One of Benaroya Comics’s most interesting series is Marksmen, the tale of a ravaged post-apocalyptic America in which states and regions are at war with each other while the rest of the country has fallen back to primitive times. It’s a high concept series, and it takes a high concept mind to execute on the ideas. As you’ll see, writer Dave Baxter has no shortage of interesting ideas to explore. It was fun talking him at this year’s San Diego Comicon.
Dave Baxter: I have to tell you, as a member of the Writer’s Guild and a screenwriter, it’s such a different experience because when you write screenplays – especially now – you write in master scenes. You do not direct things. It’s considered stepping on the toes of your director or your actors to do anything. You have to be subtle about how you convey things. With comic books, you have to tell them what it looks like. And then they do it!
And when you have fantastic artists, suddenly it just comes to life. It’s so satisfying. Then you can literally talk to the people who read your comic. They can come up and talk to you about it. It’s a phenomenal feeling. It’s so funny, because when I first came out to California, I had been working for a documentarian named Errol Morris. He’s a wonderful, quirky guy.
One of my first brushes with stardom is that I was kind of spontaneously brought into Danny DeVito’s Fourth of July party, which basically meant everyone in Hollywood was in one place. You know, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, everybody. I was just sort of – I didn’t know what to say. But there was one guy who I had to go up to, and it was Stan Lee. And I started chatting with Stan, and he was like, “I can’t believe you would come up to me when there’s all these other people at the party”, he was being uncharacteristically humble, and to make a long story unbearable, suddenly he said come to my office and let’s see if we can work on something together.
I started developing Iron Fist as a movie. I got far down the way and suddenly Avi Arad of Toy Biz bought Marvel. And they closed every movie.
Jason Sacks: “We’ll help you live your dream and then crush it.”
Crush it as quickly as we can. Anyway, fast forward to now. I’ve been in the Guild for a number of years, wriing scripts, getting paid and then not seeing them get done. And then I meet Michael Benaroya. Michael is a real up and coming producer, and he wants to start this publishing company. And he starts talking to me, and he told me about the things he was developing. He had one thing called Marksmen, he didn’t like it. It was kind of super-powers gone wild.
I said, “Michael, who don’t you let me try to do something for you.” He said, “Sure, go for it.” And in my former life, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was Dungeons and Dragons fanatic. Growing up in Michigan, which was close to Wisconsin, knew Gary Gygax, David Addison, those guys. This was before they sold out and so forth. I love building worlds.
And I said, Look, we’re in the middle of a recession. Things really suck. What if we just play that out 10 or 20 years? We go bankrupt. Too many wars, too much paranoia about terrorism. We fall apart. What happens then? Well, the states that have resources go to war. Everybody’s in it for themselves. Infrastructure collapses. Civil war takes care of the rest. Only those cities that can self-sustain without trade survive.
And I thought, San Diego, yeah. Nuclear sub desalinizates the water. You’ve got a high tech community doing research here. You’ve got the Marines and you’ve got the Navy SEALs to be the muscle. It’s the perfect place to do it. Plus there’s water for food. You’ve got the Mexican cartels down south and you’ve got lots of potential enemies.
So, okay. Let’s think about Logan’s Run without the cap on age, what would those early years be like? A technological utopia – for some. Then you’ve got a lead character who’s the grandson of these Navy SEALs and Marines. He doesn’t feel comfortable in the society he’s in. He’s the guy they send out to do the exploration, to bring technology back, and suddenly you’ve got a series. You’ve got a playground where you can really examine different ideas.
For me, at its base, a dystopian future like this can occur when people think more about the differences between each other rather than what draws us together, the similarities. To me this is what leads to all problems, and it’s a problem with religion. It’s a problem with technology taken too far.
So I wanted to explore the extremes. If you go too far in anything, it leads to destruction.
Sacks: It’s scary. We could be on that road right now.
Baxter: It’s verisimilitude. I mean, that’s what I think people were responding to when I brought this up. They said, “I think that’s going to happen.” There was a couple here – one was a scientist, and his wife was a Marine. And they said, “that’s what we plan to do if things go bad.” And I was like, whoa.
So for me, I didn’t want to rely on super-powers or anything out of the ordinary. I thought if San Diego survived it would be kind of like Cuba, where they kept the cars from our time running. There would be little upgrades but it wouldn’t look that different. But the people who did have the high tech would be the military and the very top people.
I thought, OK, the only real technology is what I called shades, where everyone has these glasses that are heads-up displays, it’s basically your Android or iPhone on glasses. I think it’s inevitable. I think it’s the way things will go.
I talked with people from the MIT Media Lab. I read wired.com compulsively, Popular Science. I looked for things that are either in development or have been developed, and I put it into the comic. And guess what? Technology – was it Arthur C. Clarke who said that sufficient technology appears as magic anyway?
Sacks: A lot of it’s not just extrapolation. You’re just taking it slightly further. People talk about it all the time. People are talking all the time – what does it mean when smart phones become antiques? What does that mean for us?
Baxter: The line for me was, are people going to accept implants? And I felt that people may draw a line there. In which case, we’re going to be using this tech with our glasses, because it makes the most sense. You know, everyone’s wired in.
So our lead character is a guy who feels very uncomfortable. Everyone else has grown up with it, so for them Facebook is just the way that everybody communicates. This is a
guy who goes it alone. It’s why he rides a horse rather instead of a solar powered buggy.
I don’t really go into this, but part of his backstory is he really likes spaghetti westerns. He’s got that little kind of thing. He’s got a horse named Trigger. He’s got a dog.
Sacks: And there are other groups in America too. The Texans are a bit mad.
Baxter: Listen, the way they survived is oil. They had oil. So I thought about what their army is going to look like. Monster trucks. I haven’t seen that. What are they going to use to transport them? Let’s use the NASA crawler. You can use that as a land aircraft carrier. And it was just, everything just kind of just spilled out of what was already there.
I didn’t have to have flying saucers, I thought, to have a convincing action adventure, where people can go on a ride and I could also explore some ideas.
Sacks: You talk about the ideas, but it’s still an action story.
Baxter: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it’s pretty much all wall-to-wall action for the first few issues.
Sacks: Mutants and other crazy people too.
Baxter: I mean, it’s mostly just cannibals. It’s mostly just people who are hungry out there, and they’re disaffected. And they’re kept out of New San Diego. Nobody gets in there.
It has a soap opera-ish quality to it as well, because there are personal stories that have yet to be explored, and people who have left New San Diego who impact on our main character .
Sacks: I love the mix of technologies, too. You have the VR machines, and computers, while at the same time you have cowboys.
Baxter: It’s the juxtaposition that I found to be exciting. I felt like Javier Aranda and Garry Leach just kind of got it. They were just able to do it. And Tomm Coker’s covers – I’m basically the luckiest guy in the world. I’m a screenwriter who gets to write a comic that has fabulously talented people to make it come to life.
Sacks: How was it to collaborate? This was your first comic.
Baxter: I kept my mouth shut. I basically said, here is what I want, however you guys want to do this, I’ll roll with you. I really wasn’t trying to impose too much because I felt that there were maybe one or two things where I’d say, okay, could you have more shades or something if I felt that they didn’t quite get what I was getting at which I felt was my problem because I obviously didn’t quite describe it or highlight it enough.
But other than that, they just improved on what I wrote.
Sacks: That’s very different from Hollywood.
Baxter: You never get that. As a screenwriter, it’s very rare where you get the satisfaction of seeing something you do appear as you’ve written it down and accomplish the things you wanted to accomplish in your head.
A comic book, it’s a pure adrenaline punch because that’s exactly what you want. I’m loving this.
Sacks: And you get to build a world that’s not constrained by special effects budgets.
Baxter: I don’t have to care about it. I mean, look, if they wanted to make this into a huge movie, I wouldn’t complain.
I think post-apocalyptic scenarios are always fascinating, but to me they usually break down because they’re not believable. The thing I liked about Mad Max and George Miller, who’s a physician, is that he really thought about it. People don’t realize that there’s an opening monologue to The Road Warrior which is some of the best writing I have ever heard.
It’s basically describing how the different tribes went to war, and the oil machines went chunkety-clunk-clunk and stopped, and they used real photographs, and it just puts you right there. You knew what you had and you just took off from there. And I love it. Good writing is terse, strong, bold. Brevity is the soul of wit. What is the thing: “oh, I’m sorry I didn’t have time to write you a shorter letter.”
Sacks: Comics force you to be terse.
Baxter: You don’t want to corrupt the art. I mean, I don’t. I know that some writers want to have as much as they can in a panel, but it’s a visual medium. I just think the artists make the magic. You need the writing to get things going, but boy they can take you along from that.
Sacks: Humbling in a whole different way, compared with Hollywood.
Baxter: Humbling in Hollywood is more of a humbling, unpleasant experience. I don’t find the world of comics nearly as cynical. As long as there are publishers like Image that let people kind of do their own thing… the independent film world, to a great degree has collapsed. There’s just not the funding. If you can’t make your movie for less than six million dollars, it ain’t gonna happen.
I really think there’s a renaissance going on with Image. The titles that are coming out here are so exciting. I’m in love with Samurai’s Blood. Morning Glories is amazing, Severed. This is just amazing.