The Douglas Rushkoff Interview

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Write Now! on 1 December 2007

Conducted in person by Jeff Newelt, October 2007
Transcribed by Steven Tice

Back in the mid-1990s first flowering of the Internet, every time a major “old media” outlet, say The New York Times, needed a “hip young expert” to explain things to them, as often or not, said expert was Douglas Rushkoff. Perhaps because he always gave good sound bites about the coming electronic revolution, or just because they knew where to find him, not a week seemed to go by when Rushkoff wasn’t being extensively and prominently quoted somewhere.

Finally, I saw an event listed that he was moderating. Being in the new media biz myself then–overseeing an electronic comics initiative at pioneering Silicon Alley house Byron Preiss Multimedia–I went to said event, ready to mock Douglas under my breath. Let’s see if Mr. Sound Bite can hold his own live!

Well, it turns out, I have no memory of who else was on that panel, just of being highly impressed with this intelligent, opinionated, personable Rushkoff fellow. And who knew that, underneath the new media guy, was a longtime comics fan? Of course, Douglas has a zillion other interests, too, and you can read about them at his website:

And here’s what Douglas’s official bio says:

“Douglas Rushkoff is a world-renowned cultural theorist and the author of ten books on media, society, and beliefs, including Media Virus, Coercion, Cyberia, and ScreenAgers. He wrote two novels–one about early 90’s psychedelia called Ecstasy Club, and another about fascism, Exit Strategy.

“He’s made two documentaries about marketing and the co-option of culture for PBS’ Frontline, The Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders, and he teaches popular classes in media, interactivity, and narrative for NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and the MaybeLogic Academy.

“Rushkoff doesn’t dabble, but dives. He has worked as a theater director, a fight choreographer, Guardian of London columnist, a rabbi, and a keyboardist for PsychicTV, among other things.

“His very first comic, Club Zero-G was about kids who visit a shared consensual dreamspace when they’re asleep–remembered only by one them. Misunderstood as a Matrix rip-off by an inexperienced reviewer, the graphic novel version won ‘Worst Graphic Novel of 2004’ from The Comics Journal. Appreciated by Jonathan Vankin, of Vertigo, as an original and successful narrative experiment, Club Zero-G got Rushkoff a pitch meeting. Testament, Rushkoff’s first comic series, was the result of that pitch.”

As for me, I figure if Douglas is good enough for the Times, then who are we to say different? Douglas recently sat down with Jeff Newelt and talked about–among other things–comics, new media, religion, and his recent Vertigo title, Testament.



JEFF NEWELT: In your comic Testament, I notice a convergence of your favorite themes… “open source” Judaism, alternate forms of currency, media viruses, corporations, etc., etc. Why did you think a comic was the way to express your ideas?

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: In comics you can combine ideas in a way you can’t in an article, an essay, or even a nonfiction book. Prose is a deeply linear medium, you’ve got to have a clear subject and make an ordered, rational argument for it. You can attempt some verbal mash-up, à la William Burroughs, but that’s working against the bias of text and books.

Comics are collage. It’s sequential storytelling. There’s both word and picture. You can communicate through the juxtaposition of image to image, or image to word, word to word, dialogue to description, or even dialogue to picture. Unlike plain text, the comics medium is biased towards these clashes, toward these mixes. Towards time travel and cultural mixing.

That’s why doing comics is like doing Shakespeare. Nobody does a Shakespeare play in its original setting anymore. We perform Hamlet in an office tower or set Macbeth in the Nixon White House. We frame it so that the old myths and themes are relevant to a modern audience, and seen in a new light. There’s spoken word and a visual frame: it’s working on multiple levels.

JN: Did you think of that analogy in retrospect, or when you were coming up with your approach to Testament…?

DR: I’ve always looked at comics as multimedia–as a precursor to the Internet. My first books tried to explain the Internet to people who had never touched it–who didn’t believe or even care that it was coming. And it’s hard to explain non-linear, hypertext experiences to people who’ve never been on drugs or something. But there were a lot of other emerging cultures providing easy analogies to the Internet experience–fantasy role-playing, rave music, snowboarding, dj performance. Cultures and art forms where things were juxtaposed, and communicating through their roughness or user’s interactions.

Comics have always been open to these kinds of mixes– biased toward these juxtapositions of themes, eras and realities. Its position in “low culture” is its strength, because people aren’t necessarily expecting it to deliver all those formal requirements of, say, “the sonnet,” or “the novel,” or “the narrative nonfiction book.”

JN: So the power of comics sneak-attacks you, like sticking medicine in a kid’s ice cream or something…?

DR: Right. And, on top of that, because it’s ostensibly a kids’ medium, you can pull a Pee Wee Herman: “Where am I going to tease and provoke culture about gay values and sexual innuendo, and where can I do that better than in a kids’ show?” Bart Simpson and South Park allow for a cultural critique and irreverent jamming you couldn’t have had before on TV.

JN: Creating comics must be like messing with a Petrie dish, creating a little universe that comes alive when read.

DR: Yes! Alive because it’s a cultural Petrie dish. What is a “culture” but a growing, fecund thing? Fecund like manure–sh*t is great fertilizer! Comics are bottom-feeders in the best sense–reworking all of the cultural preoccupations, characters, situations, conspiracy theories that trickle down into its delightful cesspool of ideas. In comics, they can cross-pollinate, fertilize, and mutate. They rise again like a mutated monster–these wonderfully rich combinations of thoughts, ideas and imagery that you wouldn’t see anywhere else can grow into new organisms.

Comics give me a forum to look at the Bible as a media theorist would, while comparing it to situations, technologies and fiscal calamities that are going on today. So this seemingly staid, holy, redacted and permanent, set-in-stone book gets dragged down into this fertile ground of possibility. It’s not just EC Bible Stories, anymore. It’s a living, mutating set of myths. And that’s what gets people the most upset, but it’s also what gets people the most fascinated: “what if the Bible were alive?” Yeah, put something in comics and it becomes alive. That’s why Grant [Morrison] is so interested in comics. You take a god that’s the projection and imagery of all these people focusing on it, you take any object and put it in comics… it’s alive! That’s what he means when he says comics are a “magical sigil”: their creation is a ritual through which imagery can be beheld and disseminated. Conjured into existence.

JN: Did you have an agenda with Testament?

DR: I’m trying to do to the Bible what Jack Kirby tried to do to his universe. I’m trying to make these characters and situations come alive again by juxtaposing them with near-future scenarios that are actually happening. I’m trying to show that, in the best sense, the Bible was warning us about what’s happening now: worshiping money, sacrificing our kids to false idols (like oil), taking a scarcity approach toward resources rather than an abundance approach. At the same time, though, I’m looking at how, well, the Bible didn’t work, did it? If this is where we are, then its lessons weren’t learned. And I’m finally suggesting that the reason it didn’t work is because they tried to manage society through a one-pointedness. Monotheism is fine when it’s universal, but it became something of an “accept our God or you’re out” thing. The notion of a universal, abstract unknowable “God” got corrupted, and became a “this guy is everyone’s God” mandate.

JN: And you make it clear in Testament, by the “good light” you shine on the goddess Astarte, she seems to be the god that comes out the “cleanest”… this one-pointedness is related to a textual repression of the Feminine Goddess Energy, represented by Astarte…. What is this energy?

DR: Well, she is responsible for screwing up the heavenly gods’ whole Eden experiment. But yeah–she’s ultimately the one who got screwed over, and something of the hero in my god world. She represents the feminine goddess energy, the spirit of abundance that agricultural societies worshipped. It is disdained in the Bible, which is really about the superiority of the ethical, nomadic tribes over the farming polytheists. The nomads were dealing with scarcity. The Bible was concerned with getting people to stop child sacrifice, but they ended up completely bashing the entirety of the religions that worshipped their gods in the abundance tradition. It was a mistake to completely repress the goddess side, though, and that’s why I treat the Torah gods as antagonists by the end of the series. They were too scared of women, and kind of screwed up as a result.

JN: Some might say you’re taking some serious liberties with some pretty well established characters, these gods and Biblical heroes…

DR: I suppose some fundamentalists might be upset, because they read the Bible selectively. But the Bible characters in my stories really only do what they did in the original. Incest, murder… it’s all there in black and white. And even my most outlandish interpretations are pretty well supported by historical or “Midrashic” (the history of interpretation) evidence. It’s pretty solid Bible analysis, even if it tends towards some harsh judgments on these guys. The intellectual rabbis and priests are actually pretty interested in my perspectives.

What I really shudder at is how frightened the mainstream comics industry is of taking real risks with their characters. TV shows today are more comfortable killing off favorite characters than comics are. Brian Azzarello kills off a main character in Loveless, everybody’s up in arms, “How can you do that? You’ve killed the series!” And then I hear, “Well, that was an important asset,” as if it was an actor that you’ve lost, it was an asset to your brand. The whole beauty of comics is the freedom it affords. This is a low budget industry and an iconic form; these are not real actors with jobs, these are imaginary beings. You should be able to f**k with them and kill them and change them… let them do things that are against the grain.

The thing that amazes me about the comics audience is that everybody’s crying out for something new, something bold, something that breaks the boundaries, but everyone complains if it doesn’t also meet their expectations, and do so instantaneously. So I don’t mind people critiquing that my characters are bad, and my situations are bad, and all that. If they didn’t believe this, or didn’t believe that, it’s my bad. And I’ll work on getting it better. When I get upset is when people say, “How can he wait until issue three to introduce a major character?” As if there’s this formula where every major character has to be introduced in the first two issues…?

JN: A superimposed shape…

DR: A shape of such a formal type, of such a strict orthodoxy. Part of the problem is the way the comics are branded, and how those brands are received: “Okay, now, you’re writing a Vertigo comic,” and that means it’s got to be “Vertigo-ish.” Then you’ve either got to do the Fables thing, which is what people expected of Testament, that it was going to be another Fables series, except instead of using fairy stories, now it’s Bible stories. Or you have to do the Y The Last Man thing, which is to set up a simple, compelling premise that you understand by the end of the first issue (what if you’re the last man on earth) and then carry the basic mystery–that he’s looking to get his girlfriend and find out why all the guys died–over the course of the whole series.

JN: Was Jack Kirby an influence on Testament?

DR: Originally, when [Vertigo editor Jonathan] Vankin called me and said, “Well, what do you want to do in comics?” I said, “Oh, I want to do The Eternals.” [laughs] And he’s, like, “Oh, well, that’s Marvel; No, we can’t do that. Something else.” So I figured if I can’t have Kirby’s gods [The New Gods were also taken] I might as well take this great and untapped system. There’s a lot of people writing comics about God, or God vs. Satan, like Preacher… but no one’s going into real Bible mythology. Who is Abraham? Who is the cousin and brother of Lot, and people fking their daughters, and why is that in the **Bible? Why not take the best myths ever, and work with them? Marvel doesn’t own them (yet).

JN: In Testament you postulate that multiple characters in different Biblical periods were “played” by different “actors” from the present day “cast.” How did you keep track of who was who? Did you do massive charts?

DR: I’m a theater director, so I thought of it like a theater company. The modern characters are my players, and I can play them to type in the Bible, or cast them against type by putting them in the same the situation that the Bible character is confronting. So Jake’s father Alan plays Abraham for a while. The Bible characters are the archetypes for modern characters and what they’re going through. And what we learn is that the Bible characters are the gods’ way of influencing the present. Had I gone longer, I was going to then have different modern characters play the same Bible characters, and even go through the same Bible situations making different choices–and still keep it all consistent with Bible scholarship.

JN: How did Vertigo deal with all the nutty, and some would and will say, heretical stuff?

DR: They would ask, “Doug, are you really going to have Lot having sex with his daughters? Is it appropriate to take that kind of liberty with the Bible?” And I would just respond to the e-mail, “Okay, Genesis Chapter 24, Verse 11, Lot fks his daughters.” As long as it was really in there and not just my bizarre interpretation, they were totally okay. I guess they wanted me to stay with the basic formula a little bit longer than I wanted to: modern story, flash to **Bible allegory, modern story kind of completes itself, then Bible story completes itself.

JN: And then the story busted free of that model.

DR: Right. Instead the series followed The “Rule of Three”–let it happen the same way twice, and then the third time show, “Uh-oh, the stories can diverge from the expected.” Because my characters in the modern day have free will, and they don’t have always do it the same way. That’s the inciting event of the series: what will the gods do if we decide to do stuff differently? What happens if we break free from the Bible’s paradigm?

JN: I know the series ended sooner than you’d planned. I’ve read the final scripts, and I’m guessing having to end things faster, might have given you, and thus the story, a greater urgency. The current of the story got faster and stronger towards the conclusion.

DR: It added a sense of urgency to it, yeah. It forced me to have the characters revolt sooner. I was going to have them revolt when the gods order them to kill every last person in Canaan. Which is what God did in the Bible, you know. And the Israelites got in trouble because they didn’t kill everyone, they left a couple of hookers and a dog or something, so they got into all this trouble. Because the series needed to end sooner, I had them refuse to carry out the final plagues, which actually turned out to be more poignant…

JN: It seems to me that there’s been a tectonic cultural shift, where there’s “Before Now” and there’s “After Now,” in terms of the respect being given comics in the media and general populace.

DR: There’s been a tectonic shift, but it’s more to do with Hollywood and television’s desperate search for content. There’s a thing going on in the business world; almost every industry out there is losing money, but almost every industry out there is pretending that it’s also the next big thing. So industries are looking at the other industries as if those are the ones that are going to save them. The advertising industry is looking at the cell phone industry thinking, “Okay, that’s where we’re going to spread our messages–cell phones.” Meanwhile, the cell phone industry is looking at the advertising industry to save them. The movie industry is looking at the comics industry while the comics industry is looking at the movie industry. You have Vertigo making comics of [Darren Aronofsky’s] The Fountain, and you have Universal making movies from Marvel properties. On the one hand I’m excited that, yeah, the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, everybody cares about comics. On the other… most of our media is more obsessed with business than it is culture. The interviews are about “properties” instead of characters or issues.

JN: I think another reason comics are getting more respect is the Web, because of instant access to links about comics and to web comics and exposure to comics without having to walk into a store and pick one up…

DR: Web comics are not comics. They are sequential narrative, but as long as we think of web comics as comics, we’re not letting them be what they are. It’s like thinking about automobiles as horseless carriages. They are a different medium.

JN: So you think that web comics is in a larval stage right now, form-wise?

DR: It’s in a proto-larval stage. Web comics… what should we call it?… “digital interactive sequential narrative”… is going to be really interesting. It’s going to be free of some of comics’ restraints, because you don’t need a distribution channel, and expectations are not as set. So in some ways, and it sounds awful to say it, the longer it stays unprofitable, the longer it can prevent a set of expectations from being imposed on it.

JN: But also, web comics are revolutionary because they are a marketing tool for themselves… and the distribution is by links and social networking sites.

DR: That’s doing for comics the same thing MySpace did for music, or even Amazon and ratings did for books. The web is a great thing for anybody who is looking for alternative distribution means and an alternative way to develop real word-of-mouth. I mean, Shooting War [a web comic that was serialized on and then recently got a book deal with Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing] is a case in point of doing something online for free, and then, bing-bang, it becomes a real book. The difference, though, and this is the question: Do web sigils have the same effect as physical sigils? Or to put it in less occult terms, does a thought virus launched in a digital form have the same effect on culture as an object passed from hand to hand? I’m not so sure–at least not yet.

Some comics have had real, strange effects. Grant told me that he started developing some of the same illnesses as his character King Mob in The Invisibles. If it hadn’t been an object–a physical comic, a totem replicated throughout the world in real life–would it have had the same influence? There’s something about killing a tree, and printing on it; on a certain level it forces a local reality, a hand-to-hand experience. A comic-store guy hands you a book, “You’ve got to read this.” You know, that eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand exchange is something that we have in the comics world that’s not in movies. It’s not in other media. When you have a physical object, you are more free in the way you interact with it, on a certain level. And it stays with you even when you’re not looking at it.

JN: What comics or creators do you dig?

DR: The comic that moved me the most… was Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, because it was a meta-comic. It used a comic to deconstruct comics. It united all the stuff I knew and studied about Marshall McLuhan in his Understanding Media with what I suspected about comics but had never confirmed. McCloud laid out why I was thinking the things I was thinking. And his understanding of how symbols and icons work showed that not only was someone else thinking about this, but that what I was suspecting was really, really true.

Also, Kirby’s Eternals. At the time it first came out [1976], I was also getting Man, Myth and Magic, this weird magazine you got at the grocery store, and this movie, Chariot of the Gods, had come out about how the Pyramids were made by aliens. So it was very, very early New Age movement going on here, which was not about pyramid schemes, but about the Pyramids! I wasn’t thinking of Eternals as comics. I was just thinking of it as cool.

JN: Kirby wrote those killer essays in the back, too.

DR: Yeah! Just weird, trippy stuff. So, to me, that was like reading Krishnamurti or something.

Schultz’s Charlie Brown was also really important to me, especially Linus, who was this sort of Nietzschean philosopher in the midst of this weird world. I always saw Linus as the central character, not Charlie Brown, not Snoopy, because Linus was the real observer. He was like Chekhov (who puts himself in the character of the doctor) in his plays. He was the lens through which you saw everything. He was Bart’s sister Lisa, who really is the conscience of the Simpsons writers.

And I love Frank Miller’s Ronin, which I still think is his best work to date. There’s one centerfold in it that opens up to this big orange thing. It’s like… oh my God.

Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum is another favorite. That totally fked me up. That was great Batman and was really well drawn, and it lasted in my head a long time. But Grant, the person, is even more inspiring to me than Grant’s comics. The most amazing thing about **Invisibles is that he kept writing it even after it started to cause him–as he tells it–to get sick, to almost kill him. [laughs] He’s a very daring person. He’s experimenting with life in a way that I’m not only not courageous enough to do, but not willing to do. He’s got a full-steam-ahead, “I don’t care what George Bush or Margaret Thatcher or anyone like that does, because that’s adults and their games, and I’m playing my game in another place.” I was raised with too much “Jewish social responsibility” [laughs]… I’ve got to teach, and go back, learn economics, and learn phi- losophy and all that. And he will just go with a self-confidence and aura around him that is palpable and real and it works. It’s the best version of The Secret you can imagine; he’s a practitioner, but he’s not going to sell it like losers who market The Secret. It’s not my path, but it’s sure an interesting and daring one to be on.

I love Sgt. Rock. Great short stories, and Joe Kubert’s use of the page… every composition looks like just a classic composition, but look at how he breaks up images… everything he does is really innovative, but it looks classic in its solidness…

JN: How about Alan Moore?

DR: You know, Alan Moore’s Swamp Things were really important to me because they were coming out when my whole psychedelic thing was happening. So I got into Swamp Thing toward the end of his reign, where the hippie guy finds the tuber on the back of his piece of Swamp Thing…

JN: And he smokes himself some primo Swamp Thing. How about Pekar?

DR: I had American Splendor from issue #2 on. I actually directed a play when I was in grad school that was based on American Splendor two through five. I got permission from him in a letter to do it as an Equity waiver [permission from Actors Equity to do it with non-union actors] show in Los Angeles, and I was gearing up to do that, when he called and said that he’d made this deal with Doubleday and that I couldn’t do it.

JN: And the next book? What style are you going to work in?

DR: I want to do a comic where I’m just going to tell a story and not be meta. I’ve got the story outlined–I just have to resist screwing with it, now, or putting too many layers on top. Treat it more like water. I’m purposely going to go formula with my next comic. For me, working within a formula will be an experimental act. The story’s going to reflect on our times, and media, and all the stuff I care about, but I want to see if I can I just tell a story. Create interesting characters, have them make a series of decisions that put them in danger, and then come up with a unique way to get them out of it.

JN: But a lot of critics stop thinking there. They don’t say, “And does he pull it off?” They resent you even trying to do that.

DR: They resent once they suspect you’re trying to bend the form, as if that will maybe challenge their knowledge of the medium. Force them to think of things in a new way, or to evaluate what we’re spending our money on every month. As readers, once we see the gears turning, we feel like we’ve seen the man behind the curtain. But that’s our adversarial relationship to the writers we read, and that’s because we read as consumers rather than as readers or even as developing writers, ourselves. Comics is the one place you should read for the love of it, not because you’re a consumer.