Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Red Borders and Casual Flings: A Talk with Jason Starr

Scott's Note:  Jason Starr is one of those writers who switches with seeming ease between novels and comics.  With a bedrock steadiness that is much like his baseline tennis game (tennis being another of his passions), he has been turning out books of both types for over twenty years now.  His novels are usually crime novels, but he's also written horror and novels that take place in the Bruce Wayne/Gotham universe and the Marvel Ant-Man world.  His comics have been quite varied as well.

I reached out to him recently to talk about his latest work.  The four-part comic Red Borders is a funny, action-filled splatterfest set on the Mexico-Texas border, and Casual Fling, whose first part just came out, is an erotic thriller that takes place in New York City.  We talked about each of these and his approach to writing comics in general.

Scott Adlerberg: You were already well-established as a fiction writer, a novelist, before you got into writing comics.  But how did you first come to writing one and did you approach it with any trepidation or as an interesting and at the time new exercise in storytelling?

Jason Starr: The first comics I wrote were for DC and DC/Vertigo. I wrote an introduction for one of the trades of Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets and then connected with a couple of editors at DC. I did some short comics for DC, including a Sand story, and then a graphic novel for Vertigo called The Chill. No, I didn’t have much trepidation. I’d written plays and screenplays, so I was confident with dialogue-driven storytelling. I felt it was just a matter of immersing myself in comics for a while and getting comfortable. Aside from reading lots of comics, I studied the form of some of the writers I admire, like Azzarello and Ed Brubaker. I didn’t just study the structure of comics, but the nuances, like how to create suspense at the end of pages (the page-turn effect) and how to be as minimal as possible with the dialogue to leave as much space as possible for the art. It’s sort of the way you and I used to study Borg’s topspin forehand when we were playing a lot of tennis as kids, down to the position of his index finger on his non-racket-holding hand. To learn something new you have to learn from the masters and get a little obsessed.

Makes sense. Absolutely.  I remember waking up in bed at night as a kid and going to the closet and grabbing the racquet and practicing my Borg forehand swing in the dark, index finger on my free hand extended.  You want to get that swing just right...So here we are many years later, I mean here you are as a comic book writer many years later, and you've done a bunch of stuff by now -- The Wolverine Max Series and Punisher Max for Marvel,  horror graphic novels like The Returning for Boom and The Chill for Vertigo -- and you get approached a year or two ago to pitch some ideas for a new company, AWA/Upshot. How did Red Border come about?

Yeah, I’d worked with Axel Alonso, one of the founders of AWA, when he was Editor-in-Chief at Marvel, so I pitched him an idea for a thriller set on the border right now, and then we attached artist Will Conrad to the project. It’s about a young progressive Mexican couple, Eduardo and Karina, on the run from a cartel boss, who wind up in an even worse situation in Texas. It became one of AWA’s first launch titles which I was really thrilled about.

Red Border is clearly a Trump era (that did just end, right?) comic, but did you worry about it being, in the context of entertainment, too much of an on the nose political story?  Or did you just say the hell with it, let's write something topical but go all out and over the top for violence and gore.

Well, I purposely never mention any politicians and I never take political sides. This will probably be the most pretentious-sounding thing I’ve ever said in an interview, but Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo wrote that in his paintings he tries to leave the obvious vague and exaggerate the essential. I tried to take a similar approach in Red Border, leaving the obvious political stuff in the backdrop, and focusing on the essential—the characters and the action. But, yeah, it’s definitely a super current “of the moment” type of story.

It's satirical too, the exaggeration of the Mexican gang people as well as of the red-blooded Texas family, who put the couple on the run at their ranch.

Anything I write borders—so to speak—on satire. I can’t help it. When I get deep into a story and start having fun with the characters, I can’t resist getting satirical. I also think, for me, it’s a more subtle way of making any political points, because in satire the positions always come from the attitude of the characters, not from me. For example, Colby, the American who “rescues” Eduardo and Karina, has over-the-top opinions that I certainly don’t have, but I try to let the reader fill in the undercurrents. 

One reason I especially liked Red Border is because of the setting, the US-Mexico border.  I mean, you're a New York City person through and through and so many of your books are set in the city, capturing to a tee certain New York and urban vibes.  I imagine it was fun, without having to write a whole novel, to set a story in a different landscape.  I know you spent time in Mexico awhile back.  Any particular research you did on Mexico, and Texas, or did you basically let your imagination take over?

Having lived in Mexico for a while definitely helped with the main characters, Eduardo and Katina, and the overall vibe. I did some research specifically about border crossings where I basically imagined I was in the same predicament as the characters. If I was running for my life and needed to cross into the U.S. how would I do it? So any research I did was mainly related to that question. I really wanted to make sure I was accurate about those details. Most of the rest of the book is character-driven so I really just had to know the attitudes of the characters really well. I will say that if I had written Red Border as a novel I would’ve done much more research. In comics, you can rely on the art to fill in a lot of the atmosphere and visual details. I guess, in this sense, it’s similar to screenwriting.

There's a particular horror movie -- you can mention it if you'd like -- that the story taps into. Makes perfect sense considering the locale.  But I was wondering: since comics are visual, with their individual panels and so forth, how much, or if, you are influenced by movies when writing the story for a comic.  You're the writer, not the artist, but do you envision set pieces, so to speak? Do you write it as a series of scenes -- with cuts from scene to scene -- similar to how you might with a screenplay?

Well, as you know, I’m a big fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You and I even met Leatherface himself at a Fangoria convention years ago! I was definitely going for a modern, Trump-era take on that sort of story. Also, there’s some Get Out influence in the book and some Elmore Leonard vibe with the gang member banter and the dark humor. Yes, I’m definitely influenced by movies, maybe more so for this book than anything else I’ve written. One of the publisher’s main objectives is to create IP that can easily be adapted for film and TV, so I plotted Red Border with a movie in mind, which I never do when I’m writing novels. In general, though, comics writing requires the writer to think cinematically. You’re writing dialogue, like a screenwriter, but you’re also thinking about the space, and you have to describe camera angles, and definitely set pieces. Comics are all about the big set pieces. I wouldn’t say cuts from scenes to scenes as much as thinking about cliffhangers—not just for the end of each issue, but for the end of each page. You also are thinking about the space you have. I think it’s more about connecting pages than connecting scenes. In a screenplay, you’re not as confined.

Speaking of films, if horror, at least in part, was an inspiration for Red Border, that unholy thing known as the erotic thriller seems to be the inspiration for your newest comic, also from AWA, Casual Fling.  The first issue came out a week or two ago, and the next one very soon.  Part one sets us straightaway in contemporary Manhattan, and there's a subtitle that says "Sex is Never Safe".  Hmnn. How did this one come about?

Casual Fling is an erotic thriller, with a Fatal Attraction vibe.  It’s probably more similar to one of my novels than to any previous comic I’ve written—not just because it’s set in New York, but because it’s a thriller about one bad decision that Jennifer, the heroine of the comic, makes that has dire consequences for her and her family. It’s sort of story that isn’t told very often in comics and the art from Dalibor Talajić really takes it to a whole other level.  

So far it's very New York, and quite funny.  Anytime a man and a woman with sexual chemistry heating up between them talk at a ritzy bar about Milan Kundera and Oxford commas, it's hard not to chuckle, though it all, for a certain strata of Manhattan people, rings totally true. I'm eager to see where this will go.

All I will say is that there's a very big modern twist on the genre.

I'd expect nothing less.  And next, if I can ask, what's coming?  Another novel or a new comic?

I have a new novel, Curved Glass, coming out in June. It’s another departure for me—an alternate reality noir thriller. I’m biased, but I think it could be the best book I’ve written and it’s available for pre-order on Amazon. 

If you go here, you can get Red Border.  

You can go here for Casual Fling.

And you can go here to pre-order Curved Glass.

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