In this interview with Sloane Leong, BARBATUS and MEANBOSS discuss their first magnum opus, SAD SACK: an extreme gore-porn and psychological horror series that takes place in the summer of 2018, where five friends get together in the basement of a warehouse in Long Island City to enact a series of five drawn out and increasingly bizarre torture-murders in the name of “justice.” They also talk about SORTIE, their current project: a heavily abstract sequel to SAD SACK that can be summarized as, “man continues to torpedo his own life.” The conversation also explores the creative team’s thoughts on the potential of horror, the making of transgressive art in a conservative culture, and the collaborative process behind their super-violent porn comic epics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sloane Leong: It’s not everyday you find a creative soulmate who is down to draw a 1052+ page erotic gay snuff horror comic with you. Can you tell me a little about your backgrounds and how you two came to start collaborating?
BARBATUS: Aw shucks hehe that’s a sweet way to put that. I think we met on Tumblr a billion years ago; we were both fans of Outlast and were also the only two people drawing this one ultra misogynist character “Gluskin” getting his skull caved in. So we kinda caught each other’s eye across the party that way and went, “oh hey that dude’s a freak like me, we should be friends.”
MEANBOSS: Yeah we were both into the beefiest and more pathetic of the Outlast antagonists, and I think that interest in (figuratively and literally) breaking down horrible and otherwise scary characters has a lot to do with us making [sic] such a good fit creatively. Back then, most other writers and artists were more into redemption arcs, while we just wanted to put the guy through the meat grinder. I guess that never changed.
BBT: Dude that guy sucked so bad, I loved smacking him upside the head lol. I think through that stuff we realized that we had a similar sense of black humor and an identical appreciation for a super specific flavor of gay gore terror. We spitballed on and off for a while that we should collaborate on something one day, but we never had any concrete ideas, just the inkling that it’d be interesting.
SL: What are your creative backgrounds? Schooled or self-taught? I find both your aesthetics and story proclivities to be unique and I’d be interested in hearing how you were able to nurture that. What were some cornerstones in your life that shaped your work?
MB: I’m not proud to admit it, but I think a lot of it for me has to do with the shock content era of the internet. That spiraled into seeking out movies, comics, games, anything that emulated the sort of disturbing stuff you saw on liveleak, lolshock, whatever. Got into eroguro manga for a while because that’s especially nasty, but it gets old quick. I made a conscious choice to get away from that as I got out of my teens, but I guess the interest in horror and disturbing content was already set in stone, it had just gotten a little more complex. As for schooling, I just taught myself how to draw, had lots of inspiration from western comics and that black & white noir style.
BBT: Yeah that was a horrible time online and one that affected me a great deal too, back when it was really easy to find violent shock shit. You stop looking at it, but honestly it stays with you forever, even nearly a decade after the fact. These days I draw a lot from different kinds of art. With movies or TV, it’s either surrealist pieces that RJ and I can have a conversation about for a couple hours (A Field In England and the original Evangelion come to mind), or the usual heinous splatter classics, (feels weird to be calling the August Underground trilogy a classic, but I guess 2001 was a little while ago at this point). With music, Michael Gira’s work had a nuclear bomb impact on my output, and I was never the same after hearing my first Swans album. Writing, I like Haruki Murakami a lot; he’s not really interested in telling a beginning – middle – end type of story as much as he just wants to show you a snapshot of a weird thing that happened. And visually, the Battle Royale manga was really formative for me back when I first read it in high school, in that it had the reader spend so much time with its characters before forcing you to watch them get hit by a truck. It’s aged super poorly so I wouldn’t really recommend it now, but it always stuck with me. The full humanization of the target character made the inevitable even worse. Just ugly for the sake of being ugly. Also the level of gore in that comic was demented lol. Like if you thought Ichi The Killer was a rough read, watch out!
SL: The scope of SAD SACK and its subject are incredibly, violently intimate. I could see another writer being tempted to make it more plot-heavy but I really appreciate how the narrative is grounded in the characters and their emotions. Could you both talk about the genesis of the story and how you developed it into its final form?
BBT: The genesis of the whole thing was that the Neo-Nazi tiki torch bullshit had happened in 2017, and by the time 2018 rolled around I was still furious. Hit extra close to home being Jewish and gay, and most of my family being Jewish plus most of my friends being gay. So Book 1, SO MUCH FOR THE TOLERANT LEFT, being about an Ashkenazim guy and his gay friends chopping up a Neo-Nazi was purely me being enraged and spewing acid to cheer myself and my buddies up in the face of what was going on around us that was out of our control. Like what else was I supposed to do at the time with my feelings, right?
I had no idea it was gonna be anything more than my own angry sketches, and RJ actually came in outta nowhere and started inking it by surprise which was like, shock of my entire life. So that was great encouragement to keep doing the roughs and wrap up what turned out to be a 130-something page book for RJ to ink.
MB: I think I had been wanting to get into black and white art at the time and saw it as a great opportunity to practice. I wasn’t at all far into that when Nick decided the comic needed a second installment to explore more of the characters and their motivations; as it progressed, we tweaked some things here and there to make things more concise, but honestly it was a pretty streamlined process from start to finish. Everything from the decisions we made about the art to how the story developed were largely made in the moment. We later had a lot of laughs over noticing overarching themes and semiotics that we had never intended to be there in the first place.
BBT: Book 1 was honestly just meant to be a one-shot, but as I got closer to the end I couldn’t help but ponder what in the goddamn was wrong with these dudes that they’d get together and do something like this; like what what everybody’s individual damage that they talked each other up enough to go through with murder? So the rest of the story started taking form from there, and the snuff became this ridiculous premise that people would have to fight through to get to the real meat–which wound up being an exploration into groupthink and one-upmanship, and how ugly revenge fantasies never turn out how you dream they will.
I wanted to develop these five guys into the closest approximations of human beings I could manage, and having them living normal lives with unrelated normal friends made them feel even more fucked up to me than only showcasing them cutting asses open. My thinking was the more human and “real” the perpetrators felt, the grodier the whole reading experience would be.
SL: There’s always this deep, underlying tension with artists who work in horror, where the intense revulsion for it in reality is safely transformed into a site of generation and catharsis. The revulsion and the indulgence works almost cyclically and becomes something more. However, we’re currently in a time where a lot of transgressive art is often vehemently rejected by audiences, even purported erotica or horror readers. How has this atmosphere influenced your work or creative outlook?
MB: I could say that I think we’re lucky for not drawing any horrendously negative attention to ourselves so far, but truthfully I dont think it’s all luck at all. We’ve always been extremely careful with how we present our work; we want to be honest about what it is and be honest about what we actually believe in, so hopefully if it isn’t your bag you can avoid it altogether without having to circumvent a bunch of euphemisms. I’ve had one or two conversations with people who had a lot of assumptions about us and what our comics are about, and it never takes much to convince them we don’t mean any harm. Even if they dislike our work they seem to conclude we are at least responsible in the way we go about it–as much as one can be at least. It helps that we aren’t the type of people who wanna pick fights on the internet. I always try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt whenever they come at me too strongly about any of that, which is a very rare event anyway.
I’m of two minds about the gut reactions people have to disturbing art. On one hand, duh, of course it’s not gonna bode well for 90% of people, and I’m fine with that; I have lines of my own that I don’t cross. On the other hand, as a gay man I think that we might have swung the pendulum too far in one direction in an effort to save face. A lot of LGBT stuff now is… very clean, even infantilized. I have an issue with that but I don’t know what the solution is. I just do what I do because I like it and try to be a good person the rest of the time.
BBT: I agree. I think culture at large kind of swings as a pendulum does, where every 5 or 10 years it ricochets in the opposite direction as the next generation enters into things– especially online where it’s just magnified. I remember a decade ago when there was a lot of awful racism, sexism, homophobia, and all manner of genuinely offensive bullshit being passed off as normal, and now the current culture’s rejected all of that–which is great! But it’s swung so hard in this process of getting away from it that we’re almost in a land of puritanical sensibilities, which isn’t really a good place to be either if it’s keeping people in a bubble of what they think they “should” be making versus what they want to be making.
I absolutely do not want to see things go back to any semblance of how they were 10 years ago, because the era of /b/ [Editor’s note: /b/ was a 4chan board notorious for allowing obscene material and hate speech] was terrible beyond belief and I think we’re just now finding words to describe exactly how terrible that time period was, but I worry for people in this current era of the rejection of things that are raw or uncomfortable. Mostly I worry that the concern for experiencing social backlash prevents people from making pieces of their own that are difficult, or gross, or personally sexually-charged, or what have you. Not racist, not homophobic, not shit involving kids – just difficult. And difficult gross art is my favorite stuff! I love the weird alienating Honest stuff! Gimme more of that! Unflattering honesty in art is what’s memorable and what inspires people to be brave and do something weird of their own.
As far as concerns for us facing that social rejection go, honestly it never even occurred to me to be worried about [it] and hasn’t really come our way. I think in part because of all the measures we’ve taken to ensure nobody winds up here without understanding exactly what they’re getting into–the whole series is paywalled; there’s a huge list of thorough part-specific content warnings at the start of each book; we frequently go out of our way to offer to speak with people one-on-one about any content warnings they’re trepidatious about; and all of the book summaries online flat out are the content warnings. You can’t set foot anywhere near this crap without getting hit with like the War & Peace of content warnings lol–so if you made it past the brick wall of Danger Do Not Cross signs on our storefront, and you got your lil Macy’s wallet open and gave us cold hard USD to download our stuff, and then you opened our stuff and encountered the first page with the exhaustive list of warnings yet again as a last ditch effort, and you still got mad? Man, at that point I can’t help you.
If the issue boils down to being angry that it exists at all, I don’t really know what to say to that. Weird transgressive stuff is always going to exist. People will always enjoy being thrilled and chilled to all sorts of extents, and some like it hot. Ultimately I feel that it’s up to You The Viewer to curate your experience. At the same time, I personally believe that it’s our responsibility as dudes making Turbo-Gore Brainfuck 9000: The Musical to give people the tools they need in order for them to make an informed decision on whether or not this kind of reading experience is for them. I want people to be consensually squicked and thrilled reading our work, not genuinely upset by it. In spite of the wacky premise we’re serving up, I do hope that those feelings come across somehow.
That, and to be frank as a dude interested in dudes, I’m pretty bored of the only really extreme stuff like this coming from straight guys who seem to be constantly punching down on women as victims and/or sex objects. Like. how about punching in general on a dude sex object? Gimme a dude Giallo film for once with all the slobbering glove fetish shots and a dude in bonkers lighting, that sounds great. Gimme like a full cheesecake gay slasher that’s just all nude dudes.
SL: I admire that you’ve been able to build a sort of haven for yourself creatively and also for your readers by being upfront about your subject matter. To dive further into subject matter and subverting traditions, do you find yourself consciously working against typical erotica or horror narrative tropes or embracing them? What kind of narrative or aesthetic do you find yourself having to fight against or have a natural draw towards?
BBT: From the writer-guy perspective in this operation: with the sexual and violent portions, it’s not so much that I try to subvert expectations or standards as much as it is that I’m really bad at paying attention to what other people are doing in a genre, lol. I just do what’s fun to do. I think I try to listen exclusively to my hindbrain and earnestly make what that thing’s interested in seeing and feeling:stuff that scares me, excites me, grosses me out, whatever. Which can make for some alienating work to be sure, but also hopefully it has this quality of a trainwreck you can’t look away from. I had a job for 6 years that was more or less “field medic” that involved a lot of hosing out lacerations and dodging pressurized abscess drainage and the like, and I honestly take a lot of my horror sensibilities and voice from that old job. The work was so up close and personal with all the painful and disgusting things that could happen to the body, which was simultaneously completely at odds with the perfectly nice human being inside that body. There’s a dissonance there that makes you feel really queasy and helpless the first year until you learn to find the happy medium between caring too much and completely shutting your feelings off. I like finding little ways to keep reminding the reader that the characters are meant to be interpreted as Entire Human Beings like that, flaws and all,because keeping a firm personhood in mind makes everything they do and everything that happens to them so much harder to grapple with.
MB: I can second Nick in saying that I’m just Not Paying Attention to what’s expected out of whatever genre we fit into here. I don’t think I ever stopped mid-page and went, “Oh, I shouldn’t do that, it’s too overdone” or the inverse. I do exactly what I want to see, unless I’m conceding to Nick’s creative vision;as the artist I like to give him the final say on how things look, since this is his brainchild.
What I do like to see is pretty straightforward: men in all their sweaty and greasy amateur-porn-recorded-with-an-iPhone-6 glory, and I like gore to look how I remember it looking when I was 13 and had unrestricted internet access: wrong. You got shit and fat mixed into it and it churns your stomach; uneven, discolored, and never how you expect it to look. A bit ago when I said I got into eroguro for a bit but got tired of it, this is why. Sometimes, even within horror art, things are made out to be a lot simpler, cleaner than they are. I never enjoyed doing things that way.
SL: A lot of your comics are extremely honed in on the body and with it macro/microexpressions and body language in a way I associate mainly with manga. Can you talk about how you approach writing and drawing characters?
BBT: Oh man, I love doing little face journeys and awkward dialogue, mostly in service to making everybody feel more real. I get bored writing big walls of dialogue because like… it’s not how people talk! I love having people stuttering or interrupting one another or going off on grunting tangents, which is something I picked up wholesale from Sophie Campbell’s Wet Moon series way back in the day. I like to do a thing too where I break up speech bubbles oddly to try and show where the pauses in a sentence are, or get the bubbles really oozy and dripping mucus to try and better impart a frantic or lascivious tone. ( I always have a general gist of where I need a scene to start and end, but dialogue is something I try to avoid pre-writing at all costs in order to preserve the off-the-cuff flow of a real conversation as best as I can. I think the one exception is if someone is going on a gigantic multipage monologue, and for that I just open up Notepad and rambletype as fast as possible just so I don’t risk losing my train of thought when I’m roughing pages out.
With visuals and faces, I’m less concerned with drawing an expression correctly and more absorbed in drawing what it feels like to make that expression, and I’ll just completely break or erase bony landmarks and eye sockets and jaws in service of capturing what it feels like to be explosively angry or what have you. I think my art style’s a very jagged kind of cartoony that almost bleeds into abstraction sometimes because of this, which I love doing–but then RJ bringing in his hard anatomical sensibilities, and him inking my mishmash into an approximation of correctness just cranks everything up so bad to an 11, it’s amazing. I remember looking at the first time he had to ink one of my particularly busted faces in TOLERANT LEFT and almost doing a spit-take from laughing at how bizarro-world it looked.
Also it’s worth noting that I really don’t enjoy doing “final” artwork as much as I enjoy doing roughs and preliminary pages; I’ve fallen in love with the freedom and sloppiness of The Sketch, and RJ I believe has the opposite feeling in that he prefers The Finish, and that was super funny when we finally got around to working together and both realized we liked doing the part the other guy hated.
MB: I really enjoy working strong facial expressions and especially gestures as much as possible into our comics; it’s a way to make what would otherwise be a boring panel into something more interesting to draw and look at. We’re already working at a disadvantage due to the nature of the medium, so the more movement I can add to it the better. I do have a slightly more… stiff style than Nick does, one a bit more concerned with proportions and such, so it’s interesting to merge the two and try to get the best out of both, as he said. I also use a lot of photo reference: my phone is full of pictures of myself doing wild gestures and horrific faces that I took to help me draw specific scenes. I’ll even put them in my PC and edit them to look more uncanny before I start to reference off them.
SL: Can you tell us about your new ongoing series, SORTIE? How did you land on Sal as your protagonist? How has your process changed between SAD SACK and this new series?
MB: I pitched the idea the same night Nick finalized the preliminary sketches for BOG. I saw a lot of potential in Sal’s story that had been left unexplored and thought he stood out in the group as the only character who had not “learned his lesson,” to simplify it significantly. SAD SACK, among a lot of things, is about the disappointment and self-inflicted trauma that would realistically follow a revenge plot, and we see each (surviving) character arrive at that realization. Except Sal, he’s bull-headed like that. That’s largely what SORTIE is about, the aftermath of SAD SACK as illustrated by the character who was the slowest to process it and who came with a lot of unique baggage of his own.
BBT: Admittedly I was this close to killing Salvatore by the end of the SAD SACK roughs before RJ pried the figurative shotgun out of my hands and pointed out that there was still meat on that bone. I really have no love in my heart for individual characters we make and see them purely as means to an end for conveying A Weird Thing That Happened–but he was right, we had more work we could do! We agreed that Sal’s actions could be too easily forgiven or handwaved by the end of SAD SACK, for a variety of reasons, and we decided we wanted to get deeper into him and correct that misconception.
The work process for SORTIE’s been a completely different beast. With SAD SACK I think jumping in head-first without much planning worked well for me, as it was a story about messy people making bad impulsive decisions and then being hit with the psychological fallout, and I could just let the characters fuck up and figure out the consequences as the story played out. SORTIE though is an exercise in surrealism, so a lot of paradoxically careful planning went into creating its deliberate incoherence. As RJ said, Sal was always the odd man out in the group; he’s really standoffish and withdrawn, on top of just having no self-awareness, so he never went into his M.O. at all or telegraphed his thinking to the audience in any meaningful way like the other guys did. SORTIE’s an effort to force the doors open on his broken view of the world and showcase it,but he still barely talks and doesn’t have much of a clue about his own inner world by the time SORTIE rolls around. So the only way to force the information out for the reader to examine was telling it through nightmares and TBI hallucinations. It had to be a surrealist thing. I’m a pretty big David Lynch fan and always wanted to try some dense surrealism! I think RJ and I watched Lost Highway together right in the middle of working on SORTIE and it was like this mutual ahah! moment.
The whole writing process was a lot more involved. In the past I’d develop entire show bibles for comics for fun, and then every time I’d get intimidated by the size and scope of the potential project, and I’d get spooked and shelve it. So SAD SACK was me going “fuck it” and writing with no plan in mind to try and avoid psyching myself out, and I think finally getting one humongous and (allegedly) decent thing finished gave me the courage to sit down and try deliberate planning again. RJ was also incredibly involved in the story this time around! We bounced so many ideas off one another during the sketch stage that I honestly consider us co-authors on this one. So the SORTIE process was getting the roughs done for Books 1 through 4, then stopping and doing a massive wave of edits on the existing material to make sure the semiotics were lining up. Then, finishing the roughs for Books 5 and 6, going back again and doing an even longer wave of edits on the whole thing. With the inks, RJ’s running any scene changes or additions he’s got by me and throwing them in the pot too. You should see the Google doc we got running on this thing, it’s a mess.
SL: In addition to any upcoming releases, are there any new ideas or projects that you’re planning to work on once SORTIE concludes?
BBT: Yeah totally! RJ makes his solo living doing commissions so I highly encourage everybody to check him out, he’s a beast. And the collaborative to-do pile’s up to the ceiling, but right now I’m hacking away on and off at roughing out a sci fi comic called LOVOS4017 (http://sus.space/lovos4017 and http://lovos4017.the-comic.org/, all the roughs are up for free to read on that second link) which is some long and overly complicated love letter to Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s pulpy cyberpunk from the 80s. I pumped the brakes on it back in mid-2022 due to needing to focus on a day job change, but I’ll be back on it soon! Hopefully this is gonna be the one we can actually present to publishers without them balking, as it’s nowhere near as bonkers with the sex and violence. Like it’s still body horror galore but y’know, no sharp objects going in bad places. Or not as many sharp objects. Like Cronenberg violence as opposed to Marian Dora violence. Palatable.
You can find more of BARBATUS’s work here:
And MEANBOSS here:
Sloane Leong is a self-taught writer, cartoonist and artist. She’s written and drawn two acclaimed graphic novels, Prism Stalker and A Map to the Sun, and has short fiction in Apex Magazine, Fireside Magazine, Dark Matter Magazine among others. Sloane is currently living on Chinook land near Portland, Oregon with her family and three dogs. Find more of her work at https://sloanesloane.com/.