A Walk to Forbidden Planet with Cameron Kasky

"By stepping out of your apartment door in New York, you're immediately part of something bigger than yourself."

“That’s one of the things I love about Washington Square Park. How hard it is to find people.”

Cameron Kasky and I have been texting each other for about ten minutes, both of us trying to locate the other. The whole time I’ve been marveling at how crowded the park is. Students are laughing, performers are capturing the attention of impromptu audiences, and every few steps I take somebody offers to sell me weed.

Cam and I embrace by the Washington Square Fountain and immediately start making our way toward 5th Avenue. The electric energy of the park—filled with people—matches Cam’s exactly. He walks at a quick pace, immediately launching into an explanation of the Birds Aren't Real movement that I only catch half of. We’re headed to Cam’s favorite comic book store in Manhattan, Forbidden Planet. From there we’ll meander through Union Square and around Gramercy Park, eventually ending up at Old Town Bar.

But in the meantime—both conversationally and physically—I do what I always do when I’m around Cameron Kasky. I try to keep up.

Isaac: How often do you come to this comic store?

Cameron Kasky: Sometimes once a day.

I: Seriously? When did you first discover the shop?

CK: I first discovered Forbidden Planet when I was trying to get a job here. I didn't get it. Which is a pretty pathetic way to find a comic book store. Especially since I'm 20 years old now—I'm something of an adult—and I was able to procure a job at a comic book store when I was 15. I worked at Tate's Comics in Lauderhill, Florida. I was fucking good, too. The customers loved me. It’s what I love about comic book stores, and why I’m always coming back to Forbidden Planet: the social scene. You’re going to find a particular type of person at a comic book store at 1pm on a Wednesday.

I’d usually rather be talking to someone at a comic book store than going nuts at a rager. I love people, but not when they’re at parties. I just can’t mentally get on that level. And college kids in particular can be a bit exhausting to me in great numbers. I like seeing my college friends in smaller groups.

I: You say “college kids in particular can be a bit exhausting,” does that include yourself?

CK: Oh, I have all the pitfalls of a classic Gen Z-er. I have a terrible problem with social media. I spend so much time looking at myself through the lens of everybody else and never through my own lens. And that's a product of the social media era. Social media has turned a lot of kids—especially my age, but also fucking millennials, people in their thirties—it has reframed our views of ourselves to be through the perspective of an audience. Because social media gives you one, whether it's 10 people or 10,000. A lot of people my age are stuck. Everything we're doing? We're thinking about how it's going to be perceived by other people.

I: Instead of checking in with ourselves?

CK: Our lives are content. And there's an easy fix, which is deleting the apps. But that's easy until it isn't. Plus, social media can also be a great way to meet people. To connect with people. And that’s something I very much enjoy, either online or at, say, Forbidden Planet.

I: What type of people do you find yourself drawn to?

CK: I think people who don't normally get to talk to that many other people are often the most interesting people to talk to. I have a very, very deep appreciation for bizarre people because I—for a long time in my childhood—felt very left out. Very different from all of my peers.

I have a very complicated relationship to youth. And I think that’s common among many people my age, right? Technically adults, but—we feel both young and old at the same time. A lot of my friends are adults. Like adult adults. But they’ve managed to figure out how to keep what’s good about youth. And I admire that, even while I try to separate myself from my own youth a bit. A lot of my friends are writers, or they work in theater, or in Hollywood. And you can see it when they get excited, talking about their art. Their eyes become the eyes of a child.

In my mind, maturity is a circle. It's not a linear journey. Many people see it as a linear journey. They define maturity by societal standards. The job you have, the family you have, the kids you might have, the rent you are able to afford. All of these things lend themselves to our understanding of what a mature person is. When, in all reality, so many people who have those things—a good job, a family, a nice house—are radically immature. But the way I view it, maturity is actually about how your soul is aging, not your body.

I: That's a beautiful way to put it.

CK: A lot of young people I know who have been through tragedy and have been through trauma feel old and young at the same time. It gives you this perspective on what life is, but it can also, in a way, stick you in that time. I feel like I'm always looking at myself as a version of my 17-year-old self, because my 17-year-old self went through those experiences. My 17-year-old self was on television. He was perceived by everyone. Everybody saw. I mean, what better way to feel like you peaked in high school than organizing one of the biggest public gatherings in US history? How do you not always feel like you’re some quarterback trying to relive his glory days? Fortunately, I've learned that the fulfillment in my life now comes from doing creative work, but creative work can also be a radically unfulfilling thing.

I: I’m glad you’ve found creative work. Obviously one form of storytelling you’re drawn to is comics. Can you recommend some?

CK: Saga. Have you read it?

I: I’m behind, but yes. Love Saga.

CK: Here’s my fan casting for an adaptation of Saga: Dev Patel and Stephanie Beatriz as Marko and Alana. For The Will I'm going to take from Vince Gilligan and say either Aaron Paul or Michael Mando. Both of them would be great. I think for Prince Robot you do Matt Smith and for The Stalk, you do Aubrey Plaza. For the voice of Lying Cat I like Sandra Oh. But another voice actor who should be in there somewhere is Justin Roiland. Mr. Heist? Jordan Peele. Or André De Shields from Hadestown would make a wonderful Mr. Heist. Two very different performances, but both great. And then Gwendoline? Issa Rae. Easy.

I: You haven’t thought about this at all before, huh?

CK: I could keep going! But I’ll stop there. Another great series I love is Invincible, but only if you enjoy superheroes. I think the greatest writer for Batman ever is Grant Morrison. I love Grant Morrison, and everything they’ve worked on. If you want to do a superhero comic within one of the two big universes, I’d say go with Secret Six by Gail Simone. Gail Simone is an incredible comic book writer and Secret Six is an incredible story.

The secret with comic books is 98% of them are total crap, but that 2% that's good is often very, very good. Oh, and obviously I can say Watchmen, but nobody doesn't have Watchman on their shelf already.

I: How do you feel about the movies? Marvel? DC?

CK: Don’t get me started on Zack Snyder’s Superman. Henry Cavill is great, but Superman shouldn’t hate being Superman, that’s all I’ll say. Superman is a collectivist. He wants to help people. It shouldn’t be a struggle.

I enjoyed James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. I mean, I could list so many. All of these movies are crap, but they’re crap that I enjoy. Marvel movies are candy to me. I shouldn't be giving it my money and putting it into my body, but I'm not going to stop. I also like that the Marvel movies are getting a bit wackier. I enjoy that. Because that's why I love comic books. When people try to define the superhero genre, they try to treat it like it's all one thing, when in my opinion, superheroes by nature are a crossover of genres.

Look at the Avengers. You've got a character from the old Norse god tales, a science fiction character with Iron Man, an old war serial character with Captain America. You've got a spy with Black Widow. You've got a body horror, Jekyll and Hyde character. People don't talk about Cronenbergian origins of the Hulk, but Hulk is a body horror character, and he's a Jekyll and Hyde character.

Or on the other side you’ve got Batman as detective noir. Superman the Herculean archetype. Wonder Woman is also a Herculean archetype, in the sense that she's a Greek god who can do anything. Then you've got Green Lantern, a science fiction space cop. The Flash, a science fiction fast guy. You’ve got Cyborg, who is very much a techno-horror character, if you do him right.

So you've got all of these genres crossing over and kicking the shit out of each other. That’s what I love about comic books. It’s not a singular genre, it’s all of the genres, oftentimes put into a blender.

I: When did you move to New York City?

CK: December 31st.

I: Coming up on a year. Do you like NYC?

CK: New York is wonderful. It's the best place. As somebody who is bipolar, I get into these depressive episodes where—when I'm somewhere too comfortable—I become completely immobilized. For example, I spent time in Los Angeles. LA is amazing, but it's because my friends out there are amazing. But when I was in a depressive episode in LA, I wouldn't leave my bed. My friends would have to come drag me outside. When I was manic, I was obviously having the time of my life. I was having a ball. But when I was depressed, it was simply too easy to stay in a quiet, comfortable place.

But in New York… so many people in New York are depressed. So many people have depressive episodes here. But by stepping out of your apartment door in New York, you're immediately part of something bigger than yourself. In LA, when I stepped out of the door of the house I was staying in, I was still on the property. I was in a comfort zone. And when I'm depressed, I need to push out of my comfort zone, and there is no comfort zone in New York.

Suddenly, I'm seeing loads of other humans, and New York gives me the opportunity to be as manic and as depressive as I want. I am lucky enough to have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a very young age. Lucky enough to have my medicine, and lucky enough to know what the hell is going on, because I get ahead of my episodes and I start to realize that something's happening here, and New York lends itself to that very beautifully.

I: You recently had breakthrough COVID. What was that like?

CK: It kicked my ass. I couldn't walk up the three flights of stairs to my apartment. I'd be winded walking up and down the stairs to pick up the groceries I ordered. That went on for five or so days. I know a lot of people got it worse, but it was really scary because I also have anxiety and anxiety makes your heart go faster. It makes breathing hard. So suddenly, you have double COVID symptoms. My lungs felt caved in and my body felt like there was a bus on it. And the anxiety was a killer.

So physically it was very, very hard. But in another way, the time alone was… great? It allowed me a little time to look inward and reflect. Time to read and to watch things I needed to catch up on and to think. I took inventory of myself. Stuck inside for 10 days saying, “Okay, Cameron Kasky, who are you? Who do you want to be?” So that was important. I came out of COVID better than I thought I would, and now I'm living.

I: During that time you came out as queer. In your coming out statement, you talked about how bisexuality is stigmatized for both men and women. And you stated that you want to be a part of changing that forever. You are somebody who has devoted your life to various forms of activism, so you do understand how change happens and you have witnessed how change sometimes very much doesn't happen.

CK: To understand how it happens is to understand how it doesn't.

I: So what do you think needs to happen to change attitudes on bisexuality?

CK: The easy answer is millennial gays need to calm the fuck down. A lot of gay men like to introduce more doubt into the experience of somebody who is already feeling a lot of doubt because gay men fought so hard for the right to be themselves. So the concept of somebody who might be partially straight being part of the LGBTQI+ community, they hate it. They think that we are imposters. They think that we are people who are exploiting the progress that they've made and the blood that they've shed and the lives that they've given to simply not go—in their eyes—full in. There's a bunch of different types of people who do this. There's the gatekeeper who simply doesn't think that bisexuality is real. There's the person who feels genuinely betrayed by it. Then there's the person who uses it as a form of negging. The gay man who will mock bisexuals, will mock demisexuals, which is what I consider myself mostly.

Look, a lot of people who aren’t fully capable of wrapping their heads around the concept of bisexuality. I can understand that. But the thought of being part of a community that only exists based on guidelines from the past… I said to a friend once, before I had come out, I mentioned the gay community and he looked at me and said, “There is no gay community, dude.” And I said, “That's so interesting. I thought there was.” But there isn’t. There are people who are all different types of sexualities. I believe in the LGBTQI+ community, but every community is fractured. There are business gays and finance gays and gays who haven’t once heard “One Day More” from Les Misérables let alone know every word. There are so many different ways to be, and I think we should be embracing that.

The point is people often project the lifestyle that they think needs to be lived on to others. A guy who came out as bi and then actually has been gay the whole time and used being bi as a stepping stone, well he wants to treat being bi like a stepping stone for other people too. But so much of it is fluid, sometimes. I know people who have come out as fully gay or lesbian or anything of the sort and then said, “Actually, you know what? I'm bi.”

My sexuality isn’t about the person who's perceiving it. If that person doesn't like it, there’s no need for me to fix myself. And we should all know that. One-third of Gen Z identifies as queer, and you know a lot more than the people who identify as queer are queer. So there has to be space for them.

Also, my sexuality is not my entire life. At the end of the day, I’m a love guy. I’m attracted to people I feel an emotional connection with. So I’m a love guy. That sounds so fucking embarrassing, but you know what? Whatever.

I: How are you feeling about that activism these days?

CK: Activism continues to get co-opted by capitalism, just like everything else. The people who get the recognition and the money aren’t the people who have been fighting for causes the hardest—the organizers who have been fighting for change for decades. It’s people like me. And some of those people are doing the right thing—uplifting other people and realizing that it's not about them. It's not about making your own voice heard. If you're somebody who comes from a place of privilege, it's about sharing the mic.

In the meantime, though, you have shows like The Activist getting greenlit. I think it's piss. Making people compete for money for their causes. Some lady who did blackface was going to be one of the hosts. Apparently the uproar around it has them rethinking the concept, but it’s so fucking brain dead.

I'm an activist when people tell me I am, but being called an activist is like being called a progressive—it’s a label. It doesn't have any real meaning. The term activist, that's everything from a TikToker now, to a YouTuber, to a contestant on some sick, dumb game show. Pretty much everybody gets treated like an activist except for the organizers. Except for the labor unions. Except for the workers in general. Somebody like me, who's a talking head about school shootings is an activist, but not the labor organizers who are getting bullied by Amazon. They're lucky to get any attention at all.

So I try not to involve myself in activism that much, unless I think it's something to which I can lend my voice in a meaningful way, because there's enough people like me out there.

I: But you are out there. You helped organize the March for Our Lives—one of the largest protests in U.S. history. You often give commentary on CNN.

CK: But I'm not an activist. I'm a class clown. I’m Larry David. I simply happened to be Larry David who got stuck in a fucking school shooting. I simply happened to be afraid that the NRA was going to be able to get away with it. So a group of us got together and we started making noise. Suddenly, I felt that there was purpose in my life. But just as suddenly, I was stuck in it.

My life has been commoditized and the trauma that I've experienced in my life has been commoditized. Mind you, I signed the fuck up for it. I stepped on the TV. Nobody pushed me on—at least not until a couple of weeks later. But at first, nobody pushed me on. I simply didn't know what else to do, but I knew the cameras were going to be in town and I knew that they were going to leave. I knew that there was one thing I wanted everybody to hear, and that was, “This is on the NRA.”

I: And your time on television? Earlier today you tweeted:

CK: That’s because the guilty verdict for the Parkland shooter is today. So people want me to talk about it. They want me to tell them how happy I am that he's pleading guilty, as if it was a mystery as to who did it. “Oh, we caught the shooter that was caught on camera shooting people. And everybody knows it was him.” Woo-fucking-hoo.

They want me to go up there and say, “I hope he gets the death penalty.” But I don't. That's ridiculous. Nobody should get the death penalty. And then they say, “How could you say that considering how many people he killed?” And I’m like, “Okay, let me say it clearer: Nobody. Should. Get. The. Death Penalty.”

That’s what I try to do, when I’m given airtime. I want to be saying the most progressive thing possible. Because if I’m going to be taking up airtime, that’s how I want to use it. If I know they’re just going to call up some other white person to talk about how great Joe Biden's doing on guns, well then yes, I’m going to accept that invitation. So I can come on television to say the truth, which is that Joe Biden isn’t doing anything about guns.

I: Are you hopeful?

CK: On a personal level, yes. I believe that I can find joy. I'm hopeful that I can continue to live a life where I've got people I love and who love me. But as for the country? No. As for our culture? No. I think that's all going to shit. And if I’m lucky enough to die before it gets really, really bad, that'd be cool.

I: Ok, so not very hopeful.

CK: The name of the comic book I'm currently writing is Robin and Rose at the End of the World. It's about these two characters—they're a couple—the girl is at magic college and the guy is living a boring, menial life as a mailman. They live in this fantasy world that is packed to the brim with lore—creatures and beasts and magic. But the story doesn't really worry about any of that. It's about these two people who are in love and it's about their relationship. It's a fantasy rom com. It's Game of Thrones meets When Harry Met Sally. But I'm trying to capture the feeling of being young in 2021, of coming of age in this year. The whole world around you is collapsing and you're surrounded by all of this grim shit—you’re hearing about climate change, you're hearing about COVID, you're hearing about cyber attacks, and famine, and genocide.

There are so many reasons the world is about to end that they tune each other out and suddenly, you can't hear it anymore, because it's so much noise. It's a symphony of disaster. So I wanted to do something where every fantasy apocalypse that could happen is happening simultaneously. The vampires are back. The Void-Dragon is rising. There are werewolves—but they’re actually quite friendly. And these two characters don't know what to do other than love each other.

I: Like you said, you’re finding fulfillment in creative work. Writing scripts, comics, is that what you want to do? Stay here in New York and create stories?

CK: Comedies really. My love is comedy. That's my buzzword. If God wrote a character description of me that were omnipotent, that’s the word that would keep coming up. I'm a Jew. I love comedy.

I: You like making people laugh?

CK: There's nothing better than making people laugh. Fuck making people cry. Comedy got me through everything in my life.

By now the sun has set and we’ve stopped at Old Town Bar, where I order a Plymouth gin martini up with olives and Cam orders a water.

“I’ll have mine with olives too, thanks.”

The waitress laughs. We continue talking about various projects Cam is working on, his dating life, and what musicals he’s looking forward to seeing now that Broadway is back (“Tickets are expensive though”).

Eventually we pay our bill and make our way through Union Square once again and past Forbidden Planet. In the window there’s a life-size replica of a Terminator metal endoskeleton holding two large guns, as well as two pride flags.

“You should take a photo of me in front of Gay Terminator,” Cam says. “It’ll be funny.”

So I do.