They say to never meet your heroes, but I did it anyway.
I’ve put Gerard Way — former My Chemical Romance frontman, current comic book writer — on a pedestal for about 13 years. He seemed a genius, an impossibly aloof icon.
But in real life? He’s just a nice dude who is mildly insane and makes weird, good sh*t.
I saw that the second we started talking about our home state, New Jersey. Suddenly it dawns on me: he’s that kid who lived down the block and that everyone thought was a little off because he listened to weird ambient noise while he made comics.
(Way now literally does this; artist Nick Derington described Way’s background music of choice as “crickets and beeping noises for half an hour.”)
And that was after he opened up about whether his wife would date their cat.
A little backstory: I was 11 years old when I first saw Way. I remember watching in awe as a pale guy with jet black hair and eyeliner sang at the pulpit of a church in the music video for “Helena.”
When My Chem (as fans know the band) broke up in 2013, it stung. A lot. They were my hometown heroes, growing up and playing shows mere miles from the town I was raised in. They had gotten me through my very difficult teenage years. They had always been there.
They all continued to work in music, but Gerard had another passion to explore — comics.
Last year, Way threw himself into the comics industry full-time as the curator of DC’s Young Animal— an imprint currently comprised of four monthly comics and a mini-series, each as strange as the next. Way also writes one of these books, Doom Patrol.
I’ve been angling to interview Way ever since the project started. I had never been in the same room (never seeing his band play live is literally a daily regret), and I wondered if I was going to be able to get through an interview without being a total weirdo. I’d met a lot of people I respect in this industry, but never someone whose work had been with me for more than half my life.
So when I sat in the DC Comics HQ in Los Angeles, going over my prepared questions and second-guessing every single one (damn you, impostor syndrome), and heard his voice, I had to take a moment to breathe before looking up. “You’re a professional, dammit,” I tell myself. “Be freaking normal.”
But I also hear Way’s voice in the back of my head — as I do so often in stressful or emotional situations — wailing the chorus to one of his most famous songs, “I’m Not Okay (I Promise.)” The lyrics are “I’m not okay,” repeated many times. It’s very relatable.
Turns out Way is no longer the goth he was back in the day. He’s scrapped the eyeliner, grown out his hair, stopped dyeing it. Luckily, this also makes him less intimidating.
He’s a little formal at first, a little self-protective. I needed to find a way to bring up something we had in common, or make him laugh — which is of course harder than it sounds. I knew from watching other interviews he’d done that he has an odd sense of humor.
Way tells me about the camaraderie between the Young Animal creators, and that “working with others” has been the most rewarding thing over the past year. Okay, but I want to know why it’s taking so damn long between issues of Doom Patrol — as many as three months for what is supposed to be a monthly title.
Way says he writes very dense scripts, and he has a lot of responsibilities as curator. He also doesn’t seem to operate well when given parameters to work within. Just scheduling a time to meet me was a feat.
“It’s been a little challenging to switch hats,” Way says. He credits artist Nick Derington with being a great partner, and inker Tom Fowler with helping to quicken the process. “What Nick and I want is more Doom Patrol comics out in the world, more than anything.”
This is by far the highlight of this week’s comics. “The world is hard and unforgiving. It can change you. Because we’re made up of all the things that happen to us. The good things fill your heart. But the bad things, and what we choose to do with them, really make us who we are.” – Casey Brinke in #DoomPatrol, written by @gerardway, art by @nickderington. #DCYoungAnimal #DCcomics #comics
My next question is tough, but also an opportunity to break the ice. I ask him about his decision to write a scene in which the main character of Doom Patrol, Casey, sleeps with a humanoid, punk-rock version of her cat, Lotion. (Yeah, I didn’t know how I felt, either. I still don’t.)
I ask why that thought would enter anyone’s mind, and why they would follow through with it.
Way laughs. Success! He says Grant Morrison, who wrote Doom Patrol back in the 1980s, advised him to find “the new weirdness” with his own run of the book. “An interspecies relationship felt pretty weird.”
“An interspecies relationship felt pretty weird … if my wife could date our cat, would she?”
This answer, oddly enough, is where Way opens up. “It was secretly inspired by my wife, because she’s very attached to our cat, Mitch,” he said. “And I was like, ‘If my wife could date our cat, would she?'”
Then he smirks and says, “She’s gonna kill me.”
Somehow this is endearing as hell. It is also the first moment I see that the dude is mildly nuts. You’d have to be, right?
The mention of Grant Morrison was my segue into talking about the band. In 2010, My Chem released an album that shared material with a comic Way later wrote — Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. Morrison was in the music videos that brought the comic to life.
The book and album address material that is incredibly poignant in today’s world, and I needed to talk to him about it, even though I worried that its poor reception had left a sour taste in his mouth. (The album was shunned by many fans at the time, and took until November 2017 to go gold.) But no, he was very open to dissecting it.
“Killjoys was kind of a warning about putting people too high on pedestals,” he says — and I think, ooops — “about worshiping celebrities, about reality TV. As we’ve seen since then, the truth starts mattering less and less.”
So if the album and comic had been released in 2017 instead of 2010, would it have been received differently?
“We were always trying to be a little ahead of things, but I think with Killjoys we got pretty far ahead,” Way says. He cites his frustration with the band being “quote-unquote-famous”, plus some creative bumps in the road (unsatisfied with how the album was turning out, the band remade it almost from scratch) as a barrier to success for the music.
He also says the continuity between the album and the comic was difficult for him to square at the time. The book was originally very different. “It wasn’t about the future,” Way says. “It was a present-day story about fighting against homogenization, mental illness, and drug use. So it was this different thing.”
I immediately think this would be interesting to read, given Way’s own history with substance abuse — a problem that appears to be behind him. A My Chem documentary, Life on the Murder Scene, shows Way in a hell of a state: falling over himself, slurring words, spitting up on the street.
It’s something I’ve always found difficult to watch, probably because I couldn’t accept Way as less than perfect. But I can now, and seeing him address that part of is past with a comic would be fascinating.
Way then says something, as if reading my mind, that any fan would be excited to hear. “Sometimes I talk to Shaun [Simon — his writing partner on Killjoys]and say, ‘Maybe we should do that comic one day.'” He questions whether two version of the same idea would be confusing, but concludes “it would be a fun experiment.”
Way has talked about creating a Young Animal record, with songs for each book in the imprint. He says that he’d like to finish it by the end of the year. (Given what I know about his schedule, I doubt it’ll be finished that soon.) Way says he finds it easier to get things done over the holidays because everyone seems to leave LA.
I see my opening to talk about our home state. “You never make it back to Jersey for the holidays?” I ask. I tell him I grew up in Red Bank, and I’ve moved to a part of Jersey surrounded by musical hot spots — a venue called Starland Ballroom, a record store called Vintage Vinyl.
“Oh wonderful! That’s great,” he beams, more genuinely than I’d expected. Because he does not go back to New Jersey. He feels like he was “running away from” something there. “I think a lot of people feel that way about the town they grew up in,” he says.
But he still has a lot of love for Jersey: “I love October there, and it is actually a beautiful state … and there’s good people there. The scene we came out of was super healthy and fun, and it instilled really good things in us.”
When Way adds: “It would be nice to go back and do something there musically,” I try to react as if that’s not one of the most exciting things I’ve ever heard.
He’s careful with his words, though. He doesn’t say, “I want to,” or, “I hope to,” or anything to insinuate that he has plans to do anything about these feelings ever. He just says, multiple times, “It would be nice.”
We get back to business. He reveals that Shade the Changing Girl — a comic about an alien inhabiting the body of a teenage girl — is his favorite book in the imprint. The creative team on this book is comprised of mainly women, which is something incredibly rare in comics. He thought that a story surrounding a teenage girl should be told by women, so that’s who he brought on board.
Because a colleague of his used this word to describe him, I ask him if he owns the label of “feminist.” I know full-well he’s not a label guy. Back in the day, when his band was called “emo,” he hated it.
He doesn’t exactly shy away from feminism, but he’s reluctant to use the word himself.
“I don’t think it’s my decision to call myself a feminist,” he explains. “I don’t think it’s up to me.” He says that he feels that women inhabit that word and that space, and he just tries to be a strong ally. “I try to be good, and I try to stick around people who are good people.”
As much as I accept that diplomatic answer, I wish he knew how powerful embracing that title would be. He has a lot of male fans, and that would be a hell of a message to send.
We move on to the madness that is the upcoming Milk Wars crossover between Young Animal, the Justice League of America, and other DC titles. This title will cover a lot of the same themes that Killjoys did, Way says: “Milk Wars is about that sweet spot in the middle where mainstream comics and underground comics meet … when they meet up together they make amazing things.”
The title will feature an odd character named Milkman Man. Little is known about Milkman Man so far, but the idea behind the name was not exactly profound. “I liked saying ‘man’ twice,” Way says. “I thought it was stupid.”
There are three new Young Animal books to look forward to after Milk Wars, Way says. Two will be mini-series, and one will be a monthly comic. He wants to experiment more, and he thinks mini-series are a great way to do that. He wants to do even more “special projects,” such as a book called “The Psychedelic Special,” which he describes as “a really trippy book with a mixture of mainstream and underground artists doing really psychedelic comics.”
Way says that Young Animal will survive and thrive via “constant change,” so he’s always thinking of random, weird stuff to do with it. No wonder it takes him forever to get anything done — there’s too much going on in his head.
After the interview we talk even more about Jersey, and I take a moment to thank him for his work, explaining that the band especially meant a lot to me. He’s kind and gracious, talking about how the band’s families all got together recently and how great it was.
Speaking to a man whose image has been on my wall for over ten years was kind of a surreal experience. I still have a Killjoys-era My Chem poster hanging over my bed in my apartment, so coming home to that was odd.
Because he is just a guy, after all. Albeit one who has consistently made good art over the course of his career, but still just a dude. One that I don’t idealize anymore, but one I still respect, maybe more now than I did before I met him.
As I walk away from what I knew would be a harrowing experience, I am — surprisingly — no longer not okay.