Last week saw the release of the second issue of Young Terrorists from Black Mask Studios. Being such fans of the book, we caught up with writer co/creator Matt Pizzolo, who took time from his busy pre-holiday schedule to discuss Cesar, Sera and their gang:-
CC: To say there is a lot going on in your book is a bit of an understatement. How as a writer, do you keep the story straight in your head? Is the framework static or is it flexible to allow others ideas in as and when they occur?
Matt Pizzolo: It’s pretty flexible. What I did is I wrote the whole arc out first as a single script broken into acts. Even though the issues are 80-pages, they’re structured with act breaks roughly where a single issue might end, the comics didn’t structurally have to be super-long issues I just liked that format when we were putting it together. I wrote everything from the baby being kidnapped on page 1 to the factory farm climax as a single script before Amancay ever started on issue 1. Then as we were doing it, I broke it down and pulled it apart and added and subtracted as we went, but it always had all the bones there.
CC: Reading the book, especially this issue, there is a “Through the Looking Glass” vibe, which in turn sparks thoughts of “The Matrix”. What is the inspiration for the book and what would you say are the influences in play?
MP: It starts with Cesar referencing Doors Of Perception in his narration and that quote “The totality is present even in the broken pieces…” is from Doors of Perception, so that’s directly where I was pulling from to start issue 2 because the first issue was about Cesar piercing the veil to an alternate world framework and in issue 2 he crosses that threshold. So yeah he essentially goes Through the Looking Glass, but he stays in the real world just shifting to a different facet of it. On a certain level Young Terrorists (YT) is about how we all subscribe to a particular shared-mind set or another and those mind sets create the frameworks of our worlds… we build those frameworks collectively based on culture and identity and point of view, and in order to see the world that someone else sees you really have to cross a perceptual threshold. A laid off factory worker in Flint just doesn’t live in the same world as a hedge fund manager in NY. They don’t speak the same language. And that creates blind spots. We can identify fake news when it comes from someone else’s framework but we can’t identify it when it comes from our own. Like… I can see your fnord I just can’t see my own. And these people who Sera has collected or recruited live on the fringes between the prevailing frameworks. That’s what she looks for, people who can travel between these worlds. Because she started as a billionaire heiress who tumbled into a Gitmo-style internment camp, she had to cross thresholds to survive.
CC: Creating a universe/world from scratch must be hard. How do you manage to get all the relevant information that helps the reader understand character motivations etc., without turning in a book that is all info-dump and no real story?
MP: I hope I’m able to do that, it’s always a delicate balancing act and I’m sure I botch it all the time. I try to serve up the world-building on a need-to-know basis, otherwise it can be overwhelming. It’s a lot of tinkering to find the right modulation. Entering the world with Cesar simplifies things because we learn as he learns, but mostly I think world-building only feels like an info-dump when the writer is being lazy and I just try my best not to be lazy. Which is hard cuz I’m pretty lazy as a person. So, let’s see… this is a craft question, right? I generally try to avoid just writing exposition captions or anything like that and instead focus on weaving the exposition through the characters, but sometimes the right answer is to be as simple as possible. For example, I noticed with issue 2 that my friends read an early draft and thought the border-crossing and drug cartel compound were not real places but rather fantastical, dystopian creations. I felt it was important to try to convey that those are based on very real places that are in operation right now. For the border-crossing, I just used the simplest of devices by having Sera set it up in dialogue and then I added a location-caption in the border-crossing establishing shot. I generally don’t like location-captions, but it seemed like the best choice in that case. Simple and precise. For the drug cartel compound I did something a bit more elaborate by using the conspiracy-news show to link the drug cartel directly to Sera’s plot, because the cartel in the story is fictional even though places like that exist, and the important thing I needed to convey there is why Sera knew about it in the first place. All of that comes from showing your drafts to people you trust so they can tell where they’re losing the thread, and then you just have to decide the best way to communicate the missing information.
CC: Reading the book, I think you have pitched just right to be honest. The dialogue and text all felt natural, which is a great talent for sure. I would be amiss if I didn’t mention some of adult themes prevalent in the book, such as the violence, drug use, gender roles. How did you take these separate elements, though tenuously linked they may be and weave a story that is somehow more complete?
MP: If it makes it feel more complete, then that may just be it’s giving you a more complete understanding of the characters because you’re learning about them on multiple, extremely personal levels. The book is about adults and intended to be read by adults, so I don’t shy away from adult situations because it’s all authentic to the characters. These are mostly characters who live on the fringe, and so they’re a bit more extreme and less concerned with social conventions, but all in their own unique ways informed by their own internal conflicts. Also again this is all about perception and identity and how we are manipulated and how we take back control, so it’s pretty much impossible to separate all that from our sexualities and our relationship with violence.
Also, you mention The Matrix and Through the Looking Glass, both of those use drugs to open up their protagonists’ minds. Going back for most of civilization, certain forms of drugs and sex and violence have been considered means of opening the doors of perception, tapping into the subconscious, and even rewiring the ways our minds operate. The characters in YT are experimenting with all of that, not just on themselves but also as a means to influence other people… in some cases they’re enlightening people, in others they’re manipulating them.
CC: The book clearly is meant to provoke some thoughts – What is the message or messages that you hope readers will pick up on?
MP: That nothing is binary.
CC: With so much going on, the gap between issues is somewhat cumbersome. When is the next issue due out and how do you plan on keeping reader interest in a crowded market place?
MP: We’re going to announce more that should be coming in the Spring 2017. I know readers have been disappointed with the delays and I feel awful about that, and I also feel very grateful for their patience. I take this book really seriously and I don’t want to leave readers hanging, but I also place a lot of value on publishing all the creators at Black Mask and I always put their publishing needs first ahead of my own creative schedule, which can really throw things off the rails when there are bigger life problems like Amancay and I dealt with between YT issues 1 and 2, I had an eye injury that made it really difficult for me to read or write for months and we both had some pretty horrible health problems in our immediate families that we had to support our family members through, so hopefully none of those problems will persist in the future and we can get these books out with more regularity and predictability. Generally speaking, I’m hoping we can expand a bit staff-wise in 2017 so all the Black Mask books can be wrangled better to run on time. We were better at it in 2016 than we were in 2015, but there’s still a long way to go.
CC: With some many books out there, how do you overcome the challenges of getting a small indie book to stand out against the slew of other indie books, not to mention the big two?
MP: I don’t really have a secret sauce for how to keep reader interest, I wish I did. Mainly… I guess I just believe that what I have to say is different from what everybody else is saying, for better and for worse, and so long as it’s unique it’ll stand out. Also, as a publisher, that’s what I look for in a book: something with a voice that is personal and unique enough to stand out in a crowded market.
CC: So now that Cesar is off the grid and part of Sera’s group, what’s next for the pair and their group?
MP: Everything’s been pretty calm in the book so far, but shit’s about to get crazy.
Thanks once again for taking time Matt. I know that a lot of people have been raving about this book, even over here in UK, who can’t wait for the further adventures of the gang.