Twenty years later, Fight Club is still arguably Chuck Palahniuk’s most talked about novel. The novel was well-received, if not initially a hit. Then, the 1999 movie adaptation elevated Fight Club to something that was quoted and emulated endlessly. Now, Palahniuk is picking up the story of Fight Club again with the help of artists Cameron Stewart (interiors), David Mack (covers), and Dark Horse Comics, which is about to publish the third issue of the series July 22.
We had the chance to speak with Palahniuk last week, and we absolutely broke the first rule of Fight Club in that exchange, touched on what makes now the right time for a sequel, what makes comics the right medium for this endeavor, and his decision to insert himself into the story as a character. Here’s Palahniuk on Fight Club 2:
What made now the right time for a Fight Club sequel?
Why now? Three factors. First, I’d delivered most of my latest book, a story collection called Make Something Up, so, for the first time in decades, I had the free time to learn a new storytelling form. Second, a friend, the best-selling thriller writer Chelsea Cain invited me to a dinner which also included Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis, and my fellow guests insisted a sequel was a good idea, and that comics were fun, and they offered to hold my hand as I learned the ropes. Third, I had no idea in 1995, when I wrote the original novel, that I’d be asked about it for the rest of my life. Since that was the case, I figured I’d better expand the 185-page story into the past and future and turn it into the kind of mythology that H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King are known for.
And what made comics the right medium?
Why comics? This time, just two reasons. One, the book and the film each had such a following that any sequel in the same form would suffer from direct comparison. Thus, a third medium would give the new story its best chance of achieving its own authority. The second reason is that comics can depict challenging subject matter with enough unreality to make it bearable. My goal is to always exploit the strength of a storytelling form, and movies could never make the images in Fight Club 2 literal enough to record on film. Come on, dying children? Comic spousal abuse? Just the huge overhead costs of film would render these un-filmable. Comics, however, give the audience enough wiggle room to accept the potentially overwhelming elements of an extreme story. And if you need a third reason… I just wanted to be a student, again, and to learn a new skill from accomplished, younger people. The dumbest person in the room learns the most, and I’ve enjoyed being the idiot who’s learned from experts.
Fight Club 2 is the first comic you’ve written. With #3 out soon, and I’m assuming more issues are already complete; what have you learned about the medium so far?
Among many things, I’ve learned how to break physical action into beats of stopped time that still imply ongoing movement. That, and my transitions have gotten more graceful. The first two issues cut-direct so often, like film, for a somewhat choppy feel. But gradually I learned tricks for dissolving from one plot element to another. And, I learned that Cameron Stewart and Scott Allie, the illustrator and editor, have real guts. No matter what I could dream up, they never balked at depicting it. With a book publisher, there’s always this constant negotiation about good taste and possibly offensive subject matter, but the team assembled by Dark Horse has been fearless.
How has your approach been different making this comic as opposed to when you wrote the original novel? On that same note, it’s been two decades since the novel came out. How have you and your worldview changed in those years and did that find its way into the comic in any way?
My approach. Sadly, my approach has changed. In 1995, I was studying intuitively, and, anecdotally, what I didn’t know that social scientists were studying empirically. I was inventing social models and running them to see how they would fail. Now, I’ve recognized that so much of my work was pioneered by Joseph Campbell and Victor Turner, and I’ve started to adopt their abstractions and language, moving away from the raw, dramatized exercises I used to conceive of… and that I documented other, actual people executing. See, really, how pretentious my language has become? I’ve never felt like my own authority, and I’ve begun to borrow authority from dead academics. Me = Lame! With the comic, and lowering myself to the status of a student, I’m trying to find more original, raw intuition and to stop trying to sound like another horny Lewis Hyde groupie. Not that Lewis Hyde is dead, he’s not.
Unless you’re both a writer and artist, comics is a much more collaborative medium than strict prose. How has the process been working with artist Cameron Stewart?
Working with Cameron has been humbling. The first two issues of the series were such a learning experience, I had no idea how much he could depict visually, and how his skill made most of my dialogue unnecessary. Beginning with his first “inks” for #1, I went through all of my scripts and pruned the dialouge down to fragments, which I knew Cameron would place in adjacent panels, so they read as a complete message. Dialogue has always been my enemy; it’s the worst way to further plot. Therefore, I’m thrilled to see how Cameron can keep track of visual landmarks and revisit them so they accrue meaning for the reader. It’s infinitely more exciting for the audience to discover the “reveal” without being told it in language.
I know that Fight Club 2 is a continuation of the novel, not the movie. Is part of that you trying to make Fight Club yours again?
Let’s see… my protagonist must go in search of his son, who has been kidnapped by vast, evil forces who wish to exploit the boy for their own gain. Does that sound like a desperate author trying to reclaim his creation? Is my slip showing that obviously? Would you believe me if I told you that’s not the case?
The third issue confirms what some fans speculated previously: You’re a character within Fight Club. What role does that Chuck Palahniuk play in the comic?
He — I — Chuck thinks he’s in charge, but he’s not. The character would be God, but devolves into comic relief. It’s fairly pathetic, even more pathetic when you consider how I’ve hounded poor Cameron to make me attractive to the point I’m hardly recognizable. What vain, self-absorbed creatures writers are! God bless Cameron Stewart.
In the events of #1 and #2, we find the protagonist from the novel, now known as Sebastian, living a fairly ordinary life. Wife, kid, decent job, house. He hates it all, though. He’s also fighting what he used to be by heavily medicating himself. What is it about this struggle between the suppressed and the expressed that makes it a good focus for this first part of Fight Club 2?
We all develop strategies to dominate other people. Some people choose to be funny. Others to be pretty or smart. Or, snarky. But over time, each strategy has a shrinking rate of reward. The funny guy feels trapped being funny. Or the pretty person makes a desperate attempt to be perceived as smart. I love to join a character’s story at the point where the previous way-of-being is failing dramatically. In Fight Club 2, Sebastian has made due with medication, but he’s forced to take more and more in order to ignore the growing cost of being so detached from his loved ones and from his real, fuller self. Young people recognize that life is about transitioning from one form of power to another. They know their youth, vitality, and beauty won’t last forever, and they must accrue skills, connections, and resources in order to make the shift to new forms of power. This is perhaps the most frightening time of life — being without a mate, a home, or a career — and people do lots of drugs to deaden that fear.
In your short short story Expedition, which is something of a Fight Club prequel, we find out that Tyler Durden isn’t limited to just Sebastian, that it’s something that’s existed for centuries. Like some sort of Lovecraftian horror, but with better hair. How much can we expect you to explore that aspect of Tyler Durden in Fight Club 2?
A deeper discussion of this must wait until #8, but Tyler Durden has been a kind of child-stealer — ruining lives and spiriting away orphans — for generations. This guarantees each generation has fewer parenting skills, and that Tyler himself becomes the only remaining figure of parental authority for a final generation. There, I’ve said too much already. You must see how it works on the page.
In #3, we find Sebastian going back to the Project Mayhem house, searching for his son that Tyler Durden kidnapped. In a way, it’s a return to his origins. How are things going to play out for Sebastian this time around?
Oh, his return goes hunky-dory… not. Project Mayhem is a younger man’s path to fulfillment.
This is more of a little trip down Memory Lane, and a way to hint at what the organization has become, without stooping to too much expository dialogue. Sebastian will suffer, but don’t look for him to make progress. And what’s to say his entire experience in the Mayhem house isn’t scripted by Tyler?
Marla is a much more fleshed-out character in Fight Club 2 than she was in the movie. She’s arguably as much the protagonist as Sebastian is in many instances. What made it essential to have her play this larger role?
People have attached to Marla, and they want to see her in action. In the book, she had more back story, even more so than the narrator, but a movie is only so long. Her character got whittled down a bit. Just for practical reasons, in the comic, she’s bigger and badder because I need the opportunity to “cut” between several interesting aspects of story in order to imply the passage of time. I’ll cut between Sebastian and Marla, between Sebastian and Tyler, and between the real world and the dream world, the present and the past and the future. All of these shifts keep the story more dynamic and engaging. A bolder Marla makes for a bolder story.
With Fight Club getting a comic-book sequel, can we expect any of your other novels to maybe do the same?
Among my other novels, there’s a big push to make Invisible Monsters into a graphic novel, but I’d rather focus on a new script, a FC3. Another best-case scenario would be that the James Franco film of my book, Rant, is released, and I can write a sequel for it as a comic. Through all of this, I keep getting great ideas for short stories, making notes, but setting things aside because my plate is full. The comics world is such a playground compared to literary fiction, and I decided decades ago that I would only write if the process was fun. Working with Cameron and Scott, David Mack, and Dave Stewart has been more fun than I’ve had since junior high school. Thank you, a million times over, to the comics world for letting me join their party.