(Courtesy of TKO Studios)
In an exclusive interview with Villain Media, writer Joshua Dysart discusses the alluring beach and mystery behind Goodnight Paradise (TKO Studios). Sit back and enjoy our in-discussion as we take a look behind the sun and surf of Venice Beach, California.
After finding the body of a murdered teenage runaway, a homeless man vows to bring her killer to justice.
With the first issue available for free from TKO Studios, Joshua Dysart opens up about how Goodnight Paradise came about. We also talk about his whip-smart social commentary running throughout the narrative. So join us as Dysart and I dive into the art of writing.
Villain Media: Tell me how Goodnight Paradise came about. The story has a film/surfer noirish vibe that resonates particularly from Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice.
Joshua Dysart: You’re not the first to say that. I don’t mean to question anyone’s personal relationship to the material, but honestly, I’m not that familiar with Inherent Vice. I didn’t intentionally take any inspiration from the film and I haven’t read the novel. I guess people are saying that because of the location? There’s a single conversation with a surfer at the public showers in our book, but that’s not Eddie’s world. He very rarely goes near the water, and surf culture isn’t represented very much at in the story.
Goodnight Paradise came about from my seventeen years of living on the beach in Venice, California, and the friendships I built with the houseless community there; many of them transient, but others permanent residents. Everything in the book is based, to a greater or lesser degree, on some true event that I witnessed or heard about secondhand, including the murder that’s central to the story. In fact, 18 Breeze Ave., the house that Eddie sleeps on the side of, was my actual house for those seventeen years. It looked just like it does in the comic and we really did have a house-less man sleeping on the side of it for a while. I ended up having to defend his right to squat there to the other tenants and eventually he was kicked out. Years later, I saw him being put into the back of an ambulance out on Ocean Front — what we call “The Boardwalk” though it’s not even remotely a boardwalk — and I never saw him again. I assume he’s dead. He spent his whole life on the beach. I saw him everyday, so when I stopped seeing him I came to believe the worst.
It’s those kinds of stories, and I have a million of them, that were the inspirations for Goodnight Paradise.
Villain Media: Tell me about Eddie, the homeless man and the story’s protagonist. Because of his drunkenness, I felt Eddie was more of an unreliable narrator as he stumbles upon a murder.
JD: Yes, Eddie is an unreliable narrator. He’s not the actual narrator of the story, but his personal deductions are absolutely suspect, and he makes mistakes. Eddie is bipolar and self-medicates with alcohol. So as the story goes, and we see the idea of the murder take hold of him, we see Eddie cycle through a manic episode. In this stage of his manic-depressive cycle, he’s prone to irritability and euphoria, but it’s also this manic drive that gives him the agency to follow his own deductions in the first place. At the end of the book, Eddie is entering the “crash” of this cycle, and is in for a pretty deep period of depression after the last page of our book.
And then there’s Eddie’s son, and what the full scope of what Eddie’s addiction has wrought on their relationship. The arrival of Eddie’s son in Venice after sixteen years and how it drives Eddie’s motivations to solve the murder is a kind of ghost connection buried in the narrative, left open to interpretation, but the two are absolutely, inseparably, linked.
VM: Tell me about the social commentary within the narrative, which dives into class division and gentrification.
JD: It’s a murder mystery because it’s ultimately about the death of economic diversity, how that translates to the death of community, and how that death stops being a metaphor and begins to be a real part of the American experience when it comes to the most socially vulnerable among us.
As wealth gathers in the hands of fewer and fewer people and is extracted out of communities by corporatism and other engines of wealth aggregation, we increasingly see the displacement of marginalized populations.
A perfect example of a community killer is AirBnB and other temporary rental services. These kinds of tech companies rush to occupy the consumer space before they can be regulated (a favorite tactic of tech – beat community standards regulations to the market with the help of massive tax breaks from city and state governments). There are now over a thousand temp rentals in the two mile by two mile area that makes up Venice. This decreases the permanent population of the community and so shrinks its voter base, which is how a community regulates and defines its values. This is happening all over the United States, and temp. rentals are just a single part of the gentrification process. In Venice in particular, and we talk about this in the book, another destructive driver was the arrival of the tech company behind Snapchat. They purchased large amounts of property in Venice, some of which was dedicated to housing, and blatantly broke zoning laws, stressing the infrastructure of the small community tremendously. All because they were too “cool” to move to one of the many designated office parks in Los Angeles that are designed to absorb and house massive institutions like Snap. I won’t even get into how flooding a community with thousands of high paid tech employees all at once completely destroys the economic accessibility in the area.
This type of gentrification pushes the lower middle class out of the communities they initially established over the course of generations to make room for a new wealth class. This decreases economic diversity in these communities, and a decrease in economic diversity has been proven to hobble generational upward mobility. It’s just another way to institutionalize poverty.
I witnessed that happening in Venice, and, in fact, my wife and I were pushed out of our home, where I had lived for seventeen years, by illegal AirBnBs while I was in the middle of writing Goodnight Paradise. As we looked around to find a new home we found that communities in our price range were places where we would then become the gentrifier. My wife and I aren’t the poorest of Americans, this kind of cycle doesn’t impact us as heavily as it does others, but we had to actively work to not become part of the problem, to not move in to an area that was losing its individualism and soul to middle class migration.
It’s a chain of events that ends up punishing and displacing the poor, whether they live on the beach, or New Orleans, or San Francisco, or Brooklyn, or some town we’ve never heard of. Eventually the domino effect of gentrification is going to harm the lowest paid Americans who have a very limited social net. In turn, once discarded, they actually become the economic burden of the state to a degree that is far more costly than providing a robust social net would ever be.
But economics isn’t the only factor. Drug addiction, lack of a social net, and mental illness also all play a part in a complex equation. Our current homeless epidemic is the result of America’s war on drugs, our defunding of mental health programs, or inability to see the cost benefit of social programs, and a press by corporations and the politicians they own to equate corporate wealth gains with Main Street economics.
But look, Goodnight Paradise isn’t a social screed, or a preachy bit of didacticism. I hope it’s a clear and balanced lens on a culture and a place, with a fun, dark, character-driven murder mystery at the heart of it.
VM: Tell me about working with artist Alberto Ponticelli. Ponticelli captures these beautiful wide shots of the beachfront and captivating shots of urban homelessness.
JD: Alberto and I have been working together for more than a decade now. No one is better at capturing place and time more accurately while still maintaining his own personal style as a cartoonist. He’s been attached to this project for as long as I’ve been thinking about it, and when we finally got the green light from TKO, he flew out here to California and stayed with me in Venice Beach. We engaged with the houseless population and then spent time with members of an organization called Poverty Matters to get more access to people living in downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
I’ve always wanted to have Alberto on the research trips with me for our past projects in Acholiland, Iraqi Kurdistan, and South Sudan; but this is first time he was able to see firsthand the patch of ground and look into the eyes of the people we were making comics about. Our body of work is a humanist act, and I think the added dimension of Alberto being there shows.
Alberto is my brother, my friend, and my collaborator. He’s drawn all the most important projects of my career. I’m really fortunate to have him in my life.
VM: Tell me about working with colorist Giulia Brusco. The colors stand out because it’s a crime tale where the setting is always sunny and near the water.
JD: She’s absolutely amazing! It was wonderful working with her. I didn’t want to use captions too much, and certainly not to express time and place throughout the book. I felt they detracted from the social realism of the material. But that meant that Giulia and Alberto had to work out a visual language that would separate time and memory from the “present” in the comic.
Since it’s ultimately a detective story, memory, recollection, and the revealing of past events all played a huge part in our narrative. She did a fantastic job working with Alberto to help establish a visual language that let the reader know where we were in our timeline. It was a joy having those pages come in from Giulia. And she really took on the project as her own too, interpreting it in her way and discussing the story with us.
Before this I was in the monthly comic grind for a bit, and that’s pretty much just an assembly line. It’s almost impossible to work as a completely unified team building a collective vision on a monthly comic book. We got to do that here and it was lovely.
VM: Tell me about TKO Studios. I love that readers can pick out the first issue, which available for free digital download. They can also binge-read the entire Goodnight Paradise series in digital or print.
JD: I’m very lucky to be part of the first wave of TKO books. First, our material sits alongside one of my favorite writers, Garth Ennis. Secondly, TKO let me tell this story the way I wanted to tell it. Tze Chun, the publisher of TKO and writer of 7 Deadly sins and Fearsome Doctor Fang, really allowed us the freedom to make the book our way. Tze contributed a lot of welcomed notes and they always made the work better.
I also want to mention the outstanding Sebastian Girner, our editor; Steve Wands, letterer; and Jared K. Fletcher, the designer for all the TKO books. The whole thing was a fantastic experience. I hope the company thrives and helps to shift the industry towards a more sustainable future and even more diverse stories.
VM: How did Goodnight Paradise change you as a storyteller?
JD: The issue of displaced humanity has been central to a lot of my work, going all the way back to my Unknown Soldier days, but this was the first time I’ve turned that lens on my own community. I suppose there’s a richness of character and general detail that comes from the fact that this is pulled from more than a decade of material and thought on the subject and the place.
For Unknown Soldier and Living Level-3, I spent a finite amount of time doing research in places that were incredibly culturally divergent from my own. Two months in a new place, amongst a new culture, does not make one an expert, and so there was a great struggle to tell those stories in ways that didn’t do more representational harm than good.
But I do feel like an expert, of sorts, on Venice Beach, and I’ve known a lot of house-less people on a deep, personal level in my life. I also come from a family of addiction and mental illness. I know this world more than any other world I’ve ever tried to fictionalize. This world and these people live in my bones. And so writing Goodnight Paradise wasn’t a struggle in the same way my other social realism work has been. Instead it is an almost spiritual transmission of a place and a people from me, from us, to the reader.
I don’t know if it changed me as a storyteller, but there’s a certain personal victory in finally being able to tell stories about my own community. I guess it’s more authentic to say it revealed a part of me as a storyteller more than it changed me as a storyteller.
VM: What are you working on now?
JD: Lots of stuff! But I’m mostly just going to give you vague details for now. I’m in talks with some friends for something new and bold, that’s all I can say about that. Apart from that, there’ll be an announcement very soon about a new original graphic novel I’ve written for an absolutely amazing artist. We’re in the final contract phase with a publisher now. That’ll be a sprawling industrial fantasy epic.
I’m developing two really wild projects for myself. Hard projects to cast artists on and to get made because they’re so unique, but I think it’s time I started following my own true voice. Who knows how long that work will take to get out into the world, but I’m dedicated to making it happen.
I have a pitch for a horror fantasy book we’re about to go live with soon. Two artists I’ve always wanted to work with are attached, both Vertigo guys from the classic era.
And my next Valiant book, The Life and Death of Toyo Harada, will be dropping in March. That’s going to be pretty epic.
There’s always new material coming!
[Writer’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity. Links are highlighted in bold.]