Avril Brown Presents:
Nick Spencer is the author of EXISTENCE 2.0, a recently released and glowingly reviewed Image comic book about a scientist named Sylvester Baladine who develops a technology capable of transferring the consciousness of one person into the brain and body of another. When an assassin stops by his place of work and snuffs poor Sylvester, Sly uses his work and moves into the body of the man that killed him, giving him a second chance at life and an opportunity to find out who wanted him dead. Avril Brown recently chatted with him about the book.
AB: Welcome to Comics Waiting Room, Nick! Let us start from the very beginning: when was the first moment you absolutely KNEW you wanted to write comic books?
NS: Oh, I always knew, really. There were questions about when in life I'd do it, but I always knew I would. Okay, I don't know if I've told this story yet-- but when I was around nine years old or so, I would call the DC offices and ask to talk to editors about my story ideas-- seriously! I would just get the number from directory assistance and call DC, and demand to talk to an editor about my Justice League ideas. And they would connect me! Some of those editors, like the great Jonathan Peterson, would even send me scripts and free comics, which only encouraged me. And this was in the pre-email age, so I'd get snail mailed these coffee-stained scripts and they were like the Holy Grail to me, I just poured over them every day for months.
So yeah, this has been there my whole life. It was just a question of when.
AB: Considering your early start, it certainly sounds as if you were meant to be in comics. You mentioned in your Comics And…Other Imaginary Tales interview that, thanks to your dad, you grew up on comics. What was your favorite growing up? What was your father’s favorite? Was there a particular issue/character/story which guaranteed you’d be a comic fan for life?
NS: My dad was a big Marvel guy, he was a kid during the height of the Lee-Kirby-Ditko era. He especially loved The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. He was one of the guys who lived through the nightmare of having all those valuable first issues sold off by his mother at a garage sale while he was in the Army. Pretty sure it scarred him for life!
As for stories that kept in me comics... I always love that question, because really, every time I hit one of those ages where you're supposed to lose interest, some story would come along that would reel me back in. I remember the first stories that really blew my mind were the Simonson runs of Thor and The Fantastic Four, Peter David's Hulk, Fabian Nicieza's New Warriors, and the Mutant Massacre and Inferno X-crossovers.
I even remember specific issues, like Simonson's time-jumping FF issue (#352) or his all splash page issue of Thor (#380), or Peter David and Dale Keown getting deep inside the Hulk's brain (#377). I bought Alan Moore's "What Happened To The Man From Tomorrow?" at a grocery store on a whim. As a kid, those books, and those issues in particular, showed me some of the amazing things you could do in this medium. They told huge stories that blew my young mind and tested the limits of my imagination. I was just hooked.
Then as a teenager, there was the whole Image revolution, and Sam Keith's The Maxx, in particular. That led to discovering Sandman, which in turn also hooked me into Vertigo-- and with that came The Invisibles, which had a profound effect on my life, and not just in terms of comics. Joe Casey and Joe Kelly came on the scene in the mid-nineties I guess-- I might be the world's biggest Hellcop fan to this day. Then Kevin Smith came onto Daredevil and Joe Quesada took over at Marvel. All that stuff, like I said, just drew me back in and reinvigorated my love for the medium every time I might have drifted.
AB: Quite the varied tastes you have. EXISTENCE 2.0 is a three-issue story, telling one tale from start to finish. Was this the plan from the beginning to keep EXISTENCE to three issues or did you have to scale back from your original idea? Can you see yourself and Ron doing a regular monthly series on the adventures of Sylvester Baladine, the body-sliding scientist?
NS: We always conceived it as a finite story, but left the door open to come back if everything worked out. For me as a writer, I try to never forget the fundamentals. I outline. I map my beginning, middle, and end. I define my theme, my protagonist and antagonist-- all the stuff they teach you in grade school that too many of us writers decide we're too smart to adhere to-- that's the stuff I've learned to lean on. Once you do your work on those basics, the number of pages, the number of issues... all that stuff gets a lot easier.
And yeah, I definitely like this world we're playing in and have a lot of ideas for stories that could follow, and working with Ron has been a joy. So hopefully this book will find it's audience and we'll have an opportunity to come back to this.
AB: Fingers crossed! Were you familiar with the various quantum mind and consciousness theories before writing EXISTENCE, or did you have the story idea first and then do the research?
NS: It's always been a subject of great interest to me. Since I was a teenager, I've been reading PKD and Morrison and Robert Anton Wilson and Sam Keith-- so exploring the mysteries of consciousness is something I've always been drawn to. But when this book became a reality, I really buckled down and did my homework. The funny thing is, we spend all of one page really talking about what the transfer is-- it just didn't make sense in this kind of story to really drag it down with too much academia. But for whatever reason, I felt better to me knowing the "rules" of the transfer while I was writing.
AB: Sylvester is kind of an asshole, and you mentioned in your Comic Book Resources interview (my my, you do get around) how liberating it is to write assholes, but not necessarily fun to read assholes who don’t have something about the character the readers can care about. Who’s one of your favorite assholes in comics and/or other fiction? Was that character in any way influential on your decision to create an original, semi-sentimental douchebag of your own?
NS: Oh yeah, I love a good douchebag. Chuck Barris, as portrayed by Sam Rockwell in Confessions of A Dangerous Mind. Tyler Durden. Spider Jerusalem. Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank. Charlie in Rain Man is an asshole, really-- Tom Cruise actually excels at playing characters who start out very douchey: Magnolia, Vanilla Sky, A Few Good Men, Top Gun. Jude Law and Michael Caine in their respective versions of Alfie. Matt Murdock. And of course, Ferris Bueller! You shouldn't like these characters, really, but somehow, you do.
The key is to find ways to make the reader care about them, or, barring that, be entertained by them. It works for some more than others, in terms of the audience. Me personally, I like assholes. The guy you meet in the story who just wants to do good, or is just such a pure soul-- really, that character is only relate-able on a masturbatory level. Don't get me wrong, most people would rather do good than bad, but there's rationalizations and survival instinct and day-to-day responsibilities that tend to come first, and that's the stuff that fascinates me. Most fiction boils down to connecting with protagonists in a given conflict, and myself personally, I have no interest in just letting the reader off the hook by letting them associate with some kind of saint. I heard it said once that human beings are prone to acts of great heroism and sacrifice and kindness, but it's still always surprising when it happens, and never surprising when they don't. I like that.
You know, I've been talking about Sly a lot to folks these last few weeks, and I'm starting to feel a little bad for him. Yes, Sly has done some shitty things. But really, when I hear people say he's unlikeable I want to urge them to read again. Sly is just one of those guys who's got a brain imbalance-- he's brilliant in certain areas, and just a complete idiot in others. I at least hope it comes across that he's more hapless than malicious, really. Problem is he's too bright for his own good. When I'm writing him, I'm more laughing at him than being repulsed by him, and it's nice to see people who have read the book react the same way.
AB: The whole Sylvester-got-stabbed-because-his-daughter’s-cat-was-horny angle was my favorite part of your first issue. Do you have cats yourself or did you discover through different means how intensely obnoxious they can be when in heat?
NS: Ha! You are the first person to ask me about this! That was definitely inspired by a true story. When I was about nine, I adopted a cat, and checking its sex somehow got overlooked and since it was always with me, my parents never really bothered to figure it out. So the kitten is going around for months with a male name and getting called "he," until one fateful day, when "he" started acting funny and just howling at the door to get out. I will never forget those sounds! It really is horrible. To this day I'm a cat person, though. In fact, I have a pitch I'm readying for San Diego that features them prominently, so I guess they qualify as a recurring theme in my work!
Bottom line, it was a fun thing to work into the book. I've got a fondness for throwing situational comedy into stories where it's not expected. To me, it makes everything more real and helps the reader connect to the character a lot easier. Most of us haven't been hitmen or black market physicists, but we've probably had pet issues at some point…
The great thing was that we did the first five pages for the pitch. So it ends, basically, with the whole "I hate that goddamned cat" thing. And it was of constant amusement to me to ask people how they thought the cat tied into the story. It was always that the cat belonged to someone important/dangerous, or was somehow valuable-- it was never just a normal, fucked up situation with a pet. Pretty proud of that!
AB: As well you should be; that was one of the most amusing scenes I’ve read in a comic. You also mentioned in your CBR interview that getting out and living life has helped you in your writing. Are there any events/experiences in particular which were particularly worthwhile?
NS: I have noticed an unnerving autobiographical element to my writing that only reveals itself after I've put pen to paper. At the same time, I don't know how much it helps the reader to know all that about me-- I'd rather they hopefully find ways to associate the story with their own lives rather than mine.
But sure, like a lot of folks, I had a point in my life where I felt drastic reinvention was in order. I think everyone has been in that place where they wish they were someone else, that they had a fresh slate. And you realize eventually why the past is always part of us, and why the relationships we have, no matter how badly we screw them up, truly mean something.
AB: Do you see yourself writing comics till the end of days? Any other medium you’re dying to get into?
NS: I think comics will always be my primary and only focus. You never say never to anything, but this is the medium I want to be working in. I tend to write to music, so sometimes I wish I could share that with the reader, which can be difficult to convey in this format-- but really, working in comics offers you far, far more positives than negatives. I think this will always be home for me, as long as they'll have me! Comics have been my dream my whole life, I can't say I want or am seeking anything else. I will say motion comics really intrigue me, I'm excited to see what Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev do there. I'd love to play around with that format someday maybe.
AB: I did a bit of cyber-stalking and noticed you’re a bit of a Joss Whedon fan (and I’m right there with ya), so I have to ask, what’d you think of Dollhouse? There’s quite a bit of consciousness transference going on there as well. Do you think we humans are ever going to achieve this kind of technology you and Mr. Whedon are writing about, and if so, should we ever use it?
NS: Yes, I am a huge Joss Whedon fan, no doubt about it. Everything you need to know about good characterization you can learn from that one season of Firefly. And yeah, I love Dollhouse. In fact, they did a 'solve your own murder' episode, though they went in a very different direction with it compared to what we did here. But some of the concepts Joss explored there-- questions of self-identity and the notion of 'soul'... well, I was pretty giddy seeing one of my favorite character writers take that high concept stuff on. I'm thrilled it's coming back, that's for sure.
As for your question about the technology, I don't know. I am, believe it or not, a skeptic at my core, and plenty of science and philosophy points towards consciousness being essentially manufactured, and certainly not something that can be moved or carry on. But luckily, that pesky problem of the observer principle in quantum mechanics saves us from surrendering completely to such a bleak outlook. One of the strongest theories in all of science, one which about a third of the world economy is based upon, says our consciousness has a fundamental impact on the universe around us. If that continues to hold, and it did against challenges from no less than Einstein, then yes, maybe there's a chance our self-identity could outlast our bodies.
Now, the question of should we? Well, the fun of Sly Baladine is he could care less about the particular conundrum. As for me, hard to say. Stalling human progress seems like a pointless and silly endeavor-- though God knows some folks love to try. This is a problem I think I'll end up back to a lot in my writing, honestly.
AB: Speaking of writing, is there any advice you can give to aspiring writers in addition to the advice that was doled out unto you?
NS: You know, this is my first book, so I always worry about how qualified I really am to start doling out advice on writing. So, when asked, I usually try to focus on the practical stuff. If you're trying to break into the comics industry, the biggest key is finding a good artist. Right now, writers get a disproportionate amount of attentions in comics journalism and promotion, but the reality of pitching is that the art is the key component. Existence 2.0 took off because of Ron, not me. So try to build relationships with really talented artists and convince them to take a chance on you-- the difference between me and some who tried to do this is I spend literally hours a day trolling DeviantArt, approaching talented artists about collaborating. There's a lot of false starts and frustrations that come from that, but trust me-- no one will read your scripts, you need to find someone who will bring those pages to life.
From there, be friendly and professional with every editor you meet. Suppress the inner fanboy and present yourself as someone who can do a job and be trusted. When you go to a con, try to dress a tiny bit nicer and get a haircut. It sounds silly, but I do believe it helps. So much of this comes down to relationships and professionalism, I think.
Your pitch itself needs to lay out the basic premise of your story as fast as possible. If you look at the first page of the first issue of this book, we do everything we can in a few panels to tell people what this book is about. Show, don't tell. Don't save it for the end of the first issue, or the first arc, or whatever. Give it all you've got in those first few pages. I would watch editor's eyes at cons, and I could tell if the first page was grabbing them. If it didn't, I needed to get back to work. And that's the last piece of advice I have: keep going. Be persistent and LEARN from your mistakes. Don't take offense to editor's evaluations, listen and keep it all in mind when you revise or do something new. They're not your enemy, they're trying to help you.
AB: Wise words, good sir. My mother always tells me to at least put on some lipstick when I go out, because you never know who you’re going to meet. Presentation is key. Now for the random question of the day: if you could have unlimited backstage passes to any band be they living, dead, still rocking out or broken up before we were born, who would it be?
NS: Oooh... tough question! People are sometimes surprised by this, but I am a HUGE Beach Boys fan, so I'd probably have to go with them. But as soon I say that I'm furious at myself for not picking The Velvet Underground or Bowie or Joy Division.
AB: I love the Beach Boys! Does it get any better than cars, surfing and bikini babes? Your other choices demonstrate the diversity you have in your musical interests as well as your comic ones, and I do like a writer with an open mind and eclectic tastes. Thanks so much for sharing your time and thoughts with the readers of CWR! We’re looking forward to reading the rest of EXISTENCE and your future comic projects, of which I am certain there shall be many!Visit CWR at Unsungheroes!
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