Cliff Bleszinski didn’t grow up reading comic books. He was all about video games and movies as a kid. But that all changed when he started reading Preacher, the blasphemously brilliant series written by Garth Ennis, and drawn by Steve Dillon. The series published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint opened Bleszinski up a whole new storytelling medium and he’s been a regular reader ever since. I talked with Epic Games’ Design Director last week about his favourite writers, superhero sex and why he loves dogs more than cats.
Kotaku: When did you start reading comics?
Bleszinski: I actually didn’t get into them until about, god, eight or 10 years ago. I didn’t grow up reading them much. It was the one segment of this nerd pop culture I adored so much that I completely had ignored. I was so about ‘80s cartoons, and Jim Cameron movies, and Spielberg movies and video games that they completely went under the radar.
It wasn’t until I was living in Southern California in my early 20s that I went to a Virgin Megastore in the Ontario Mills mall. Because when you live in the suburbs like that there’s not a lot else to do besides go to the mall. It’s either that or meth. And I chose the mall.
Kotaku: That’s probably for the best.
Bleszinski: Well I went into this Virgin. And I had a hard time with classic superhero canon. I really wasn’t that big on it, because Superman seemed very much like a Boy Scout and it all comes from him in some way or another. I was very much into darker things at that point in my career. Then I got a hold of Preacher and I started perusing it and just was like, “What is this?”
It defied anything I thought a comic book could be as far as being a graphic novel and telling a very adult story that dealt with very controversial themes in a very compelling way. And I picked up all of the books of Preacher and just burnt through them. And my obsession with all things Garth Ennis began at that point. And that was kind of the gateway to the other comics that I would wind up enjoying later in life.
My favourite thing to do is just to take a good book and sit on the beach and just burn through it.
Kotaku: It sound like you’re a person who follows creators more than characters?
Bleszinski: I’ve always prided myself on knowing who the people are behind the scenes. If I get into an actor or writer-director, I find out everything I can. I’m not necessarily a DC or Marvel fan. It’s more about following the ranks of like a Garth Ennis or a Grant Morrison or any of those guys.
Kotaku: Who are your must-read comic writers and/or artists?
Bleszinski: The top three off the bat, off the top of my head, because you are putting me on the spot, are Garth Ennis, I have to go with Grant Morrison, and then Kirkman.
Kotaku: Kirkman. That makes sense.
Bleszinski: Invincible is good but it wasn’t in my opinion quite as strong as Walking Dead. Because Walking Dead just hit a super sweet spot. They’re doing a pretty good job of adapting on the show. Warren Ellis is also great too.
Kotaku: What do these writers do for you as a consumer, as a reader? What spots do they hit for you that you aren’t being satisfied elsewhere?
Bleszinski: What they are able to do within a graphic novel is give you the flow of a film but with you as the reader driving it forward at your own pace. There’s a certain magic to that moment where a character says something at the bottom right-hand of a page.
And you turn the page and there’s a two-page spread from, like, World War Hulk, and Hulk is crushing Iron Man in his Hulkbuster suit. There’s a cadence and there’s a flow to the graphic novel that you really don’t see anywhere else. There’s a reason why Hollywood executives love adapting graphic novels to film, because it’s basically a very well drawn storyboard that they can just pick up and take to lunch if they want to.
Kotaku: What’s your favourite Morrison work?
Bleszinski: Oh God. I think The Invisibles. That was completely bizarre in a good way.
Kotaku: It’s interesting that you say Invisibles. That was not necessarily what I was expecting you to say. I was expecting like Batman Inc. stuff.
Bleszinski: Honestly, I need to go and read over The Invisibles again. Because he’s on such a weird level that a lot of his books you have read and reread and reread.
Kotaku: Can you point to any way that comics have influenced your design sense? Your sense of what holds interest from a viewer’s perspective?
Bleszinski: I use everything as grist for the mill. If you look at some of some of what Warren Ellis has written, things like Transmetropolitan, the world design is really amazing. That series happens in a filthy, dirty cyber-punk world, and that’s one of those things that I would love to explore down the line. And I don’t have the opportunity right now.
Transmet is basically a Hunter S. Thompson story. It’s basically about a filthy drug-addled journalist who wants to expose corruption. It’s not your typical gunslinging type story, which makes it more compelling. I’ve burnt through all those books a few years ago in the course of a few days. I need to go back and reread those as well.
Kotaku: Can you point to any comics that have influenced your creativity in terms of like Jazz Jackrabbit, your work on Unreal and Gears? Are there things where you’re like, “OK, this is something I can actually work into a game.”
Bleszinski: I can’t get too much into it, but there may be certain elements of a certain graphic novel series that weaves itself into a project called Fortnite we’re working on. And one could probably infer which title I alluded to before.
Kotaku: Yeah, I’m following exactly what you’re throwing down. I think.
Bleszinski: Anytime any apocalypse hits the world, the good stories are the ones that aren’t really about what’s causing the apocalypse, it’s about the interplay between the characters. That’s something that I want to explore more in the future. In any give crisis situation, what’s the interplay between the human players. How can they help each other? How can they screw each other? I think that’s really fascinating.
Kotaku: What comics would surprise people to know that you enjoyed? You’re obviously aware that people have a certain image of you. What comics do you like that would run counter to that understanding?
Bleszinski: Scott Pilgrim is one. I read those books right as my fiancée and I were first starting to date, and we kind of bonded over them. And the premise of those books is really true. When you date somebody, you don’t just date them. You date their baggage in the form of their exes.
Because they always just keep popping up. I went to see the Book of Mormon in New York about a month ago. And I stood up to stretch during the intermission. And a girl I dated three years ago was literally three rows behind me. I’m like, “Really?” What the hell? So that was my little Scott Pilgrim moment.
And the other comic that destroys me is We3. I think that one was Grant Morrison as well.
Kotaku: Morrison and Frank Quitely. A great, great book.
Bleszinski: I totally loved the design of the suits on the pets. The thing that slays me is the dog. The “is good” dog.
Kotaku: That’s one of my favourite lines ever, “R U gud 2?”
Bleszinski: I used to a cat person growing up in my early 20s until I realised that cats are just evil. I don’t want to get into the cat person dog debate. I used to run a cat scan blog where I would encourage people to physically scan their cats on the scanner. And the amount of vitriol that that encouraged was not inspiring. Needless to say — let’s take the positive route — I prefer dogs. I’m more of a dog person.
There’s something so endearing about the feeling of your dog at your feet and their love for you, their admiration. There’s a Gears community member named Katie and the poor girl’s house burned down the other day. The only way she was woken up and knew about it with enough time was because her dog was barking to alert her. That’s why I love them.
So, the idea in We3 of these animals being tested and used as military weapons really hit home for me. There’s a little bit of Iron Giant to that. It reminds me of the scene in the Iron Giant where he realises what he’s built for and he doesn’t want to be this weapon of war. We3 also puts these great personalities on the animals, too. The bunny’s just kind of dumb. And the cat is just kind of “eh.” The dog wants to be a good dog. Amazing.
Kotaku: You guys have had a publishing deal with DC for Gears comics for a while. Are you happy with the way they’re being executed? Is there anything you would change if you could?
Bleszinski: I was more heavily involved in the early days. To be honest, I drifted away from it a little bit to do all of my other responsibilities. So I really, I can’t comment on where things have been going as far as the latest direction and things like that.
There are some really interesting themes that are being explored, though. Mike Capps talked about that a little bit in our PAX East panel. There’ve been storylines with women being forced into birthing farms and things like that, and the repercussions that has on characters and the way they think about the world. Good luck exploring that in a shooter. You just can’t. Good luck tastefully dealing with certain issues in a shooter with giant dudes. So that’s why we have the books and graphic novels.
Kotaku: You’re saying that the space in the Gears comics lets you explore the morality of that universe, right?
Kotaku: I have. There you go back to Garth Ennis again.
Bleszinski: [laughs] Well, I love the counter-superhero thing. Now, I’ll be first in line to see The Avengers movie. In Joss We Trust, right? I love Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr is cool. Hulk’s cool. But the traditional superhero, I’ve always been bothered by the square-jawed Superman types because he’s so squeaky clean.
It’s almost like he was cobbled together in an era of propaganda. And so I like the Superman stories like Red Son where Superman actually landed in Soviet Russia. I love the subversive, anti-propaganda stories. And The Boys — as filthy and violent and sexual as it is — explore the idea that power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
If you took an average person who already had ego issues or psychosis issues, and had them try to be this superhero, they would turn into these giant douchebags, and that’s what they do in The Boys. And then of course the backstory of what happened with Butcher. Are you up-to-date?
Kotaku: I’m probably a story arc behind.
Bleszinski: The latest book is basically Butcher’s story about him and the love of his life. It was alluded to earlier that Homelander took something from him. Reading that story, you really understand his fury and his hatred towards Homelander. Those are the characters. I think that would make an amazing HBO mini-series if somebody gets around to it. The whole Herogasm arc I could have dealt without, though.
The sex aspect is interesting, showing sick superheros rampaging through these brothels and things like that. That’s kind of interesting. But with everything they showed, I was finally like, “OK, I get the idea. They’re perverts. Let’s move on.”
Even for me, who loves the perversion that Garth Ennis brings to the table, that was a bit much. I actually had a chance to meet him at Comic-Con a couple years ago.
Kotaku: What was that like?
Bleszinski: When I go to these conventions, the gamers are really excited to say, “Hey, what’s up. Let’s get a photo and sign my Gears stuff.” And I’m happy to do that. But it’s just as amazing to be on the other side of that table and wait 45 minutes to meet somebody. And to get that fanboy moment where I yammer out, “What’s going to happen with Butcher, man?” Inside my head, I’m like, “Oh my God. Really?”
Kotaku: It helps to keep perspective, I imagine.
Bleszinski: Yeah, it’s great. And he’s like, “Who in the hell is this guy? Get the f**k out of here.”