Eric Powell has never really fit in.
The writer and artist started making comics in the ’90s, but rather than pursue a career drawing the ’roided-up, half-naked superheroes the era craved — or, for the most part, superheroes of any kind — Powell created a fantasy universe centered around a place called Lonely Street, a stretch of America that’s equal parts Poverty Row film noir, Val Lewton horror movie, and Tom Waits song. Through this street walks the Goon, a hulking, cap-clad tough guy with a frightening visage, knuckles of iron, and a heart (mostly) of gold. The Goon is usually accompanied by his fast-talking, morally suspect sidekick, Franky, as he fights a succession of otherworldly threats and, most often, zombies led by his archenemy, the Zombie Priest.
The Goon is a singular book, and often an extremely funny one — though it’s rarely just funny. The Goon has emerged as a surprisingly complex character over the course of the run, and the book has gone to some dark and unexpectedly poignant places, particularly in stories recounting its hero’s tragic origin. It’s telling that Powell once dedicated an entire issue paying homage to Jack Davis, an artist famous both for his work for EC Comics’ horror titles and Mad magazine. Powell’s work keeps a foot planted in both worlds.
Until last week, the Goon hadn’t been around in the nearly four years, ever since the miniseries “Once Upon A Hard Time,” the final storyline to be published by the character’s longtime home at Dark Horse Comics. But Powell has been busy in the meantime, beefing up his own publishing house, Albatross Funny Books, and launching both his own titles like Hillbilly (a sort-of sword-and-sorcery book set in Appalachia), the work of others (like the forthcoming Grumble by Rafer Roberts, Mike Norton, and Marissa Louise), and oddball anthologies like the kid-friendly horror comic Spook House.
Now Albatross is also home to The Goon, with the first issue of a new series that has returned its hero to Lonely Street and some familiar-looking problems, and hearkened back to the lighter tone of the title’s earliest years. (In another turn of direction, Powell has said he’ll be bringing in other, yet-to-be-named writers and artists on the book, which he details to Polygon a bit below.)
The return comes just in time for The Goon’s 20th anniversary, which is currently taking the comic-maker on tour. We talked to Powell about the Goon’s history, how the character fits into the current comics landscape (and the cultural landscape in general), and how he became the go-to guy to work on tough, beefy characters.
Polygon: Did this 20th anniversary sneak up on you? I don’t think of The Goon as being that old.
Eric Powell: I had my eye on it. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but yeah the first one came out in ’99.
At what point did you realize that the comic had become kind of an institution?
I don’t know if I’ve ever come to understand that. I’m not too confident in myself, if that makes any sense. I’ve always had that freelancer’s fear in the back of my mind that one day the bottom will drop out. I’ve been pretty lucky, and for the majority of those 20 years I’ve been able to make a living off of it. So, you know, I couldn’t ask for more than that.
This is a big step for you, bringing out The Goon under your own label for the first time in a long time. Is it frightening for you to start over under a new publisher, even if you’re the publisher yourself?
It is, but I kind of attacked this from a standpoint of taking as little risk as possible. I kind of tested my publishing waters with my book Hillbilly that I did a couple of years ago. And it did surprisingly well. So when I started with the numbers, and the cost versus reward, it really just made more sense to do it myself than any other publisher.
You’ve said part of the reason you created The Goon was to do work that would not fit in with any other publisher, so now it seems that 20 years later, you’ve expanded that kind of thinking to other creators as well.
We’re doing a few different books with other creators. I want to try to do other things but our business model is to not go overboard and to not oversaturate our market. We’re just gonna do what we would here and there that I believe fits in with what we do — and stuff that I just enjoy.
This is your first Goon story in almost four years. Did you expect to be away from that world for so long?
Honestly when I finished the last miniseries series, I didn’t know when — or if — I would ever come back to The Goon again. I had a spinoff book in mind that I wanted to do, but I definitely was in a spot where I was like, “I’ll feel it out, and if I feel like going back in I will. If I feel like staying where it ended, then I’ll leave it.” I was always kind of looking at the 20th anniversary as a time that, either I should do some kind of a special repackaging of the books or bring it back, and it just felt like the right time to bring it back.
Why is that?
I think that for personal reasons I just wanted to work on it again, and because the last two miniseries that I did went in a really dark direction, I personally wanted to bring the book back and bring some of the levity and some dark humor back to it. Back kind of to its roots. You know, the world’s kind of in a dark place right now, so if I can bring a little humor and escapism to some readers that would be a good thing.
The Goon takes place almost entirely in an analog world, which lends itself to escapism particularly well because there’s so little technology in it. Is that something you’ve ever thought about?
I think that was just a personal choice, just because I love that kind of Depression-era from the late ’20s to ’40s. The look and dialogue and everything, I’m especially drawn to. And then I don’t like drawing very clean buildings and very polished looking environments, so we do things where everything would be beat-up and dilapidated. I was just focusing on things I like to draw while I was coming up with the book.
Were you hesitant at all to bring in other writers and artists to work on The Goon?
A little, yeah, but I felt like if I was very selective and always put on someone that understood the book and could do a good job, it wouldn’t be an issue. I’m also at the point where I get a kick out of seeing other people do stuff with it. But I will always have my hands on the books. There won’t be an issue that comes out where I didn’t do something on it. Because if I’m not writing it, I’m gonna be drawing and if I’m not drawing it, I’m gonna be writing it.
You’re still based in Tennessee right? Do you find that being away from the coasts and where a lot of other comics industry people are working, gives you a different perspective on things?
I don’t know. I kind of wish that I ... I have thought several times of moving to the Portland area because...
Because everybody else is?
Yeah, because everybody in the entire comics industry seems to be there now. I do miss having some camaraderie. I feel like I am a little isolated. I kind of wish that we still had the type of industry where you had a studio with a bunch of people like in the old days. It’s just a nice way to do business, and if I had to move somewhere, I’d probably still be sitting in a room by myself. Maybe getting to hang out with other comic book people on the weekends. But the daily grind is pretty much alone.
Any updates on the animated Goon movie?
Not that I can speak of at the moment, but it’s still going. It’s still very much alive. It’s been a long process that I’ve had to deal with, but we are still very much alive and kicking. Hopefully we’ll get to tell people more soon.
It’s hard to imagine a live-action Goon movie. Maybe even harder to imagine than Hellboy being live action.
That’s one of the reasons I really stuck with this idea of doing an animated movie, because, honestly, I think it’s the best way to capture the world. I’m not sure you could do the same thing with live action. CGI is amazing now, but there’s something about the mixing of the characters, the kind of realistic and cartoony… I wouldn’t want to see a Roger Rabbit type of thing with The Goon. I would rather the whole thing be animated.
When you do work for the major comics companies, you tend to be brought in for Hulk stories and Bizarro stories and things like that. Which comes first?: Do you like drawing big guys, or do editors just think of you as the big-guy artist?
If you do anything in any kind of entertainment world, you’re going to get typecast a little bit. So obviously, the Hulk thing makes sense. The Bizarro thing, I think they wanted Bizarro in an almost zombie kind of an area, so [that makes sense] too. Yeah, I don’t get offered many jobs that aren’t in the realm of kind of dark or monsterish. I’ve never been offered a Spider-Man book.
I really appreciated your tweet about gun ownership. You’re a gun owner who wants responsible gun laws. Why aren’t there more people with that point of view?
I think we’ve become so polarized that no one can have an honest conversation about anything. I’m talking to my dad sometimes, who is way more conservative than I am, he brings up the gun control issue a lot. How many times has anyone showed up to your door to take your guns away? It’s not going to happen. It’s not. You couldn’t even begin to take away all of the guns in this country. So we should have an honest discussion about it and we could be doing a lot better. We could be having an honest conversation about [how] we can be safe and still have firearms. But if you from a standpoint of no discussion at all, then we’re doomed.
Political themes don’t turn up in The Goon too much. Is that by design?
I put some political jabs in there, here and there, in the past, but they’re always kind of indirect. I’m purposely kind of not going to do a lot of political stuff, at least in these early issues, because again, we’re living in a time so polarized and negative that I just want people to have a good time for a second. We’re living in a world where we’re being constantly barraged with media and stuff about politics. We’re kind of in a rough spot. We should be having all of these discussions, we should be talking about it. But at the same time, we need a release valve. And I think I personally need a release valve, so creating The Goon is that for me. I hope it can be the same thing for other people.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film, television, and other aspects of popular culture. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter and does not currently moonlight as a masked vigilante. Find him on Twitter @kphipps3000.