Even as some industries have struggled amid the ongoing COVID-19 crunch, the arts are (mostly) flourishing. Creatives across the world (and across mediums to boot) have been working tirelessly to either capture this dynamic moment in time or provide much-needed relief via comics, TV, books, etc. Perhaps one of the more intriguing projects to emerge during this time is the NeoText platform, a line of digital-only hybrid novels and comic books/graphic novels. The platform, which deals in with sci-fi and fantasy, features a wide array of talents, including Maurice Broaddus and the rather excellent Sorcerers.
Famed writer/cartoonist Ho Che Anderson has also found a home in NeoText. In September, Anderson (perhaps best known for Godhead and King) released Stone, in which a former basketball player (Graciella “Stone” O’Leary) becomes an activist to help take down the villainous Elites in a world “that exists after the Cancelled Election.” Today, Anderson unveils the follow-up, Rizzo, which he describes as a “slightly different animal.”
Ahead of Rizzo‘s release, I had a chance to speak with Anderson about both books as well as creating art in 2020, working with a new collaborator (artist Ben Marra), and the culture he’s relying on to make it through 2020, among many other topics.
For more info on Stone, Rizzo, and other projects/books, check out NeoText’s official website.
AIPT: You released Stone earlier this year. How would you encapsulate that book for someone who might have missed it?
Ho Che Anderson: I’d describe Stone as a vigilante revenge fantasy told from the perspective of a woman of color. It’s a story about an extraordinary person, whose gifts, physical and mental, become a curse when they’re recognized by the ruling political dynasty in the town she lives in—like the Kennedys but even more blatant in their corruption. It is the story of a woman destined to become a folk hero and a force for change. It’s also the story of someone who is dangerous. Part pusher, part prophet, if you will. Honestly, it’s pretty badass, I’m proud of it.
AIPT: With Stone, I think you capture a lot of the mood and “darkness” of 2020. How’s it feel to sort of capture the mood of the year while it’s happening? Does that timeliness make a difference?
HCA: Oh, man. That’s a question and a half. It’s a few days after the vice-presidential debate, one of the more pivotal elections of our times. What happens in Stone, with the cancelled election and the United States throwing its hands up as a failed state, morphing from a democracy to a dictatorship, is in serious danger of actually happening in real life. Which is insane to contemplate but that’s where we are as I see it. And that’s truly horrifying. So to your point, it feels really scary. The themes we’re exploring are timeless and universal; you’ll find shades of this story in Pinochet’s Chile, Stalinist Russia, North Korea, Noriega in Panama, Idi Amin in Uganda, Saddam Hussein, to name just a few, all versions of the horror show we’re depicting. These tyrants will often operate from the same general bag of tricks. Maybe they start by making an enemy of the press. Then they spread fear and dissent to make themselves indispensable.
First it’s fear of anyone outside our borders, then it becomes internal enemies, people on the left, anyone fighting against wealth redistribution or social inequities. Any of that sound familiar? Then they suspend democracy, declare themselves ruler for an indefinite period, life if they can get away with it. Then to consolidate their power, and to flex for the masses, they round up and kill anyone who even looks like they might be opposition. Maybe there’s a show trial somewhere in there. And that’s just the beginning of the nightmare. You’ve got a sitting president calling for the arrest of his political opponents in the lead-up to an election, including the previous president! What is going on? And what’s scary are there are so many citizens happy to be lapdogs for this would-be dictator, because he’s in power, because he’s so loud and proud about his tribalist, supremacist, f--k you, I got mine, ideology, without seeming to realize how much of a threat he is to the democracy and the freedom they claim to hold so dear. Sadly there are always those who are willing to give up their freedoms and their soul willingly if they think they’ll be rewarded with a tiny bit of power. I’m ranting. The point is, we don’t need what’s happening in the world right now for this story to be relevant, we’d be relevant if Obama were still in office. But the fact that we’re doing this when the situation has become so extreme certainly lends the material an unexpected urgency.
America’s at a tipping point right now, whether it wants to continue as a democracy or if it wants to embrace the kind of fascist dictatorship we’re warning against in Rizzo and in Stone. You can dismiss what I’m saying as just paranoid ranting, but I feel like this could all happen before we realize what we’ve gotten ourselves into. Imagine an American Junta, going back to Pinochet. You think that’s hype? I don’t, not after what I’ve seen the last four years. The choice is up to you.
AIPT: The heroine of Stone, Graciela O’Leary, finds some kind of “hope” through the promise or act of vengeance. Do you think it’s an uplifting book by having this level of catharsis? Can an exploration of violence like this help people to contextualize all these massive feelings?
HCA: Well, to be honest, I don’t think I agree that she finds hope through her vengeance. I think to some extent Gracie’s damned herself. And part of my goal in this series overall is for her to grapple with that and to seek, and hopefully find, redemption. To be put into a situation where the only reasonable response you see is the wanton destruction of life and property—that’s like going to hell as far as I’m concerned. Like all of us, there are some things in my life I’m not proud of, things far less terrible than murder that have scarred my soul. Even if you sleep well at night after the fact, I believe taking someone’s life robs you of a piece of your soul and one day you will have to reckon with that. On the other hand—those fuckers in our story had it coming. They had it coming in epic fashion. And Gracie gives it to them in kind. So in a heightened sense there is a catharsis in the sense that we all have a desire to speak truth to power without consequence. In a way, Gracie gets to do that, which on a primal level is incredibly satisfying.
AIPT: I definitely think Stone is a political book without being overly political. How do you, as the writer, balance some of these concepts while still entertaining and engaging readers?
HCA: Well, politics can be pretty entertaining, and, especially right now, very easy to satirize. That is when you’re not shrinking back in existential horror. Here’s the thing. I’m angry. I’m pissed off. I admit it. I’m a total cliché, I’m an angry black man. And when you’re angry, for better or worse, you can get pretty engaging. People who are mad as hell and decide they’re not gonna take it anymore, that’s a pretty engaging set of circumstances. So it never occurred to me that doing a political action thriller in the age of he whose name I cannot bring myself to utter would be anything other than engaging. I’m writing in a tried and true, time honored tradition. Political action thrillers have always been exciting. Black Legion, [from] 1937, just off the top of my head. Humphrey Bogart turning into a Klan member. Watched it recently for the first time, totally gripping. Still relevant. The immigrants and the darkies and the Jews are coming to take your jobs. And your women. You gonna stand for that? It was like watching Sam Spade turn into a Proud Boy.
AIPT: Rizzo has been described as a follow-up to Stone. What’s the connection between the two works? What can readers expect?
HCA: Rizzo, while set in the same universe, is a slightly different animal, though no less a politically minded exploitation thriller than Stone. It starts as a chain gang drama and then becomes a heist story, a tiny bit in the mold of Point Blank or The Killing or even The Searchers, just in the sense of in the end not getting to enjoy the spoils of the thing you fought so hard to obtain. I’m very proud of Stone but I’m even more proud of Rizzo. I really love this book. I mean, I got to write song lyrics, I just had a blast with it, dark and sad as it is, though not without its own ray of hope in the end, such as it is. One thing I’m excited about is the chance to explore a kind of ecosystem of characters. The star of one is the supporting character of the next, Stephen King-style. Within reason, I’m not suggesting every character that appears in this series will get their own book. But there are a revolving core of players I want to explore in some depth. Rizzo’s a character spoken of in mythic terms in Stone, who will become something of a catalyst in Gracie’s evolution and ultimately a major figure in her life story. Rizzo’s such a compelling character he cried out for a tale of his own, with many more to come. As the series progresses their stories will become more entwined.
AIPT: There’s some of your own gorgeous illustrations in Stone. Is it fun or challenging somehow to balance both sides of your artistic expression?
HCA: First of all, thanks so much for the kind works about my drawings for Stone. They were a lot of fun to execute, I got to try out a few techniques I’d always wanted to explore which was highly satisfying, especially looking back to my teenage years when I had ambition but little in the way of skill, and dreamed of pulling off some of the things I was finally able to in Stone. But to answer your question, it was fun, but to be honest, not really that challenging. The balancing part. I’ve been writing and drawing since I was a child, either in combination or separately, so to me the entire process is as natural as breathing. Again, that’s the balancing part of it. But writing, despite the years, is always a challenge in and of itself, as is drawing. No matter how many times you do it, when you begin you’re never entirely certain you’re going to pull it off successfully. You’re only as good as your last work.
AIPT: Keeping with the art thread, Rizzo will feature art from Ben Marra. What does his work add to the story, and was it important to have someone else handle the art this time?
HCA: Ben brings an entirely different energy, viewpoint, and set of skills than anything I would ever bring to the table, which has the effect of expanding and deepening the world we’re creating. I saw some of his paintings for the book when he was still working on them and I was struck by how much I recognized the world he was depicting and yet how he was seeing it from an angle I would have never found. They were bold and dynamic and colorful and exciting, and I kept thinking, how come it never occurred to me to create images like these for Stone? Ben’s doing some great work I’m really excited for people to see.
AIPT: I had an interesting convo with someone about how to categorize this work. Do you see it as a “graphic novel” or a novel with graphics/art? Does that distinction matter at all?
HCA: It matters only as much as it helps retailers sell books. If people know what they’re getting they’re more likely to take a chance so it definitely matters from a commercial standpoint. As an entertainment delivery system it doesn’t make any difference in the slightest, as ultimately a story is a story. I call it an illustrated novella for what it’s worth.
AIPT: Why do you think books like these matter right now in the insanity of 2020? Is art even more essential now, or has it taken somewhat of a backseat?
HCA: Art is more important in an era like this than ever. We’re living under a power system that to me feels hostile to art, just as it feels hostile to science, to intellectual curiosity, to rationality, to truth. But art can provide a voice of sanity. Art can provide a distraction from the pain and the darkness. Art can help you develop morality. Compassion. Empathy with your fellow travelers on this earth who have maybe seen things you haven’t. We need those things right now, more than almost any other time in my life.
AIPT: What are you reading, watching, etc. right now to help stay sane?
HCA: I’m working on an OGN script called, The Resurrectionists, so everything I’m reading currently is in support of that project. I’m alternating between Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York, Howard [Howard] Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, The Social Transformation of American Medicine by Paul Starr, and The Complete Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, to get some detail and ambience of the 1800s, with much more reading to come as I get deeper into the scripting. Not a lot of reading for pleasure at the moment, though those books are all fascinating. My TV fix, and I love me some television, is coming from The Boys, that’s my No. 1at the moment. I just finished binging the hell out of that show, which I thought was not only hilarious and beautifully written, but also a brilliant commentary on America since 9/11. It’s inspiring.
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