Hello and welcome to my creator commentary for Surface Tension! I hope that you have your copy of issue 1 at hand as I guide you through the creative process behind the episode.
First of all I would like to give you a little background detail behind the series. Surface Tension is my first comic series published, I would like to thank Steve White and Andrew James of Titan for signing me to Titan Comics and for guiding me through the editorial process.
I had always wanted to make a comic based around my love of the coast and science fiction. I always associated the coast with science fiction due to my formative years growing up reading sci-fi/horror books and comics whilst on extended vacations by the sea. There is also an ecological thread running through the comic that possibly stems from my childhood experiences of living near to a large chemical plant that exploded. At the time it was Britain’s biggest post-war explosion and it left an indelible mark upon my young mind! The sight of the industrial devastation on the rural landscape made a lasting impression on me that no doubt fired my youthful imagination, so that I later became obsessed by shows and films featuring images of ruined cities and towns – the original Godzilla certainly comes to mind! It also made me keenly aware of environmental concerns and the dangers inherent in industrialisation.
So there we have it, Surface Tension is a combination of my childhood experiences; beautiful coastal locations, science fiction, horror and eco-catastrophe.
And yet I am missing one other vital component of my writing process.
You see during the development of writing Surface Tension I was diagnosed with cancer. I was two or three months into writing and drawing the comic when I got the news. This isn’t unusual, many people are diagnosed with cancer and just as many survive the condition as those that don’t. During that time of uncertainty writing and drawing Surface Tension became a lifeline for me and I managed to turn a negative situation into a positive. I channelled the cancer into creative ideas that are now running through the book that you hold in your hands. The transformation that the characters of the story undergo are metaphors for cancer. Erik and Megumi became different sides of my psyche; just as they struggle in vain to control nature, just as they helplessly watch their bodies transform, and just as they ask “Is it worth saving?”, so was I. And you know what? It was worth saving!
If I may be allowed to quote Neil Gaiman, who said this in his keynote address at The University of Arts: “Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health. And in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art.”
I hope that I made good on that advice. And I also hope that by being open and talking about cancer that it will inspire you too, to ‘make good art.’ That you can overcome any potential hurdles thrown in your way during your creative endeavours. Thankfully I recovered from my cancer and when I look back on Surface Tension I wouldn’t change a thing about that time.
Making a comic book is fun and I hope that you have fun reading the process behind putting together the first issue.
Let us begin…
With an opening scene that was cut.
As a writer, you must always be prepared for rewrites and that you may have to sacrifice scenes for the benefit of the overall story. Sometimes cuts are necessitated by budget and time considerations, and sometimes it’s because a scene just doesn’t feel right.
My first draft treatment for Surface Tension was for twelve issues. At the time this did not match up with Titan’s budget in terms of taking a risk on a new and unknown writer such as myself and so I was asked to cut down the initial treatment to five issues. I had to undertake a radical rewrite and several characters were merged and a number of plot lines were cut. One aspect that was cut back was showing the sea-sickness as a global event so scenes such as the opening scene set in Pakistan scene were cut. Overall, give or take an issue or two, I think that Titan made the right decision as it gave the story more of a focus and a sense of urgency.
I should also point out that I was allowed to make five issues of a comic that are considerably longer in page count than the standard US sized comic.
I had originally planned to have the opening scene set during the outbreak of the sea-sickness. I wanted to show the sea-sickness being a global condition, I had a scene planned to start in Pakistan at the sprawling Gadani ship yard. Gadani shipyard is a vast graveyard of decommissioned ships and is home to a shanty town of impoverished workers that dismantle the vessels. This scene would have followed a man waking from his sleep in the middle of the night and we see him sleepwalk through the streets of Karachi. The ever growing group of sleepwalkers would eventually arrive at the shipyard. We would see the vast scale of industrial pollution on the junk strewn beaches of Gadani. A great number of sea-sick would emerge from the beached ships to gather at the shoreline. The industrial ruin of the beach would be juxtaposed with the reveal of a towering alien coral spire out to sea, a thing of radiant beauty. The sea-sick are flocking to the coral like pilgrims to a holy shrine.
In terms of visuals and mystery it would have made for an intriguing opening. However, I decided early on to restrict the global catastrophe to Breith. I felt that the characters in the story should feel isolated from the rest of the world so I decided that we would only see the world through the point of view of the central characters.
This was actually my second drawing of this page. My original version had a lot of smashed boats littering the shoreline. I decided that the presence of the boats confused the scene and it made it look as though Megumi and Ryan had come to be shipwrecked on the island instead of mysteriously appearing from the sea.
The absence of ships or any other technology gives the page a timeless quality, it could be any time period and it almost looks prehistoric due to the coral tower sentinel and the trilobites.
I had decided that the monsters in Surface Tension, no matter how fantastical, should resemble creatures from nature. Perhaps, there is one exception, but I’ll come to that in later commentaries. The sea monster that we see here is obviously based on a dinosaur. The smaller ‘selkie’ creatures were based on sea-lions and other similar marine life.
The selkie are named after the mythological creatures of legend that are reputed to be half seal and half human. This mythological reference is perhaps a suggestion that the selkie could be tied to the disappearance of the human population that walked out to sea.
I had to quickly establish the threat that the islanders faced from the sea and this was my shorthand way of setting up that danger.
I felt that I had to start the comic with an explosive scene to visually grab the reader and what better way than a giant monster! It helps to have one or two big splashy pages to catch the attention of a reader who might just be idly flicking through a book in a store. Large panels or full page images can act as punctuation marks and dramatic reveals, I try to keep these types of pages to a minimum so as not to dilute their impact.
Now that I had set up the mystery of the story and featured some action I felt that I could afford to slow the pace down and start to world build. The following four pages (8-11) were added to the comic months after the first issue had been completed. Upon re-reading the first issue I felt that the comic didn’t go far enough to establish the island community of Breith. I discussed this problem with my editor, Andrew James. Andrew agreed to my idea of writing a number of scenes that afforded the reader some time with the island community.
The line during the funeral – ‘We live in a new world, people look to new gods’ – is a quick way of telling the reader that the island community is having to live by different rules than to those we are used to. The funeral now takes on a strange direction as the masked mourners pay their respect.
One of the masks that the islanders is wearing is a direct homage to the pagan island community as seen in one of my favourite movies – The Wickerman.
I am a big fan of Japanese cinema and the comics of Jiro Taniguchi (The Walking Man). What I like about Japanese culture is that they are not afraid to show the quiet moments between the action. I find that it is important to observe characters simply living, the small details of their lives are just as important as their big dramatic actions.
I needed to establish the rural setting of the island and the notion that the islanders have to live with nature in order to survive. The scenes of Jean Cassel observing the broken down tractor and helping the farmers to plough the fields with horses shows us that the community has reverted to an earlier time of agriculture and that they can no longer rely on technology to survive. Incidentally the tractor is our first indication of a time frame, up to this point the story could have been set any time during the last sixty years.
It was very important to see nature as a strong component in the design of the world of the comic. Panels are saturated with images of wide fields, trees, flowers and wildlife. I needed to show that the characters of the story are reduced by the environment. The characters are dominated by nature.
The stone figure behind Mary Maybel is a menhir. A menhir is a neolithic standing stone that is usually shaped to resemble a female figure that often comprises of a simple face, breasts and a round belly.
The story is set on the fictional British channel island Breith, which is an old Irish word meaning to carry, bear, bring forth and judge. During my research and visits to the British channel islands I discovered that many of the islands had a Neolithic history. On the islands of Jersey, Guernsey and Sark I visited a number of ancient Neolithic sites – menhirs and dolmens. Many of these Neolithic sites represent stages of life: birth, death and rebirth, and are usually feminine.
I wanted to weave this Neolithic pagan history into the heart of the story. Therefore, I was keen to have very strong female characters to represent those aspects of nature and rebirth.
Mary is shaped like the menhir behind her, a rounded figure with large breasts, a very natural female form and, shockingly, a body type that we do not see much of in comic books. Both are facing out to sea, communing with nature. Perhaps in their own way they are both guardians of the island, the ancient and the present together. Take note of the menhir’s facial carving as it resembles a mysterious character that will see appear in the next episode.
Here we get our first glimpse of the ‘sea-sick’. In an early draft of the script I had described the sea-sick as resembling sleepwalkers, their bodies devoid of any pigment so that they are completely white. When designing the sea-sick for the comic page I concluded that I needed something much more visually arresting. Therefore, I decided to show their bodies actually beginning to liquefy like melting wax. The speed of the liquefying process would differ from person to person so that I could play around with the visual stages.
I’m not sure how successful I was in the drawing of the sea-sick on this page, to my eyes they look a little too dry or desiccated, not nearly wet enough.
The bathhouse that becomes the quarantine is actually based on an existing swimming hall that I found on the island of Jersey during one of my research trips. I fell in love with its fanciful design and I rather thought that it resembled a whimsical art deco sand castle built for some long dead eccentric aristocrat. I also thought that it would make a marvellous coastal fortification or even a prison. I altered some of the features and added the bath-house aspect and completely redesigned the interior.
The reader, just like Megumi and Ryan, has been dropped into this new world with no prior knowledge. And so now comes the time for some back-story and explanation. Writing exposition can sometimes be a tricky proposition. Too much and you can be guilty of the adage ‘show don’t tell’. I will freely admit that I was worried by the amount of exposition that was needed due to the re-cutting of the story, compacting a lot of the story beats required a number of short cuts such as this scene.
This is also the one page where I broke my earlier rule not to show the outside world beyond the island that doesn’t feature a POV character. Here we see three global locations: London, San Francisco and Tokyo that did not include the central cast. I guess this short cut was okay as Mary is relating global events to Meg and Ryan and the glimpse of the locations are window dressing to her story.
The oil disaster. It was important that this scene be a complete visual juxtaposition of what has gone before. So far the colour scheme for the book has comprised of watery blues and lush greens, now the colour palette is dominated by heavy blacks, red, greys and sickly yellows. Forming the panels out of oil gives the scene a nightmarish disorienting quality. Faces are dirty browns and yellows.
It was important that I successfully portray Megumi’s horror of the disaster that has befallen the coast of Ghana. This will be a pivotal moment in Megumi’s character development.
The original version of this sequence was to be much longer and I did a lot of research into oil disasters and the effects that it has on the environment and eco-systems. I was going to include lots of facts and figures about such disasters through Megumi and Erik’s dialogue. The extended scene would further explain Erik and Megumi’s motivations in later scenes.
During the treatment stage of the script my editor was concerned that the longer scene might come across as too heavy handed and I was persuaded to shorten the scene by making it much more visual and less about the harrowing facts of such a disaster. Of course he was right as our primary objective is to entertain the reader. However I hope that readers will be interested enough to do their own research into such disasters.
I went through a number of design iterations for the alien corals. My feeling was that they had to look beautiful and in keeping with the natural environment but also mysterious and alien. I based this particular coral on a conch sea shell that I had found on a beach, since I liked the spiralling form of the shell. The idea was that the fleshy part of the coral would live inside a hard outer skin or shell. The coral that we first see in the story is still forming, which is why it is exposed and we can see the soft innards growing inside.
The corals are beneficial to the environment and so I made this one home to a colony of gulls and other marine life.
The central panel on this page is my homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds, a film that was one of the influences for Surface Tension. I loved the shot from the film in which we get an aerial view of the island below and then the birds begin to drift into view, one after the other obscuring the island below. Of course, the birds in Surface Tension are not sinister, but the corals represent the oncoming wrath of nature so there is a suggestion that the humans below are being spied upon.
I rewrote and redrew this page a number of times as I was struggling to adequately get across the introduction of the coral and at the same time set up the growing conflict in Meg’s and Erik’s relationship. Not only did I have to establish those elements, but at this point in the story Erik is already under the influence of the coral, so that notion further complicated the writing process of this scene. I was having to make Erik somewhat sympathetic and at the same time hint at the hubris that would result in his fate. It’s not overtly stated that Erik might be somehow ‘infected’ but by drawing attention to his bandaged hand we already know that something is very wrong with Erik. Bandaged wounds that are waved aside as ‘nothing’ often have dire consequences in horror stories!
To get the maximum impact from the nightmare scenes that are about to follow I had to show the good that the alien corals are having on the environment. And in turn, the positive effect this was having on Erik’s and Megumi’s relationship – which makes Erik’s fate later on even more shocking. I needed to show Erik as a character trying to do the right things but going about it in the wrong way.
I really enjoyed drawing this page and I had fun playing with the division of panels. Showing Erik and Megumi playing together in ‘paradise.’ The ship is named Prana which is the Sanskrit word for “life force”; the cosmic energy that connects all elements of the universe. Connections are a theme that we will return to during the run of Surface Tension.
Megumi makes a startling discovery – the corals are infected with a ‘sort of a cancer.’
This is the first overt reference to cancer during the story. As mentioned in my introduction, I was using my own experiences of dealing with cancer as a metaphor for sickness and transformation that runs throughout the entirety of Surface Tension. The alien corals have the power to save the world but in doing so cannot save themselves. This is the potential sacrifice that the corals have to undertake to save the planet. Did this sacrifice lead to the sea-sickness? This is something we will find out in later issues.
Page 31 – 32
In an earlier draft treatment of the story I had a large oil corporation arrive to steal Erik’s discovery from him. Erik and Meg discover that the oil corporation is planning to plunder and control the miraculous qualities of the alien coral and then exploit it for their own nefarious ends. Before the coral can be ‘dissected and deconstructed’ by the corporation, Erik merges with the organism.
Erik then uses the power of the alien coral to destroy the capital ship of the oil company, and disappears below the ocean waves. This event forces Megumi into hiding before travelling on to Breith months later.
I decided that I didn’t have enough of a page budget or the time to illustrate the corporate oil storyline so I made this scene smaller and more personal in scale. Erik’s decision is now driven by ego and hubris with the need to impress Megumi. I think that the scene works better as it is now written, it strengthens and focuses the relationship between Erik and Megumi whilst still keeping to the same story beats of the original draft.
For this scene we’re now back to the reds and sickly yellows of the Ghana disaster.
This depicts the shocking reveal of Erik being absorbed by the coral. It’s much harder to make a reader jump at a shock reveal in a comic than it is in a film as you lack sound and movement of a film. A shock jump in a comic has to be on a page turn and can be just as effective (providing a reader hasn’t scanned through the comic beforehand). I hope that by slowly building up to this moment I managed to get a reaction from the reader!
If you examine the art for this page it appears as if Erik is seated in a throne and that Megumi is kneeling before him, the courtesans surrounding the throne consist of strange marine creatures. It’s complete and unadulterated fantasy and horror.
The key colours in this scene are shades of blue and green – evoking water but also sickness.
It was important not to show any blood during Erik’s demise as I needed to show that he wasn’t in any pain. However, we do see that Erik is in emotional turmoil as a tear rolls down his cheek.
Here we see the potential origin of the sea-sickness that wipes out humankind. It is important to note that I am not telling a traditional zombie story (one of the tropes of the zombie genre is that you rarely show the origin or cause of the apocalypse). Surface Tension is very much rooted in the science fiction genre with elements of fantasy and horror. The story poses a moral and ethical question – how far would you go to save the planet? Erik made a decision that obviously has grave ramifications for the planet.
What did Erik hope to achieve by merging with the coral? He spoke of ‘saving the planet’, but how does this culminate in the sea-sickness that ravaged the world? How did Megumi and Ryan survive the sea-sickness and return from the sea? This is the set up and the real questions that drive the story.
Page 37 – 38
The cliff hanger ending packs a punch – it comes totally unexpected! It makes the reader sit up and question the ending – who or what is this creature from the sea? With this ending I throw in a narrative curve ball that entices the reader to want to read the next episode.
So that’s my commentary to Surface Tension issue 1. I hope you enjoyed the read and that it helped to enhance your enjoyment of the comic.