CODY WALKER: You and Kevin have known and worked together in various capacities over the years, but when did you start developing your comic?
JULIAN DARIUS: It’s an odd story.
I always was a creative writer, and in 2011 I started Martian Lit, an upstart literary publishing house. As a comics junkie, I always wanted Martian Lit to publish comics eventually. I didn’t make any secret of this, but I wasn’t eager to dive into comics publishing right away, mostly because of the cost. Also, I’ve tried to get comics off the ground since I was 16, and it’s never worked out, so I’m a little jaded and cautious about it.
When I founded Martian Lit, I came up with this backstory for the company. Essentially, Mars had sent emissaries to Earth — basically by possessing humans — in order to enlighten us. But it wasn’t working, so (after cloaking themselves to prevent our detection) they were contemplating an invasion. The joke was that Martian Lit was an attempt to stave off the contingent of Martians who wanted an invasion. The implication being, “Buy our stuff or we invade!” It was a joke, but it was also this kind of meta experiment, a company that was itself a product of this fictional universe. The idea was that the company’s press releases and whatnot would reference this backstory. I always thought I might do something with this “Martian mythology,” but I wasn’t sure what — and I was busy enough already.
Like you said, Kevin and I have known each other for a while. He’s a friend of mine, and a really great guy. He’s been a big supporter of Sequart, contributing and helping out behind the scenes however he could. We even co-wrote a book on Warren Ellis together! Kevin was also one of the people at Sequart who most strongly supported Martian Lit, even though it was something pretty different.
Kevin and I occasionally shoot the shit. We have these long and rambling conversations, during which we’ll talk about comics but also various writing projects we’re working on. A lot of this stuff is at the idea stage. It could take years to finish, and most of it will probably never appear or will get massively changed before it does. Kevin’s great to do this with, because he and I are very different as writers. I’m very structural, and he’s very philosophical. So I’ll tend to suggest things that flesh out his stories, while he’ll see layers of meaning I didn’t even see.
I knew Kevin was working on some possible comics projects, and he’d shared some of them with me. They kept evolving, as projects at this stage tend to do. One was called “The Ontologist.” I believe Kevin had been thinking about it for a while, and we’d talked about it before. It was a very philosophical idea for a comic. But he’d just majorly reconceived it, and he wanted to share.
As he did, I was kind of shocked because the new backstory for the series was straight out of my own backstory for Martian Lit! He hadn’t even told me this beforehand. Basically, he’d grafted his idea for a philosophical story, using an alienated girl to question aspects of contemporary society, onto my Martian mythology stuff. Naturally, I felt a little proprietary over my Martian mythology stuff, so I’d tweak those elements a bit. We’d discuss the philosophical content and how best to craft a story around it. And pretty soon we were planning out the first few chapters.
I really didn’t want to do a comic. I’d had my heart broken too many times before. I feel like Kevin kind of drafted me into it, really! He already had a cool and interesting idea, but once the Martian mythology stuff came in, I couldn’t walk away. That kind of pushed me over the line from “fellow writer offering informal advice” to collaborator. And once I was involved like that, I fell in love with the possibilities — which I imagine Kevin had recognized, hence his use of the Martian stuff in the first place.
In this respect, Kevin’s philosophical story idea and my Martian mythology were a perfect synergy. Mars is kind of the Ultimate Other, in a way. If you want to say someone’s out to lunch, you say they’re from Mars. That means someone’s just really out there — so much that they might not even be comprehensible. This fit perfectly with the kind of philosophical story Kevin wanted to tell.
But of course, Mars also has this tremendous literary history, this huge role in science fiction — even if it’s now kind of retro, since photos of Mars definitively showed those weren’t canals and the planet didn’t have advanced life, let alone a Romantic civilization. The more I thought about the wider possibilities, the more fascinated I became. Could you still do a Mars story that worked? That wasn’t totally tongue-in-cheek? Could you rehabilitate some of that classic sci-fi? Could you appropriate it and use it to tell different kinds of stories? Instead of old-school planetary romance, couldn’t you use Mars as a way of commenting on our post-internet connectedness / disconnectedness? Or use Mars as a vast historical canvas, showing how history moves, preserving traditions in new forms that might seem to make no sense but actually have a kind of deep structure? Or use this to comment on our own short-sightedness, as a species, or politically, or even religiously? I think this is ambitious stuff, but the more this story stayed in my brain, the more I wanted to tell these stories.
So how did Kevin and I formally become creative collaborators? I joke that he drafted me, using the Martian mythology stuff to rope me in. But another way of putting it is that he came up with a story that was kind of tailor-made for us to collaborate. One that had so much possibility, I couldn’t roll it around in my head for very long without wanting to run with it. That’s pretty subsersively brilliant of Kevin, really. And it finally got me off my ass and committed to making a comic actually happen, after all these years.
Neither of us could give up on it, because we couldn’t let the other person down. Which is, I think, one of the best things about collaboration — and just having other cool, smart people in your life. It makes you better, because you’re not doing it just for yourself.
WALKER: Tell me more about what Martian fiction (if we can call it that) influenced you and how you contribute to that motif.
DARIUS: I’m a huge fan of pop sci-fi. So you have all the different versions of War of the Worlds. But you also have stuff like Mars Attacks, which I like. Marvin the Martian on the old Bugs Bunny cartoons merged this Roman imagery with a foolish Martian invader. So there’s this history of pop culture usage of Mars, usually as a kind of bizarre invader.
Then there’s Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” and stuff like that. I’d even throw Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus in there, because it was really popular and demonstrates how Mars is used in popular culture as a symbol for interpersonal distance.
But I really love old sci-fi. I mean Lucian, Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire… I’m a sucker for that stuff. And that’s before Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. There’s a kind of openness to these stories, largely because we didn’t know what the hell we were talking about. There was every reason to think that other planets in our solar system were populated. The idea of the “habitable zone” came later. I mean, totally reputable and intelligent people could speculate about life on the Moon. You had astronomers mapping what looked like canals on the surface of Mars. There was such wild possibility to these stories, which could be used to satirize or explore social and intellectual themes.
You see this even in old Twilight Zone episodes. It seems like every asteroid has an atmosphere on that show. And the result of this misconception was some pretty brilliant TV. It’s hokey but beautiful, in a way.
Of course, there’s a reason this kind of expansive possibility disappeared from sci-fi. It now looks really dumb. This is how quickly humanity’s progressed: even half a century ago, our species had a view of their place in the universe and how the universe works that we now find totally laughable.
So the problem, for Martian Comics, is how to appropriate this kind of imagery, or the power behind Mars’s role in popular culture, and do it in a way that’s not totally hokey. How do you do a story about Mars that works in 2014?
I mean, Disney’s John Carter tried and failed. The problem seems to me to be that any depiction of life on Mars feels retro. And that’s cool. But you don’t want it to feel so retro that it’s hokey. I mean, that’s fine to do, but it’s just not suited to the kind of more philosophical or meaningful stories that I want to tell. Most Martian fiction recently has taken the Disney solution, which is to just ignore the fact that we know Mars is barren now. Dynamite’s comics take the same approach. But there’s this odd disconnect there. It’s like retro-futurism, in a way. Because we’re basically continuing or adapting stories that we know were impossibly laughable in their view of the universe. For me, that kind of works for the Martians in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, because that’s a hodgepodge universe in which all the fictions are true; it’s not really meant to be taken seriously, in a way. Also, that’s a riff on Wells’s original War of the Worlds, and a lot of time has passed since his novel, so it now has that Victorian feeling that helps it feel distant and quaint, instead of just stupid or laughable.
What I’ve tried to do with Martian Comics is to make Mars work again. It’s got to retain a certain pop-art, retro quality, because it’s partaking of this tradition, and that tradition has power — power we want to appropriate and remix. But it’s also got to be realistic enough to not seem totally laughable. It’s not going to be totally realistic, but it’s got to solve some of the basic stuff, like why we haven’t spotted these Martian cities or knowingly interacted with Martian civilization.
I always liked the idea of cloaked or hidden civilizations, which kind of gets you into alternate histories. For example, what’s interesting about Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island isn’t that it’s unknown to the wider world. It’s how it’s developed, cut off from everything else. How did its culture evolve? Its technology? Its history? When did it separate from the rest of the world, and how did it react to how the world kept evolving afterwards? My brain just loves historical sweep. So for me, once you’ve established that Mars has an advanced civilization, the most obvious question in the world is how it developed and how it’s been interacting with Earth. What’s Mars’s history, and how does it intertwine with Earth’s?
This lets us get at some of that history of Martian depictions. But it also lets us get at other pop culture and sci-fi stuff. For example, this whole Chariots of the Gods idea — the idea that aliens influenced human civilization. It’s so common in sci-fi now, but it’s so stupid and insulting. I mean, humans came up with the Pyramids; you don’t need aliens to show you how to pile bricks on top of each other, and I’d rather expect aliens to come up with something a bit more technological than that! Yet this whole Chariots of the Gods idea is easy and even inevitable, to one degree or another, when you’re writing aliens who have visited Earth for a long time. But I’d rather work it differently, in ways that reveal aspects of human nature, like our propensity for cargo cults, than in ways that diminish human accomplishment too much — or that reduce the aliens to human projections, like they’d be so interested in helping us build mounds, or probing our anuses. Few things are more offensive (or damaging to our intellectual development and even our survival as a species) than our own propensity for anthropocentrism.
So here, like with the depiction of Mars, I want to thread the needle — to play on sci-fi conventions without being quite so stupid. To update them, and to craft them into something that’s philosophically and emotionally resonant, something that can be used to tell stories that are fun but also reveal the human condition. Like, for example, that damaging and anti-evolutionary propensity for anthropocentrism. Or how a century ago, educated and intelligent people could believe they inhabited a universe in which most planets had advanced civilizations.
In a way, Martian Comics is a commentary on that fact. An alternate history, in which this wonderful view of the solar system was just a little true. In which it wasn’t quite so cold. In which we weren’t quite so alone. The stories in Martian Comics have to stand on their own. But there’s this level on which the entire series is an attempt to deal with the ghosts of this disappointment, in which we didn’t go to Jupiter in 2001 and didn’t get whisked to Mars to romance Martian princesses. Because I think this disappointment is part of why we see UFOs and why we make up complicated conspiracies in which governments have hidden contact with extraterrestrial life.
It’s right there on Fox Mulder’s wall: we want to believe. I always hated that poster, incidentally. Believe what, I thought? Believe that there’s an explanation. That someone’s in charge. That the universe is ordered in a way that makes sense to us. One example of this is the belief that there’s an interstellar civilization with a plan for us — little insignificant us.
It’s hubris, of course, but we can’t escape it. Throughout human history, anthropocentrism has always been wrong. The universe isn’t divinely ordered; the orbits of the planets aren’t perfect. We have tailbones and vestigial organs and poorly designed backs and eyes; we evolved. The Earth is so old, our brains can’t even understand it, and we’re this newcomer species infesting its surface. We’re not evolved to survive well in outer space, and we can’t find other advanced civilizations, let alone whisk around the galaxy like Kirk and the rest. Mars is barren, and if we find bacterial life there, it only emphasizes how meaninglessly lucky our planet was. (In fact, bacterial life on Mars, cool as that would be, would also be a very bad sign, because it would suggest the threshold to develop bacterial life isn’t great, and this only underlines the problem of the Fermi paradox: why don’t we see advanced civilizations out there? If primitive life develops more easily than we thought, to explain the lack of observable advanced civilizations, we might have to adjust how difficult it is to pass the thresholds on the opposite end of the spectrum of development. This might include how likely it is for a civilization at our level of development to get off-planet before nuclear armageddon or ecological catastrophe.)
So on a pop cultural level, Mars is used as the embodiment of the Other. But on a deeper level, through this history of science fiction that involves Mars, Mars is a kind of symbol for a more wonderful, less cold, less isolated universe. Mars is a kind of emblem for this thing our brains do: project ourselves onto these nearby planets — in fact, onto the whole universe. So on the one hand, this appropriation of Mars is a kind of pop cultural riff. It’s a fun thing, and I love it on that level. But it’s also nostalgic, and nostalgia is fundamentally based on the pain of loss. What we’ve lost, in no longer being able to commonly believe in these wonderful Martian civilizations, obviously isn’t those civilizations, which were always fictions. What we’ve lost is a sense of order, that even our local area of space was occupied by advanced civilizations with which we’d soon be in contact — and soon take our place beside. We wouldn’t die out. We weren’t alone. We had neighbors.
And in this way, Mars as nostalgic symbol for an ordered universe in which we’d soon evolve into an extraplanetary civilization merges with Mars as embodiment of the Other. Because as much as we can’t fathom other people, can’t fully put ourselves into the mind of someone of the opposite sex, or with different cultural experiences, Martian science fiction expresses a desire to reach out to a kind of Cosmic Other, for our species to have neighbors a planet over.
Kind of puts those planetary romance stories, in which the hero would romance the alien princess, in a new light, doesn’t it?
Of course, all of this is merely the kind of stuff Kevin and I have talked about. It’s philosophical underpinning. It’s there, but you don’t have to think about any of this to understand the stories in Martian Comics. They’re written for accessibility. Yes, they’re probably the smartest comics stories being published today. But if all you get out of them is “cool story, I like this character,” that’s totally fine by me. It’s designed to work that way too. In fact, any story that doesn’t work on this kind of direct level probably needs more work — so it isn’t really that smart to begin with. If you want to think deeper, you can, but you don’t have to. No one’s going to force you. Although I believe this deeper stuff makes stories feel more resonant, even if as a reader you can’t always put your finger on why they resonate.
After all, connecting with others and the bittersweet feeling of once being able to believe you inhabited a wondrous, meaningful world in which there might be things like underground civilizations — these are powerful, affecting things, even if you don’t know how I’ve designed the work to pull those particular strings. Writers are terrible, manipulative people.
And egotistical. Perhaps my extremely long answers to your questions are a case in point.
WALKER: I love the point you make about certain takes on Mars being “retro-futurist” because it’s so true. It’s not really sci-fi so much as it is “this is what sci-fi looked like to people decades in the past.” So how do you step around that? How do you plant Mars into being sci-fi when it is so entangled in the retro? How do you make it new?
DARIUS: I think it’s got to adapt to concerns of the present. You’ve got to use the tropes but update them.
Partly, that’s adapting the story to current standards of fantastical realism. In other words, probes haven’t photgraphed evidence of life on Mars, and you just can’t ignore that without seeming retro-futurist in a too-obvious, hokey way.
Also, I think the idea that an alien civilization would reflect our own morality is thankfully dead. That’s been true for a long time, but the rebooted Battlestar Galactica helped drive the stake through the heart. It succeeded in part because its society, while human, was culturally a bit alien, certainly in terms of its religion. I don’t think you can get away with noble aliens reflecting 2014 Western morality. That kind of stuff doesn’t date well anyway.
Storytelling has also changed an awful lot since the heyday of Martian depictions. It’s more sophisticated, I think. Since we’re doing this as a comic, there’s no way to avoid how much comics have changed since the 1980s, which has been remarkable. At the same time, there are things we can look back to and appropriate here. One is the short story format; I really love it. Reading Warrior and 2000AD as a teenager was like getting transmissions from a parallel universe; comics in English, with recognizable tropes, yet slightly askew in ways I knew I couldn’t yet comprehend. I think this format works well for sci-fi especially, and it’s one comics in general should explore again. Similarly, I look back to a certain traditional storytelling, from a purely structural level, that you find in a lot of old comics and novels and TV, but that’s often lacking today. I’m talking about setting up themes and playing them out; things that used to be basic but that have kind of been lost (or perhaps dubbed old-fashioned). I think that’s something else we can resurrect, and I tend to do so anyway, so this fits well with the retro elements of the comic.
I think sex and violence are more acceptable in fiction today. Thankfully, for the most part. So if you look at something like planetary romance, the question in terms of content becomes, “How do I tell a story appropriating the coolness of these ideas, yet that’s neither so sexist nor puritanical?” And of course, one has to do so without eviscerating the energy of those older stories.
One of the problems in sci-fi is what I’d call Star Trek Syndrome. Everyone loves the original TV show. Everyone knows that show derived a lot of its power from addressing social issues through the filter of science fiction. Now, there were times when the show apparently chickened out — like DeForest Kelley’s idea for a planet ruled by blacks where whites were segregated and mistreated. But mostly, the show had a great track record, and it’s easy to forgive some of the more naive hippie stuff because so many of the lessons are timeless — like doomsday machines representing the futility of Mutually Assured Destruction. Of course, it’s not just Star Trek that did this; so too did The Twilight Zone and most good sci-fi.
The problem is that this takes guts and thought. So you get Star Trek: The Next Generation being weak on gay issues, in ways that now look surprisingly cowardly. Everything’s so commercial that people worry about appearing balanced, even if that goes against the facts or where the story needs to go. The whole focus-group mentality is really more about self-censorship than actual focus groups, of course. And this often anathema to good stories, especially in sci-fi. You can go with the story without it being preachy, and you can do what’s right for the story even if it’s not 100% your politics.
“The Girl from Mars,” our first story in Martian Comics, kind of started with these observations. Kevin’s all about these philosophical points. About how we can have all these social networks on our phones but feel so disconnected and lonely. I’m all about stories. So the question becomes, how in the world do you tell an enthralling, awesome story around such an abstract idea? I think we’ve done that, but it takes an awful lot of work.
So there are lots of ways to make this retro stuff new. It’s 2014, and you can’t pretend for a second that it’s still 1960 or something. But there’s no reason this retro stuff can’t be done well and updated, much as revisionism took something silly like super-heroes and brought them to new levels. We’re always appropriating and updating and reinventing.
WALKER: I’m interested in the idea of Mars as “the Other” and how people deal with that. Fear, curiosity, hate, ethnocentricism — how will the ideas of “the Other” through Mars be addressed in your comic?
DARIUS: It’s there in the premise, about this alienated girl and this bored Martian. They come into contact, you could say — although it’s not at all an equal meeting. Apparently, the Martian simply possesses the human, which is arguably an act of violence, although you don’t usually think of it in that way in sci-fi stories. So right there, you have this meeting between someone and the Other, this fantastic sharing going on. But it’s not at all equal. It’s a little like saying colonizing the Americas was a “cultural exchange.” I mean, it was, and it was amazing on that level. But it wasn’t a drum circle. That exchange was mostly a side effect of the West seeking advantage, as most animals do — and wrapping it in cultural and religious glory, as most humans do.
Also, there’s been interaction between Mars and Earth for thousands of years. I’ve got a timeline worked out. I’ve got a lot of stories written and far more outlines. This interaction hasn’t always been the same as it is now; there’s no historical status quo. It’s changed, as Mars and Earth have changed. There’s a colonial period, a period of decolonization, and various strategies at work. It’s not monolithic, and this lets us explore how these things work through history, as cultures and their needs evolve.
But to answer your question more fully, I’m going to blow some of the plot here, but not too much. In the first chapter, which is available for free on MartianLit.com (including as a PDF and CBZ download), there’s the mention that when a Martian occupies a human, there are side effects. (I love the way it’s put by the Martian in the comic: “Now remember: you can’t stuff a Martian consciousness into the brain of an Earth animal without side effects.” There’s your racism and ethnocentrism right there.) One of the most common of these side effects is what’s called a “charisma field.”
For a long time, I used to walk into movie theaters without presenting my ticket. I just found it stupid that I had to do so. I’d bought the ticket, but I’d just wave away the idea that I’d have to present it. No one ever challenged me, or if they did, it was in a hesitant voice, and I’d simply confidently reassure them it was okay as I kept walking. It was kind of a social experiment for me. It’s amazing how people respond to confidence.
That’s basically the effect of the charisma field. It’s the slightest thing. It’s not even observable. It’s not like our character, Izzy, is firing death rays out of her eyes. She’s just got this field around her that deforms people’s perceptions, ever so slightly.
I’ve known people who could say the most absurd things, and it sounds perfectly right until you stop to think about it. You can tell people they’re seeing something that isn’t there, and they’ll see it too. It’s amazing. At the same time, I’ve known people who could say the most reasonable things, and no one would believe them, because they’re so hesitant about it. The sentences have pauses and are peppered with “I just think,” and there’s that hint of rising intonation at the end, as if the speaker isn’t himself convinced. Although it’s well-reasoned, whereas the confident person was completely wrong, but everyone believed him or her.
This is really just animal behavior, of course. You see it in dogs. But it profoundly affects our daily lives, and it has deep political implications too.
I personally was terribly disappointed by Bill Clinton as president, but he’s routinely an astounding speech-maker. I find myself thinking he’s great, and I kind of have to remind myself that I don’t really like what I’ve heard of him personally, and I think his governance was inept and inexcusable in a lot of ways.
Similarly, George W. Bush had that Texas swagger — even if he wasn’t from there. It’s the cocky thing, which is so infuriating when combined with ignorance (willful or otherwise). But there’s no way to deny its appeal. True, it appeals to some more than others. But it’s there.
One of the most telling thing about politics for me was during one of the 2000 presidential debates, when Bush and Gore were asked about affirmative action. Gore gave this wonkish answer; he cited Supreme Court cases and understood the arguments. Bush just said he was against it because he was against quotas. Gore says affirmative action isn’t quotas; the Supreme Court’s said quotas are illegal. Bush then says — and this is remarkable — that he guesses he doesn’t know what affirmative action is, but if it’s quotas he’s against it and if it’s giving minorities an equal chance he’s for it. He added the American people knew where he stood. Now, objectively, for a presidential candidate to say he didn’t understand the terms of such a common question should have been a huge embarrassment. Logically, Gore was running circles around Bush. But we rarely make logical decisions, at least in the sense of abstract logic. Gore had no charisma, but Bush could confess he didn’t understand a basic thing with the kind of swagger that not only made you want to give him a pass but painted Gore as a bookworm know-it-all swinging away with technicalities. It was a brilliant parry, and it looked effortless.
This is the whole “who do you want to have a beer with?” thing. We vote for people we like, people we trust, not people know necessarily know what they’re talking about or have our interests at heart. And that’s this very powerful, animalistic thing. Who smells more leaderly? Like I said, some people are more susceptible than others, and you can pull off a smart alpha male as well as a jock one (even if our society mostly makes room for the latter, to its detriment). But the fact remains that charisma is a huge part of politics, and a huge part of our religion too. In fact, it’s a huge part of our daily lives, at work and at home, if we’re willing to see it.
This concept of charisma is pretty key for me. Because when you look at all those things you mentioned, like hate and fear, it’s all political, and it’s all tied up in concepts of charisma and different kinds of power.
We’ve spent so much of the time since 9/11 in this constant state of fear. Of terrorists. Of Muslims. It’s all completely irrational, but it serves certain interests. It was there in the 1970s, with the hijackings and hostages and the oil crisis. This is nothing new. Concurrent and before that, we had the Cold War. Then we had Hitler and Tojo. We had the first Red Scare, fear of anarchists and Bolsheviks in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Sometimes it seems like America’s been in a constant state of crisis, with huge levels of fear, for as long as it’s existed.
Sometimes what we fear are real bad guys. I certainly think 9/11 was a terrible crime, and I hope we all have it in our hearts that the worst horror of World War II was the Holocaust and both German and Japanese treatment of those they conquered as well as their own people. Never again, we should all say. But that applies to us and our allies too. Including torturing people in the so-called War on Terror. How could anyone not see that, except due to this terrible state of fear and demonization of the Other?
We’re going to get at all of this. But always as part of a compelling story. That’s my rule: the story comes first. If you don’t love the comic, it doesn’t matter if it has deep things to say, or if it works as a historical dissection, or a clever play on retro Martian tropes or super-hero comics. Above all, the story has to be one I think is worthy of being in comics history books, or we don’t put it out. That’s my rule right now. So I don’t want anyone thinking we’re preachy; the story’s anything but, and if it doesn’t grip you and move you, I’ve failed at my job.
WALKER: Where did you find your artist? What’s your collaboration like?
DARIUS: I think I asked for artist suggestions on Twitter, and Anthony Mathenia (who happens to live near me, although neither of us knew it at the time) suggested Sergio, having worked with him in the past.
Basically, I’m really hard to get to agree to collaborate. But once I have, I think I’m pretty easy to work with.
I’m really picky about artists. I’d rather not have comics made than have them made by an artist whose style isn’t right for the project. I liked Sergio’s work, and I think he’s done some of the best work of his career on Martian Comics. I hope he stays on it for a long time.
At the same time, as someone who doesn’t draw, I just marvel at people who can make images come alive. It constantly blows me away. And as a collaborator, I tend to trust people. My attitude is that, unless I see something I think is actually wrong, I usually just shut up. I want to see what an artist does with my script. If they’ve done a test page or I’ve seen enough of their work to trust them, I trust them. I don’t look over their shoulder.
There are different schools of writer-artist collaboration. A lot of people will say you should coordinate about an awful lot up front, while others are compartmentalized; the artist gets the finished script, does what he does, and there’s not a lot of contact. I’m not against the model of closer collaboration, but my collaboration with Sergio has been very compartmentalized.
I don’t think that’s not collaborative, though. It’s just a different form of collaboration. You can say it’s not collaborative in the truest sense, but you can also point out that most writers and artists create alone, and often the best thing you can do is trust each other.
Sergio will sometimes depict something a little different than what I described, or combine panels, or do the panel layout a bit differently. And that’s fine; it’s always worked. I think it’s good that he does this, and part of the joy of working with an artist should be seeing the actual pages, which are inevitably nothing like you imagined and yet different in exciting and totally legitimate ways. That’s how it’s been with Sergio. I hope he knows he has the freedom to do this, and my attitude is that it only makes me look better as a writer.
Comics writers have to realize their stories doesn’t exist until they’re illustrated. A bad artist can make a good script seem lackluster, and a great artist can made a lackluster script seem quite good. When artists come up with better ideas — especially ideas for how to present a story visually, which they’re almost inevitably going to know how to do better than a writer — it makes you as a writer look smarter and your work look better. Writers should be a lot more appreciative of their artists publicly.
I think Sergio’s brilliant, I love his work, and this comic wouldn’t exist without him. He’s also a real professional, and that makes all the difference in the world.
On my end, I think there’s only been one thing I ever asked him to change. He’s such a pro that he never complains, even when I make him draw page after page of dialogue. Although I have warned him ahead of time, and I’ve asked him what he’d like to draw more of; since I can’t change “The Girl from Mars” to get more of that stuff in there, I’m going to write some stories just for him.
On the whole, I’d say it’s a very compartmentalized process, but I’m very happy with it, and I hope he is too.
I should also mention our two other artists in the first issue. Our colorist R. L. Campos is fantastic, and he really makes the artwork come alive. Sergio recommended him, and he’s been just as professional. I really love this team, and I couldn’t be prouder of our work together.
Comics readers don’t appreciate colorists enough. Comics color has changed so much in the last 20 years. It’s not like the old days, when comics were on newsprint and color was a field of Ben-Day dots that usually didn’t exactly match the area it was supposed to be coloring. Today, the colorist really completes the artwork. If you look at what colorists are doing, they’re all adding lines that aren’t there in the inks, so there’s no way to pretend this isn’t part of the artwork. It’s not just an afterthought; it’s a quintessential part of the art itself.
Having said this, gradients have become very popular these days, and we didn’t want to go too crazy in that direction. Yes, good color tends to make panels feel more three-dimensional, but you can go too far with this. It’s a little like the uncanny valley, where something becomes real enough that it looks weird but not real enough to be confused with the real thing. Some coloring goes too far in this direction. A lot of gradients might work for some stories, but they would be inappropriate for Martian Comics, given its retro themes. This is stuff comics creators have to think about, if they’re serious, even if most readers and critics don’t notice. R. L. Campos just nailed the look and feel. He’s just fantastic, and I love seeing his pages come in.
Last but not least is the issue’s cover artist, the legendary Darick Robertson. I think everyone in comics knows Darick, who co-created Transmetropolitan with Warren Ellis and The Boys with Garth Ennis. I’m a huge fan of Darick’s work. He’s part of comics history. They’ll be talking about his artwork forever. And it blows me away that my first published comic book has a Darick fucking Robertson cover.
Let me just stop and read that last sentence again. It’s still totally unreal to me.
I could go on and on about how professional Darick is and what a great guy he is, and that’s all true. But I’d rather point out one of the things people don’t appreciate enough about Darick’s work: that he’s a masterful storyteller. Comics artwork isn’t just about the impressive still image; it’s about conveying a story through panels. Beautiful artwork is great, but comics art requires this whole other skill of storytelling. It’s a radically under-appreciated skill, and I routinely read mainstream comics where it’s ignored. I actually think Darick would be way more famous if he went for flashier, self-indulgent artistic displays — he’s got the skill to do that, but he always put the story first.
Even on the cover to Martian Comics #1, which is a still image, he manages to captue the deeper story. We talked with him about the dichotomy between Izzy and the Martian girl, but we weren’t prepared for the sheer beauty Darick delivered. Kevin and I spent the whole day calling each other and just shouting versions of “WTF!” or “OMFG!” over and over. But that image also tells a story. There’s a subtle creepiness to the Martian girl. And I love how Izzy’s back is turned to us, creating this negative space on the right. That’s so counter-intuitive, because the right is usually emphasized, because we read left to right. So the Martian is emphasized because she’s facing us, but Izzy’s emphasized because she’s on the right, and the two of them just fold together in this kind of eerie way, almost like one of those optical illusions that’s both a candle and a face. It’s a masterpiece.
WALKER: How many issues are you planning?
DARIUS: This is going to sound nuts, but I want this to be an ongoing. I’m working on chapter seven of “The Girl from Mars” now, and I’ve got the rest of that storyline outlined in some detail. I’ve got a whole lot of back-ups fully scripted, and more ideas in various stages of development. It makes me feel young to have so many more ideas than I’ve been able to put to paper.
But this isn’t about coming to the end of a story. It’s more about getting all of this material out there, so the groundwork has been laid, and the backstory is in place, as well as a whole bunch of characters and concepts. I’d be surprised if this took fewer than 12 issues, but it’s hard to tell, in part because every time I come up with a story and write it, it gets added to this aggregate. But I feel like there’s a point at which I’ll feel like I’ve established the universe and all the concepts I want to get out there.
At this point, if not sooner, I really would like to let other people write stories as well. That’s why it’s Martian Comics — it’s an umbrella science-fiction title. There are tons of eddies to explore. And I want to see what other people come up with. I really want Martian Comics to be this weird, independent, slightly avant-garde, 21st-century, American version of 2000AD — except with the stories all set in the same universe.
So that’s basically my plan. “The Girl from Mars” is the first lead feature of Martian Comics. But there are back-ups too. Those aren’t just side stories; they’re establishing an entire history, including characters and concepts that can be spun into dozens of stories. I’m deliberately writing these stories with this in mind. At some point, “The Girl from Mars” will end, and I’ll still be doing these other stories, as well as side stories and sequels to “The Girl from Mars” itself. Over time, we’ll transition into having additional writers and artists. I’d like to always be one of them, but I’d like to be one voice among several.
Imagine if Action Comics weren’t just Superman, but stories of all kinds of Kryptonians, including stories set on Krypton before it exploded, and Kryptonian colonies… and weird philosophical stories, and stories of humans who have interacted with Kryptonians, and Kryptonian explorers in other dimensions… that’s the kind of thing I’m getting at, as far as what I’d like Martian Comics to eventually become.
Beyond building a universe in this way, I really want to give some talented writers and artists the opportunity to contribute to such a universe. To have some creative freedom and a supportive editor, who can help cast them in the best light, the same way a good artist casts a writer.
Of course, all of this is entirely dependant on whether there’s an audience. That’s part of why I appreciate more than I can express everyone who donates to the Kickstarter — and eventually, everyone who buys an issue once they’re out. Yes, they’re hopefully going to get awesome comics. Comics we’ve put a lot of time and thought into making the absolute best they can be. But our Kickstarter donors and our readers are also helping to make this long-term plan a reality. Hopefully, building something structural that will keep producing awesome comics for the long haul.
The flagship title of Martian Lit’s comics line… if I’m not getting entirely too far ahead of myself.
WALKER: What sort of marketing plan do you have for promoting your Kickstarter? What sort of rewards are you offering?
DARIUS: I have no marketing plan except for using social media to get the word out and encouraging others to do so too.
As far as rewards, this is a very different Kickstarter. I think what we’re doing in terms of rewards is very streamlined and very counter-cultural. In fact, I’m not sure if it’ll work.
One of the unique things about this Kickstarter, for a comics project, is that there are no print copies of the comic. Everyone’s told me not to do this and that donors love not only print copies but special print copies — alternate covers, special print products, etc. I’ve seen that myself. But I don’t want to do that.
Printing comics, especially in color, is absurdly expensive. It just doesn’t make any sense for a small publisher. If you look at the per-unit cost, it’s through the roof. Also, arranging printing takes a lot of time, and capital that goes into it doesn’t go into something else. It locks up capital and puts it in these print copies, which you’ve got sitting around and then have to sell to break even or maybe make a little money. Now part of your brain is focused on liquidating these assets, and that’s likely to continue for years. And all of this is a terrible distraction from actually making the next issue.
Mark Waid’s talked about some of this, in terms of how new publishers should embrace digital. His reasoning was absolutely sound,, even if his words were controversial — and scary — at the time. I saw that, and it was part of why Sequart made such a strong push into digital. I’d supported digital myself, but we hadn’t really made that move, and Mark Waid inspired me to put my money where my mouth was. Now that I’m doing comics, I can’t imagine retreating. In fact, I’m doubling down — especially since Waid was talking about comics in the first place, and some of what he was talking about (like the cost of color printing) didn’t even affect Sequart. And as someone with some publishing experience, I personally know how taxing all of the arrangements for printing and shipping are (without money to pay a staff, anyway), which is something almost no one talks about.
Now, I can certainly see the argument that if Kickstarter donors want to chip in an extra $2,500 or something to print an issue, let them! It’s what they want, and maybe I should respond to that. But I want to focus on keeping costs low and making the actual comic. Maybe we’ll print a collected edition, but I want to keep issues coming out steadily, not print and ship and store say the first eight issues individually. So one of the most unique aspects of this Kickstarter is that we’re not doing print.
This same logic applies to special editions, T-shirts, posters, etc. Sometimes, looking at comics Kickstarters, I feel lost in all the bling. There are lots of different T-shirts and posters and mini-posters and postcards and sketch variants and slipcases and framed prints and branded iPhone covers… none of which have anything to do with the comic. Now, it’s awesome that some people want those, and I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to remember that they helped fund Comic X with a $25 Comic X T-shirt. I mean, that’s amazing enthusiasm, and more power to the donor and the project. But it’s not my style, as a customer or a donor.
And as a publisher, I can’t help but look at all this and think about what a nightmare printing and shipping all of this presents. Even keeping track of it all is a huge logistical task. And none of this has anything at all to do with making comics! Also, I can assure you that all these items with low print runs are going to cost a mint, and this eats into what’s left of the Kickstarter revenue (after Kickstarter and Amazon Payments fees and declined cards). In some cases, I can’t figure out how someone’s breaking even, and they actually might not be.
Income from a Kickstarter campaign is supposed to be a “kickstart” for a new product or initiative. I feel like after a campaign ends successfully, the person running it has a new job: printing and collating and shipping dozens of different items over the following months for very little profit. It’s like they’re really in the business of licensing their own property to themselves and selling all these short runs of T-shirts and gizmos at tiny margins. Yes, it’s cool to see your character on a watch. But all these products massively cut into the money that’s left to actually make the comic and take huge, huge amounts of time to fulfill, which is a huge drain of time and energy that’s not going into making the comic.
So I’m rejecting the entire way comics Kickstarters have evolved. I’m going against the grain.
Again, I don’t begrudge anyone running a Kickstarter this way from doing so, and I certainly don’t begrudge any donor from wanting this kind of swag. Like I said, that’s an amazing display of enthusiasm, often for new or unproven projects. It’s pretty damn heartwarming.
On the other hand, one has to wonder how many of these donors really want that array of postcards and the mini-poster and the T-shirt combo. If they do, that is simply awesome. But I can’t imagine they’re going to put this poster on their wall and start dressing in Comic X T-shirts half the days of the week. I think it’s too often “that would be cool to have!” Someone wants to donate $50, and they see they get all this swag at $60, so they select that. But of course, all this swag costs say $30 to print and ship, and it might take a couple hours to order printed, pack up and drive to the post office, and coordinate in a spreadsheet. Personally, I’d be glad to do that, for someone I knew really was that much of a fan! But I have to think a lot of these donors aren’t super-enthusiastic about having the Comic X mini-postcard holographic slipcased set. They just selected it, and it’s going to go in a drawer somewhere. Which is fine, except that it’s like Kickstarter has created this huge ecosystem that turns comics creators into full-time order fulfillment staff coordinating swag that’s mostly going to end up in people’s drawers.
Personally, I never liked holographic covers. I don’t like variant covers. I can dig a T-shirt. But mostly, I want to buy and read comic books. And if I’m donating to a campaign, I want to know that I’m helping to kickstart a project I believe in, not helping to create this ecosystem of licensed product fulfillment that siphons huge amounts of time and money from the project itself.
Also, I have to say, a comics creator isn’t necessarily the best at order fulfillment. Or even doing the math to calculate his or her margins on all these products. Too often, what ends up happening is that these creators realize too late that, with shipping, they’re clearing no profit on a lot of their rewards. What they really want to do is to make comics, yet they now have a part-time job just fulfilling all these orders. And when they blow their delivery dates, they feel terribly guilty. After all, these donors gave their hard-earned money to make this project happen, and most of us aren’t rich and aren’t used to having such support. It’s deeply moving, but with that comes guilt when delivery dates are blown. But it can be a depressing situation, because this part-time job fulfilling orders isn’t fun and takes a huge amount of time from making comics.
Let me give you an example. Anyone sending material out is going to get shipments returned by mail. When you do, you realize what re-shipping this package is going to cost, and that might put you in the red on this particular donor — and that’s not counting all the time involved. And now you’ve got to email someone to ask for their accurate address. And if the address has changed since they responded to their Kickstarter survey, you feel terrible because you’ve blown that delivery deadline. And if the email doesn’t work anymore, you feel bad, because now someone isn’t going to get what they paid for, which might partially be your fault for taking longer than you expected. So you feel guilty, and in the back of your head you’re also thinking about how this person — who donated to your campaign and supported you — might well email you months from now really angry about where their package is. Just seeing that returned package in the mail, you feel your blood pressure rise. People don’t think about all of these logistics and psychological consequences.
Of course, I’m not saying we should pity creators who run Kickstarters and don’t fulfill them. But I’m saying we have to reevaluate how we’re running these comics Kickstarters. And I think there’s a difference between shipping out your graphic novel — no one’s going to mind that — and coordinating the shipping of a dozen different trinkets, most of which are going to go into a drawer somewhere (and probably aren’t going to survive their owner moving).
So this is my Kickstarter philosophy: keep it simple. Offer PDFs and digital files wherever possible to keep costs down and order fulfillment simple.
That said, the one product I did want to have is a black T-shirt with Darick’s cover to issue #1 on it. It’s just beautiful, and I think it’s got that iconic quality. I figure if I want one, other people will too. But right now, that’s it. No padding. No coffee mugs and postcards. Just a single piece of merchandise I’d personally want to own. I think it’s more special that way anyway.
In terms of how we planned this Kickstarter, there are two other innovations.
One is that we’ve released the first, eight-page chapter online on MartianLit.com and as a free high-resolution download in both PDF and CBR. So people know what they’re getting. I happen to think this is beautiful, excellently scripted stuff. I think it’s instantly identifiable as far more professional than the vast majority of comics, including from the biggest publishers. And I think when you read it, you’ll see it’s smarter and better written than just about anything out there. It’s just objectively better put-together — better illustrated, better written, better edited — than almost anything out there. So you know the quality is there.
This is important because with Kickstarter, you’re usually more or less buying a mystery bag. The clips of art you see might not be representative, and they usually don’t show whether an artist can actually tell a story visually. Plot descriptions almost never show whether a writer can actually tell a story. I’m sure a lot of donors to comics Kickstarters know the disappointment of opening a package only to see the actual comic they backed a year ago is only… okay.
That’s not going to happen here. No one’s ever had a debut comic anywhere near as this. This is top-tier quality, easily a candidate for one of the best comics of the year, and we’re hitting that level right out of the gate. Yes, we’re upstarts, and we’re asking you to believe in us. But we’re showing you we’re on a very, very high level. You know what you’re getting.
The other innovation is far more revolutionary.
We’re only asking for $2500, and we’re offering our digital comic as a reward for $3. Like I said, we’re keeping it simple, avoiding the bells and whistles, and keeping the costs down.
But as a stretch goal, for every additional $5000 we raise, we’re making another issue and adding it to people’s rewards. So everybody who’s got that first digital issue gets any additional issues for free.
In other words, $3 gets you a subscription for however many issues the Kickstarter ends up paying for.
So yes, we’re asking for a pretty small amount, just to subsidize the rest of the first issue. But we’re hoping to get many times more, as a way of Kickstarting not only the first issue but the series itself. And if that works out, we’ll basically give all those issues away to the people who made this possible. Everyone wins.
When you think about it, this is pretty revolutionary. It’s the exact opposite of what I was describing earlier with all that branded merchandise. The model there is to extract as many dollars as possible from the fewest number of donors. It’s a model the comics industry in general is using, with variant covers and by expanding the number of titles offered. On Kickstarter, this translates into a focus on using swag to move people into higher donations.
What we’re doing is the opposite. Of course, we’ll have levels above $3. But I’d rather get 1000 people at $3, who are actually going to get the comic and hopefully read it, than 3 people at $1000. For one thing, that’s a lot smaller an audience, and any new comics creator should want more than anything for people to discover and to read his or her comic. But those $1000 donations might also cost $500 to fulfill, which takes money away from actual comic production.
I have no idea whether this will be successful. It’s a new model for Kickstarter. It’s a little more democratic.
I think we’ll make our $2500 goal. We might not. I hope I have enough people who like my writing, or who appreciate what I’ve done at Sequart and think I’d make some pretty killer comics. But I have no evidence of this, and I’ll be happy to make our $2500 goal.
But I think there’s a chance — just a chance, but a chance — that this could really take off. “Hey, check out this awesome comic and get multiple issues for $3” is a pretty easy sale, I would hope. Just a few big donors could give enough money to make everyone get a whole other issue for free. And I think that the whole campaign becomes a lot more attractive, as we hit those stretch goals and everybody’s donation increases in value.
If that happens, this could not only give a real Kickstart to Martian Comics. It could also change how Kickstarter works in a real way, especially for comics.
I really, really hope people will check it out. It means the world to me. And if this long-winded interview demonstrates anything, I hope it’s that a whole lot of time and planning and real thinking has gone into this. It’s worth it, and by supporting or sharing the Kickstarter, you help make it a reality.
Martian Comics is on Kickstarter here.