Matt Kindt on the end of Mind MGMT, a comic that might be trying to brainwash you
This is going to sound crazy.
For the past three years, a comic book series named Mind MGMT has been thrilling readers with a story about espionage and psychics. It has also been working very, very hard to make its readers paranoid conspiracy theorists.
It starts in a way that feels familiar. It starts a bit like Lost.
Like Lost, Mind MGMT begins with a Flight 815 where things go suddenly wrong mid-flight (Damon Lindelof was so tickled by this that he wrote the foreword to the series’ first collection, The Manager). However, instead of crashing, this Flight 815 arrives at its destination with its parts intact. Its passengers, however, are not—none of them can remember who they are.
This is the rabbit hole in which the readers, along with the protagonist, true crime writer Meru Marlow, are pulled into. What starts as an investigation into a strange phenomena becomes infinitely stranger, as Meru uncovers a shadow war between the remnants of Mind MGMT, a top-secret spy organization full of agents with crazy mind powers—including immortal assassins, psychic dolphins, and a man who can kill people just by pointing at them.
Over the course of 36 meticulously planned issues (issue #33 hits stores on Wednesday), writer and artist Matt Kindt has crafted a propulsive spy story that doubles as a puzzle box in comic book form, full of dream logic and oblique hints that there may be more to all of this than meets the eye. It’s there in the background details of the art, in the cryptic text Kindt tucks away in the margins, in the advertisements for products that don’t exist on the back cover of every issue.
Sure, Mind MGMT is a fun comic—but what if it’s also trying to get into your head? What does it want to do there? With only three issues left to go, EW reached out to the mastermind himself to peek behind the curtain of one of the most experimental and fascinating books in mainstream comics.
It’s time to meet the Manager.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: From the very start, you’ve said that Mind MGMT was fully planned out, and that you’re mostly following the same outline you’ve had from the beginning. What has it been like to slowly unfurl this grand plan?
MATT KINDT: I used to make graphic novels, where you can see the whole work at once … With the serialized format, you’re operating without a net. Last month’s issue is in print, everyone’s read it, and they’re all waiting for what comes next. [laughs] so if you didn’t set it up right, you’re in trouble and you have to find a way to get around it without anybody noticing. I won’t say I’ve done that! But I do really detailed outlines–I figure out entire story arcs before I sit down to write the first issue.
I want to make stuff that bears repeat reading. I don’t want to make stuff that you read for 10 minutes, and are entertained but then you move on to whatever TV show you’re watching and you’ve forgot about it two days later. I’d rather have something that sticks with you. It takes too much time; I’ve basically dedicated my life to comics. Once it’s in print, it’s there forever, so it needs to be as good as it can be, and hopefully something that people revisit.
What did you want Meru’s journey to be about throughout the series?
Well, in the beginning she’s one of us—she’s a surrogate for the reader, and we’re on an arc of discovery.Which is how a lot of fiction works—I love the idea of starting that way, I love the idea of [circumstances] shifting to reveal that there’s more to her than this.
So then we introduce Henry Lyme, who is this mystery character—everyone’s interested in who he is, and when you find out who he is … you think he’s going to be on this sort of hero’s journey with Meru, and then it shifts and you’re like, ‘oh is Henry the guy we’re supposed to be rooting for? Or is he a villain?’
I just love the dynamic of their relationship. I think the heart of the series, and the heart of my outline, when I started it is Meru and Henry Lyme, and their relationship and how it changes, and how you can have a flawed character that breaks a relationship, and can you get past that. Can you do things that are unforgivable and still be forgiven? These kind of ideas run through a lot of my stuff.
It’s like watching a child grow up. I have a daughter, she’s going to be 12—It’s fun to watch that personality develop, it’s fun to watch a person grow up and evolve and turn into the person they’re going to be. A lot of it is a question about history … Meru, in the beginning, is sort of innocent and naive and she doesn’t know who she is or what’s she’s doing. She’s sort of wandering around, it’s like a typical — you’re in college, trying to find yourself and saying ‘I don’t know what I want to do!’
And so she sort of pokes around and eventually finds a calling, a purpose. And then she grows up and becomes more active in her life, more proactive, slowly taking control. Everybody on Earth goes through it, you grow up and you’re sheltered in various ways and various statges, to various degrees, and eventually you grow out of that, and take control. It’s her doing that, but slightly more dramatic [laughs.]
But you also have a more openly antagonistic character—Julienne Verve, The Eraser—who’s also a foil for Meru.
Every story needs an antagonist, but I also hate that every story needs an antagonist—so I want to make her understandable. It’s a lot like Meru, but her upbringing is a bit different—there’s a lot of that nature vs. nurture, and how that plays out … Meru reacts positively, while the Eraser just spirals—although she certainly went through a little more than Meru—she didn’t come out as clean at the end of it.
One of the reasons why fans get so obsessive over Mind MGMT is its heavy symbolism and conflicting narratives—we’re given reason to doubt some of the characters, and there’s a bit of dream logic to the whole thing. How intentional that?
Yeah, that’s something you see in issue one, when the narrator is talking about having a dream, and the dream surprises them—and they wake up and say, ‘my mind made the dream up, how did I surprise myself?’ How does your brain make a twist ending for yourself? It’s kind of a conundrum, you know? I think that line is the last issue. If anything comes back it’s going to be that.
I think the ending of Mind MGMT—you can take it two or three different ways. And it’s going to be up to you to choose which way you take it. Not to say it’s ambiguous, because I really hate purposely ambiguous endings where we’re like, ‘oh were they alive the whole time? Were they dead the whole time?’ I don’t like that. I can promise you it won’t be that. It’ll just be a little more subtle.
When you’re done reading the book, you’ll wonder–was the whole thing a recruitment pamphlet for you, the reader? Or was the series just what it was, a spy mind adventure? Or is there a third way?
I’m ending it on a way where you can make an argument for any of those things, and I think they can all exist together and it could be all of them. I love that idea of an adventure thing that was also designed to have readers indoctrinated. So by the time you get to the last page, you’re a part of it.
And that ties into the whole design of the book. I was in a panel last week, where I said—without getting too weird—the book, to me, works in three dimensions. The first dimension is the things that happen in the panels. The second is the stuff that happens outside of those gutters and the page, and the third is you holding the book, and closing it, and that weird ad on the back. It’s sort of staring you in the eye, you put it down, but it’s like, ‘look, I’m still here, I’m actually in your living room.’
I like that certain element of paranoia [laughs] Someone asked me if I was paranoid, and I said, ‘No, but you probably are!’ If I’m doing my job, you should get to that point.
You do a lot to suggest that the reader is complicit in this story—the story doesn’t end when you close the book. What’s the reader’s role in this for you?
That’s the beauty of comics to me. With a monthly comic, every month you’re getting feedback, you’re getting people excited, talking to people. I go to like, ten conventions a year, interacting with people and selling them books … One of the ideas for the ending came about as I was working on the book, interacting with people face-to-face and doing the signings—there’s going to be an interactive element to the last issue, where, in a way, it won’t really be complete unless you come see me, and then I’ll complete it for you.
I don’t want to spoil it, but there is an element there that is interactive. I kind of love adding a performance art act to–not the creation of the book but all the stuff after. Signing books is sort of a weird thing, you know? But if you can make that more interesting, like, you bring this thing up to me, and then our interaction and this thing I do becomes part of the story — then that’s interesting. Then there’s a purpose to it. So there’ll be that interactive element on the last page of the last issue, and it’ll be in the book too so if you get that last book, on that last page—bring it up to me and something weird will happen. [laughs]
Have you kept up with fan speculation?
I used to keep up with a guy who does week by week analysis and then I stopped. I’ll read reviews, just to see if people got stuff—that’s a good barometer, if I’m making it too difficult or obvious. I never really change the ideas, I just want to see what people get [laughs] it’s kind of a game, I feel like it’s a game.
Do people get what you’re trying to accomplish more often than not?
It’s probably fifty-fifty. For every guy who’ll bring up something that I forgot I put in there, another person will come up and say, “I know I’m not getting it all, but I love it.” And that’s fine. The first time I read Watchmen I was in eighth grade, I didn’t get it at all. I was like, ‘Why are these super heroes so sad?’
And then you read it three or four more times over the course of your life—I love a book where you can read it at a different time in your life and it has a different meaning. I’m hoping this is one of those books where you read it in high school and you get one thing out of it; you read it in college and you get another. If it’s sitting around and you’re bored and fifty years old and you read it again and you get something else altogether—you’ve had kids by that point, or you’ve gone through a divorce or something that’s changed your view, which changes the way the book works on you.
What can we expect from these last few issues?
It’s basically a big fight [laughs]. Basically in my original pitch, I had everything outlined, and for the last six issues I just had, ‘Big Fight”.
Closer to last summer, I thought ‘well, ‘Big Fight’ is a little vague. I don’t know if I can carry out a big fight into six issues. But by the time I sat down and scripted it—It’s still a big fight, but it’s a very Mind MGMT-style fight, with lots going on. It’s not an issue full of splash pages or anything.
There’s a big conclusion—in a way it’s kind of funny to me, I’ve been doing this big intricate story, and if I were to sum up this last arc with “Big Fight”—it cracks me up. Even though there’s a lot more to it. But yeah, that’s it. That’s what’s in store.