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Comic Book Day: Peer Into Joshua Dysart’s “Dark Crystal”

by on February 27, 2013

dark-crystal2Let me be completely honest – while I was familiar with Joshua Dysart‘s work, I didn’t know too much about him as a person, so when the chance to interview the Harbinger scribe arose, I leaped at it. As I discovered, Dysart is a man of many convictions. He loves The Dark Crystal, the medium of comic books, and braising the ever-loving hell out of stuff in pork fat – values which I think we can all agree are pretty All-American. Honestly, who doesn’t love a good braise? To celebrate the release of Archaia Entertainment’s Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths, Vol. II,  I caught up with Dysart to get the inside scoop on what we can expect from our journey back to Thra.

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Nerdist: Tell us what’s going on in the world of The Dark Crystal and what we can expect from Vol. II.

Joshua Dysart: As the title suggests – especially the “Volume II” aspect – there was a previous Dark Crystal book before mine. Really well executed and lovingly done, and that introduced a few characters and introduced the notion that Agra was an immortal who was born at the beginning of Thra. If you don’t remember the movie, Thra is the world and Aughra was one of the more cantankerous characters in the film. The original volume introduced her and her son Raunip; it also introduced the Gelfling named Gyr who’s a sailor and a musician and goes to the end of the world, where he hears a song of the aliens who are occupying them, the UrSkek.

So that’s where our book picks up, and we really tried to make it self-contained. We reintroduce the characters to the best of our ability and get them on the road. Our book takes place 1,000 years later, actually, and it’s about them going to all the sentient races of Thra – the Pod people, the Gelfling and everybody – and heading to the Crystal Palace for the next Great Conjunction. Those who have seen the movie and know the history of the world know that the Great Conjunction is the event that splits the UrSkek into two separate species that are sort of soul-linked, the urRu (the mystics) and the Skeksis. That’s what we’ll be covering.

N: Wow, quite a bit of ground to cover. 
JD: There’s a lot going on there.
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N: Yeah – it seems like there’s quite a bit of mythology that you need to absorb. I know for Unknown Soldier, you went to Uganda to do a month of research. How did you prep for this project? Repeated DVD viewings? Poring over every archival material you can get your hands on?
JD: You know, what’s interesting is that this movie is actually a huge part of my development and a big part of my inspiration, and I think you can see certain aspects of the aesthetic, if not the philosophy, in my work today. Honestly, the research and immersing myself in the mythology wasn’t difficult at all; I found the book to be easy to write and I was able to slip back into that world with no trouble at all. I saw the film so many times that I’ve spent more time on Thra than virtually any other fantasy world. Except for maybe Elfquest. [laughs]
So, it came easy to me. I was actually a little bit intimidated when the project first came to me, when I was sitting down to write. It was one of the more effortless tasks I’ve had to do as a write.
N: That must be refreshing, when it just comes easily.
JD: Yeah, it’s super fun. I generally labor and scream and tear my hair out and toss and turn at night when I’m writing, which is all the time so that’s my natural state of my life. [laughs] But, there’s just an inner child in me that knows exactly what kind of Dark Crystal story he wants to see and he just came right out.
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N: How closely did you work with Brian Froud?
JD: I actually didn’t work that closely with him. He was involved in the initial conception of the three books. Some of the initial broad strokes were his and he was also involved in designing characters – that was his contribution. I’d like to say that the aesthetics of The Dark Crystal, the design of it – that’s Froud. One of the great gifts that the property has given to us is Froud’s vision animated like that. That’s an important thing – to have him continue to design new characters, especially the very young Skeksis and the urRu because by the time you see them in the movie, they’re 1,000 years old. What did they look like when they were newborn? We couldn’t have done that without Froud. If we’d gone to another designer, we wouldn’t have been honest to the property.
The artwork in the book is stunning too. Alex Sheikman and Lizzy John just did beautiful, beautiful work. My writing is really secondary to the absolutely stunning pages they put together. It was just lovely working with them.
N: When you’re working with a preexisting franchise like this, does it come with any sort of narrative mandate or do you generally have the freedom to do what you want to do?
JD: There was some editorial pushback from Henson, which is totally their right as the property holder. I wouldn’t call it a “mandate.” If it was a mandate, they would have given me their notes before I started working on it. [laughs] Whereas editorial pushback is getting them after. The film itself is where the real mandate emanates from. It’s like, okay, Josh, your job is to tell the cracking of the Crystal, these are the elements we set up in the previous volume… go! Henson came in and some of the notes were fine, some of the notes caused some friction, but we executed it to the best of our ability within the parameters given. But, I wouldn’t call it a mandate; the only mandate was the one I put on myself because of my own personal views of the film.
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N: What are the difficulties associated with working with a preexisting franchise like this where there’s a certain degree of fan expectation?
JD: I’ve spent most of my career, for better or for worse, working within fan expectation. It’s always a tricky thing. It really depends on the property and the sort of fans that property has drawn to it. My hope is that what I’ve brought to The Dark Crystal is unique to my voice. Maybe I’ve made it slightly more mature in its themes, and I hope that the audience is right for that. I think they will be, because I feel confident that, as a fan of the property, giving myself what I want might lead to me giving the fan base in general what they want, which is the foundation I think The Dark Crystal is built upon: gorgeous, beautiful designs; big, open pages; lush landscapes; and honestly, big, open ideas too.
The original movie is hinged on some pretty standard fantasy tropes, but dressed over those tropes is an incredibly beautiful philosophy about nature and our interactions with each other and the interconnectedness of things. That’s all stuff that Jim Henson brought to it, and brought to all his projects actually. There’s a certain humanism that he used his puppets to communicate. And as long as that’s in there along with the gorgeous imagery of The Dark Crystal, I think we’re going to be just fine.
N: I think so too, especially with a property like The Dark Crystal, which is so visually exciting and seems to lend itself well to comics.
JD: Unquestionably. I think my biggest concern when I was first approached to work on the property was, I thought, “What is interesting about this property?” What’s the driving force behind it? My first instinct was that he did this with puppets. To me, the most amazing thing about The Dark Crystal is that it’s all done with puppets in proximal space. Craftsmen built these sets and these puppets and they performed with them and there was no CGI. It’s a huge endeavor, an extraordinary creative act. But in comics, the one thing we don’t have is puppets. So, I had to sit down and really think about the beauty of the original Froud design work. to me, that was the strength of it all. That’s where comics serve the property.
N: You’ve been described as a comics advocate, hosting panels and trying to raise awareness for the medium. What initially attracted you to a career in comics?
JD: Sure. [laughs] A nice, easy question. I’ve been reading comics all my life. As a young man, I discovered a reprint of Zap #1 amongst my mother’s magazines and R. Crumb became the first artist I knew, because I made a connection between the art in Zap #1 and the art on the Big Brother and the Holding Company album that was in a stack of my mother’s LP’s. So, the very first artist whose name I ever knew was a comic book artist, and an underground one at that. All of my friends were drawn into comics by superheroes, but because I had these hippie parents, I had all these underground comics lying around the house. All my life I’ve been reading comics, and I never imagined making a career out of it, but then, in 1994, I was contacted by a friend that I had done some scriptwriting work with, and she had fallen in love with a comic book artist and they wanted to do a comic book. She knew I read comics and that I was a writer, but I never really took it seriously, and that was Violent Messiahs, the very first comic I ever wrote. We did that together, and, you know, I think that I just woke up one day and thought I’ve written this terrible comic. I wanted to write a good one, so let’s struggle for the next twenty years to try to make it happen.
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N: Another real narrow question – why is the medium so important to you?
JD: Why I think comics are an important medium is a really big question and I apologize if I start to ramble. I think that it’s important for many, many reasons, but right now, in a world where every flat surface is screaming, barking and blinking at us with media, here we have this one medium that is the last bastion of the hieroglyph. There’s no media, no sound, it celebrates our graphic nature and does extraordinary things that no other medium can do. For one thing, we’re the only medium in the world that can tell three ongoing separate narratives simultaneously without being extremely experimental. By this I mean, if done well, if you have a really good writer that’s really on their game, you have a textual narrative, which is obviously the text being read; the visual narrative, which the images being placed in sequential order; and you have a synergistic third narrative, which is the result of the text and the visuals being brought together to imbue each other with deeper meaning. And that’s something you cannot get from other mediums.
Another thing that’s unique to comics is the way that we play with time, and this is something that’s super important right now because the culture is speeding up. We’re sort of getting locked out of time. The volume of information is staggering, and we’re losing a sense of what it is to be still. Comics don’t demand any of that. A movie is sort of dictatorial, you’re always chasing it in lockstep, trying to keep up with the 24 frames per second  and a novel does the same thing in its own way. You can’t read it out of order, the words don’t separate into individual meaning, but a comic book, you can spend all day on a page if you want. It’s yours. It belongs to you, that moment. You can really revel in the moments between panels where all the motion happens. That empowerment of the reader is really, really powerful.
In the 1960′s, the United States government did all sorts of experiments on the best way to distribute propaganda and they found that comic books, people who read comics remembered the information with way more consistency than those who saw a video or simply read text. It’s the first recorded form of storytelling, the base of how we communicate. We put pictures in sequential order to tell a story, and I don’t want to lose this simple, engaging, and super imaginative art form. And I told you I was gonna ramble here, so bear with me. One last thing is a very pragmatic reason - getting away from the poetry of the form and all that bullshit – it’s as cheap as you’re gonna get if you want a visually expressive medium with unlimited imagination. While I despise people who try to put movies down on paper and call them comic books, we’re starting to be the last place where you can do super engaging, super creative, super dangerous ideas and do it for relatively cheap. A friend of mine who can draw and I can blow up the world in a page and do it for the cost of pen and ink and maybe the cost of distribution if we’re lucky. That’s $100 million if you want to do that in a movie. I think we have a real power and a commitment to interesting ideas and concepts. Other mediums are too committed to chasing the dollar to do that successfully.
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N: I think you hit the nail on the head there. You mentioned propaganda comics – did you ever get a chance to read a comic called This Godless Communism? It was an ongoing anti-communist strip that ran in Treasure Chest, a subscription-only comics compendium that was distributed to parochial schools in the 1940s through the 1970s.
JD: No, I’ve heard about it, but I’ve never read it, no.
N: If you ever get the chance, it’s pretty hilarious. It’s essentially an anti-Soviet Union propaganda book that supposes if the USSR took over the US and turned it into the United Soviet States of America. It’s full of moments like, “What now? Let’s pray around our television and hope for the best.”
JD: [laughs] Nice! That’s fantastic.
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N: Apart from The Dark Crystal, is there anything that’s coming down the pipeline that you can share with us?
JD: I’m pretty ensconced in my monthly book, Harbinger. Duane Swierczynski is actually doing Bloodshot for the same publisher, Valiant, and we’re doing a crossover called Harbinger Wars that’s actually coming your way fairly soon. So, that’s really my immediate future, and for those who follow me or artist Camilla d’Errico, (we) have been working on a Helmetgirls graphic novel for years. I mention it every time I do an interview, and I promise that it really is coming. [laughs]
N: Well, it sounds like you’re plenty busy, but let me just float this by you: a BPRD/The Dark Crystal crossover.
JD: [laughs] I don’t know how Mike [Mignola] would feel about that! I guess never say never. Mike’s pretty close-fisted with Hellboy. Believe me, it’s not from a lack of my desire to see it.
N: I figured as much. It’s more something I’d like to see for my own edification. 
JD: I understand completely.
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N: What comics are you reading and enjoying lately?
JD: I’m enjoying Hawkeye, which is great, and I’m thoroughly enjoying Multiple Warheads, the fourth issue of which hit recently. Other than that, the books I was following –  like Prophet (you can see a Brandon Graham theme here) – came to a close. I picked up The Massive by Brian Wood. I was a huge Northlanders fan, a huge Scalped fan – I think that was one of the best books of the past decade – so I’m kind of catching up on my graphic novels now. As far as monthlies go, just The Massive and the other books I mentioned.
N: One last question – what’s in your ideal burrito?
JD: Fantastic. Well, I’m from the Texas-Mexican border, so burritos are pretty special to me. But, I also like to keep it simple because the Tex-Mex food is a pretty simple food. What you really need in a burrito – obviously – is beans – not refried – and a good, strong brown rice. No lettuce. You shouldn’t put lettuce with cooked stuff. Some guacamole, a nice green salsa, and then meat, obviously beef, chicken or pork – any one will do, but I tend towards beef – and then you just braise that motherfucker in pig fat. The whole thing. Braise it in pig fat. The fat of a pig. Pour it all over that baby and you’ll get a great burrito.
N: You, sir, are a man after my own heart, and I think my arteries just hardened thinking about that.
JD: It’s terrible for you, but amazing.
N: You’re eating a little lunch bomb anyway, so you may as well go big then go home.
JD: Seriously, a healthy burrito? Sacrilege. In fact, it’s your fault, but it looks like I’m going to go have to go get a burrito. C’mon, man, I was doing so good this week…
Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths, Vol. II is available from Archaia Entertainment today, and you can keep up with Joshua Dysart’s work on Twitter or his website.