Chuck Palahniuk and Collaborators on the Making of Fight Club 2
This week, Dark Horse Comics will release the first issue of Fight Club 2, a 10-issue comic book sequel to the 1996 novel (which was made into the hit 1999 film). The comic is written by the novel’s author, Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk is writing in this medium for the first time, but he’s working with some of the most acclaimed collaborators in the business.
To dissect a three-page scene from the first issue of Fight Club 2 (pages 13-15), I spoke with Palahniuk, artist Cameron Stewart, cover artist David Mack, colorist Dave Stewart, letterer Nate Piekos, and editor Scott Allie. Dark Horse Comics has been generous enough to provide us with the full pages from this scene so that you can read along with the commentary.
In general, how did the team communicate with each other during the making of this book?
Scott Allie (editor): Well, certainly the most unique thing with the process of this book was that the whole interior team got together in Portland to talk about what we wanted to do, and brainstorm some storytelling ideas.
Chuck Palahniuk (writer): We had meetings twice a week all summer to come up with different concepts. Like the idea for realistic objects to overlay and obscure things on the page, things that would be consistent through all the issues.
Nate Piekos (letterer): It's more of a team atmosphere than most projects where you usually only deal with the editor. Scott fostered the team-spirit approach with us on the Umbrella Academy comics, and it really is the best way for everyone to get excited and give 110%.
Cameron Stewart (artist): Now that the book is underway, I generally send Scott the artwork, who passes it along to Chuck for approval. Occasionally they have notes on the art but for the most part I'm left to my own devices.
Piekos: The team does a lot of emailing with everyone CC’d.
The flower petals we see on the first page of this scene with Marla in the kitchen is an interesting device that is used (with different objects) throughout this issue. How did this idea come about?
Cameron Stewart: That was Chuck's idea—from a very early stage he said that he was interested in the idea of "occlusion"—of deliberately obscuring information from the reader in order to "visually annoy" them. The pills and rose petals were written into the script from the very first draft.
Chuck Palahniuk: I really admired the way David Fincher messed with the conventions of film in the Fight Club movie. He didn’t try to hide the fact that you were watching a movie. The actors break the fourth wall. He had the film rattle in the cage, he had it burn, he had splices. He really talked about the mechanics of film within the film which I think kind of lends it an even greater realism because it’s not a story trying to pretend it’s the truth and it somehow becomes even more honest because of that.
So I wanted to try to identify different aspects of comics that we could mess with. And one was using these realistic objects that would obscure and negate captions and dialogue. And also obscure and negate faces so it would imply that someone was hiding or lying in that moment. And we’re going to be doing additional things like messing with the register and the colors as if the printing process was screwed up so as to imply that these are defective issues. We just found as many aspects of the mechanical process as we could mess with to mimic the way that David Fincher messed with the movie.
Scott Allie: Chuck had the idea that we would cover things that you would usually never cover, that traditional storytelling would require you to show clearly. We’ve carried this idea through in a lot of ways, like the issue #2 cover by Francesco Francavilla, where the logo covers the fighter’s face.
How are the overlaying objects created? At what point in the production process are they added?
Cameron Stewart: I drew them in black and white, on an overlay. I needed to be able to determine the size and placement so that I could compose the entire page.
Dave Stewart (colorist): During the coloring process, I layer the objects so that I can add shadows on the background so it looks like the object is resting on the paper. The line is hidden in the color adding to a more realistic feeling. Then the shadow is added to make it feel like it’s resting on the book.
Cameron Stewart: Dave rendered them in a far more "realistic" style, complete with shadows cast on to the page, in contrast to the simpler, flatter, more "comic book" style coloring on the rest of the page.
Nate Piekos: Cameron drew the pages without the obscuring elements (flower petals, pills...) and when I lettered those pages, I drew indications for the best positioning over the lettering. Dave Stewart did an amazing job rendering those objects and placing them.
Scott Allie: The person who doesn’t get enough credit is Christianne Goudreau. She works in our in-house production department, and she does the final assembly of everything. Nate gives us pristine lettering files, then Christianne actually assembles that over the line art. We go through a round of fine-tuning, including moving the rose petals now that we can see exactly how the lettering lands in relation to the art. Then she gives the lettering files to Dave.
Generally Dave colors a book at the same time the lettering is getting done, but he holds onto it until Christianne can give him the lettering. That’s especially important here. Dave had to have the lettering to finalize the coloring. Not only do the rose petals cover some balloons, but they have cast shadows that hit the balloons. All of that required a lot of fine-tuning. And I think we were all a little surprised at how beautifully Dave rendered the rose petals. Dave really knocked that out of the park. Those are just normal inked drawings of petals drawn by Cameron, but Dave colored the hell out of them. When Dave’s done, he turns it back in to Christianne, and then we have one more round of fine-tuning with her before it’s all done.
We actually first see this same motif of the realistic objects on the book’s cover. How were those created?
David Mack (cover artist): I put actual band-aids on the painting. I felt like it unified the two different sets of eyes into one facial identity even though they represent two different consciousnesses. The eyes open/eyes closed imagery was meant to convey the two personalities. The Tyler eyes open up inside his head when his eyes close. And with the bruises, cuts, band-aids, and scar, I felt like it said "Fight Club" and “Tyler" with an economy of information. I wanted the imagery to bypass the normal thinking process and download in your head immediately.
Chuck Palahniuk: David is so good at depicting the subconscious so I just let him go on this.
David Mack: Scott and Chuck would sometimes have notes and suggestions. Often they would give the notes on the sketch and then I’d tweak or add something for the finished painting. Sometimes they may have a note on the painting, and I’d add a touch to that. I think the evolutions of the covers were always for the better.
I often used mixed media and three dimensional objects and collage in my work, so it integrated well for contrast with the painting. And in the case of issue #3, Scott and Chuck asked for an actual grenade pin to overlap the cover image.
I wanted to talk about the making of this particular scene because there’s such a great rhythm throughout it. As we see Sebastian mowing the lawn, there is a palpable buildup of stress across these two pages. Can you talk about how you all worked to help orchestrate that pacing?
Chuck Palahniuk: Writing for this was more like writing a screenplay or even a storyboard for a screenplay. I’d have to limit and pace the number of panels I could present. And then being presented with the concept of the page turn reveal which was fantastically frustrating at first. Trying to pace everything so that there was a setup just before the page turn. Cameron was much better at combining panels so that the page turns would work better. I just didn’t have a very good grasp of it at least for the first couple of issues. In that way, he really did save me.
Scott Allie: We all communicate very directly on things, but it’s still my job to make sure the communication works. That everyone has what they need. So with pages 13 and 15, for instance, the pages with the petals and the barking, the script said what Chuck wanted there. Then Cameron’s initial layouts showed how it would basically work, which Chuck and I signed off on.
Cameron Stewart: Since it's quite a mundane setting, partly to keep it interesting for myself to draw, I felt like I wanted to try to make the page very dense and rhythmic. To grow the tension of the scene. Page 14 employs an eight-panel grid, but with two tiers of four thin vertical panels, which is an unconventional layout. I used the first tier to show a static view of the garden with Sebastian moving back and forth across it, to suggest the monotony of the mowing—and, on a greater level, his current domestic life. As his anger and frustration at the neighbor grows, I increased the density of the panels on page 15, employing a very tight 15-panel grid to suggest an almost claustrophobic feel, like his world is suffocating him and he's ready to explode out of it. Scott was a little panicked at this layout as I think he thought it was *too* dense but I felt like it packed a much greater visual effect than to divide it over another page.
Chuck Palahniuk: I dictated that the caption would be a little wordy and I wanted the dog barking to obscure those words so that it wouldn’t seem overly verbose. That was a big thing that I wanted, this constant static of barking throughout the whole thing. And I wanted this repetition of the lawn mower going in one direction and then another direction to imply the tediousness of our lives. That most of our lives consist of the same tasks done over and over until we die so I wanted that sense of futility.
And the coloring is so intentionally bland here. If I was stupid about illustration I was even more stupid about coloring. Dave [Stewart] came up with the idea of using these hot colors for all the really dynamic scenes. So if there were scenes with violence or sex, that’s where all the reds and yellows would show up.
Dave Stewart: The dog’s incessant barking is colored in oranges and orange-red to draw a lot of attention. It kind of screams over everything that is happening in that scene, and is hopefully kind of irritating in how much attention those colors want. Then Sebastian explodes and his background goes hot yellow contrasting the browns of the scene. His choice in the last three panels to not take his medication and instead fight is indicated in the backgrounds that go from the brown green grass color to a hot orange signaling violence of his intentions.
Scott Allie: At one point we were going to vary the sound effects, different words for barking, but sticking with the same word felt cleaner, more true to the intent.
Nate Piekos: Chuck's script stated that the barking should be visually annoying. It should kind of get on your nerves and become overwhelming. At times, it would compete with the dialogue for your attention. So I just went nuts with it. Starting slow at first and building as Sebastian's tension was building through the scene. We're doing some fun graphic design in this book with lettering and elements "overlapping" artwork, so I did some of that with the barking as well.
Scott did what we call "placements," where the editor indicates where things might fit and flow correctly. I think Cameron had some input on that scene as well. Sometimes he'll send along a sketch of where he imagines the sound effects might go when we have a tricky page. Ultimately, it was left up to me to make it work design-wise and for readability.
Chuck Palahniuk: It’s hard to do a scene about boredom and frustration and still keep it interesting. That’s why I liked using the barking so often because it creates a tension in a scene that might otherwise seem tedious. The bark adds that extra thing that breaks things up.
Again, like with the rose petals, the visual sound effect of the barking obscures some of Sebastian’s dialogue. Did this go against your professional instincts to cover up so much of the actual art and dialogue?
Cameron Stewart: No, I was interested in experimenting with it as a means of making the book visually distinct—I've also played with overlapping panels and seeing how far I can obscure an image while still allowing the necessary information to be read.
Nate Piekos: A comic letterer's #1 responsibility is to make sure the reader isn't confused. The eye follows a certain path and rhythm, and if the lettering is off, then the reader is brought out of the reading experience—when Chuck's scripts indicated these overlapping design elements, I was kind of worried that we'd be walking a tightrope with that. We'd intentionally be obscuring dialogue and art. I think we pulled it off nicely.
Chuck Palahniuk: It makes it seem a little less precious. That you can throw away words and they aren’t important. That you can throw away faces. There’s studies that show that the mannequins that department stores use are much more compelling and draw your eye more if they don’t have a head. We’re compelled to the incomplete thing. The obscured thing is always much more engaging.
Scott Allie: When the occluding images are sound effects, it just means a bit more work for Nate. But when they need to be drawn, it makes it more complicated for everyone, requiring Cameron to draw the elements on a layer, knowing that they’ll be moved around, knowing that he has slightly less control than he normally does over the page. It complicated things for Nate in that he needs to think not just about what art he’ll be covering up, what’s under his lettering, but also what art will be covering his letters, what will go over his lettering. That actually requires a lot of extra consideration.
Amongst everything else going on there are a lot of cutaway panels to Sebastian’s son's bedroom in this scene too.
Chuck Palahniuk: We see Junior with his chemistry set and strewn on the floor is the Holy Bible which isn’t really introduced until maybe the 4th issue but Cameron gets it in here really early. Also next to that is a Tyler Durden action figure with a gun. And that’s something that shows up much later in a video game but it was just a really smart way for Cameron to introduce these things. And in a way it’s like how David Fincher got Brad Pitt into the movie early by splicing him in and sticking him on televisions in the early scenes so that there was kind of a hint of Pitt before his character actually stepped in.
Cameron Stewart: The Bible seen on the floor of Junior's room was in Chuck's script, one in a series of Biblical references foreshadowing a great cataclysm. It was my idea to include the Rize or Die Tyler action figure on the floor—a precursor to Sebastian's vision of Tyler in the video game and the suggestion that there is a link between father and son and Tyler.
Chuck Palahniuk: Cameron doesn’t waste anything so everything is just a wonderful opportunity for a setup that we’ll pay off later. I think once people see the art in the book and the richness in which things are depicted multiple times they’ll be so impressed. Things aren’t just depicted once and never seen again. There’s a consistent texture of the same things which is kind of what the minimalist style of writing is all about, repeating the same thing but in different ways.
After all the buildup of the dog barking, the dog poop and Sebastian’s simmering aggression towards his neighbor, this scene ends in the top panel of the following page with the quiet, wordless image of Sebastian and family eating dinner in silence with Sebastian sporting a shiner.
Chuck Palahniuk: The non-verbal payoffs and simple gestures are always more powerful. And that’s another place where Cameron knows far more gestures and he put things across in a much more subtle way than I could dictate them.
Cameron Stewart: After the density of the previous page, ending on Sebastian's sinister, stern face as he makes his grave threat against the neighbor, it made sense to widen out again to show a scene of dull domesticity. We can breathe again, and laugh at Sebastian's failure (or is it?).
Chuck Palahniuk: There’s something about this form that seemed natural for me. I always disliked using a lot of dialogue and I like to play down dialogue by not using a lot of quotation marks around it so that you’re not confronted by this page that looks like a screenplay which is quote after quote. So that dislike of dialogue already set me up to write in this visual way.
I love using some sort of odd non-sequiter and then not using it for a while. For instance, the babysitter finds this shoebox full of dog shit and there’s a reference to junior using potassium nitrates in the old fashioned way where you’d distill shit with urine and scrape the crystals off. It’s such a red flag but it’s not addressed. And then later we come upon dog shit on the lawn and a kid with a chemistry set. Then we get the beat-up at the dinner table scene with no explanation and we force the reader to wait until almost the end of the issue before you find out what actually happened at that fight and why this scene is so quiet and subdued. I like setting something up and then waiting as long as possible before explaining.
Fight Club 2 #1 is available in comic stores now.