In "Calexit," the entire blue-leaning state of California has shut itself off from the rest of the United States after a dictatorial, autocratic president orders all immigrants deported. The topicality, the relevance is right there waiting for you with a sledgehammer. You don't have to reach out more than an inch to grasp how writer Matteo Pizzolo and artist Amancay Nahuelpan's limited series published by Black Mask Studios fits into today's political discourse.
And there is nothing wrong with that. With news reports of ill-conceived, often ill-intentioned, government policies and the tweeted ravings of a possibly unhinged commander in chief arriving like blunt-force trauma in a near-constant deluge, it's only fair and right that art in all its forms would strike back with unmitigated force.
That's not to say there isn't subtlety in Pizzolo's all-too-real fantasy (the "what ifs" in the narrative never shy that far from the news cycle). In the end, it's the story of very specific, well-wrought characters attempting to navigate through an America that no longer views them as Americans. It's located and local, a parable that builds up from a valid, often ignored ground-level experience of our country.
With the comic headed to stores this summer, Salon spoke with Pizzolo about where "Calexit" came from, how he obtained a long list of intellectual stars to provide content for the issues and what he wants readers to take away from this particularly on-point dystopian tale.
Obviously, Brexit is an inspiration here, as is the divided state of our country, Donald Trump and so many other real-world issues. That said, I'm wondering how the idea specifically came to you.
Certainly the setup and the concept (and the title!) are inspired by political events in the world at large, but very quickly it becomes a very personal story. It starts out with a family. I just had a baby daughter born while I was writing the comic, so obviously that can’t help but influence it.
So, it opens with a father trying to protect his daughter, Zora, when The State comes looking for her. She’s an immigrant in the United States, in a near-future where all immigrants are hunted down and deported. This father [will] do anything to protect his daughter from Father Rossie (our villain), from The State. Well, he tries. But parents can’t protect their children from the world, the kids have to grow up and fight their own wars. And so the story follows Zora and a smuggler named Jamil, who considers himself strictly a survivor, totally apolitical, he’s not going to resist — and ultimately they change one another.
But thematically . . . I think the core sensibility to "Calexit" actually comes from the California drought, strangely enough. I drive my son to pre-school past the Silver Lake reservoir in L.A., and it’s always a refreshing part of the day to pass a large body of water when you live in an urban environment.
So one day, at the height of drought panic when you’d get hard looks just asking a waiter for a glass of water, I’m driving my son past the Silver Lake reservoir and it’s just completely empty. Just bone dry. They were moving the water for some reason, it’s not like it had all evaporated from the drought, but just seeing the reservoir empty was chilling. Because Los Angeles is not self-sustaining, it’s completely dependent on water and agriculture and energy being piped in from rural and exurb regions.
So thinking about that in the age of Brexit and the age of the Bundy [standoff] and everything feeling so incredibly factionalized in the 2016 election cycle . . . it just doesn’t feel like the center is holding at a time where we’re all increasingly reliant on one another for limited resources. That’s what the characters in the story are dealing with. The story isn’t really about fighting the government or seceding, it’s about taking care of each other when the center doesn’t hold.
Tell me about your own upbringing and experience with the general subject matter discussed in the series.
My mom was a really engaged activist when I was a kid, so some of my earliest memories are of being in a stroller at protest marches. In my interview with Bill Ayers in the back of "Calexit" No. 1 he mentions that the Weather Underground and the activists of that era actually believed they were going to win, that the empire was going to crumble. And that was very much how I was raised, that the activists were going to win: "the ERA is going to be ratified and women will be guaranteed equality," "predatory capitalism will be fixed so the distribution of wealth won’t be so awful," there was this sense that those things were going to happen. I was just a little kid hearing all that. I never really believed in Santa Claus as a kid so I guess the ERA not happening was my version of finding out there’s no Santa.
It was interesting going to the Women’s March with my family earlier this year and there was a moment when I was walking next to my mom and pushing my own kid in a stroller and you realize that change happens slowly, it happens across generations, and just because the marches my mom went on when I was a kid maybe didn’t yield the immediate results she expected doesn’t mean they didn’t matter. The timeline is much longer. And again, that’s why the comic isn’t so much a war story, it’s really about celebrating the spirit of resistance.
On top of Ayers, you've got a good handful of progressive intellectual stars offering up interviews in the back of each of the issues. How did you ask these people for inclusion? What were their initial reactions?
Well, it helps that I was coming to them saying I’d written this story about characters struggling to resist against a fascist state — everyone loves a story of resistance. So, even though it was challenging in some cases to get the conversation started, once they’d read the comic it became much easier, more like “Well I’ll talk to you about politics if you tell me what’s going to happen to Zora!"
But yeah, it’s kind of a funny thing to reach out to people who are out there doing real amazing, constructive political work and asking the question “can I interview you for the back of a comic book called 'Calexit' that’s about California going to war against the U.S. President?” So it’s pretty incredible that they said yes. But I think organizers and activists recognize that the arts play an integral role in cultural change and in helping inspire resistance. So even though I felt a bit ridiculous asking the question, the reactions were super positive and everyone was really curious about the project.
In my head I imagined the supplemental material in the back to be like when I read "Brave New World" as a kid and all I cared about was the characters and the story and how much I loved John, Lenina and Bernard. But then I found "Brave New World Revisited" in the back where Huxley took a non-fiction look at the elements inspiring the world of it. So I was going for something like that — but I’m no Huxley, so I had to go find people way smarter than me to talk about the non-fiction underpinnings. It’s pretty awesome to be writing comics in a time where I can reach out to brilliant people and they think it sounds pretty cool to be interviewed in a comic book.
Actually, it seems there's a lot of progressive buzz around comics in general these days.
We have a tour we’re doing with the book and it’s called the Comics Change The World Tour, which is intended to be hyperbolic in a fun way and I’m sure to some people it can come across as crazy optimistic, but we’re living in a really crazy time for comics. "V For Vendetta" has provided the face for a political uprising, "MARCH" won the National Book Award, "Wonder Woman" is the first movie by a woman director to break $100 million, Marvel and DC are dominating popular culture, and "Walking Dead" has raised awareness of the impending zombie apocalypse. Seems like a good time to be optimistic about the influence comics can have on the world.
There's a lot of apocalyptic dystopias out there in comics, novels, films and TV. What separates yours? What is its distinct quality?
Apocalyptic dystopia is kind’ve just a canvas and we’re all doing very different paintings on that canvas. I think "Calexit" is mainly about the characters and how they survive and treat one another in this awful situation where their city is being controlled by a hostile occupying force sent by their own government. Which is actually how a lot of people all around the country feel right now.
Militarized police is not dystopian fiction. The President has even publicly stated he could deputize the National Guard, so I don’t know if this book is apocalyptic dystopia or somewhere between current events and speculative fiction. Thematically, the idea of the book was to place a fascist overlay onto everyday life. You and me going about our day in a city occupied by fascists. So at one time, that would seem like maybe we’re saying “put on these 'They Live' sunglasses and we’re gonna show you that you actually are living in a fascist state.” But that was before the CEO of Exxon became Secretary of State. If one of the definitions of fascism is the synthesis of corporations and government, then you don’t even need "They Live" sunglasses anymore because no one’s even bothering to hide this stuff.
Also, I think Zora is a unique character who stands out — she's a leader in an armed U.S. resistance movement. She has to make hard choices. There are people willing to sacrifice themselves because they trust that she is doing the right thing and making the smart moves, but of course she’s not a military strategist and in her heart she just wants to either escape Father Rossie, who is relentlessly hunting her down, or she wants to turn the tables and kill him out of revenge for all the suffering he’s caused her. But if she lets that anger be her driving force, then is she really qualified to be leading a resistance?
But I think — and this may sound insane especially because issue No. 1 is pretty bleak — ultimately I think "Calexit" isn’t as grimdark as a lot of apocalyptic dystopias. Even though it can be brutal at times, there are also moments of fun and adventure — we’re following young outlaws after all. Zora and Jamil have a lot of heart, and I hope that shines through the dark lens.
What do you hope people take away from the series?
I know a lot of people are picking this up because it seems like a polemic, and if you want hard-edged dystopia it’s in there, but I hope they are surprised by what they find and become pulled into the story. We’ve just started getting the preview to retailers — and, in comics, retailers are the tastemakers and heartbeat of the industry, they really determine what books find an audience — and there’s been a lot of buzz about the book, enough to get the shops to read it but they don’t take a risk investing in a comic just for buzz, the story has to deliver.
And the response so far has been better than I could have hoped for, the story really seems to be resonating and so the support we’re getting is just far beyond what I expected.
It’s pretty terrifying to make a comic book like this, there’s not a lot of comics that take the kinds of risks we’re taking, so for shops to be backing it with their dollars and their rack space and their word of mouth endorsements, that’s just everything for a comic.
I hope readers fall in love with Zora and Jamil and are inspired by their adventures, inspired to have heart and stay strong and take care of one another and resist. And I’m hopeful that the section in the back might also help point people in the right directions for taking real world actions. Resistance isn’t enough, we have to build better alternatives.
One thing a lot of the interviews in the back focus on is being involved in midterm elections and local elections — even though they're not as glamorous and exciting as Presidential elections, those are winnable battles and there is a lot of power to change your life and the lives of those around you for the better.
I think there’s something to be said for art that celebrates resistance and how that can help build the framework for a culture in its own small way. Like when I was a teenager and would see somebody walk by in a Minor Threat shirt or Bikini Kill shirt or whatever, you just have this silent acknowledgment that you’re on the same team. So, y’know, if you see somebody on the train reading "Calexit," go say hi to them.