What comes out of Larime Taylor’s mouth? A dark, stylish story that might change your ideas about comic books (and serial killers)
It’s the last question of the interview — the biggie, the closer that usually unlocks a heartfelt quote glimmering with poignant inspiration and insight: Why? Why does he do it? Why does Larime Taylor, who does not have the use of his arms or legs, take pen to mouth every day and spend hours upon hours drawing and writing?
“Honestly? I do it to make a living. Art and writing is all I’ve got,” he says. “I can’t go flip burgers, or do odd jobs for construction, or clean parking lots. I can’t do anything else. This is what I’ve got. At the end of the day, that’s why I do it: I need to make a living.”
Oh. He doesn’t say this in an angry, resigned or self-pitying way. He says it very matter-of-factly. And you’re a bit shocked by how practical an answer it is, and how it reveals perhaps a subtle but pernicious stereotype you cling to in which you somehow expect people with disabilities who happen to do interesting things to have some secret heroic spirit surging through them, and perhaps you seek to be assured that the deep satisfaction they get out of doing whatever they do despite their disability — performing, drawing, writing, painting — somehow compensates for, even magically eclipses, their disability. That makes everything okay, right?
Not really. Larime Taylor was born with arthrogryposis, a birth defect that made his arm and leg joints permanently contracted, folded into his body. But Larime Taylor is like a lot of us: He needs to pay the bills. Isn’t that enough heroism?
Taylor himself doesn’t have many stereotypical ideas about heroes. Consider: The protagonist of his highly praised comic book, A Voice in the Dark, is a black female serial killer college student who hosts an anonymous call-in show on the campus radio station. Ironically, the idea germinated from a youth spent watching the classic horror slashfests that made mincemeat of countless teens in the Reagan era.
“It started out as a parody homage to all the slasher movies I grew up with in the ’80s and ’90s,” he says. “I kind of grew up at the time when all that — the Nightmare on Elm Streets and Friday the 13ths and Halloweens — were getting really big. I wanted to turn a lot of the tropes upside down. So, the first rule of those movies is the ethnic character always dies first. I thought, what if she was my sole survivor? What if she were the killer? I realized along the way there’s actually a pretty interesting story there and a lot of things I could play with psychologically, and a lot of things I could deal with on a meta level.”
The gold ring
Taylor had no idea whether the idea would take off. In 2012, he launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $1,500 to put together a sample package to pitch to a comics publisher. Instead, he raised $9,000. Encouraged by the response, he conceived and drew a 56-page graphic novel. He didn't have to shop it around long before he landed a deal with Top Cow, a subsidiary of Image Comics, the famed indie imprint founded by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane. “It was kind of the gold ring, and I got it on the first try,” Taylor says. Since then, he’s published eight issues that tell the story of Zoey Aarons, a college student juggling all the things a college student juggles: grades, class schedules, dormmates, dating life — oh, and a compulsion to kill.
“I wanted to do a story where they were a reluctant killer, someone who doesn’t necessarily want to do what they do or revel in what they do, and I wanted to deal with them in a much more human way,” Taylor says. “Rather than gleefully glorifying it, I thought, how can I humanize this and make it more relatable? She’s not a psychopath or sociopath, she’s not unrepentant.”
And amid A Voice in the Dark’s moody panels awash in lurid watercolor streaks and blots, there's grim humor, too. In one scene, Zoey goes on a blind coffee date with Rio, a secret admirer who is a serial killer too. The get-to-know-you small talk is the chilling inverse of first-date chatter. “Me? I’ve got traumatic adolescent bullshit that's made me a social cripple around most women. I lash out at those who remind of her,” Rio explains, plumbing his murderer’s psyche as casually as if he's rattling on about his favorite pastimes.
The angle has hooked comics fans. “Characterization is the strongest aspect of A Voice in the Dark. ... (Zoey) isn't lovable, but she is interesting, accessible and emotionally complex, and Taylor uses her predicament to explore deeper themes of free will and identity,” writes reviewer Jennifer Cheng for website Comic Book Resources. A Voice in the Dark was also a nominee for Favorite New Series of 2013 by the “Behind the Panels” comic books podcast.
'As I go along'
Taylor's process is slow, deliberate and constant, taking place largely in his head before anything appears on the screen. But when he finally takes pen to tablet, Taylor first writes a script with scene descriptions, following a general story arc, leaving room for discovery and improvisation. “I write wherever it wants to go. I don’t decide something has to end this way or that way. If a new idea comes along the way that changes things, I’m fine with that. I’m not afraid to make it up as I go along.”
The illustrations begin with real life. He starts by enlisting his friends to model poses and body positions with basic props as backgrounds, using photos of them as the foundation to illustrate the panels with his mouth, using an electronic pen and Wacom Cintiq tablet. Any limitations you might think Taylor has are transformed into strengths: The strong lines and sparse backgrounds make for a lean, haunted look that intensifies the focus on the characters and adds tension to the story. His wife, Sylv, sometimes colors the covers, but she’s also his sounding board and brainstorming partner.
[Hear more: Learn about the Latino comic book scene on “KNPR's State of Nevada.]
“He came up with the original idea on his own, but as he changed direction with the focus of the story and that got more and more complex, he'd talk to me about the changes, and we still discuss how to work the pacing and narrative and reveals,” she says. “And because we both write and draw, we can discuss these things as writers and artists,” she adds. “He doesn't just come to me with, ‘Hey, sweetie, I have a thing!’ but also from the perspective that we both, as professionals and partners, want this book to be the best it can be, however we can make it be.”
Their livelihood largely depends on it. Indeed, theirs isn’t the picture of hip, upwardly mobile young creative-classers who while the day away drawing at a leisurely pace.
“I’ve seen him put 20-hour days, every day for weeks, without a break, to get this book done, while juggling bills, rent, groceries, because we were (and still are) living under the poverty line,” says Sylv, who has lupus and is legally blind. “He was working on it when we were getting ready to move to Vegas. He's been pitching other projects as well, because we need the work.” To make extra money, several nights a week Taylor also draws caricatures for tips on the Strip. But it wasn't until electronic tablet tech came along that he was able do a full-blown comic.
"Five, six years ago, I wasn't really able to do what I'm doing now. It's taken the technology catching up to where I can draw directly on my screen for me to be able to do what I do. Once I got this tablet, I was able to take that big leap. It removed all the barriers."
And yet “disabled mouth artist” is part of his sales proposition. Indeed, at the risk of forcing a facile metaphor, you can readily see a connection between Taylor and his protagonist Zoey: There's an undeniable part of them that can't be changed, so they sublimate it, put it in service of a better life. Again, there's that no-nonsense pragmatism.
"(Arthrogryposis) is something I've lived with all my life, so it's kind of automatic to me," Taylor says. "And for all that it does limit or get in the way of, the situation can be used to my advantage. And I take advantage of it, because you use what you got. I do get more press attention because I draw the book with my mouth, and I'm not going to shy away from that.
"But at the end of the day, the art and the quality has to be there to back it up. If the story wasn't compelling, if the art wasn't at least decent, people wouldn't care how I do it."