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Talking comics, politics, and ‘Planet of the Nerds’ with AHOY’s Paul Constant

The longtime politics writer takes a crack at his first full-length comic.

What happens when stereotypical ’80s jocks find themselves transported to 2019? Does a new era of nerdery spell doom for they hyper-masculine caricatures? And will the mullet still prove an acceptable hairstyle? Writer Paul Constant tackles these questions in more in his new series with AHOY, Planet of the Nerds. Before it debuts in the coming months, we spoke with Constant about writing the book, politics, nostalgia, and much more.

AiPT: This is your first foray into writing full-length comics. How does it feel to produce your own comic book at this stage in your writing career?

PC: I’m not going to lie — it feels pretty damn great! I’ve had a very lucky life as a professional writer. I’ve gotten to interview all kinds of smart and interesting people and cover presidential campaigns and review books and movies. But if you asked me when I was a kid what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d tell you that I wanted to be a comic book writer. 

I love journalism and criticism, but for me there is no purer thrill than the collaboration of comics. Waking up to freshly drawn Planet Of The Nerds pages from Alan Robinson in my inbox was a delight. Alan somehow managed to both capture everything that was in my script — from physical descriptions of locations to the tiniest emotional nuances — and add whole new layers of depth to the story that I didn’t even anticipate. To me, that’s the joy of comics: somehow the collaboration between Alan and I is greater than the sum of its parts. 

And then when the whole book comes together — when Felipe Sobreiro’s brilliant colors are added, along with the backup stories spotlighting individual characters drawn by Randy Elliott — it’s so much better than what I created on my own. The world takes on a depth that I couldn’t have imagined. It almost feels like magic.

AiPT: You had previously contributed some extras to The Wrong Earth, what were the differences in writing shorter pieces to full comics like POTN?

PC: When AHOY editor-in-chief Tom Peyer approved my pitch for POTN, he wanted me to get a feel for writing comics, and so he suggested that I write some shorter scripts for The Wrong Earth. That was the best learning experience I could’ve hoped for! I paid homage to the 1950s comics that I’ve always loved, and I got to work with phenomenal artists like Gary Erskine and Frank Cammuso on a wonderful set of characters created by Tom and Jamal Igle. 

I enjoy writing shorter comics because they’re pure bliss. It’s all the good stuff and none of the filler. You just dive in, tell the story, and get out. But part of the reason I love comics is that they’re practically the only serialized print storytelling media left. I love cliffhangers and character development and all the stuff that you get when the story is too large to tell all at once, and I love that month-long wait in between issues. It’s the best kind of agony.

So having five issues — that’s 100 pages of main story, along with 35 pages of backup stories featuring the same characters — felt luxurious. It’s nice to be able to study the characters, to really put them through the wringer, and see what happens. The characters have more space to surprise you, and the story heads down some interesting paths that you didn’t originally predict. I was intimidated at first by the thought of filling five whole issues, but now I hope I get the opportunity to tell some stories that stretch out over ten or twenty or even fifty issues.

AiPT: You come from a background of strong political writing, which seems very different from the tone of POTN. Is there much overlap in the writing process or is the book an escape from the political world?

PC: I tend to think that everything is political, in one way or another — not to say the characters in POTN will pause the story to discuss international trade policy or anything like that. But when you boil politics down to its most basic definition, it’s about how human beings live together in large groups without devolving into roving mobs of lawless cannibals. I think most fiction is interested in that problem, too: how to be a human being in a world full of human beings.

So the mechanics of writing about the minimum wage, or covering a presidential campaign, is very different than the mechanics of writing a page of comics. But I think the questions are the same. Do we have a responsibility to each other? What happens when someone ignores or defies the social contract? How do we work together to make tomorrow better than yesterday?

But you should also be able to just enjoy POTN as pure comics entertainment. My goal is to write comics in the style of Steve Gerber, the creator of Howard the Duck. His comics were incredibly entertaining when I first read them when I was 8 or 9 — I could appreciate them on a very surface level as just great fun. But as I got older and became obsessed with political history, I could dig a little deeper and realize that he was satirizing a lot of very real and very raw political events that were unfolding in the world of the 1970s. Both of those levels are valid; there’s no right or wrong way to read a Steve Gerber comic book. I’m certainly no Gerber, but I hope that POTN can work both as a cultural satire and as a fun action/adventure comic.

AiPT: We’ve seen a lot of ’80s nostalgia over the past couple of years but this is a fresh take. What brought about the fish-out-of-water approach to the ’80s nostalgia ‘genre’?

PC: I’m not much of a nostalgia guy, and I’ve been a little alarmed to see my generation start to look back on their childhood through rose-colored glasses. I mean, sure, I loved Silverhawks and Secret Wars and all my other childhood entertainments, and I think back fondly on them all. 

But I also think that it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect past, a time when things were easier or better. (And let’s be clear: if you were gay, or a woman in a traditionally male job, or virtually any race but white, the 1980s in America probably wasn’t so great to begin with.) By freezing part of the 1980s in this story and thawing it out in the modern day, we have a really clear way to examine the 1980s and to compare it to the present.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, pop culture experienced a round of 1950s nostalgia. There was a rockabilly revival fronted by that band The Stray Cats, and everyone pined for the ’50s as a simpler time. Back to the Future was doing the same kind of work that we’re doing in POTN, with about the same 30-year time difference for the main characters. It’s very natural to want to place the past in context, to think about where we’ve been so we can get a better handle on where we’re going.

AiPT: The ending hints at the rise of nerd culture, is this something that interests you as a political and literature writer?

PC: Oh, totally. I’ve always been a nerd. I always identified with the nerdy characters in TV shows and movies. Donatello was my favorite Ninja Turtle, Linus was my favorite Peanuts character. But part of the appeal of being a nerd was that we were the underdogs, the people who had to work harder to be accepted by society. That is definitely not the case anymore. In fact, I’d argue that being a nerd is kind of a cultural default now. When you meet someone, you assume that they’re probably nerdy about something, be it fantasy football or furry raves or anime. Barack Obama read Spider-Man comics, for God’s sake — how mainstream can nerdom get?

But it seems like we still talk about nerds in the very old-fashioned way that was established in the 1980s. Nerds are still considered the underdogs, even though I’d be willing to bet that a majority of the population considers themselves nerds. And we’re seeing pockets nerd culture get pretty toxic online, too: dudes trying to hound young women and people of color out of subcultures, or people saying some pretty atrocious, hateful things about Star Wars movies. I don’t know how you can call yourself a comic book fan when your claim to fame is ripping up comics you don’t like on YouTube, you know? 

At the same time, there’s never been a better time to be a nerd. if you’d told me when I was ten that I’d live to see Thanos throw a moon at the Avengers in a live-action, big-budget movie, I would have probably fainted from excitement. I can find someone online who shares my affinity for Matter-Eater Lad in two minutes flat, and we could quickly form a community online of like-minded Tenzil Kem fans. It is beyond cool.

All of these things are true. So what does it all mean? I hope POTN can start a conversation about that. Or, if you’re not interested in having that conversation, that’s cool, too; I hope you’ll enjoy this fun and beautifully illustrated adventure comic about three time-traveling high schoolers trying to make their way in the far-flung future of 2019. Either way, if you give this book a shot, I thank you for your time and I can’t wait to hear what you think.

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