Welcome back to another spotlight interview. In this session, we spoke with award-winning comics creator and screenwriter Joe Harris.
Joe has a written a new comic, Disaster, Inc., debuting this week from AfterShock Comics. It is drawn and colored by Sebastián Piriz and lettered by Carlos Mangual.
He has written for Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, and Storm King Comics, among others. He is well known for shepherding the return of The X-Files to comics at IDW beginning in 2013. Some of his other titles include: Great Pacific, Snowfall, Rockstars, Slingers, and Surviving Nuclear Attack.
Harris also wrote the screenplay to Sony Pictures’ Darkness Falls. His style is very character centered and his creator owned work tends to cling to the horror or speculative fiction genres.
We were excited to get a chance to talk to him about his writing process and also how he is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic while living in New York City.
You can find the audio recording of our discussion below, and we transcribed a big portion of it for you as well.
We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Pop Culture Squad: So, thanks for doing this. Before we get into anything, how are you feeling?
Joe Harris: I feel good. I’m looking into getting an antibody test soon. So, I can know, one way or another, if I have had COVID-19 or not. I was symptomatic a few weeks ago. I think you remember. So, who knows.
PCS: Well, I am pretty confident that you had it based on the symptoms you were describing. You documented the illness while you were in isolation, and then you sort of disappeared for a day. It’s scary, and it is a scary time for everyone. For all those people who are down playing the seriousness of it, people are dying. You live in the center of the worst of it.
What’s that like being in New York right now?
JH: Um, Kind of surreal. I mean, at this point, it’s kind of shocking at how normal everything has become… There are things you’ll probably get angry about this stuff no matter where you go. You probably see somebody not wearing masks. You’ll see people that aren’t keeping adequate distance, but for the most part New York, I think, by and large, considering how big it is, has done a decent job.
I don’t know how that comes out in the wash when you think about the amount of dead and the number of infected, but it seems like at least for a stretch the city was doing what it could. It is a little less desolate now though. I can hear more people out on the street. I don’t hear as many ambulances.
Which makes sense considering, that the emergency rooms aren’t has overrun as they apparently were. I don’t know when we come out of this. It’s been a little surreal. So, it’s hard to imagine how everything goes right back to normal. That much I don’t see; I don’t know what would looks like or what that will feel like. The city just kind of adapts. I haven’t been down in the subway in months, and I expect it will be sometime before I am again.
PCS: Let’s get into some comic stuff. We know that Disaster, Inc. is the first book that Aftershock is going to be shipping through Diamond when the restart happens on May 20th. So, what do you want to tell people about the book?
JH: Well, it is set up against the backdrop of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown disaster, but that is sort of the canvas that it is thrown against. What it really is a supernatural horror because it follows this group of underground disaster tourists, and these are people typically of privilege who bribe someone to take them through a war zone. You saw lot of it during Hurricane Katrina. People that wanted to see the devastation, and they aren’t going to suffer for it. Right? So, these sorts of things go on all over the world, and I have been reading up on things like that. People visiting Chernobyl and all this sort of stuff.
What I thought would be kind of cool with this book is the hook is that this group tourists sort of sneak under the fence — I’m saying as a euphemism because it is much more elaborate that with check points and such, but there is what is called a Nuclear Exclusion Zone that’s been established around Fukushima going out for hundreds of kilometers. Inside of this place, much like you find in Chernobyl, it’s like time has stopped. This is an area of land that will probably be off limits to people in a general sense. You still have some people who operate within there to clean up, maintenance, things like that, but it is so radioactive and beyond our capacity to fix that you might as well erase that from Google maps, you know.
So, these characters are thrill seekers. Some of them are environmentalists that have a different agenda. They take this tour into the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, and what they discover is that there is something else that the area it is very famous for and that’s its Samurai tradition.
Fukushima Prefecture has a very, very rich history going back to the Edo period of Samurai culture, and what I imagined is as the water, air, and soil were being poisoned as a result of the radioactive fallout that came out of what ended up being three nuclear meltdowns. As the land was fouled, I thought, thinking a in speculative fiction kind of way and just seeing horror potential, that it all comes together where these undead Samurai, essentially, rise from the ground and to defend the land, and these tourists find themselves on the wrong end of that.
PCS: Yeah, I read the first issue, and there are some very interesting characters you have put into this canvas. So, how does the process work for you when you are moving a character from an idea into someone with a full shape and voice that we see on the page? How does that work for you?
JH: Well, usually when I conceive these things, I try to come up with a protagonist that sort of is of the subject matter in a sense. I did an Image book called Great Pacific, and when I started to thinking about that, I thought that it is about plastic trash in the ocean. Plastic being a petroleum product, ok. Maybe we can tie this to the American oil industry, which then you are talking about Texas. Then suddenly, I had this rich culture to pick from, and we created a character Chaz Worthington, who was very much almost a walking stereotype who would then challenge those stereotypes.
So, for me, with something like Disaster, Inc., there is no shortage of horror movie examples involving tourists who end up making the wrong turn and end up in one place or another. So, I started to think of how to look at this material, this environmental disaster, this sort of, once or twice in a humanity’s history that this had happened to this level.
I’m getting a little lost in the weeds but…
PCS: That’s ok. We are here for the process.
JH: Ha Ha Ha!! I just like all the stuff that I told you about so I can draw on everything from the Last House on the Left to folk horror movies where people find themselves. I’ve watched Midsomer ten times since it came out because it’s so wonderful, and it’s all the same sort of paradigm. With Disaster, Inc., I thought wouldn’t it be cool, “a Samurai in a nuclear exclusion zone, who is going to go there?”
You can do military. You can have people who are working there legitimately, but I have always been interested in disaster tourism and from there it all just came together. So, what kind of people partake in disaster tourism. I start to think about people of privilege, rich kids, grifters, and that’s pretty much what we got in that book.
PCS: Great! Fantastic! I’m looking forward to the rest of it. So, what I want to do is talk about a couple of different of your past works it that is ok? You can tell me, if that is something you don’t want to talk about. I want to talk about Rockstars.
JH: Ok. I can talk about Rockstars.
PCS: Anyone who reads it, they are going to know it’s a labor of love. You can feel you in every bit of it. Why did you want to tell this story? The story that it is.
JH: Well, I love rock-n-roll. When I was growing up, I always felt like I was born one or two generations too late. I kind of grew up, sort of like, the Almost Famous kid, maybe just a number of years later, but still, in my head, in an era that didn’t exist.
I have notebooks filled with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath logos, when no one else in school had that going on when I was a kid. I’m just a tremendous fan of the culture, of the glamour, of the urban legends. I used to go through all the Beatles hints that Paul was dead: holding a mirror up to the cover of Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band to see what was revealed, both legitimate clues that people think the Beatles are fucking with us with, and ones that are clearly just stuff we are reading too much into.
I have an infinity for urban legends. I love “Making of…” album documentaries, things like that. I have always felt really comfortable letting that part of your brain just accumulates trivia give it to rock and the bands I love, like Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones. That mystique is very alluring to me, and I thought that I just wanted to do something that was really a love letter to this music that I grew up loving and that I want to survive.
It’s not as ubiquitous as when I was a kid which makes sense. As we get older, new things come out and new generations come along. What was once classic, is now ancient. I just wanted to capture some things, if I could, that I thought were universality cool. Even if you don’t necessarily like the sort music we explore, or the particular bands we referenced, there is something I hope universal in there that applies to the reasons we all love music and love the bands and the artists we do, because there is so much that is similar especially when it comes to American popular music.
[There is more fanboying between Joe and I about music in the audio recording.]
PCS: So, let’s move on to The X-Files. From your public presence, if anyone follows you online, anyone can tell how proud you are of that work. And it’s great stuff. What was the process like when you began working on that, and what type of control was retained by the property owners? And how much freedom did you have there?
JH: Ok, well, what year did it launch? I think it was 2013. It was the 20th Anniversary of The X-Files and IDW Publishing had gotten the license. I think they had gone through a search of people, and I guess they didn’t find a take that Fox liked. I was talking with Chris Ryall, who I had known for a while, and he asked if I had any interest in the X-Files. I said “Yeah”, and he told me what’s going on.
They got the license for the 20th Anniversary, and they wanted to do something big to bring the X-Files back because there had not been anything out there for the fans since the second movie, which I think was 2006-2007. I kind of went away, and I wrote up this take for what the first arc would be and how that would build out to this sort of overarching myth arc that we would explore over a couple of years. They were like, “This is awesome. We can tell you like this very much.”
So, they approved my take, and we were ready to get started, when Chris Ryall went to a meeting at Fox and Chris Carter was there. No one had involved him, and he wanted to know, “What are you doing with The X-Files”, because there had been nothing happening. He read the materials that IDW and Fox had approved and really liked what I had come up with.
We arranged first a conference call between he and I. Then I went down and met with him in the 10/13 offices in Santa Monica, and we just talked about the X-Files. We talked about what they meant then, what they might mean today. He offered me some guidance and some advice and begged me in a different direction on one particular aspect that turned out to be quite consequential in a good way for the series in terms of what we did with our big bad villain over a couple of seasons.
So, we [Joe, Michael Walsh, and Jordie Bellaire] had the yard to ourselves for those comics when the [series] launched. There was nothing else. No one ever interfered with anything I had to do. I mean, there was basic standards and practices. I couldn’t have nudity necessarily or things like that, but in terms with what I wanted to do with the franchise, with the myology, I had a pretty open book.
I had a bunch of idea’s, and we didn’t get to nearly all of them, but the ones we did, we never really deviated. It only got tricky when the show came back, because then, suddenly, we were on the radar by the forces that really didn’t care what we were doing necessarily with the licensing folks. So, we had to wind down our universe, and we launched something new which was more instep with what show was going to be doing. What the characters are going to look like they did in the show, I think those stories are good.
My longtime collaborator Matthew Dow Smith made that transition with me, and it was a lot of fun. Jordie Bellaire was with us from the very beginning and almost all the way through. It was still good. It felt the X-Files, but I was really proud of what we did in X-Files Season Ten and how it led into Season Eleven.
I have gotten to do some really interesting things in the comic book industry that I am proud of, but I don’t have the sort of connections to a fandom, like I think I have a connection to the X-Files fandom. And even if it is a small part of this really large fandom because, you know, of all the many millions of people who watch the show, how many read the comics? Right, it’s a very small percentage. I mean, it’s the way it is, but for those people, and it’s not insignificant, we get on really well.
I was very scared to death when I got the job because I knew those folks can be very protective of Mulder and Scully, but it is very gratifying. It’s a connection that I’m proud of the work and I’m proud to be connected to it. It’s a fandom I’m honored to have had any sort of positive interaction with let alone the really good relationship, which is awesome to have.
PCS: That’s great, that’s really, really great. Now, X-Files has been made into audio-books, is that right?
JH: Well, they are audible audio experiences. So, it is almost like they dramatize it. It’s not someone reading the book. It’s literally the original series cast.
PCS: It’s like an old school radio play?
JH: Yeah, exactly. It was produced and adapted by Dirk Maggs, who is a brilliant, brilliant person when it comes to the world of audio. He is the top guy in this arena. That was incredibly flattering and mind blowing to hear David Duchovny reading Agent Mulder dialog that I wrote. You know, to hear him and the cigarette smoking man interacting, and AD Skinner butting heads, but I wrote it. That is cool. I haven’t really had that much of a charge.
I have had the honor and the privilege and the fun to put words in the X-Men’s mouths in my time. I have done Batman. I love all of it, and I’m so proud of it because as a kid I want to find little young Joe and give him a hug and tell him things are going to be ok. I’ve gotten to do some really fun things, but hearing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson read my X-Files dialog was really, really damn cool.
PCS: Good. That’s awesome. So, you have also written for film and you have written for comics. So, what is the biggest difference between those two mediums?
JH: The money.
[Lots of Laughter]
PCS: Well said, well said. I meant the craft part, not the benefit part.
JH: The immediacy of it is cool. The risk is less to do something. If comparing saying making an independent film verses creator own comic, a lot of it is the same. I mean, you have to convince people to sort of follow you into battle, to kind of get on board with your vision and it collaborative meaning that you need to inspire your collaborators.
In terms of writing assignments versus writing assignments, you know working in entertainment, working on any sort of studio film project can be a little crushing sometimes. You quickly learn that it’s not all about craft. It’s about interpersonal relationships, and it’s about what are you are worth to the people who hire you. There is a lot more power playing going on, and just being a screenwriter for hire in certain situations, it’s not really my voice that this success is necessarily hinges or lives of dies on.
With comics, I feel more of a connection, whatever size readership on whatever project I have, it’s just more immediate. You write the thing. It gets illustrated. It’s faster than it is to make a movie, and it’s out there. It’s not nearly as wide spread if you are doing something commercially in terms of how many people it reaches, but the stakes are much higher in film monetarily speaking so you end up with more interference both good, bad, valid or invalid reasons.
PCS: That’s cool. That’s good. I’m mean it has to be different.
JH: If there is too much money involved for it not to be. It’s investors. You know now movie studios are part of these huge vertically integrated mega companies.
PCS: So are comics.
JH: Yeah, well that’s true. Corporate comics.
PCS: So, Let’s talk about Snowfall for a second. It’s daringly suggestive, and hopefully not too prescient. What was the thought process behind that story and how much of it was influenced by the state of affairs at the time which our state is even worse now?
JH: I’ll say this for the present and maybe the near future. It definitely turned in a way that went beyond what I think I could have predicted it to be. Like, I didn’t realize, like this is a little beyond everyone’s predictions at least, I think. I never would have imagined the game show host in charge of a global pandemic……
PCS: The trade was printed in 2017 but when was it actually written? It was written before the election., right?
JH: We started talking, Martin Morazzo and I. We were wrapping up Great Pacific together at Image Comics. I told Eric Stephenson that we were going to be winding that down, but we had this other idea, and I wanted to keep it as another speculative fiction project with an environmental slant to it. So, it definitely predates Trump. I mean, I don’t know; this dystopia blends together, you know.
PCS: You wrote this, and then that happened. You know, “Well anything can happen”.
JH: Let that be a lesson to everybody. Anything can happen. I’m done making predictions, you know? This has been so freaking wild. I’ll say this. I haven’t been bored.
PCS: More recently, you have been doing a lot more creator owned stuff. How does the collaboration development work for you? Do you approach a pitch with a creative team in tow? Or do you find publishers helping you facilitate getting the creative team all together?
JH: Its different per publisher at least in my experience. When I bring something to Image, I have got an artist. We already have proof of life that we know what this book is. We may have produced an entire issue on our own. It just needs to be published. I think I remember Great Pacific got approved literally just when I showed Eric Stephenson Martin Morazzo’s designs. Just some of the concept drawings were just so weird and cool, that he was like, “I’m in.”
With Rockstars, I had finished an issue, and Megan Hutchison had really knocked herself out on this first issue that Image then approved, and we went to series. But with something like Disaster, Inc., it was a little different, a company like Aftershock is going to want to look for an artist to pair with someone when you bring them a project there. So, things are always, you know a little different.
I think this worked really well what happened. Mike Marts got us Sebastián Piriz, who was my partner on Disaster, Inc., and I’m really happy with that. Plus, with Image, it can be like you’re doing everything, and it’s not to say the company doesn’t carry some. I mean they do some publicity; they do, obviously, the printing and all that. But, sometimes it’s nice to sort of have someone else shouldering the production load a little bit so I can focus on writing the current thing and figuring out what I want to do next. So, its similar but different experience that is by publisher by publisher.
PCS: So, with the Storm King book, John Carpenter’s Tales of Science of Fiction: Surviving Nuclear Attack, did you and Cat Staggs come together as a pair on that book, or were you brought together?
JH: I told Cat about it. I had had it at Storm King for a little while. We didn’t know who was going to draw it, but Cat Staggs is a friend of mine, and she’s brilliant. She was speaking with Sandy King Carpenter, who runs Storm King, and it just came up, and she said she would like to do it, if no one was doing it. It was fine by me.
PCS: That’s awesome. That’s great. You have now given me three different ways it’s done.
JH: It’s kind of charmed in a way, you know. I feel like a very, very fortunate person. I’ve gotten to do these things. A lot of people want to make movies. A lot of people want to make comics. You are not going to find me on anybody’s A-list, but I have been around awhile, and I’m always trying to find a new avenue to get like things accomplished and done. I’m just pleased at how all this all comes together in the various means we’re talking about by the various permutations that sort of go into how you make these things.
PCS: So, we live in a world of the five-issue arc that gets collected into to trade. How does story pacing work for you in that space? Basically, what type of challenges do you find either stretching or shrinking your story to fit that guideline and making it feel satisfying stopping point at an arc?
JH: To me, at least until something happens that makes me feel like my methodology is out dated, if we are going to think five-issues arcs or four-issue arcs, I want to tell something complete because nothing is more disheartening then finding out that your hemorrhaging money and your going to have to wind this down, and you may have to make compromises. It’s great if everyone sticks it out and gets everything out according to their vision, but if your hemorrhaging thousands of dollars every month because the book isn’t selling well, suddenly, you’re going to create a problem for yourself down the road in ways that you are not ok with.
So, I’m always trying to come up with something that can be complete, but the franchisability of it all is there. It’s inherent. The concept can carry on with the next volume or a potential issue #6. Maybe after a pause in the schedule, it comes back. That’s how I am always looking to do it. Execute something for the size that is the packaging, the five-issue book that is what people expect. But don’t be so ambitious that if I don’t get to tell ten issues or fifteen issues, the people who are with me at the beginning get screwed out of an ending, and I’m not satisfied.
PCS: So, do you find yourself holding yourself back in ways, or thinking I could go down this road for a little bit, let’s play over here, but I don’t want to do this now because I may end up losing my space?
JH: Yeah, kind of. You have to make compromises like that. I mean, John Layman, got to tell his Chew epic. I don’t know if we will ever see that again. Maybe we will. A creator that brings enough to the table in terms of just dedicated fanbase, and things come up for out of nowhere. Look, there are always people who you didn’t hear about at all one year, and then suddenly Donnie Cates is kicking all the ass. So, it’s like people do come out like Nick Spencer or like these are people just pop.
PCS: Chew is a perfect example. I’ve talked to some other people about their work that I could see going the length of a Chew series, and, as a reader and a fan, I look for things that I can go get into or I can tell people to go get this thing.
JH: Yeah, I know. Well, the culture is kind of frozen. We don’t get to go to comic book shop and talk to the owner and talk to the people you see there every Wednesday. It’s rough right now. I mean, things are tough all over. I guess we are talking about retail. It rough, its bad.
PCS: It is. When you were growing up, what are the things that inspired you to be a writer?
JH: Wow! Marvel comics. Chris Claremont’s X-Men. Larry Hama’s G.I Joe. All the same things we all grew up loving. [Mike] Baron and [Steve] Rude’s Nexxus was a big inspiration for me. John Carpenter movies. Horror franchises. All the huge ones from Friday the 13th to Nightmare on Elm Street to anything you might remember looked iconic in a video store bin. I watched all the time. I mean, Faces of Death Volume Twelve or something like that. That was a big deal for me. Larry Cohen movies like Q – The Winged Serpent and all sort of stuff like that. With T.V., In search Of…, hosted by Leonard Nimoy would really fill my imagination with stuff. That’s Incredible, remember that show?
PCS: Yup. Oh, yeah! So, what are you watching in these days of Corona?
JH: I’m trying to watch more Devs. I watched the first episode the other night and really enjoyed it. But I have more to go. I’m really excited to watch that Beastie Boys documentary by Spike Jonze that just dropped on Apple TV.
I started a re-watch of The S.H.I.E.L.D, that will take about ten years to get through it at this point. I’m looking forward to the new season of Dead to Me that’s coming out soon on Netflix. The Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini show.
What else have I been spending my time watching lately? Missing baseball. I might do a little binge watching of baseball movies coming up too.
PCS: Yup, that’s definitely good stuff. We are looking forward to more Disaster, Inc. Is there anything else coming up that we haven’t talked about? That you can tell us about.
JH: Yeah, I can’t go into too much detail, but I have a couple of new projects that I’m doing with Storm King.
One of them is, a graphic novel with Phillip Tan, that I’m really excited about, and you should hear more about that later this year. One day when we are allowed to give news again.
PCS: Good. That’s awesome! Well, that’s great. Thanks a lot for doing this. I really appreciate it.
JH: You are so welcome. Thanks for having me.