This story begins 11 years ago on a dare. Or, in some ways, nine years ago on a three-week writing binge in India. Better yet, the story starts via the Internet with an illustrator in Argentina, and then gets saved from obscurity by a chance encounter with a fairy godmother on—isn’t this telling of the times—MySpace.
Either way, the point is this: When it comes to stories written by Bitterroot author Josh Wagner, the tale of how each story came to fruition is almost as wild and epic as the finished product. And that’s saying something, considering that his mesmerizing new comic book, Fiction Clemens (Ape Entertainment) wrestles with fatalism and fantasy, corporate corruption and corny jokes, space cowboy shootouts and sci-fi-flavored Zen, in a futuristic version of the Wild West.
“Fiction Clemens is about chance versus fate, randomness versus order,” says Wagner, 32, who had his first novel, The Adventures of the Imagination of Periphery Stowe, published in 2004. “I personally feel this book has been a part of its own philosophy and has followed its own path…So many coincidences have happened outside my own efforts that I can’t help but feel that way. Whatever it is, it just feels like it’s hitting at the right time.”
Getting to this point has been a monumental trial for Wagner, who grew up in the Bitterroot but has spent the past few years living out of trailer in New Mexico. In 1997, a friend in Missoula, Xian Olson, confided in Wagner an idea for a character named Fiction Clemens, and dared Wagner to write a story about him. Wagner did, but admits the first draft made little sense. So little, in fact, that his best audience was a well-known local homeless man known as Tommy the Artist, who, despite receiving the manuscript, hardly remembered Wagner day-to-day. Then, out of the blue, Wagner says Tommy greeted him by holding up the Fiction Clemens story, asking if he’d ever read it, and declaring, “This is the new poetry.”
“It was a strange thing,” remembers Wagner. “But at that moment, for me, being a young writer, it was really inspiring.”
Nonetheless, Fiction Clemens went to the backburner. He briefly reappeared in 1999 when, during a trip to India, Wagner ended up writing a novel and inserted the Fiction Clemens character, as well as Fic’s heroine, Dune Trixie. Five years later, after more than 50 rejection letters, the novel was published by BAM Entertainment—but that’s a whole other story for another time (see Andy Smetanka’s “Feels like the first time,” June 3, 2004).
A funny thing happened, however, as Fiction Clemens loitered in the margins of Wagner’s other creative pursuits. Wagner started to grow attached to the laconic, give-a-damn cowboy, and when a group of friends set out to make a DIY movie, Wagner dusted off the Fiction Clemens story and molded it into a screenplay.
“Turned out, I was becoming more and more fond of the guy, and the dynamic between he and Trixie,” says Wagner, who in addition to being a writer is an aspiring filmmaker and musician. He’s also a computer consultant with CTG, an information technology company, even when he’s on the road in New Mexico. “Fiction is this guy who hardly says anything, and when he does talk it hardly makes sense. Trixie won’t shut up. There’s a nice balance there. A yin and a yang, you could say.”
The movie didn’t work—budget and dwindling time thwarted the project after only producing a killer trailer (available online at fictionclemens.org). But Wagner persisted. The movie experiment rustled up an illustrator out of Argentina named Joiton, who Wagner hired to create storyboards for the production. Wagner found him through an online database of artists, and the two hit it off almost immediately, despite the fact that Joiton spoke hardly any English. When the movie fell through, Wagner asked Joiton about doing a comic book, instead.
The question then became: How to finance a comic book? Wagner’s brother hatched an idea to sell characters, or have friends pay for the opportunity to have their likeness appear in the book. It worked, as 38 people—including Bitterroot filmmaker John Nilles on behalf of his dog (see Film in this issue)—offered up between $40 and $600 to be written into the story and rendered by Joiton. The funding allowed Wagner to push on with the project.
The last step, of course, was finding a publisher. After an initial agreement fell through, one of Wagner’s old friends, Lauren Perry, happened to ping him on MySpace. The woman Wagner now calls his “fairy godmother,” works with Spacedog Entertainment, an agency that eventually hooked Wagner up with Ape Entertainment. Ape released the first issue of Fiction Clemens in May, and issues two and three will be released in June and July.
All that took more than a decade, but looking back, Wagner wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The script as it was, and even as it is today, is not marketable,” he admits, noting the non-linear, existential elements of the storyline. “It’s not the sort of thing that a publisher would immediately jump on. I think, as it turns out, that’s what makes it so popular and acclaimed now, but at the time it was a hard sell.”
In fact, Fiction Clemens has garnered significant buzz since its release two weeks ago. Dave Baxter from industry publication Broken Frontier raved that the second and third issues are “perhaps the most thought-provoking, fine-tuned, and perfectly wrought concluding chapters to any serialized story I have ever read.” A fan site, chud.com, called it “exactly the kind of quirky project the non-major comic publishers should be offering us, and the kind of story that makes reading comics worthwhile.”
These types of reviews make Wagner strangely thankful for the twisting turn of events that continually pushed Fiction Clemens’ release back. Without getting too philosophical, Wagner rests on the idea that this is simply how things were meant to be.
“Just look at the movies that’ve hit within the last year: There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, 3:10 to Yuma, Assassination of Jessie James,” he says. “They all took place in an Old West setting or with an Old West feel, and they all sort of break a mold as far as storytelling. Without placing the book on par with those films, I think it falls into the same camp. It’s something fresh when the world is looking for something a little more out there. And, you know, I embrace that this is out there.”
Josh Wagner signs copies of Fiction Clemens, Issue 1, at Muse Comics, 2100 Stephens Avenue, Saturday, May 31, from 1 to 4 PM.