Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins Discuss Grass Kings and How it’s a Reaction to Society
From writer Matt Kindt and artist Tyler Jenkins comes a rural mystery series chronicling the tragic lives of the Grass Kings, three brothers and rulers of a trailer park kingdom, a fiefdom of the hopeless and lost, of the desperate poor seeking a promised land. Eldest brother Robert leads a grief-stricken life, having lost his daughter to a tragic accident, followed by his wife disappearing one morning never to return. When an enigmatic young woman named Maria flees to their community in search of safe haven, Robert takes her in. Will his decision lead to ruin and retribution dooming the Kingdom?
In two issues Grass Kings has created a fleshed out world that’s a weird reflections on recent events and whose relevance can’t be debated. I got a chance to talk to Jenkins and Kindt about the series and some of its influences.
Graphic Policy: Where did the idea for Grass Kings come from?
Tyler Jenkins: This is a more difficult question than it appears. The initial thought was simply my reaction to thinking about the loss of a child. (How I would deal with that? Could I deal with that?) And a separate reaction to living out here in the country. HOWEVER, this barely scratches the surface of what this book has become. Matt has brought so much to making this an actual story, an actual journey. It cannot be understated how awesome Matt is. This book is so much better because of Matt.
Matt Kindt: Tyler came to me with the idea and the title—of this community that decided to live off the grid—with a sort of pseudo-monarchy of three brothers that lead the community. And we had a long conversation over the emotional impact of losing a child—which was also integral to what Tyler brought to me. So we talked for a long time about the ideas and what kind of story we wanted to tell—throwing music and songs back and forth to get a feel for the general mood and tone of the thing. From there, I tried to break these big ideas into a plot that would sort of hit all the beats we wanted to hit and set the tone. It’s really a strange one from a creative standpoint. I’m usually the one bringing the idea to the table and then shaping it with the artist, but in this case, Tyler had all the basics and I helped him form it. I can honestly say I’ve never worked like this before, and at first it was a little uncomfortable for me—I felt like I needed to stay true to Tyler’s idea and the themes he brought to the table. It was kind of difficult for me to get into the writing at first. Eventually I had to will myself to just forget that Tyler was a person with feelings and just steal his idea and run with it. (Laughs)
GP: Tyler, how did Matt come on to the series?
TJ: I asked him to write it, and BOOM! backed me up (because they are super smart) and voilà. Then the actual work began of turning this into something meaningful and communicative.
GP: Tyler, the world is very thought out, design-wise. How has the process worked between you and Matt to flesh out the way this world looks?
TJ: It’s not mysterious in any way: Matt and I talk about stuff, we say all the thoughts that come into our heads, we throw out the stupid stuff, explore the good stuff, and then I draw it. Like every project I work on, I don’t always know what it’s going to look like until I start drawing. The look is a reaction to the emotional content of the piece. If a publisher came to me and said, “We have this project, can you draw like ‘this’ on it?”, the answer would be, “No,” or rather, “I don’t know.” I just draw and play around and experiment, and the look of the thing handles itself.
MK: We kicked it back and forth a lot. Usually, I ask an artist what they are in the mood to draw—just random stuff—but Tyler came to me with that list already in hand. The old planes and the bird sanctuary were all these elements that he was throwing at me, and it’s fun to write a story like that, to figure out how (and if) you can work that into the narrative. It ends up being much richer for it—putting all those layers of ideas together—it’s why collaboration can be so great sometimes. You get something greater than the sum of the parts.
GP: We’ve seen a rise of individuals who want to live independently from society and the government with their own community and have attempted to seize land. Has that been on your mind as you create this world?
MK: I can honestly say, no. I think it can be a creative trap to let current events and headlines sway a project. You really run the danger of ending up with something that’s dated and too topical. Honestly, what this town is doing has been happening since the beginning of time. I think it’s not so much about any kind of government but more about humanity’s definition of what “property” is and how that differs from era to era and culture to culture.
TJ: This is not some treatise on breaking away from society. This is not a “how-to.” Every human is part of a society, and every person has to answer the question of how they will interact with that society. I personally believe that most people are not looking to leave society; they are looking for identity. And if the identity they chose is, “the guy who does not give in to society,” well, that is more of an identity thing. I think there are some massively shitty societies out there, and some massively shitty governments (I am from Canada by the way, ha-ha). Government is a reflection of society, art is a reaction to society.
Grass Kings is for me a reaction to society, a reaction to how I feel about a lot of things. It is not a thought on those people who want to pull away from society, it is about how I personally feel, and conversely, how I don’t feel. True art has the artist in it, but once it is published, it’s now about the reader, and how they feel about things. Your reaction to my work says more about you than it does about me, and maybe, it will help you learn something about you, as it is certainly making me learn about me.
GP: Since there’s real people who are similar to these individuals, are you taking inspiration from that?
TJ: Somewhat, ha-ha. No names, no names! And at the same time, as in any personal work, each character has a little bit of Matt and I in them.
GP: There’s multiple layers to the story, the greater political of folks not happy about this community being independent and Robert and his daughter, the latter being very personal. Why’d you decide to balance both in the story as one or the other could easily be a series by itself.
TJ: I think, because that is how real life works. It’s never that simple.
MK: I think the entire thing is personal. Politics in many ways is just a way of expressing power. How we express that power is what’s makes it interesting. Lord knows, we have super heroes expressing their power all over the place all the time, but what gets overlooked is the ramifications of that expression. What’s the aftermath like?
GP: Each issue so far has shown the history of people taking land from each other, I have to believe you’re trying to make a point or statement with that Matt.
MK: I did a book a few years ago called Red Handed, which was a crime book that sort of explored the definition of what constituted a “crime.” One of the “criminals” in the book, we find out in the end, was simply stealing dirt. Piling it in a wheelbarrow and moving it back to his place. The idea in that book—and really the larger theme in Grass Kings—is that same idea, this strange notion that we can somehow “own” land. Historically, it’s really what every war on Earth has been fought about. It’s been dressed up a million different ways, but controlling a patch of land is always what it comes down to. That’s not what Grass Kings is about really—that’s up to readers to figure out—but it’s definitely the backdrop that we’re using to tell our story.
GP: Tyler, the art is beautiful. How long does it take you to create an issue?
TJ: It takes about three weeks, give or take. I work in bursts and spurts and fits.
GP: I can see this series reading different before and after this past Presidential election. Has that shift in US politics impacted the story at all?
TJ: It hasn’t for me, story-wise. But I know it will read differently. It is not a metaphor, or anything for the current political U.S. situation, but it IS about real people, real people who struggle and live and want to be free and happy and alive. It’s not about some bloated jackass so out of touch with reality he (or she) might as well be on Uranus.
GP: What else do you all have on tap that folks can check out this year?
MK: More Grass Kings! And my continuing murder-mystery Dept. H; Ether, which just wrapped up with David Rubín, and a slew of great Valiant books.
GP: Thanks so much for the interview!