cannot do the art myself. So there is inherent with that process an openness to criticism and change. I’d say it is not fun being told to change your work, but I am aware of the cost of collaboration. However, it also gives me a serious rush to see the work artists do with my words. I have rarely ever been disappointed.

As to who is the toughest critic, it has to be myself, but the most painful words come from people who are outspokenly wrong. I had someone complain to me nearly daily about a variety of things, through e-mail, and a couple times via phone, and it was nearly always wrongheaded. I was being assailed because I was not doing something, but it was something I had no intention of doing. When finally I told the person to either go start their own site and do it themselves or shut up, they finally stopped. Ultimately, they failed when they tried doing it themselves.

The one source of legitimate criticism that should affect the creative voice is the critic within. There is a matter of the artist needing to be a warrior of sorts, being true to his or her own voice, whatever the cost. Learning that is not to make you immune—you should always have room to grow and to change—but it would steel you in the event of foolish words. But no matter what a creative person does, there will always be wolves in the darkness stalking their every move. Not that I’ve experienced it regarding my own work, but as a reviewer I’ve certainly seen it.