Jimmy Callaway writes cutting edge crime stories that are always readable and lack all pretension. Go to A Twist of Noir for a selection. He also writes prose dipped in humour and you can tell a Callaway story as soon as you begin reading it. He is highly individual. He is a connoisseur of comics and the lead singer of Slab City. He is a strange hybrid of music, subculture and wit. His prose always entertains. He blogs with irreverence at ‘Attention Children. Sequential Art’, one stop shopping for everything Callaway. He met me at The Slaughterhouse and we talked about comics and comedy.
The Silver Surfer is a Marvel Comics superhero who was created by Jack Kirby and first appeared in March 1966. Do you think, given the fact that he has been exiled to earth as a semi-divine being, the Silver Surfer is a Messiah figure and what does Dr Doom represent?
Yeah, I absolutely think the character has that sub-text. But I think if you cornered Kirby on the issue, he’d say it’s more like that science-fiction tack they often take, where the lone alien outsider is puzzled and perplexed by these humans, with their modern wars and modern parking meters. Like, Jesus showed up and he was like, All right, everybody, hey, let’s be groovy to each other, okay? But to me, the Surfer shows up and he’s more like, What the hell are you people on about down here? I mean, it’s cool, but I just don’t get why you fight or listen to the radio or anything like that.
Dr. Doom represents the angry nerd, the guy who is smart enough to save the world, but a girl made fun of his overbite in junior high, and he’s been in a downward spiral ever since. This has always been my favorite kind of villain, y’know, I can relate very well to guys who have been kicked around their whole lives and then begin to rationalize some pretty lousy behavior of their own. As much as I liked Spider-Man 2, that always bothered me about what they did to Doctor Octopus’ character, that they made him a fairly normal, well-adjusted guy who got sort of possessed by his mechanical arms. Magneto, of course, is the supreme example of this kind of villain, being that if you’re a concentration camp survivor, you have claim above all others to having been dealt a shitty hand. Plus under the right writer, there is no topping Magneto’s purple soliloquies on the inferiority of the human race (something else I can very much relate to).
In Robert E Heinlein’s ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians, returns to Earth. In the novel he investigates the Fosterite Church of the New Revelation, where sex, gambling, drinking and other earthly pleasures are not considered sinful but encouraged, even within the church building. He gains a cult following. How easy do you think it is to start a religion?
Seems pretty easy to me. Especially if there’s fucking.
The universe is a mind-bogglingly vast place, and the scope of that can be terrifying. So anyone who can come along and make some sense of things, who can help give some people reassurance that everything is going to be A-OK, that person can pretty much write his or her own ticket, it would seem to me. I pretty much go with the Freudian notion of religion, which (if I’m understanding it right) says that, when you’re a child, the whole universe revolves around you: when you sleep, when you eat, when you crap yourself, and so on, you decide all that. And so you associate those feelings with the peace and joy of infancy. When you get older, you want that “at one with the universe” feeling you got as a baby, so you basically regress your thinking to that point, with some kinda all-powerful God-parent figure who will pick you up and cuddle you when you’ve made a boom-boom.
Here’s another awkward analogy: when there’s a solar eclipse, you’re not supposed to watch it straight on, you’re supposed to poke a hole in a shoebox and watch it through there, with your back turned to the actual event. That could be religion: a way to look at a vast cosmic event (in this case, your life)(which is actually, not unlike a solar eclipse, a fairly common scientific occurrence and not that big a deal, really, in the grand scheme of things) in such a way that your retinas don’t fry out. Of course, with your back turned, someone can easily come along and steal your wallet, but some consider that a small price for peace of mind. And to finish the metaphor, while everybody’s outside looking at holes in shoeboxes, I’ll be inside reading comics. Thanks, anyway.
If you had a mint edition of the first ever Green Lantern today would you sell it or keep it? If you kept it why, and if you sold it, what band that would have been playing at the time would you cash in the money to go to see and what would you spend the rest of the money on?
I’ve always been much more of a Marvel guy, so I’d probably sell it. I mean, I’d read it first, but then off it goes. I could probably get upwards of 160 grand for it if it’s in near-mint, and honestly, I don’t really know what I’d do with that kind of scratch. Probably a buncha boring stuff like paying off my student loans and getting my own place. I’d probably go to the nudie bar a lot more often after quitting my day job. What else? I’d hire The Dwarves to play a party at my house. Open up a line of credit at the comic shop. And get a lot more writing done, that’s for sure. If it wasn’t for this lousy need to feed myself, I wouldn’t even get out of bed, much less work for a living.
Now, if we’re talking a copy of Incredible Hulk #181 or The Amazing Spider-Man #129, I’d never let either one of those out of my sight.
Roland Barthes viewed myth, journalism, advertising and comics as part of an ongoing cultural narrative. To what extent do you think comics can be read as part of our cultural discourse and are they as relevant as other works of literature?
I think comics can be read as part of our cultural discourse to the fullest extent. This may be because they pretty much represent the sum and substance of all my cultural discourse these days. Movies are too expensive, and TV tends to ramp up my already alarmingly high suicidal tendencies. So comics remain my main avenue into the American experience, such as it is. And though I don’t know if Barthes was ever into comics, I would be willing to bet he’d dig them as well.
Although I think comics are the superior medium of expression, they still have a ways to go.
I work one day a week in a comic shop, and I can tell you for certain that Sturgeon’s Law is as in effect as it ever was. I love superhero comics, but if another one is never produced, I think we’ll all be fine. When comics are opened to the myriad other emotions and experiences of human life, when they are produced with an eye towards something in addition to escapism, there is no alternative in my mind to the levels of art achieved. Comics are relatively cheap to produce, but the format really is only limited by the imaginations of the creators involved. It’s like the best of high and low art: nobody’s really paying attention, so you can experiment and do all sorts of crazy shit they’d only let you get away with in art school, but at the same time, anybody can walk into a comic shop and pick up your latest efforts.
Comics are better now than they ever have been, and they only continue to get better, to achieve more relevance, to attract more intelligent audiences. The States are always going to be a little behind in these sorts of things, but I am optimistic that comics will one day be considered as valid an art-form here as they already are in France and Japan and other more receptive cultures. And we’ll never be short of superheroes, either, so best of both worlds there.
If comics appeal to our need for heroism what do you think we are avoiding about ourselves?
Well, I hate to speak for anybody else on this, but I can say personally that at the age of 11, which was when I became enamored of superhero comics, I was attempting to avoid my incoming adolescence and all of its accompanying hormones and bad fashion choices. I failed, of course, but I certainly can’t argue with my motives. Generally speaking, I find the workaday world to be, at best, mind-numbingly dull, and at worst, mind-numbingly dull. Superhero comics still represent a very necessary alternative for me to things like coffee klatches and babies being thrown into dumpsters. For one thing, superheroes are done a lot better than they were when I was younger, so they already have more depth and meaning than mere adolescent male-power fantasies. Yet they are still able to tap a well of 11-year-old excitement in me. So it’s another nice “best of both worlds” situation.
I think it’s safe to say that everybody has aspects of their lives and/or personalities that they are trying to avoid. And I like to think that I have, in regards to my own lifestyle, elevated that somewhat to a point where all I’m really trying to avoid is boredom. Things like love, acceptance, security, those are still fairly important to me. But what I’ve come to realize over the past year or so is that for the most part, those needs are met, and all I’m really doing is fretting away time worrying about whether I have enough or if what I do have will one day vanish. I mean, it’s all really silly. So now that I feel a lot more stable, mentally and emotionally, than I have in a long time (if not ever), I find my focus to be on writing, reading, and all the other intellectual pursuits I’ve taken up over the years to keep from pitching myself off a high rooftop. So far, so good.
Imagine you are commissioned to create a new superhero. Someone you care about is about to be killed and your comic character needs to save their life, what attributes do you give them and how do they resolve the situation?
The sad fact about my beloved friends is that the mortality rate among them tends to increase in direct proportion to their alcohol intake. So I’d create a superhero who could hear BAC levels rising across town, and then his superpower could be diffusing the situation without being a total buzzkill. In fact, that could be his code name: Total Buzzkill. Able to impersonate irate neighbors on the phone to the police in a single bound. The innate ability to hide sets of car keys. A bottomless supply of cash for sobering, late-night burritos.
It’s a pretty stupid answer, I know, but the fact of the matter is a) I don’t care about that many people beyond my group of friends and b) all the good superheroes have already been created.
Do you think that comedy is a mask and if so what do you think it is hiding?
Yeah, I’d say so. It could be hiding any number of things, really. I know I often use humor to relieve tense situations, often times situations so tense, one shouldn’t be cracking jokes. Which just makes doing so all the more irresistible to me. But I’m kind of an asshole sometimes.
Comedy can be a lot like religion in that camera obscura way I was talking about earlier. The world, as I mostly see it, is a really sad, miserable chunk of mud, floating around in the vast chaos of it all. So it really becomes a laugh or cry situation. And to make fun of something, to exercise that power over it, can be very cathartic, even if it is simply hiding one’s true feelings.
I dunno, y’know, it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought, over the years as well as just for this question. But I’m finding the right words eluding me. But basically, yeah, comedy is a mask a lot of the time, and what it’s usually hiding is all the other gross and icky emotions and reactions we have in this mostly pointless and vain existence. That sounds like a bummer answer, but really, I think it’s the best possible system. Sorta like the post office.
Your stories are cutting edge and often feature lonely guys leaning on the paid services of sex workers. In ‘Night Train To Mundo Fine’ the protagonist is carrying some raw pain. The sexual acting out you describe seems to resonate with his rawness, his usedness. Does your character operate from his wound and does that make him another loser or do you think he is typical of humanity as a whole?
Man, do I really have that many lonely-guy-and-sex-worker stories? I mean, it’s not a real surprise, I guess. Sex is on my mind often enough, there’s a good chance it’ll work its way into anything I write and I won’t even notice it.
Anyway, yeah, that story is definitely in that vein. To be fair to that protagonist, he has just lived through the end of the world. So yeah, that particular wound is pretty all-consuming, and he’s definitely working from that, although I’d say in a positive way. I think that story is very much an affirmation of natural impulses, in the name of existentialism. Basically, we’re all gonna die, so let’s just have a good time.
So, no, I wouldn’t say he’s just another loser. Frankly, I’m pretty fed up with distinctions like that. The terms “winner” and “loser” in this context imply that there’s somebody keeping score, who we can probably call “God” for lack of a better term. I’ve probably made my feelings for this “God” character fairly clear by now, but lest some confusion remains, there ain’t no God, and if there is, I wouldn’t trust Him/Her/It to buy a program, much less keep score. On top of that, my characters (and their creator, for that matter) could pretty easily be categorized as losers, and that’s because a lot of times folks want the easy categorizations, so they don’t have to think too hard. That’s certainly an impulse I can relate to, but at the same time, I’ve got little patience for it.
As far as this particular character being typical of humanity, that’s hard to say. The “end of the world” angle in that story works pretty well as a metaphor for how I see the general state of things, which is pretty much a shambles. This character manages to persevere and overcome these obstacles and then set himself down a track to take it easy, a vacation well deserved. I don’t really think I’d be able to pull that off, and for a lot of humanity that I’ve come into contact with, I remain dubious on that as well. But it’s certainly not impossible.
Do you think God is sick?
Hoo boy, what a loaded question.
I think it would be a wee bit more accurate to say that people are sick, and God is one of the major symptoms.
Even as a fairly avowed atheist, who will sometimes go over the line into aggravated anti-theism, the best I can really say with any conviction is that the existence of some sort of supreme being doesn’t make any sense to me, that I don’t see how such a thing is possible (This includes the western Judeo-Christian God with which I am most familiar, as well as the deities of any other religion, even if those ones tend to dress cooler and fuck more often). And even I am not so full of myself as to think that my reluctance (or inability, if you’d rather) to believe in such a thing automatically disproves its existence. Basically, if there is a God, well, then, you coulda fooled me.
Now, when it comes to others’ beliefs, far be it from me to deny them anything. The only belief I can deny others is the belief that they can take my stuff or otherwise violate my person. But if I had to guess at this persistence of many others in religious belief is that it works as kind of a rationale. A lot of the time, to be fair, this can be a really good thing. If a raging drunk or a convicted felon or just somebody who’s got a pretty rough life is brought some comfort and salvation by belief in God(s), then it’s really kinda difficult to argue that religion is a bad thing.
But speaking for myself here, whenever life’s demons are nipping at my heels, I turn to other, more concrete rationales. Art, literature, philosophy, and good ol’ psychotherapy have got a lot of answers to a lot of my questions, as well as plenty of ointment to salve over whatever infections may have occurred. True, none of these claim to provide all the answers, but what am I, fuckin’ greedy?
Humanity is sick, and I am no less afflicted than anybody else. But I like to think that my attempts at a self-cure will eventually get me to a better place here on this mortal coil, instead of some pie in the sky. And if I’m wrong, well, then so what. I gave it my best, coach.
You’re the lead singer for Slab City, who remind me of the Ramones and the Stooges. How big an influence is music for you and what lies behind the masked beast?
Yeah, music has been a very big part of my life since junior high, although my passion for it may have cooled considerably over the last decade or so. No reason, really, I don’t think. But long gone are the days where I’d blow my paycheck at the record store on a weekly basis.
I don’t always have music playing when I write, but when I do, it’s usually for a good reason. I was working on a thing where the main characters listened to a lot of rap, so I did as well. By the time I was done with that project, I don’t think rap was mentioned once, but it was a quality of the characters, so to have it playing as I worked with them was indispensible. Some projects have themes of a sort; Cheap Trick’s live album at Budokan is the background to the novel project I’m currently working on. Music has found its way into lots of my stuff: the title “All the Smart Boys Know Why” is from a Johnny Thunders song. The Dwarves’ “Saturday Night” was the inspiration for my story “Your Own Saturday Night.” Little things like that. I don’t like to make my pop references, muscial or otherwise, too overt, as I feel that sort of thing calls undue attention to itself. Y’know, like if I write a half-assed story, oh, I’ll slap an obscure Monkees reference on it, and that’ll make it cool. I used to think that way, which is all the more reason to not get cute like that anymore.
Funny, isn’t it, Richard, how these masks keep coming up? Yeah, when we play live, I often play in some sorta goofy get-up, like an ill-fitting dress or a cape or something, and a lot of the time, a mask of some kind. For one thing, I think that sorta thing is funny, but it’s also fairly liberating, creatively speaking. Without my glasses on and with a bandana over my eyes, I can’t see what an asshole I’m making out of myself, or the looks of horror mingled with disgust on the faces of the crowd, so I’m a lot less likely to hold back. I’ve been asked after shows, when I’m back in my civvies, if that was my secret identity up onstage there. To which I’ll reply, no, actually, this disguise I’m wearing, your average joe, this is my secret identity. That guy on stage in his tighty-whiteys dipping his balls in your drink, that’s the real me.
Thank you for giving a candid and entertaining interview Jimmy.
Hey, thank you, Richard, and to anyone out there reading this, thank all of you for your interest in my fever dreams. Seriously, it’s very nice and flattering to know that people enjoy my work, and it makes the whole thing that much more fun for me. So thank you again.