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Interview With Sean McGrath

Recently I had the pleasure to read Frater Mine, an indy series written by Sean McGrath. McGrath’s writing and characters intrigued me, and while I knew of Sean through Prism, I realized I didn’t know Sean much at all. This interview is the result of following that curiosity, and I hope in reading it you’ll also be intrigued by McGrath.

Art by Scott McGrathSean, every gay person has a coming out story and every comics fans has an origin story. What’s your comics origin and when and how did comics intersect with being gay?

Really, there wasn’t a defining moment, but rather a confluence of Saturday morning cartoons and merchandise: Super Friends, Ark II, The Krofft Super Show (with Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, Bigfoot and Wild Boy (Lord, I had a crush on Wild Boy!), Ultra Man (horribly dubbed and fuzzily broadcast from Canada), The Shazam!/Isis Hour and Megos.  Like a lot of other gay youngsters, I knew there was something different about me, and while I didn’t have a name for it, the comics and toys just let everyone else know there was something different about me.

Being gay in name though not in practice didn’t happen until I was in high school, and by then Steve Rush had introduced me to The New Mutants.  That comic resonated with me more than any before or since for two reasons: all the team members were my age, and they were just about as marginalized as I felt I was.  So, yeah, high school was high school, and I probably held my breath for all four years, but from The New Mutants I learned that being different is a strength, not a handicap.

Your name may be familiar to people because of your involvement with Prism. What were your roles with the organization? Do you have any projects you look on with pride?

I started off as a reviewer, but after Rich Thigpen, the Color Commentary editor, stepped down, he asked me if I wanted to take his place, and I jumped at the chance.  I recruited several new reviewers and had a review posted almost every week while I was there.  I think my favorite reviews that I wrote were for The Pornomicon and The Incredibly Hung Naked Justice , as well as my interview with Justin Hall and Dave Davenport .   I also contributed an interview withTerry Moore, a timeline of HIV/AIDS in comic books, and a survey of religion in comic books to three consecutive issues of the annual Prism Guide.  These I was most proud of, moreso than anything else I’d written or done for Prism.  And for about thirty seconds in 2009, I was Volunteer Chair, and gathered folks to help out at Wonder-Con, but then my Dad passed away and I couldn’t continue especially with Comic-Con being the next big event, so I stepped down.

How did you come about writing your own comics?

The first comic book I tried to make was back in 1975.  It was going to be Disney’s Peter Pan (my favorite movie at that time), but then in the supermarket one day I saw it had already been done.  I obviously hadn’t learned the truism “but not done by you” yet.

Later, DC came out with Dial H for Hero, a comic wherein the main characters would change into different heroes every month, based on characters submitted by readers.  I sent in four or five characters, but the convenience store where I got my comics stopped carrying the series.  I should check out the back issues at Austin Books and Comics to see if I was famous at a young age and didn’t know it.

The next series I came up with was called Praxis.  It came about my freshman year of college when I took “The Religious Person” with Mary Hembrow Snyder, a Marian Theologian.  She spoke about “orthopraxis” – the right action for the right time – and social justice issues.  My Praxis was going to be about heroes who would take care of the world’s problems like famine and racism and homophobia and pollution.  I’m sure you can see that there’s no good way to write a book like that without becoming overly preach-y (which it was) or the contradiction of beating people’s heads in for the sake of  Justice.  I toyed with the concept for a few years until I wrote the first two issues in 1994.  It never got off the ground in that form; however, the Praxis team made its first appearance in issue 7 of Frater Mine.  I have a plan for a one-shot issue of Praxis, but I need to finish writing it.  One of these days.

Then in 1998 when I move to Austin, I wrote a comic called Tuesday’s Child.  I actually found a local artist for help out with this series, then she disappeared.  I tried to illustrate it myself, but my drawing skills were…  hell, still are miserable.  I was never happy with what I put on a page, so I was forever erasing sketches and throwing Bristol board away.  However, that was my first big step towards finishing a script in under a month, and seriously looking into publishing my comic.

In 2003, I started to work as an editor for a comic “company” called “Affinity Comics”.  Lord, what a mess!  It crumpled under its own weight in less than a year after I left, but I learned that anyone can write a comic script and find an artist to get it into panels.  Srsly.

One of the guys from Affinity, Chris Moshier, started up Making Comics Studios and invited me and other AC refugees to join him in…  well, making comics.  I was an editor there for a short time when I decided it was just time to start writing my own comic book.  Frater Mine came along soon after that.

Making indy comics is almost always a labor of love. What’s your alter ego’s dreaded day job and other interests?

I teach English for Speakers of Other Languages for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students at Austin Community College.  And anything I say does not necessarily reflect the beliefs or policies established therein.  I used to teach high school at Texas School for the Deaf, but that didn’t go very well.  By the time I left, I would have rather had hatpins driven through my balls and into a stone throne than go back.  Hell, who am I kidding, I still feel that way.  I taught American Sign Language in public school for one year and actually enjoyed myself.  The problems were exactly the same, but my classroom was in a portable unit, so whatever happened in the school had almost nothing to do with me, which is how I like it.  My goal with a job is to do my best, and sometimes administration interferes with that.  I enjoy the autonomy I have at ACC, to say nothing of (most of) my colleagues, who make me feel like I’m sitting at the cool kids’ table everyday.

From Frater Mine #4
Art by Juan Romera

My teaching job actually gave me my blackest story to date: All Students Must DIE!!! It was not labor of love.  It was more like therapy.  Or a grudge fuck.  I was so fed up with the high school I was teaching at (yes, I’m looking at you, TSD) – the principals, the lack of disciple, students not doing their homework, the being told how to best teach by people who hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom since Nixon was President, spies for the admin roaming the hallways; all the normal abnormal complaints teachers have – that I had to get some of my frustration and anger out onto the page.  I would like to point out that not one of my students appeared in the book.  For long.  One of these days I’ll go back to it one day since I’m several levels of stress removed from that morass now.  I think it would be pretty popular.  I mean, who doesn’t love a revenge drama?  I sleep with my copy of Hamlet.  It keeps my tiny, hard heart frosty.  It’s very 2010.

As far as other interests go, I’m working on a comic book play for my theatre company, Weird City Theatre , called Giants in Those Days.  It will go up this coming July in Austin, TX.  I have my Orthocomics website.  My pets.  Spoiling my nephew (which reminds me, I should get him a little something soon…).  I cook like the boys are coming back from Dresden any day now.  I collect books, 3-D and electronic board games, and handheld electronic games form the 80’s.  I also like to collect custom Megos, though it’s been a while since I’ve added anything to the display shelf.  I read (and should anyone need a gift idea for me, there’s a copy of the first printing of Seduction of the Innocent with the intact bibliography I’ve been eyeing).  Oddly, I like making curricular materials.  And once in a while, I’ll breathe.

You’ve written several comics both in print such as Generic Goddess and Frater Mine and as free comics to download like Rise of the Pink Ninjas , All Students Must DIE!!! and the NSFW! Infinitesimal Situation at the Ultimate Piggly Wiggly, a parody of Grant Morrison’s Infinite Crisis and the current state of LGBT comics.  Let’s talk first about your lengthiest work to date, Frater Mine. Where did its inspiration come from?

The inspiration came from two very dear friends of mine, Mike and Erin, and being very lonely in Colorado without them.  The original Frater Mine was an outline of a story I back in 1994. It was about a magician who kept watch over a town, defending it from intruders: monsters, pirates, other magicians, what have you.  He discovers that recent magical attacks on the town are being perpetrated by a former friend. So, this magician and a third friend, a female magician, travel to the evil magician’s stronghold to face him down.  No one had any names.  The whole thing had a Dungeons & Dragons vibe to it (another major influence on my childhood), which is way different than the story I re-created in 2005.  Still, there’s a line I used in both: “Don’t you ever wonder what it would be like: the three of us together in the same room again?”  And that’s really what the first arc is about, sort of “Come and see.”

Frater Mine seems to me to more Vertigo, minus the pretentiousness a lot of readers point out, than the sanitized packaged Harry Potter Hogwarts Academy for wizardry. Does that seem accurate to you?

I’ll take the Vertigo compliment, thanks.  I’m sure my brother’s cover art has a lot to do with that as well.  I can definitely say that none of my work is sleekly packaged; it’s more prête à porter. Not that there’s nothing wrong with sleek per se, but that’s just not within the range of my personality, especially as an indy creator where there’s freedom to not be like Marvel or DC or Disney or whomever.  Robert Kirkman wisely asked his fans why if they write their own comic books with the hope of working for the Big Two one day, don’t they just make that their business instead of writing someone else’s characters and stories.  There is, of course, prestige involved in working with high profile characters, and I wouldn’t kick Dan Didio out of bed for eating crackers (metaphorically speaking), but I’m pretty sure I don’t have the right mindset for that kind of work.    Plus, I like messy and complicated.  I also like not being pretentious.

Magic and theology are a couple themes in your work, not just in Frater Mine where magic is predominant, but even in Rise of the Pink Ninjas. How did you become interested in these subjects?

Let’s call “theology and magic” by their actual name: “the occult”. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and there is nothing more occult that the Catholic Church, what with all the fancy hats and dresses; golden croizers, censers, and tabernacles; to say nothing of a virgin birth announced by an angel and the ritual eating of God through transubstantiated bread and wine; among other mysteries like Solomon’s binding of demons to his service, the nature and duty of the various choirs of angels, and not wanting to have the child Jesus as your next-door neighbor.  Given all that, plus two early encounters with spirits in my life and I had almost no choice but to become interested in the occult.

From the Frater Mine tpb

As it stands now, I’m an anti-theist: I believe that God exists, but his followers leave something to be desired.  And I’m talking about the moderate apologists as well.  I think about their perception of God as often and as intensely as they think about my genitals.  Seems only fair, right?

I also owe a lot to my hometown of Erie, PA.  We were surrounded by woods and creeks and every square inch had a spooky story to go with it.  On the city border there was a place called “Axe Murder Hollow”where gypsies supposedly lived and a bloody slaying had taken place.  The ghost of Mad Anthony Wayne rides around Erie County on his horse New Year’s Day looking for his bones.  Satan has apparently made several appearances in the Erie Cemetery.  Edinboro University had a possession case in the 70’s.  Presque Isle, the peninsula that juts out into Lake Eire, I have recently been told by my friend Mike, was home to Joe Root, who lived there for a very long time in a piano crate.  He was a magician of sorts and could see these nature spirits he called Jee-Bees.  Mike is writing a musical about Joe, which should have its debut in April.  My grandparents’ house had a spirit at the top of the staircase – funny story: my brother and I often spoke about not wanting to look at the top of the steps because we were always afraid something would be looking back.  It was just one spot though.  Walking up the staircase, we couldn’t look, but once past that point, it was all good.  It turns out that my mom had the same sensation while she was growing up in the house, but never spoke about it.  There was also on the same block an infamously haunted house.

I mentioned my play Giants in Those Days before.  Here’s another example where magic, theology and homosexuality inform my work.  Weird City Theatre got a grant from the City of Austin to put our season on, knowing that the last show would be a comic book play written by me.  Well, when it came down to it, I realized I have never in my life written a real “superhero” story, let alone a three act play.  What I ended up with is a complicated story of heroes, villains, love, the Lance of Longinus, an iron golem, the Beloved Disciple, a hypocritical preacher, and a gay superhero out for revenge.  It kinda hits all the highlights of my top ten perseverations, right?  Seeing it all in one place though makes me want to start expanding my writing horizons.

On the Frater Mine trade’s back cover you wrote: “Families and magic both carry a responsibility and a price.” If a writer’s responsibility is to tell a good story, what is the price of being a writer?

That’s an excellent question, and I wish I had an excellent answer.  When I hear “a price”, I think of “a test”, as in “can my stories last beyond the moment in which I write them?”  I don’t know that my writing has been tested – read- re-read, discussed, criticized and improved.  I sadly work in a vacuum.

Your handling of Matt, the main character who is gay, is different in that it seems to me he’s defined by other aspects first ahead of sexuality. Why go this route rather than incorporate sex and romance which seem to be fairly popular?

I think I avoid them exactly because they are so popular.  It’s pretty common in gay comics to see hands on a hard, naked body or a rocky love-of-a-lifetime romance complicated by coming-out issues, but, haven’t these all been said before?  Metaphorically speaking, it’s one more issue of Honcho or another romantic comedy with Sandra Aniston Grant. Not to pick on gay comics only, because it’s difficult to find any stories – books, movies, TV shows, what have you – that are considered popular that have something new and interesting to show the audience.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t some great takes on these themes out there – the Hard to Swallow series come to mind for the former, and…  actually, I’m hard pressed to think of a decent coming-out comic story that was published after 1998.  In my own writing, I wanted to avoid all that: the common stories, the well-worn paths, the tediously familiar, the derivative.

I have actually written about sex and romance in my comics, but I write about them in pretty cynical terms.  When Jesus “Jo Beth” March and I wrote Infinitesimal Situation at the Ultimate Wiggle Piggly, one of the things we wanted to touch on, so to speak, was the phenomena of outrageously disproportionate cocks in gay comics.  You know, the ones that look like the cores of carpet rolls.  I’m pretty sure Patrick Fillion paved the way for that, and it’s his trademark, so I’m all about giving him props for being a pioneer.  But the proliferation of cock-as-log by other artists diminished what Patrick was doing, to the point that it became almost comical instead of the realization of the fantastic.  And that was what we were trying to point out: that an artistic choice became a “thing” – it was almost expected on some level – and lost its ability to titillate.  If the volume starts at 11, where is there to go after that?  Up?  To 12, 15, 20?  Really?  Is there an upper limit to how large a cock can be drawn before it becomes grotesque or comical?

(An aside: another reason we wrote Infinitesimal Situation… was so I could use a term I made up: “Claremont Hole”, a tear in the fabric of a story into which sub-plots fall, forgotten forever.)

I’m an abysmal failure at romantic relationships for one reason or another.  And that shows in Frater Mine.  In issue two, Matt’s big declaration of being gay is one line long: he admits to using his powers to getting guys to go to bed with him.  Other than that, I’ve been pretty subtle on the whole gay angle: no rainbow flags or coming out parties or Sex in the City-esque ventings over appletinis or whatever.  Matt’s sexuality is built into him, and the statement has been made.  There’s no need to underline it twice and set it ablaze.  However, I will say that in the next few issues, Matt goes to bed with a guy he…  let’s say “likes” (yeah, there’s a bare butt and everything), but the scene is actually pretty disturbing.  There’s a stark contrast between Alberto, the sweet young thing, and Matt, whose heart is missing. There’s something a little deeper going on beyond anal penetration.  So to speak.

Family is another theme you explore here. In the first arc, there is protagonist Matt’s chosen family, and in the second one there is his birth family. There are tensions and dysfunctions in both sets of families. Would you talk about what you were exploring with these different relationships?

To say that I’m guarded is probably understating how defensive I really am.  I am, at my core, an introvert, and I don’t share anything about myself easily.  I suppose one could say that comes from spending my formative years in the closet, or maybe I was just born that way.  It seems to be six in one, half a dozen the other: either my family made me the way I am or my family made me the way I am.  In any case, the relationships I form with people are rare but meaningful.  And once I’m friends with someone, well, I’m pretty hard to shake.  I have stalker-levels of loyalty and devotion.  Less terrifyingly stated, I consider my friends to be members of my family.

The first story arc of Frater Mine, “Family Reunion”, is about three friends who after years of estrangement, reunite to run an errand for Heaven.  I wrote all three issues in about three weeks after I came back to Texas after spending the Christmas holiday with family and friends in Pennsylvania.  It’s my Christmas card to them, people whom I miss all the time.  It’s an adventure like we had when we were teenagers: something dangerous we did when our parents weren’t around or thought we were safely hanging out at Perkin’s.  I wanted to capture that excitement one has when one is young: of not having a plan, but something happens all the same.

After that, I wrote the second arc, “Here, There and Nowhere”, which, as you said, draws in Matt’s birth family – his twin brother, his nephew, his parents – and all the dysfunction therein.  Obviously, Matt is a stand-in for me (though I am desperately trying to stop making people and places so easily recognizable as being from my real life (which is where Matt’s assaulting a student comes from; he could do it whereas I could not), so I get to write about what my family means to be, even if it is more fantastical than we really are.  Two things really were the inspiration behind this arc.  The first was the birth of my nephew Dominic.  After he came along, I started to re-evaluate how safe I thought the world was and I came to a disheartening conclusion: it’s not.  And in my panic I wrote about Matt’s nephew Powers being kidnapped.  The second… well, it’s not too big a secret that I want to move back North to be closer to my family.  I haven’t lived near them for almost twenty years, and it’s time to change that.  Last summer, I spent almost two months at home, taking care of business and family matters while our father was dying from cancer.  When I left, I was sad, almost devastated (which led to a later argument with my then-boyfriend), and decided that I couldn’t miss them anymore by being 1,500 mile away.  Matt is doing the same thing: connect.  He’s also trying to save his family and being everyone back together safely; the problem is, he’s just as lost as everyone else.

I suppose the third arc will deal with either lost family members or something more like “the family of man”.  Of course, I have about two years before I get there as “Here, There and Nowhere” still has about four issues left (bi-annual publication is a bitch).

Your most recent comic is Rise of the Pink Ninjas which is about the struggle for marriage equality. You had a no holds barred attitude with the writing that I think is great. You’ve mentioned a particular comment made by Maggie Gallagher hitting a nerve with you.  Were there other events before her infamous comment leading you up to the story idea?

I started reading several of the gay political blogs about three years ago, and, while I had always known that the Religioso were set against the whole spectrum of the queer community – I went to college in rural PA, where frighteningly fanatic, anti-gay churches that held revivals in decrepit barns littered the landscape like frat boys on any given Sunday morning – I was completely unaware of how well-organized they were, and how many people uncritically accepted what they said about my genitals.  And yes, I took every anti-gay comment they make that personally.  It’s not just the cocks, balls, asses, pussies of the masses of gay and lesbian people everywhere that they slander, those are MY tender parts they’re putting up for scrutiny.

The more I read, the angrier I got.

When Maggie Gallagher, whose morality-based evaluations of the “right” and “wrong” use of my goodies, said during a debate with Michelangelo Signorelli, “Gay marriage is not a civil right; in fact, it is a civil wrong!” I finally completely lost my shit.  I was at home in PA, staying with my brother, and he had to listen to my launch nuclear invectives against Maggie Gallagher and her bastard ilk extending at least three generations out. I posted on my favorite blog, JoeMyGod, that with all the bluster one hears about the stealthy Navy SEALS or the covert assassination squads running around or even some dude with a wuxia fixation and a katana, I couldn’t believe that at least one of them wasn’t gay and on his way to have “a few words” with Maggie at her Hamptons mansion dressed in pink ninja garb.  Benjamin Ruth, who had previously drawn my nephew as Sith Lord Darth Scourge (my Christmas gift to him), commented that he thought that would be a great comic book, and it went from there.  I think I had a script done within a week, and Ben was onboard soon after that.

And don’t even get me started on those boy-fuckers in Rome and the Larry Craig types here at home.  They exemplify all that is wrong with religion, all religions.  I think that even today The Concerned Women for America signed onto rabidly anti-gay The Manhattan Declaration, saying they are just following God’s will over man’s.  I do, however, take comfort in the fact that sooner rather than later, one of them will be caught on top of the lawn boy.  That’s just how these people roll.

Regarding Pink Ninjas, how did you feel when Pink Ninjas received some attention from Joe Jervis of JoeMyGod?

I saw Joe’s posting while I was at school and it was quite the honor.  Ah, who am I kidding?  I practically gave myself a stroke waiting to share the news with someone.  Again, I keep my work and my home affairs separate.  Mostly.  Definitely in terms of my students because the Deaf Community here is small and up in everyone’s grill about whatever the hot topic of the day is, but I do have colleagues I tell things to.  I was dying to tell someone, so much so I almost blabbed to a writing class, but better judgment got a hold of me and I kept it inside.  I wound up with a hernia.

What are your views on where the LGBT community’s best interests lie politically?

I’m not sure.  Even as citizens of the United States, let alone gay citizens, I’m uncertain where our best interests lie. I don’t believe that career politicians have the slightest inkling who their constituents are or what they want to see their government do for them.

Any personal thoughts on the current state of LGBT comics and representation in mainstream, small press, and indy areas?

Nothing of my own, but I’d like to send your readers to Megan Rose Gedris’ outstanding article “Writing Gay Characters”.  One of these days, I hope all LGBT writers and writers of LGBT characters take her advice.

A good part of the 90s I lived in Houston, and the feeling of culture shock always nagged me. A few months before I left, Houston police officers had arrested John Lawrence (of Lawrence v Texas of Supreme Court fame) and now Houstonians have elected a lesbian to be mayor. What are your thoughts about the social and political atmosphere in Austin these days and how does it impact you?

The gay community in Austin is very small.  Microtesimal.  It’s been said that Austin the slowest moving orgy around: eventually everyone will have slept with everyone else within one degree removed.  There’s a certain freedom in that, and a certain backlash as well.  I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a good orgy?  But the privacy is ramped up that much more.  I can’t even imagine the fights that would break out in bars if so-and-so found out that his boyfriend had at one time been involved in a triad with so-and-so before breaking it off to trick with so-and-so on the side.  I can say, however, that the scene would go nuclear within moments.  And this is a chicken-or-egg debate, but there’s also no visible gay community of any note.  Yeah, we have a gay softball league, a monthly guerrilla bar invasion, bars bars bars, the Hill Country ride for AIDS, and even our own bathhouse, but where these people are during sunlight hours is anyone’s guess.

Before I moved here 12 years ago, I lived in DC, home of DuPont Circle and congressional pages.  The gay community was everywhere with a forum for any type of activity and The Washington Blade kept everyone in touch.  Moving to Austin where being gay wasn’t shameful, but nor was it anything to hinge a community on, I grew a bit frustrated, and eventually found other things to keep myself busy.  Which is on me, of course.  Every once in a while, I’ll get the bug to join some organization and volunteer like mad, but it eventually goes away.

Now, it feels like with the influx of New Yorkers and Californians to Austin, bringing some truly hideous sensibilities with them (the downtown skyline will never be the same, nor will I-35 during rush hour), that the gay community is playing catch-up to be visible and relevant.  The “weirdness” that Austin is touted for is going the same way as our self-appointed title as “Live Music Capitol of the World”: noise ordinances are going up faster than downtown condos, and a few years ago a band was arrested for violating such an ordinance on Sixth Street (party central) during SXSW (the annual music festival that draws acts from all over the nation).   We’re not that weird anymore.  In fact, we border on priggish.  For example, everyone seems to enjoy it when the crazies like Leslie Cochran run for mayor, and while he’s has made a good show of it, he’s never been elected.  Dan Bradford, an openly gay man, lost in Precinct 1 (where his home is located) for Justice of the Peace just last week.  And that’s Austin for me in a nutshell: the radical elements are tolerated, but they’re never going to be “respectable” enough to make it into office.

Marvel and DC call you out of the blue and offer you the opportunity to write any character or story your heart desires. What do you do?

Everyone knows my dream job is to write a comic book of the ISIS character from the 1970’s Saturday morning TV show.  That’s where generic goddess came from, but if I were offered the opportunity, I’d do her and the Marvel Family the right way for DC.

Any final words?

Are you sorry you asked?

Only that we didn’t do this sooner.

You can find Sean at his Ortho Comics blog.

Frater Mine and other McGrath items are available at Prism and from Indy Planet – Frater MineGeneric Goddess

March 14, 2010
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