Dean Trippe on the Autobiographical Something Terrible

I don’t do much writing for Sequart. Most of what I do here is behind the scenes. (I edit the books and produce the documentaries.) However, every once in a long while, something moves me enough to want to spotlight it on the site. Dean Trippe’s Something Terrible more than qualifies. In a mere 18 pages, Something Terrible reaches both a sick-to-your-stomach low (or two) and a very exhilarating high. (If you’re a parent, you’ll feel it even more so.) This is the type of comic you get behind. This is the type of comic you want to see win an award. (Personally, it’s the most important comic I’ve read in years.)

In fact, why don’t you click over here, spend a dollar on the download (yep, just a dollar), read it (even the afterword), and come back for the interview. Seriously.

No, seriously. Go ahead. (The interview will definitely make more sense if you do.)

Back? Read it? Pretty great, right? OK, so anyway, I was so moved by Something Terrible that I cornered Dean on Facebook and asked him for an interview. Enjoy!

PHILLIPS: Before we get into the heavy stuff, let’s start with some lighter questions. Because Something Terrible isn’t free, I’m wondering how you are allowed to use all of those corporate-owned characters (e.g. Batman, Superman, Dr. Who, Jean-Luc Picard, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Hellboy, Star Wars characters, Speed Racer, Robocop, Voltron, etc). Did you actually go around to all of the companies and get permission to use those characters?

TRIPPE: I didn’t. The comic is free as a webcomic, with an option to download the entire story now for 99 cents. I’m not sure entirely, but I felt like my use of them was fair, as it’s a true story. It’s a tough line to walk, and I’m not a legal expert, but I feel like if anyone involved with these characters legitimately has a problem with me explaining how wonderful they all are, then they can choose to fight me about it if they want. I obviously didn’t tell the story for the money, I just have that option as a way to help fund my next comics, which will use the same webcomic / downloadable option model.

PHILLIPS: Let’s talk about the color scheme. I like that the first time we see anything besides black and blue, is when you become “safe”. It’s a dazzling page. I actually got a bit emotional.  Why the choice to go back to black and blue for the rest of the comic? I would have loved to have seen (your son) Field and you in full color in that last panel.

TRIPPE: Something Terrible was going to be black and white at first, but I did a test cover (that ended up being the model for the panel where my Batman shirt materializes, with Batman’s silhouette behind me), using that bluish gray. It just fit really well. I did a test of the first page with it, and knew I had to use it throughout. When I got to page twelve, the one with all the super-heroes, I couldn’t not see it in color, so I pulled a Wizard of Oz move for it. I thought about continuing the full color until the end, because my life is definitely brighter now, but I didn’t think it worked thematically. But yeah, I thought about it, too. That last page could’ve gone either way.

PHILLIPS: You praise Grant Morrison in your comic, and at one point, it seems that the homage extends to one of Grant’s favorite storytelling tools, metafiction: You start drawing your comic in your comic, and then Batman appears from a TARDIS to comfort a young Dean Trippe; not to mention that Something Terrible gives a shout-out to the very metafictional Flex Mentallo. Can you talk about your feelings on metafiction and about Grant’s impact on your career as a storyteller?

TRIPPE: Yeah, absolutely! Morrison’s my favorite comic book writer, among many other greats who’ve impacted my life for the better by telling stories about dudes in tights jumping off of buildings. Grant’s work has especially affected me. He seems to accept the conceits of each character and then move the story to the next logical step, rather than constantly trying to tell a “classic” Batman tale, or whatever, like so many writers. He delivers on the promise of the work that had come before in a way so many storytellers seem scared to do. It’s the difference between a sitcom episodic reset button and The Wire or Breaking Bad. Both can be great, but moving forward is what generates the new awesome. No one really wishes Dick Grayson was still Robin, do they? Legacy characters are the best, and he really pushes them to the fore. I also really love how carefully crafted the layers of his stories are, and I devour the commentaries on his work by guys like Tim Callahan and David Uzumeri. And yeah, Flex Mentallo had a huge impact on me. It’s one of the best comics ever made. It seems like it’s built so much around Morrison’s life, so it seems fitting to reply to it with a story of my own, along the same lines. It was reading that book years ago that put the big idea of this story into my head, and eventually led to me drawing the first version of the fictional rescue in Something Terrible. It’s funny, man. I was so deep into Morrison comics at the time, I was starting to believe in the multiverse on a religious level, and I worried that if I physically sketched out the comic, I might inadvertently unravel my own personal history. Which, I obviously couldn’t do, because I love my son more than anything and wouldn’t change a second of my life, not matter how terrible, if it meant him not being here. But I eventually got secure enough in reality to draw it, and cry about it, and later that day, I found out that victims of child sexual abuse don’t become offenders. I drew a comic because of Batman and Grant Morrison comics, and it really did change my life. The magic is real, somehow, brother.

PHILLIPS: Speaking of you finding out the truth about victims of child sexual abuse: Obviously Batman is your favorite comic character, so in Something Terrible‘s afterword, when you are talking about your dismay at how some writers have depicted Bruce / Batman as crazy and / or broken, is that dismay rooted in the revelation you came to when researching about how the majority of sexually abused children don’t grow up to become abusers themselves? Was it that truth that pissed you off and made want to, for lack of a better phrase, “set the record straight” about Batman specifically and all victims in general?

TRIPPE: Yeah, maybe. I mean, the idea that Bruce Wayne is this psychologically deranged billionaire who plays out his childhood power fantasies by beating poor criminals senseless is a valid read, but it totally reduces him to a “cycle of violence” mentality. It’s dumb, and that kind of perspective on super-heroes doesn’t do anything to help other victims of childhood traumas. I see him as a dude who made an eight-year-old’s decision following a crime that couldn’t be fixed. He needed someone that night to save him and his family. So he became that for everyone else. It may just be that I identify so strongly with that idea because my own story seems similar to it from my perspective. But it’s a better story anyway. It makes sense of all of his actions. Why dress like a bat, unless you’re thinking as a child? Become something you’re afraid of to scare criminals. Are superstitious, cowardly criminals really afraid of bats? I don’t know. But they’re afraid of Batman. I don’t even really think Batman likes fighting that much. He seems resigned to it, when necessary, but in my mind, he’s more attracted to the detective work, rehabilitating ex-cons with jobs at WayneCorp, and stuff.

PHILLIPS: This comic is about a heavy topic, and you told me yourself that you didn’t want to pull any punches. I’m assuming that only a few people in your life knew about this part of your past, so please tell our readers how it felt to basically shout your darkest secret from the rooftops.

TRIPPE: Yeah, before this year I could count the friends who knew about my own sexual abuse as a child on one hand. The final events of the story, where I find out that victims don’t actually have a higher likelihood for becoming offenders, occurred about three years ago. Ever since then, I’d been planning some sort of blog post or something, because it’s meant a lot to me anytime someone with any level of fame has come out about their own experiences with this kind of trauma. It seems especially stigmatized for men, so I’ve only heard my kind of experience told a few times. But I was scared to talk about it, as much as I wanted to get this info out to other former victims, so I held off. Sometime last year, though, I was talking about Batman with my friend Ben Acker, co-writer of the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast. I opened up to him about my own trauma as a way of explaining why “crazy” or “broken” depictions of Batman really get on my nerves. Batman is driven by a childhood trauma, but he found a constructive outlet for his pain: making sure it never happens to anyone else. That’s not what you do if you’re broken. That’s what you do if you refuse to break. During my discussion with Ben, he kinda convinced me the whole thing ought to be a comic rather than a text post. So I spent the last year working on it when I had time. Spending so long on it gave me a lot of time to get psyched up about it and commit myself to getting it out there for anyone who might relate to it. It also gave me time to talk to my mom about those decades-old events, which we hadn’t done, really, since way back then.

PHILLIPS: Are there any ideas and / or panels that hit the cutting-room floor because they were just too painful to discuss? Again, I know you said you didn’t want to pull any punches, but that doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to put all of your pain on display.

TRIPPE: I cut out anything I know about the other victims, because there’s a level of guilt that all victims have, even though I was clearly overpowered and held in terror by an attacker with a gun who’d threatened to kill my family in front of me if I told anyone what he was doing. Still, I chose to focus the story entirely upon my own experience. There were some other bits that got cut out to make the story read more effectively, like other instances where I was around children, and while I never had sexual thoughts about them, I also kept myself in check with the threat of violence, while other dudes my age would sometimes make crude pedophilia jokes, making me sick and angry. And I cut some parts from the fantasy elements, including the Doctor giving six-year-old me clothes, saying “Oh this screwdriver? It does whatever the writer wants it to do,” or something. There was going to be more dialogue in another page of TARDIS stuff, but it seemed to step all over the power of the full-page reveal, so I cut it all out. Basically, six-year-old me was going to ask, “What do we do now?” And then Batman says, “Now we’re going to save everyone else,” and the TARDIS spins off into space. I liked that stuff, but again, it just felt like an unnecessary victory lap, I guess.

PHILLIPS: As dark as this topic is (I mean, this thing could actually double as a helpful pamphlet for the sexually abused), Something Terrible is also love letter to comics (and, to a lesser extent, broader “geek culture”). The comic touches upon how those characters helped you through some really hard times. Could you elaborate on that?

TRIPPE: I’ve been accused my entire comics career of taking these things too seriously. And yeah, I do. Because fictional super-heroes save real lives. Like mine. I love revitalized, sideways, revamped takes on classic characters, but if you lose the things that make them so special against a backdrop of flawed protagonists, you’re really missing what made them the most successful genre of the 20th century, and such a large part of pop culture now in the 21st. Every super-villain and super-hero has a pretty similar origin story. But it’s not if your parents are killed in front of you or metal arms get bonded to your nervous system, it’s what you do with it that defines you. Selfishness, greed, and a lack of empathy make you a villain, powers or not. Using all of your abilities to help everyone you can makes you a hero. Some heroes have lines they won’t cross, and while that makes them “weaker” to their enemies, it’s actually what makes them so strong. Super-heroes are this perfect analog for anyone growing up. At some point you have to take over your own branding and build yourself into who you want to be.

PHILLIPS: You’re a new-ish dad. I’m a very new dad. Reading Something Terrible with my son in mind is effectively devastating. What role did being a parent play in the creation of this comic?

TRIPPE: Well, it had a huge impact on the events of my life, which are replicated in the comic. Having a kid, if you’re a good parent, makes you think even harder about being the kind of person you want to be in the world. My son is so flipping magical, it’s a constant light in my life, and having eliminated the constant suicide pact from my life, I’m a better dad, so that made me more determined to share my story so other dads out there who were former victims could put down their invisible guns. But knowing this would be a public part of my life (from the point I told the story on), having a son kinda made me hesitant. I mean, it’s not inconceivable that, one day, children at my son’s high school could find out about my history and use it to bully him. I don’t know how likely that is, but I crafted the story as carefully as possible, to break and rebuild even the coldest hearts, if possible. And if not, screw ‘em. I had to decide to do the right thing, and be brave, because that’s what he’d want me to do. And as he now approaches the age that I was when I was abandoned and abused, it helped me distance myself from my childhood self and see young me as just a child, which I think everyone should do. It made the crimes less personal, but more horrible. I mean, who the hell hurts kids? Only the most monstrous villains.

PHILLIPS: In your afterword, you say you swore to yourself that you’d end your own life if you ever had sexual thoughts about children. In the comic, you’re able to put down that invisible gun by the end of the story, but in real life do you still have that dark deal with yourself, or has your confidence in being a good man and father squashed the suicide pact for good?

TRIPPE: I’m still vigilant against letting myself entertain any thoughts like that, but I also have enough faith in myself to just stop that path cold without the death threat anymore. I’m now entirely confident there’s no monster inside me looking to break out of my skin. I mean, part of me knew I wasn’t, but the “cycle of violence” concept was so pervasive, I had to be extra safe. But I’m glad I came to that realization when I did. I’ve been able to toilet train my son, give him baths, talk him through some basic childhood guy stuff, all things a dad should be able to help with. It’s great being free of the fear and just being the me I always hoped I was. I also went through a fairly amicable divorce a while back, and getting out of a relationship that wasn’t good for either of us has really helped with my psychological well-being. The whole family is much happier now. My son’s with me a little more than half the time, and it’s the best, because we get along so well, making up new super-heroes, playing video games, building Lego ships, and watching fun shows. And the other half of the week, I try to spend with my new girlfriend, who is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, and she makes me feel good about being me. I don’t think I need a suicide pact anymore. I need a long life and lots of cool adventures.

[This final bit wasn’t intended to be part of the interview. It was merely some after-interview dialogue. But I liked Dean’s response so much I decided to include it here.]

PHILLIPS: Even though it’ll probably sound condescending (which is absolutely not my intention!) for a simple Facebook friend (who doesn’t know you personally) to say this, but I’m gonna say it anyway: I’m proud of you. I’m proud of your strength. (And I’ve always admired your positivity.)

TRIPPE: Thanks, dude. It’ll sound self-serving, but after a decade of trying very hard to do something useful with comics, I’m suddenly proud of myself, too. My buddy Tom Fiester pointed out that this comic tells a story that wouldn’t work as well in other media, that it’s something best told in comics. I agree. I’ve kinda been thinking maybe I got into drawing in the first place (and spent so many years getting better at comics) just so I could make this comic. Like a psychological immune system response to the trauma of my childhood. I cried several times making Something Terrible, but the hardest flat-out bawling came when I realized what Batman says: “You’ll be safe here.” It feels amazing to finally be saved.

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Mike produces books and documentaries about comics. He's now trying to write his own comics. He tells everyone else at Sequart what to do. Do they listen? Eh.

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Also by Mike Phillips:


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a short documentary on Chris Claremont's historic run and its influence

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a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

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a documentary on the life and work of celebrated comics writer Grant Morrison

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  1. In 1990, there was a cartoon special that came out called Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue: where many of my favourite cartoon characters of the time or their 90s counterparts (save three of the Ninja Turtles for some reason) were somehow all animated, all in the same universe–seemingly our own–and attempting to save a child from drugs.

    It might be a back-headed compliment to say that Something Terrible was better than that piece of Anti-Drug propaganda, but it took the same principles–of childhood superheroes and cartoons–and spoke a far more important message which doesn’t talk down to the reader. I’m glad that this comic was made because of what it had to say and the way it said it. In fact, I wish that they had handed out this kind of comic when I was kid or, indeed, at any time in a person’s life.

    Also, the insight into Batman as someone who refused to break from childhood trauma and tragedy and changed so that he could prevent others from experiencing the same pain is just inspired. I am glad that Dean created this comic and I am really glad you transcribed this interview with him Mike.

  2. Thanks, Matthew! It was my pleasure.

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