Matt is also a contributor to Black Mask's Occupy Comics project, having been assisted by Occupy Sandy volunteers in the aftermath of the hurricane.
News Editor Andy Waterfield recently spoke to Matt to find out more about Liberator, the politics around it, and how he and his wife incorporate their beliefs into their lives.
First off, could you introduce the book, and the main concept behind Liberator?
Liberator is a four-issue miniseries being published by Black Mask Studios. Black Mask was founded by Steve Niles, who wrote 30 Days of Night, and a bunch of other horror comics. He was also in the DC punk band Gray Matter. It was also founded by Matt Pizzolo; who wrote Godkiller; and Brett Gurewitz; of Bad Religion and Epitaph Records.
The concept of the book is a gritty, underground, animal liberation, adventure / vengeance story, with two young antiheroes who take direct action in defense of animals. So, instead of fighting intergalactic war, or taking out supervillains in tights, theyíre more grounded in reality, and based on real people who actually do this kind of thing in real life.
Youíve previously described Liberator as Ďa vigilante vengeance story with underground, hardline, animal activists.í How does vengeance, as a concept and in practise, sit alongside characters whose politics are, presumably, rooted in compassion?
How do you mean, exactly? How is someone vengeful without being violent?
Yeah, I guess.
Okay, well, that depends on your definition of violence. To me, you canít be violent to a trash can, a pane of glass, an empty building, or an automobile thatís unoccupied.
These people, while theyíre taking action in the night to save animals, theyíll also destroy the property of these abusers to make it less comfortable to continue on with their abuse of animals. It also makes it less profitable to continue abusing animals.
The idea is that, if you put the pressure on, theyíll change their ways, and stop their current course of action, which is hurting animals. In real life, this actually works a lot of times.
I think where I got the idea that there was violence against the people abusing animals was the blurb comparing the book to The Punisher on one level.
Right, Itís definitely in that vein. If you ever read The Punisher: War Journal of the Ď80s, where you have Frank Castleís brooding internal monologue as heís carrying out his actions; itís kind of that same feel. Our heroes donít actually hurt anyone, but they will fuck up someoneís life.
You have covers on the book by Tim Seeley, but whoís doing the interior art?
The interior art is Javier Sanchez Aranda. Heís an artist out of Spain; heís done work on stuff like Dungeons and Dragons and he did a series of Star Trek: The Next Generation books.
When I was introduced to him, he really seemed to take to the idea of these underground, direct action, superheroes, for lack of a better term. Heís really been kicking ass on the book.
Youíre writing from a position of experience within the animal rights movement yourself, in particular as a dog rescuer. Could you explain to our readers what that entails, and what brought you to it?
Iíve been involved in the animal rights movement for maybe ten years, in different aspects. I started off pretty heavy with the SHAC campaign, which is ĎStop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty.í Theyíre the people outside of homes and offices with bullhorns and signs, trying to shut down the Huntingdon Life Sciences lab. Iíve worked on anti-fur campaigns; Iíve worked on vegan outreach stuff... a lot of different aspects.
We recently moved out to the Rockaways in New York. Out here, itís very low income, thereís a lot of crime, and thereís a lot of dog fighting, and thereís a lot of companion animals, dogs and cats that are in need of rescue. We decided our time is better spent actually going and physically helping animals than protesting outside of someoneís house.
Presumably a lot of this stuff is illegal at some level, or on the fringes of legality. How do you navigate that sort of activity, where you are at risk of people either responding with violence themselves, or involving law enforcement?
I think itís important to point out that my wife and I, when weíre doing dog rescue, we donít do anything illegal.
Weíre big supporters of the underground, and I have friends in jail that Iíve made since theyíve been arrested. I have friends in jail that I waved goodbye to as they were being taken away that I didnít know were involved in illegal activities, but we donít do anything illegal, even though we do support the tactics of the underground movement.
What my wife and I do... weíre helping strays, ferals, weíre getting dogs off of chains with embedded collars... Weíre doing things like that. Where our heroes are more representative of the underground movement, my wife and I are more just your above ground dog rescuers.
That makes sense. I was wondering.
Yeah, we donít do anything illegal, but yíknow, Iím a big supporter. If somebody has the passion in their heart to take action in the night, I think thatís awesome. Thereís so many animals out here that need help without having to do anything illegal, why would we?
Because Iíve got friends who got caught up in this, because Iíve been a supporter of the underground for so many years, Iím writing from a place of authority on the matter, but not experience.
As a writer, when youíre approaching something about which youíve got such clear moral conviction, do you find it difficult to navigate that conviction while also getting into the heads of characters who arenít necessarily in line with that conviction themselves?
Not really. In terms of writing from a place where the character may not agree with the views of the book, thatís not a problem. Iíve always been able to put myself in the shoes of others, and see other peopleís motivations; the reasons why they do things; even if I donít agree with them. Thereís no issue there.
I think something that is similar, that a lot of people have brought up to me, is theyíre concerned that the book is going to be preachy, or itís gonna be a diatribe about animal rights, which itís not. First and foremost, itís an awesome, kick-ass story with eye-popping art. Itís just told within this world of underground, hardline animal activism. Itís about our characters, and their story, but itís told within this world.
Itís weird, because no-one ever levels that criticism against Batman, when you could argue, ďIsnít Batman just a diatribe about gun crime?Ē Which to some degree it is, but thereís other stuff beyond that.
Yeah, and nobody ever freaks out about Batman or Spider-man being violent either; because they donít kill people, itís Ďokay.í Whereas, I have accusations leveled at me that Iím promoting arson, property destruction -
Even before the book has come out?
Yeah, just from the art. People see the fire, theyíre like, ďOh, youíre promoting arson!Ē
Iím like, ďIím not promoting anything! Itís a comic book! Spider-man throws people through windows, and Batman breaks bones to get information, but youíre not upset about that, youíre upset about the guy whoís burning an empty barn!Ē
Itís all pretty ridiculous. Itís a comic book. Comic books come from places of extremes, and this oneís no different in that respect.
How has the reception been (other than that) more broadly amongst comics readers so far?
The receptionís actually been extremely positive. When I first started shopping the book around, and I started showing it to my professional friends, they were pretty impressed with how ballsy the book is. The overall feedback has been pretty positive.
Youíve got a cover blurb from Scott Snyder as well.
Yeah, he was actually my teacher. I took a class from him, he helped hone my craft, and helped me craft Liberator, and turn it into something better than it was.
In terms of political comics, have you got any favourites from the more established works that have come before?
Sure. I grew up with V For Vendetta, for instance. Who doesnít love V For Vendetta? Thatís one of my favourites.
We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely... That book showed me that the concept of vengeance for abused animals could actually work in the mainstream market, so I owe a lot to that book as well.
Youíve also said that the main characters in Liberator, like you, have a background in punk and hardcore. What was your experience of punk growing up, and in what ways do your experiences align and contrast with those of your characters?
Growing up, I was bullied, I was a nerd, I was unpopular. In the late Ď80s and early Ď90s, I discovered punk rock; music made by all these other kids who were bullied and were nerds.
I started off with stuff like the Ramones and the Descendents, and moved onto political punk, like Subhumans, Conflict, Crass, Chumbawamba. I found there was this awesome outlet for my frustrations, for my angst, anxiety... There was this outlet to be had in a circle pit at a show. Youíre surrounded by people who understand you better, yíknow? Itís like a community growing up.
My characters come from that same world, where theyíre influenced by the political messages of the music they listen to, and theyíre part of this punk rock world as well.
The literature Iíve read so far doesnít introduce the characters by name at all. Is that a deliberate decision?
Itís not deliberate, but I want people to understand that these people could be anyone. Our characters are Damon Guerrero and Jeanette Francis. Theyíre kind of the outcast kids, who take up this nighttime vigilante activism.
Itís important for people to remember that you donít have to have superpowers or wear a cape or tights in order to be a hero.
As characters, what sort of background have they got? What sort of age are we looking at?
Early 20s. Damon is about 25, and Jeanette is 23. Jeanetteís a college student, who had a major in biology until she saw what was going on in her schoolís laboratories. Damon is kind of a slacker/barista type, plays up this loner image so people leave him alone so he can take care of business at night.
Have you got any other creative projects on the go?
I have a story in Occupy Comics, which is also being put out by Black Mask, and all the money raised from that is going back into Occupy-related ventures.
The story is basically about my experiences during Hurricane Sandy, when our house was flooded and how Occupy Sandy was there for us during that time. Thatíll be coming out in July, in Occupy Comics #3.
I have another piece coming out in an anti-bullying anthology, and I have another creator-owned book, that Iím putting together right now that I canít talk about yet.
I think Matt Pizzolo mentioned the Occupy response to Sandy being faster than a lot of the traditional emergency response groups. I guess he was talking about your experience?
Yeah, he was following me on Twitter. I didnít have phone service really, but every once in a while I could get tweets out. Once the phones came back, and I had reliable 4G access, I saw Iíd gotten hundreds of people following my tweets about Sandy, because every once in a while Iíd be able to get a picture out, and I live-tweeted the storm itself.
Occupy Sandy was here the day after the storm. They were here the next morning. We got hit at night, and in the morning Occupy Sandy was here. It wasnít until three or four days, maybe, that Red Cross was here.
It was a tough time, but the Occupy kids were here immediately. They really, really helped us out here.
Were they based nearby to begin with?
No. Rockaway is a little peninsula down at the bottom of Queens. If youíre thinking about Occupy Wall Street, thatís at the base of Manhattan; itís quite a ways away. They came out here specifically for us. They werenít just already in the neighbourhood.
Thatís incredible. Just logistically, getting everything together, and getting out there, in just a couple of hours. Thatís really impressive.
Yeah, really amazing. I strongly believe that we, as a community in Rockaway, owe Occupy Sandy a huge debt of gratitude.
Going back to the comic for a second, a proportion of the profits are going to animal rescue organisations. Could you talk about that for a moment?
My wife and I do a lot pit bull and other dog and cat rescue here in the Rockaways, and most of that work is funded straight out of our own pockets. We donít have public funding, and we donít do fundraisers. Unless thereís a specific animal that needs an operation, we never ask for money from anyone.
My entire portion of the money that comes back from Liberator will go back into our animal rescue work here. I didnít think it was right to do a story about animals without having at least my portion of the money go back to the animals.
I want to be very clear about that. That was one of the goals of Liberator. The first was to bring new people to comics, because Iíve been a comic nerd my whole life, and I love comics. I also wanted to bring animal issues to new eyes, and I wanted to help fund our animal rescue work here.
Thatís some dedication, putting that level of work in, without any possibility of financial reimbursement down the road.
Youíre reimbursed by the animals that you help.
One of our fosters right now was tied up and abandoned not far from here. She was extremely injured and beat up, and watching her come around, and heal...
Thatís what makes it worth it. online store, or you can pre-order issues from your local comic shop.