Jonathan Diener is best known as the drummer of The Swellers from 2002 to 2015. His current band Baggage just released their first album. Diener is also moving into comics with last year’s HOPE: A Comic For Flint, to benefit his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Additionally, he has a story in the anthology EVERYTHING IS GOING WRONG: Comics on Punk & Mental Illness. We talked about those two projects, his history with comics, and other things he’s working on.
Tim Midura: Most people know you as a musician, can you talk about your history with comics?
Jonathan Diener: Some of my earliest memories were carrying around these weird figurines of a little Superman and a little Batman. They were on this little pedestal and they were posed. I would cling to those with all of my life everywhere I went. It was kind of a weird thing and they started kind of melting I was using them so much.. Almost right off the bat, I always remembered having superhero cartoons going on.
Fast forward a little bit later, I think Pizza Hut had this Spider-Man/Doctor Doom VHS. I don’t know how we got it, but I know my brother and I watched it all the time like “Whoa, this is crazy.” That was kind of the second thing.
From there, the really big turning point for me was the Batman Animated Series, the Spider-man Cartoon, and the X-Men: Animated series. Those were the major things. I wasn’t really familiar with comics themselves, but when it came to the mainstream storytelling version of it, that’s what kind of got me hooked.
Pretty much anything where someone looked cool, I was like “He has a mask. This is my new favorite person.” I was obsessive and made my parents buy all the toys. I was a big action figure kid growing up. I would demand my parents give me all the Spider-Man action figures from the show. I remember on Christmas Eve, I wrote a letter to Santa at like 9pm. I said, “Dear Santa, I changed my mind. I don’t want Spider-Man. I want X-Men for Christmas. Would you please bring me all of them?” I realize my parents were having a heart attack. They wrote back like “This is Santa. Sorry I couldn’t make it to the store, but I know you really like these.”
Later, when the Spawn movie was coming out, this was the first time I read comics. My best friend growing up, his older brother was into Metallica and comics. All of the cool older brother things. I think he was like 8 years older than me so he was already a cool teenager kid. He was obsessed with Todd McFarlane and he had all the toys. Me, being action figure guy, I was obsessed with those so I started buying them.
Again, not knowing any of the Image Comics stuff, I didn’t understand it. I had my mom take me and I don’t remember where I got it, but I ended up getting three or four Spawn comics. As a little kid, what a great way to get into comics. I was reading these violently wild, scary things. But it was more so just looking at the pictures and coming up with my own stories in my head, while playing with the action figures. Doing my own version of the stories.
Anything with a predetermined outcome, a movie or story or whatever, I always wanted to have my own version of it. I would be like “Star Wars is cool,” but now that I have the action figures, this is my own version of it. Or Spider-Man. Or Spawn. So I started, literally for hours by myself, playing with my action figures. My parents would be like “You good dude?” And I’d be like “Go away!”
This is kind of where that ended. I had a little glimpse into comics and it could’ve been this big thing, but reading was hard to do and playing with action figures and video games are a lot easier. I started doing mostly that.
Fast forward a long time and I get into professional wrestling. I was obviously into music. My parents made me sell all my action figures. I sold almost all of them in one garage sale, which I’d say is the day my imagination died. I just became a drummer. That took over for a long time.
One of the most bizarre “coming to Jesus” in comics, is that a term? Let’s go with that. This is my comics revelation.
We were on this bizarre, crazy tour. It was a Southeast Asia tour with Paramore. I remember we were at the airport in Singapore and this guy walked up to us like “Hey, I know you guys are Paramore, right?” to Hayley and all them. “So I work for Marvel Comics. We’re doing a comic con in Singapore. Do you know where you’re staying?” We were actually staying across the street from it. He was like “Yeah, yeah. If you guys want, here’s free passes for everyone who wants to come hang out.” Keep in mind, The Swellers, our band was the tag-along for everything. We ourselves never had this cool thing. We’re like “We’re also here! Can we go?!”
I remember a few of us went. That was when The Walking Dead TV show first came out. I’m looking at all these comics and I can feel the childhood imagination part of my brain tingling. I also feel the I’m a broke band dude who only eats Taco Bell part too. I just kept going back and forth in my head like “I should buy this.” Hayley was standing next to me, while we’re looking at Walking Dead stuff and she’s like “Why don’t you just get it?” I’m like “I don’t know. It’s like $20.” That was like a big deal for me. Being in a different country at a comic con is like a once in a lifetime thing. I’m like “Never mind.” I just didn’t look at it and kept walking around. It kind of dissipated after that.
But this is where it gets crazy. A few years ago, the guy that got us into the comic con in Singapore, turns out its C.B. Cebulski, the dude running Marvel right now which is absolutely crazy. So I ended up having a weird connection to him.
Again, fast forward and I apologize for like the tons and tons of story, but like this is something I’m stoked on. And as someone who transcribes interviews, I know this is absolute hell, but baby, I’m giving you gold. Because the funny thing is all day I’m literally transcribing interviews I’m doing for bios I’m writing for people. So yeah, we get to talk comics.
This is kind of the final chapter of the thing. I’m a super big wrestling guy and my friend Aubrey Sitterson who I randomly just like met through Twitter from being wrestling fans, was like “Oh his guest cancelled tonight. Do you want to be on a show?” It was called Straight Shoot, which was this big wrestling podcast. I was like “Yeah, cool.” I get on Skype and the first thing Aubrey says to me was “Hey man. I’m so stoked you’re doing this. By the way, are you a comics guy?” I’m like “Not really. Why?” He goes “Oh, that sucks. All right. Anyway.” And I’m like “What the hell does that mean?” And there’s a guy Jason Aaron who was on the show with me. We were just talking about Dolph Ziggler and all these like wrestlers and stuff. I’m making them laugh super hard and we’re going back and forth.
Then a few months later, I want to start reading comics. I read this comic Southern Bastards that’s really good. I started reading that. Then I got into Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, which was the thing where I really went “Oh, god. I have to start writing comics myself now because this guy’s too cool and weird.” It’s like exactly what I want to be doing in comics. It’s all pretty much transcribing my weird brain without the music medium, doing interesting storytelling which is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid playing with toys. The way Fraction did it is exactly how I want to do it, so I was like “Dammit. Now I have to like a new thing.” So it was Fraction’s Hawkeye and Tom King’s Vision that blew my mind. That’s when I was like “Okay, this is my favorite thing in the world right now.”
Meanwhile, I’m reading more Southern Bastards, I’m on like issue seven because they come out slowly. It’s a little while into it and I like look at the name like “Why do I know that name?” So I Googled and I saw a photo of him. I was like “Oh, no fucking way.” I went back and found the interview like “Oh my god. I was on a goddamn wrestling with him.” I wrote him on Twitter and I was like “Dude, I’ve been reading your books and had no idea because I just got into comics. What the hell? This is so cool.” He’s like “Thanks, man.” We joked around and he followed me back on Twitter so I was like “Oh my god.” Not to go too much further, but that was kind of the beginning of me realizing I have ice breakers and things in common with comic creators. Now I’m kind of where I am today.
So that’s answer one for you.
Tim Midura: Was HOPE A Comic For Flint your first credit as a writer in comics?
Jonathan Diener: That was definitely my first published work as well. At first, we were just going to do it DIY. Then Source Point Press from Michigan, our friend El talked to them because they were already familiar with their work. So we ended up all coming together on that one. So yeah. It’s my first published and actual credit publicly for any comic.
Tim Midura: Were you one of the organizers?
Jonathan Diener: I actually put the whole thing together. I had this weird idea where because I have so many super creative friends and every time I talk to them, it was the same attitude of “Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe one day.” And virtually all of the people that are a part of this were like “I really like comics” or “I really like art and I wish more people would see this.” None of us had anything published other than El, who’s worked at this comic shop in Michigan for a long time and had a web comic as well.
I was using their connections plus my kind of music world promotion stuff. I’ve done a bunch of stuff for Flint already, just being in this area. So I was like “I think we could fucking do it.” Out of the blue, I put together a list of all my friends that needed to be a part of this. I sent a message like “Hey, all of you have been expressing interest in this kind of thing. If you want to do this and you think you can actually hit a deadline and you actually want to make this work, please respond.” And everyone other than one person responded.
I found my buddy Craig Horky. And he’s like one of my favorite artists, literally ever. He did everything from like posters for Henry Rollins. He did our poster for the Jimmy Eat World/Baggage Detroit show. And he does a lot of Menzingers and Lemuria merch as well. I absolutely love his work. He has this really strange, cool style. I was like “We should work on this together as a charity thing.” Immediately, he goes “Being a comic artist is my childhood dream, so I’m in.” I didn’t even know that was a thing. I just hoped he said yes.
I learned the lesson of setting deadlines and people respecting those. Because if you set deadlines and people don’t pay attention or whatever, that’s how all of us, like historically, lose really awesome opportunities. I wanted people to understand the importance of that. Because if it’s like “Hey, we need this done by this time,” they’ve never had that when it comes to art. So they just keep tweaking like “I don’t know if this is good enough,” and then it just ends up disappearing. It’s the same with music. I always call them the basement musicians. No one’s going to hear what they did, but it’s really awesome stuff.
Tim Midura: Going into HOPE, had you already decided on The Compass as the charity you’re going to support?
Jonathan Diener: I put out a feeler on Facebook because I’m connected to a lot of cool different charity workers and non-profit people from Flint. Especially after we put together this water crisis compilation called Not Safe To Drink. From that I had a lot of research to see where the money should go. And the charity that we sent money to from that compilation, which ended up being like a crazy amount of money because a bunch of big bands jumped on. Keep in mind, crazy money to me. A few weeks later, Beyoncé donated like $20 million to that so ours virtually meant nothing. I was like “Ah, okay. Well. We got something right. That’s cool.” I was like “What’s a place we can directly help and actually see the result?”
So my friend Marvin, who’s a huge comic dude, he’s one of the first people giving me suggestions of things to read. He’s just like an old school Flint dude. He told me that he works for a center for adults with disabilities, which is one of the main things that people have been overlooking, especially since the water crisis, because obviously there are kids with the lead in their systems and that’s how they’re getting a lot of learning disabilities. But there’s a lot of people who’re just developmentally disabled from birth or over time. So what they do is help reintegrate those people into society, using really cool programs and taking them out in public, giving them normal life things, rather than kind of just keeping them away as recluses which is what a lot of kind of places do, which doesn’t help in the long run. So he showed me the place and I checked it out. Then almost immediately was like “We got to give you the money. This is awesome.” We did a comic release show which we actually had everyone who was in a band that was part of the comic. All of our bands played the show. Then we ended up raising a few thousand dollars for charity just that day, which is awesome.
Tim Midura: So how did you get involved with EVERYTHING IS GOING WRONG? Was it through Mark Bouchard?
Jonathan Diener: Yeah. I have been friends with Matt Miner for a really long time. I can’t say the name of the actual project, but we’re working on an unnamed project where we’re actually pitching to big publishers and stuff. This was going to predate HOPE and I was kind of freaked out like “Oh, my god. I just got into comics and it’s gonna work out already.” And then I realized just like the music industry, things don’t just work out. You gotta work really, really hard and wait a long time for it to happen.
Through Matt I met some other mutual friends like Liana Kangas and I was in this like small indie comics friend group. And then both of them had something to do with Everything Is Going Wrong, Mark’s anthology. Then I was like “This is cool. I wish I could be a part of this.” But I’m like “Whatever. It’s already done.”
So I was on tour drumming for The Early November and we came through Salt Lake City. I invited Mark to the show and he brought their dog. We’re all hanging out and stuff. Then out of nowhere Mark’s like “Hey, someone just like hasn’t responded to emails in awhile. We have an opening if you want to be a part of it.” I was like “Yes…” I was trying to not be super excited because I was going to give it away. But I was hoping that would happen at some point. This is exactly what I want.
So almost immediately I hit up Craig. He got excited because he just likes drawing and doesn’t sleep or anything anymore. Which is the perfect pairing for a super manic writer like me where I’m like “Here’s 90 pages. Go.”
I talked to Mark and Mark was stoked. We ended up doing a comic about Baggage because we just got off a really depressing tour. And I was like “Well this is about mental illness and depression.” One of the most tangible ways I relate to that is through music and the ups and downs of that, which are really similar to, you know, the ups and downs of the other mental things I go through. That kind of all just came together immediately for me where I was like “This story literally just happened.” This is the metaphor for how I feel as an aging person and trying to still make it in music because I’m feeling like I’m an outdated 16 year old.
Tim Midura: I’m really looking forward to it.
Jonathan Diener: I got the PDF of it and it’s so good.
Tim Midura: I know it’s been slow coming.
Jonathan Diener: Yeah, absolutely. But it’s cool too because Mark’s been giving everyone updates, like “Hey, out of nowhere the pressing plant just closed so I’ve got to find a new one.” So it has the craziness of everything else in comics, but it’s just cool too. I’ve been telling people that I just want to write and if people want to collaborate, that’s one of my favorite things. First of all, the HOPE thing I had to do all of it myself, but this was one of the first projects, kind of ever, that I was a part of where it was more of just contribute something to it and we have the train rolling, so hop on. So I’m hoping to get more kind of stuff like that in the future.
Tim Midura: I know you have some other projects in the works. Can you touch on them at all?
Jonathan Diener: I’m trying to think of how to word it. So I have two big creator-owned things that I’ve been pitching. And both are technically in progress of trying to reach out to people and waiting on responses. It’s the same as like the music reference, like sending your demo blindly to someone and just like, well, maybe they’ll open the email and you don’t actually know if they ever do or not. So I’ve gotten to the point where because I actually have mutual friends at a lot of these publishers, I’m getting more confident and reaching out to them. One of the exciting things for me is, by doing that, it’s like the last four years of being a comic world, I’ve been trying to absorb literally any information I can like podcasts, books, and just reading comics in general. Because I know I haven’t been ready, but I’m definitely ready now and ready to go.
So without going into too much detail, one of them is a Flint water crisis book. It’s a not-so-distant future Flint water crisis story. It’s an actual series that I’m working on. And this is actually one of the first things I’ve been developing. The crazy thing is that this was predating HOPE, which was just like a little five page story. And I did everything from like developing this myself to taking a writing class from this awesome comics writer Mark Sable. In that class, we helped develop it a little bit more and then as time went on, the Flint water stuff has just been changing so dramatically and getting way more fucking up over time to where I was like “I need to cut this whole story and make it like the exaggerated but not totally exaggerated version of what’s really happening.” So without getting too much into detail, that’s kind of what’s going on with my own weird twist to it. The pitch I have for that is kind of like Stranger Things meets Preacher, based at a coffee shop in the Flint water crisis.
Tim Midura: A little autobiographical.
Jonathan Diener: I wanted to do like a self-reflected thing, but have the confidence to not just make it about myself and kind of tell the whole story of the town and the types of things that are going on in a more digestible way. It’s not a true story by any means, but the stuff that’s happening in it are all based in truth. You know, that’s the big one. I’ve been like keeping it in my back pocket for years, getting ready to go and have my real pitch down with like five pages ready to do. And a team of people are working on it, which is also the first time I’ve done that.
The other one I’m working on is a horror band comic. And again, semi-autobiographical. I just wanted to write a story about being in a band. And then I want it to be in really extreme circumstances. So this is kind of like my pitch for this story without giving away the name because it’s an awesome name. It’s Green Room meets Evil Dead. I don’t know if you’ve seen Green Room…
Tim Midura: Yeah I have. Patrick Stewart is so good as a skinhead.
Jonathan Diener: So they’re not fighting Nazis in this one.