Chuck Palahniuk has something of a reputation. The author of 1996’s Fight Club writes blisteringly bleak comedies that satirise contemporary life while pushing the boundaries of taste. That novel mixed anti-capitalism, underground fighting and soap made from human fat into a molotov cocktail of a novel that exploded across the culture at the turn of the millennium – aided by David Fincher’s brilliant film adaptation, of which Palahniuk is a self-confessed fan.
It’s no secret that Fight Club was based, in part, on real events that happened to Chuck and his friends. It kickstarted a career that has seen him publish works about serial killers; a man who may just be the Second Coming of Christ; a porno actress trying to break a world record (that we can’t really go into here); and short stories, such as the infamous “Guts”, that have been known to make people faint. An intimidating figure then? Perhaps, but when we caught up with him he proves unfailingly pleasant, thoughtful and polite. Endearingly, he prefixes certain answers with a thoughtful, Jimmy Stewart-ish “Boy...”
In 2015 Palahniuk returned to his most famous creation, this time as a comic. Fight Club 2 is a ten-issue series from Dark Horse that concluded in February, with a collected edition to follow. Written by Palahniuk and drawn by Cameron Stewart, the Eisner Award winning artist of Seaguy, Batman And Robin, Catwoman and many more, it picks up ten years after the original’s finale. The unnamed narrator is now going by ‘Sebastian’ and is married to Marla Singer. The pair have a son, but domestic “bliss” is eating away at the pair of them. Sebastian, heavily medicated to keep his megalomaniac alter-ego Tyler Durden in check, has become a bore and so, depressed, Marla starts tampering with his meds so that she can have an “affair” with bad-boy Tyler. It’s not long, however, before Durden takes control of Sebastian and abducts their son. What follows is a pitch- black comedy adventure that takes in ISIS, a group of young progeria sufferers and appearances by the author himself. It’s as controversial – or “transgressive,” as Palahniuk puts it – as you’d expect, but also hilarious and occasionally affecting.
Was it strange, we ask, reconnecting with those characters after two decades apart? Palahniuk responds with a chuckle. “No, not really, because people have never let me forget these characters. People have kept them fresh for me for 20 years. But that’s a nice thing. Subsequent generations always seem to come across Fight Club and now it’s worked its way into academia and schools, so I guess it’s there to last.”
Resigned to Conflict
“Boy... You know, I just wrote it for the fun of it,” Palahniuk says of the original novel, which turns 20 this year. “There’s that horrible phrase, to do something ‘for shits and giggles’. I did kind of do it as a joke on publishing... I was just amazed that once it got into the world it kind of built an audience.
“It was an act of resignation... I was raised in such a contentious world. It seemed like every country was at war. We were always told that civilisation would reach an equilibrium where we would reach this global peace.
And so I grew up believing that, but in so many ways things are worse now than they were when I was as a child. Fight Club was me embracing conflict because I had given up on the idea that it would ever be resolved.” So it was a way of making some kind of peace with that fact? “Exactly. I think Max Brooks talks a lot about zombies as a way of young people embracing and dealing with threats to their mortality in a metaphorical way.”
Since the publication of Fight Club, Chuck has published 13 novels, two books of short fiction (though arguably Haunted counts as a novel too), one “remix” and two collections of non-fiction detailing his various adventures. So why return to his debut now, after all this time? Was it a case of reclaiming the book after years of it being seen primarily as a movie?
“That, and there was so little development in the characters [in the novel]. They really were just the actions they took, so I thought a comic could develop the characters in a way that neither a movie or a book could.” He set about writing the ten-issue mini- series, but the first draft was “terrible for comics. It was like a novel, just broken down. The guy who had to do the lettering explained that the dialogue was so plentiful it would be impossible to include it all.”
"￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼I did kind of write Fight Club as a joke on publishing... I was amazed it built an audience."
A full redraft followed. “I went through it and cleaned out about 90% of the dialogue and from there it was very easy. It was easy to identify the first beat of each gesture and the second beat and then make sure there was a setup at the end of the right-hand page and a payoff at the beginning of the left- hand page. I’m used to working with all the strictures and rules of minimalism, so this new set of rules wasn’t that different.”
It’s paid off. Far from a cynical cash-in or lazy rehash, Fight Club 2 is terrific. It feels of a piece with the original while working as a fine comic in its own right. Crucially, it’s not just for fans, though Chuck has made sure there are plenty of nods for the die-hards, with cameos from numerous old faces and call- backs to events from the first book.
“Originally I was going to bring very, very little from the original book back,” Chuck says. “I’d written the whole ten-issue series and then I went to Emerald City Comic-Con in Seattle, and I was on a big panel discussion. A lot of very young people started to ask if one secondary character or another was going to come back and I realised that people were really attached to these characters that I hadn’t considered very important at all! So I did another rewrite and I brought back all the old characters.”
One area that is new, however, is a stronger vein of the supernatural, though Chuck denies that this is a change in his work, pointing out that all his books “require the suspension of disbelief – believing that Tyler is in fact an alter ego, that he doesn’t actually exist, was a huge ask”.
Still, in Fight Club 2, Tyler is no longer just Sebastian’s split personality but a malevolent force that has existed throughout all of human history. “I spent last summer in Spain reading all of Lovecraft and I liked the way he created this fictitious landscape with a culture and history all of its own. Stephen King did that as well with Salem’s Lot and Jerusalem’s Lot, superimposing a map of his idea of the State of Maine over the actual state. So I thought I could do that. But instead of creating a kind of place-based mythology, I wanted to create a cross-time based mythology, where Tyler would be something that existed for all of human history, always swooping in to destroy families, taking possession of the one remaining son and doing this generation-after- generation towards the point when mankind will have the wherewithal to destroy itself. He would also have absolutely no respect for fathers and Tyler would step in as the ultimate father for the entire world, or what’s left of the world.”
Despite these fantastical aspects, Fight Club 2 is addressing some potent real-world issues. The original novel was about men in crisis, but Palahniuk believes the sequel is about humanity as a whole. “It seems like the issues that I talked about in Fight Club have become the issues of not just young men, but of young women also. Young people are looking for a future that’s not just an extension of what they’ve been given from the past. That was one reason for making Marla an equal character, so that she would be just as active in the quest.”
Are we at the point where someone like Tyler could spring forth? “Oh, I think so entirely,” Chuck responds ominously. “I think we are so primed for a fascist leader and that we will likely just throw ourselves at – probably his – feet.” Writing this soon after Donald Trump called for Muslims to be banned from the United States, it’s hard not to worry that we may be almost there...
"The big shocking cliffhanger ending is either going to enrage people or delight them."
Chuck Palahniuk, it should be noted, is not a fascist. Where Fight Club showed both the good and the bad sides of Tyler’s Project Mayhem, here he is undeniably a tyrant, ordering executions and forging links with terrorist organisations with total abandon. Was Palahniuk ever worried about putting such strong material out with a mainstream publisher?
“It’s been fantastic. Scott [Allie, the recently departed editor-in- chief at Dark Horse] is so hands-on and has been so willing to let me do things I didn’t think I’d get away with. I thought either [artist] Cameron Stewart or Scott or somebody in the production chain would say ‘these images are just too upsetting or too transgressive’ but so far nobody’s said that. Issue 7 contains some stuff that is really over the top. But what the hell, it’s there and we loved putting it there and certain people are going to be very upset. But that’s fine.”
Messing With Mechanics
Dark Horse paired Palahniuk up with Cameron Stewart, a decision that Palahniuk is delighted by. The two got to know each other when Stewart spent some time in Portland, where they would meet up weekly to discuss ideas for the book. “We would talk about different ideas. Things like using more realistic objects to occlude parts of the page – like the rose petals, the pills, a bloody tooth – things that would kind of cover faces and pieces of dialogue and kind of negate them so people would either have to puzzle them out or be frustrated at not being able to read what was being said.”
They also looked to the way that David Fincher’s celebrated Fight Club movie played with the format of film. “We liked the idea of messing with the mechanics of comics, so that during the fight scenes in issue 4 the register goes off and the ink is printed incorrectly. And breaking that fourth wall by including the writer’s workshop scenes. We included this kind of fake reality that would make the unreality of Fight Club seem more real.
“It really is a case of ‘just surprise me’. I’m always thrilled when I see that [Stewart] has collapsed a couple of panels together and made something much better, things I wouldn’t have had the smarts to do. And I’ve given him some fantastic challenges, things to really puzzle out, and he’s met every challenge.”
Chuck is keen to stress that this isn’t a one-off, either. “Cameron is committed to another project in 2016, but as soon as he’s free I’m going to have another ten or 12 issue series ready for another round of Fight Club.” Would it be Fight Club 3 or something different – a prequel, perhaps? “It will be a continuation from this one... Once you read the big shocking cliffhanger end of this one, you’re going to instantly want to see the next part. We talked all summer about how to end this... It’s just the biggest setup and payoff from the original book. Bigger than I ever could have imagined. And it’s really so bold. It’s another thing that’s either going to enrage people or it’s going to delight them.” Chuck also reveals that, at the time of our interview, he’s already written five issues of the next series.
But although Fight Club is taking a break in the latter half of 2016, that doesn’t mean Chuck is. “I’ve already talked to people about doing a series of single-issue comics that will all be very... provocative. They’ll each have a different artist – one completely appropriate for that topic – but all the single issues will circle around depicting the same theme, and will eventually be collected as a book.” Provocative? Transgressive? That’s unsurprising but very Chuck Palahniuk. And, boy, we can’t wait...
This article first appeared in Comic Heroes, the world's best magazine for all your comic book needs. From Marvel and DC to indies and graphic novel classics, pick up the latest issue and back issues here, from MyFavouriteMagazines.co.uk, and follow the mag on Facebook.