Sweet Dreams are Made of Bees – An Interview with CHRISTOPHER SEBELA about FOULBROOD
Christopher Sebela, writer of many fantastic comic books like High Crimes, Test, Crowded, and Shanghai Red enters the Yeti Cave to chat with Jimmy Gaspero about his newest Kickstarter, Foulbrood, along with Dirtbag Rapture and .Self.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Christopher, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave to discuss FOULBROOD, currently on Kickstarter. You also are the writer for the recently released Dirtbag Rapture at Oni Press and .Self, a ComiXology Original. First and foremost, how have you been doing, and how is Zola?
CHRISTOPHER SEBELA: She’s doing great. She has a perfect life of endless naps, food that always shows up, and a human who is easily manipulated. I’m doing good. I definitely thought this year was going to be better and it wound up feeling like 2020 part 2 a lot of the time and wasn’t great for my brain, but I managed to get my mental fridge cleaned out and [I'm] finally unleashing a bunch of new books into the world is really invigorating and has helped get me re-excited about making new books and coming up with new ideas.
CBY: With all of the comics you’re currently writing, do you find time to read comics and, if so, what do you enjoy reading?
CS: I don’t read as much as I’d nearly like to, comics or prose, but I’ve gotten better about it [through the] pandemic. Right now, I’ve been reading all the other Comixology Originals books, Crisis Zone by Simon Hanselman, which felt like it really summed up a lot of the recent weirdness of the world while being insanely funny, [and] Josh Cotter’s Nod Away Vol. 2, which just came out. Josh is a comics genius. I also read a lot of comics that friends send me and I’m working my way through a re-read of Stray Bullets before bed every night.
CBY: Foulbrood has a lot of moving parts. It’s the story of [a] low-rent thief, DC Cole, who steals Jolene Witherspoon’s beehives. As she goes on the hunt to retrieve her beehives, the story expands to involve a rural crime family, their psychotic grandkids, and a pair of Agricultural Task Force cops. It sounds like the story requires you to manage several different converging plot threads. Did you have to take a different approach from how you typically script things to keep everything straight?
CS: I definitely had to think harder about how to give everyone a good amount of time for people to get to know them while keeping things moving. I did make a chart at one point when I was outlining the whole book, both to keep things straight in my head and to make sure I was calling out the time of day correctly for the colorist every time we move to someone else’s wanderings through this world. I’ve had smaller-scale experience with this in my creator-owned books, but I think writing INJUSTICE: GROUND ZERO for DC was great practice at juggling 6 different storylines all going on at once without shortchanging any of the characters or the readers.
CBY: From the Kickstarter page for Foulbrood, “At turns a character study, a slow-burn thriller, a rural noir, a bucket of chaos and a cast of misfits who don't usually appear in comics…” That’s a real “there’s something for everybody” description. What are the slow-burn thrillers and noirs that have influenced you, not just for Foulbrood, but overall, whether it’s comics, books, movies?
CS: Lots of movies. Movies are where I’ve learned the most about crime. A couple big touchstones for the book and in my life in general are the 1970s films Cockfighter, Mr. Majestyk and Charley Varrick, which are about a cockfighter, a watermelon farmer and a crop duster pilot, respectively. So I’ve always loved crime stuff that digs into small little subcultures in our world. I once spent a year filling a bookcase with crime novels and reading nothing but crime novels, so there’s too many books to mention, but I will say one of the most influential is the novelist Will Christopher Baer. He’s the only writer I’ve come close to reaching out to online and asking him to be my friend. Comicswise, Greg Rucka has always been a big influence on me. Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber’s Underground is an unsung classic. Brubaker and Phillips have been monumental in showing everyone the infinite dimensions that crime stories can occupy.
"In the end, I don’t have much interest in writing someone who has it all together. That doesn’t feel interesting to me from a writer perspective or from a perspective of who would I rather spend my time with."
CBY: Past comics of yours that I have read always feel incredibly well-researched. I’m thinking of High Crimes and Shanghai Red, in particular. Did you have any prior experience beekeeping? What type of research did you do about bees, beekeeping, the role of Agricultural Task Force cops?
CS: I didn’t go as deep with High Crimes, which came out of what was an ongoing Everest obsession. I kinda did my research before I ever wrote a word of that. With Shanghai, I had to hit the library to view old documents and books that aren’t available anywhere else, because it was a really specific period piece. With Foulbrood, we’re in a time where backyard beehives are totally normal and it means there’s a ton of information out there about beekeeping, especially from a first-hand perspective. I have zero experience with beekeeping. I only recently learned to live in peace with bees and embrace them. I don’t think we’re at a level where I can put on a suit and surround myself with them yet. I talked to some beekeepers and I’m subscribed to so many beekeeping channels on YouTube. I did do my best to talk to actual AgTask cops, but they never responded to my requests, which just made me aim to be as truthy as possible but also gave me permission to wing it. Within reason.
CBY: You seem to have a great affinity for atypically likable female characters. I originally used the phrase “flawed, but likable,” but everyone is flawed. I think your protagonists are realistic with qualities that aren’t often found in protagonists, especially female ones. In fact there’s a line in Dirtbag Rapture, “...people like when you show them the blemishes too.” That’s something you do extraordinarily well in your comics. Where does that drive or sensibility to showcase that kind of character in your work come from? Is it just a skill you’ve developed? Are you drawing on people you know or, perhaps, years of observing folks at the local coffee shop?
CS: I think those kind of people just make sense to me as a fellow flawed person? I don’t flatter myself as some kind of skilled observer of human beings, but I have a deep interest in them. I majored in Psychology in college, so there’s a history of me wanting to know what makes people tick. Definitely a lot of time spent in coffee shops really helps with seeing how terrible people behave with no concern for people sitting 5 feet from them who are clearly trying to work.
Everyone I know is flawed — maybe not to the degree some of my characters are — but we’re all degrees of messed up in our own ways. Sometimes it’s who we are in our bones, sometimes it’s what the world is throwing at us, but ultimately, I’ve never met a perfect person. Some people are just able to hide it better than others. In the end, I don’t have much interest in writing someone who has it all together. That doesn’t feel interesting to me from a writer perspective or from a perspective of who would I rather spend my time with.
CBY: You previously collaborated with co-creator and artist Claire Roe on WE(L)COME BACK, published in 2015 and 2016 and was, I believe, Roe’s first ongoing series at that time after artist and co-creator Jonathan Brandon Sawyer had scheduling conflicts when the series went from a mini to an ongoing. I have to imagine that both of you, as people do, grew as a writer and artist, respectively, over the past 5-6 years. Was working together for Foulbrood similar at all to the experience on WE(L)COME BACK?
CS: I’ve been bugging Claire since we finished WE(L)COME BACK about working on something else and we took a number of different approaches. We were all set to start working on a book in March of last year that was about a pandemic that kills millions of people and I suddenly realized this was no longer an idea we could do without being terrible people, but luckily I had FOULBROOD and Claire was into it.
Weirdly, I think we mostly work the same way we did back then. Our editor, Jasmine Walls, does a great job keeping things moving and giving notes on scripts and art. But I think Claire and I are just confident in each other. I like to think my writing has improved and widened since 2015 and Claire gets visibly better with each new book she works on. I’m trying to give her scripts that she comes back having had fun reading and is excited about. I want to make the best platform I can for her to do her thing on something where we make the rules. It’s really exciting working with her again and I’m already trying to figure out how to trick her into doing another book with me.
"If I had to pick a unifying factor to my stuff, it’s curiosity? Not just peering into the heads and hearts of fictional people but looking into these different worlds within our own. Whether it’s mountaineering or beekeeping or cryonics or human guinea pigs, there’s all these subcultures that have their own lingo and hierarchies and customs and it’s both part of the world and completely separate."
CBY: What qualities do you look for in collaborators? When you’re working on a new script, are you thinking about which art style would work as you’re writing it?
CS: I wish I could put it into words. The best phrase I can think of is also awful, but I vibe with things. Sometimes I see someone’s art and I can see us working together on something, even if I have no idea what it is. That’s what happened with Cara McGee. I knew I wanted to work with her since DODGE CITY but it took a while before I figured out what. When I’m writing, I’m visualizing as best I can and I can definitely see certain artists being better for this thing than others, but that’s about as specific as I get. The strongest quality is, they have to be someone I get along with and ideally already like as a person, because we’re going to entwine ourselves with each other for a while, so that helps make it a pleasant thing instead of tension city.
CBY: When I was reading Dirtbag Rapture #1, I was reminded of Crowded in terms of the sense of humor. I also think I noticed the cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in a few panels. First, I was wondering if that was your doing or if that was Kendall Goode? Second, how would you describe your sense of humor, what makes you laugh?
CS: That was Kendall. One of my favorite things in comics and collaboration is trying to pick out the stuff that got snuck into the backgrounds that even I don’t know about. Putting the Sunny gang in was a perfect touch to me. It’s a show that I love and they completely fit with the tone of our book. Seeing things like that is one of those tiny signs that reconfirm you teamed up with the right person on this book.
I don’t know how to describe my sense of humor, so this is not going to be much of an answer. It might be easier to say what I don’t like, which is stuff that punches down, but even with that, there’s a way to do it where the person who is punching down is actually making themselves the thing everyone is laughing at. I like the combination of dumb and arrogant, that’s usually a great recipe for laughter. Wild exaggerations or outright lying, both can make me laugh a lot. But I’m not immune to really stupid jokes or sight gags or anything, really. Whether it makes me laugh out loud is a whole different thing and even harder to quantify, but I think anything can be funny with the right execution.
CBY: There’s a tag line for Crowded: “The Future is Bullshit” and it’s a theme that, to a certain extent, is also in Cold War, Test and now .Self. Are you pessimistic about the future, whether that’s your own future or the future of humanity, or is your writing more an expression of apprehension about technology and how people will abuse it? Or are your personal views something entirely different?
CS: I’m way more pessimistic about the present. I’ve always been stupidly hopeful for the future, but it keeps on turning into the present, which keeps getting shakier. It’s a really vicious cycle that I remain bewildered how we’re expected to break out of.
There is definitely a bit of technology hesitation running through my future-based stories, but none of it is meant to condemn technology and innovation as bad things, it’s me being interested in how it gets used by people. Humanity’s always found ways to mess with objects and technology and make them do stuff no one could have anticipated, both to great and awful ends. Technology and its dominant role in the world right now just makes it that much easier to weaponize something seemingly benign or turn a weapon into a cure. It’s always about people, in the end.
CBY: Speaking of Crowded, where do things stand with volume 3? Is it still scheduled to be released February of 2022?
CS: Yeah, we’ve been working on it over the last 2 years and we’re just putting [in] the last bits of colors and letters. It’s a big final volume and I’m super proud we were able to take this thing all the way home the way we wanted to. I think if you liked the first 2 volumes, you’ll probably love this? I hope?
CBY: This is where I get to be self-indulgent and say I’m a huge fan of your work. I’ve read Crowded, High Crimes, Test, Heartthrob, Shanghai Red, Cold War, and a few of the comics you’ve written for DC. Is there a unifying factor to the stories you write? Is there some connective tissue that runs through your work?
CS: Thanks, it’s always weird to find out people like more than one of my books or me as a writer specifically. Part of that being flawed thing I talked about above, I guess.
If I had to pick a unifying factor to my stuff, it’s curiosity? Not just peering into the heads and hearts of fictional people but looking into these different worlds within our own. Whether it’s mountaineering or beekeeping or cryonics or human guinea pigs, there’s all these subcultures that have their own lingo and hierarchies and customs and it’s both part of the world and completely separate. I’ve done a fair bit of stuff about death, and that’s something everyone is curious about but no one’s getting a satisfying answer to that one until it’s too late, so I just make some unlikely uneducated guesses. I’m just nosey, I suppose — maybe that’s the heart of all my stuff.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
CS: BLACK HOLE by Charles Burns should be read by everyone, it’s perfect horror, perfect comics, it’s a master taking his time to make his masterpiece.
The “Best Man Fall” issue of THE INVISIBLES — a self-contained issue by Grant Morrison and Steve Parkhouse that stops to tell the life story of a henchman who got killed 11 issues ago and everything in his life that led to him being the nameless cannon fodder in an action scene that audiences never stop to think about.
ED THE HAPPY CLOWN — Chester Brown did this weird book about a guy who can’t stop pooping, amongst other things. It’s crass and crude and becomes increasingly more surreal with each page turn. If you want to know my sense of humor, this would be a good indicator.
CBY: Thank you so much, Christopher, and good luck with the rest of the Foulbrood campaign!
CS: Thanks for the interview. It made me think about myself, which I normally try to avoid, but this was the enjoyable kind of introspection.