Victor LaValle's Destroyer plays with Frankenstein's legacy, monsters and mankind

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Apr 26, 2017

Last year Victor LaValle wrote both a nod and a harsh criticism to one of his literary influences, H.P. Lovecraft and his story "The Horror at Red Hook," in his smart, Harlem-based novella The Ballad of Black Tom. His writing has plenty of bite to go with the bark. It's emotional, funny and has a rope-a-dope rich perspective, infusing a fresh voice in horror fiction.

This year, LaValle enters the comics medium with Destroyer, a six-issue mini-series for Boom! Studios with slick art by Dietrich Smith and lush colors by Joana LaFuente.

It is a continuation of the Frankenstein monster story 200-plus years after Mary Shelley's tale of grief and humanity took the genre by storm. Mixed with modern-day science and the social injustices being fought by the Black Lives Matter movement, Destroyer offers a new spin on the madness of humanity behind LaValle's and Smith's creative lens.

We caught up with LaValle to talk about his science-fiction-horror comic, the legacy of Frankenstein, monsters and mankind.

We don't see enough minority voices in genre, especially science fiction/ horror comics, so it's cool to see you entering this realm. Talk about entering in the world of genre comics and your love of horror and science fiction.

Victor LaValle: We just showed our six-year-old son his first (episode of) Twilight Zone, and I feel like it was around that time for me, when I was introduced to Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits by my uncle. That was just the beginning. From there it was George Romero's Tales From the Darkside, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. All of these things started spreading like a wildfire. When I grew up in Queens, N.Y., it was all Black, Latino, Asian, European immigrant kids in the neighborhood; we were all just sitting around talk about horror and sci-fi. What's exciting about right now, is maybe a larger number of us have reached the age and have that love to break into the world to say, "Hey, we grew up loving the same things, and we have other stories that might fit." I'm excited about being one of those people joining the table.

Talk about working in the comics medium on a large scale and collaborating with artist Dietrich Smith. is it something you found to your liking knowing you have to only do half the work.

[Laughs] One of the reasons I'm a prose writer, is that I'm a naturally controlling person. I'm an oldest brother and all sorts of other cliches why I'm a pain in the ass to the people who love me. So when I sat down this with Dietrich, and my editors Eric and Chris, part of me at first was worried how it was going to work. If my first script ever came to light it would be very detailed to put it lightly. What's amazing is that the very first image of the very first page is the monster sitting on the top of an iceberg. As soon as I saw it, I understood how and why it was a gift to work with Dietrich because I just wrote, "The monster sits on an iceberg." What he came up with was that he was like a king on a throne. It's an astounding image and I knew I was in good hands, more importantly, everything he's doing isn't just making it better, it's more of a story. It's a complete revelation working with a talented artist. It made me excited by the possibilities of what a comic can do.

One by one, your novels dating back from Slapboxing with Jesus to The Ballad of Black Tom, you've progressively distanced your stories from the real world. Now with Destroyer, you're making a big leap. Did you need to build yourself up to make that leap from true-to-life to fantasy, did you need to build some confidence jumping into the supernatural world and untethering from reality more?

My first two books were the most strictly realistic, purely autobiographical stuff, and by the time I published them I was 29, 30 and I had run out of material. So unless I wanted to write a book about a guy going to graduate school, I had to start coming up with things to write about. When I hit that wall, I was in a slump emotionally. I was proud about the autobiographical stuff, but it wasn't necessarily making me very happy. So when I started on my third book, I asked myself what could I write about that would make me happy? The answer I instantly came up with was monsters. It just opened the door for me. You want to still write about what you know, so how do you fit monsters into that? The horror and fantasy that I love the most, is the stuff that seems like the real world, and slowly, slowly morph. Then, halfway through it's John Carpenter's The Thing, and you say, how did we get to the point where a guy's head is growing spider legs and walking across a floor, these were just some dudes in an arctic science mission. That kind of horror and fantasy mean the world to me. That's been my model, blending the two.

Your love of monsters is apparent and Destroyer is a continuation of Frankenstein. What is it that you are drawn to about monsters and the structure of the monster story?

One of the suggestions of the term "monster" one of the Latin roots is a message from the divine. I like that as an idea for monsters because is that the whole point of them is that they short-circuit rational conversations. Say like a Korean movie about environmental disasters is one thing, but The Host is another. When you see that giant creature loping across the land grabbing up 10-year-old Korean girl, whatever rational conversation you want to have about environmental disasters is immediately sucked up in, 'Wait a second, is that giant sludge monster really going to steal that little girl?'

Then you get to the thing that monsters are supposed to do, to make you feel sense of real terror, about the impossible, reaching into our lives and ruining our rational, orderly plans that we had. That's what monsters get to do and the more monstrous they look, the more non-human they become, the more they get to sidestep that awful statement to any writer, "I just didn't believe this!" In Destroyer, it turns out that Frankenstein's monster is chilling with whales for 200 something years, you're either in or out immediately. I get to bypass that and show you, here's the monster and here's what he does. As he causes more damage, you think, 'Well, this has to stop at some point,' but he becomes more monstrous. That's the room we give to monsters that we won't give to humans.

In Destroyer we have multiple points of entry and ideas of what a monster can be. There is Frankenstein's monster, there's the mad scientist Dr. Baker, then there's her son who is brought back from the dead, Akai. Like in your novel The Ballad of Black Tom, Destroyer has multiple viewpoints and entry ways to the ground level story.

One of the things I wanted to play with is the idea that any of our three central characters, the monster, Dr. Baker, and Akai, depending on the context that we see them in the comic, they will be someone either heroic or monstrous, depending on who is there viewing what they're doing. I wanted to get at being a monster is not a fixed category and it can mutate. A lot of people have great affection for Frankenstein, whether it's the Boris Karloff stuff, that I, Frankenstein movie–there are people who do like that action Frankenstein – When I saw him doing things that went beyond the pale of what they think the icon of Frankenstein will do or be, will it be more horrifying to them? Will they understand why he's doing it. The same for Dr. Baker and the same for Akai. There will be times when they make really shocking and horrifying choices, but you'll never think it's purely black and white. So when people treat them as monsters or heroes, you'll always feel like it's more complicated than that.

Let's talk about Dr. Jo Baker. We have an exclusive preview of the first issue of Destroyer, (see and click to expand below) Dr. Baker's introduction. She has a lineage to the people who created Frankenstein's monster in the first place, right?

She's the only living descendant of the only member of the Frankenstein family who the monster did not kill in the novel. The only brother who gets away is Edward Frankenstein. In my comic, at some point, he makes his way to United States and at some point someone in the family dated a black lady somewhere down the line made Josephine Baker. In the grand American tradition, of let's mix all of this stuff up. She's literally the last of that bloodline but also is the center of the comic and there's a triangle between the monster, Dr. Baker and Akai and both the monster and Akai are fighting for the soul of Dr. Baker. The journey explored in these six issues, is that one of them is the devil on her shoulder and the other is her angel. The repercussions of who wins her soul will determine what happens to humanity.

We see in her introduction how much joy Akai provided to her when he was alive. As brilliant as she is, she is wasting her life at the local dive bar. But she is able to revive him but the question now becomes, what is he now?

That's a big question. Every moment that she's looking at him, the evidence of his murder is there on his body but he couldn't come back whole, much like the original monster. His body is always testimony to what was done to him. The sight of that as a parent is always triggering that degree of grief and rage in her. That push and pull is the heart of the story and the idea that one person's grief will take you, becomes externalized in the monster and Akai running around. Even though Akai is a re-animated child, he was murdered at the age of 12, he was a boy who was deeply loved by his mother and raised with a great deal of care. So when he returns from the dead he is still that 12-year-old boy with hope and love, who begs his mother not to side with the monster, to give humanity one more chance.

I've read a lengthy conversation you've had with fellow author Maria Dahvana Headley about the differences between Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Percy Shelley's version, was there one specific version that influenced Destroyer?

My hope is that in some way, Destroyer reignites or sparks interest in Mary's original version of her novel vs. Percy's. Even though Percy's version is what we get assigned in school and is the one that is more famous, is more philosophical and flowery, Mary's version is much closer to the bone because she's writing from such profound grief. Mary Shelley gives birth to her first child at 17 and it's premature and dies soon after it is born. She discovers it and says so in her diary. "Found the baby dead today. Very bad day." [Victor apologizes for anyone with young children as he himself gets spooked when others talk about such things.]

Mary's version is more plain spoken, more straightforward, and more open in its grieving. Her version is not about the beautiful language and lofty ideas. Her version is about the heart-wrenching, soul-crushing dilemma of losing someone you love and having them go beyond the veil of death, how that grief would drive you mad and how it would make you do unimaginable things. That's the heart of the Frankenstein that I want to get to and that's the heart of Dr. Baker's dilemma. She's a mad scientist, but she's mad with grief.

The real deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley, amongst many others have direct influence on Destroyer, how did seeing these murders unfold make their way into a part of Akai Baker's story, perhaps in a way of release or or coping with the injustice?

I think back on the foundational comics that I read when I was a kid and I don't think I understood at the time that the writers were wrestling up-to-the-minute with profound issues. Now as an adult and as creator, I do. The one that comes to mind immediately is "God Loves, Man Kills" the X-Men story by Chris Claremont. It's commonplace now to say that the X-Men were talking about the lives of minorities, of non-white folks, and non-heterosexuals. I was so deeply imprinted by that story of a fascist dude who rises to power and a message of backward-looking, minority crushing fear and hysteria. The only people who stand up to him are themselves, this motley crew of group of weirdos and outsiders. You could have written that comic last week and I don't think it would have been that different.

The issue of police murders and systematic injustices are not a new problem. Some of the best comics have been wrestling with how it's not a new problem for a long time. Watchmen is certainly about 80's era of paranoia and fear, but also the rise of another fascist state. With Watchmen and "God Loves, Man Kills" I'm not setting a bar too high for myself, or anything, right? [Laughs] Those books really informed my life as a thinker, not just my life as a comic book reader. When I was writing, then pitching Destroyer to Boom! i was thinking if we do this right, hopefully we tell a story that draws people in but also have them think of these current events as a part of the story. I hate to be pessimistic, but I know it will be true, that ten years from now, they'll still be relevant again, because that's just the nature of humanity. I felt that those books and a few others were on this family tree and I just want to join that family tree with Destroyer.

It's tough to have those social issues be a part of a story and have it feel honest and organic. How did you deal with that?

With The Ballad of Black Tom last year and Destroyer this year, I've been fortunately or unfortunately had good timing. I feel that if these books came out three or four years ago, they might have been met with, "Ah, that's overblown. Things aren't like that." I'm also being pulled along on the wave of what I hope is a general conversation going on in parts of this country, about how or why is this place working the way it is. Are we really on the precipice of it going backwards when a certain generation of people fought to move this bar into the water. Is it really just going to go in one direction?

I was definitely wary not to lecture people. One of the things I hope I do is not have these characters and their journeys making a point. It was more about these characters are in a somewhat recognizable human situation of grief or anger or whatever, but are in a universe where those feelings have much bigger consequences because Frankenstein's monster is alive, or because this scientist is so brilliant that she's able to bring back her son from the dead and make him an artificial intelligence super soldier killer. Just saying that sentence, I couldn't take myself too seriously. You've got to have a little fun with the premise itself. Otherwise, why use the fantastical elements if all you're going to do is sit a monster down to teach him a lesson.

Since we've talked so much about monsters, what are your favorite comic book monsters that come to mind?

Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein, just to pour over his art and marvel with what he could come up with. Darkseid on the big cosmic level. He's got a great deal of gravitas, and he has those eye beams and just obliterates somebody, which is what a demon god should do. I liked Thanos too but he talked too much. Now the problem with saying stuff like this is then wondering what all the Thanos fans are going to say, but there's nothing you can do about that.

There really isn't. [Both laugh]

And if I must say, he's not really a comic book, but my first monster love is Eddie the Head from Iron Maiden albums. My two greatest musical influences of my life were hip hop and heavy metal. I devoured the early Iron Maiden albums because they put so much effort into each new iteration of what Eddie was going to be whether it was "The Number of the Beast" vs. "Killers," vs. "Piece of Mind." Even when you bought the singles. Me and my buddies just adored Eddie and the artwork of Derek Riggs.

That's a deeper cut of monsters than what I was expecting.

[Laughs] I go back a ways with that one.

Frankenstein's monster goes through a big range of moments in the first issue. He's ready to give humanity a chance and while learning about the world gets even angrier. It allows a reader to reflect on their own practices and behavior or think of how others abuse the world, which makes you identify with the monster as he lashes out against the world.

I'm so happy to hear you say that. All of that was definitely intentional and Dietrich made that journey feel organic. There's also a heart-punch. I'm so happy there's all of these thoughtful things and ways to address serious issues of the day but I also wanted room to see Frankenstein's monster to punch a dude's heart out of his chest. [Laughs]

 

Read an exclusive preview of Destroyer #1 below, showing Cover A with Dietrich Smith art and Cover B with Brian Stelfreeze art as well as pages 15-19 introducing Dr. Jo Baker. Destroyer #1 will hit comic shops in May, so place your pre-orders now. Let us know what you think in the comments below.