Interview: Kyle Starks on 'Old Head'
We chat with the cartoonist about his new comic that jams 'Space Jam' with 'Fright Night'...well, kinda, not really, it's way better.
Vampire stories never get old. You may grow weary of them, you may think you've read or watched them all, but there's always a bright young thing lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce and recapture your attention. Kyle Starks' Old Head is not a twist on a tired genre; it's a full-court press through every genre that slam dunks your heart while dribbling your brain. Sports metaphors! We don't know what we're doing! All we know is that we love this comic!
Kyle Starks is an extraordinary cartoonist. His titles gain chuckles, his attitude scores awe, and his stories snatch lifelong obsessions. Sexcastle, Kill Them All, Rock Candy Mountain, Assassin Nation - these comics are brilliant, and Old Head is his best yet. Image Comics calls it "Space Jam meets Fright Night," and while that might pique your curiosity, the comic itself will compel you to the mountaintop, where you'll start screaming its praises to every reader willing to listen.
We lured Starks into the Love Nest, where we heap praise upon him. We discuss his deceptive comedy and his Eddie Van Halen shredding of heartstrings. He's the type of creator that you could talk to for hours. Frankly, it was hard to say goodbye, and the feeling appeared mutual.
Old Head struck Lisa hard, and she recently put her thoughts together for Comics Bookcase. Be sure to read her review, and consider putting your own list of VILFs (Vampires I'd Like To...well, you know) together. We want to hear your ranking. Tweet at us @CBCCPodcast.
This interview was edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the entire fifty-minute discussion on our Patreon feed. Just 1 Dollar.
Brad: My understanding is that you wanted to create a basketball narrative and you were ruminating on it and then Fright Night came on TV and invaded your concept and became Old Head. How does that process actually work for you? How does that happen?
Kyle: Here is my Old Head history. When I started making comics, which wasn't that long ago, I made Sexcastle. I did it as a Kickstarter. I took it to shows. I was just having fun, my dude. I was just having fun selling my little comic books. But Sexcastle got discovered by Matt Fraction and he hooked me up with Image and then it went to Image and I got hooked up with William Morris in Hollywood. It sold for option before it came out. And then there's an Eisner nomination for best humor publication and holy smokes!
Kyle: Hold that thought. Hold that thought. My thing is I want to make the comics I want to read. I want to put the thing in the world that I want to exist, so every project is genuinely just me creating this thing that I want to enjoy. So, Sexcastle is my love letter to 80s action movies because I was like Bane in the hole in the ground but it was 80s action movies. I loved them. And I was like, "What's the next thing?"
The first book I did, which is only self-published, was a wrestling comic because I like pro-wrestling, too. So I was like, "What else do I like?" I'm like, "I love basketball." I mean, Haikyu is great, you can watch and read a whole volleyball game. It's amazing. But I don't want to do that. I was thinking about maybe doing a thing where the ghost of Will Chamberlain solved mysteries.
Kyle: This would be my second book. But Fright Night came on and I was like, "Oh, man. I love horror movies and I love what vampires are a metaphor for, which is like sexual assault and creepy, toxic male behavior." And I was like, "This is really interesting to me. There's a way to combine these things together." This would have been my second book - Old Head. So this would have been 2015.
But what happened was two things. One, everyone was paying attention to me when I didn't think anyone would with Sexcastle because it got all this attention when I thought it would just be something that got put out and maybe a few people bought and no one really cared about. It would have been a cool thing I could tell my kids about. "Remember that time I was published?" So, I got a little nervous about my next book being this weird pitch, which Old Head is definitely a weird pitch. It's about a former pro basketball player tough guy who's going to bury his mother and finds out that there's monsters next door and it's complicated and it's about toxic masculinity and legacy and destiny. So, it's a hard pitch. It's not something I can just be like, "It's a love letter to 80s action movies. It's great, right?"
Lisa: Right, yeah.
Kyle: It's "Space Jam versus Fright Night." But listen, I'm a professional now. I can come up with these layered pitches. The other thing is my wife said, "You'll have two books out and they're called Sexcastle and Old Head." And I'm like, "That's true." She's like, "You'll be the dumb title guy." And I'm like, "That's also true." So, instead I do Kill Them All because I made a thing people liked and it was kind of more of the same - an action story with a little heart to it is literally my favorite thing.
I did Rock Candy Mountain, all these other books. I was like, "You know what? I know people will support me. I can do this weird idea and be like, 'Hey, here's this weird idea I had from five years ago that I've been thinking about for five years.'." And they did! And I'm super stoked about it. It's a weird pitch but I believe it's one of my better books, honestly. And we're trying to get people to read it. That's the secret to how it starts. I think people see my stuff and they go, "Say again, what is this? It's a bunch of hitmen being body guards to another hitman?" It's like, "Yes, that's right. And it's funny." "Well, maybe," they say.
So, Old Head is definitely like, "Please read Old Head. I'm really proud of it." "What is it?" "I don't know. It's a really good story that has comedy and action and horror and sub tones. I don't know."
Brad:Lisa and I had this conversation yesterday.
Brad: You were reading the comic and you're going along - I don't want to speak for you - but then the vampires are introduced into the story -
Lisa: Oh yeah! I had looked at the cover. This is my first time reading your books. They've been around the apartment, they always look interesting but there's a lot going on in life.
Kyle: [Laughter] Sure.
Lisa: So, this is my first introduction to you.
Kyle: Oh boy.
Lisa: I see the cover, I start reading the book and I get this really heartfelt meditation on this guy's regrettable basketball career and I just really feel for him.
Lisa: And I go like, "He was raised to be so tough and so masculine. And of course, that comes at a price and now he's built his life up to be this thing and it's not working out. Oh, shit! This is about vampires!" I had completely forgotten.
Kyle: Yeah! [Laughter]
Lisa: I had completely forgotten. One of the most satisfying things as a reader is when an author puts in bread crumbs that all make a loaf at the end of the book. That is insane. So you go, "Oh man, he's a basketball player that can't shoot. What is the value of that? How can he look at himself?" Then, all of a sudden we've got Chekhov's wood-chipper and then we are off to the races. So, when you are saying, "Okay, I'm going to do a basketball Fright Night," when in the creative process do you go, "This is also going to be a meditation on grief and regret and legacy."? When does that happen?
Kyle: That stuff is more important than the other stuff, so it's pretty quick. I don't write for me, for myself, traditionally. I sort of tell myself these stories over and over. Like Sexcastle's my love letter to 80s action films, but do you want to know what it's actually about? It's about how parental decisions affect you. It's about how your own choices affect you. I was having kids at that time so I was really fixated on how adults will mess up children and how children are then messed up in a way that they have to make these decisions to overcome them.
There's a lot of trauma stuff in all of my books because that stuff's just really interesting. A good story is a good story. A romp's a romp. But for comedy, especially for me, I always want more than that. Again, Old Head, to me, is so much a commentary on toxic masculinity because at the time I was fed up with it. I'm a father and I have daughters. All those things are more interesting to me in this.
All those things makes the characters realer, it makes the jokes better. Everything lands better. And I like it to be subtle. I like to have things for people to look for. I don't know if Old Head does it quite as much, but I love set-ups, I love callbacks. If you read any of my other books you'll see I don't do anything on accident. I'm basically insane because of this. Even my jokes set up something. They set up a character - they say something about the character that will be important later. Everything serves a function. I love maxiseries like Preacher and Y: The Last Man. And I haven't read Preacher in forever but I was like, "Man, how tightly crafted to go for so many issues and everything sets up later."
And I hadn't read it in so long, but those books, I think about those books. Those beginnings, middles and ends, those are giant, sweeping epics. And I was like, "Everything sets up everything. Everything's important. Everything plays a part." This is how I do my books. Even little throwaway lines mean something. Everything's there. And I recently started to re-read Preacher and I'm like, "Holy smokes. This guy's making it up as he goes along." And I just haven't read it in so long. [Garth Ennis] is just so good at pivoting.
Brad: To Lisa's point, one of the secret weapons to your comics are their structures. Looking specifically at Old Head, and talking about Lisa being surprised regarding like, "Oh, shit! Vampires!" How do you know when to flip the script?
Kyle: Those are really good questions. I don't think there's a science to it. I keep going back to when I first started. People were like, "How do you balance bombastic comedy with this heart?" I'm like, "I don't know, man. I don't know. It's just what I do. It's what feels right."
I love action comedies but there's not really a bunch of good ones and so I feel like I'm always trying to make that genre for myself. Again, I'd been thinking about this book for so long, it's always kind of been in play. So, these things kind of come to me all at once. I know for Six Sidekicks for Trigger Keaton, which is my other book that's out right now from Skybound.
Brad: Yeah, so good!
Kyle: People are like, "Oh, man. How long did it take for you to come up with these characters?" And Chris [Schweizer]and I were like, "We kind of came up with them right then." Because you want the story to be a certain way, they need to make sense. But they're like, "What about all the hit men in Assassin Nation that die in the first issue?" I'm like, "I spent a lot of time on those characters that only appear in one or two panels." You just never know how it's going to go.
I think for this one there's a flashback sequence and I always wanted to have that big throwback, traditional, full-on monster hunt. And so, that flashback was important and I think where you place that, it sets up the emotional tone. The first part sets up the third act but that second act is necessary to change the tone in a way that balances it all out in a way that is not just like a guy so concerned about his destiny that clearly it's just about hist destiny. And I put jokes in there because jokes are better than not jokes, I think.
But what about Kyle Starks' layout process? What about his scripts? To learn those answers, you must hop on over to our Patreon feed and listen to the whole hour-long conversation. Kyle is a put-a-quarter-in kind of talker. He's got so many stories and details rattling around inside, and it was an absolute pleasure to chat and pull those tales forth.
Old Head is Now Available from Image Comics. Get yours wherever fine comic books are sold.