Talking Comics with Tim | Sam Humphries on ‘Sacrifice’
In interviews I typically stay away from the “how did you get started in comics” question, but periodically I’ll delve into a question about a book dedication, hopeful for an interesting answer. I was hopeful with good reason with this week’s interview with writer Sam Humphries about the new Dark Horse hardcover collection of Sacrifice, by Humphries and artist Dalton Rose. To learn the death of his father was the push Humphries needed to pursue writing comics was a moment that gave me pause.
In fact, the book itself — about Hector, who through an epileptic seizure departs from modern time and space, back to when the Aztec civilization was in its prime — stopped me in my tracks. Storytelling that maps a psychedelic journey in a coherent and fascinating manner is no easy feat, but Humphries and Rose have accomplished it. Dark Horse’s collection of the self-published series will be released Wednesday.
Tim O’Shea: On a most rudimentary level, let’s talk about the logo design for Sacrifice. Who designed it, [comics designer] Dylan Todd or Dalton Rose?
Sam Humphries: Dylan Todd. Sacrifice largely takes place in the past, but it’s not a stodgy period piece. I wanted the design to reflect a modern sensibility without ignoring the core of the story, which is the Aztec Empire. It was a difficult balance but Dylan killed it. He gave Sacrifice a “face” to people who had never seen the story.
Did you consider calling the series anything other than Sacrifice, or was that always the title you had?
Haha, I don’t know how you knew to ask that, but yeah. For the longest time the book was called Flowers, Feathers and Blood, after the three most precious materials in the Aztec Empire. I loved that title because I thought it was romantic. It reflected a core contradiction of the Aztecs — their love of violence and beauty, and their lack of dissonance in appreciating both. But about a hundred people told me to change it and I eventually came around. I’m glad we did.
Epilepsy is a critical ingredient of the story, and personal element for you, as it’s a condition you have. Now that the story has been out for a while, have you heard from other people who live with the medical condition? Has that aspect of the story resulted in interesting reactions that stick out in your mind?
I’m a very lucky epileptic, my condition is controlled by medication with very little side effects. You could know me for years and never know I’m epileptic. I was never “in the closet,” but doing Sacrifice and talking about epilepsy in a public forum made me more visible than I ever had been in my adult life. It opened up conversations, and not just with fellow epileptics. I’ve become much more aware of the larger community of people who live with chronic conditions — people for whom there is no finish line or day when they can say, “I’m cured!” Instead they have to focus on managing their condition, day-to-day, long term, and probably for the rest of their lives. Most people never have to consider the difference between those two situations. Being exposed to a wider variety of stories and perspectives made me aware of how much we have in common, even if our conditions are radically different. These perspectives have played into my portrayal of Hank Pym’s mental issues in the pages of Avengers A.I.
You initially self-published the series, but Dark Horse is publishing the hardcover trade collection. What were some of the biggest lessons you learned on this latest round of self-publishing? What made you go with Dark Horse to publish the collection and what benefits do you appreciate the most about having them in your publishing corner for this round?
We went with Dark Horse because they have a very strong record of producing creator-owned work, and the deluxe hardcover of Sacrifice is gorgeous — Dalton and I couldn’t be happier with the presentation. But we also wanted a wider reach. When self-publishing and self-distributing your reach is limited by your own resources. We wanted Sacrifice to get into more hands and in front of more eyes, and Dark Horse could help us do that.
In terms of lessons about self-publishing — I learned that if you want to make comics, it’s not just a career issue, it’s a quality of life issue. Life sucks waiting by the phone or reloading your inbox, waiting for publishers to get back to you. Life is exciting and empowering and FUN when you’re making your own comics. Your life will be so much better if you just go do it. And once you do, once you become a comic creator, once you produce a comic book of your very own, no one can ever take that away from you. That’s an accomplishment you can take to your grave.
You were well-versed in Aztec history for a number of years before tackling this series, but I am curious how much did original series editor Alejandro Arbona have to study up on the subject to edit the series? In what ways did Arbona’s editorial guidance benefit the overall story?
Hm, good question! I’m not sure how much Alejandro studied up, but he’s a sharp motherfucker who is not hesitant to satisfy his curiosity on a wide number of subjects — just ask him about bees sometime. Alejandro’s influence was absolutely key to the story. Dalton and I were both pretty green going into this book — it was the first multi-issue story either of us had tackled. It was great to have an experienced editor like him helping with scripts, layouts, colors — he had input on everything. I call him the “savior of Sacrifice” because I hit a season of massive doubt, mid-way through the book, and I almost changed everything. Alejandro talked me through it and convinced me to stick with the original plan. Without him I probably would have flubbed the whole second half of Sacrifice out of misplaced panic.
The book is dedicated to your dad. Is he still with us?
Dad died five years ago. No matter what kind of success I had in other careers, or how proud he was of my other accomplishments, he always thought I had a talent for writing, and never let me forget it. Unfortunately he died before I ever got published.
Did your dad know that you had aspirations to be a published writer before he died? In addition to reminding you of your writing talent, were there other ways he encouraged you?
Well, he drove me to the comic book store every week when I was a kid! As an adult, he knew it was something I sort-of-secretly yearned for. It really wasn’t Dad’s scene at all — comic books or creative fields — but he taught me that having passions like that in life are priceless. He told me to follow those passions, he wanted me to go for it. We were very close, he was my buddy. When he died, it was a very dark, very tough time for me. I re-evaluated a lot of things — like, how much time I have, and how I want to spend it. It set me down the path of “if I don’t try to write comics not now, when?” and “what are you really afraid of?” and led me to the point where I decided, “fuck it, I’m gonna self-publish.”
In reviewing the final installment of the initial series run, CBR’s Greg McElhatton wrote: “Taken at face value, the answer to what’s happening to Hector and his traveling back in time and space to the Aztec empire is satisfying and robust. But if you’d rather doubt Hector’s own perspective of what happens, I feel that Humphries leaves that up to the reader. There’s no ‘this is right, this is wrong, the end’ sort of ultimatum, and it’s a writing decision that I appreciate.” How challenging was it strike that balance of trying to tell a coherent narrative tinged partially in psychedelic/hallucinatory elements?
To me, when we were creating the book, it was important to make these impossible things real for Hector. It was important that he make decisions with real life-or-death stakes in the empire of the Aztecs. When he sees Tenochtitlan burn, I wanted that pain, that regret, that melancholy to be a real experience for him. It seems paradoxical, but grounding the book in the Aztec era balanced out the psychedelic, time travel, and spiritual elements. And the dissonance between the two acted like the gutters between comic panels. It opened up possibilities between the lines — was it real? Was it imaginary? Did he really go back in time? Was he in the parking lot the whole time? I’d rather not nail that down for the reader. I’d rather let them wonder, and let their experience be bigger for it.
Speaking of psychedelic, how much does a writer script scenes like that versus just leaving it up to artist Dalton Rose?
In the early stages, I would write a lot to Dalton about my own psychedelic experiences with epilepsy. I didn’t really know if they would help — the subjective experience of a seizure is definitely difficult to describe. Yet somehow Dalton nailed it. Those pages were very powerful for me, I was floored when I first saw them. To have such an intense and personal experience depicted so well on paper…and he made it look so cool! After that, the psychedelic sequences were probably the least descriptive in the script. I’d tell Dalton what we needed to see, and he’d take it from there. The layouts, the flow, one figure melting into another and another, all that magic was pure Dalton.
Hector is a Joy Division fan, but there is also a New Order reference (and The Smiths, if I am not mistaken). Did you stop yourself from inserting too much musical references into the series?
Yeah. I mean, this is not the book to have a music reference on every page. And there are legal boundaries too — you can’t just have Joy Divison’s Ian Curtis likeness appear and guide Hector through the realm of the gods, as much as I wanted to. Then again, Ian Curtis is nobody’s Jiminy Cricket, so it was probably for the best.
While self-publishing Sacrifice, in parallel you became a rising star at Marvel. Do you think the potential audience for the series grew as a result of your increased name recognition?
Absolutely. It’s no secret that working for the Big Two can pump up your creator-owned sales, I’m hardly the first creator to benefit from that. When Sacrifice started, I only had one other full issue under my belt, Our Love Is Real. Now with Sacrifice in hardcover I’ve done a bunch of work at Marvel and BOOM! and gotten in front of a larger chunk of eyes. Fans of my Marvel work hit me up all the time on Twitter and ask about my self-published books, and all I can say is, a) welcome, and b) pre-order now!
I love your restraint in terms of dialogue for this series. Sometimes you seem to hold back and let Dalton convey the weight of certain scenes. Not to spoil anything, but I love the one splash page where Hector finds himself in a bad situation — and all you have him say is “Fuck.” It was a great beat to the story, and I was curious if it was always in the script that way or if was inspired by Rose’s art for that scene?
That page was always in the script, but that page in the script was inspired by Dalton’s previous work in the book. Originally, we had a seven page sample that I showed to publishers (back when it was called Flowers, Feathers and Blood), but those seven pages contained some fantastic artwork from Dalton. In hindsight, it was nice to have a break between the sample and production of issue one, because it allowed me time to realize all the things I could accomplish with Dalton as a co-creator. I could go bigger, bloodier, weirder.
I wanted people to share, even just a little bit, my intense obsession with the Aztecs. I wanted them to experience life in Tenochtitlan, the third largest city in the world. I wanted them to experience a culture that was completely independent of the cultures of Europe and Asia, or the global culture we have today. The Aztecs were like a sci-fi kingdom right here on Earth. And sometimes, the best way to convey all those things is to shut up and let the art do the talking.
In a series replete with a variety of male characters, how important was it to you to be able to shine such a spotlight on Malintzin?
Malin was a huge character for me. In a widespread, but incorrect, view of history, Malin takes a lot of blame for the Spanish Conquest. Her name is common currency in some cultures — it means “traitor,” a lot like English speakers say “Judas.” But the more you look into it, the more you realize it’s complete bullshit. From what little we do know about her, she must have been smart — one of two people on the planet who could bridge these two cultures, and someone who could navigate shark-infested political waters with great skill. I mean, the Aztecs DID set the stage for their own destruction, the Europeans DID commit genocide, and smallpox DID wipe out 60 percent of the population in three years — yet it’s HER fault? “Malinchista” is a pejorative, and Cortes is a national hero of Spain? That’s her legacy?
And what if — OK, so let’s say for a second it WAS all her fault, and she engineered the Spanish Conquest. Wouldn’t she have a fascinating, layered story with complex motivations? Why isn’t SHE hailed as the cunning, conquering hero who changed the course of history? Why isn’t Cortes regarded as a lying, murderous carpetbagger who rode in on her coattails? That would be a FAR more accurate interpretation of events than the slanted view of history most people have. She’s a woman of color who has been reduced to the bit part of a duplicitous mistress, a scapegoat of history, while the European men are titans who walked the Earth. Ask Yoko Ono about it sometime. It was important for me to cast Malin in the proper context, to place her on the same chessboard as everyone else. I wanted to portray her as a woman who had her own destiny in the face of historical forces, just the same as any of the men we can name today. Sacrifice isn’t a work of academic revisionism, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to do my part to rehabilitate her as a historical figure.