Mike Phillips and Julian Darius are the Dynamic Duo behind Sequart. For those of you unaware of Sequart, it is the premier website for academics to share their thoughts on popular culture. In addition to supervising fantastic analyses of mass entertainment, Mike and Julian have become comic book writers. And wanting to learn more about their latest comic book series, Necropolitan, Mike and Julian let me interview them for ScifiPulse. (You can get Necropolitan from ComiXology here.)
Nicholas Yanes: When did you two become comic book fans? What were the specific characters that hooked you?
Julian Darius: I’ve been reading comics as long as I can remember. I vividly recall some of the comics that came with toys. But Mike Baron’s Flash was the first one that I read every single issue of. It was wonderful, and so mature compared to kid-focused fight scenes. That was really when I started following comic books in an adult way, looking at long segments of stories and parsing their creative choices.
Mike Phillips: 7th or 8th grade for me, in the early ‘90s. I was primed for the multiple chromium covers and the prey-on-obsessive-collectors glut of X-family this and Valiant that. Loved it all. X-Cutioner’s Song. Maximum Carnage. Unity. Chaos Effect. Knightfall. The Death of Superman. Not to mention needing every Image and Defiant issue. Your typical gateway drugs. Then I graduated to Vertigo, which was obviously mind blowing to a 15-year-old. And as far as pinpointing a favorite character that hooked me, it’d have to be Spawn. Those first ten or fifteen issues were great.
Yanes: Julian, you are the founder of Sequart. And Mike, you are Sequart’s Editor-in-Chief. How has working on Sequart impacted your understandings of comic books and popular culture at large?
Julian: At first, Sequart was a platform for my own work, as I investigated comics more deeply. By that point, I had read almost every book written about comics, and I was reading older comics and European comics, just really aggressively expanding my concept of the medium. I was also a literature student who also took a lot of art history, so I was keen to place comics into a continuum with these other, respected arts.
As time went on, I’ve learned so much from Sequart’s contributors. Having edited our website and our books, at different periods in our history, meant that I was constantly reading good writing by some of the few people doing serious comics criticism.
Mike: If you read my previous answer, my knowledge of comics was predominantly of the popular ones. Then, in 2004, I stumbled upon Sequart (then known as The Continuity Pages), and it massively expanded my perception of the comics world. Sticking with the “gateway drug” metaphor, I was a noob pothead when Julian / Sequart introduced me to mushrooms. In no time, I was devouring Concrete, Love & Rockets, and The Incal. Don’t even get me started on the incomparable The Obscure Cities!
Yanes: Specifically, how do you two think that Sequart’s work has improved your ability to tell stories?
Julian: That’s a hard question, but it’s something I’ve thought a lot about.
I wrote comics when I was a teenager, before I founded Sequart. They never were produced, but I don’t think I ever stopped writing comics. So by the time I actually got to make comics, I’d written thousands of pages of comics that were never produced. I’m not sure anyone’s ever done that before!
So for me, criticism and creativity always went hand-in-hand. I remember reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, while it was still being published, and just going over every page, figuring out how it worked. Gaiman would have these digressions, and he’d sometimes write these captions with long parentheticals, and I’d marvel at how these things worked that you’d think shouldn’t. I also realized Gaiman was doing something different with pages: each page was a unit, and a single page didn’t have multiple scenes. This was very uncommon back then, when the standard thinking was that each right-hand page should end on a cliffhanger, spurring you to turn the page. These are all critical observations, but they were also creative ones, part of the process of learning how comics worked as a medium and what made a given writer work.
Of course, as a critic, you run across panels and pages that don’t work, or fail to communicate what they should. I’m sure I became better at avoiding that, or at least being able to identify “what’s the one thing this panel really needs to communicate?” Because you can’t micromanage, but you need to know exactly what the basic connective tissue a given story requires. Sometimes, you have to adjust a story to fit what you get back from your collaborators, and I think working as a critic helped me to boil pages and panels down like this.
But I think the biggest way that Sequart helped this writing was in big-picture stuff. Even in high school, I’d map out story arcs for the series I was reading, studying how they were structured from a kind of macroscopic level. One of the things Sequart was known for, in its early years, was the Continuity Pages, where I’d list every single comic in a series, or multiple series, in the ideal reading order, with notes on continuity issues. I could see how the entire DC Universe functioned and evolved, for example, what each character’s story was, and how those stories intertwined. I got really good at this, and I think keeping this kind of big-picture view is so important as a writer. Yes, a story has to work on its own, but it’s also a brick in a massive structure that you’re assembling as a writer, and you’ve got to consider, as you place another brick, how it interacts with every other brick you placed, changing this overall structure.
Mike: I’m a relatively new writer, so I’ll keep it brief. When you’re analyzing comics as much as we have with Sequart, you start to truly understand that even the simplest comics still require execution on all of the many levels of comics creation – outlining, drawing, coloring, lettering, cover, backmatter, etc. – with each of those branches having their own intricacies. So once I began writing Necropolitan, a decade at Sequart prepared me for the many hours a single comic issue takes to create. Pretty humbling actually trying to make one.
Yanes: How did the idea behind Necropolitan come about? Were there any specific stories that you two think influenced you both the most?
Julian: Mike had the idea that became Necropolitan, and he consulted me pretty early on. I think I was always pushing for a larger cast of characters and for the ability to tell very different kinds of stories in this world. That was a big part of what I’d always done, in my series writing, and it’s something Gaiman talked about too: having a broad enough canvas that you don’t get bored writing the same kind of story over and over again.
Mike: Necropolitan is Warren Ellis’s fault. (He’ll have no idea what you’re talking about, so don’t ask him. But it is his fault.) When we (Sequart) were making the documentary Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, something Warren said stuck with me. He was being asked about the titular characters from the comic The Authority:
Sequart: Do you think there is anything virtuous to them at all?
Ellis: 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.
I couldn’t shake the idea. It loitered. It festered. A tyrant as the good guy? Now that would be an interesting (and hard) story to write. Could an audience be convinced root for an utter asshole? I stayed with the Hell motif, and the questions kept coming: What would happen if all of history’s worst people were forced to live together? What if the Devil gave up, like in The Sandman, and all of history’s most notorious people battled over the throne of Hell? Genghis Khan? Caligula? Robespierre? Hitler? Jack the Ripper? Clans? Turf warfare? Hmm…
A freestyle recipe started to form: Demons, for sure. A touch of supernatural powers, because why not? Toss in a loose interpretation of Milton’s metropolitan capital from Paradise Lost, Pandemonium, and now we have something. Then I started really messing around, throwing in names that weren’t immediately obvious, just to see where my brain would go: Aleister Crowley? That’d be fun. Thomas Edison? Ooohhhh…
Around the same time, Julian told me he was starting a comics line for Martian Lit, and he said that I should try to develop this Hell story for it. He’s a great scripter, so I asked him to help me get it over the hump, and he graciously offered to co-write.
Yanes: With the first issue of Necropolitan done, what has this process taught you both about the comic book industry that neither of you didn’t know beforehand?
Julian: I’m not sure what it’s taught me about the industry. By the time Necropolitan came out, I’d already had a handful of comics published, so I knew how it was done, from an editorial and publishing perspective. I also knew how hard it would be to find an audience, which is always the biggest challenge.
Mike: I’ve never had to sell a comic before, so I’m learning all about digital publishing, convention hawking, and grassroots strategizing. Walking a fine line between friendly and humble, yet carnival-barker-ish and braggadocious is very tricky.
Yanes: Necropolitan features infamous serial killers. Why did you two pick the killers that you did? Were there any killers that didn’t make the cut?
Julian: Mike and I spent a lot of time selecting the serial killers. I did a bit of research, finding more. A lot of this shows up late in issue #1, when we see who else is part of this camp of killers.
That same section also features Jeffrey Dahmer. Originally, he was going to have a much larger role. I’ve always found Dahmer interesting. Obviously, what he did was insane and terrible. But reading about him, I felt a lot of sympathy for someone who hated themselves so much that making a zombie out of someone through home surgery, as insane as that obviously is, would constitute the only way to get that person to stay, or to ensure that they would never leave. There’s a deep sadness there. I also found it interesting how Dahmer converted in prison, and I see no reason to think that wasn’t genuine. Without divulging too much, I have to thank the legendary Darick Robertson for making such a pervasive case that others just didn’t see in Dahmer what I did, or at least that they couldn’t get to what I found fascinating, because Dahmer was so recent and so terrible. So Dahmer wound up being near the end of issue #1, and the reader is told that he didn’t work out for reasons of personality, largely based on his conversion being genuine. That makes sense, but it’s also a kind of meta-comment on an earlier version of Necropolitan that doesn’t exist except in Mike’s and my brains.
Mike: Julian’s covered it. I’ll add that it’s been super fun and disturbingly informative researching serial killers and Earth’s worst people. I just hope the FBI isn’t checking my browser history. I’m sure there’s a red flag next to my name on some government watchlist.
Yanes: It is clear from the first issue that history plays a strong role in Necropolitan’s Hell, and the first issue specifically brings up a lot of Roman history. What was the thought process that went into shaping this version of Hell?
Julian: Mike had the idea of Hell being divided into clans. As we discussed the various clans and their makeup, I think I pushed for an Italian / Roman clan, because it made the most sense and would pack the most punch for our initial story arc. And as I mentioned before, I’m always interested in finding ways to expand the kind of stories we can tell. History is a big part of that, and I think that comes out in Martian Comics too.
Mike: I was leaning towards Robespierre’s clan taking the lead in issue one, but Julian had this vision of the Romans, and it won me over. It’s been fun to put a bunch of multi-era Romans together in the countryside beyond the Pandemonium city limits. They’ve been relatively unimpeded for centuries. Palatial estates sprawl through their territory, and it looks like they’re quite in control of Hell and having a blast. But things are about to change. They’ve got rivals everywhere, as you’ll see in the next four issues. Robespierre’s clan runs most of downtown Pandemonium. Genghis Khan’s clan makes raids into the city, coming out of its hole in the foothills near the Volcano. Higher up the mountain, Aleister Crowley’s clan bides its time, quietly mining the caves. They’ve recently made a major move. There are so many historical figures I’m planning on cramming into this book. It’s really fun mixing historically accurate moments and motifs with this “new life” the characters are leading.
Yanes: When people finish reading Necropolitan, what do you hope that they take away from the story?
Julian: Ultimately, I accept that I can’t control what someone takes away from a story. I think most writers have probably had a moment in which they meet a fan who says the most complementary things. It’s flattering. And then they get into specifics, and it seems really trivial to you, or just not at all what you care about in what you’ve written. And that’s fine! I’m glad if people like it, and I’m not going to police their reasons. They don’t have to take what I take from it.
So if someone says it’s a “badass” issue that’s really fucked up, that’s fine with me. That’s at a sort of visceral level, and it’s legit. And if someone says it’s remarkable in its world-building, in how it gives a tour of this world that’s very far from ours, while keeping things flowing well with some tight dialogue, that’s a more technical level. And if someone says it gets at the horrors that humanity does to one another, how we become culpable in them, how normal those horrors are in history, and how an afterlife actually existing produces weird effects, like the protagonist saying he’d have killed himself long ago if he knew Hell was real, because then he’d be able to find his daughter down there… well, these are more philosophical points, but they’re just another layer. If people finish the book and are taking away any of this, that’s great.
Mike: A lot of answers come to mind for this one. I’m in the David Lynch camp in the sense that I’m just happy to have the reader take whatever they want from it. “Whatever you think it is, it is.” Ultimately, I’m making this to entertain myself. If it sells enough to make the next issue, I’m happy! But if there’s anything I hope to “give” the reader, it’s the sense of “no character is safe.” That’s always been a big thing for me as a reader of action / adventure / thriller stories; if you don’t know what’s gonna happen next and you don’t know who’s gonna be knocked off next, it’s so much more exciting.
Yanes: Finally, what are you two working on that people can look forward to?
Julian: Necropolitan is only one of five titles that Martian Lit is publishing. Martian Comics is on issue #11, as I write this, and it’s a kind of sprawling sci-fi Sandman thing. It’s spin-offs Kimot Ren and Lazarus, the Forever Man each have a couple issues out. And the first issue of another spin-off, The Synthetics, is coming out soon. It focuses on Martian robots, and it’s trippy stuff I’ve never seen done before.
There’s a long-term plan in place for each of these comics. In fact, I’ve already got a bit of art that I think will wind up being in Martian Comics #27, and I’ve written stories that won’t appear until at least Martian Comics #32. I just hope people pick them up and tell their friends!
Mike: I’m scripting Necropolitan #s 4 and 5 right now. Plus Julian wrote an 80-page Necropolitan OGN script that’s fully edited and awaiting pencils. I’ve also started writing a multiple-reality comic that’s super ambitious. The story layout is half finished, and I hope to finish the script before 2018. Thanks so much for the interview!