Max Bemis on comics, crashing and… Say Anything?
Back in the summer of 2008, Say Anything founder Max Bemis was invited to speak at a panel discussion about Warped Tour held at the Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The panel also featured Kevin Lyman, Epitaph’s Brett Gurewitz and some other punk-scene luminaries, as well as this writer.
Prior to the event, Bemis and said scribe began a spirited chat about life and music. After two minutes, Bemis stopped speaking and said he’d be right back. He didn’t return until three minutes before the panel started. He ditched me to get some shopping done at Meltdown, the go-to place for comics and ephemera. (Sadly, it closed two years ago.) This is how I learned exactly how much Bemis loves comics.
Apparently nobody in Bemis’ circles were particularly shocked to hear he was abandoning music to pursue writing comic books for Marvel three years ago. After being brought on board as a contract writer for the company, he wrote several titles, most notably X-Men: Worst X-Man Ever (“A Curb Your Enthusiasm take on X-Men”) and Moon Knight, which lasted for two years.
Right now, Bemis is working on three comic titles. There’s Savage, which he describes as a story about “a teenage caveman who becomes a social media star but then has to save the world from a bunch of mutated crazy dinosaurs.” The book will be out on the Valiant imprint.
The other project, Heavy (for the Vault company), is both his “definitive title” and incredibly dark. The hero and his wife get murdered, and he must navigate his way through purgatory and back to his wife by murdering bad people in the multiverse. “He’s a time and space cop who enforces karma” is how Bemis explains it. There’s also a brand-new title he’s doing completely DIY. (More on that in a bit.)
Right about now, Bemis could use a couple of more hours in his days. Not only is he currently writing three comic books, but he’s also expecting his fourth child and readying a new EP of music. But before he got himself into this creative rhythm, he had some stuff to work through. His bipolar condition manifested itself again, forcing him to self-medicate. On top of that, he got involved with a shady “life coach” character Bemis thought was going to help him but ended up pushing him further down his dark spiral. If you think that sounds like the potential for a great comic, well, Bemis likes how you roll.
Just like he did with Say Anything, Bemis’ super-charged work ethic and need to be creative are some serious alpha-male traits. He elaborated on all that and his possible return to making music. Hell, we’re getting exhausted just reading about it…
I knew you were a comics fan after you stood me up at the Guitar Center Warped Tour panel in 2008. How long have you been obsessing over them?
[Laughs.] Right! I’ve always been a massive fan. I started reading them when I was a kid. But when I was 20, 21, I really dove back in on them heavily. They really got me through about 15 years of my life. They still get me through each day. They’re probably my greatest love outside of music. I think because I’m writing them, I’m reading them less. But that’s only because I’ve got a million things going on. I wish I could be reading them all the time and still living a normal life. But I can’t.
Do you have more records than comics?
Well, now it’s all digital with Spotify, so I don’t really have records anymore. When I collected comics physically, I got them as collections instead of single issues. But I was paying more attention to what was going on with comics than I did with music. I was pretty clued in with music: It was hard for me up until a couple [of] years ago to listen to music just for fun.
Honestly: Aren’t digital comics a drag compared to the physical medium?
You know what? I thought so. But it’s so much better. It’s the difference between CDs and Spotify or iTunes. For me, it crossed over into being better when the presentation of the comics got better. They’re in 4K [resolution], and they look better, and they’re more fun for me to read digitally. That’s the only thing that matters for me. It’s thrilling: I have a huge digital library that’s bigger than when I had a huge physical library of comics. It’s way cheaper, and whenever I would go on tour, I would take up an entire bay on the bus with these laboriously packed trade paperbacks and hardcovers. Now that I’m a dad and I have my things to worry about, [the digital format] keeps me reading them. When people ask me, “How should I buy your comics?,” I actually tell them digital now.
Walk me through you leaving music and ending up at Marvel. Were you disenchanted with music or…
Things didn’t get to the point of being really disenchanted with music until I called it quits on Say Anything or put it on hiatus or whatever hell term you want to put on it. I was always really happy intensely making music. My problem was I didn’t give up my passion for music for writing comics; they just happened at the same time. Plus, being a dad is a really demanding lifestyle.
Only in the past two years have I completely shunned a music industry lifestyle in order to dive into comics completely. I’m not working with Marvel currently. I think it may continue in the future. But I needed to take a break. Let me sum it up like this: The story I’ve been most known for writing is Moon Knight. That book did really well critically, and then toward the end, I totally lost it, bipolar-wise.
What’s funny was it was literally the exact same situation I went through with ...Is A Real Boy—except it was comics. It was my first big project [in that realm], and there was big pressure on me. I started smoking pot, something I hadn’t done in 10 years. I was having my son, my third kid. All of these confluences happened. And then I put it all into Moon Knight. I had to take a break because that was when Say Anything broke up. It all happened at the same time, and I had to take half-a-year away from writing comics, and now I’m back to writing three books a month.
Three different books a month? That’s terrifying.
No! It’s heavenly, actually. It’s way easier than being a touring musician. It’s common practice: Some of my favorite writers write five or six books a month. That’s normal: It’s how you make a living, and it’s fun. I’m at that point in my life where although I love doing music, who knows where it’s going to lead? But I vastly prefer the experience of being at home in bed, with my kids running around, and I just imagine stuff. It’s certainly less visceral than performing or being in the studio.
I feel like this spoiled kid because it’s what I really wanted to do before I got into music. I really got to live that out intensely. And that’s why I considered our last record [Oliver Appropriate] a bookend to ...Is A Real Boy. Not only was the subject matter the same, but I ended up in the same state. I went from burning myself out to having a career that resulted from burning myself out to hovering between healthy and unhealthy lifestyles and falling in love in a very exciting life. Then I burned out again.
You use the term “burned out.” Exactly how bad did it get?
It started with the collapse of the music industry, in terms of everyone was making less money. Major labels stopped giving you much money. Publishers stopped giving you much money. Song Shop was what I came up with, and it supported me for a long time. Then I started to have kids. That, plus comic writing. Plus touring. Plus recording is a lot. I was expecting my third kid, Charlie while working on Moon Knight, my most important comic.
I could not do it all. I was exhausted. That’s when I went through a drug thing, which I haven’t gone through in a long time. And for me, I’m not that druggy of a drugger. [Laughs.] Speedy stuff, then smoking pot. Pot sends me off the rails. I was using that to get through Song Shop. I remember finishing Song Shop and being residually high on the morning that Charlie was born. Sad but true. I stumbled out the studio [and] into my house, and he was born in our house an hour later.
I kept going with the smoking a few months after, and that’s when a lot of weird stuff started to happen to me. There were a lot of political changes at Marvel, which was a little weird. I still love everyone there, but the editor in chief changed over there. Band-wise, we were starting to burn out. Many inter-band issues going on in Say Anything.
The most important thing that happened—which I haven’t talked about yet—is that I got into this toxic friendship with a fellow professional. I was used to people hand-holding me when I’m manic. Throughout all those Say Anything experiences, managers or label people or my family would come in and help me. “Let’s get Max to the hospital! Chill Max out!” People were not enabling me during my career, thank God.
But this dude, he was equally crazy. And he came into my life. The best comparison I can make is the movie The Master. He’s a very weird, charismatic figure who came from a powerful background but was also losing his mind. We had a tete-a-tete. I think he was trying to help me in some bizarre way, but it was dark, and he did a very bad job of it and drove me way crazier. I never had somebody make me worse. Right in the middle of Moon Knight, right when Say Anything broke up and right when Oliver Appropriate came out.
What was he? A mental health professional? A manager type?
I don’t want to narc him out and name him. He has one of those vague jobs in the entertainment industry: It’s like a life coach, almost a paid guru/assistant. The way I would describe [the dynamic] would be a guy who is clearly losing his mind—me, the bipolar guy—and a guy who is crazy and has some kind of personality thing and is probably on a lot of drugs and is losing his mind but doesn’t really know it. These two people discover each other, and he just took over my life for a while. And it took me months to get rid of him.
One of the things I haven’t discussed up until now was that he refused to listen to Say Anything. He actually liked me as a writer, and that’s the context that I met him [in]. [adopts sneering tone] “Fuck emo. That’s bullshit. You need to concentrate on writing.” I don’t know if we would have called Say Anything off if it wasn’t for that whole thing. It would’ve happened anyway. I just don’t think it would’ve happened at that moment. He encouraged me to be not good in all these areas, whether it was Marvel or toward my label. Plus, I’m actually losing it at the time. So that happened, and it really derailed my life.
I went into a depression for six months, right as my son was being a baby. I couldn’t talk on the phone to anyone. I wouldn’t leave my bed. I would cry all day. It wasn’t all this guy’s fault. I take full responsibility. Again, it was the first time in my life where someone could come in and actually make that worse. [Laughs.] There are parts in Moon Knight where I am directly dealing with that situation.
I would call him out if I didn’t feel bad for him. I definitely don’t want to ruin this guy’s life, because there’s a part of him that I feel is good. That and the mental health struggle at the same time were the biggest thing I’d been through since I was 19 and ...Is A Real Boy.
I have to ask if life imitates art and if you’re going to use this experience in your next comics projects.
One of the comics that’s coming out now is about an indie-rock singer who is retiring and resembles a caricature of me. He abducts a group of young boys and brings them to his summer camp where he tries to brainwash them. And a lot of that comes from my experience of what I felt was a mild brainwashing. That’s one of the comics I have coming out that’s called Do Well Camp. The book has been in the works for the first year-and-a-half, and we’ve finished the first volume. We’re trying to figure out the best way to put it out.
These days, there’s a huge bond between music fans and comics. It’s nothing particularly new: I do remember buying post-punk recs and comics such as Flaming Carrot and Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman. But the connection seems so much stronger than ever before.
There are two big connections in the crossover of punks and comic fans. They’re both outsider art to some degree. This realm of punk is all about people who don’t fit in. Think about My Chemical Romance: That’s the “I don’t fit in” band. And being a comic fan is saying, “I don’t fit in.” And so is Say Anything. Punk and nerd culture is now in the mainstream.
You seem like you’ve got your year planned out for you. I’ll ask anyway: Are you going to make another record anytime soon?
Yes! I plan to have a solo career. Next month, I will start tracking an EP.
Can’t wait to see the “formerly of Say Anything” stickers on the front jacket.
Let’s be honest: There’s no difference. It’s going to be a different project. Say Anything were always meta, had its own intentions and was its own beast, really. That’s why there’s two whole records written in character. It’s the story of being in a band, really. And now I just wanna write music. That doesn’t mean I’m ditching the sardonic thing: I don’t want to make pop-punk music right now. But I’m not saying it will never happen, because I just think that’s the most pretentious thing ever.
Music is not the all-consuming obsession. But if solo work would start to pick up, I would take it just as seriously [as Say Anything]. It’s not going to be a throw-away thing. I’m just not going to let it destroy my life. You won’t see me chugging tequila and Red Bull onstage and dancing around.
[Laughs.] When Say Anything were being managed by a financial company, they had set passwords for me [for my accounts]. And they said to me, “Here is your password: TequilaAndRedBull1.” [Laughs.] Somebody there knew that!
You can see a preview on the upcoming Savage below.