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Spotlight

Postal: All Empires Must Fall [Interview]

Matt Hawkins, Bryan Hill, Isaac Goodhart, and Betsy Gonia create POSTAL, a Top Cow Productions comic centered on Eden, Wyoming: a town where criminals on the run go to settle down. Eden is populated and controlled by criminals, and the law is simple. Do not bring attention upon the town. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and after decades of relative peace, Eden is beginning to crack under the pressure. Mayor Laura Shiffron is tightening her control over the city in response, while her son Mark is beginning to question the foundation of all he believes to be true. Forces from outside are starting to peek over the walls of Eden, and malefactors from within are testing their bonds. Everything falls apart, and sometimes squeezing too tightly only hastens the fall. Goodhart and Hill spill the beans on what's in the air in POSTAL below.

IMAGE COMICS: POSTAL has been a pretty lowkey crime story so far, but the cracks in Eden are starting to show, as citizens are increasingly more willing to break the rules and outsiders are playing the role of the serpent in the garden...how do you see the mood in the town at this point? 

BRYAN HILL: There are a LOT of boot scootin' crime books out here for readers to choose, so the question with POSTAL has always been "What makes this book a different experience?"

Essentially, POSTAL is about the blood that runs in the veins of an empire, this particular empire being a small town full of criminals hiding out from the law. I can only write what feels real to me. I abhor falseness in storytelling and there's no set of rules, no matter how strongly enforced, that's going to keep these personalities in line. 

I went to Rikers Island once. Research for another project. I saw a situation where authority figures were the few and the threats to that authority were the many. Prisons are a fragile system, like ice castles built on frying pans. That's always been the model for Eden, for me. The town is always on the verge of complete collapse, and it's really only the will of the few who want to keep their paradise that keeps it from falling completely apart. Criminals aren't a species. They're people who have made choices, people who have their own ambitions and hopes and dreams. We may not agree with those choices, but every citizen of Eden has a different desire. The book is about that competition of desires and right now the folks in charge of Eden are winning that competition but change is constant. POSTAL is about an empire. Ultimately, all empires fall. 

ISAAC GOODHART: What's exciting to me is how different issue twelve is from issue one. The initial premise was that Eden was a town of second chances where crime has become non-existent for years. Punishment for anyone who stepped out of line was severe, but everyone put complete trust in the mayor, Laura Shiffron. Not only is she desperately trying to maintain control by squeezing tighter, but her own son is starting to go against her. It starts small with the little secrets he keeps from his mother, but it's escalating. People are starting to discuss her failures in this third arc. A major power shift is coming to the town. The mood is very, very tense right now. 

IC: The mayor is familiar making moves to increase her control over the town. How much of this is new drama, and how much is the cost of doing business in Eden? 

BH: The first rule of power is it finds a way to justify itself. Laura Shiffron, the Mayor of Eden, enforces an old testament law where she essentially acts as God. She'd never admit that, but that's what it is. She controls life and death. She sets the rules into the stone tablets. God has infinite wisdom. Laura doesn't. One of the more fascinating elements of comics is watching a character assume the role of a god without the wisdom of one. Superman does it. Batman does it. Tony Stark. Wonder Woman.

In POSTAL, we're exploring the same problem in a more grounded way. Laura does what she does because she believes that is best for the people under her leadership. She responds to threats with escalation. She responds to violence with murder. In her mind, she's justified that, but in her heart lives doubt. 

God's greatest privilege is Her freedom from doubt. It's certainty. Flood the world to save it? Sure. Stand idly by while millions suffer. Okay. (Dark Knight Joker voice:) It's All In The Plan. When we attempt to act as gods we're bound by the limitations of our own perspective, our choices are weighed down by our morality. When we flood the world we're haunted by the visions of innocent people choking on water, at least the sane among us are. 

Laura Shiffron is attempting to enforce the impossible: the rejection of the frailty of human nature. She's fighting human nature, asking the members of Eden to deny the extreme impulses that brought them to Eden in the first place. She's learning that you can't fight human nature. You can harness human nature and direct it towards your goals, but you have to embrace it. God is existence without suffering, without the fear of death and judgement. The price of doing the business of God is either failure or madness. Laura sees both futures ahead of her and she's trying as hard as she can to keep what she's built without meeting either future head-on. 

IG: Laura, to me, is a bit short sighted. I believe she fell into a pattern of fixing problems with excessive, but effective, solutions. The problem, which we are slowly understanding, is that these are short-term solutions. Someone is making drugs in the town? Kill him, no more drugs, problem solved. Okay, well and good, but one can maintain that balance for only so long. Morale in the town is crumbling and a reaction is more and more inevitable. 

Who could blame Laura for thinking this way, though? "People don't listen to nice." One of the highlight issues of POSTAL for me is issue six. More than merely a day-in-the-life type story, Laura is in every page of the story and saves a woman in town from blowing herself up with a grenade by talking to her and relating to her. No violence for once; Mayor Shiffron saves the day by LISTENING. It's such a beautiful and well-written moment, and I feel a tightness in my throat as I type this now. The ending of that issue is still tragic, so the reader can infer that despite her best efforts, the mayor can't change the minds of her people as effectively as she thinks she can. At least with violence she can eliminate the problem at its root. 

The cost of all this is that she has lost some of her humanity. She's dangerously close to believing overreaction is the only answer. When someone gets instant results with one method, they can lose sight of the bigger picture. There is new drama. But a lot of it is her own doing. 

IC: Mark is slowly getting deeper and deeper into the trials Eden is going through, whether by orchestrating a murder or investigating one. What's his motivation here? What's his goal?  

BH: It's a cliche at this point. "Young white man coming of age." Yawn, right? Mark's journey must be more than that. Mark is dangerous because he has clarity, the kind of ultimate clarity that his mind has given him. He has Asperger's syndrome and that frees him from the influence of the emotion around him. He's always looking for the shortest distance between two points, the most efficient solution. Soon, he'll apply that not to just business within the town, but the town itself. 

What keeps Mark from being a villain is that his essential quality is fairness. Because of his personality, he was treated horribly as a child and his takeaway wasn't to hate the people that harassed him, but to become focused on making the world of Eden more fair. His goal is that Eden be a place full of criminals that runs on justice, not compromise. He's the anti-politician, the polar opposite of his mother. He watches his mother compromise her ethics over and over in order to keep Eden going, but if that's the price of having Eden, then Mark doesn't think it's worth saving. 

Mark's fascinating to write because he sees things just as they are. When he looks at the blood running from a recently killed person he just sees the red going black in daylight. He just smells the copper of the plasma. He doesn't see the soul, or the guilt, or the horror. He just sees what is and he's made it his job to make sure that when blood is spilled, it's the right blood for the right reasons. 

If Mark agrees with you, then you want him on your side because he's tireless in the pursuit of fairness. He's also willing to commit acts that would disturb and frighten us because he's already made his calculation that what he's doing is balancing the scales. 

The second law of power is that it creates ambition within the less powerful. Mark is less powerful than his mother and soon that won't sit right with him. Soon he won't see that as fair. Soon he'll act to correct it. 

IC: Isaac, with a story like this, what are you most focused on as far as storytelling goes? What's your primary goal in a story like this?

IG: My main goal is to make every character an actor. We aren't an action heavy book by any means. We have big cathartic moments to be sure, but most of the book is about relationships and clashing egos. Bryan's dialogue is fire. In a very short time, he's going to be well-known in the industry as one of the best dialogue guys in the business and probably in the history of comics. So my duty is to make sure I'm "casting" the right actors for his writing. I'm really trying to convey the right emotions and to place everyone in the appropriate settings. If I can do that, well, that's pure comics collaboration, right there! 

IC: What's something you both enjoy about each other's storytelling?  

BH: POSTAL is an incredibly challenging book for me to write. I'm really a big-action guy. I was raised on Jedi and James Cameron movies so POSTAL isn't my wheelhouse, but I like challenges, and when Matt asked me if I wanted to come on board I did it to push my work in new directions. Honestly, I underestimated how challenging it would be. Every issue is a war for me. I shave my head, but if I did have hair, I would pull it all out. Working with Isaac makes a difficult task easier because he can capture the subtle things I attempt to do in the scripting. We don't have traditional action sequences. We don't have science-fiction design. We have trees and benches and coffee cups, hahaha. It's critical that a book like POSTAL have an artist that can make a conversation interesting when there are no guns going off, no sword-fights, no major genre elements to keep it from feeling stagnant. 

Let me be violent. Let me be extreme. Let me be confrontational. May I never be boring. 

I must say this loud and clear, the entire look of the book is due to Isaac's pencils and inks. Betsy Gonia blesses us with colors every month, but it all starts with the pencils. These are Isaac's character designs, Isaac's compositional choices. So many people talk about the "feel" of the book, and that feel is due to Isaac's work at the drawing table. Comic books aren't films, but I'm going to make a semi-ignorant comparison for the sake of answering your question. I'm also a screenwriter and I've had my scripts shot by terrible directors, haha. There's nothing you can do on the page if the person executing the imagery doesn't have the passion. No writer can brute force a script into images. You need passionate, dedicated people making those images. What I like the most about Isaac's storytelling is that I know he gives a damn (more than a damn, but I'm trying to keep my pirate mouth in order). I know that when I write those pages and he receives them that he's going to think about them and dedicate himself to the execution. I don't take a single line he draws for granted. 

IG: WHELP, after reading Bryan's response here I can tell you that the thing I enjoy most about working with Bryan is the extraordinary amount of credit he gives me, ha! Thanks, Bryan! That's reallllly generous. 

What I enjoy about Bryan's storytelling is how much thought goes into each issue of his. There really aren't any bad guys. There aren't good guys. There aren't characters whose sole purpose is to be scene decoration or just to help a main character achieve his potential. Every person is fleshed out, with his or her own goals. There are characters in Postal who have shown up for one panel for whom Bryan has ARCS of stories to tell. 

Like a lot of comic readers and creators at the moment, I'm becoming more aware of the diversity and representation conversation permeating every corner of the comics industry. I feel extremely lucky and proud to work on a book with someone who is hyper-aware of the social issues, yet is also a brilliant critical thinker. What that translates to in regards to POSTAL is that there isn't diversity for diversity's sake. There are still shocking moments. All the characters fail as much as they triumph. POSTAL is a challenging story, but I have complete trust in the direction it's going. 

IC: On a related note, emotional subtleties are crucial to a story like this, where allegiances slip and slide and everyone's playing things close to their chest. As writer, as artist, what do you two do to make sure you don't tip your hand too far while rolling out the story?  

BH: Years ago, when I first started writing professionally, I tried the whole "make a chart and put it on your wall" thing and I found that the first few pages of scripting set that nonsense on fire. For me, character is always the way into the story. I don't care if you're writing The Terminator or Birdman, it all starts with character. I don't worry about readers knowing what we're planning on doing, because I don't really know until I start writing and things start happening and the characters react to those things. 

Concepts are important. They're good for bringing readers into a book. Concepts are good for helping retailers push a new series, but people stay for characters. The best concept in the world falls apart if the characters in the story aren't alive. Technical details and conceptual hooks and plot turns are fine, but without the characterization to make those things matter it's all just a lot of left brain thinking and there's scores of non-fiction that are better books for engaging that. 

In simple math, you create characters, then you put them in a conceptual situation, then you give them challenges and they react to those challenges. The characters make choices and those choices have consequence. That's storytelling. As long as I'm emotionally invested and these Eden folk are talking in my head, no one knows what they're going to do, me included, until they do it. That's the magical part of writing. It's one of the last remaining bits of true magic in the world. 

IG: Drawing subtle in comics can be hard. Comics is a medium without sound and motion, so often, we'll compensate with foreshortening or dynamic anatomy, or exaggerated expressions. The tricky part about drawing POSTAL is that I try to exaggerate emotions without being cartoony. I want to communicate the characters' thoughts while still keeping everyone feeling real. Too much emotion and the drawing is a cartoon, but with too little the drawing can be stiff. What helps the most is a lot of photo reference and a large film vocabulary. Lighting and settings can be tools to help convey the emotion of the scene if the characters are holding back or being subtle. Mark is not an expressive person, but we've often covered him in shadow to reflect his inner thoughts. It can be difficult, but there are tricks we use.

POSTAL is available in two collected editions, with a third on the way. The series continues in single issues, and POSTAL #10 is available now.