Interview: Collin Kelly and Jackson Lanzing: Hacktivist and people at the edge of their limit Jason Sacks August 15, 2014 Interviews Collin Kelly: Hacktivist was originally conceived of as a full trade, not as individual issues. Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Yeah, it works as a novel. Jackson Lanzing: Yes, which is what it was designed to do. CB: Yeah, it's not a collection of individual issues although I'm sure it's nice to have the flow, everything coming out– Lanzing: It was so weird, though. I mean, it was great, and I'm not trying to complain at all. It was a really interesting experience for us as new comic book writers, by and large… For us to be coming in, you know… we worked in screenplays, Collin and I, mostly, so you know there's a lot of revision, there's a lot of notes, there's a lot of last minute changes, you'll deal with that a lot. This was a really unique scenario where they came to us with… I mean, we were halfway through production of the book in terms of physical production of the art, I think we were about halfway through… and they told us, "Hey, we're going to do this in single issues," and it was like, oh, well… we didn't write cliffhangers, we didn't create moments for splash pages, on pages 25 and 50 and 75, so you could do those. And they said, "oh don't worry about it, we'll figure it out." And then we looked at the book and, shockingly, page 25 was a cliffhanger. It already was! We're like, what? How did this happen? And we were so happy. Page fifty had the potential to be a cliffhanger. It just needed a shift. We needed to basically reprint the same page twice and find a way to kind of change it up from issue to issue, so 50 worked. And then page 75, we actually just moved it, I think issue three is a little short so that issue four can be extra long. CB: It might be your screenwriter training too, you have your arcs already set up. Lanzing: Yeah, I mean we're very structure-oriented. Kelly: And we function generally in, like… it's eight-act or four-act kind of structures, so it's like, you're already breaking into orders, so that just kind of naturally worked out, especially… CB: Well it helped build the buzz for the book too. Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. CB: I looked around the web when [issue] one came out especially, and the buzz was a lot of "we weren't expecting anything like this" Lanzing: I don't think anyone was. That was why we took on the project. We were offered it, and I think… we had a lot of initial trepidation, and we were pretty open about this that, like, not because of Alyssa, but because, celebrity books. The celebrity books are not necessarily books that are sort of "the height of the medium," by and large, you aren't looking at it like "this is the book that should have been out there," and you know, they can be vanity projects sometimes. And from moment one of sitting down with Alyssa we knew that was not what was going on here. She had an idea, she was really excited about that idea, she wanted to produce the idea like a smart producer, she created this for a concept and she was going to let us run in and just dig deep into it and she was willing to get into the mud with us– Kelly: She had all the ideas, she was really kind of had her fingers in that mix and came to us with the research and with the materials. And she was like, "here's everything, here's where the world I've been exploring, welcome, like, let's tell a story together." Lanzing: Right, without all the characters in the story, and that was really great. It was like, "here's all the research, here's what I want to do, here's where I'm going, what's the best story we can tell?" and then we all got to talk about… That's how Tunisia got in the book, that's how we ended up talking about Rensin, that's how Ed and Nate went from– initially they were one person in our pitch– to being two guys in the story, and it ended up being about friendship. It all evolved out of collaboration and that's not what I think a lot of people expected out of the book when they picked it up, and they were like, "oh, this is a vanity project, it's clearly like, there's going to be a part for Alyssa," you know, like, that kind of thing– like no, that's not what it is. CB: That was it exactly, like, it was like, wait a minute, this is much smarter, much more interesting than I ever thought it would be, and much more engaged in the world than most comics are. Kelly: Thank you. Lanzing: The idea of going after the real world in comics, and going and talking about stuff that's happening right now without a genre bend, is– that's the drop, that's the appeal, that's why we did this. Kelly: And that's why people are coming up. They're interested, they're engaging because really uniquely in the marketplace this is one of the few books that is grounded and real. There's no superheroes, there's no magic, you know, it's just a very– it's a story of the now that's very topical and exploring the issues that people are afraid of. CB: So for someone who hasn't read Hacktivist, tell us a little bit about some of the themes you touch on, I guess. Lanzing: So Hacktivist is the story of these two guys, Ed and Nate, who run a massive social media empire similar to Facebook or Twitter or something like that but decentralized. So the theme, one of the big themes of the book, is a centralized versus decentralized organization. A decentralized organization means the government can't track you and figure out where you are and know each sort of piece of the puzzle and turn that around in the social analytics. Most of our actual social networks — Facebook, Twitter, stuff like that, — they are centralized networks, they have servers with databases that can track you. The conceit of your life is that that doesn't exist. CB: It's terrifying the ads that you get that are so specific to you on Facebook. Lanzing: Ah, absolutely, that was a big part of our first conversation, this was all many months prior to us learning about PRISM, this was prior to Edward Snowden being a household name– or even coming out in the first place, with the secrets that he did– we're doing this all months and months in advance, but we knew at the very least that's where the tide was. We were feeling it coming, we were very up on current events and we follow a lot of the news here, so we were like, what can we dig out of that? So these two guys are running a decentralized network. They're using it in secret to run revolutions around the world. What if Jack Dorsey was Anonymous? That was the sort of initial pitch Alyssa came with. But, in the first issue — or now the beginning of the trade — the US government finds out. They show up on their door, and they say: you've got a choice. You can either work for us or you can go to jail for the rest of your life. Kelly: And that kind of brings in our second major theme in terms of the personal story, which is whether or not you can trust your friends. You know, it's about taking– you know, you have an ideal, you have a quest, you have a goal, and what it means when the person you trust the most in the universe is on the opposite side of that. And like, what that means to your friendship when your goals conflict, and how two best friends can survive that. Lanzing: So the story's really about Ed and Nate operating on either side of this growing- growing- growing- growing revolution, and that's in cyberspace, that's in America, and it's in Tunisia and it's happening all around the world, in two different worlds really, where we now have these two friends, and their entire friendship is being tested. CB: And they're juggling the personal vs the giant — not existential but geopolitical — themes that they're involved with. Lanzing: It's really important, I thought, to go after the personal. Kelly: Well absolutely, and I think that's where Marcus and Ian come in because we're trying to write this very personal story, that's both micro and macro in terms of its scope, and then [artist] Marcus [To] and [colorist] Ian [Herring] come along, and Marcus creates these incredibly empathic characters, and gives them so much personality in a way that other artists just might not be able to. He's crafting these people that we instantly care about, while Ian is able to take the colors and, just through the palate alone, create these two distinct universes of Tunisia and San Francisco, and merge the two, in a way that the book, actually, if you just– if you don't even read the words, just look at it, the colors themselves tell the story. Which really helps ground our themes, and helps make a story– which is perhaps complicated to some– really accessible, and really engaging. CB: That feel, it's subliminal, sometimes, to readers, but really works on an empathetic level. Lanzing: It's one of the things I really love about Ian, as a colorist. If you look at his work on A Tale of Sand-- and A Tale of Sand is a book that operates, by and large, on that feel, because there's not a lot of dialogue and there's not a lot of text to indicate to you, you're just working off of Ramone and Jim Henson's crazy imagery– and Ian, and when we heard that Ian was going to do our book, it was great. We were like, "oh man, that's a lot of storytelling onus off of us." We get to– then, we know that he can hit that subtlety, we know that every other page we can go– or every other panel, on page like 4 or 5, we're going between San Francisco and Tunisia, we're dropping our readers right into it and being like, "k, keep up," and having Ian there to immediately transition that so fundamentally with tone, ah, and with the color palate, was… I mean it made the book work. Kelly: And, and with Marcus as well, the grace between the two of them allowed us to get away from things like "caption: Tunisia," "caption: America," "caption: Tunisia," like, all sorts of this really obnoxious kind of storytelling just gets in the way, and you know, we wrote a lot more dialogue, but as we started to see Marcus' work coming in, and Ian's work coming in, we were like, great, this is unnecessary. We were just able to slash and burn exposition, because we're getting that off the expression of the characters. Lanzing: It's a funny… to run on that, because this is something we've been talking about a lot as partners in other mediums, is the idea of subtext, the idea that it's very hard, when you're a screenwriter, to deploy subtext in a screenplay because you don't have the actor's face, you don't have that thing that lets you let the reader know, like, "this is where it's going to get subtextual, and we're not going to have a lot of dialogue." CB: And you can't say "you must have this facial expression" Lanzing: No, you can try, there are shortcuts, there are cool little ways of moving tone and moving the reader's eye and we deploy that a lot, but doing it in comics, it's all on the artist. Like, can you communicate to the artist– and that's why comic scripts are so fun, because they're like love letters to the artist, just like, "here's what we need you to do," it's not like… it's not the formal cell nature, like a screenplay, it's a collaborative document. So we were able to go to Marcus and be like, "this is where we need to see Ed's internal torment, like make sure we're getting that out of this panel, we're not going to support you with dialogue, so we need that to come through here" and Marcus hits that out of the park every time. He's got an eye for character and an eye for internal conflict that, I think what was amazing, is he can take a book like Hacktivist and he can do it and then he can turn around and do New Warriors. It's nuts. he can turn around and do like Total Superhero Fight Time and you're sitting there going, like, how do you have both of these skill sets, like my gosh, it's awesome! CB: You guys are a collaboration, you have a collaboration with Alyssa, you've been talking about how great these collaborations are with the artist the colorists too, that's something also your editor Tay called out, that's just a very– Lanzing: The ultimate collaborator CB: This is just a very… yes. Lanzing: Rebecca Taylor is the best. CB: It's kind of striking, like, it really seems like everyone coming together produced a book better than you could have, really, any one of you really could have hoped it to become, she was– Alyssa keeps supplying you ideas and concepts, with also hands-off– and Tay was talking quite a bit about how great she has been for that, so– It's interesting because you have your story about two friends who are both together and separate, but the group that comes together– Lanzing: Is greater than the whole. It's interesting, right, that's the backbone behind– and we've talked about this a little bit, that really there's some autobiographical elements to Hacktivist insofar as we are best friends who work together, so we– Kelly: And we often find each other on opposite sides of an issue, and really kind of want to kill each other, and there's other times we throw punches. Lanzing: Yeah there was this one time where I leaked all the government secrets and then I had to go to Tunisia, and it was like… Kelly: And I totally sold out, it was crazy. Lanzing: It was a total mess. CB: I hope you flew first class. Lanzing: Oh, yeah, only the best for secrets leakers. Kelly: But I mean, I think speaking to that, because we are a partnership, we're both used to not getting our way, which is kind of fantastic. We might have an idea, and we have to present it, and I have to convince him and he has to convince me, so because of that we make sure that anything that's not the best idea gets winnowed away, and that makes us very willing and very eager to collaborate because we know that individually our ideas aren't going to be the best. It's only together that we create that fantastic– you know, we get to the point of things, which means like, "Ian, Marcus, give us your ideas, Alyssa please, bring us your experience, bring us your wisdom, bring us your drive, and let's all put this together and craft something that's going to be better than anything we can do alone." Lanzing: Which has been our mode of operation for 5 years. Kelly: At least. Lanzing: It's just how we work, so for us it's been really– it's… Comics is a perfect medium for this, for how we work, because we can come into it and we immediately are just opening our eyes, as fans, because we're huge comic fans before we were comic writers, it's why we found ourselves in the medium, right, we loved comics. I did a book called Freak Show with David Server, and that's how Tay found us, and that was a labor of love. We paid for that thing out of– on our own pockets, we just put that out, and we came to it as fans, and we're like "all right, what can Collin and I do here that feels unique, that feels interesting," and rather than really worrying about that ever we were just surrounded by the best possible support structure to make something amazing. That every time we were like, "Oh, I don't know, maybe this direction, maybe this direction," Alyssa could come in and be like, "this direction, like this, your instincts are right," she's like the wind and the sails can kind of flow in the right direction because she's blowing them. Kelly: And if she was our wind, definitely Rebecca Taylor was our rudder, she was the one who kind of really got into the nuts and bolts with us and really helped us craft… We have some very complicated moments, especially in issue two, we have this complex– essentially it's a reverse heist, where he's setting off this plan that he's been building for two issues– Lanzing: The sort of "Ed goes rogue" moment– Kelly: Before he escapes, and that was really Rebecca Taylor coming in and helping us craft those individual moments and showing us how we can really work within the comics medium to tell a story that we saw in our heads but that needed to be translated to the page. CB: It became something that's very unique in comics too, there's really nothing like Hacktivist… Kelly: Thank you. Lanzing: And we're happy about that, really, the point had been to make something that didn't exist in the medium. Because why just do a book for doing a book, especially if it's going to be a celebrity project and people are already going to be undervaluing it, they're already going to be thinking it's not going to be particularly great, how do you make it awesome and unique right out the gate, and it all comes from that pitch. Like, who else is doing a book about social media and about espionage and about the way that it's affecting global contact, and thae answer is… no one, it's just not a thing you'd see at any other publisher, it's not a thing that you'd see– Kelly: And I think that's resonating with the fans, just yesterday we had a girl come up to us and say– Lanzing: This was the coolest– Kelly: And she turned to us and she was like, "look guys, I'd never read a comic before, and I'd tried a couple and they weren't for me, and I picked up Hacktivist, and I was like This is REAL, this is NOW, this is RELEVANT," and now she's an avid comic book– she had a bag of comic books, it was like, "it's because of you guys," and the fact that we were able to bring that to someone just like that happened to us all those years ago, blew our minds. Lanzing: Yeah, it was truly amazing, because I said those same words to like Darick Robertson, where I'd be like, "oh my god Darick, I loved Transmet. Like Transmetropolitan changed my life," I read this book and then I just fell backwards into a love of comics forever, right, like, and I know how exciting it was for me to first find that medium because I found something that really spoke to me there. So it's great, hopefully, that this can do the same thing for new readers who aren't particularly here for superheroes, who aren't here for "flights and tights," who aren't here even for the stuff we super love– like spaceships and knights and dragons– like we will write all of that, but as our entry into that space here, doing something very real hopefully opened up a totally new audience for us, and opened it up for comics. CB: "Very real" I think is the key point there, it's– there's a lot of touching on contemporary themes in a lot of comics, obviously, you know, relationships and stuff are eternal, but it's one of the few books that's really engaged in the world as it is now, not the fictional world. And there's extrapolations, but something that you can really kind of– it illuminates your world in a different way than a lot of other stuff. Lanzing: That was the point, you know, that was very much the point. Keep it real, keep it grounded, keep it true. Kelly: And there was a time when we were like, "well are we going to set this in a fictional African country, are we going to run away from this kind of stuff," and Alyssa kind of sat us down and was like, "boys, boys, boys, don't worry about that, let's cause a ruckus." Her entire thing was, let's get people talking, let's be provocative, let's scare people, let's get people mad at us. If we're not– if someone isn't mad at you and we're discussing the Arab Spring and the relevance of Anonymous, if we're not pissing people off, if we don't have people mad at us, we are not doing our job right. Lanzing: Mission accomplished! Kelly: And we have people who are mad at us, we have people who are very mad at us. Lanzing: Which frankly, was kind of great, um, I think really because those people that started upon issue one and we got this, this really great thing here… So, uh, in hacking there's this concept of called OPSEC, it's operational security, basically the idea is that you don't want to be hacking in a way, physically, that would endanger you by allowing you to be sold out by other people, say. So if the three of us were all hanging out in a room, we were all hacking together, that would be bad OPSEC because I don't know to trust you and I don't know to trust him and either of you could leak where we are to the government, we could get raided, we could get put on watchlists, there's lots of stuff that could happen because we have bad OPSEC. Page five of our book sees Nate and Ed right across from each other at a table hacking face to face. That is terrible OPSEC. They're doing it out of their office. That's horrible OPSEC. Now, we knew this, but we don't– and that's to the point, right, these are two friends, they don't need good OPSEC because they trust each other inherently, and then ultimately that trust is what's going to become the point of the book– Kelly: Which is really our subversion of that concept– Lanzing: That's what got us so excited. That's a seed, but because it came out in issues and people couldn't look at the page five and then look at the end of the book and go," oh, they're doing– they're talking about that," instead they were like, "why do these guys have such bad OPSEC," and we had all these hackers coming at us being like "guys, this is terrible, they would never do this, that's not how it works," and all we could say was like, "Just keep reading—like, hopefully, keep reading, see that we know, we're doing this for a reason, we're trying to engage that part of you, we want you to think– that I'm glad you're going ‘bad OPSEC' because you're seeing the planting," but that's what we're doing and over and over— We had the same thing happen with White Savior stories, we had a lot of people being like, "oh this is a story about a white guy that's going to head to Tunisia and is going to fix everything for them," and it's like "no, trust us, that's not what this story is, like, we're going to feint that way, but the whole point of issue three is going to be attacking that concept, and showing you why it doesn't work, and trying to evolve it into something else." CB: It's like judging a TV show on the basis of the pilot episode. Lanzing: Yeah absolutely. But this wasn't written as a show, you know, this was written as a novel, so being able to see it in single pieces– a lot of those things that, once you've read it as an OGN, you might see the seeds and let them play out, but reading it month to month, there was a lot of time to really think about it, and get into it. Kelly: But at the same time, I think we really learned a lesson there, because it means even if you only get one issue, that issue does need to be indicative of what your story needs to be. And that was an interesting learning experience for both of us. Just because we always want to make sure that we're accurately representing the story that we want to tell. And if we start off and we feint in one direction we have to know that people might not be able to consume the entire story or see where we're going and act accordingly. CB: It's an interesting challenge as a writer. Kelly: Exactly, but we love challenge. Challenge is what forces you to change, develop, and grow. Lanzing: And comics has been a great experience for that. I mean, we now that we've kind of "set up shop" here with Hacktivist, we have no intention of going anywhere, like, this is great, this is– let's make as many comics as we can of the stories that we love, because frankly, as guys that have spent a lot of time in screenwriting, and TV development, and digital development– I mean, we've been all over the sort of film medium space for years, and that's been entirely development, that's been sitting in rooms talking about things. The great thing about this, is that it's made, it's done– Kelly: You can hold it in your hand– Lanzing: Here it is, I can give it to you. I can sell it on the con floor– Kelly: My mom can buy it from a bookshelf. She walked into a Barnes and Noble, bought it from a shelf and finally everyone– Lanzing: Finally our moms are like, "oh, we understand, oh, we get what you do now, we got it, yeah" But that's the trick, right, we've been doing this for a lot of years and uh, for not a terrible lot of money, and we– all we really wanted was to be able to tell these stories and get those out there, and seeing how ready comics is for not just our stories but for all stories, looking at just around Boom!, and seeing like, over here you've got Lumberjanes, and that's like a really, just, unique individual book that's bringing a whole new audience to comics. OK great, there's that. Right down the way, you've got the whole Planet of the Apes series that they've done, and they've run through two universes now with a bunch of incredible writers like Gabriel Hardman, all this just amazing work going on there, and then we get to– Kelly: And then we get to turn around and sell A Tale of Sand up and down the universe– CB: Such a great book– Kelly: One of the best, um, and I think that the idea that you can go around just that table and see how open comics is for interesting storytelling, uh, why would we ever stop telling stories in this medium? You know, it's perfect. Lanzing: And it's a fantastic time, a fantastic time to be involved, fantastic and daunting, when you're surrounded by– especially when you're a partnership, you both work really hard to do everything, and we split everything 50/50– and you know, this all comes– between the two of us, looking at creators, some of these guys you end up next to, like Royden Lepp, or we were talking about Izomar– I'm going to butcher his name, Guilherme, I think it is, it's a real– and these guys are just, they're one stop shops, you sit them down and they just generate graphic novels, it's amazing. Kelly: I keep bumping butts with Paul Jenkins, like, he's right behind me at the booth. It's like, Comics Legend Paul Jenkins?! Oh my god! It's like that– you know, it's just really daunting, and it's really awesome, and it's great to be surrounded by such exciting people because that pushes us– Lanzing: Yeah, it's forcing us to sort of move and evolve, and be like, "all right, if you guys can do this with one person, we better make sure the stuff we do with two people is extra cool—" CB: Or four– Lanzing: Yeah, or seven people, or an assembly— CB: And your editor and everyone else. Lanzing: The largest comics team ever– Kelly: For the next book– CB: I think Marvel's got that pretty much locked down– Kelly: Yeah, yeah– CB: So you must be thinking about your next project. Kelly: We are– Lanzing: We have two that are going right now, we can't talk about either yet, unfortunately. Kelly: So sorry. Lanzing: I really wish we could, I know. CB: Damn it. Lanzing: But here's what I can tell you. What we're really interested in doing, as I said, like, Hacktivist was where we get to play with real stories, real now, very contemporary, and we want to keep that flavor, that sense that we're talking about the world as it is, through a lens that is young, that is engaged, that is excited, that is passionate– if we're going to go– if we're– we want to attack different genres now, and different worlds through that lens, so we want to see what that looks like when we take this kind of characters into new realms, and into new mediums and, and with different artists and different worlds, that's really what we're looking at. Kelly: But while maintaining that fundamental, I think uh, character tension. Right? A lot of people write really great characters, and a lot of– there's a lot of great stories, and a lot of really great protagonists, and a lot of books out there, but what we bring is great protagonists– or, arguably, rounded protagonists at least– that are inherently filled with tension. We want to see people– we want to start our stories with two people, like, fraying at the edges, with people who are ready to burst, and tell that story, you know, because worlds are fantastic, we all love Thanos, we all love these grand-scope– these big stories, but at the end of the day the stories we always want to tell are going to be about people at the edge of their limit, pressed up against their best friends and their enemies, who are forced to redefine their relationships. Lanzing: So we're looking at a few different stories right now, that– we're moving to tell some creator owned, some not, that are going to be really fun. And hopefully will let us, I don't know, dust off our old sci fi novels, and our old fantasy books and really start engaging in some very un-Hacktivist like behavior.