INTERVIEW: Comics Writer Clay McLeod Chapman

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

Clay McLeod Chapman is a Brooklyn-based writer, novelist, screenwriter, and comic book creator on titles like Iron Fist: Phantom Limb, Edge of Spider-Verse #4, Amazing Spider-Man, American Vampire, and most recently, Journey Into Unknown Worlds. He has written two creator-owned comics titled Lazaretto and Self Storage, and his new horror novel THE REMAKING, releases this October from Quirk.

Chapman's horrific corner of the Spider-Verse

Mack Johnson: Clay, when we first met, you hadn’t started writing comics yet, so it was great to experience in real time on Facebook how excited you were when you got your first Marvel gigs. It’s been fun to follow the career of a fellow Virginia native, and thanks to how much you share on social media, we can all live vicariously through your experiences and cheer you on. Here are some things everyone at POP: Culture & Comics wants to know:

MJ: How long have you been interested in comic books? Do you remember what your first comic book was? How old were you?

Clay McLeod Chapman: I’m a little fuzzy on what my first actual comic was, because I’m sure there were some that I’m not recollecting, but I most certainly remember when the portal to the dimension of comics opened and sucked me in…

I was in the 5th grade when Tim Burton’s Batman hit theaters, and it totally changed my world. I think I saw that movie eight times on the big screen. But the movie served as a gateway to the source material and led me back to the comics. You couldn’t escape Batman that year, and the shelves were flooded with so many comics… Dark comics. I found The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns that year. I had to be, what? Eleven? These two were pivotal stories for me to read at a totally all-too-early age. Since they were Batman comics, the adult content flew right under the radar of my mother’s watchful eye… So I got to read some intense material. My mind just exploded. I couldn’t believe what they were doing, what they were writing, how dark they were going. These were comics! And they’re this dark? My god, it was amazing… I was hooked. I was in.

MJ: Which comic books and comic book creators inspired and influenced you as a writer?

CMC: I remember listening to Mr. Bungle as a kid, having been a fan of Faith No More… The cover art for their first album was from a graphic novel titled A Cotton Candy Autopsy by Dave Louapre and Dan Sweetman. I had to hunt it down. That was a total dark treasure. I became oddly obsessed with The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean.

But even stuff like The Far Side by Gary Larson was fundamental. Billy and the Boingers Bootleg by Berkeley Breathed. It came with a vinyl record!

And horror comics! I got into the weeds a bit with movie-to-comic tie-ins for Child’s Play and Texas Chainsaw Massacre Pt. III. Strange stuff.

And then there’s Robert Crumb… I know I’m stretching a bit here, but his work left an imprint on me. I remember discovering a series of illustrated short stories he did with Charles Bukowski and I was blown away.

What if you bought a storage unit at auction...and there was something REALLY, REALLY BAD inside?

MJ: What are your favorite current comic books not written by Clay McLeod Chapman?

CMC: One graphic novel I keep coming back to is The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple. It’s going back a few years now, but my God, I love that one… Any chance I get to recommend it, I will. I will always reread Black Hole by Charles Burns.

MJ: Do you go to your Local Comics Shop every week for hard copies? Do you read digital comics?

CMC: I definitely prefer the real deal over digital. I want to hold the comic in my hands. I teach near the downtown location of Midtown Comics, so I try to go in there as much as possible. Plus there’s Velocity Comics in my hometown in Richmond, Virginia, which I try to visit whenever I’m there… I’ve got nothing against digital, but it’s harder for my eye to absorb the image. I want to have the tactile experience of flipping the page.

MJ: What are your favorite comic-based television shows and movies, and why?

CMC: Not nearly enough people talk about Road to Perdition, in my humble opinion. A History of Violence? Amazing movie! Uzumaki? Man oh man, I love that manga! And respect has to be given to HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. That was such forbidden fruit as a kid, where I had to sneak into my grandparent’s bedroom to watch it on their TV—we didn’t have cable at my home—always with an ear to the door, in order to flip the channel fast if they were to walk in.

MJ: Do you have any comic-based collectibles? What do you like to collect?

CMC: I’m a terrible collector. Everything’s out of the box. I have gotten in the habit of collecting figurines for those characters I’ve written for, so I have a few Funko Pops on the shelf. Venompool. Iron Fist and Luke Cage. Spider-Man. Iron Man. And then there’s Typhoid Mary, Ultron, and Vision figurines duking it out.

MJ: Are you a gamer? Do you play any comic-based games?

CMC: I am ashamed to admit that I am not a player. I am bowing my head here. Forgive me.

The Spider-Man in Chapman's Spider-Verse is the stuff of nightmares

MJ: I know you are a horror fan at heart. What are your favorite horror movie franchises?

CMC: There’s too many! I don’t even know where to begin… My childhood orbited the Friday the 13th franchise, for sure. There was something about the notion of sitting around the campfire and spinning this yarn about this backwoods summer camp serial killer that just did it for me. That’s all I needed. But I grew into my tastes, as it were, with filmmakers like David Cronenberg. He’s always been a personal fave. Evil Dead II was fundamental. Black Christmas! In high school, it became a treasure hunt… an archeological dig at the video store to uncover some rare gem, some little-seen horror flick, that would scare the pants off me.

MJ: Are you getting into any titles in the new wave of horror comics?

CMC: Infidel by Porksak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, and Jose Villarrubia was great. Anything by Junji Ito is great. The works by Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler is great. The Black Monday Murders is absolutely blowing my mind.

MJ: How did you get your first writing gig with Marvel?

CMC: Man, did I luck out… It’s a long-ish story, but: I taught a playwriting workshop for high school students back in 2000? 2001? One of those writers went on to become an assistant editor at Marvel. She popped up at a reading event I was doing in the Bowery back in, like, maaaaybe 2009? We caught up afterwards and she said, “Hey, have you ever thought about writing for Spider-Man?” I have learned, whenever anyone asks you a question like that, regardless of the truth, you always say YES. So we had lunch with her boss and we discussed story ideas and shortly thereafter I was writing those back ten-page stories where Spidey learns how to do his laundry… The simple, compressed stories that don’t tamper with the canon. It was a great way to learn how to write comics and I got to work with some amazing illustrators straight out of the gate, most notably Javier Rodriquez.

You may never want to go camping again!

MJ: When you pitched Iron Fist: Phantom Limb to Marvel, did you have to tell them how you were going to end the story before they signed off on it?

CMC: They were pretty much onboard at “Let’s cut off Danny’s fist.” For better or worse, they didn’t ask where we went from there. Gulp.

MJ: Wow, that showed a lot of trust and confidence in you!

CMC: I think, if you’re going to tell a story about Danny Rand in this day and age, you have to do something pretty radical… Or I should say, if I were to tell his story, I’d need to do something radical. Something that would almost, dare I say, put Danny in his place a little bit. I wanted to take away those things that Danny identified himself with. Strip him of everything… And then slowly, incrementally, have him build himself back up again. But into something else. Something different. I didn’t want him to just go on another hero’s journey. I wanted to explore what darkness I thought there was in a character like him and try to shine a light on it. And have him take a walloping in the process.

MJ: How do you prefer to work with artists: do you provide them a full script? Do you collaborate on plot before scripting?

CMC: Thus far, it’s been full script… But that’s not to say things don’t change once it’s in the illustrators hands. I just want to get out of the artist’s way. I find narrative is the ethereal connective tissue between the images, that strange gauzy material that ties the pages altogether, so I’ve been trying to reduce my words. Comic haikus.

But I go in believing the artist is the headliner. My storytelling is in service of the visuals. I defer to the artist and believe that they will lift my story to a higher level. Thank goodness.

MJ: Most creative people have certain places or situations where they feel the most creative, or where inspiration usually strikes…in the shower, right before falling asleep, while jogging or driving (that’s mine)…where/when does your muse visit you?

CMC: I read the newspaper. I pore through, sifting for ideas… I believe truth is stranger than fiction, so I’m always cribbing from the headlines. That’s how Lazaretto came about.

And swimming. I get to think in the pool. I try to swim a mile every day and that always becomes something of an underwater brainstorming session. Nothing else is competing for my attention other than the need to breathe oxygen.

Outbreak + dorm quarantine = violent new social hierarchy

MJ: Is there a comics title or character that you haven’t yet written, but are dying to?

CMC: Swamp Thing. Or Man-Thing, perhaps? I’ll take either.

MJ: What comics projects do you have upcoming?

CMC: Well, I’m not supposed to say anything because it hasn’t been announced yet… but I’m helping out with a new series for Marvel. That’ll come out in August. Also, I’ve been working on a cool long-form graphic novel project for BOOM! Studios, which will hopefully see the light of day next year. Fingers crossed.

MJ: Are you interested in writing for television? If so, what show(s) would you like to write for?

CMC: Funny that you should ask… I’ve been developing a few TV projects that I can’t really talk about. Who knows? Maybe the next time we chat I’ll have some good news to share!

MJ: You are also a screenwriter; what movie projects do you have in the works?

CMC: Again, I’m being sheepish… and a bit of a tease at the same time. Forgive me. But there are a few feature scripts that are in various states of pre-production or development. I don’t know if/when I’ll be able to chat about them, but rest assured, as soon as I’m given the full-steam-ahead, I’ll be shouting it out from the mountaintop.

In the meantime, you should get ready for my new novel THE REMAKING, which comes out on Quirk Books this October. It’s gonna be spooooooooky…

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