With Nowhere Men #6 finally hitting stores this week after a hiatus, it's now time to bring you this interview I had with Eric Stephenson, writer of Nowhere Men and, incidentally, Publisher of Image Comics, in order to draw attention to this fascinating book. He was gracious enough to make time back in San Diego to sit down with me and talk at length about his inspirations for the book, the long journey it took to reach fruition, working with the stunning artist Nate Bellegarde, and even providing the soundtrack for the comic series whose hook has been "science is the new rock & roll."
CRAVE ONLINE: Nowhere Men is a hell of a concept – kind of cerebral and kind of gutteral at the same time. "Science is the new rock & roll" is a pretty good slogan – did you develop your approach from that slogan?
ERIC STEPHENSON: No, the slogan came later. It's funny, because even the name of the book came later. There were two things that motivated me to start working on the series. One was that so many superhero comics begin with these coincidental accidents – 'oh, I got bit by a spider, oh!' There's a lot of people in the wrong place at the wrong time, which I think worked well enough for when that stuff was coming out, but I think most things that happen, even if they are accidents, there is some kind of deliberateness to them. With this, it starts off and it seems like an accident, but then it's like, no, why did this happen? Who's responsible for this? What's the back story to why this happened? So there's that…
CRAVE ONLINE: Yeah, I didn't even realize it was a 'superhero' book until about three issues in.
STEPHENSON: It's not a 'superhero book,' it's a 'people with super powers' book.
CRAVE ONLINE: Right, exactly. We have no idea how they're going to turn out.
STEPHENSON: Yes, and so the other thing was that, just as we've gone along over the last decade or so, watching celebrity culture morph into this disgusting thing, where people with literally no talent whatsoever can become a celebrity. No, there are people who really can do things, people who are very intelligent who are actually making these profound changes in the world – what would the world be like if they were the celebrities? Then, along the same time as that, you had everything that was going on with Apple at the time, and then Steve Jobs died, and a lot of that informs this. What if there were lots of Steve Jobs? That's the kind of stuff that got me into it. The great thing about the book is that I'm able to flit around through a lot of my interests and then combine them all into something that, so far, has worked pretty well together.
CRAVE ONLINE: The way you dollop out information is fascinating. It can be a bit challenging and cerebral and it's absolutely not linear, but it's really cool, the way you get around exposition dumps by writing "Science Journal" articles – like Esme in the last issue being an instant celebrity, doing the Janet Jackson Rolling Stone pose with an accompanying article explaining who she is and how the public sees her, and boom, she's almost a fully-formed character right away, in only a couple of pages.
STEPHENSON: That's also a callback to when we did the 'reader's poll' thing in the issue prior to that, and she's listed in there a couple of times. There are a lot of characters who are in that reader's poll who will show up later on in the book. I've got all of these things that I want to eventually filter in to the book, so we'll just have this list that we'll come back to later.
CRAVE ONLINE: It's a to-do list that you've published.
STEPHENSON: That's the product of working on it for so long. There were three or four artists that I'd worked with – I had some false starts. In the short term, that was a very frustrating thing, but the long term benefit has been that I've been able to think about what I'm doing and stockpile ideas for years and years and years. The reason why I'm able to do things in a non-linear fashion is that I know how everything fits together, and it's a case of when do I distribute this information? Doing the things with the ads and posters and magazine articles…
CRAVE ONLINE: Even using the front and back inside covers as story pages is pretty unique.
STEPHENSON: It's funny, I did not set out wanting to do that. That was something that came as a result of the relationship with Steven Finch and Fonografiks, who do all of our design work and realizing there's the ability to do more than just the comic book story. You get more out of each issue that way. An artist can only draw so many pages. If you can expand it in other ways, it's good for the reader, I think.
CRAVE ONLINE: So how did Nate become the final artist on this? Did he really sync up with your idea, or was it more 'hey, do this, because I'm the boss?'
STEPHENSON: Oh, no. The artist that I worked with prior to Nate was a guy named Terry Stevens, who did some Battle Pope stuff with Robert Kirkman. Terry and I did stuff together for a while – there were layouts for the entire first issue by Terry. He did the stories in two issues of Invincible that have short Nowhere Men stories in them – issues #19 and #20 – and you can see because they are sort of alternate versions of what actually happened. But Terry had some health issues that prevented him from continuing on the book, and after his health issues were resolved, he said 'I think I need to just focus on my day job and put this aside.' So he stepped out of the picture, and not long after that, I'd flown out to Robert's place in Lexington, Kentucky, and he, Cory Walker, myself and Nate Bellegarde were all driving from there to Baltimore Comic-Con. I had my sketchbook with me, and I think Nate's Hector Plasm book had just come out. I was like 'hey, can you do a Hector Plasm sketch in my book?' He's doing this sketch, and it just knocked me out. I really loved the work. Robert, Nate, Cory, Ryan Ottley and I were all out at dinner one night, and I was just raving about this sketch, and Ryan says 'you should get Nate to do Nowhere Men with you.' And I was like 'huh. That's… that's a good idea!' So I gave him a quick pitch on the idea, he was like 'yeah, do you have a whole document on this?' I said 'sure,' sent it to him, and he was 'yeah, this is everything I want to do in comics.'
CRAVE ONLINE: Basically, your Nowhere Men soulmate.
STEPHENSON: Yeah. It's great. Every writer wants to have an artist who, when you give them ideas and tell them what you want to do, they come back and say 'I want to do that, too, and plus, check this out!' And they're adding things to the concept that just make it better. So it's been a very, very fruitful collaboration.
CRAVE ONLINE: Can you give an example of something that he's brought to the table that you hadn't even thought of?
STEPHENSON: A lot of the body horror stuff that's in the book. (laughs) When it's like 'hey, we can have this happen,' Nate is usually the guy who says 'hey, I'm going to make this even grosser.'
CRAVE ONLINE: Oh, man, the woman who turns into black goo was really horrifying.
STEPHENSON: The part where her head disintegrates and you can see her brains?
CRAVE ONLINE: And later, when she's sitting there as living black goo in the space suit just bubbling and gurgling – it's impressively creepy.
STEPHENSON: Yeah, there's stuff like that, and then he was the guy who, with Kurt – the big red guy – he said 'I think after he sheds his outer skin, he should eat it!' I was like 'that is a fantastic idea, we are going to include that.' Yeah, anything gross. There's the bit with the guy on the plane, too, who throws up his insides.
CRAVE ONLINE: Aw, god! That was really gross!
STEPHENSON: Yeah, I said 'he's going to be throwing up his insides,' and Nate was like 'oh yeah, here's all the stuff that we're going to see.' He's good at that. Also, education-wise, Nate comes from more of a science background, too. He's very into all that stuff. There are things sometimes I will suggest where he says 'oh, well, here's another practical reason why this would happen,' which is kind of cool. He knows this stuff.
CRAVE ONLINE: You mean as far as mutations go?
STEPHENSON: Sometimes, yes, but also if it's a device or something like that, he'll say 'oh, that is something that actually could exist, and here's why.' He's fantastic.
CRAVE ONLINE: Okay, so, it's fairly obvious that the four main World Corp guys are patterned on The Beatles – I don't think that would surprise anybody, given the title of the book. Do you see a one-to-one correlation between them?
STEPHENSON: Oh, no, that was never – like, if I could go back and redo one thing that's in there, I probably would have not had the younger version of Emerson Strange look as much like John Lennon, because I think that kind of distracted people. Appearance-wise, that's the only connection.
CRAVE ONLINE: True, but there's an ethical element to Emerson Strange that kind of works with John Lennon. To be fair, that was kind of the initial hook for me, as a longtime Beatles fan, to give the book a shot.
STEPHENSON: Yeah. Thomas Walker is more Syd Barrett. When we were figuring out who people looked like, the original version of Dade Ellis – all of the reference I sent was Arthur Lee, Jimi Hendrix, that type of stuff. It wasn't like 'how do we make everybody look like somebody in the Beatles?'
CRAVE ONLINE: Okay, so maybe there's no exact relation, but who might Simon Grimshaw be in reality? Is he every evil manager or something?
STEPHENSON: No, it's funny. He's not based on a musician at all. There's an actor who played a character on Firefly. There's River and her brother… Sean Maher is the actor's name. Appearance-wise, that's who I was looking at. In terms of actual archetypes in the real world, he's kind of like your Steve Jobs/Bill Gates type guy. There are people who will say 'oh yeah, Steve Jobs was a brilliant guy, but he was a complete bastard.' That's what I'm looking at. He's looking at things not so much in terms of right and wrong, but 'what can we do?' He just doesn't see things as black and white.
CRAVE ONLINE: There's that Patton Oswalt line about how science is "all about coulda, not shoulda."
STEPHENSON: Which is funny. That's something that very much is part of this, yeah. That's basically the argument they have at the beginning of the first issue. He's like 'we can do all of this stuff,' and they're like 'we shouldn't do all of this stuff.'
CRAVE ONLINE: Right. When I picked up that first issue, I thought 'the Lennon thing is cool,' and then I turned the page to see the crazy giant crystal gorilla thing they're arguing about, and thought 'okay, three pages in, I'm sold on this book.' I'm curious, though, how hard is it to juggle your creative responsibilities on the book with your job as the publisher of Image Comics?
STEPHENSON: It's not too bad, really. We've been working on it for a while, but also, I keep it separate. It's something I do in my spare time, and it's fun. I look forward to getting home and working on it.
CRAVE ONLINE: The schedule seems a bit weird, though.
STEPHENSON: (laughs) Right now, we have the "#6 Is Very Late" schedule. We'd planned to take some time off between #6 and #7, but it's being worked on and I'm hoping it will be wrapped up soon.
CRAVE ONLINE: Can you tease what might be coming up in the next few issues?
STEPHENSON: Well, you kinda get the wrap-up of the beginning of the story with #6, and you kinda see everyone for who they are. Then, in #7, we're going to start introducing some more characters – the first is Monica Strange, Emerson Strange's daughter.
CRAVE ONLINE: Is she the one in the painting with the really crazy-looking face? Did he experiment on her as well?
STEPHENSON: No. It's like a psychadelic, weird painting. She's a normal-looking girl. We're going to see her, and she's going to be a big part of the next six issues. One of the things we're doing with that is that, as a young girl, she actually drew her own comics, like sketch-diary comics, and in the next six issues, each one is going to have one of her comics in it. It's her perspective on things and how she reacts towards her father, whom she doesn't have the best relationship with.
CRAVE ONLINE: Looking forward to it. Now, given the book's correlation to music, could you name three songs that would be on the soundtrack to Nowhere Men? Or do you even think in those terms at all?
STEPHENSON: I do think of that stuff. There's a song called "Interstellar Overdrive" by Pink Floyd, that would be on there. There's stuff from the '60s, but then also, there's the David Bowie song that came out this year, "Where Are We Now?" I would include that, just because it works with the book, where it's like we've done all this stuff in the past and it's like nothing, so where does that put us? Um… oh man… it's hard to focus on just three songs.
CRAVE ONLINE: You can five if you want. You can list as many as you like.
STEPHENSON: We've actually talked about this. Another David Bowie song is "Oh You Pretty Things." That is actually a song that, to me, is kind of super-people themed. A lot of David Bowie, a lot of Pink Floyd, a lot of Steely Dan, oddly enough. XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel" would be the easy one. That is a really weird thing in that I came up with that slogan before I came up with the idea for the ad in #5. You see the robot and have some sense of what he was doing and what happened to him in #5, but I didn't have a name for him. There wasn't an idea for an ad, originally, but I came up with the idea of what if we did a Volkswagon-type ad that says 'we're making plans for Nigel?' Then that all came together.
CRAVE ONLINE: Yeah, the ads are very interesting, and they feel a lot like the ones you see at airports if you travel a lot.
STEPHENSON: All of them are referencing other ads. Even the big Trans-Island Skyway – that's a more modern approach to some of these holiday get away ads from the '50s and '60s.
CRAVE ONLINE: Do you only drop those in when an idea hits you, or is it more like 'we need an ad here?'
STEPHENSON: They're there to break up and help pace the story, and then they're also there to get specific ideas in there that are going to be relevant at a different point in the future.
CRAVE ONLINE: So it's not necessarily always straight satire – everything is going to unfold into something.
STEPHENSON: Right. In the first issue, the very inside front cover with the poster, that is a poster for the event they're at on the next page. That was wanting to do something with Apple's invitations to their events. There's that, and that poster actually becomes relevant again later on in the book. Everything is in there to further the story.
CRAVE ONLINE: So, do you think there's any way we could, as a culture, transfer our celebrity worship towards scientists? Is Neil deGrasse Tyson perhaps leading the way for more rock star scientists, or is it just such unglamorous work sometimes that it won't happen?
STEPHENSON: It's hard to say. It's a pretty depressing time for our celebrity culture. I'm not super optimistic on that front. It seems like the American Idol/reality TV type celebrity is really very pervasive right now. There aren't any reality TV shows about science, you know what I'm saying?
CRAVE ONLINE: Do you count Mythbusters?
STEPHENSON: Well, there's that, but that's not celebrating the actual scientist. It's more about debunking bad science.
CRAVE ONLINE: Baby steps, I guess?
STEPHENSON: Yeah, yeah.