Matt Kindt talks ‘Red Handed,’ ‘Mind MGMT,’ motivations, inspirations

May 26, 2013 | 8:02 a.m.
redhanded Matt Kindt talks Red Handed, Mind MGMT, motivations, inspirations

Matt Kindt's "Red Handed" follows an obsessive, Dick Tracy-like detective who tries to find the pattern in a series of thefts of unusual objects. (First Second)

mindmgmt1 Matt Kindt talks Red Handed, Mind MGMT, motivations, inspirations

The cover of "Mind MGMT" No. 1. The comic is a fan-favorite that’s also won the praise of Kindt’s peers, who’ve raved about the book’s fast-paced, twisty story of covert government psychics. (Dark Horse)

A little more than 10 years into his comics career, writer-artist Matt Kindt has developed into one of the most exciting and original talents in the business, and has suddenly become in-demand to boot, releasing his work through multiple publishers.

Kindt’s Dark Horse series “Mind MGMT” is a fan-favorite that’s also won the praise of Kindt’s peers, who’ve raved about the book’s fast-paced, twisty story of covert government psychics. For DC, Kindt has worked on the offbeat superhero titles “My Greatest Adventure” and “Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.”; and he’s collaborated with his friend Jeff Lemire on Lemire’s recently completed Vertigo series “Sweet Tooth.”

Now Kindt has a standalone graphic novel for First Second called “Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes,” about an obsessive, Dick Tracy-like detective who tries to find the pattern in a series of thefts of unusual objects (such as street signs, and restaurant chairs).

Like Kindt’s breakthrough graphic novel “Super Spy” — first released by Top Shelf in 2007—”Red Handed” is made up of a series of interrelated scenes featuring different characters, rendered in different styles, that add up to something more profound. It’s a funny, well-plotted mystery story that doubles as a meditation on the true meanings of justice, and artistic exploitation.

In an interview with Hero Complex, Kindt recently answered some questions about the new book, as well as “Mind MGMT” and about his motivations and inspirations.

Matt Kindt's "Red Handed" follows an obsessive, Dick Tracy-like detective who tries to find the pattern in a series of thefts of unusual objects. (FirstSecond)

Matt Kindt’s “Red Handed” follows an obsessive, Dick Tracy-like detective who tries to find the pattern in a series of thefts of unusual objects. (First Second)

HC: Some cartoonists say that their stories spring from a single image or scene that gets stuck in their heads. Did something like that inspire “Red Handed”?

MK: A lot of my books start with a collection of a lot of disparate ideas. Just random thoughts and lists. “Red Handed” was an idea I’ve been carrying around since eighth grade civics class. I was sitting, staring out the window, bored and imagining throwing a quarter out the window and having it land on the street, and a guy picking it up and using it to make a phone call that sets off another set of events in a long chain reaction that ends up saving someone’s life. I’ve taken stabs at making that general idea into something that could be a book, but could never really crack it. I think it wasn’t until I was nearly done with the book that I realized where the seed of the idea came from. I’m always kicking ideas around for victimless crimes and perfect crimes, et cetera, because I’m the biggest rule follower, so the idea of committing a crime that really isn’t one has always appealed to me.

HC: Was the Dick Tracy motif in the book from the beginning, or did that come later?

MK: It was there from the start. I was writing this straight-up detective character, which I’ve never really done before in a straightforward way, so I just pushed him completely that way. I’ve loved Dick Tracy since I was a kid, so the visuals and the idea of that was always something that appealed to me. Gadgets and crime solving and horrible violence… What’s not to like?

HC: “Red Handed” has a similar structure to “Super Spy,” in that it compiles different vignettes and only gradually reveals how they’re related. Did you map out the full story of either book when you began, or did you just embark on them with a rough outline and then fit everything together as you went?

MK: I had a rough idea of what I wanted to happen with the characters in “Super Spy,” but I didn’t see the links that would tie the stories together until I got in the middle of it. With “Red Handed” I really didn’t have the guts to try that again. I mean, at a certain stage in writing you’re just making it up as you go. So my first draft, I had no idea. But once you have all the pieces out there, it’s easy to rearrange and make it all work. I did start with specific crimes I wanted the characters to commit — crimes that were interesting to me thematically — so those were set. Then it was just a matter of tweaking it all and bending it into shape so it fit the larger picture.

HC: How about “Mind MGMT”? Does that have an endpoint you’re already working toward?

MK: Yes, I’m working in a similar way to “Super Spy,” in that I know the endpoint for all of the characters, but the mortar that puts them all together is purposefully vague. Partly that’s to keep me interested and partly to give me some leeway to come up with more and better ideas as I go along. It’s a three-year project, so I know I won’t be the same person I was when I started by the time I get to the end. I reserve the right to change it along the way.

"MindMGMT" No. 1, page 5. (Dark Horse)

“Mind MGMT” No. 1, page 5. (Dark Horse)

HC: What’s your reason for all the writing in the margins of “Mind MGMT”?

MK: Too many ideas. And honestly, I’m bored with comics and books for the most part. I get bored writing them, and I get bored reading them. So I do it to challenge myself as a creator — to create text pieces that are specific to the context of the page they appear on but also tell a larger story. That’s hard every month, and part of me hates doing it. But I think the added layers of meaning and fun that it brings is worth it. I’m spending three years of my life making something you can read in a weekend so I want to make sure that, while you can read it in one sitting, you’re not going to get it all at once no matter what. You’ll have to take a little more time with it. Hopefully that’s fun.

HC: Nearly all of your creator-owned work seems to have a strong philosophical core: They’re genre stories, but driven by ideas and self-examination more than conventional action. Is that a fair characterization of what your books have in common, or do you see something else as a unifying element among them all?

MK: I’m fine with books being “about” something, but I honestly hate books that wear it on their sleeves. Put it in there, but make it fun. Make it interesting to read first and let the meaning take care of itself. I honestly don’t know what my books are about until I start answering questions about them after they’re done. My approach is to think up a fun scenario, which ends up putting it in a genre: crime, spies, mind powers, et cetera. Then I just imagine what it would be like for a real person in that scenario to have to deal with these things. The philosophy comes naturally out of that process and becomes whatever the characters dictate. I certainly have specific beliefs and thoughts about things, but I don’t always put my beliefs into the books. I was really careful with the dialogue between the two main characters in “Red Handed,” in the text pieces that break up the chapters. There are two seemingly opposed viewpoints being argued, and I wanted both of those arguments to be as strong as they could be so the reader doesn’t feel like I’m falling on one side or the other. I don’t like books that set up a straw man to be knocked down, to get the writer’s viewpoint across. Set up two steel-hard robots with opposing viewpoints and let them slug it out.

HC: I’ve read that two of the comics that pushed you toward the medium early on were Frank Miller’s “Daredevil” and Dan Clowes’ “Eightball,” which makes sense given both the subject matter of your books and your approach to them. The different drawing styles and layouts in “Red Handed,” for example, resembles Clowes’ “Ice Haven” and “The Death Ray.” What else do you consider to be seminal works for you? And who do you read now?

MK: I’m reading more prose and history than anything else really. I think comics is what inspired me when I was younger to do what I do, but as I get older I find less and less inspiration in actual comics and end up finding things that fuel me in other mediums. Part of it is that I think comics can become kind of incestuous, so I want to bring something new to comics. I finally read all of John le Carré’s stuff, which I’m glad I did, and glad I waited until I was done with “Super Spy” before reading it, because I would have been tempted to steal everything. As far as comics go, I’m enjoying “The Sixth Gun” a lot, and “Black Beetle.” As far as seminal works go, “Cages” by Dave McKean is at the top of my list. I think “All Star Superman” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely is going to be added to my all-time great list as well. And all of Clowes’ stuff of course.

The cover of "MindMGMT" No. 1. The comic is a fan-favorite that’s also won the praise of Kindt’s peers, who’ve raved about the book’s fast-paced, twisty story of covert government psychics. (Dark Horse)

The cover of “Mind MGMT” No. 1. (Dark Horse)

HC: You’ve worked with a number of different publishers: Top Shelf, Dark Horse, DC and now First Second. Do you shop your work around, or do publishers approach you asking if you have any ideas for work you could do for them?

MK: Both of those things happen. I try to find the right publisher for the project as well. I’ve had great experiences with everyone I’ve worked with and apparently I have no loyalty. I really just have too many stories I need to get out there before I die, so I need every publisher to help me out.

HC: You’re doing ongoing series for DC and Dark Horse, but you’ve also produced full, non-serialized books, like “Red Handed.” Do you have a preference?

MK: Most of my career has been non-serialized books like “Red Handed.” It’s what I broke into comics with and what I’ve done forever. But doing “Mind MGMT” as a monthly has really got me excited. It’s so much harder to do a monthly book than a graphic novel. With a graphic novel, you just sit down and work on it, beginning to end, read it through, edit, change and tweak it until it’s perfect. You can add pages or take some out as you need and final page count doesn’t really matter. Making a monthly comic is like walking a tightwire without a net. There are no mistakes. It has to be perfect, 24 pages at a time, and you can’t just decide to add a few pages or take a few out to make it work. It’s like a perfect clockwork that needs to be put together more precisely, right out of the gate. I’m not sure how long I can take that stress, but we’ll see. I may end up going back to graphic novels if I have a nervous breakdown.

— Noel Murray

Noel Murray is an Eisner-nominated critic who writes about comics, television, music and film for The A.V. Club. He also covers home video for the Los Angeles Times.

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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