Cranking The Machine: An Interview With Eric Stephenson

Early 2013 was a wonderful time for Image comics. Saga's popularity was proving to have legs while new books like Manhattan Projects, Prophet, and Lazarus were garnering positive sales and reviews. Meanwhile, lmage Publisher Eric Stephenson debuted his ambitious new sci-fi book Nowhere Men to rave reviews. Fans and critics alike were charmed and thrilled by the adventures of four rock star scientists, and the first arc/volume became one of the premier titles of Image's line. But then, the book disappeared due to personal health problems on the part of artist Nate Bellegraide. Well fans can collectively breathe a sigh of relief as Nowhere Men is set to finally return next month with a new arc and a new artist. Eric Stephenson was kind enough to take some time to discuss the return of his popular book and his approach to writing and publishing.

Asa Giannini: It has been just over two years since we last saw an issue of Nowhere Men. In the intervening period, Image comics has a had a string of successes and garnered a huge amount of industry attention, in no small part due to a number of new sci-fi series. Does this new status for Image change how you write one of Image or is the story continuing exactly as it left off?

20151028_182415 (1) Eric Stephenson: It’s essentially picking up where it left off. Issue seven has been written since 2013 and much of the later issues planned out from there, so it was really just a case of just cranking the machine up again. 

AG: What is your writing process with new artist Dave Taylor? How collaborative is your process?

ES: Not very just yet, but again, that’s because there was existing material already done. I suspect as we continue along, Dave will have more input into what we’re doing.

AG: Similarly, what made you think Dave Taylor was the right artist to continue the world you and Nate Bellegarde set up? What does he specifically add to Nowhere Men?

ES: First and foremost, Dave’s just a fantastic artist. I first came across his work back in the ‘90s when he did a book called Tongue Lash for Dark Horse, but since then, every time I’ve looked at what he’s doing, it’s just this amazing work. He did a Batman graphic novel with Chip Kidd that was just phenomenal. Like Nate, he’s incredibly detail-oriented, albeit in different ways, and that’s something that is fairly essential to this particular book.

AG: The first arc of Nowhere Men saw a slow buildup centered around themes of disunity, paranoia, and corporate intrigue, what would you say are, by comparison, the themes of the second arc?  Similarly, the first arc presented many central mysteries which were brought to a head in #6, will the next arc be about explanation and resolution, or will that wait for a future arc?

ES: Much of what was introduced in the first arc is resolved here. The second arc kind of finishes off what I always saw as the first story. We’re picking up a lot of the same threads, but we’ll be dealing more with the nature of heroism here, and what incentive there is for someone to help other after he or she has been stripped of everything they hold dear. There’s some family stuff here, too — we introduce Emerson Strange’s daughter, Monica, a character whose existence was hinted at in the first arc and we’ll spend a good amount of the arc dealing with who she is and what role she plays in this world.

AG: Nowhere Men gained a lot of attention for its iconic log line: 'Science is the new Rock'n'roll", and the mixture of celebrity excess and strange science created the world of the book (in some ways the book reads like the world's strangest band breakup). Will this parallel between music and science continue in the second arc and what do you listen to while you write?  

ES: I don’t listen to a damn thing while I’m actually writing! I can’t. I know some writers do that, but for me, I find it hard to focus if there’s music playing. Music’s more helpful in terms of generating ideas, and it’s a strange process. Sometimes I’ll hear a lyric that will set my mind off on a particular track, and I’ll jot some notes down about that, but frequently, by the time the idea gets to the script stage, there’s not a very clear link between that and the initial source of inspiration. Other times, it’s like, how do I find a way to reference this band / song / album I like within the context of the story? 

NowhereMen07_CvrAG: Do you write the articles, biographies, and clippings that space out the story as you write the story or do you write them after? How do you use these elements to further the goals of your story?

ES: It’s a mix of both. For the first couple issues, it was all done after the fact, because there were things I wanted to flesh out and just doing a bunch of flashbacks or whatever seemed like a dull way to do that. It’s also just not feasible for an artist to draw a full 30 pages every issue. So, yeah, it started off as a way to flesh out the first two issues, but after doing that, it was clear that certain things could be dealt with more effectively through the text pieces and ads, so that became a bit more integral to the world-building from there on out.

AG: While no one would call Nowhere Men a superhero book, both this series and your other current book "They're Not Like Us" involve individuals with superhuman abilities. What about super powers interests you most and how does your methodology differ from traditional superhero books?

ES: Superpowers actually don’t interest me at all, it’s more what people do with them. With Nowhere Men, that was kind of a reaction to all these origin stories wherein characters gain their powers through an accident. In this case, it’s all very deliberate, and once everything is out in the open, the question is how these powers affect the lives of those involved. With They’re Not Like Us, it was more a case of looking at the world, which especially as I type this today is not a very pretty place, and wondering why there are so many stories where characters with powers just automatically become heroes. I don’t think that’s at all realistic.

AG: With how busy you must be, do you have time to consider other potential projects, or are your two current books?

ES: People always bring up the busy thing, but I think most creative people have a hard time fighting off ideas. I’ve got something I want to do with Chynna Clugston that she’s waiting on me for. Luckily, she’s busy with getting the new Blue Monday together, but the hope is to get that going in the new year. Simon and I plan to do something else together after we finish They’re Not Like Us, and that’s going to be a case of figuring out which idea we’re both the most excited about. I’m not really into the idea of doing completely open-ended series that go on “forever,” so there are lots of different things I’d like to do eventually.

AG: As I mentioned before, in recent years Image has garnered huge success with science-fiction books, filling an appetite among fans many didn't realize existed. Where do you see Image going in the future? Was the specific focus on sci-fi simply a coincidence, or would you like to see specific other genres like horror or western explored through creator owned works in the future?

ES: Honestly, what I’d really like to see, not just for Image, but for comics in general, is a move away from genre fiction. What readers really respond to are good stories about compelling characters. Not everything has to be set against the backdrop of a dystopian future or a zombie apocalypse.