I first met Victor LaValle last fall in his “First Novels” course. When he isn’t spending time with his family in Harlem, or writing the next great American novel, he’s teaching in the MFA program at Columbia University. In just a matter of months, I felt I had learned more from his single class than I had in all of the classes I’d ever taken combined. So naturally, I had to take a second course with him in the spring before I graduated. This is how I know LaValle knows what he’s doing when it comes to crafting a good story. His sixth book. The Changeling, will be coming out this June, but BOOM! Studios‘ Destroyer will be his first venture into the comic book world. Naturally, given my interest in comics and being a fan of LaValle’s seemingly effortless genius and creativity, I jumped at the chance to interview him about it.
AR: What comic books did you read growing up?
Victor LaValle: The first “big” comic I remember reading was the famous Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic, written by Dennis O’Neil and illustrated by Neal Adams. It was a gorgeous oversized comic, more like a graphic novel really. It came out in 1978 so I didn’t read it then, I was too young, but it was handed down to me by an older neighbor as if it was holy scripture. And it was.
After that I read the X-Men, of course. God Loves Man Kills was a particular influence on me, really, for the rest of my life as a writer. Even before I wrote a comic that particular storyline played a part in what I did.
In no particular order some of my favorites of the early years were The New Teen Titans (the George Perez/Marv Wolfman years), John Byrne’s Next Men and his Alpha Flight run. Simonson’s Thor, Sandman, Swamp Thing, Morrison’s Animal Man. There’s probably a million more to name, but that’s where I’ll stop for now.
AR: How did you get started in comic books?
VL: I wrote a short piece for Clive Barker’s Hellraiser Bestiary in 2014. It was published by BOOM! Studios. I had a good time working with the editor and he told me to pitch him any ideas if I had them. About two years later I reached out with the idea for my upcoming comic, DESTROYER. I wrote out a pitch that they liked very much. That was the start of the conversation. From there they helped me hash out an outline for the first six issue arc, one that would be satisfying in itself and still leave room for more stories in the future.
Character designs by Dan Mora
AR: What’s the concept behind Destroyer?
VL: At the end of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the famous monster (or, the Creation, as its called in the book) disappears into the Arctic, saying he’s going to kill himself. I decided that the Monster changed his mind and decided, instead, to live out eternity in the company of the natural world, among the animals since humans had proven so unwelcoming. But in 2017 he’s drawn back into contact with humanity and he’s pretty damn angry about it. In fact he declares war on humanity.
Meanwhile, 9000 miles away, the last living descendant of the Frankenstein line is a scientist, a black woman, who has been doing her own strange experiments. Her 12 year old son was murdered by the Chicago police and she has brought the boy back to life using the most cutting edge modern technology. These three beings–the Monster, the scientist, the android son–will be forced into contact, into combat with one another and with the larger world.
AR: Where did the idea of Destroyer come from?
VL: The murder of black people by the police is hardly a new story in the United States. It was happening long before there were dash cams and cell phones to capture the mayhem. But in 2015 there were scores of these videos, all being shared widely, and I watched them right alongside so many others. I began to wonder what it would be like to bring these people back from the dead, to give them a chance at renewed life. Would they be angry? Would they be damaged? What about their loved ones? Would they want revenge on the ones who murdered their kin?
All this, somehow, led me back to Mary Shelley’s seminal novel. I don’t think enough people have read it–even though it is such a famous book. I thought there were elements in the Frankenstein story that could be repurposed, continued, in a tale told today. I decided to reanimate that old book, and its characters, which seemed fitting. And then I added my own, very current, spin.
Interior art by Dietrich Smith
AR: Comics have a long history of having underlying political messages, and it sounds like yours will, but are there particular messages you’re hoping comes across to readers?
VL: I’m hoping this book gets at some of the biggest questions facing our country, and many countries, right now: who is in charge of this system? What do they really want? Do we matter to them at all?
These are large concerns so I’m embedding them in the very personal story of a woman who lost her son to police violence and the endless number of repercussions that arise from that single, terrible experience. On the individual level I’d hope to make the experience of that mother–the highs and lows, the kind of madness such a thing might cause–into something that almost anyone reading would be able to grasp and, ideally, empathize with.
AR:What’s the idea behind the name “Destroyer”? Is this the name of the young boy? Or are you not allowed to reveal this yet?
VL: The idea of who, exactly, will become the “Destroyer” will morph and change through the issues but I was also making use of a quote from Mary Shelley’s original novel. The Monster (or Creation, as he’s called in the book) eventually loses his shit and stops begging Victor Frankenstein to love him. Victor has rejected him and that’s that. The Monster’s vengeance will be to kill anyone and everyone who Victor ever loved. Which he goes on to do.
He has a quote that always stops me up for the power of its rage and vengeance. It goes like this: “I, like the arch fiend, bore a hell within me; and, finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.”
I mean, wow.
That line summarized the feeling of our central character, Dr. Baker, too. She has the urge to tear down everything, kill everyone, in the wake of her son’s loss. But, since this is a comic, she actually gets to bring her son back. Does that solve everything? No. And then it only gets worse when the original Monster shows up, angry as hell as well.
AR: Let’s be honest, do you like Frankenstein so much because it involves a genius named Victor?
VL: I’d lying if I said I didn’t enjoy hearing my name attached to the term “genius.” I would also love it being attached to the term “financially solvent.” The former seems more likely, if I’m honest.