A Conversation with Sam Thielman about Comics, Movies, Evangelical Culture, Charlie Brown & Fight Club

Sam Thielman is everywhere, you just don’t know it.

A Conversation with Sam Thielman about Comics, Movies, Evangelical Culture, Charlie Brown & Fight Club

Introducing Sam Thielman

Sam Thielman is everywhere, you just don’t know it. I mean, I keep discovering him new places. I might stumble upon his take on Lord of the Rings, or find him editing Spencer Ackerman’s Forever Wars, Jonathan Katz’s The Racket, or Rana Ayyub. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his powerful essays outlining the dangers trans kids face and what conservative churches mean when they claim to “protect” children. His words are very necessary at a time when a number of voices downplay extremism in order to have access to power or appear neutral.

He’s been an amazing presence on Twitter, talking about film and comics, and I wanted to ask him more about those. The conversation below has been edited for length, clarity, and one question where I wanted to ask about everything and tripped over my own words. If you find the ending a bit abrupt, so do I. I wasn’t sure how to close a conversation from which I learned so much.

Q: Your twitter is doing a fantastic job of introducing all of us to amazing comics and their creators. How did you get into comics? I remember being into them in the early 90's when there was a collectibles craze: Batman getting broken, Superman dying, Cable and all the Rob Liefeld projects. I had no idea how to appreciate any of it, other than being blown away by the art. I was just caught between misery in middle school and the hope that high school couldn't come too soon.

A: I remember that period (and the attendant high school misery—class of 2000 represent!) very well. I was already deep into comics by then. I was kind of a sad kid and my dad had spent a year living in Scotland with my grandfather (whose job as a preacher took him there) and grandmother, and Dad amassed a really wonderful collection of Tintin and Asterix comics that he read to me when I was a little boy. Like you, the first thing I noticed was the gorgeous art—the rocket ship in Destination Moon is one of my favorite things still—and wanted to know how to read the captions so I could pore over them at my leisure. They were really the first things I read and though some of the puns in the Asterix books were lost on me (there are characters named Whosmoralsarelastix and Vitalstatistix and an English chieftain called Mykingdomforanos, I believe. I wouldn’t understand that last joke until I read Richard III in college), I loved looking at them and learned what I liked early. We also grew up in the last bloom of syndicated newspaper comics—Charles Schulz’s brilliant minimalism had led to more and more cartoons crammed on the newspaper page, but there was still stuff like Bloom County, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes on which I imprinted like a baby chicken. I found all the X-Men stuff in the 1990’s hard to follow, and my mother bought me a birthday subscription to the Dan Jurgens Superman right after the death-and-return storyline, which was a little weird because DC had four concurrent Superman books and ran them essentially as a weekly serial, so I was only getting every fourth chapter of the ongoing story. But I loved it. When high school got too grim I tended to wander over to the local comic-book shop or the big antique mall where somebody was selling singles out of his long-boxes on consignment. As a fifth-grader, which was a really bad school year for me, I discovered Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing, which quickly became my favorite comic book, and I spent a lot of my spare time trying to track down back issues (DC has since reprinted the entire run, but back then all you could get from the library was the first year-ish, up through the infamous plant sex story). Long answer! Next question!

Q: We should probably take a moment to talk about that rocket in the Tintin adventure Destination Moon. It's very striking, colored red with red checkers. It doesn't look bulky, but is a sleek rocket with detailed plans in the comic explaining all the chambers. And those blueprints foreshadow what's to come in the story, as they emphasize it being a large rocket with a small crew. There's a narrative payoff for obsessing over them.

I'm also really blown away that you noticed Schultz's minimalism at a young age. I had to read Bill Watterson on Peanuts in my 30's to understand what was going on. The minimal, nervous line sketching out these very distinct personalities. A squiggle showing intense frustration, a giant half circle on an up-turned head bliss. These little people, as I think Schultz wanted to call them, with almost crushing anxieties and problems. Charlie Brown can't ever win; the Red Baron shoots the doghouse full of holes; Sally can't get Schroeder's attention, not ever; Linus is a philosopher/theologian who needs a security blanket.

I feel weird turning the conversation to film, but I need to ask: how did you get into movies? Did that actually happen through youth ministry?

A: I think the thing that made me notice how simple Schulz’s drawings were was trying to copy them. You’d put a parenthesis next to someone’s eye and think “wow, yeah, he DOES look stressed out.”

As for movies, ha, no, definitely not a youth ministry thing. I think people underestimate how little there is to do in some parts of the US if you’re not outdoorsy. If you want to find a person with an absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of 1940s films noir, I recommend trawling comic book stores in Western North Carolina. When I was a kid we would rent VHSes from the local library and my sister and I watched a ton of AMC, which ran unedited noirs and spaghetti westerns without ads. Those were my main avenues of movie consumption until college. I was not allowed to go to movies that had anything even approaching sexual content in them while I lived with my parents—I remember polling my friends who had seen the first Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible about whether there was any nudity so I could truthfully tell my parents it was okay to let me go (which they did)—and when I got to college I had a hard time fitting in until I found a few kids in the theater department who just loved to watch movies all the time. So every night we’d watch something our parents would not have let us see (I loved and still love Boogie Nights and Fight Club) and that became our shared language and the basis of a lot of good friendships.

That was a strange time for me, but, I think, a very usual time for a lot of young men, when you’re refining your tastes and start exploring the outer limits not of what you’re allowed to do but of what you personally find acceptable. I got really into Chuck Palahniuk—I had read Fight Club secretly because I wasn’t allowed to watch it, something I often did—and decided (wrongly) that he as a transgressive genius, and I read Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher with an enthusiasm I find pretty embarrassing now (I still think they’re both very interesting artists and I think I own the last commissioned sketch Steve ever did, but that book has a lot of really unpleasant, unreconstructed stuff in it that they both moved away from pretty quickly). I thought American Beauty was a transcendent work about the displacement of straight white men and not just a shitty movie with some good cinematography.

In a lot of ways I’m very grateful that I grew in a moment before social media and didn’t have the option to express all this dumb shit publicly before I grew out of it. That phase, which, again, I think a lot of young men go through, has been so thoroughly weaponized by online racists and misogynists who can’t wait to shackle you to them with every awful thing you’ve ever said. I’m very lucky I made friends with good and decent women and got embarrassed about my younger stupidity before I had shouted it from the rooftops in the way that young guys are encouraged to do now. I am definitely someone who likes stuff that takes place way, way out on the borders of good taste, but there’s a kind of meanness I found really satisfying as a younger guy with a lot of sexual frustration and evangelical guilt pingponging around in his head. I know it’s a cliche to say all those idiots just need to get laid but that was definitely the problem with me. I still love David Cronenberg’s early movies and a lot of giallo films but mostly because they seem to be honestly exploring the directors’ hangups, not because they’re preaching the truth.

Photo by Dev / Unsplash

Q: I hear you. High school worked for me—I got treated with respect, something I hadn't felt before—so I started thinking "Why don't people love America enough?" in college. High school was middle class and Catholic, and the story of Irish and Italian immigrant success seemed obvious (and was not so subtly pushed) at the time. College was both mind-blowing and disorienting. My tastes were expanding, but they didn't adjust as well as they could have. I think you're describing something similar with your tastes. Taste has to meet reality, actual people with actual problems and feelings.

For me, it took at least a decade. One thing about culture war stupidity is how immersive it is. It has very sneaky ways of making sure one stays trapped. I think about Kristin Du Mez's Jesus and John Wayne, and how that association is ubiquitous but also makes it so hard to appreciate anything that isn't traditional manliness or talk to people who are going through anything different. You just kinda train yourself to see deviance and have no idea what you're missing.

I'm curious to hear what were gems from your younger days that you recognize as gems now. I loved TNG growing up, only liked it for nostalgia in college, and now am thinking "holy, this is electric" nowadays. Something like that episode where Picard can't figure out that the Starfleet admiral has it out for Worf because he's Klingon—how many excuses Picard is internally making for her, for the system, for his own desire to trust—hits hard, whereas before I was apt to dismiss it as cliche.

A: Oh man, that’s a GREAT question. I think those Moore/Bissette/Totleben Swamp Thing comics really hold up; there’s an issue set mostly in Hell where an old Jack Kirby character called The Demon speaks to our hero in Shakespearean quatrains, and inker John Totleben’s feathering is so good that his pages look like a Dore woodcut much of the time. I also got really into Neil Gaiman in high school, a writer who is, I think, maybe the best off-ramp evangelicals have from the kind of artistic poverty the church foments, because of his obvious love of CS Lewis and his completely unapologetic racial and LGBT inclusivity. It’s a good reminder that Lewis was at his best when he was most syncretic; The Sandman is wonderful when you’re a moody teenage boy or girl, and I reread it a few years ago when our son was born and I needed to stay awake and was delighted to find that it’s still wonderful. Anyway I really liked his larky novel Neverwhere and his short story collections, and I still track down everything he and Moore write. I love It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie about an abusive, violent alcoholic who doesn’t know how good he has it. I like Tintin but there’s a lot I didn’t recognize as horrifically racist; that’s true across comics, sadly. The history of caricature is necessarily the history of ethnic caricature and you can’t really emerge from an artistic tradition in cartooning that isn’t denigrating racial minorities. For a long time after I left evangelicalism I loathed Lewis because of the hateful, bullying tone of Mere Christianity (and some of the absolute insanity—I don’t think people remember that he thought Christianity was the next stage of biological evolution) but I really admire The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Magician’s Nephew, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair and for all that it’s a terribly problematic book, The Last Battle is monumentally ambitious.

One work I’ve really grown to appreciate in a new way is Peanuts. I always used to sympathize with Charlie Brown and think it was sad that he got the short end of the stick so often; now that I’m grown and know a little about Schulz’s personal life, it’s very clear on reread that Charlie Brown is an egomaniacal asshole. He deserves what he gets. He refuses to acknowledge Marcy as he pines for the little red-haired girl, he constantly belittles Lucy, and he’s totally unable to accept Linus’s very good advice. It’s such a complex and in some ways progressive work; it has at least one obviously gay character and another, Pigpen, who is clearly very poor.

Another work I love exactly as much now as I did when I was a kid, but for entirely the same reasons, rather than more enlightened ones, is The Far Side. It’s just perfect, pure humor.

Q: Charlie Brown being an "egomaniacal asshole" raises all sorts of interesting, immediately pertinent questions. I think we've got a love affair with people who have plausible deniability about why they're so toxic. That Trump is clueless about real class or how anything works (aside from his own power grabs) seems to make him endearing to a lot of people. We're apt to conflate innocence and ignorance.

With that in mind, I want to ask about Fight Club? I'm not sure. There's a lot of anger, confusion, and wanting to overthrow everything. A lot of toxicity and ignorance in the protagonist. Curious to hear your read on it.

A: The thing I didn't realize about Fight Club is that it's a very ironic movie. It's almost an against-the-text reading of the book, like Starship Troopers. Brad Pitt's is so sexy, his relationship with Ed Norton's character is so barely platonic, and then the revelation at the end of the film is that the charismatic masculine ideal this guy has been lusting after is just himself. And that forces you to reevaluate all the stuff we know Tyler has done and seduced the narrator into helping him do. He didn't jerk off into the clam chowder or beat Jared Leto half to death because his gorgeous crush goaded him into it. He did it because he's a weird psychopath who's literally in love with himself. That Tyler apparently has sex with Marla whlie the narrator dissociates is a pretty funny and damning commentary on incel culture; he literally cannot enjoy himself. It's a great film, and I think like a lot of great films about the seductive nature of evil, unsophisticated viewers watch it and think it's just nihilism.

Q: I've learned a lot this conversation, and there's so much to ask about in the next one about books, parenting, and the craft of writing. I wanted to hear about what projects you're working on, what books you're reading, what you're most excited about. The work you're doing with Spencer Ackerman in Forever Wars and Jonathan Katz's The Racket is fantastic. I personally am looking forward to reading more of your movie reviews.

A: Ah I love this question. I am currently working on various obscure stories about the security state with Spencer, which will soon (hopefully) be less obscure, and editing his own excellent reporting and writing. He’s a great colleague who’s always had my back and I’m so grateful to count him as a friend, as well. Jonathan continues to go from strength to strength; he remains one of my favorite writers to read as well as to edit. I’m writing a proposal for a book about the comics industry, tentatively called “Funny Business,” and I have some movie review pitches I need to get out the door.

I’m listening to the same old rock and 90’s punk music I always listen to, I’m afraid. Warren Zevon, Steely Dan, Fountains of Wayne, Ween, Violent Femmes, Blind Melon, etc. I have a big playlist of cover songs I’m working on now. Also Stravinsky.

I am reading Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, a gorgeous multivolume biography of Siddhartha Gautama. I tend to think of Buddhism as difficult and ambiguous but Tezuka makes everything really explicit and beautiful, even the symbolic stuff. He’s just a masterly cartoonist; his Astro Boy manga and Kimba the White Lion anime are both legendary and it’s wild to see him take on something so serious. It’s like if Carl Barks had made a Jesus graphic novel. (I have a large collection of Bible comics.) I’m also rereading Providence, Alan Moore’s final comics work and a kind of anti-Watchmen, a very dense horror story that weaves together a lot of H.P. Lovecraft’s biography and stories with the history of the period in which he wrote and Moore’s own embellishments. He’s probably my favorite living writer; I find his worldbuilding so solid and convincing. I also just finished an old fantasy novel by Poul Anderson called The Broken Sword, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It was published the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring and reading it gives you such a strange feeling about what the history of fantasy literature might have looked like under just slightly different circumstances.

Thank you so much for doing this with me. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.