Many of us walk around everyday, slowly bottling our anxieties and insecurities until they reach a boiling point. It can be helpful to talk these things out, but sometimes talking isn’t enough. For Mike Oeming, therapy was only one part of the puzzle in his path to healing. He realized that his art had always been fueled by traumatic experience, which set off another lightbulb: what about a superhero story in which the hero’s powers come from a deep-rooted place of pain? What about a hero that has to deal with the same stresses, neuroses and anxieties that we do? Enter the world of The Victories, Mike Oeming’s powerhouse of a title, which is being published by Dark Horse. I was fortunate enough to catch up with Oeming to pick his brain about his dark take on superheroism, what inspired the project and why superheroes provide such an incredible canvas for storytelling.
Nerdist: These are not necessarily the superheroes we’re used to seeing. Yes, they run around at night in over-the-top costumes fighting crime, but you seem to make a conscious point of showing their fallibility. Faustus, for example, remarks that “maybe [he’s] ready to be a real hero, maybe [he] should just sit here a while and be human.” What influenced your decision to show heroes in this light?
Mike Oeming: When I think of superheroes, I often think of their motivations for doing what they do, and what kind of personality it takes to set themselves up in society as some sort of police, working outside of the justice system. That immediately takes me into some pretty quirky head space. It seems like you’d have to either be an egomaniac or someone with something to prove. I also came up with this idea during some heavy therapy I was going through, if you compound those two things, you get The Victories.
N: Furthermore, why superheroes? What is it about their iconology that makes them the perfect vehicle for a story like this?
MO: I think in the comics industry, superheroes are supremely fitted to tell any story. Especially because the metaphors are so strong, they really can enhance and underline any concept or idea you have in a really unique way. And honestly, there is just something visceral we love about superheroes, isn’t there? We love superheroes and can’t let them go, even after telling the same type of story over and over. Let’s tell different stories. Less stories about superheroes fighting each other or saving the world, and more stories about family dynamics, self doubt, parental relationships, addiction, mid-life crisis, being a mother – all of these things in our real life that would translate into superheroes much better than the usual fanfare. Let’s see more of that.
N: What is it about the project that excites you?
MO: I love that I can tell this kind of superhero story. Every time I wrote for Marvel, elements of a character’s psyche or state of mind were almost always trumped by wrestling moves and continuity. The first thing to go when you have little space allotted to tell a story seems to be deep psyche; action and company branding have to come first. That’s just the way it is. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, or that it gets ripped out of every story, but it’s hard to do. I’m excited to do a story where the state of mind comes first, action and set pieces are secondary. I say that knowing it won’t be for everyone.
For instance, if I got to write the Fantastic Four, it would be all about what conflicted parents Reed Richards and Sue Storm are. I mean, you never see their kids, they almost never talk about them. You know they love them, but they can’t be with them all the time. What kind of issues does that bring up? How can those stories be told on a cosmic scale? Maybe those stories are done and I haven’t seen them, it’s just an example. Maybe not the best one either, I could be totally wrong. I think there is a much richer, deeper pool of stories to tell with superheroes that we seem to be missing.
N: In previous interviews, you mentioned this project was a product of time you spent in therapy. What can you tell us about that and how it contributed to The Victories?
MO: I wanted to express what anxiety was like, what a panic attack felt like. How could that be translated in the art and subtext of a story? I had to create a specific point of origin for that in the main character and then build the story around that. In therapy, I learned that the reason I draw compulsively is that it has always been a control mechanism. As a child, it was a way for me to control the chaos happening around me. My mother had several giant breakdowns when I was a kid, and then later in my adult life, I started having anxiety and panic attacks. I didn’t understand them or even know what the were at the time.
But through therapy, I realized that with my art, I’ve been carrying around all those bad memories with me, all the trauma of childhood and even adulthood. All those things lived with me because art is how I escaped or controlled it. My artistic drive was fueled by trauma. I thought what an amazing origin that would be for a superhero, what if the very thing that gave him his power and identity was also the very source of his greatest pain? Once I figured that out, I thought I had a hell of a story. It all comes to a head in issue 4; I’m very excited about it.
N: They say to “write what you know,” but what is the experience of writing something so personal like for you as a writer?
MO: It seems normal. I mean, as writers and creators, aren’t we supposed to be truthful to our art, our lives, to be honest with ourselves so we can express that in our creations? I thought that I had so few life experiences because I came from a small boring town, concentrated on my art and settled down early. But as I grew older, and especially with therapy, I learned I had TONS of experiences, but because they were mine, I never knew they were interesting. Turns out they are. The more you understand yourself, the more you’ll have to write. The well is much deeper now.
N: Where can we expect The Victories to go from here?
MO: We are hoping to put out another three or four volumes, each centering on another set of characters, with all of their stories coming together in one large arc. Seeds are planted in this first arc, then it would build in the next few until it culminates in one final story. Or, we’ll be very proud of this and move on to something new.
N: As a writer-artist, you are a man of many talents, but do you find you prefer one role to the other or do you enjoy having total creative control?
MO: I’m pretty lucky because I do almost completely creator-owned stuff. So if I’m working with Brian Bendis on Powers or Takio or Bryan Glass on Mice Templar, it is still a story I’m part of, so the level of control is the same. I love working with editor Scott Allie; he’s been great at letting me have that creative control while still keeping me on track to tell this story in a way that is personal, but not impenetrable for a wider audience.
N: What sort of design cues did you take in creating this book? What influences you creatively as a writer and author?
MO: I was heavily influenced by a lot of indie books I was reading. Stuff like Six Hundred and Seventy-Six Apparitions of Killoffer, and a lot of books that I honestly can’t remember because they were so indie, it seemed like they went out of their way to not let you know who the creator or publisher was. I’m not kidding.
I was also influenced by my friend Brian Bendis. He knew some of the heavy things I was going through, and he’s seen me in rough shape a few times. He encouraged me to write about this stuff, get it out of your head and put it on paper. Another close friend is David Mack and his ability to translate his thoughts and feelings into a narrative is incredible. Paul Pope’s 100% was a big part of it too, the idea that comics could be closer to novels and yet still be as exciting and interesting as any superhero book. I thought there was a gap between the indie and mainstream superhero genre and I’m trying to explore that.
N: What comics are you reading and enjoying right now?
MO: Just started reading Saga and I’m loving that. Brubaker’s Fatale is rocking my balls. Mainly, I’ve been reading e-books by Andrew Mayne. He writes fast paced genre stuff; Public Enemy Zero was the best new take on zombies ever, though it’s not about zombies at all. Also, I’m currently reading Angel Killer.
N: One last question – what hero do you think would most benefit from therapy?
MO: Hellboy. He’s so sad!
Dark Horse’s The Victories #1 is coming to your local comic book store on August 21st. In the meantime, check out some exclusive advance cover art:
The Victories #1
The Victories #3
And feast your eyes on a Nerdist exclusive: The Victories #4!