The superhero genre is about to get re-defined – that is, if James Comtois has anything to say about it. The prolific author of such indie theater hits as The Adventures of Nervous-Boy and Suburban Peepshow returns with a brand new play, Colorful World, that aims to stand the world of caped crusaders on its ear while still getting in some kick-ass fights. The play, produced by Nosedive Productions (the company James co-helms with director Pete Boisvert), opens this week at the 78th Street Theater Lab. Amidst the flurry of pre-opening activity, James generously took some time to stop by the ol’ blog and chat about the play. Here’s what the man himself had to say…
Your new play is about superheroes but doesn’t sound like it’s your average superhero story. What made you go with superheroes this time around and how does differ from (or maybe even subvert) the superhero genre?
Well, I originally wanted to do a “riff” on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic Watchmen (which, if you haven’t read it, is a brilliant deconstructionist take on the superhero genre that ended up radically changing the mainstream comic book industry) in the way that Sheila Callaghan wrote Dead City as a riff on James Joyce’s Ulysses. But of course, as I wrote the script, it slowly and steadily veered onto its own path and became its own story, although fans of Watchmen will definitely see several parallels, similarities and in-jokes.
The premise behind Colorful World is that, in the late-‘80s, a man who’s bulletproof and impervious to pain is revealed to the world. No one knows why and no one knows how he became this way. The existence of this invincible man (dubbed “Overman”) changes the world as we know it in both subtle and drastic ways; the biggest of which being a trend of people dressing up in flashy outfits to go beat people up in back alleys.
The bulk of the story takes place about a decade after the costumed crimefighting trend has fizzled, and centers around a few retired crimefighters who look back on their careers with more bitterness and embarrassment than pride.
So, Colorful World differs from the superhero genre in that it’s more concerned with the cultural and political landscape and the bruised psyches of the retired crimefighters than with guys in tights beating each other up (although Qui Nguyen has made sure there are many ultra kick-ass fight scenes throughout). I also suppose it’s a little more melancholy than your average superhero story, since it speculates that discovering the existence of a Superman-like being is ultimately depressing once the novelty wears off.
I have nothing against conventional superhero stories; I just don’t think I have it in me to write one. Once I start writing about a superhero I start wondering what psychological problems he or she has (because, let’s face it, prowling the streets in a cape and mask is a bit…off) or what physical problems he or she would acquire (wouldn’t years of crime-fighting mess up your knees pretty badly?). I know you’re not supposed to worry about these things when you’re reading a copy of Batman (and I usually don’t), but when I’m writing a story like that on my own, I just can’t help it.
Colorful World takes place in an alternate realty where the Twin Towers are still standing and the Iraq War is ending. Those two things have figured very prominently in the public consciousness for years now. What made you decide to include such a specific take on both?
Probably because those two things have figured very prominently in the public conscious for years now. The show bombards the audience with a great deal of information in very a short period of time, so Pete [Boisvert, the show’s director] and I have been trying to find the right balance of not being too heavy-handed or overwhelming yet not being too obscure or confusing. The best thing we came up with is to show at least one or two things from the get-go that are right on the nose — in this case, a big title card saying “2005” and an image of the World Trade Center and an advertisement for a “Welcome Home Troops” show — to help the audience find their bearings. There are definitely other elements in the show that indicate this (and the in-tact WTC and ending of the Iraq War aren’t even the biggest changes, in my mind), but these two elements seemed to be the easiest to convey.
As for what the show’s take on these two events are, well, you’re just going to have to find out for yourself…
You’re a well-known fan of the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres, all of which are massively popular in comic books, movies, television shows, and books. And yet you write plays which increasingly touch upon – and incorporate – all of these genres. How did first become interested in A) writing plays, and B) bringing these genres to the theater?
Yeah, I admit it. I am very much a fan of those genres you’ve mentioned. I grew up on Star Wars, Doctor Who, The Amazing Spider-Man, Isaac Asimov, and Stephen King. I never outgrew them. I know. A real highbrow am I.
I suppose it’s only natural that these genres have shaped my writing. I actually started writing comic book scripts and screenplays in high school and college before moving on to playwriting. Since I couldn’t — and can’t — draw, and couldn’t convince any of my artist friends to finish illustrating any of my scripts (mainly because I never understood how much faster and easier it was to write a 20-page comic than it was to pencil, ink, and letter one, so I’d scare away my artist friends by sending them five scripts when they were halfway through drawing the first page of issue #1), I gave up on writing comics. The same problem went with movies, only worse (reasonably-priced high-definition digital video cameras weren’t immediately accessible in 1996). So, I became interested in writing plays in college when I realized that writing scripts for comics or movies would never get any further than the printed page.
I guess I bring these genres to the theatre because, well, I like these genres, and I try to write plays that I would want to go see. To be honest, very few of my creative influences are theatrical; most of them are from comics, movies, and prose fiction. So yeah, it just makes sense that my scripts bear a closer resemblance to stories that are often found within those media than from other plays (which isn’t to say that I’m completely uninfluenced by other plays).
You and Colorful World director Pete Boisvert started Nosedive Productions in order for you to get your plays produced and for him to work as a director. Has it gotten easier over the years to be your own producers? And how has the indie theater landscape changed (if at all) since you guys started up?
In some ways, it’s become easier, since many of the nuts-and-bolts tasks and chores inherent to producing a play (finding a space, conducting rehearsals, sending out the press releases, filling out the insurance paperwork) have become second nature to us at this point. But of course, it’s also become harder in some ways, since we always feel compelled to “step up” our game every time we produce a new show in some way or another. You’re competing with a hell of a lot of options for how someone’s going to spend their night out, and that’s not really gotten any easier. I don’t think it ever will.
I have no idea how the indie theatre scene has changed; I only know how Nosedive’s involvement with the scene has changed. We definitely feel more integrated within it, but that may be because we weren’t really integrated within it at all the first couple years we were producing (we didn’t really know anyone or interact with any other companies, aside from maybe a very small handful). So that’s changed, but I’m not sure if that’s so much a reflection of the scene itself or Nosedive.
You and Pete have been collaborators for a long time now. What’s the connection between you two? What do you like about working together?
Yeah, it’s been about eight years now. Good Lord!
Oddly enough, we’re very different people with very different personalities and sensibilities, so that disparity may be a big contributing factor. We also know each other’s styles pretty damn well (hell, after eight years, we better!), so if I give Pete a particularly oddball script, he’s not lost in the tall grass; he has a pretty decent idea of where it’s (I’m) coming from, if that makes any sense.
He also comes up with pretty neat ideas for the stage that I could never come up with on my own. That scene in The Adventures of Nervous-Boy where Nervous-Boy buys a bottle of rum and this giant monster paw comes from offstage to hand it to him? Yeah, that’s all Pete. There’s nothing in the script to indicate that the liquor store clerk is some monster/demon. But it’s a really nice effect that worked like gangbusters with audiences. So, stuff like that.
Also, having Patrick Shearer on board since 2001 as actor, director, and/or sound designer (depending on what we need him to do; in the case of Colorful World, he’s acting and sound designing) has been pretty crucial in creating Nosedive’s aesthetic. (Holy crap; did I seriously write the words “Nosedive’s aesthetic?” I’m ashamed of me.) For the most part, we all leave each other alone and trust each other to do our jobs.
As for what Pete and Patrick like about working with me, you’d probably have to ask them. I’m under the impression they’ve been politely putting up with me and my shenanigans and I’m slowly and steadily sapping them of their wills to live.
Dude, you’re a pretty prolific writer – how do you do it? And what have you got in store for us after Colorful World?
Well, heh, thank you for saying so, Michael, that’s very flattering. I don’t think I am, since I only see all the projects I drop the ball on or complete substantially later than I was supposed to (i.e. I only see what I eff up), but that’s very nice of you to say so.
How do I do it? I’m not sure. I mean…what else am I gonna do, man? There are a few possibilities for follow-ups. We’re pretty sure there’ll be another Blood Brothers horror anthology show in October. Then, Nosedive may either stage a full-length version of Pinkie, the serial western-noir play we staged for Vampire Cowboys’ “Saturday Night Saloon,” or I may work on this idea Qui gave me that sounds just too good to pass up (though I’m far from ready to reveal any details about that). And although we can’t do it this summer, the ship hasn’t completely sailed on the idea of touring/remounting The Adventures of Nervous-Boy. We shall see.