Q&A: Mark Russell on Poe, Politics, and Pabst Blue Ribbon

Aug 20, 2018 - 06:00 PM
Hart Seely

Writer Mark Russell has built his career on new takes for such iconic characters as Fred Flintstone, Snagglepuss and God. (His hilarious 2013 effort, God Is Disappointed in You, condensed each book of the Bible into a few pages.) Last year’s reboot of The Flintstones for DC Comics won him an Eisner Award nomination for Best Writer. (The books were also nominated for Best Limited Series and Best Humor Publication.) His first work with AHOY Comics opens issue #1 of EDGAR ALLAN POE’S SNIFTER OF TERROR, which launches in October. He spoke via phone with AHOY publisher Hart Seely, who quickly clarified a critical matter.


I must note for our readers that you are not the Mark Russell of PBS fund-raisers, the one who used to play the piano and sing funny political songs. Do folks ever mistake you for him?

I benefit from that confusion a lot. So, apologies in advance: I’m not that Mark Russell.

If you were, I’d tell you right here that the The Capitol Steps ripped you off.

He’s probably got a good lawsuit against them—and against me, for using his name.

Of course, we’re going way back, to the days of Frampton Comes Alive. Wait, are you old enough to remember Frampton Comes Alive?

I was a tiny kid, so I don’t remember it much. You know, this is one of the few contexts in which I am still considered young—being compared to Mark Russell, the Capitol Steps and Frampton!

Fun fact: Mark Russell is from Buffalo. I did research.

I wonder if he ever gets emails from people complaining about my comics?

If he reads this, or someone points it out to him, I want to wish him the best… unless you have a bone to pick with him.

No! Absolutely! I wish him the best! I have no grudge against Mark Russell, and I hope he has none against me, even though I pilfered his name.

So, you live in Portland, Oregon, right? That makes this a transcontinental call.

The miracle of technology! (Long pause.) Are you there? Hello? Can you hear me?

(Turns out, the call dropped. A new call is made. Minutes later…)

I could hear you. You couldn’t hear me?

I couldn’t hear you at all. Which is kind of funny, because we were talking about the miracle of technology, when it dropped.

You know, this is something I have to respect Omarosa for: good tape-recording quality. If I try to tape a conversation, all I get are scratching sounds in my pocket.

You can say whatever you want about Omarosa, but she’s probably the only person in that administration who could successfully tape a conversation. With everybody else, it would sound like a butt call.

For that, I doff my cap to her. So, moving along… you live in Portland, Oregon. Is it true that Portland is the hipster capital of the world?

It is true. And I think it’s true because, historically, this has been a place for people to fail—gently. This is one of the few places where you can get away with crazy ideas. You could open a food cart that serves fried chicken with peanut butter and jalapenos sandwiches, and if it tanks, nobody will hold it against you.

Did you ever open up a food cart selling fried chicken and peanut butter and jalapeno sandwiches?

No, but I’ve been to a few. This place has the full panoply of human experience. You can try something you never thought could work, and it’s sublime, amazing. Or you can try something, thinking it can’t possibly be good, and it’ll turn out that you’re right.

Do you drink Pabst Blue Ribbon? I’m told that’s what hipsters drink.

It’s the beer of choice for hipsters for pretty much the same reason that Portland is the city of choice: They’re both pretty cheap. So, yeah, I drink it. You can get it for a buck a can.

The Flintstones was a breakout piece of writing. You took an old concept and made it suddenly relevant. I thought it was brilliant. Did you face pushback from people who thought Fred Flintstone should never be changed?

There was a little, at first, but once I got the ball rolling, and they saw the ride they were on, they sort of threw up their hands and gave up trying to get off. Mostly, I was surprised at how much freedom I had, and how much they let me get away with.

While writing it, did you have self-doubts?

I didn’t really have to deal with self-doubt, because I hadn’t been a big fan of The Flintstones, so I sort of was playing with the house money. It loosened me up, to say what I wanted to say and not worry about the franchise, or some legacy. And that is the only way to write. You just have to think, “For better or worse, this is what I have to say.” You can’t be worrying how this will sit within somebody else’s cherished universe.

Yeah, this wasn’t like rebooting Star Wars.

Right. I think that’s kind of a reputation I’ve got now. People won’t offer me titles unless they’re okay with me ruining them.

Which brings us to Edgar Allan Poe! I want to talk about the piece you’re doing for our anthology, EDGAR ALLAN POE’S SNIFTER OF TERROR. In issue No. 1, you managed to cross a Poe story with something no one has ever done before. It’s so crazy, so brilliant, I don’t want to give it away. How did you approach redoing Poe? Because we’re still wondering what kind of pushback we will get.

I didn’t really think about the kind of trouble I’d get into, messing with such a revered American writer. Maybe I should have been a little worried. I just thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to combine something that is never taken seriously with something that is always taken seriously? To see if I could make the revered Edgar Allan Poe funnier, and conversely, make the other thing more serious and solemn.

From the day we read your script, we knew it would go in the first edition. So, let the pushbacks begin! I think people will read it and laugh.

If you’re not getting some pushback, you’re not doing your job as a writer. If it’s so safe that it doesn’t offend anybody, then you are spending too much time coloring in between the lines.

Where do you think Poe stands on the list of great American horror writers? You know… Stephen King, HP Lovecraft… Where does Poe fit in?

I don’t really see Poe as a horror writer. I think of him as a writer who used horror as an element in his stories. To me, that’s much more powerful than somebody who sits down and thinks, “Okay, I’m going to write within this genre.” He was writing books about whatever was inhabiting his soul. To me, he goes at the top, not because he was one of the first to do horror, but he was just being authentic about the things that haunted him.

Ever try to write a flat-out horror story?

There was a Swamp Thing that I wrote for DC, in the Young Monsters in Love anthology. It started out looking like a light-hearted romance, then got dark, and then darker, and it ended like an Edgar Allan Poe story, where nobody turns out to be happy.

Does horror need humor to be scary, and does humor need horror to be funny?

I think so. But to me, these are not goals for a writer. They are ingredients that go into the cake you are baking. Humor is like butter. You wouldn’t make a cake without butter; it’s a necessary ingredient. But you don’t just eat a stick of butter. At least I don’t. Horror is the same. It’s best when used in a dish with a lot of other elements. I’m not a big fan of things that are exclusively horror, or exclusively humor. I like stories that employ elements from all of our emotional palette.

When you start a project, do you have it all plotted out beforehand? Or does it take shape as you go?

A little of both. I have things plotted out a little when I start, but as I’m writing, I try to be open to the necessity of the moment—the way the story is organically trying to push itself, as opposed to the way I imagined it at the outset. It’s like building a house with this great blueprint, but then you start finding anthills and bedrock issues, and so you change the plan. You conform to the landscape that you’re building on. That’s how I try to write.

You ever fall in love with your characters, or come to hate them?

I always love my characters. Even when they are despicable. I think the way you make emotional pain real for the reader is that you, yourself, must feel bad for your characters—especially if you are doing terrible things to them. If readers sense that it is a tragedy to the writer, it will be a tragedy to them.

Ever create an all-evil character?

I don’t know if I have an entirely evil character, but some characters are more three-dimensional than others. Some are more like two-dimensional architypes, representing one facet of society or a type of person. Those characters always feel more evil to me than the three-dimensional ones, who are more grounded, and with more nuanced motivations.

Do you ever become a character in your work?

We’re all characters. We’re characters in the story that we’re writing, which is our lives. Most of the time, we don’t realize it. We think of ourselves as abstract people, which is how we get through life, justifying the pain we’ve caused, and imagining a better future. But we’re characters, working within the fiction that we’re writing for ourselves. And that’s what makes life bearable.

In the era of Donald Trump, is all writing political?

I don’t know if it’s all political, but for me, it’s always about what I’m experiencing. Even if it’s a story set in 30,000 BC, it’s ultimately about the world that I’m living in. I’d be lying to myself if I thought otherwise. So, in a way, it is political. It’s hard to live in the era of Donald Trump without it affecting your life, or your imagination, in some way.

George Orwell said to not be political is in itself a political statement. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a political landscape so charged emotionally, except for maybe in the days before Nixon resigned.

The difference with Nixon was that it was the Republicans who were coming over and being willing to vote for impeachment. That forced his hand. I think with the Mueller investigation, we’re seeing a litmus test on how much of a reality-based nation we still are. All of the stuff coming out about collusion and corruption is going to be a litmus test about whether we as a nation will accept that reality, or reject it in favor of the fantasy that is Donald Trump. And I’m not sure which way it’s gonna go.

By the way, congratulations on your Eisner nomination. A question I’m sure you’ve been asked – did it bring a bump?

It was very flattering to be nominated, I was tickled pink, and I’ve been getting a lot more phone calls, offers to write more titles. The Eisner nomination sort of gave me the institutional stamp of approval – that it was, in fact, a good comic.

It was a great comic. And if anybody thought it had to have “Yabba-dabba-doo” on every page, they were wrong and you were right.

Thank you. Actually, that was one of the initial pushbacks from the licensing people at Hanna Barbara. They said he had to say “Yabba-dabba-doo” at least once in each issue. It became was one of the things I used. I thought, why would this guy be yelling “Yabba-dabba-doo,” and what would it would mean in the context of his world? I came up with the idea of it being a nonsense mantra for him dealing with PTSD, from fighting in the Bedrock Wars. So, they sort of got their wish, but not in the way they imagined it.

A question I ask everyone: Who is the one superhero you would hate in real life, if you lived up close, say, as their personal assistant?

I think I would not like to work around Wolverine.

He’s got his quirks. 

And a chip on his shoulder. I don’t think I could ever be perfectly candid around him.

You know who else would be tough? Professor X.

I should probably just avoid all X-men.

Yeah, they were born with their powers. They would never be responsive to our issues.

I would always feel like an outsider.

Well, you would be. You’re not a mutant.

You’d be like the scholarship student at an exclusive boarding school full of rich kids. Or maybe you’d just be the guy who prepares the sandwiches for lunch.

You’d get smacked in the head with a snowball, and the staff would say it’s wonderful how Iceman is finding his voice.

If anybody attacked the school, I’d be the first to die. I’d be the one guy who can’t turn into an eagle, or use his laser eyes to escape. A one-legged guy in an ass-kicking contest.

Getting back to Wolverine, if you messed up – didn’t fill the car with gas or something – he wouldn’t hold back. He’d yell at you.

You’d go home every night and cry.

Okay, switching gears, who is the one supervillain who would be a decent employer?

I’m gonna say Lex Luthor. He would be so busy with all his schemes that he wouldn’t have time to make my life miserable. He’d be so deep in everything that he wouldn’t bother to berate me.

Plus, he runs LexCorp. He’s got an HR department. He has to a board. He has to be sensitive to work place issues.

He’s probably a very capable employer.