Mike Phillips on Necropolitan

Necropolitan is an exciting new comic book from publisher Martian Lit’s growing line of titles. Created by Mike Phillips, Julian Darius, and Steven Legge, the recently released Necropolitan #1 is a fresh take on the ultimate setting for torture and torment, Hell. As you’ll read below, the book portends a tense premise, fully equipped with a dream team of historical antagonists. (The double-sized first issue is now available on comiXology and Kindle.) I got the chance to ask series co-creator Mike Phillips a few questions about the series and related themes.

IAN DAWE: Let’s begin with the elevator pitch. In a few words, what’s Necropolitan about?

MIKE PHILLIPS: I like to tell people that it’s like Gangs of New York meets Highlander in Hell.

DAWE: Sounds like a blast!

PHILLIPS: [Laughs] Thanks! That’s the goal!

DAWE: Okay, now let’s go deeper.

PHILLIPS: Okay, so Lucifer had been the ruler of Hell since God created the Punishment Dimension and trapped Him there. (Why God put Him there is a story for another time.) But a few hundred years ago, Lucifer got so bored with being in charge, He decided to disappear, in search of something more entertaining. (A nod, for sure, must go to Mr. Gaiman for the idea of Absentee Lucifer. Although, I promise my Lucifer won’t end up in a police procedural TV show.) He left Beelzebub in charge, and let’s just say Beelzebub isn’t half the emperor Lucifer was. So for the intervening centuries (up to the present), many of history’s worst people got a solid foothold in Hell, formed clans/gangs, and are now having a turf war in hopes of toppling Beelzebub’s regime (which is headquartered in Hell’s main city, Pandemonium — Pandemonium is going to be as much a character as any human or demon, thus the name Necropolitan). So we have people like Caligula, Nero, Robespierre, Genghis Khan, Elizabeth Bathory, Jack the Ripper, Aleister Crowley, Alexander the Great, Ramesses II, Joan of Arc, Stalin, Hitler, and Dillinger all battling Beelzebub and each other for the throne of Hell.

DAWE: There are tons of possibilities.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, there definitely are, and that’s what makes creating it so fun! In my opinion, antagonists are usually the most interesting characters, so I figure if one antagonist is fun, two antagonists are twice as fun. And obviously, that logic leads to: “The most fun should be had when most/all of the characters are bad.”

DAWE: The fun is exponential!

PHILLIPS: [Laughs] Exactly! [Movie Trailer Guy voice] “Hell’s never been so fuuuuuun.”

DAWE: God is mentioned in issue #1, and obviously Lucifer is in the Bible. So this begs the question: are you religious?

PHILLIPS: Not even a little bit. I was raised a Christian, but going to college and getting out into the real world (i.e. seeing other people’s points of view) cured me of that pretty quickly. I’m just not a fan of most religions. I feel that it, as a whole, has done way more bad in the world than good. Don’t get me started. [Laughs]

DAWE: As an atheist, what fascinates you about Hell?

PHILLIPS: If you’re raised in Christianity, it’s impossible not to be fascinated by Hell. “If you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, you go to this place for sinners, and you’re tortured for eternity.” Yeah, that’ll leave an impression on a kid. So even though I stopped being a Christian, the fascination must have remained somewhere in my subconscious, because once the idea for Necropolitan bubbled up, I ran with it. And I want to make it clear that I’m not making this book in order to make tons of statements about religion. Seriously, the religious aspect is, like, the 5th-most interesting thing to me about this book. It just seemed like a “believable” and compelling way to get all of these characters together on the same playing field. Believe me, when I daydream about Necropolitan story ideas, my head is revolving around crime-fiction and science-fantasy ideas much more so than biblical ones.

DAWE: Where exactly did the seed for Necropolitan come from?

PHILLIPS: We (Sequart) were in the midst of making the documentary Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts (shout out to Kevin Thurman, Patrick Meaney, Jordan Rennert, and Amber Yoder for their hard work on that film), and we were chatting with Warren about the titular characters from The Authority. Kevin asked Warren “Do you think there is anything virtuous to [the Authority] at all?” and Ellis responded with this little gem: “If there is virtue to them, it’s often only in relative terms. I mean, Hitler looks like the good guy if he’s beating up Satan.” Cue my Matrix Keanu “whooooaaaah” reaction. Disturbingly I began fantasizing too much about what the most horrible people in history would do if they got a chance to band together to take on the Devil.

DAWE: Talk about the Gangs of New York connection from your elevator pitch.

PHILLIPS: Elevator pitches are super simplified, and I only chose Gangs of New York to convey the turf war aspect. That’s a very important part of the series. I wanted gangs battling it out for Lucifer’s throne, because that allowed us to stuff in as many historical baddies as possible. If Beelzebub is the leader of what is essentially a demon army (albeit a dysfunctional one), it’s going to take an army to defeat them.

DAWE: Explain how Beelzebub’s army is dysfunctional.

PHILLIPS: Well, firstly, he was Lucifer’s second-in-command — His best creation, Bizarro Jesus — and he feels abandoned by Lucifer’s disappearing act. So off the bat, you’ve got this relatively new leader who is disgruntled, not to mention he never really wanted the job. He was created by Lucifer, and he wasn’t created to lead, but rather to serve. In other words, he’s not really that good at being the boss. This ineptitude leads to the other demons — who were also created by Lucifer — not having much respect for Beelzebub. “Why should I bow to you, when you’re really no better than me?” And this dysfunction and lack of respect, mixed with the general anarchy of Hell, leads to a shitty administration. Think of it as a bureaucracy run by the most selfish people known to man [cough, cough]. Not a whole lot of important things get done in a system like that. Public works suffer, living conditions and morale (yes, demon morale) decay, and opponents to the throne aren’t effectively thwarted because the chain of command isn’t properly executed. All of this chaos allowed some ambitious human “inmates” to band together as clans to contest the throne.

DAWE: And the Highlander connection?

PHILLIPS: In the first pages of issue #1, the halos are introduced. Once someone is “born” into Hell, they are immediately branded with a halo. (These halos were a way for Lucifer to entertain Himself — in fact, most of His decisions stem from His boredom and how He attempted to overcome it.) Each halo imbues its owner with very tiny amount of Lucifer’s power. If scalped, the owner loses that power, and the scalper can place that halo upon their own halo to absorb it, making him/her stronger. If someone has absorbed multiple halos, he/she has a pretty valuable scalp. Like in Highlander, if one person gains all of the halos, he/she would be massively powerful.

DAWE: And Lucifer is so bored because…

PHILLIPS: Because He’s been stuck in Hell for millennia and has been forced to entertain Himself. Imagine that your parents are super wealthy, and you do something naughty and get sent to your room to think about what you’ve done. In your mansion bedroom, you have all the things a kid could want. And now let’s make the scenario really weird: you can’t ever leave the room. Eventually, all of that cool shit you own will become boring, so after you’re done staring at the wall, you have to get creative with your stuff, just to stave off the boredom. (This is not to say that there were a bunch of “toys” in Hell when Lucifer was trapped there, but He discovered He had a large amount of power with which to conjure things.) So Lucifer created playmates, a.k.a. demons. That got boring. He then created a coliseum, so that the playmates could tear each other to shreds for His enjoyment. That too got boring. Next thing you know, humans have been naughty in some other dimension, and now they’re being sent to “their room” so to speak. (In a future issue, we’ll explain the whys and hows of the Punishment Dimension.) This was a very exciting moment for Lucifer. He tosses them into the coliseum with the demons, but — you guessed it — that eventually gets boring too. How to make the humans last longer during a fight with the brutal demons? The idea strikes Him that He should give each of them a microfraction of His power. And why not make it look like a halo, a symbolically demented homage to what His “dad” donned His brothers and sisters with? After a few decades of doling out a bit of power to each new arrival, He started feeling that his power had lessened. At first, this scared Him. But upon reflection, He realized that this fear was exciting. It was an emotion He rarely experienced. I liken this feeling to when you’re playing against someone in a one-on-one game; chess isn’t fun or challenging if your opponent is two years old. It’s usually the most fun when you’re, say, 10% better than the opponent. In this situation, you should win, but there’s the looming possibility you could lose. And the fear of losing makes the game exciting. So for a long time, Lucifer enjoyed knowing that Hell was being populated with tons and tons of haloed people who could, one day, potentially challenge Him in all sorts of ways. The longer this halo doling went on, the more tantalizing the game. Like foreplay. This went on for centuries. Which makes His disappearance a mystery. He just up and left one day. Why not wait to feel the full satisfaction of what He’s been cultivating for so long?

DAWE: Now that’s a backstory! As an American, what led you to populate Hell with so many European characters?

PHILLIPS: Ummmm… because I got an “F” in world history class? [Laughs] The quick answer is that this is just issue #1, which was Europe heavy. Sure, Jack the Ripper, Elizabeth Bathory, and the Romans all hail from Europe, but in future issues we’ll be expanding all over the globe. Think of me using Professor X’s Cerebro, with the setting tuned to “Historical Assholes” [Laughs]. In other words, I’m open to using any asshole from history. Equal opportunity employer, here! To anyone reading this interview: If you know of any obscure yet interesting historical assholes, please contact me at sequart.mike@gmail.com!

DAWE: What plans do you have for upcoming story lines?

PHILLIPS: Even though this book will take place primarily in Hell, I still want to tell stories that aren’t necessarily synonymous with punishment and torture and horror. Julian wants to write an issue he refers to as “Love in Hell.” Put another way, billions of humans have lived and died. Many of them are assholes. So Hell has quite a large population. With this in mind, we want to convey that a good slice of the population are people that might have made just a single poor choice that landed them in the Punishment Dimension. They’re not evil masterminds hatching schemes to overthrow Hell. They’re just trying to live (and even attempt to enjoy) whatever life they have left. Other than that, I can’t wait to do an issue about a certain someone who died in the first half of the 20th century that you might not expect to be in Hell. This person, because of their intellect, ends up being a major player in Hell. In the immediate future, we need to complete the first arc with issues #2 and 3. Issue #1 was a bit of exposition-y table setting, but with issues #2 and 3, we eat! (Get it?) Little exposition, lots of action. Oh, and eventually we need to see what good ol’ St. Lucifer is up to.

DAWE: Do you have an endgame in mind for the series?

PHILLIPS: Absolutely. As fun as the journey is, I’m a closure kind of guy, so I need someone to win that throne. In keeping with the Highlander theme, someone has to get “the Prize.” There can be only one! [Laughs]. No idea how many issues it’ll be, but the number we’ve fixated on is 50. If it takes only 48, then fine.

Further reading: Here’s my review of Necropolitan #1.

Full disclosure: Mike Phillips is the Editor-in-Chief of Sequart Organization.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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