Today’s interview with comics creator Rob Walton was conducted by my good friend, Greg M. Smith, who teaches media studies at my undergraduate home, Georgia State University. Whenever I come to Atlanta to visit my family, I make a point to get together with Greg, who takes me to the local comic shops and shows me what I have been missing all of these years. He’s introduced me to a broad range of books that had otherwise slipped my grasp but one of the best was Ragmop. When Smith learned that the long unfinished Ragmop was going to be completed and reprinted as a graphic novel, he asked if I’d be willing to let him interview Rob Walton for my blog. What could I say? Wild Horses couldn’t stop him and in any case, I was as excited as he was at helping to introduce my readers to this fascinating book. Everything from here is Greg’s.
Ragmop was one of the great unfinished comic stories until recently, when creator Rob Walton completed and published his 450 page graphic novel. Picture the love child of comic book great Jack Kirby and economist Adam Smith, all done as a Looney Tunes cartoon. Or maybe the best story of an interstellar conspiracy ever done by ALL the Marx brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, AND Karl).
Ragmop is the story of the chaotic pursuit of the “O-Ring,” an emblem of power that keeps the current pretender to divinity named Tetragrammaton (you know him as “God”) in heaven. Everyone wants the O-Ring: the American government (where an idiotic president is under the sway of the evil Mr. Black), insane lobotomizing psychologists, former Nazis, beatnik poet/physicists, the Pope and his cabal of assassin cardinals, an alien race known as the Draco (based on real life aliens!), and even Uncle Walt (yes, THAT Walt). Most importantly, our heroine Alice Hawkings (after her unsuccessful career as the super-villain Thrill Kitten) and her three dinosaur sidekicks (Darwin, Einstein, and Huxley) are also in pursuit, with the fate of the world in the balance.
Ragmop mixes pratfalls and economic theory in a way that is utterly distinctive to comics. Rob Walton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at his blog. Ragmop can be purchased at finer comic shops everywhere.
Tell us about the publishing history of Ragmop.
Ragmop began as a serialized comic back in June of 1995 published by my own imprint Planet Lucy Press. That lasted ten issues before moving over to Image Comics for two issues. The second issue could not carry the sales needed for it to remain with Image, so I published a final issue before abandoning the series to return to animation full time sometime in 1998.
Over the years people kept asking me when I would finish the book. I told them I had no plans to return to the material, especially since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Too much had changed on the political scene, and I felt the story would have to be completely updated to reflect the new realities of the War on Terror. Then came a bout of underemployment in 2004-2005. To fill the gap I began to pick away at Ragmop trying to find a new way back into the story.
I had reread the published issues and had a good idea of what worked and what didn’t. I knew I needed a new opening, something that would plunge the reader right into the action. I also wanted to introduce the political angle immediately as a way of being honest and upfront with the reader. I also knew I wanted to incorporate and expand upon the “Plunder Blunder” backup story from issue six that told us a little of Alice’s past criminal activity as a way of better establishing her as the main character of the story. This process alone took four to six months to resolve. My first pass at this material was modeled on the narrative structure of Rocky & Bullwinkle with a lot of stops and starts in the story as well as having a “voice over” narrator. Those who read that first version didn’t like it at all. Thankfully they were right and that I had the good sense to trust their judgment. I excised the Rocky & Bullwinkle shtik and found myself off to the races.
Updating the script turned out to be a fun exercise and gave me a chance to correct a lot of the art and story. It took me a further year to complete the final edits and new pages required to bring the story to its soul-shattering conclusion. Having it complete in one volume I can finally appreciate the accomplishment. I think I did exactly what I wanted to do even if it falls short of some people’s expectations. I’m personally proud of the book.
One of the main themes in Ragmop is how capitalism collaborates with democracy, how American democracy makes American imperialism possible. For those who haven’t read the book yet, can you summarize the argument? How did your thoughts originate on these matters?
Alice actually does a good job summing up the argument on page 376 of the novel: “Capitalism alienates the human psyche while democracy is the toothless servant of authoritarianism.” I should point out that the type of democracy we’re talking about here is what’s known as a “market-based democracy”; that is, the equating of democracy with the market where the function of democracy is not participatory politics but the management of economies for private profit. Now hopefully this should strike most readers as odd. Our common reaction should be, “Wait a second, that doesn’t sound right.” And it isn’t. After making her summation Alice goes on to describe the Greek ideal of democracy: one in which we have a say in how our governments rule and make decisions on our behalf.
This was something I only began to research after I returned to the story a second time. Back in issue two of the Image run a character describes democracy as a form of social control (page 275 of the graphic novel). At the time I wrote that it was only an intuition based on some historical reading I was doing. Something wasn’t right with democracy. What exactly, I couldn’t fully tell. If democracy was such a good thing, then why were democratic reforms constantly paid for in blood? Think of the fight for the five-day workweek or the eight-hour day or the women’s vote. Those weren’t things that were bestowed upon us by benevolent governments after peaceful referendums had been held. These were concessions made to us only after men and women had won the rights with their lives.
Another thing that bothered me was that after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet-style communism; capitalists quickly fixed their sights squarely on their own Western democratic governments as if democracy was the next thing to go. And as it turned out it was. Through their elected representatives they began stripping governments of any democratic power that would impede upon the growth of the new global market. This plan of action was followed by Democrats and Republicans alike. It quickly became obvious that democracy, while good for people (in theory), was bad for business.
I began to better understand what was going on when I read up on the 1930s. Back then Fascism was quite popular. After all, they were beating up the communists. They were also busting unions, depressing wages, shutting up the opposition, and partnering governments with business. During the early 1930s everyone was falling over themselves to invest in Germany. In 1932 a group of Wall Streeters planned and nearly executed a coup to oust Roosevelt in favor of their own Hitler-inspired American dictator. The plot failed thanks to General Smedley Butler, but no one was arrested because what was left of the American economy would have completely collapsed. It was then that I began to realize that Fascism is the true political partner of Capitalism. Which is why Mr. Black is so nostalgic about fascism in the book. If only Hitler hadn’t given it a bad name! So where did that leave democracy?
My answers were found in several books published between 1998 and 2005. As it turned out, democracy was the most reviled political system of the last two thousand years. It was considered to be the politics of dictators and mobs. Remember, America was founded as a Republic (Rule of Law), not a Democracy (Rule of Masses). Then around 1905 democracy was given a total and deliberate makeover. “Democratic” elections allowed the business community to maintain control of their governments to further their globalizing markets.
The first wave of globalization actually took place in the 1880s when American production began to outgrow American consumerism. The basic idea is that to control worker revolts you give them some participation in decision making through an election. Unfortunately, candidates for election almost always come from business boardrooms or are fronted by business interests, and it is those interests that they end up representing in governments. It just goes on from there. We elect governments that increasingly use power carte blanche, as we have witnessed most notably with the current Bush administration. This aids Imperialism because we then start spreading “democracy” around the world. Originally Imperialism was about goods, labor and resources. It still is, but you can’t say that. You can’t say we’re invading Iraq for their oil and cheap labor. You have to say we’re bringing “democracy” to the uncouth masses when what we are bringing is in fact capitalism.
Which came first, the philosophy or the story?
People may be disappointed to learn that the story came before the philosophy. Since writing Ragmop I’ve earned the reputation of being something of a leftist-whatever, but I didn’t start out that way. The evolution of the ideas came from the story itself and not from my political views at the time.
The original concept for Ragmop had to do with man’s desire to control nature; not just the weather but of all physics itself. I began thinking about this the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Then Richard Feynman dropped the O-ring into a glass of water to show how the cold would cause the hinge to break and lead to the recent disaster. It was a simple and dramatic demonstration typical of Feynman. It was then both he and the O-ring became central to my developing story.
With that in place along with Alice (I don’t remember where the dinosaurs came from) I began to think of a villain. Once I decided that the villains were going to be in government, I began researching their point of view. I also had to give Alice an opposing point of view, which is where the ideas or philosophy began to develop from. Now to be honest I did and do have a natural leaning toward the rights of my fellow brothers and sisters, so taking the side of the Global Justice movement was an obvious direction for me to follow and one that grew out of my own concerns for the common misery and exploitation of the majority of humankind. Now that Ragmop is done I feel as if I’ve said what needed to be said, so I can move on and let others follow up on the concerns that I’ve raised.
How do you lay out the structure for a 450 page graphic novel?
How do I do it? I’m not sure I want to say. I did work off a general outline but the comic series was very undisciplined and went off on a lot of tangents. It was both a strength and weakness of the book. When I returned to it I really had to reel it in and imposed a strict structure on the story. I treated the original material like raw film footage and edited it as I would a film. I was ruthless with the cutting to make sure the pacing was always brisk–except for those moments of exposition, which was always problematic, but I did the best I could. I also scripted everything before I drew it, something I don’t think I always did with the original series which I wrote and drew on the fly to give it a sense of cartoon anarchy.
I read and reread the story as I went along rewriting and redrawing as needed. The biggest change was that I had a better ending for the book than the comic. Once I had read about the Draco that gave me the ending I needed. It was the perfect vehicle to present my thoughts on capitalism and democracy in the form of a master plan by an invading alien horde to take over the earth. Structuring and writing the ending became very easy after that. All I had to do was stick to the story. Some of my favorite material was cut for the sake of the story.
The epilogue to the book was the original epilogue to the comic that set up the second storyline. I left it in because it’s playful and I liked the idea of an open ending. The graphic novel doesn’t have a big resolution because there is no resolution. Where we go from here is up to us. That part of the story remains to be written.